"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." But how shall we know the truth?
Ever since college I have had an interest in the writings of Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher who lived in the last century. I have recently been revisiting Heidegger after reading several articles about his sad and inexcusable support of Hitler's persecution of Jews. Even brilliant minds can have terrible blind spots, something to always keep in mind.
Like most philosophers Heidegger focused much of his thought on the meaning of truth. I never knew there were so many ways of thinking about truth until I read Heidegger. I want to share a brief reflection on truth from Heidegger's perspective.
For Heidegger, discovering the truth about anything is always a process of unveiling some essential quality or aspect that was previously hidden from view. For instance, we know it to be true that the earth orbits the sun, but for centuries of human history this truth was hidden from their view. It was there but they couldn't see it because they didn't have the scientific capacity to see a heliocentric solar system. And then suddenly, at least from the perspective of human history, we could see it. This truth about our solar system had been revealed.
Our capacity to see the truth is always limited by any number of things, our age, our intellectual capacities, the age or era we live in, the culture we live in. This is one big reason why truth doesn't have a capital T. What is true for a child may not be true for an adult. What was true in 1500 may not be true in 2000. And this is why truth may look different to people who grow up in different cultures. A different cultural history of unveilings and capacities leads to different truths.
Where Heidegger really gets interesting, I think, is when he talks about the relationship between love and truth. Heidegger says we only learn the truth about the things we love. Only when we give someone or something our attention, time, devotion, patience, practice, in short all of the attributes of love, do we foster the conditions that allow their or its truth to be unveiled to us. This is true about any endeavor like scientific discovery or playing an instrument, and it is true about our relations with people. We can only discover the true essence and qualities of the things and people we love.
This is also another reason that our capacity to know the truth is limited. We have only so much time and energy to love, and for this reason there is much truth in our world that is veiled to us. For example, as a child I fished for trout in streams with worms. You hook a worm, toss it in the stream and wait for a fish to take the bait. You could rest your pole on a stand, walk away and come back every so often to see if anything had happened, something I often did as a child. I knew very little about fish, the water they lived in, or even fishing because I wasn't very interested in what I was doing. It wasn't until I began fly fishing that l learned to see that the stream was alive with all kinds of insects and plants and fish. Years of time and attention on a stream has revealed to me something of the truth about the kind of cold-water ecosystem it takes to support trout. So I can talk with some knowledge about it because it is one of my loves. But the list of things I can not talk about with any knowledge is much, much longer, and this is the important point here.
When we turn our attention to what this might mean for our relations with people, we all "know" countless numbers of people. But do we really know them? Heidegger would say that unless we have loved them we can't really know them and their truth. Recognizing this calls for a little humility in our judgments about the people we encounter every day. This doesn't excuse anyone's bad behavior but it does invite us to remember that if we haven't loved a person we don't know where their behavior is coming from. For this reason it always helps to lead with compassion. (I don't know that Heidegger talked about compassion, but it seems to follow his discussion of what we can know about other people's truth.)
We have all heard the famous biblical saying "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." But how shall we know the truth? Heidegger would respond that we can only know the truth about the people and things we love. One thing this suggests to me is that 'my truth', however important it is to me, is pretty limited. Another thing this suggests to me is that if we want our children or anyone else to love the truth, we need to model for them love for things that matter to us. They will learn to see and value the things that we love, and the kind of love it takes to reveal the truth about people and the rest of our world.