RETC- What is truth? James and Grace Lee Boggs





What is the Truth?

“We can only deal with these questions when we understand that

ideas themselves are not permanent. Ideas which were once solutions

become barriers to advance at another stage of development. There

is no such thing as “the truth.”

To clarify the question of “the truth,” we must first make a

distinction between three categories which are usually linked


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together as “truth.” They are scientific truth, factual truth, and the

ideas called “truths” which are actually convictions held by people

as to what it means to be human.

First, it is clear that science has discovered many valuable facts

about physical realities. Yet someday, someone is going to discover

that something even in this sphere (for example, that the speed of

light by which everything is measured) is, in an Einsteinian sense,

relative, and then all scientific facts will have to be re-evaluated.

Next there is the category which Hannah Arendt has called

“factual truth” in her important essay “Truth and Politics.” Factual

truth involves statements about events and circumstances which

have occurred or are occurring to human beings. The opposite of

factual truth is not error or illusion or opinion, but the falsehood or

lie, either of commission or omission, i.e., the deliberate attempt to

deceive. Lying even in trivial matters reveals the arrogant belief that

facts are deniable or can be made “inoperative.” Hence the

inevitable degeneration of any individual, nation, or organization

which has a careless attitude to factual truth.

Finally, there is the category of truths which has to do with the

nature of man/woman. Is Man the son of God? This is the sort of

thing people argue over. In this sphere there are no absolutes. Yet for

hundreds of years, most people, and not only religious people, have

believed in “the truth.”

The concept that all truths which deal with human identity are

relative and not absolute is indispensable to the revolutionist. In

order to make a revolution, you have to discard the notion that

anything one has previously regarded as truth about human beings is

necessarily true. Revolution is an effort to discover or to create truth,

not to prove what is true. It is hard to Persuade most radicals of this.

You question their personalities if you question what they live by.

Being a revolutionist for them is living by certain truths, rather than

discovering or creating new truths. The New Left–as distinguished

from the Old Left–started out by trying to discover rather than

prove. But they were empirical and pragmatic in the extreme. The

Old Left had a body of ideas which the masses of people are

supposed to prove for them. So they are happy, gratified, satisfied

whenever the masses do something to prove what they already

believe. All this has nothing to do with being a revolutionist.

Revolutionists do not believe in absolute truth but they do have

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strong convictions, thoughts which move them. How can you have

strong convictions which possess and move you, and yet develop

them in relation to struggle, to practice, and to developing reality?

The highest level of human creativity is the constant developing and

advancing of your vision. But this is a dialectical process, involving a

creative relation with reality, which is very different from syllogistic

thinking. Syllogistic thinking is a way of proving a statement rather

than a way of advancing a vision (e.g., “All men are mortal, Socrates

is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal” is a syllogism).

Vision is more than thought. Vision adds to the rational process of

thought all the instincts, intuitions, and other untapped qualities in

people. That is why vision can’t be analyzed in the way that thought

can be.

In the attempt to grasp what vision is, we approach the realization

that a human being is infinitely more complicated than we have been

ready to recognize. The more complicated human beings are, the

harder it is to organize, to dominate, to use them. What has

distinguished great creative individuals from all others is that they

have been willing to accept the challenge of the complicated nature

of a human being. Maybe that is why there have been only about two

thousand great individuals in five thousand years. Some people are

defeated by this complexity; some are illuminated by it; some are

challenged by it. This complexity tells us that the evolution of

hunankind is still going on and will continue to go on. The nature of

man/woman, our human identity, is still being discovered, still being


So when we are asked “What is truth?” we must make clear that

there is no such thing as truth. There are different kinds of truth.

There are truths which are really scientific facts, used for technical

purposes. There is factual truth, or truth-telling as opposed to lying.

And then there are truths which are really convictions, having to do

with human beings, with change, with development, with values.

Convictions are relative, not absolute.

That they are relative means that they are extremely important. It

is hard for people to accept this because in the Western intellectual

tradition, absolute truth has come down to us as a Positive goal to be

striven toward, while relative truths have come down as “merely

relative,” and therefore, by implication, mean, material, negative.

This started with Plate, whose anti-mass bias was clear. It was

220         James and Grace Lee Boggs

extended by Christianity (to save the souls of the meek and humble).

Then science gave it new life. Therefore, it is hard to get people to

understand that truths are constantly being created, and that this

creativity is in fact the greatest achievement of humanity. We tend

to speak of ideas as “only relative” or “merely relative” implying that

what is relative doesn’t matter too much because it is not fixed, as if

only fixed truths were important.

A constant evolution takes place in our concepts, in truths. God

was a concept created by human beings. The first gods that men and

women created were closer to nature because at the time people

lived closer to nature. As we progressively departed from nature,

beginning to master nature for the first time within the last few

hundred years, we created other, more complicated gods. As we

were enhanced in one direction, we were dulled and diminished in

another. This is the contradiction, the duality in man/woman. When

we crossed “the threshold of reflection,” in Chardin’s phrase, we

began to discover things about our own developing nature. We may

think that we have discovered the final truth about the nature of

human beings, and therefore we know who and what man/woman is.

But we don’t. The nature of a human being, present as well as future,

is infinitely more complicated than we have permitted ourselves to

recognize or to express.

A revolution is to create new truths about human beings and

society. There is no proof really that the road you are taking is the

“true” one. You have to make it true. Revolution creates new bases

of tensions, new unities which will split again into new dualities.”