Policy Alternation for Development

Forms of truth

Anthony Judge

The exploration of the nature of an appropriate answer must take into account a most important phenomenon. That is that few groups, projects, or schools of thought have difficulty in discovering and promulgating an answer. The difficulty for society as a whole arises from the conflictual relationship between such answers, or their denial of each other as irrelevant, out-of-date, erroneous, or unworthy of consideration. In the words of Jacques Attali (Special adviser to Francois Mitterrand) concerning remedial ideas about the current crisis:

"Au-dela des problemes que pose toute selection d'idees voici l'essentiel: si tout ce savoir n'est encore aujourd'hui ni synthesise, ni assimile, s'il reste un lieu d'affrontement et d'anathemes, c'est parce qu'il charrie une image du monde d'une intolerable fixite; et que tout groupe social trouve interet a en occulter certain fragments pour tenter
d'asseoir sa domination." (5, pp. 10-11)
Perhaps the most important feature of this phenomenon is that every effort is necessarily made to ignore it, to deny its significance, but especially to avoid exploring non-trivial routes beyond the barrier it constitutes to social development. As Attali continues:
"Face a l'immensite de l'enjeu, faut-il alors cesser ce combat rudimentaire entre un vrai et un faux, mettre un terme a cette denonciation de la parole de l'autre? Et avoir le courage d'admettre que plusieurs discours peuvent etre simultanement vrais, c'est-a-dire peuvent valablement interpreter le monde?" (5, p.ll)
Attali notes in passing that the multiplicity of truth is also encountered in physics (for example the wave vs particle theory of light). Clearly, as he proceeds to demonstrate, the problem lies in the way truth is to be understood. This argument requires further development in the light of Nicholas Rescher's work on cognitive systematisation (6) and David Bohm's on the implications of quantum and relativity theories (8) as they both relate to the nature of a coherent answer. He distinguishes three senses (5, pp. 11-14):
  • A theory is true if it can be articulated according to the rules of formal logic, and if its consequences can be verified empirically by any observer. This is the most common scientific criterion of truth, and is that used by establishment institutions of every kind in every society. It gives rise to difficulties if some of the consequences it implies are contradicted by experience. The institutions are then obliged to construct a representation of the world which denies any possibility of its own negation.
  • A discourse is true (and therefore scientific) if it provides a useful mode of communication for a group in its struggle for power. Unanimity is then forcefully imposed rather than emerging from agreement with a universal rational structure.
  • A discourse is receivable, and thus true, the moment it produces an understanding of the world for those articulating it. Unanimity is achieved neither by pure logic, nor by force, but by the virtue of seduction. As with beauty, and because it is intimately related to it, truth is not in itself universal. Truth is aesthetic.
Attali compares these three forms of truth in physics with mechanics, thermodynamics, and relativity theories. The equivalents he suggests in economics are regulatory theories, theories of value production, and theories of the organization or management of violence (especially of the non-physical variety), each with their appropriate modes of organisation. The first two may be equated with capitalist (most general sense) and Marxist (theoretical) approaches. It is the third approach, or basis for world order, which needs to be defined.

As Attali stresses, it is necessary to recognize that the reality of the world, whether in physical or psycho-social terms, is too complex to be encompassed by a single mode of discourse. The real cannot be separated from each necessarily partial view of it. It is in fact the multiplicity of views of the world, with all their differences and ambiguities, which renders the world tolerable to the majority, permitting each to develop his own understanding and to manage the violence done to it by others.

"Aujourdthui cette multiplicite est difficile a preserver. C'est que les deux premiers mondes de la science ont prone, l'un l'universalite, le second la force: ni dans l'un, ni dans l'autre il n'y a place pour la tolerance. Aussi, toute societe qui accepte de se representer le monde selon une seule de ces deux classes de discours s'oblige a l'uniformite. Wile ne peut laisser vivre le troisieme sens du veal, et le voile inevitablement contrainte au mensonge et a la dictature: tout ordre qui elimine l'esthetique comme langue et la seduction comme parole implique inevitablement la dictature." (5, pp.l5-16)

Just as in physics the three approaches continue to have their domains of validity, so it should prove to be in the realm of psycho-social organization. The human being has three brains, the third being essential to mediate between the conflicting functions of the other two. The key question is then what kind of organization is implied by this third order of truth such that it could be of any significance for social development? Failure to take account of this question can only result in an answer of essentially limited value.