WHAT IS A FACT? Inquiry into the truth demands knowing the subtleties of language

truthThis article was excerpted from the new edition of The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga: The Path to Self-Realization and Philosophic Insight by Paul Brunton.

The philosophy of truth prides itself in being based on facts rather than on beliefs. But what is a fact? Here is a word whose meaning in everyday usage is commonly taken for granted, but even a slight analytical inquiry will show that it treacherously shades off into quite a number of other nuances. If anyone arbitrarily accepts the first or third of all these interpretations because the effort of further inquiry is too troublesome, how can he assure himself that his knowledge is really based on facts?

Suppose a boy is walking home in the dim twilight and notices that a coiled snake is lying beside the road. He hurries on and later meets another traveller, who, however, is proceeding in the opposite direction. The former deems it
his duty to inform him of the fact that a snake is resting further along the road and to warn him against accidentally treading on it and being bitten in consequence.

The next day the boy meets the same man, who informs him that he shot at the snake and then approached it. To his astonishment he found it to be no reptile at all but merely a coil of thick rope. The dimness of the light had deceived them both! The reptile was but a creature of their unverified imagination, an unconscious self-deception.

Was it a fact that the boy saw a snake? The answer must be yes. Was it a fact that the object seen was really a rope? The answer must again be in the affirmative. But suppose he had never met the other man again. Would he not have stoutly asserted it was a fact that he had seen a snake just as the man would now stoutly assert the “fact” that the boy had not seen any snake at all?

It will be clear to the thoughtful mind that we must be more wary when using this term. If a fact is something reported by the five senses, then it’s possible for the senses to deceive us and to provide us with a misrepresentation of it. In that case the student must add the word fact to the list whose uncritical use he ought to regard with suspicion. If, instead of thinking, “I have seen a snake,” he had thought, “I have seen something which appears to have the characteristics of a snake,” he would not have misled himself and others so easily.

This, however, is the simplest of his difficulties in accepting the term. Words which belong to the pre-scientific age and to conceptions far off in time and space still permeate our language and may actually mislead him now that their referent is something about which contemporary knowledge shows an enormous extension.

The results which have been achieved in our generation could not have been achieved in any earlier age, for they have largely been made possible by the marvellous new instruments and delicate apparatus which have been devised and invented to help the five senses function where they could not function so finely before. Thus, the microscope, the telescope, and the spectroscope, the sensitive photographic surface and the photoelectric cell have made visual reports possible which the unaided human eye could not have got otherwise.

The microscope, for instance, reveals a new world to our eyes, a wonderful world which shows that the corpse we thought statically dead is in truth dynamically alive with active parasites, that the water we thought uninhabited simply teems with minute living creatures, that the razor-edge we thought perfectly straight is sawlike and crooked, and that what’s perceptible to the gross senses is only a pitifully slight abstraction of what is still imperceptible.

A few centuries ago everybody glibly said that the unaided first impressions referred to facts, whereas modern science now declares that the later ones alone refer to facts. Both groups of observations seem to contradict each other, or appear to falsify each other. Yet millions of people have been thinking and many still think of the simpler observations as being facts.

We still go on applying the old primitive terms to such phenomena, although every student of science now knows them to be technically inaccurate and misleading. Our minds still use concepts of the world as it is signalled by the naked senses. Our talk still embraces verbal expressions based on those delusive concepts. Language trails like a laggard far in rear of our knowledge. How can those who unguardedly use such a deceptive medium of thought, understanding, and communication ever hope to bring the ultimate truth of life within their reach?

For what in the last analysis is the significance of these statements? It’s that men may easily read their own beliefs into the word “fact.” When we consider matter scientifically we learn that every material object is constituted of whirling electrons. Your typewriter may report itself to the senses as continuously existent and constant, but it reports itself to modern laboratory inquiry as an energy whose waves undulate away in a moment. Still more, science, having failed to find an ultimate substance, has dropped the word “object” for the word “event,” so that your machine is a complex of events in space-time which can never identically recur twice. The typewriter, as a space-time fact, can never be identical at successive moments of time.

So long as your concern with the machine is merely a practical one, these considerations may not interest you, for they have no value when you want to write on a sheet. But when your concern is a scientific one, because you seek to learn more truth about the typewriter as a material object among many others, these considerations become vitally important. It would then be erroneous and misleading if you thought of the word typewriter, i.e., defined it, in the same way that you would think of it from the practical standpoint.

Should you stick stubbornly and slavishly to the old pre-scientific definition it’s quite obvious that you would never get at the scientific truth, but be tricked by the five senses and corrupted by the word itself. If you insist on regarding the term “fact” as holding only the superficial content which the ordinary man usually assigns it, i.e., referring to matter in its crudest sense, to whatever is tangible to the unaided five senses, you remain in an atmosphere of thought which prevents the acquisition of truth.

Nor is this all. If you could wait for thousands of years and watch the process of gradual rust and eventual decay through which the typewriter would pass, it would eventually crumble away into dust and vanish from sight altogether. It would thus be transformed into some other “stuff.” In an altogether new form it would somehow continue existence. Inquiry into the nature of that ultimate existence is a work that rises beyond science into philosophy, which then reveals a previously unsuspected version of the meaning of “fact” to which the student will come in due course, and which is at present beyond the horizon of the specialized scientist.

Philosophy is thus not satisfied with knowing the fact of a moment: it wants also to know the permanent fact, if there be one. Hence it is of little use to the philosopher to be told that something is a fact when the statement is made by someone who has never sought to know the characteristics and tests of a fact.

If he wants to get effectively at ultimate truth he has indeed to retranslate some part of the terminology of everyday life. He cannot use even such a pre-scientific term as “fact” indiscriminately without mutilating modern knowledge, for it’s but one of a number of major words borrowed from the realm of everyday experience which carelessly used may hinder him from attaining right thinking because their meanings are too blurred by popular misusage.

How much more will this be the case when he ascends beyond the scientific level into the still more rarefied atmosphere of their philosophic interpretation! Such correction of his vocabulary will lead to the correction of his thinking, because both are inseparable. Unconsidered words of this character carry a heavy burden of ancient half-understandings, primitive miscomprehensions, and erroneous modes of early thought from which they ought to be purified whenever they’re utilized for anything higher than rudimentary practical purposes.

Release from these defects should be sought. Language is linked with knowledge and should logically evolve with it, not drag painfully behind it. Our examination of these four terms, truth, God, spiritual, fact, has revealed the contradictory definitions which each one may yield to different users. They are glibly uttered by everybody, by men in the street who have never given a day’s thought to them, by many who are even incapable of giving them such thought, and—let it be said!—by every mystic who presumes his ecstatic experiences entitle him to speak the last word concerning them. How can any of these people rightly possess certitude when he has not taken the trouble previously to ascertain what it is that corresponds to his words? But the haziness of his thoughts provides him with convenient shelter under which to take cover against troublesome questions or sudden doubts. The student cannot afford to tolerate such weakness.

This examination has also shown the vital importance of obtaining a definite understanding of word-thoughts which can act as a working compass to lead him out of all this confusion and give him right direction in the quest. This effort to reach semantic understanding is what the student must seek to achieve from now onward, and he must also bring within its scope certain other important terms of a similar nature as they arise. He must guard against using words which bring emotional satisfaction but lack intellectual enlightenment; he must beware of terms that cater to ancient prejudice and ingrained habit but define nothing factual. He must recognize that to release himself from the tyranny of superficially used language is to release his mind from the burden of ignorance and misunderstanding. He must protect himself against false theories which rest not on verified fact but on fictions of purely verbal construction.

It’s not the purpose of the present chapter to take up all the chief ideas expressed in religious, mystic, philosophic, or everyday terms and analyze them. Words like intellect, reason, reality, exist, mind, and so on will appear and be defined in the course of this book, and a re-education of thinking may be effected when their meaning is properly attended to. The precise purpose here is to prepare the reader’s mind by broadly showing the way to deal accurately with the verbal problems that arise, by explaining the general principle which must be followed from now on. The first difficulty of the problems of philosophy is that their real nature is usually hidden from those that seek to solve them because the language terms in which these problems are stated stand at the end of a long series of known and unknown processes. Analysis helps to unearth what is implicit in them.

The seeker will therefore have to apply the method of verbal discipline not only now but at every further step of his study. Hence he must here learn to pick up a special intellectual characteristic. He was told in the previous chapter to pick up certain other characteristics essential to philosophical inquiry. These two chapters are therefore quite complementary.

A consequence of this effort will be that he will gradually escape from the delusion which often haunts so many religious, mystical, and metaphysical people among others, that they have learned something veridically new whereas they have actually learned nothing but sounding words. He will discover that people explore words for ideas which they do not contain, never have contained, and never can contain, words that are often mere hollow sounds. He will come specially to beware of those indefinite meanings, those emotional words which sound so full of sense but are actually full of nonsense. Politicians, orators and demagogues particularly are fond of using grandiloquent words, slogans and phrases which either reek with gross overstatement or mean absolutely nothing relevant at all, or which are intended to arouse strong blind feelings, or which seek to cover uncomfortable facts—and do!

three truthsThey possess a glamorous spell, a mesmeric effect which gives a semblance of significance to them but which hides their emptiness. When he resolutely analyzes such sentences he can destroy their false pretensions to knowledge.
The use of meaningless words may lead even a reputedly intelligent man to believe that he’s investigating given data and objective facts, when in reality he is merely investigating his own hallucinations in which he may be thoroughly
entangled like a fly caught in a spider’s web. Most people are under the delusion that every word must necessarily represent a nonverbal thing. But there may actually be nothing at all behind its surface. The falsity of this belief that
every word must needs possess a meaning is demonstrated by the possibility of using such phrases as “the son of a sterile woman” and “flowers in the sky,” which are clearly ridiculous even to a schoolboy, but are no more ridiculous
to a philosopher than numerous expressions which are thoughtlessly used by people in the highest to the lowest circles.

The basis of this criticism is that one ought to be silent about the truth of those things whose existence one has never verified and can never verify. To speak in such a case is to imagine, and therefore to depart from the straight road of strict fact. We ought not to permit a word to deceive us into believing that we’re dealing with objects, experiences, and existences when in actuality we’re doing nothing of the sort.

“Does this word designate something real or something fictitious?” should become a constant query when faced with assertions made by many advocates and most propagandists. When a word does duty for the inconceivable it may soon blind the judgment of a man and lead him to accept the nonexistent. This is pseudo-interpretation, this shooting one meaningless term after another and moving in a circle which returns to the original word without having provided any real explanation of meaning during its journey. Magnificent verbal worlds are thus constructed in which their creators live happily ever after!

Men everywhere entertain false opinions through their incorrigible habit of inferring that something named is something that exists, through their traditional tendency to mistake empty words for substantial realities. Hence the need to examine statements to ascertain whether they’re really thinkable or whether they’re merely pseudo-meanings—sets of symbols with nothing substantial in human experience that actually corresponds to them. In short, it’s the need to get at what is truly known, to unveil hidden assumptions, and to elucidate what is being done when a thing is said to be true.

The student of philosophy has no option but to begin by distrusting every word which does not represent a particular thing within definite and universal personal experience. He must doubt the verbal idols which former men or present tradition have set up for his worship. He must put aside the simple faith that the existence of a word necessarily signifies the existence of a thing or of an idea denominated by that word. He may then discover, to his astonishment, that its supposed existence is no existence at all! Of course, although such a word does not represent any existent object, as is supposed, it may represent a feeling of the one who utters it and in its turn it may stimulate another feeling of the same class in the hearer.

Thus he has to seek for the solid substance behind the show of language, to get at the “meaning of meanings.” Before he can rightly start with a sentence like, “What is the nature of the world around me?” he should ask, “What is the character of this expression ‘nature of the world’?” He has to learn how to frame questions rightly if he is to secure correct answers. Eighteenth-century chemists lost themselves in the falsity of the phlogiston theory because they asked, “What special substance is involved in the process of burning?” instead of asking, “What kind of process is burning?”

Language must be adjusted to fit the pursuit of philosophy, and not vice versa. Words which carry no meaning must be ruthlessly abandoned. Words which carry false meaning must be rigorously corrected. Words which carry ambiguous meaning must be sharply clarified. Words which pretend to represent fact but really represent imagination must be revealed for what they are.

All such words hold the budding philosopher in fetters and limit the field of his inquiry until he sunders the conceptual reality of their meanings from the actual reality, the fictitious significance from the real significance. The elucidation of their ultimate meanings is a necessary stage in the elucidation of ultimate truth, because it involves the wholesale reconstruction of thought. The reorientation involved in this revision of verbal evaluations to bring them into conformity with the philosophical outlook is admittedly painful at first.

It may be troublesome to become meticulously linguistically self-conscious, but the arduous effort passes into easy habit with time. Nevertheless the half-educated frankly find it a bore, while the feminine sex usually find it a bother! Hence we observe few women take to philosophy and few men care for it also, unless either their mental background or yearning for truth is of the right quality.

It’s true to add that the general effect of this verbal self-training will certainly appear within the field of everyday living. As the mind becomes more exacting in its demands on thoughts and words during philosophical inquiry, so will it slowly and automatically extend the habit to include ordinary practical affairs. The universally careless condition which characterizes most thinking, permeates much writing, and distorts daily conversation will give way gradually to significant, purposeful, and realistic certitude. These consequences are likely to be far reaching indeed. Not merely the labels but the very stuff of thought will be altered and improved.

When we pay attention to meaning we’re paying attention to something whose range extends far beyond the sphere of communication or learning; it’s carried over by its own impetus of habit into other environments and other fields of activity where we reap the consequent benefits. It’s not too much to say that it leads to a mental reeducation.

We thus unfold a capacity for independent thinking. “Words plainly force and overrule the understanding,” confessed that master of words, Francis Bacon. He was shrewd enough to point out that of all the obstacles to right reasoning those imposed by words were “the most troublesome of all,” and his warning to all would-be philosophers is to be ever remembered: “Words, like a Tartar’s bow do shoot back upon the understanding and mightily entangle and pervert the judgment.” If the structure of language is after all but a system of implication, the possibilities of error and uncertainty are very real. Statements which imperfectly represent a thing may always lead to incorrect thought upon it.

As before in this book it is necessary to utter another warning. There should be no misunderstanding of the function of linguistic analysis. It’s not meant that speech should exist only for the purpose of conveying facts. It’s not meant that all metaphorical language, all the beauties of poetry, all the pleasures of fiction, all the relaxations of humour and all imaginative work should be neither expressed nor appreciated. The light and often grossly exaggerated
touches which humour gives to conversation, the colourful patches which the reading of novels gives to leisure, are not to be rejected in disdain.

There’s nothing said here against such reasonable enjoyments of life. “Be a philosopher,” counselled Scotch Hume, “but amidst all your philosophy be still a man.” What’s really meant is that, whether talking or appreciating humorous nonsense, one ought not to be oblivious of the fact that it’s nonsense; that when writing or reading fanciful unrealities one ought to know just what one is doing and not fall into the belief that there’s any substance to these fancies; and that amid all the petty talk inseparable from social life one is not carried away into unconsciousness of its pettiness or into confusion of the practical with the philosophical necessities.

What we require for everyday life is not necessarily to be judged by the standards of what we require for philosophical research. We may indulge in as much nonsense as we please in connection with the former within the limits of personal taste, but we may not indulge in the slightest nonsense in connection with the latter. We may utter a million meaningless words during the gossip of a lifetime without doing much or any harm to ourselves, but we may not utter or think a single meaningless word during the philosophical quest without losing our right direction. We may load our sentences with as much artistic imaginativeness or emotional colour as we wish, so long as we do not deceive ourselves thereby and can acknowledge what has been done. We may peruse page after page of fiction so long as we understand the unphilosophical nature of the language we’re dealing with. We may even harangue a political audience with misleading metaphors and figurative innuendoes if that be our lot, but we ought not to fall into the errors which we prepare for others.

Language need not be drained of colouring and fancy, provided we retain the consciousness that it’s colouring and fancy. Art is as admissible into the philosopher’s life as into the empiricist’s. We may enjoy all these to the full, only let us not set them up as the standards whereby truth also is to be judged and let us keep them in consciousness outside the purlieus of our keen quest for what’s ultimately real.

We must renounce them to ascend the altitudes like a cold ascetic renouncing the world, but we may pick them up again calmly the moment the mind turns from this study. Thus a twofold viewpoint will gradually develop, the practical and the philosophic. Such a duality will last as long as man is a seeker, but to the sage who has attained the hidden goal all life becomes a sublime unity and there’s nothing for him to guard against.

What is it that the mind does when it searches for a meaning? This question provides a philosophic task of the first magnitude and its answer is itself a mental triumph.

This chapter may be summed up by the statement that when a man speaks or writes he reveals not only what he does know but also and unconsciously what he does not know. His ignorance, no less than his knowledge, lies naked in his sentences to the philosophic insight. They constitute a document of self revelation, a manifestation of his subconscious no less than of his conscious mind. Only the sage can ever achieve an exact formulation of his knowledge, where others reveal the poverty of their thinking by their use of ambiguous, biased, inexact, or empty linguistic constructions, for he alone has burrowed to the roots of his own ideas. Thus too only the sage can detect from the style of man’s speech, the character of his linguistic structures, the precise stage on the road to truth to which his intelligence and his knowledge have advanced.

Philosophical analysis in linguistic matters along the lines indicated here will help the student to see whether any statement which he or others may make conveys genuine information or mere misinformation. For the philosophy of truth is taught in a particular and peculiar way. It begins to lead men to truth by pointing out their error, by showing where they think or talk nonsense, by causing them to unlearn illusory knowledge and then by reminding them that penetration to a deeper level of inquiry is possible and desirable. It’s established in the mind of its students not so much by the affirmation of what is as by the elimination of what is not. It displays the leading principles of all other known views of existence and then proceeds to show their falsity and mistakes. When these false views are once thrown out of the mind they carry away with them numerous problems, pseudo-problems, and tormenting questions which have troubled the thoughts of all ages but which have never been brought to an issue because they never can, for they need never have arisen. And it says finally: “God exists, but He could not be revealed to you as He really is before you had rid your mind of the erroneous ideas concerning Him which filled it. Now only is the way prepared for you to find Him, to find Truth and to find Reality, the holy trinity which are really One.” Hence the high importance of this method of critical analysis.

Thus the subtleties of language may be shaped into a master key which unlocks many gates of the mysteries of thought and being.

Paul Brunton (1898-1981) devoted his life to the practices, understanding, and realization of spiritual truths, first in others, then in himself, and finally in those new to the quest. During his public life he wrote eleven books and lived on every continent but Antarctica—and no doubt would have visited there, were a saint or sage known to be in residence!

This article was excerpted from the new edition of The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga: The Path to Self-Realization and Philosophic Insight by Paul Brunton. Published by North Atlantic Books. Copyright © 2015 by The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.

image 1: Cartoon illustration of truth via Shutterstock; image 2: three truths via Shutterstock
Posted by × May 31, 2015 at 9:36 AM

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