Monday, 31 May 2010

Question 16 - Truth

Why this Question Matters.

Pontius Pilate famously asked “what is truth?” Questions such as “in what does truth subsist?” and “is truth eternal?” have always been amongst the deepest and most important questions in life. Here St. Thomas affirms that “knowledge is of truths” and, having discussed God’s knowledge previously, now enquires into the nature of truth.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The first article considers whether truth is something that exists in things themselves or whether it exists in the intellect. Given our modern sensibilities it might be as well to remember that in neither case would Aquinas consider that truth could be subjective. Here he is concerned to locate truth as part of the enquiry as to what it is as an objective reality. The objections suggest that truth exists more in things than in the intellect. For example, it’s fairly well known that St. Augustine anticipated the “cogito ergo sum” of Descartes by over a thousand years, but less well known that he also anticipated the saying “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” As with the “cogito”, St Augustine’s inference goes thoroughly against modern idealism, here concluding that absence of cognition of an event provides evidence that the truth of the event must be in the event itself. Hence “The true is what is” and therefore truth must exist in things more than in the intellect. Aquinas, in his answer, reverses the order of this conclusion: truth exists primarily in the intellect and secondarily in things themselves. However, he argues that the intellect involved may be God’s intellect rather than ours (thus overcoming the objections). The answer is careful and detailed, starting with a discussion of the analogy between the good (that towards which the appetite tends) and the true (that towards which the intellect or any cognition tends), noting that they are different in that the end towards which the appetite tends exists in the object of the appetite whereas the end of cognition exists in the intellect (in the grasping of the intellectual species of what is cognized). Aquinas then notes that the concept of the good “migrates” to the appetite from the thing desired (so we can have a good desire) and conversely that the concept of truth “migrates” from the intellect to the thing cognized. In both cases, there is a sort of conformity between subject and object. Next Aquinas notes that we can divide the relationship between things and an intellect into two classes: things that depend for their being on an intellect (a “per se” relationship) and things that do not (a “per accidens” relationship). For example, an artefact that a craftsman designs and makes depends on the intellect of the craftsman for its existence; a stone depends on the intellect of God for its existence. The key point of Aquinas’s argument is that things are judged to be true or not according to the relationship that the thing has with the intellect on which it depends for its being. Hence, truth depends primarily on an intellect (which may be ours or which may be God’s) and secondarily to the things themselves according to how they are related per se to an intellect.

A2: We tend to know things through a process of what Aquinas calls “composing and dividing”. We have to carefully consider facts and their relationships one by one, putting them together into complexes and cutting them up into simpler facts and relationships until we arrive at a positions whose truth satisfies us. Is this necessarily so? Does truth exist in our intellects only by this process? Against this idea, it might seem that we can know certain “elementary” truths (such as sense data) directly, without going through this process. Aquinas answers by appealing to the idea of truth as a conformity between the intellect and the thing concerned and, most importantly, that truth involves a cognition of this conformity. The sorts of ways in which we directly apprehend things (such as through the senses) do not have a cognition of this conformity; they exist prior to such a cognition. So, although it may be the case that the senses are true to a given thing (or, more abstractly, the intellect may directly grasp a real definition), in the sense of corresponding to how things are, they do not have a cognition of this fact, hence their “knowledge” cannot be considered true in the way that Aquinas wants us to consider truth. For Aquinas, truth involves more than just the correspondence between our intellect and things; it also involves an intellectual cognition of that conformity. Hence truth in the intellect must involve our intellect’s process of composing and dividing.

A3: Aquinas now returns to the convertibility of the trancendentals. In this case, being and truth are shown to be convertible, as each thing is knowable insofar as it has being. Of course, as we have seen before with examples of convertibility, this does not mean that as separate concepts they are redundant, rather that their underlying reality is the same. It might be objected (as it is here) that truth is prior to being as we cannot understand anything as being unless we have the concept of truth. Aquinas’s solution to this objection involves a discussion of the way that truth and being interweave in a similar way to how the concepts of being and intelligibility interweave.

A4: Having returned to the notion of the trancendentals, Aquinas now asks about the relationship between “good” and “truth”. In particular, although they must be convertible, should we say that good is conceptually prior to truth? It might appear that “good” is a more universal concept than “truth” and is thus conceptually prior to it. However, Aquinas teaches that it is the other way around: “truth” is conceptually prior to “good” because “truth” is closely related to “being” which we have seen to be conceptually prior to “good” (Question 5 Article 2). Also, in Aquinas’s psychology, cognition is prior to desire which implies that the true is conceptually prior to the good.

A5: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), therefore God is truth. However, Aquinas is willing to identify truth with God even prior to revelation. God’s act of understanding is creative, the cause of being in all things. But truth consists of cognition of the conformity between the intellect and what is; God’s knowledge provides a supreme example of this conformity, therefore He is the “first and highest truth”.

A6: Since God is truth and God is also supremely one, we might be tempted to think that there is only one truth by which all other truths are true. Aquinas resists such a blunt instrument by claiming that there is a sense in which this is true, but that there is also a sense in which it is false. He appeals to a difference between univocal and analogical predication, in that univocal predication among a group involves something being true in the same sense for all members of the group, whereas analogical predication involves the concept being particularly true for one member of the group and true for the other members of the group insofar as they are related to the truth of the concept in that exemplar individual. A similar distinction can be made here: from the point of view of truth as it exists in things themselves, those truths flow from the one truth in God’s intellect (so they are analogously true from God’s truth). But from the point of view of truths in intellects, they are genuinely distinct truths (univocally true as distinct truths in distinct intellects).

A7: Things like the truths of arithmetic appear to be eternal. Similarly, universals appear to be eternal and truth is a universal. Considering the truth or falsity of the proposition “truth does not exist” would seem to indicate that truth is eternal (for if it is false, then there must be some notion of truth by which it is judged to be false, which is a contradiction). If we restrict ourselves to created truths, are they eternal? Aquinas points out that the truth of a proposition is essentially (“per se”) due to it being a truth of the intellect. Hence, such truths are eternal only insofar as they correspond to an eternal intellect. So, only truths in the intellect of God (for example, arithmetic truths) are eternal. So, in this sense, created truths as truths in our intellects are not eternal as we are not eternal.

A8: Having considered the notion of truth outside of time in article 7, Aquinas now turns to the question of the immutability of truth within time. As truth exists properly in the intellect, it is seen that the question concerns the nature of the intellect. Aquinas points out that since truth in the intellect involves a conformity between the intellect and things, truth in the intellect can change in two ways. Firstly, it can change when a belief about a thing changes but the thing itself does not change. Secondly, it can change when the belief remains the same but the thing changes. In each case, there is a change between conformity and non-conformity (or vice versa). So for our intellects, where this happens all the time, we cannot claim that the truth-in-our-intellects is immutable. This does not imply that truth itself is subject to change, rather that our cognition of truth changes. God’s intellect, however, does not change and there is never a failure of conformity between what is and what is in His intellect. In God’s intellect, truth is immutable.

Handy Concepts

  • A relationship is “per se” if it involves the very being of the thing concerned. Otherwise it is a “per accidens” relationship.
  • Our intellect works by “composing” and “dividing”.
  • Truth is a transcendental convertible with all the other trancendentals.


  • One has to be careful in this question to distinguish between truth as objective and subjective (a modern concern) and truth as an absolute (in the intellect of God) and as known to our intellects.

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