What is ‘Truth’?

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When we talk of a picture being ‘accurate’, we are using a variety of the concept of ‘truth’. Its meaning depends on the context that we use it.

Portraits can be considered truthful. We reveal our ‘true character’ when we act. Religions, philosophies and psychologies all attempt to revel our ‘true nature’. We talk about indexicality as offering a photographic ‘truth’ and reality. A documentary can tell a ‘true story’. Fake news uses lies instead of truths. A manipulated image is twisting the truthfulness of a scene. And a journalist who fails to uncover the truth is not doing their job.

The Associated Press has a Code of Ethics for photojournalists. The first line states:

‘AP pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or digitally manipulate the content of a photograph in any way’.

But what do they mean by ‘truth’?

Dorothea Lange. 1936. Migrant Mother. Nipomo, California.

Just like ‘good’, we use the word ‘truth’ in many ways and contexts – arguably many more ways. Truth is discussed in a seemingly endless series of philosophical analyses, going back to when such pursuits began. This essay is a first attempt to put together some constructs of value in looking at photographs, and accompanies an earlier post on ‘good‘. It has been prompted by conversations with Gary and others.

There are two broad strands of philosophical thinking about truth – Correspondence and Coherence.

Correspondence holds that truthful statements reflects something which actually exists in the real world. Aristotle held this view, as did 13th Century St Thomas Aquinas. Kant, in the 18th Century, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, in the 20th Century, also held variations of this view of truth. The fact-based Logical Positivism of Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was a variety of Correspondence theory, limiting it to provable propositions.

Within Correspondence, there are two broad strands – metaphysics (the nature of reality) and semantics (logics concerning meaning).

When we consider that a photograph accurately depicts something in the real world – a person, a landscape, a new event – we are generally using correspondence.

Physician and philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina,  980 – 1037, born in Afshanah, in the current Uzbekistan) reconciled Aristotle’s philosophy (amongst others) with Islamic thought, and wrote:

As regards truth, one understands by it existence in [1] external things absolutely, and one understands by it by [2] permanent existence, and one understands by it in [3] the state of the statement or of the belief indicating the state of the external thing, whether it conforms with it‘. (Kitab Al-Shifa, The Book of Healing, Book I, Il ̄ahiyy ̄at).

The first two definitions of truth are metaphysical, directly relating truth to things which exist in the world – and the third is epistemological, relating truth to something associated with our intellect, a point to which I will return.

Aquinas perhaps best exemplifies the Western metaphysical tradition with ‘Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus‘ (Truth is the equation of thing and intellect), which he later restated:

For the human intellect is measured by things, so that a human concept is not true by reason of itself, but by reason of its being consonant with things, since an opinion is true or false according as it answers to the reality‘. (Summa Theologica, Treatise on Law: 2287)

In the semantic tradition, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) demonstrated in his landmark essay On Denoting that all propositions of truth, whether directly relating to things we actually perceive or relating to things that we can think about, relate to reality. His arguments are mathematically dense, but they are clearly reflective of Avicenna’s logic. In summary, Russell wrote:

‘Thus, in every proposition that we can apprehend (i.e. not only in those whose truth or falsehood we can judge of, but in all we can think about), all the constituents are really entities with which we have immediate acquaintance‘, (On Denoting, 1905 in Logic and Knowledge, 1956: 56).

Consider this photographically.

We see a picture of a horse – and whilst we might not actually know directly that particular horse, we know enough about horses to be able to judge whether it is a ‘truthful’ photograph. If however we see a picture of a unicorn, whilst we know what a unicorn is, we know that they do not really exist, so we consign the image to be either false of fantastic.

Coherence suggests that the truth of any proposition relates directly to some already specified set of propositions. Variations of this have appeared throughout history.

To quote the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

According to the coherence theory, the truth conditions of propositions consist in other propositions. The correspondence theory, in contrast, states that the truth conditions of propositions are not (in general) propositions, but rather objective features of the world‘.

Yet, there are similarities between the two theories. The Stanford entry goes on to note that:

Even the correspondence theorist holds that propositions about propositions [can] have propositions as their truth conditions. Although the coherence and correspondence theories are fundamentally opposed in this way, they both present  a substantive conception of truth. That is … both hold that truth is a property of propositions that can be analysed in terms of the sorts of truth-conditions propositions have, and the relations propositions stand in to these conditions‘.

How would this relate to photography? Terry Barrett notes:

There are two criteria by which we can appraise interpretations: correspondence and coherence. An interpretation ought to correspond to and account for all that appears in the picture and the relevant facts pertaining to the picture. If any items in the picture are not accounted for by the interpretation, then the interpretation is flawed. Similarly, if the interpretation is too removed from what is shown, then it is also flawed. The criterion of correspondence helps to keep interpretations focused on the object and from being too subjective. This criterion also insists on the difference between explaining a work of art and changing it into a different one.  

According to the second criterion, coherence, the interpretation ought to make sense in and of itself, apart from the photograph. That is, it should not be internally inconsistent or contradictory. Interpretations are arguments, hypotheses backed by evidence, cases built for a certain understanding of a photograph. The interpreter draws the evidence from what is within the photograph and from his or her experience of the world’. (Barrrett, 2000: 49).

Let us go back to horses. We see a picture of a horse carrying out some task, perhaps helping medics in World War One. We ‘know’ what a horse is. We also ‘know’ about World War One. We might even ‘know’ that cavalry was a huge part of the army on both sides, with huge losses of animal life. Whilst we are not actually sure that horses were involved in medical work in the trenches in World War One, it seems that it could be possible.

By contrast, seeing a picture of horses working on the front line in the First Gulf War seems too far fetched.

Neil Armstrong. 1969. A Man on the Moon.

When a photographer creates an image that might reflect some aspect of reality with which we can relate, we are using correspondence to judge its ‘truthfulness’.

On the other hand, when a juxtaposition of things and ideas is created – story telling, allegory, surrealism, abstraction and so forth – we often consider the coherence of the image in critiquing it. This might include the evaluation of the context, culture, politics – and the semiotics and codes within it.

As a historical note, Bertrand Russell, in his 1907 essay On the Nature of Truth is generally believed to have first formally defined the coherence approach – and then promptly refuted it as he argued against Idealist views, favouring Realism. His arguments are debated to this day, and beyond the scope of this post.

Pragmatism was put forward by American thinkers such as Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914). He considered that the scientific method was preferable than other methods of overcoming doubt and thus defining truth. In essence, he would argue that scientific concepts must somehow relate to actual phenomena. Thus, irrespective of the starting point, different researchers following ‘the scientific method’ will get to the same result. It would seem that this is quite heavily related to correspondence theory, albeit with the addition of semantic logics and modern scientific method, rather than a completely different theory of truth.

Peirce writes:

‘First. Those whose relation to their objects is a mere community in some quality, and these representations may be termed Likenesses. Second. Those whose relation to their objects consists in a correspondence in fact, and these may be termed Indices or Signs. Third. Those the ground of whose relation to their objects is an imputed character, which are the same as general signs, and these may be termed Symbols’. (1868, Sec. 14).

This relates directly to the discussion of indexicality in photography. As I noted in a previous post, The Index and the Icon, Geoffrey Batchen commented that:

 ‘ .. those who look to Peirce for pragmatic evidence of an extra-photographic real (the “thing-itself ”), will, if they look closely enough, find in its place nothing but signs … accordingly, if we follow Peirce to the letter … we must logically include the real as but one more form of the photographic‘. (Batchen, 2001: 142)

Referencing the real is thus a probability rather than a certainty in a photograph. None of this denies the possibility of indexicality, but it does deny indexicality (in that definition of truth) as a criterion for all photography.

Context is also a consideration for truth. There are other ways to consider truth in Western philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) considered that the philosophical search for the truth (the ‘Will to Truth’) was just a consequence of the ‘Will to Power‘. 

Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) offered a similar view, in suggesting that all truths are part of ‘Regimes of Truth’ – their social and political contexts or power relationships. Sara Mills notes:

Foucault in a number of his writings is concerned to establish the interconnectedness of power and knowledge and power and truth. He describes the ways in which knowledge does not simply emerge from scholarly study but is produced and maintained in circulation in societies through the work of a number of different institutions and practices. Thus, he moves us away from seeing knowledge as objective and dispassionate towards a view which sees knowledge always working in the interests of particular groups’. (Mills, 2003: 79)

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) considered that truths can arise from mathematics, science, and even analysis of history – a correspondence view. But, as a Christian Existentialist, he believed that this could not shed light on a person’s inner experiences and truths. For him, truth had a spiritual and psychological aspect. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) would describe this as a need for people to be authentic, sometimes considered the only real ‘virtue’ in Existentialism, as we pursue our individual freedom.

Richard Drew. 2001. Falling Man.

These ideas are useful as we judge photographs in their personal, historical and cultural contexts. But I would argue that none negate the search for some form of reference to reality in pictures.

In Russia, there are two words for truth. Istina refers to the fundamental and the spiritual. It is often used in a religious context though it can also refer to the immutable, natural world. Pravda is the more everyday word, which reflects truth in the sense of what is happening that is real – hence its use as the name of a newspaper. In a sense, Pravda relates more to the contingencies of human society and constructed. It is, however, still the truth, just defined different way.

Honne and Tatemae are Japanese words that describe the contrast between a person’s true feelings and inner thoughts, compared with the behavior and opinions we display in public. When I worked in Japan, I was often ‘saved’ by senior Japanese people from making mistakes, by being too Honne without considering the social consequences. To be clear, Tatemae is not lying. It is actually showing social respect to all parties concerned.

I mention these Russian and Japanese words for ‘truth’, as they complement the idea from Wittgenstein that the definition of words is often dependent on the context and sentences in which they are used. I have noted elsewhere (for example, the word digital), that  I often find the literature of photography sloppy in this regard. When we critique images, we would be well advised to stress the definitions and contexts that we are using.

Simulation In another earlier post, I discussed Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007). He considered that truth is mainly simulated. He wrote:

Representation stems from the principle of the equivalence of the sign and of the real (even if this equivalence is Utopian, it is a fundamental axiom). Simulation, on the contrary, stems from the Utopia of the principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value. … Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulacrum.

Such would be the successive phases of the image:

    • it is the reflection of a profound reality;
    • it masks and denatures a profound reality;
    • it masks the absence of a profound reality;
    • it has no relation to any reality whatsoever;
    • it is its own pure simulacrum.‘ (1981: 4).

When we create photographs, an open question would therefore be what level of simulation are we aspiring to?

As I noted in that earlier post, the examples Baudrillard uses – coverage of 9/11, the Gulf War and so far, all decry the mis-representation of events by the media. Yet it seems logically impossible to deny an event unless one ‘knows’ that it has happened – anything else is pure guesswork and fantasy.

None of Baudrillard’s simulacra examples are pure fantasy – that requires The Matrix, which overtly paid homage to his ideas.

I would concur with Baudrillard that today’s audience no longer always looks for the truth, but often lives with the media simulation of it. His call for us to wake up against being programmed is both valid and urgent. He is in effect arguing that we should be seeking ‘truth’, and in the complexity of the modern world, I would suggest that we are looking for both correspondence and coherence to find that truth.

We can see things in The Matrix movie which are real (the actors, even Baudrillard’s book). We know the actors are just that – real people, playing a role, a simulation. We follow the story, judging the coherence of the various narratives within it, as believable or not. Yet we also know that it is a movie. We know it is just not ‘true’.

To this point, I have been largely focusing on Western thought, and will now look briefly at Buddhism.

As I noted in What is ‘Good’?, whilst the Western philosophical tradition has tended to focus on ‘truth seeking’, the Eastern tradition has been largely about ‘way seeking’. A cursory Google search will show that ‘truth’ in those conditions is not generally associated with formal, logical analysis of the relationship between the physical world and whether we are perceiving it in some way as true or false. Instead, the pursuit of truth tends to be associated with the pursuit of self-enlightenment.

Mahayana Buddhism has the Two Truths Doctrine. There is a Relative Truth, which includes all phenomena  – ourselves, other people, physical objects, thoughts, emotions and concepts. No phenomenon has an independent existence, as it always comes into existence because of other phenomena. These make up the world we live in.

The Western focus on cause and effect reflects a similar philosophical and scientific concern with interacting events, although that is not the focus of Buddhist studies. A Buddhist will say instead that these phenomena drive our lives in ways that cause pain, and we must seek way to alleviate that pain. Thích Nhất Hạnh suggested that we think of this as the historic dimension, in which things happen, starting and coming to an end. He uses the example of a wave as a transient phenomenon. (1992: 117).

On the other hand, Absolute Truth is not dualistic, and it is the ‘true nature’ of things. This is called emptiness. Thích Nhất Hạnh uses water as an example. When we touch water, there is no beginning or end.

The two truths are considered helpful to consider as we move on the path to enlightenment, but they are not the ‘final truth’. Rather, the final truth is that there is only one reality, and it unites the relative and absolute. Thích Nhất Hạnh uses the term ‘interbeing’ to describe this connectivity of all things. When we reach the final truth, we reach enlightenment.

Perhaps this is a lot harder to consider as a practical way of viewing ‘truth’ in a photograph. But I would submit that we often look at pictures and dissect them, rather than looking at them as a whole. The Western tradition is reductionist, and almost forces atomisation. In many ways that makes the audience the arbiter of some truth or other about a picture. Barthes’ Punctum is one manifestation of this reductionism.

However, Eastern traditions, like Buddhism, encourage us to look at totality – not just the elements in a photograph, but its whole, and the context and connectivity with all things.

There is a verse in the Tao Te Ching (Dàodé Jīng) which reads:

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.

Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

(1996: Twelve)

That is another way to look at photographs.

I will be exploring this further.


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