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Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Truth

We are not strongly inclined to think of truth as having a history because its meaning appears to be both stable and self-evident: something is either true or it isn’t. Yet historical fluctuation in both meaning and frequency over time suggests that the term tracks several wider social constellations with which it is associated. Its popularity is linked to how a society understands the complex relations between bodily insides and outsides, and between mind and matter, as well as the degree to which humans believe they have access to these respective realms. Related to this understanding of the relative accessibility of mind as opposed to material body, an ability to discern what is “true”—objectively rather than subjectively— has played (and continues to play) a determining role in the sometimes fraught relations among religion, science, and politics. At the heart of these historical tensions lies continued debate over the degree to which inner conviction can (or should) be proven by outer demonstration.

The most significant semantic shift in truth—and a source of subsequent contestation—occurs early in its career. The medieval concept of troth, or fidelity, shifted in the late medieval period to mean “conformity to an exterior reality” or “actual existence.” Old English tríewþ denoted good faith toward another or the tangible proof of that faith. Marital and martial fidelity are the usual referents up to C14. The word was often employed to gloss or translate Latin pactum (a military covenant) or foedera (an agreement established by means of a treaty). In C12 Middle English Laȝamon’s Brut, it refers to military contracts: “Coel and Maximen cuðliche speken & freondscipe makeden, i-uastened mid treoðen” (5427), while the C13 romance King Horn uses it to refer to a marriage contract.

By lC14, the word had also come to mean “something that is true,” with trueness judged as adherence to divine or legal precepts. The reforming Wycliffite movement emphasized truth as coextensive with knowledge of Christ and the Bible. The concept of truth as fact beyond a religious context arises, according to Richard Firth Green, in legal contexts where it came to suggest an accurate description of circumstance: a 1443 trade document requires legal witnesses to swear “upon a booke to sey ϸe trouth,” and an entry in the Rolls of Parliament from 1436 asserts that jurors should endeavor to find the “naked trouth.” As increasingly literate rather than oral standards of evidence and witnessing were instituted, the measurement of truth shifted from an intrapersonal standard (what a person can know with surety concerning their own inner intentions) to an extrinsic standard (whether divine, biblical, or based on community standards). This shift suggests that truth had migrated from an interior experience of subjectivity to a more exteriorized, relational one by the end of the medieval period.

In the early modern period, the meaning “faithfulness” is largely eclipsed by that of “accuracy.” Such usage suggests a changing attitude about the knowability of inner and outer states. The earlier medieval sense of the term suggests that what can be known resides inside a person, while what remains opaque is outside. By the end of C17, the opposite was largely true: what can be definitively known is that which can be measured with a tool rather than through mere introspection, an epistemological shift exemplified by the distance between, say, Montaigne’s Essays and Descartes’ cogito. This movement is the result of the term’s increasing use in a scientific and descriptive prose that emphasized truth as something that could be verified through sensory observation. As such, it tended to describe a set of external, rather than internal, circumstances (as in the work of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle). Occurrences of the term spiked in mC17 print, a surge that can be attributed to the pamphlet war attendant on the English Civil War, as well as the term’s centrality to the Scientific Revolution.

Early modern print culture established a dichotomy that encouraged the Enlightenment conflict between spiritual and scientific truths, a tension that would remain significant throughout the modern period. As truth travelled from the realm of devotion to the domain of science and fact, the term became a partisan football in debates over the extent to which something that is “true” needed to be demonstrated logically or physically. Over time, science claimed truth as its exclusive possession, leaving faith (now semantically precipitated out of truth) to religion. Interestingly, the Anglo-Saxon truth has always been preferred (to judge from relative frequency of use in print) to the loan words accuracy and veracity, despite the term’s increasingly narrow semantic range.

In eC20, truth lost ground to the truth-claim, beginning with William James’s The Meaning of Truth (1909): “Good consequences [ . . . ] are proposed rather as the lurking motive inside of every truth-claim” (xiv. 273). The situational nature of truth was reinforced by pragmatics as practiced in linguistics, philosophy, and sociology. This contextual definition of truth was also popularized by later C20 sociologists concerned with the possibility of cultural representation. Such substitution signaled unease with the Enlightenment model of truth as demarcating an unbiased sense of objectivity that facilitated access to a transparently knowable “truth,” something that could be measured or accurately described. Later this skepticism informed poststructuralist critiques of language and positivist history and, within science studies, bred a wary attitude toward the possibility of an unbiased knowledge of the natural world as independent of the human observer. This debate largely rendered redundant the smuggling of truth back and forth across the militarized border separating religion from science.

While both truth and “truth” remain unfashionable in academic circles, the word has seen resurgence in the realm of cultural politics during the last several decades. With the establishment in the wake of apartheid of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee (1995), truth became a tool for investigating human rights abuses as well as for nation-building. In the US, the term also became a conspicuous post-9/11 rationale for military action, as in George W. Bush’s justification of the imminent invasion of Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction in 2003: “We concluded that tomorrow is a moment of truth for the world. Many nations have voiced a commitment to peace and security, and now they must demonstrate that commitment to peace and security in the only effective way: by supporting the immediate and unconditional disarmament of Saddam Hussein.”

The degree to which truth is subject to political manipulation in the age of twenty-four-hour news cycles can be seen in the rise of truthiness, a term popularized by the US faux news pundit Stephen Colbert. Truthiness refers to a truth that a person claims to know intuitively, “from the gut,” without regard to verifiable facts. As such, it gestures toward the wobbly nature of truth as accuracy, so suggesting how objectivity can circle back around into subjectivity while standards of evidence are lacking or subject to debate.

The recent revival of truth and derivative terms signals another episode in the word’s history. Disintegration of a collective consensus about truth as denoting “conformity to facts”—a demise witnessed by the rise of truthiness and by ever more frequent reference to a post-truth society—shows that, in some circles at least, truth has regained the sense that truth can be an interior, subjective experience, a definition previously conspicuous only before the early modern period. Such a connotation may indicate a return to conflation of religion and politics that marked the pre- and early modern periods.