By Matthew Hammerton
There are no eternal facts, as there are no absolute truths.
– Friedrich Nietzsche: Human, All-too-Human
In contemporary culture, it is fashionable to echo Nietzsche’s words and proclaim that there are no absolute truths. Many people find this to be a truism, they feel that there is something obvious and right about it.
However, if you were to survey the latest philosophy journals, you would find no mention of ‘absolute truths’ and no philosophers intent on demonstrating the existence or nonexistence of this apparent species of truth. The reason for this is not a lack of interest, on the part of contemporary philosophers, in the issues that people have in mind when they proffer the locution ‘there are no absolute truths’. Philosophers have many things to say about these issues. Rather, the reason why contemporary philosophers eschew talk of ‘absolute truths’ is that they find such talk to be an impediment to careful, rigorous debate.
The problem with the locution ‘there are no absolute truths’ is that it is a catchphrase under which several related but logically distinct ideas are collected. As such, whenever someone uses this locution it is unclear which (or which combination) of these logically distinct ideas they have in mind. Because of the lack of conceptual clarity in the notion ‘absolute truth’, contemporary philosophers prefer to avoid it and instead employ terms that capture with more precision the different ideas that people associate with ‘absolute truth’.
Below are several different theses which the locution ‘there are no absolute truths’ may express:
- Anything that we take to be true is revisable
- We can never have a ‘god’s-eye’ view of the universe
- All truths are a matter of opinion
- Truth is relative (to culture, historical epoch, language, society etc.)
- All the truths that we know are subjective truths (i.e. mind-dependent truths)
- There is nothing more to truth than what we are willing to assert as true
Each of these theses has been discussed, at one point or another, in contemporary philosophy and each are held or denied with varying degrees of confidence. So my advice is, if every you are tempted to talk about ‘absolute truths’ you should ask yourself which, if any, of the above ideas you have in mind.