Where was I?
Oh, yes. The untergang. (Yes, I know; but I only have to capitalize it if I am writing in german.) German is a very expressive language; although it is impossible to say anything, even the most intimate of things, without sounding as if you are giving orders.
"Komm hier, meine Schatz'. Ich liebe dich!"Russian is different. You cannot speak Russian without giving the impression that you are about to become violently ill. There is even a vowel (Ы) which is pronounced as if one is about to up-chuck.
"Jawohl, mein Herr!"
Expressive. Yes. In German, "environment" is die Umwelt which means literally "around-world". And "superstition" is der Aberglaube ("but-belief"). "Charity" is Nächstenliebe ("next-love") and "fact" is die Tatsache ("deed-matter"), which brings us circumloquatiously to today's topic.
A great deal of the heart-ache of modern life is due to a loss of terminological rigor. (The loss of other sorts of rigor is another topic; and you likely receive copious emails offering to help with it, so we need not do so here.) Now, words are in constant flux. "Motion" did not always mean "change of location" ("local motion.") exclusively. "Progress" once meant only "forward spatial motion." And the terms "artist" and "artisan" began to part company only in the early 19th century.
Now sometimes these changes are neutral. "Modern" once meant merely "today" but expanded by analogy to its, well, modern meaning. Sometimes, they are beneficial: starting in the Industrial Age, artists and artisans really did become two different things, and two distinct words were helpful. The sort of artisan who specializes in paintings, bronze-casting, marble sculpture, and the like is different from the sort of artisan who specializes in fortifications, siege engines, and water-works; although both sorts work with their hands, which was once the crucial distinction. DaVinci, who did both, preceded the distinction. He was not an artist in the sense of the modern category of thought, "artist."
But sometimes linguistic change really does muddy things up and makes important distinctions harder to make. This will be the case when two different words converge on the same meaning. An example is the way weremann (male human being) lost its prefix and became indistinguishable from mann (human being simpliciter). The latter root is related to manna and manitou or spirit, which indicates that early humans recognized more clearly what distinguished them from beasts.
And for that matter, once artists were distinguished from artisans, the importance of craftsmanship in the arts rapidly declined. Words have consequences.
Deed and FactThe word fact come from the participle of a verb: factum est, "that which has the property of having been accomplished," from facere, "to make or do," and factum was used to mean "an event, occurrence." The term was cognate with feat, which came to us from the same Latin root after a French detour. The root meaning is still apparent in the corresponding German term Tatsache, mentioned earlier. When Jane Austen wrote "gracious in fact if not in word" she meant "he acted more graciously than he spoke."
Curiously, as the term fact became more science-oriented, it started to become less reliable. It is not at all unusual these days to see estimates from samples or outputs of computer models cited as "facts." Well, they have been fabricated, no doubt. They do have the property of having been made. But they are hardly what the Scientific Revolutionaries had in mind: "produced by deliberate experiment or by direct observation." Bacon, Hume and the others did not expect that the Revolution would eat its young. It is not a fact that such-and-so many species go extinct each day, or that the population of the Greater Lehigh Valley is this-and-many. No one has actually counted them. These are estimates created by models.
- The Beach Boys prophesied "Be true to your school."
- My grandfather laid a true line of bricks.
- The metrologist specified true positioning on the drawing.
- Samwise Gamgee was a true friend.
- Horatio stood true on the bridge.
- The ship laid a bearing on true north.
- Bill and Jane promised to be true to one another.
- And despite Lola's wiles, Bill remained true to Jane.
Especially if it is the common usage in the modern street.
All Others Pay Cash
Truth is related to trust and therefore to faith.
Truth is an Anglo-Saxon monosyllable, and therefore regarded with disfavor and avoided whenever possible. It comes from triewð (W.Saxon), or treowð (Mercian), meaning "faithfulness." Starting in the 1560s it began to mean "accuracy, correctness." (Oddly, there is no word in English that means "to speak the truth," although there is one that means "to speak the false," viz., lie.) Truth came from true: triewe (W.Saxon), treowe (Mercian) "faithful, trustworthy," from P.Gmc. *trewwjaz, "having or characterized by good faith."
Now, a fact, insofar as it is fact, is trustworthy, and therefore true. But not every truth is factual. Chesterton once said that Beauty and the Beast is true even though none of the events in the fable are fact. The truth of it is that sometimes someone must be loved before he becomes lovable.
Faith is a mid-13cent. word meaning "duty of fulfilling one's trust," from Old French feid, foi, "faith, belief, trust, confidence, pledge," which comes in turn from Latin fides, meaning "trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief," the root being fidere, "to trust." To have faith in something is therefore to put your trust in it. Hence, if you trust scientists to perform their experiments and interpret and report their results correctly, you are said to have faith in science. (Although, more correctly, you have faith in scientists. Expressed that way, some may come to doubt their faith to the extent they know human nature.)
Thus, faith is simply the Latinate equivalent of the Germanic truth. When this is understood, we also understand what Cristoph Cardinal Schönborn meant when he said that the Church too rejected "blind faith."
"A blind faith, one that would simply demand a leap into the utter void of uncertainty, would be no human faith."
Faith, to be genuine, cannot be blind. Trust/faith must be rooted in something: direct experience, observation, experiment, or the testimony of reliable witnesses. In the Martin Luther King quote, the entire staircase may be unseen, but the first step is not.
The contrast between fact and truth is sometimes compared to that between fact and belief. Now, one must believe in facts, but there is a school of lazy, colloquial thought that believes that with facts in hand belief is not necessary. But of course as Lukacs and others have pointed out, facts have no meaning or value in themselves, but only as they stand in relation to other facts and to some context or theory. (This is over and above the usual problems of actually measuring something. I have seen several values for the height of Mt. Everest.) Now facts in relationship one to another is a construction of the facts, and the term for a construction is fictio. You can see where that one is going. You have to construe the facts. The way Poincare put it, a pile of facts is not a science any more than a pile of bricks is a house. The facts (bricks) have to be arranged into some form. (And there are those formal causes again.)
Belief is late 12th cent., bileave, which replaced the standard Germanic intensifier ge- with bi- in the Old English geleafa ("belief, faith") which in root meant "to hold dear, esteem, trust." (Compare the German equivalent die Glaube, from *galaub- "dear, esteemed," which is the intensive prefix *ga- plus *leubh- "to care, desire, like, love." So, believed is cognate with beloved and a belief is a truth that is loved.
(Truth = Faith) + Love = Belief
Now one can argue that these meanings are archaic and therefore (Old is Bad! That is soo last week!) of no use to us up-to-date modern hipsters.(*)
But one can argue more cogently, unlike the colloquialist, that these are the meanings that were very much in play when most of the discussion originated and doctrines and the like formulated. The meanings are still there. They are only papered over with the detritus of common speech, to the confusion of learned discourse. If this is not what people mean when they say truth or faith or belief, it only indicates that they do not know what they are talking about. As if scientists at a meeting were to replace all of their terms with "stuff."
(*)hipsters. Another word that has been changing meaning. I am using it in the 60s meaning.
- Truth of Correspondence: means a proposition is true insofar as it corresponds to a standard. The truth of physical science is correspondence to the physical facts. The truth of history is a correspondence to historical facts. The truth of a verdict is its correspondence to the actual guilt or innocence of the accused.
- Truth of Coherence: means a proposition is true insofar as it corresponds to other propositions within the same discourse. The truth of a mathematical theorem is its coherence within the axiom-system.
Feel free to substitute for science whichever faith/truth/belief you please.
- John Lukacs. "Facts and Fictions" in Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (Transaction Publishers, 1985) pp. 98 et seq.
- Online Etymological Dictionary
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Truth