A Thesis Concerning Truth

by Robert Neville

Robert Neville is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York, College at Purchase, and on the Staff of the Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 127-136, Vol. 15, Number 2, Summer, 1986. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Truth is the properly qualified carryover of the value of a thing into the interpreting experience of that thing. The author suggests three preliminary parts: a theory of reality: a theory of interpretation, of value and of valuation — each developed on the other.

The problematic nature of truth stands at the center of an array of philosophic issues for our time. To one side lie questions about reality. To another side lie questions about the nature of interpretation. To yet another side, or perhaps underneath all these issues, lie the questions of value: whether reality exhibits worth independent of interpretation, whether interpretation inevitably is valuation, whether political life which contests values is a struggle about reality or about the intentions in interpretations or merely about getting along socially. If political life itself is a struggle with reality, interpretation, appraisal, and appreciation of values, as I believe it is, and if truth is the connection between reality and interpretation, then the problematic nature of truth lies at the center of our time’s travails with distributive justice, with the balance of nature, and with peace.

The thesis to be presented concerning truth is that truth is the properly qualified carryover of the value of a thing into the interpreting experience of that thing. The thesis has three preliminary parts: a theory of reality, a theory of interpretation, and a theory of value and valuation, developed each upon the other.

1. A Theory of Reality

To be real is to be determinate. By characterizing determinateness it will become apparent what this claim means and why it has some plausibility. To be determinate is to have identity with two aspects. On the one hand determinate identity is determinate with respect to other things; where an identity is wholly irrelevant to something else or is undecided about several potential relevancies, it is to that extent indeterminate. A thing must be determinate with respect to some things, however, if it is to be determinate at all, for otherwise it would not be what it is in contrast to being something else or nothing. Things are determinate with respect to other things by being related to them in orders of relevance. Let us call the features of things by virtue of which they are determinate with respect to other things their "conditional features," because those features mark the ways other things condition their identity.

On the other hand determinate identity cannot consist only in conditional features, for that would be as if the determinate identity were only the product of the other conditioning things. Yet the conditioning elements by themselves do not include the product; the product’s own reality is precisely what is not a function of the conditions, for if it were, the conditions alone would include the product without producing. So there must then be also "essential features" in determinate identity that harmonize with the conditional features. Determinateness is harmony of essential and conditional features.1

A determinate thing is a harmony of essential and conditional features, which is to say that the essential and conditional features are together without necessarily being included within some higher integrating feature. Whitehead’s word for this kind of harmony is contrast," which he distinguishes from a pattern of the features which might be abstracted from the concrete togetherness (PR 349ff./ 228ff.). The kind of unity a harmony has is aesthetic, which is the basis for the theory of value and valuation below.

A determinate thing is real because it is a harmony of essential and conditional features. By virtue of its essential features it is not reducible to the things with which it is connected, such as interpreters, or to the connections, such as interpretations. By virtue of its conditional features it does occupy positions with respect to other things and thereby makes a difference to the world. The reality of a thing is its making a difference to other things but not being exhausted in those differences. A thing’s reality is its having a nature of its own, one which is both distinct from and relative to other things. These two traits of reality, self-nature and relative making-a-difference, are constituted by the essential and conditional features harmonized in determinateness. One can now prefigure an answer to the question whether things are real independently of our knowledge of them: whereas interpretations are always matters of conditional connections, things interpreted are harmonies of those conditional connections with essential features, and by that are not reducible to the interpretations. But this is still a paradoxical answer. For, how can we say that things are independent by virtue of their essential features without coopting the essential features into our interpretation? The theories of interpretation and valuation are required to resolve this paradox.

2. A Theory of Interpretation

I want to use the word "interpretation" as a large umbrella to cover the cognitive processes involved in all sorts of assertion. Assertions, to the extent they are not vague, are true or false of their objects, and thus fundamentally involve that dyadic true-false relation. At the historical center of the development of theories of interpretation, however, is the conviction that knowledge is triadic, that it involves representations. Knowledge is not the immediate entertaining of an object itself or its form, but rather the correct representation of an object with a propositional idea. In this sense knowing is a move away from the object, a re-presentation. Nevertheless, knowing must assert a connection between representation and object if one is to identify the object as that which is represented. The connection, however it be made, is what transforms the material reality of the representation into interpretation. Interpretation is irreducibly triadic: it involves an object, a sign representing an object, and a further sign interpreting how the first sign represents the object. Or, to use the similar language of Charles Peirce, an interpretation includes an object, a sign of the object, and an interpretation of the sign which the sign asserts to hold of the object. The triadic character of interpretation is embodied in each element -- object, sign, interpreting sign; each is what it is only by virtue of mediating relations to the other two.

An interpretation is true if it asserts the fit sign of the object. This general observation about truth is complicated by the fact that interpreting involves selecting. To move away from the object in the direction of one sign or line of signification is selective. One could have moved off in a different direction. To note that the table is brown, for instance, is selectively different from interpreting it as expensive or old. In this sense, all knowing involves abstraction or simplification.

In order to recover full concreteness one may dream of assembling all of the interpretations into a coherent whole. The principles for such assemblage cannot naively present themselves in the thing interpreted, however. At the very least, the assemblage must respect the history and the set of contexts of the several specific interpretations. Therefore the interpreter, not alone the object, supplies elements of the reconstructed summary interpretation. In fact, the very selectivity of interpretation reveals that the perspective of the interpreter is partially constitutive of the knowledge of the object. More than that, the selective process of interpretation is one of the crucial ingredients in the construction of interpretive perspectives. An interpretation is a new natural reality beyond the interpreted.

The question of truth for interpretation becomes whether the sign corresponds to the object in the respect specified by the interpretant-sign that connects them. The respect of the representation s correspondence is all-important, for without it there is no connection between object and sign that could be true or false. The apparently dyadic true/false distinction, determined by the norm of truth, is thus made internal to the triadic relations in the interpretive situation. Correspondence cannot be understood apart from the understanding of the principle of selection indicating the respect of representation. Therefore, an interpretation cannot be understood simply in its own terms, for further terms are necessary to explicate the respect of interpretation.

From this point of view, the power in the pragmatists’ association of truth with warranted assertability in a self-correcting community of inquiry is obvious. Warranted assertability differs from direct correspondence precisely by its reference to interpretation’s triadic character. To warrant an assertion is to explicate and justify the respect in which the assertion is made as well as the assertion, relative to the context, purposes, history, and needs of the situation. More exactly, to say that truth is warranted assertability is to note that the assertion is embedded in a context of inquiry that is indefinitely self-critical and liable to become unstable when a shift in assessment of the nature and merits of the respect of interpretation shifts the truth value of the interpreting sign. The pragmatists correctly noted that the truth of interpretations is relative to common culture, shared goals, and mutually critical communication. An interpretation supposes a vast culture forming the imagination in such a way that things stand out as objects to be interpreted, that things function as signs, and that respects are articulated in terms of which it is culturally important to make interpretations. Cultural imagination presents a world relatively preformed with objects, signs, and relevant respects of interpretation.

Within the field of cultural hermeneutics, this recognition of relativity has been extraordinarily liberating. We now come closer to understanding other cultures and our own distant past on their own terms precisely because we recognize that their own terms differ from ours.

The gods of cultural relativity, like most gods, are not entirely benign, however, and certainly not tame. For, is not the recognition of thorough cultural relativity the abandonment of the sense of reality? Just as a dyadic quality of truth is subsumed within the triadic quality of interpretation, so assertions within a culture are true or false only within the culture. Because the very meaning of representing an object with a sign in a certain respect is a function of the larger culture, one cannot speak of true or false interpretations except insofar as those interpretations are embedded in some culture or other. One cannot say that contrary assertions in two different cultures might differ with respect to one another in truth value: they are true or false only relative to their respective cultures, not with respect to one another. The reality of things, which must be at once independent of any interpretation and yet connectable with other interpreters, regardless of cultural selectivity, evaporates inexorably.

We find ourselves interpreting things in radically incoherent respects, each situationally appropriate, but without a sense of reality, even of "our" reality over against "theirs." The advance of cultural hermeneutics right now consumes its own children.

3. A Theory of Value and Valuation

Why not celebrate the loss of "reality" rather than lament it? The "deconstruction" of Western reality seems to do just that. The reason for lamenting is this: loss of reality is in fact loss of value, not simply loss of imperial control of Western reality (or the reality of East Asia, or the Muslim world). The connection between reality and value leads to a theory of value and valuation.

Harmony is a concept of value, and the harmony of essential and conditional features in a determinate reality is its value. The value depends on what is harmonized and how the harmony is achieved; whether the value is appropriate depends on the context. But simply to be a harmony is to be a value, to be an achievement of worth. That is my thesis.

What kind of thesis is this? It is an empirical hypothesis. When we take something to be valuable, we grasp it as a harmony. This means first, that we appreciate the harmony as a way of having together the components each of which has some value. On the theory proposed, each feature of a harmony is itself a harmony. It means, second, that the form of the harmony, the ways in which the components are combined in contrasts, has a value precisely in having the components together. The form of the harmony is grasped in a kind of aesthetic judgment, although "aesthetic" should not be taken to refer exclusively to art or to imply that the value is actually appropriate to the situation. To grasp that a thing’s value is too low or misplaced also requires an aesthetic judgment or intuition of the value. The essential features of a thing are those elements that integrate or form the harmony; they are what allow the conditional features to be together. The value lies in the conditional features harmonized with and by means of the essential ones.

The plausibility of this hypothesis comes in reflecting on what we do in deliberating about the worth of something. Stated most abstractly, we deliberate by varying one or both of two factors that make up harmony: complexity and simplicity. The complexity of a harmony is the array of different things it combines. We deliberate about complexity in a moral situation, for instance, by imaginatively varying the things to be taken into account, adding or leaving out actors, motives, interests, domains of consequences, and the like. The simplicity of a harmony is the ways by which the components are combined so as to reinforce and build upon one another; simplicity makes higher level unities out of lower level diversities. We deliberate about simplicity by varying the unifying patterns. Complexity and simplicity require each other in order to be valuable. Complexity can be increased easily by lowering the standards of simplicity, with the extreme case being sheer conjunction: a and b and c and d and n. This has minimal harmonic worth. Simplicity can be increased by eliminating complexity at various levels, the extreme case being sheer homogeneity: character a all the way through, again of minimal harmonic worth. In deliberation we attempt to maximize both complexity and simplicity, as is clear in making works of art, in arranging affairs of life, and in moral dilemmas. Pure moral egoism is an extreme case of simplicity with minimal complexity in the moral sphere; extreme complexity without simplicity would be the acknowledgement of a wide array of agents, interests, and values with too little coordination to allow of selective response or action.2

As Dewey so well pointed out, there is an affective tone in all things experienced, even those that rarely if ever come to the focus of attention. The metaphysical point is that the value is in the harmonic structure of a thing, where that includes the concrete components harmonized. The values of things are thus real, independent of the interpretation of them in the same sense that things are independent by virtue of being harmonies of their conditional features with and by means of their essential features.

Valuation is when the value of something becomes a value or plays a value-laden role in something else. With respect to interpretation, valuation is giving the value-laden thing a role in the experience of the interpreter or in the form of the interpretation which might be possessed by a community. The problem of interpretation of course is that the value of the interpreted thing must be harmonized with the values of the other things entering experience; in the course of this it is likely compromised. Valuation quickly becomes evaluation when the integration is done on a comparative level.

Interpretation is selective valuation in four forms. First, the object is a harmony present in interpretation with its constitutive value. Second, the interpreter, by virtue of its own harmonizing essential intentional interests, values interpreting the thing in a selective respect. Third, there is the representation or sign, perhaps derived by abstraction from the object, in the respect. Fourth, there is the interpretant which asserts that the sign interprets the object, or which takes the sign as a sign in the relevant respect. Without the fourth form, which values the sign relative to the object in the appropriate respect, there is no assertion. Without the third form there is no selection, no distancing, no representation, and hence no advance whatsoever on the object by itself as uninterpreted. Without the second form there is no valuable or warrantable direction of selective representation, no connection with a context of meaning. Without the first form, there is no reality to be interpreted.

Both the philosophical and general cultural problem with realism arise when the first form, the presence of the objective harmony as a constitutive value, is denied or ignored. The principle argument for denying or ignoring the real object is that it is never present in experience without being interpreted. And when it is interpreted, it is always in the selected versions presented by the sign, the interpret-ant, and the respect of interpretation. We never objectify an object except in an interpreted form, and this is because we objectify objects only by making them constituents of our own processes in which they must be selectively harmonized with other constituents. But there is no reason to truncate the interpretive process, as this argument does, by denying or ignoring the valuable object-to-be-interpreted with which it begins. The process of selection must begin with that from which selection is made.

The most striking implication of the theory of value and valuation is that interpretation is primarily valuation and only secondarily representation of "facts" or "nature." "Description" must be an abstract part of interpretation, however much it lies at the surface of awareness. And is this not in fact the case? Interpretations are guided in their selective respects by the general cultural and personal interests of human activity and enjoyment. Therefore it stands to reason that what most often gets selected out for notice in consciousness is the factual structures that serve those interests. But this is only selectively to value those constitutive values that are universal, measurable, and replicable, values which we call facts. In our ordinary experience, we take things to be harmonic structures embodying some appreciable worth, even when this worth is subordinated to a factual function in an instrumental relation.

The important point to stress in the theory of value and valuation is that the value constitutive of the nature of a real object can become a constituent in an interpreting being, although only in ways compatible with the interpreter’s other constituents. In contrast to the main drift of the modern Western tradition, which asks how we can reconstruct or represent things within us and concludes that the activity of reconstruction or representation is almost wholly a matter of our own creation and projection, the theory of value and valuation suggests a different question. On the hypothesis that the values constitutive of things enter into those interpreting them, the question is why the values that the interpreters objectify in their thinking differ from the constitutive values with which thinking begins. The answers to that question have to do with showing how the constitutive values must be altered to become compatible with the other elements in interpretive experience, particularly with the inherited or learned cultural values concerning respects in which things are to be interpreted, with inherited signs for interpreting, and with both cultural and situational intentionalities or leading interpretants. This is to say, the resources of hermeneutics are to be marshaled to explain the particular selectivities of any interpretation. They can explain why the constituent values of objects in one person or culture are interpreted one way and yet these same value-laden objects are interpreted otherwise elsewhere.

4. A Theory of Truth

The thesis concerning truth which emerges from this discussion is that truth is the properly qualified carryover of the value of a thing (or situation, or state of affairs, or fact, or any complex harmony) into the interpreting experience of that thing. The achieved value in the thing is always a measure of the interpretation, and the dyadic character of the truth relation is thus preserved. Moreover, the reality of the thing with its achieved value is manifest in the context of divergent cultures or lines of interpretation, because the differences between them are differences in the proper qualification of the carryover, and both are measured by the same real achieved value. Now the definition of truth in terms of carryover of value rather than correspondence of form is a serious innovation. It can be made plausible if the more usual senses of truth can be shown to follow from it. The place to begin is with a discussion of properly qualified carryover.

Carryover itself means that the value achieved in the thing not only enters into the constitution of the interpreters but is objectified in their experience. The practical (as well as theoretical) meaning of "objectification" is that other interpreters or the original interpreters themselves can later experience the value of the thing by getting it out of the interpretation. That carryover results in objectification means that truth is a relation between an intentional object (the objectification) and that to which the intentional object "corresponds" (the thing with its achieved value). On the other hand, that the carryover is a causal process means that truth is a character or norm for natural processes, even if indirect and filtered through many interpretive representations or when it involves inferring to the future. There are enormous philosophical advantages to having the same process be both intentional and causal in specifiable senses.

The proper qualification of carryover acknowledges the fact that selection and alteration are involved in any process by which a thing becomes a component of another thing, modified to fit with the other components. There are, of course, an indefinite number of different kinds of modifications a thing undergoes when entering as a condition into an interpreter. The kinds relevant to truth, however, are those marked by the selected valuations involved in interpretation.

The first kind of proper qualification for carryover is that carryover is limited to the respects in which interpretations are made. These respects are conditioned in part by physical considerations. But by and large the interesting selections of respects in which to interpret things are determined by culture, minutely modified by personal history and idiosyncrasy.

Selective intentions constitute the second kind of proper qualification for carryover. In a culture, the same values that determine typical respects of interpretation might also determine typical purposes, intentions, goals, prized objects of attention, and so forth. But the value determining intentions and purposes are likely to be more variable, more relativized to context, to small groups, to individuals’ personal histories and particular context than the respects in which interpretation might be made. A proper qualification to the carryover of achieved value is to select out that in the achieved value which is relevant to one s own intentions.

Signs themselves, with their networks of syntax, semantics, general and special usage, constitute a third kind of proper qualification of carryover. Even after determining the respects in which things can be interpreted, and the intentions for interpreting relative to context, the signs make a further selection. The signs make the assertions that can be true or false. The assertions are true to the extent they carry over the achieved values of their subject matter into the interpretations as qualified by the selective elements iii the limited respects of interpretation, by the context and will-determined purposes guiding interpretation, and by the signs actually used to represent or objectify the subject matter.

To sketch the thesis that truth is the properly qualified carryover of the value of a thing into the interpreting experience of that thing is merely to suggest a long and complicated philosophical project. One must show how more usual meanings of truth follow from it as special cases.

The metaphysical generality of the thesis is a great advantage, however. Consider that moral, social, and political truths are also subcases of this thesis. Is not a moral action one that carries over the achieved values of the relevant participants, as properly qualified by the respects in which they participate, by their conjoined purposes, and by the particular roles they have? Is not moral, social, or political normative evaluation an attempt to discover patterns of social "weaving," as Plato put it in the Statesman, which carry over the achieved values of the participants while achieving greater value through their interactions? Like truth in assertion, rightness in action is a dyadic relation to a measuring reality. What measures both truth and rightness is achieved value of the world out of which they arise, the real world.

The reality of things consists in their being harmonies of conditional and essential features such that the essential features, when harmonized with the conditional ones, guarantee integral independence from potential interpreters. The resultant harmonic product, however, the value achieved, can enter as a condition of other things, including interpreters. What perishes in this process, marking the loss of reality’s subjective immediacy, is the existential reality of essential features; what remains is the objective reality of conditional and essential features harmonized. The process of conditioning is fundamentally asymmetrical, with the condition being whole and independent in its own right as a harmony of conditional and essential features, whereas the conditioned thing must add its own essential features to the received conditions in order to be. The process of conditioning is natural genesis, consisting of cosmological causation. The ontological relation of things acknowledges the mutual togetherness and causal independence of the essential features of all related items. Truth is the intentional objectification of the value things achieve as carried over into experience by the various selective elements in interpretation. A true assertion is measured by the resultant harmony of the essential and conditional features of things that make up the world. While we must still admit that nature reveals to us only the answers to questions selectively focused by our interpretive structures, we may reaffirm that we are still in her leading strings, to reverse Kant’s point, because reality is the first motive for the natural process of thinking as well as the final measure of its results.



1 The distinction between essential and conditional features derives from a discussion by Paul Weiss in Nature and Man (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1948), pp. 39ff. I believe this distinction was a decisive move beyond Weiss’s teacher Whitehead from general cosmology into metaphysics; for this historical point see my review of metaphysics in the twentieth century, "Metaphysics," in Social Research 47/4 (Winter, 1980), 686-703. Weiss developed the point most fully in Modes of Being (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958), p. 512 and passim. I criticized and extended Weiss’s view in the direction of the present theory in God the Creator (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), chapter 2.

2 This theory of value derives from and attempts to focus one of the main themes of the Platonic tradition. See, for instance, the discussion of measure in Plato’s Philebus, or normative measure in his Statesman. My Cosmology of Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), chapter 3, "A General Theory of Value," states the theory in Platonic terms. Leibniz attempted a theory of value of this sort with his principle of the greatest possible variety together with the greatest order (Monadology, 58), although he did not hold that the parts ofeomplexes must also he complex. Whitehead presented a modern version of the view with his theory of the order of nature and of "balanced complexity" (PR 127-67/ 83-109, 424E/ 278). John Dewey stressed the valuation side of the theory in his Theory of Valuation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939) and Art as Experience (New York: Minton, Balch, 1935). My own most complete discussion deals with synthesis, beauty, form, and art in Reconstruction of Thinking (Albany: SUNY Press, 1981), Part Two.