A paper based on Stephen Godsell's transcript, delivered at the 33rd "Beer and Theology" session in November 2019.
What is truth (as Pilate famously asked of Jesus when he appeared before him)? What do we mean when we say that something is true; and how do we test or measure a claim that something is true? Does ‘truth’ have a single meaning, or different meanings in different circumstances?
These are questions that people have grappled with for millennia. They arise in philosophy, in theology, in science as well as in everyday life. They are also relevant for the activity of reporting on the news, and its vital place in a functioning democracy.
I’m neither a theologian, nor a philosopher (though I read philosophy at university), nor a journalist. But as a lawyer, who has worked in the news industry for many years, I have a natural interest in language, meaning and truth.
This paper emerged originally as talk a I gave at the incomparable ‘Beer and Theology’ group, which meets at a pub in London, at the kind invitation of Graham Kings. The paper’s purpose is briefly to examine some of the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein as they relate to truth and meaning. The topic is labyrinthine, difficult and challenging even for specialists in the area—let alone to a commercial lawyer with an amateur interest in matters philosophical and theological! So this is by necessity a high level and subjective exploration. I have also relied on, and included quotations from, a range of outstanding writers1 in this area, including Rowan Williams, Fergus Kerr, Rupert Shortt and Ray Monk.
What is truth
At first glance, the disparate worlds of news, and that of faith and religion, seem separate and unrelated. But there is one thing, perhaps, that connects them: the concept of truth. Truth is of course central to what a newspaper is about; in fact, one could argue that truth is central to the definition of news (it is, after all, what distinguishes news from fiction, or propaganda).
And, of course, truth is fundamental to how those who express a belief in God think about what they are doing when they do so. Truth is also highly topical at the moment. Living in a post-Brexit (in a sense) world we are accustomed to being assailed on all sides by statements and conclusions that are claimed to be true. More generally, we live in an era of fake news, Donald Trump’s post-truth alternative facts and deep-fake videos purporting to be people saying things they never actually said. We are increasingly worried about being able to tell what is true.
So what, fundamentally, do we mean when we say a statement is true? Do we mean that it is empirically testable (I know that it is raining because I can step outside and feel the water)? Or that it can be replicated in a laboratory (e.g. combining sodium with water results in a vigorous chemical reaction creating sodium hydroxide and hydrogen gases). Do we mean it is a good predictor of future events (e.g. an economics theory about the effects of higher taxation)? Or that it is historically verifiable (i.e., we can verify that Winston Churchill was prime minister by examining documentary evidence). Or do we mean that it resonates with us, helps us to see the world differently, or effects how we think and act? Does truth have a single meaning; or are there different types of truth?
Wittgenstein, truth and meaning
These sorts of questions—around what ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ mean—obsessed Wittgenstein. In fact, he developed not one, but two different, and in some ways apparently contradictory, conceptions of truth and meaning - both of which are still hugely influential today.
The first, he set out in a book called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which he presented as his thesis for a PhD to be examined by Bertrand Russell and GE Moore, where he famously said to his examiners “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it”!
He argued that people fundamentally misunderstand what philosophy is really about. He claimed, audaciously, that the seemingly intractable problems of philosophy could be solved simply by properly understanding how language works. The proper task of philosophy, he said, is to make our speech, and thought, clear; if this can be achieved, many of the problems of philosophy, which had exercised deep thinkers for thousands of years, would simply disappear. His vision did not lack ambition.
He developed what came to be known as the picture theory of meaning, which can be summarised broadly as follows:
- A sentencereflects the world
- To be meaningful, a sentence must correspond with possible observable facts in the world
- For example, if I say that there is a beer on this table:-
- that is a meaningfulstatement because there is a coherent relationship between the components of the sentence (‘beer’, ‘table’ and the relational concept ‘on top of’) and possible observable facts in the world (i.e. actual beers and tables)
- and it is a true statement if it accurately reflects the actual relationshipof those objects in the world (i.e. that there is, in fact, a beer sitting on an actual table)
There are, however, inherent limitations in language: only statements that can be broken down into simple, elemental, physical propositions—that correspond with observable facts in the world—can be meaningful. Language cannot meaningfully engage with more esoteric concepts that cannot be reduced in this way.
What can be said, he argued, can be said clearly; but there are things that cannot be meaningfully spoken of at all. Somewhat alarmingly, he took this category of ‘unsayable things’ to include all moral, aesthetic and religious statements. He said “There are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical”
So, it is meaningful to say that there is a beer on the table because I can point to it to show you the truth of that proposition; but to say that murder is wrong, an icon is beautiful, or that God exists is neither true nor false; it is a statement literally without meaning. It is in a technical sense ‘nonsense’ because it cannot be demonstrated.
Interestingly, he did not regard these things - the things of which we cannot speak - as being unimportant. In fact, he regarded them as fundamentally important. But they are beyond words. God, justice, love and beauty can be experienced, can be made manifest — in music, in art, in experiences — but cannot meaningfully be put into words. God can be shown, but not said. God is not a thing in the world. These ideas transcend the limits of our language, and of the world. He ends the book with perhaps his most famous quote: that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.
He had, in his view, essentially solved all of the problems of philosophy, with little left to do but iron out the details!
But the story does not end there. Wittgenstein was lured back into the world of philosophy and was inspired to think again about the nature of truth and meaning, and to develop a second, very different, theory, later published in Philosophical Investigations.
He now thought that the meaningof a word, and how we assess its truth, depends on the context in which it is used. When we use language to: describe, report, inform, affirm, deny, give orders, ask questions, tell stories, sing psalms, tell jokes, thank and pray—the meaning of the words we use depends on our shared understanding of the sort of activity we are engaging in.
He called these different use cases ‘language games’, and described us, when we do these things, as participating in a ‘form of life’. So, when we describe a physics experiment, or write a news report, we are engaging in a fundamentally different sort of activity from when we express a moral judgement, or say a prayer - and the meaning of the words, and how we assess their truth, must be judged according to different criteria.
So, when a newspaper reports that Donald Trump said something at a rally in Ohio, what we mean when we say that this claim is true (i.e. that it can be corroborated by factual evidence) is different from what we mean when we say that it is true that kindness is good, or Venice is beautiful or Christ is risen.
The reason for this is that ethical, and religious, statements cannot be assessed against facts in the world. Wittgenstein thought that all ethical or religious statements are an attempt to go beyond language itself: not less valuable than other sort of statements, but fundamentally different from the sort of language game we are playing when we report on the news, or make scientific claims.
Rowan Williams describes Wittgenstein as arguing that a claim articulated in the Gospels is a claim on our faith, or to our obedience, which cannot, in principle, be dependent on the historical accuracy of the texts. Wittgenstein2 says: “The historical accounts might historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this. Christianity offers us a narrative and says: 'now believe!' that is, not ‘believe that this is a true historical narrative! But ‘Believe that your life can and must change!’ It is love that believes the resurrection”.
This does not mean, of course, that the two cannot coincide. Historical accuracy and religious meaning can and do co-exist, it’s just that they are independent of one another and different in nature. Nor, indeed, does it mean that an indifference to the factual accuracy of the core claims of the gospel could be something that most Christians would be comfortable with.
To Wittgenstein, though, the truth of a claim about God, or ethics, is of a fundamentally different type from the truth of scientific or historical claim, and of a report in a newspaper. A person making an ethical judgement (for example, murder is wrong) isn’t making a factual claim about the universe. The claim cannot be challenged by pointing to contradictory facts, only by a philosophical analysis. There are no facts in the world that can ‘disprove’ (or indeed prove) religious, ethical or aesthetic claims or beliefs. This doesn’t mean they are beyond challenge; just that the challenge must be of a different sort.
What does this mean in practical terms? ‘What is truth?’ as Pilate asked when Jesus appeared before him, saying that anyone who is ‘of the truth hears my voice’. As Francis Bacon paraphrased this interchange “What is truth, asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” The answer, that Pilate ‘would not stay for’, of course, is that the truth was standing before him: in the very person of Jesus.
The starting point is that truth matters. It is essential to what newspapers strive to do. For news to be news, in any meaningful sense, it must be factually true. This means that it must (in a Tractatus-early-Wittgenstein sense) accurately reflect observable facts in the world; if it is reported that Boris Johnson said something in York, in a hospital, on a particular day—for that to constitute real news, it must correspond to equivalent facts in the world.
But, newspapers try also to be true in a deeper sense: they try to bring meaning to the world; to help us to understand it and make sense of it; at their best they can seek to do more. The mission of the Guardian, for example, has been expressed as being to seek out the truth and use clarity and imagination to build hope.
So, in some senses a newspaper brings together both Wittgensteinian concepts of truth. First, factual, verifiable, objective truth: correspondence between the sentences it prints and facts in the world. And, secondly, a participation in a particular form of life, of helping people to understand and participate in society more fully and meaningfully. To influence, inspire, elucidate and bring hope.
Truth is also obviously also central to how people conceive of religious faith. But Wittgenstein teaches us that when we speak of truth in the context of faith, we use words in a fundamentally different way. When Jesus, in the Gospels, says ‘I am the truth’, this is an interestingly different use of the word, and possibly a clue that Wittgenstein is onto something here.
Rupert Shortt wrote a book called ‘God is no thing’ in which he argued that Christianity is a way of life, not a scientific theory, such as evolution, nor an abstract concept such as liberty. GK Chesterton described his creed as ‘less of a theory and more of a love affair’. God is not an object in the universe to be discovered, proved or disproved; Christianity is not a belief in supernatural events in the world: it is a striving or a yearning to reach beyond the world. God is not a being; God is being itself (a concept that admittedly stretches language to its very limits and perhaps to breaking point).
In a different context Rowan Williams once memorably described God as being the depth around things and beyond all things into which, when I pray, I try to sink.
What Wittgenstein calls a ‘form of life’ corresponds very naturally to a church or faith community. He would argue, I think, that the words we use in church take their meaning from the context: that to speak of God, faith, the Kingdom of God and love is fundamentally different from speaking of the laws of physics, or things that happened in Islington last week or the historical existence of Churchill.
He might also (if he were in his early-stage thinking in the Tractatus) warn us of the limitations inherent in the use of language. He famously said, when someone challenged him, asking how, if we cannot meaningfully speak of God, we should respond to someone asking us about our faith, he said simply “Invite them to come to church with you” (and, I suppose, he imagined, sit in silent contemplation so as not to speak the unspeakable).
There is of course a parallel here with the (perhaps not factually true, but maybe true in another sense) story of Francis of Assisi commanding us to “Preach the gospel at all times; but only when necessary to use words”.
Rupert Shortt also points out that the Hebrew word for the presence of God, Shekinah, has the same root as the Arabic word for the pause, or silence, that Muslims observe at a particular point during their prayers. So it is in silence that God comes to dwell among people - which makes Wittgenstein’s instruction to us that we ‘pass over in silence’ that which we cannot meaningfully speak about almost a way of instructing us to worship in God’s presence in that silence.
Wittgenstein might also encourage us to remember that, as Plato said, philosophy (and, so too, perhaps theology) begins with wonder, rather than argument. He warned against theologians trying to make Christianity into a rationalist philosophical system. He argued that Christianity was not a philosophical argument the truth of which people should be persuaded of; but rather an invitation to join in the life and language of the Christian community.
Rowan Williams wrote that: “Somebody said years ago that maybe we ought to sing the Creed more often than we say it. Now I don’t think that’s a covert way of saying ‘and that means we don’t have to believe it’, but it does tell us that the Creed is that kind of thing. I still think you’re making claims when you sing, but singing it just reminds you where it belongs.”
Christianity is not, perhaps, essentially a philosophical idea that must be argued for, but a cultural tradition, centred in the rituals and forms of life of the church - and no less valuable for being so.
So, what does all of this mean? Factual truthfulness matters: reporting accurately, fairly and truthfully on what is happening in the world. But, so too does bringing meaning and understanding. And, to link the world of newsprint to that of grace and faith: a sense of wonder, and of curiosity—driven by a desire to know, and glory in, the truth, whether in its factual, scientific sense; or in a deeper sense, where we grasp towards what cannot ultimately intelligibly be said, but nonetheless brings meaning out of our attempt to express it.
1. Notably ‘Christ, The Heart of Creation’, by Rowan Williams, ‘Theology after Wittgenstein’ by Fergus Kerr, ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius’, by Ray Monk. I referred also to ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’, ‘Philosophical Investigations’ and ‘Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief’ by Ludwig Wittgenstein.↩
2. From ‘Culture and Value’, Ludwig Wittgenstein.↩
Stephen Godsell is a group general counsel and company secretary, who has held senior positions at Clifford Chance LLP (as an intellectual property lawyer), The Economist, PA Media and the Guardian.
He grew up in South Africa, read philosophy at university and is interested in matters theological and philosophical.
He is a board director and trustee of The Economist Educational Foundation, a charity that works to inspire and build skills amongst disadvantaged children. Stephen is a member of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers and a Freeman of the City of London.