Monday, October 22, 2012

What is true

Was it worthwhile?
(Photo showing war cemetery at Douaumont near Verdun)

Wittgenstein had two opinions on his life. We saw it in my last blog. Once he wrote in his diary that he wasn’t happy with it. Judging from what I know about Wittgenstein it was not simply a remark written in a depressive mood but it was the way he generally felt about his life, anyway during a long period. Nevertheless, when he was dying he said that he was happy with his life, looking backward. We can explain the difference by saying that Wittgenstein had changed his mind. But we can also suppose that from one perspective, the perspective of daily life, he felt unhappy, but from an overall perspective, evaluating what he had done and experienced, Wittgenstein judged otherwise and generally he felt happy with what he had achieved and had lived through. Here we have two views on the same thing and both can be true.
In Arnold Zweig’s novel of the First World War Erziehung vor Verdun (Education before Verdun) a soldier, Süssmann, says before he dies: “Tell my parents: It was worthwhile. Tell lieutenant Kroysing [his superior officer]: It was not worthwhile”. And then the author adds: “The truth is somewhere between these poles, but not exactly halfway in between, as a wise man noted.”
Zweig suggests here that both the message of the soldier to his parents and the one to his superior were not completely true, and when we wouldn’t have read this comment we would tend to think that the message to Kroysing was true and that the one to his parents was a white lie, because he did not want to add extra suffering for his parents if they would think that he had died in vain. However, the author apparently doesn’t want that the reader gets this idea and suggests that there are good sides and bad sides of the First World War and dying for it.
This is a possible interpretation but is it also conceivable that both remarks by Süssmann are true? A first thought is – and Zweig seems to have the same opinion – that there cannot be two truths: a statement is true or it isn’t. Something in between doesn’t exist and a truth that is a lie or the other way round is an impossibility. If we make two apparently contradictory statements about the same thing, either only one can be true or both say only a part of what is the case and there must be a true statement that expresses what there really is. In the end there is only one correct description of the world.
However, life is often not as simple as that. When we tell how we see the world around us and what we have experienced, we don’t do it in order to express objective facts. There is always a purpose behind our description. Saying that something is true always supposes that we take a certain perspective, just as we can say that Wittgenstein took the perspective of being in the middle of his experiences in one case and the perspective of the overall view in the other. In the same way we can give Süssmann’s messages different interpretations that both are true. For it is quite well possible that in the message to Kroysing Süssmann thought of the purpose of the war and what he was fighting for and that in view of all the suffering and dead the war wasn’t worthwhile. However, in the message to his parents maybe Süssmann wanted to say that in view of the fact that he had been a good son and a good patriot who did his duty (or in view of the idea that his parents wanted that he would be so) his life had been a success and that it had been worthwhile. These are not simple different aspects of the same thing but different perspectives of looking at the same thing. Seen in this way contradictory statements like those made by Süssmann or Wittgenstein can be true at the same time, how weird this may look on the face of it.

No comments: