In my last blog I criticized Wittgenstein’s remark in On Certainty 80-81 that asserted that whether I understand what I state depends on whether it is true or false what I state. My objection was that it is easy to give examples of false statements that have nevertheless an obviously clear meaning for the speaker, for instance that the earth is the centre of the universe. What I actually want to say in my criticism is that truth, at least empirical truth, is often a matter of perspective and that it is often not possible to say “This statement is true and the opposite statement is false”. It’s a bit surprising for me that two paragraphs later in his On Certainty Wittgenstein actually says the same:
83. The truth of certain empirical propositions belongs to our frame of reference.
Without a doubt, it will be possible to give a sound explanation or interpretation of this remark by Wittgenstein in the context of his On Certainty. However, here I’ll leave it as it is.
Probably some readers of my blogs find the remark that truth may be a matter of perspective (or a matter of frame of reference, in Wittgenstein's words) a bit shocking. But is it really so shocking? Isn’t the phenomenon of double or even multiple truths, as I would call it, something that abounds in daily life? Take for instance the caption of the photo in my last blog: Does the sun go down or does the earth come up? The former is true from the perspective of what we see; the latter is true from the perspective of astronomy.
Actually, the perspective or contextual dependence of truth is not limited to such rather trivial examples as the question whether the sun goes down or the earth comes up. It can be a source of serious social and political conflicts. I’ll give two examples:
- Ethiopia has started to construct a barrage in the Nile. Egypt, which is downstream of the new barrage, is afraid that this will be detrimental for the water supply in the Nile and it threats to take measures. It’s a case of double truth, I think, where both countries are right in a certain sense from the perspective of state autonomy and the right to defend its interests.
- Terrorism is a threat for the world, so you are allowed to collect any data that might help to prevent it. Citizens of a state have a right of privacy. Who is right? Obama or Snowden?Maybe these cases or not well-chosen or not clear-cut enough, and that’s then my fault. Look around and I don’t doubt that you’ll find much better instances. But I think that you’ll understand the idea I want to express: At first sight, what is true is not as plain as you might think but it may depend on where you stand.