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Walter Kaufmann – Truth is the greatest game.

July 18, 2015

… Why, then, does one want truth?

There are a number of reasons. First, what is utterly easy soon loses interest, becomes boring, and precludes any sense of accomplishment. It becomes as dull as any routine. So we contrive difficulties, we make rules, we impose some discipline and thus provide a framework within which originality can be achieved, but only at the cost of effort and with skill and scheming. The craving for originality could be indulged by simply claiming that Plato was brought up in India or that two and two is five. But assertions of this sort give no sense of accomplishment. The demand for evidence introduces the desired difficulty.

Moreover, we feel delight in overcoming not only difficulties but also the resistance of other men. In games both features are obvious: we devise rules to establish some degree of difficulty, and we pit our skill against opponents.

Beyond that, we try to play well by some objective standard; we try to achieve excellence, as it were, absolutely. To win over a poor player gives small satisfaction. In chess we want our victory to be due not to our rival’s ignorance or absent-mindedness but to our own good play. In philosophy we want to conduct our argument ion such a way that any adversary, however brilliant, would have to concede our triumph. The demand for evidence and logical consistency – for truth, in short – introduces not only the desired difficulty but also this objective standard.

We do not only want to achieve excellence, break the power of convention, and command the allegiance of other men: above all, we want to triumph over falsehood and deception. What is most humiliating about custom and convention is that they appear inseparable from ignorance, misinformation, and hypocrisy. To have to accept a whole world of beliefs, forced on us by our environment, without the chance to choose or build our own world of beliefs would mean a thousandfold frustration even if all that is forced on us were based on painstaking research. But soon we find that people lie to us complacently, whether they know the facts or have not bothered to determine them. The power that constrains our freedom is seen to be arbitrary and indifferent, a slothful despotism of surpassing cynicism. Every truth we discover makes this tyranny unsafe and is a blow for freedom, and the more of our previous so-called knowledge it affects, the better!

Every child likes to create his own world. As he grows up he has to abandon it and move into the public world where he has no palace of his own and must share whatever he is offered. The aspiration for truth is a fire that consumes this public world, constructed badly by the others. It represents a bold effort to create a public world that is ours. If we must all live together, let there be some rooms at least that we have fashioned, where, although we have to share them, we can feel at home!

Some truths are useful, and this has been emphasized more than enough by the pragmatists. Many truths are not useful, and even if they turn out to be, their utility may have been of little or no concern to the men who discovered them.

Some truths win approbation, some are resented. Some are mere pebbles on the streets of our public world, and some are highways; some are gardens, rafters, pegs, or mansions. Scientist, historian, and philosopher, poring over telescopes, diggings, documents, or dreams, analyzing concepts or the thoughts of others, seek to crack the ice of custom, to win their fellow men’s assent, and to make some small contribution to that public world in which they are condemned to live. The quest for truth is the quest to fashion what is not bounded by the sense of sight or sound nor even by language.

There are lonely truths: not only those we come by without any wish but truths we seek without the least desire to communicate them; truths about ourselves, for instance. Here, too, we pit our efforts against manifold conventions, we reject the images of others, and we seek a contest with the one opponent who is omnipresent: our self. We want to face up to this uncanny presence; we refuse to be deceived. If we cannot be the lords of our own house, our self-respect is threatened: we must know the premises and all their wiles to enjoy secure possession and consider changes.

The aspiration for truth is not the desire to receive a present in a passive state; it involves self-assertion and rebellion. We refuse to be imposed upon; we refuse to be like objects; we aspire toward a higher state of being.

(from Critique of Religion and Philosophy [1958])


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