So truth is another one of those really crucial terms in Heidegger, though I’m starting to feel like I’m saying that about everything. Truth is of course one of the key things philosophers are interested in. The point of philosophy is determine what counts as truth, in general, in principle, so that all the other disciplines can then get on with producing truths, or what we call facts or knowledge. So as a philosopher, Heidegger is keen to have his own position on truth.
The first thing to ask, as many of you did, is, why is Heidegger talking about truth in relation to artworks. Art is not about truth, is it? It’s about making things, making beautiful things. It at best is about making ambiguous things that cannot be definitively interpreted.
As always with Heidegger, it is important to think in reverse. Maybe Heidegger is talking about truth in relation to art, less because he wants to say something about art (that there is truthfulness in art), and more because he wants to say something about truth (that there is artfulness in truth). If Heidegger can show that a particular understanding of truth is useful in thinking through art, he will have expanded or changed our concept of art.
The next thing to say about Heidegger on truth is that of course it has something to do Ancient Greek. The Greek term for truth is aletheia. Heidegger claims (it is a bit disputed) that the term should be understood as a-lethe, which ‘a’ is a negative in Greek, and ‘lethe’ means concealed. This means that in Greek, truth occurs when what is concealed is unconcealed. Truth is revealing, dis-closing, un-denying (admitting, confirming, affirming). Hopefully by now you are beginning to see that truth, in this sense of revealing, is a lot like Heidegger’s understanding of ‘being;’ something that emerges, shining forth, manifesting in an undeniable way.
I like to think of it through the way in which we say, as an exclamation: ‘ that’s so true!’ This means, ‘how revealing, how telling, that’s a new way of seeing things, a real insight, that changes everything.
Heidegger spends a lot of time criticizing what he calls the correspondence version of truth. This derives from the Roman (mis)interpretation of the Greek sense of truth, veritas. In this theory, truth is something that only happens in language. A truth is when there is a correspondence between something that you say and something that is in the world. Something is true if it is right, if there is an accurate fit between the represented world created by language and the present world.
Heidegger worries about this split between saying and being. He worries because it makes saying the main area of philosophizing at the expense of being. Being is something that you can just take for granted, something static and unchanging; only sayings are interesting, because they are inconstant (people can lie, or say new things). Heidegger wants redraw attention to being, as something that also changes, moving from concealment to unconcealment. He wants truth to be something that doesn’t just happen in language, but instead something that happens in the world, in things, in artworks for example, and most spectacularly, but also therefore in everyday things.
All the talk of earth and world therefore can also be understood as a poetic (i.e., revealing, truthful) way of understanding truth as something to do with earthly concealing and worldly revealing. To this extent, artworks seem to be very revealing examples of truth, as the attempt to wrest revelations out of concealment. Heidegger seems to dramatize all this by talking of the conflct between concealing and revealing in artworks, as if there is some sort of primal struggle going on. This is why the truths in artworks are quite elemental perhaps, or energetic. They are physical truths literally sculpted out of stuff like stone and oil.
It is useful to try to imagine how you might talk about truth in design. On the one hand, to say a design has truth is to say that it is honest, perhaps authentic. This is a bit close to the correspondence version of truth, as if a truthful design is one that merely fits with existing market expectations and capacities. A more interesting way to understand truth in design would be foreground designs that open up new ways of being in the world. Designs that make truths, rather than just are true.