Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed

Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed

by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

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Written by a renowned Oxford historian, this fascinating volume presents a global history of truth. Sharp and authoritative, Truth manages to touch every period of human experience; it leaps from truth-telling technologies of "primitive" societies to the private mental worlds of great philosophers; from spiritualism to science and from New York to New Guinea. In clear, lucid prose, this little book takes on an enormous subject and makes it understandable to anyone.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312274948
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/12/2001
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has been a member of the Modern History Faculty of Oxford University since 1983. His many previous works include Columbus and Millennium.

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A History and a Guide for the Perplexed

By Felipe Fernández-Armesto

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1997 Felipe Fernández-Armesto
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5239-6


The Hairy Ball – Teeth Optional

The Truth You Feel

What would a purely external truth be? It can be recognised only when we participate in it and therefore appropriate it inwardly.

M. Eck, Lies and Truth

The Conundrum of the Secret City

Luckily, perhaps, I can recall almost nothing I learnt in the classroom when I was eight years old; but I remember the playground riddles. Most were silly. Why do elephants paint their toenails red? So that they can hide in cherry trees without being seen. What is the difference between a jeweller and a gaoler? One sells watches, the other watches cells. Occasionally, jokes drew on the tradition of logical puzzle and paradox. I remember an enthralling discussion, fierce and friendly, competitive and companionable, with boys I later lost track of. Their images are trapped in the web of memory, no longer separable from the substance of our talk, or from its dim surroundings in a schoolroom in winter, rimed with chill and chalk-dust.

One boy, who was tall and bony, with the thin, faded hair of premature middle age, could not find the answer and so affected disdain. He wanted to be a missionary and became an archaeologist. Another, who was fat and aggressive, pretended to have solved the problem and to be unwilling to share his findings. I never knew what became of him. The riddle was unravelled by the class swot – a short, slight boy with curly hair and dusty spectacles, whom I last saw when we were fellow-undergraduates and his old cleverness seemed to have vanished. For years the riddle lingered in my mind as a way of remembering the boys who surrounded it. Now it is taking on a life of its own as a cryptic clue to the problem before me: how to write the history of truth.

The subject of the riddle – which is traditional in many similar versions – was an explorer on his way to the secret city of Njug. As he struggled through jungles inhabited by two intermingled tribes – one of whom always lied, while the other always told the truth – he came to a fork in the road. There a native squatted. The explorer was minded to ask his advice but, as the locals all dressed identically, could not tell to which tribe he belonged. In a necessary refinement of the riddle, the tribes shared a further custom: they ate anyone who asked more than one question. How could the explorer formulate an enquiry so as to elicit a useful answer?

This riddle of the secret city exudes an odour of antiquity. The notion of a tribe of liars derives from one of the world's most venerable paradoxes, known to philosophers as the liar paradox. It was quoted by Callimachus – the self-tortured gay poet of Ptolemaic Alexandria's sybaritic court. In the opinion of a Cretan of the sixth century BC, he recalled, 'all Cretans are liars'. But how could it be true without inviting disbelief or false without self-confirmation? Nearly three hundred years later the same allusion was made in one of St Paul's pointed jokes: 'It was one of themselves, one of their own prophets, who said, "Cretans were never anything but liars" ... And that is a true statement. So be severe in correcting them.' Evidently, the Cretans' lies could not be relied on, even for falsehood, but on the road to Njug the liars lied without exception.

One possible answer the explorer might have tried to elicit from a liar was, 'If you were to ask me which is the way to Njug, I should say it was to the left.' The answer would be false, but it would point the explorer in the right direction, for the truth-teller's answer would be the same. Like the rest of us, when we risk decisions or grapple with doubt, the explorer could then proceed on his way, still unable to tell whether he had heard a truth or a falsehood but equipped with the practical information he needed. The human condition is like that. The nature of truth eludes us; we have no satisfactory definition at our disposal, no agreed or reliable truth-recognition technique; but we have some working assumptions about the reliability of our feelings, our senses, our powers of reason or the authority of our sources of counsel or of inspiration.

The Njug story involves other mythic features: an encounter with a sphinx-like creature, on a journey in search of enlightenment, through a world of contrasting but interpenetrated moieties. It summons up one of the starting points of the subject of this book: the quest for techniques for telling truth from falsehood. And it raises one of the preoccupations of modern western philosophy: the relationship of the truth of any formulation to the conditions specified or implied within it. The conundrum of the secret city, moreover, took the explorer where I want to take the reader: to an encounter with a tribesman squatting – lying, perhaps – in a road forked like a false tongue.

Journeyers call themselves explorers when they think they belong to a higher culture than that of the people among whom they are travelling. Yet they are dependent, like the searcher in the story, on local lore to guide them. In investigating the unrecorded past – in seeking, for instance, an inkling of people's earliest thoughts about truth – we have to look for our guides among peoples of slowly changing cultures who resemble their remotest ancestors. Historians who would like to start among documents in libraries and archives, or philosophers who might prefer a quiet club chair, have to be persuaded to join ethnographers on a walk in the woods. A history of truth must begin in the world of 'primitives' and will often have to return there; readers kind enough to persist with this book will make that return trip, because I hope to show that all primitive methods of truth-recognition abide throughout history and that techniques of all the kinds practised today are of very ancient origin, though some have prevailed over others at different times. The purpose of this chapter is to present people's earliest thinking about truth, in periods dominated by the most primitive known descriptions of the world. Truth was then detected chiefly, as I shall argue, by feelings, though other means, dominant at later periods, such as reason, sense-perception and authoritative exposition, were also known and practised.

First, however, the appeal to the evidence of surviving 'primitives' needs more justification now than ever before: some will reject it because they think primitive insight is a euphemism for savage delusion; others, who uphold cultural relativism, will say that no people's thought is more 'primitive' than any other's and will resent the condescension. Both sources of objection need an answer or at least a response before we can get much further ahead with the quest.

The Bite of the Wolf-Child: the search for early thoughts

In 1969 the Kadiweu, proud horseborne warriors of the Brazilian–Paraguayan borderland, could only be reached by missionary plane. Photographer Don McCullin flew to find all that was left of them: sick and starving, they rode their few 'skeletal horses' to beg scraps from the missionary.

He was lost in a single all-absorbing task, the translation of Paul's Epistle to the Galatians into Kadiweu. He had given ten years of his life to this, he told Donald, and expected to finish the work in another ten years. 'Won't they all be dead by then?' Donald asked.

'Yes, they will,' the missionary agreed.

'Then what's the point of the whole exercise?' Donald wanted to know.

The missionary thought about this. 'It's something I cannot explain,' he said.

With equal despair and even greater urgency, when Colin Turnbull found the Ik of Uganda in their mountains near the Kenyan frontier in the early 1970s, he was dismayed by the demoralization of a people who had lost their will to live or to sustain one another in villages 'of the dead and dying – and there was little difference between the two'.

There will never be another opportunity like ours. Tribal ways of life, which survive in ice-worlds and jungles, deserts and caves, are shrinking from the saw-mills and oil-drills, the missions and the massacres. They are doomed by progress. Like endangered species and redundant churches, the planet's most isolated peoples have become objects of conservationist campaigns – a sure sign of impending extinction. In 1989, the Brazilian government suspended the 'first contact' programme with previously undocumented tribes in the Amazonian interior because of the potentially fatal danger from viruses carried by anthropologists. The more insidious danger, now that contacts have been resumed, is of cultural contagion. In New Guinea, Catholic missionaries, determined to respect the culture of their flocks, have decided to allow them to practise polygamy, revere fetishes and practise all their pre- Christian traditions except killing and maiming each other. Ritual warfare, however, is so deeply embedded in tribal ways that the ancestral spirits, whose glance can penetrate the masks of thick mud behind which the bereaved are concealed, would hardly recognize the world they left without it. In the nearby Trobriand Islands, Anglican missionaries introduced cricket as a warfare-substitute – a sublime case of the benign devastation of traditional mores.

Conservation changes even those whom it preserves: in the 1960s and for a further spell, after a moral clean-up, in the 1970s the Brazilian government agencies charged with Indian welfare connived in the dispossession and decimation of peoples they were supposed to protect. This was an extreme case; but even the best-intentioned intervention is transforming, like that of India's 'Incentive Tribal Development Programme' in Modhukamba, where the natives' precious cow-dung has been appropriated for a gimcrack energy-conversion scheme, or Bastar, where the villagers' lot was to be improved by the installation of solar lights 'which of course do not function'. The twentieth-century privilege of studying an extensive range of human societies, with peoples arrested at different stages of change, will be unrepeatable. We live in a uniquely comprehensive laboratory of mankind, which worldwide cultural exchange is destroying.

Talk of stages of change sounds dangerously value-charged. In practice, however, some societies do change more than others in a given period of time. I do not mean to suggest that all societies do or should change in the same way or through the same stages; nor do I think that change or development necessarily makes things better, or that societies which change fast can properly be described as more advanced than those which change slowly. To me, study of the history of truth has suggested the opposite – and will do so, I think, to the reader: societies like ours, in rapid states of transformation, sometimes need to retrieve lost or vanishing wisdom from their pasts, or borrow it from other peoples whose experience of development has been different. Advocates of noble savagery as a model society have always thought so and still do. The great anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose anxiety was also to exempt the savage from contempt, recommended: the 'sociological planning' of Australian aboriginals, 'the integration of emotional life with a complex system of rights and obligations in Melanesia and, almost everywhere, the utilization of religious feeling to establish a viable, if not always harmonious, synthesis of individual aspirations with the social order.' 'Good life' refugees from the excesses of civilization imitate peoples they place close to nature. When the real tribesmen have been exterminated or eliminated, the dropouts' descendants will, no doubt, host the fieldwork of future anthropologists. Now our science is learning from the pharmacopoeia of ethnobiology, which has made the contraceptives and insect repellents of the Xingu of the Brazilian forest, for instance, envied in the west. Californian college professors have adopted a Yaqui shaman as guru. This is not just for show. Philosophical maturity can happen early in the life of societies.

Where change is least, people are best able to keep up their most ancient traditions. As long as we do not mistake the results as universally valid, we can genuinely investigate primitive thought by focusing on some of the most consistently traditional societies that survive in today's world. Strictly speaking, the relativists are right: there are no primitive peoples. All of us have been on the planet for an equally long time, and our ancestors all evolved into something recognizably human equally long ago; but, in a value-free sense, some peoples have more or more nearly primitive thoughts than others. By 'primitive' in this context I do not mean inferior or retarded or undeveloped or unevolved or crude or simplistic or unscientific, but simply very early: occurring as early as the earliest past we can reconstruct or imagine in the history of mankind. Societies in close touch with their earliest traditions are most likely to preserve their oldest thoughts.

In a hunt for the earliest concepts of truth, no strategy works except scouring the evidence compiled by anthropologists. Those concepts predate any known writing system or any reliably remembered or recorded traditions from the preliterate past. Archaeology is of only limited help: without recourse to the laboratory of mankind, primitive thoughts can only be inferred hazily, if at all, from the detritus of vanished material cultures which digs unearth from time to time. However, anthropological evidence is notoriously hard to use in historical reconstruction, and it is worth considering any alternatives that might be proposed. Genuinely unworthy of investigation, I think, is the notion that primitive mentality is like mental disease and can best be studied vicariously in the psychology of paranoia. Nor is it necessary, I hope, to waste time on the obviously partisan old theory that 'indifference to truth ... is a mental twist from which uncivilised man finds it difficult to free himself', because he is literally a victim of ensorcellment, cowed by magic – 'the disposition to regard as real that which is not so' – or resorting 'by a sort of mental reflex' to 'an occult and invisible power'. Nowhere does the tribe of liars really exist. No known human society recurs primarily to magic as a means of explanation; on the contrary, magic is usually invoked to help man control nature. If it really did dominate primitive minds, that would not necessarily be a cause for contempt: too many overlaps with science have been discovered for us to despise magic indiscriminately.

Another, more obviously attractive but equally misleading way of eliciting people's earliest thoughts has been suggested, and the reason for ignoring it needs to be explained. On the grounds that modern children think like ancient men, it has been supposed that developmental psychology can help: the psychologists' research provides information about how children think, which can then be used as a basis for inferences about 'primitive mentalities' or 'savage minds'. I have been surprised to find how many intelligent and well-educated people think this and demand a detailed rebuttal.

Their strategy starts with a double insult: to children likened to savages, to savages likened to children and to both, judged by the norms of the western professors who presume to conduct the interviews. Historically, the technique belongs to the paternalism of an imperial age, which justified white power over wards of 'Great White Fathers' by analogy with parental power over children. Colonial victims were classed with children almost from the beginnings of European overseas expansion, at the dawn of comparative ethnology when Francisco de Vitoria, the Salmantine Dominican widely credited as the first exponent of international law, likened pre-colonial America to a region in which all the adults had perished. Primitive thinkers had the misfortune to attract study at a time when Freud was retrieving supposedly universal repressions unlocked from childhood experiences by psychoanalysis. Like a conjurer's assistant, re-emerging from under the saw, the doctrine that primitive thought is childish has survived the dismemberment of empires, perhaps because of the endorsement of the man who effectively founded developmental psychology in the 1920s and moulded it almost to the moment of his death in 1980: Jean Piaget.


Excerpted from Truth by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. Copyright © 1997 Felipe Fernández-Armesto. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. The Hairy Ball – Teeth Optional,
2. The God in the Saddle,
3. The Cage of Wild Birds,
4. The Dream of the Butterfly,
5. The Death of Conviction,
6. Life After Doubt,
Also by Felipe Fernández-Armesto,

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Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Overtly erudite, with blatant errors of logic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Here and beyond