In 1947, an important book was published – Introduction to the Reading of Hegel – containing lectures delivered between 1933 and 1939 by the French Marxist philosopher Alexandre Kojẻve.
Before the lectures, Kojẻve had done something few scholars today would do. He had spent six full years studying one book, Hegel’s Phenomenology.
Those who have read Hegel will not be surprised. He is probably the most complex of all philosophers who ever lived.
After six years of emersion in the dialectics of being, Kojẻve emerged like a monk carrying a spiritual message handed down by God himself in a prolonged period of meditation.
Thus Allan Bloom, editor of Kojẻve’s book, could not avoid the conclusion: “It is the special merit of Kojẻve to be one of the very few sure guides to the contemplation of the fundamental alternatives.”
While few in South Africa today would see any value in an earnest study of Hegel’s mind, there are simple lessons we all can – and perhaps must – learn from Kojẻve.
Key among the lessons for the citizens of our country is never to miss what Kojẻve, the philosopher, said about truth.
This is what he said 74 years ago: “truth in the strict sense of the term is supposed to be a thing that cannot be either modified or denied”.
The phrase “supposed to be” is significant. It reveals the subjective character of the human mind, which is an inherent feature of consciousness.
Even as they live with and among the rocks, beasts of the mountains never argue about the sizes or shapes of the rocks around them. Humans do.
While looking at the same rock, two people can present different claims about its constitutive substance, shape or size.
This happens due to the subjective interaction between the mind that observes, and the thing that is being observed. In this case, the mind is a subjective reality, and the rock is an objective reality.
Given that the mind can abstract, and that the thing – the rock – cannot think, power is thus bestowed unilaterally upon the mind freely to make subjective conclusions about the thing under observation.
Essentially cognition is a subjective process by which the cognizer makes sense of the cognized.
Given the subjective nature of the cognition process, what the cognizer ultimately portrays about the cognized may not necessarily be true.
The portrayal may be a reflection of the errors of the mind, or an honest approximation that reflects what is within the bounds of the observer’s capabilities.
This is precisely the reason why Kojẻve defines truth as a term that “is supposed to be a thing that cannot be either modified or denied.”
In the case of an erring mind, the thing portrayed as “truth” can later be modified or indeed denied.
If mankind was in the first place not part of the cosmos, there would be nothing capable of distorting things. Things would be things in themselves. They would neither be true nor false; since truth and falsehood are concepts that exist only in the human world.
Humanity is a province of nature that has granted itself the permission to manipulate the rest of the universe – to the extent that it is possible.
In natural sciences, experimentalist methods are applied to eliminate errors of the mind in the apprehension of objective reality. Verification is the tool relied upon in the search for truth.
It is thus less difficult in natural sciences to parade figments of the imagination as truth. This does not mean that natural scientists are an orchestra singing in a harmonious tune.
Differences – especially those caused by methodological imperfections – have been a central part of the great scientific odyssey from the genesis of science. As human beings, natural scientists, too, do have egos.
The social realm is a big mess of pseudo-scientific pontifications. Here subjectivity has no shame to parade as objectivity.
Indeed, a welter of social “science” methods have been devised by innumerable thinkers in the never-ending attempt to construct an island of objectivity in our vast ocean of subjective social realities.
Still, the task remains elusive.
Nowhere else is truth more brutalized than in the field of politics. It may not be far off the mark to define politics as a big factory where big lies are manufactured.
In politics, what appears clearly before your naked eyes can be represented to you by politicians as untrue.
For example, a commentator can be attacked by Gwede Mantashe for stating the simple truth that Jacob Zuma lacks formal education.
In this case, if you present Jacob Zuma as a president who is formally uneducated, Mantashe would still find it possible to modify or change this true statement – to make Zuma appear like an educated person.
You are then left with a question politics presents as unanswerable: is Jacob Zuma educated or not?
If you say “No”, you run the risk of being attacked by Mantashe, and, if you say “Yes”, you would most likely provoke the ire of those who know – as a matter of fact – that Zuma has not studied up to matric.
Some might argue that the issue is not whether truth about political questions can be established or not, but rather whether certain questions ought to be raised at all.
While a question such as “Is Schabir Shaik a convicted criminal?” can be answered with a simple “Yes”, some would hasten to warn that the question must not be raised because it is politically fraught.
As we have pointed out above, in natural sciences, truths or falsehoods about phenomena are tested by verification – through experimentalist methods.
When there is a dispute, scientists would say “Let us verify.” If it means that the experiment should be conducted over and over again – until there is consensus – such is considered the best way.
The idea is to experiment and re-experiment to the point where those with doubts are convinced that the thing under consideration can no longer be modified or denied.
At this point, truth is no longer “supposed to be” a thing that cannot be either modified or denied. Once verification has been done, truth becomes an actual thing that cannot be either modified or denied.
In politics, when there is a dispute about the relationship between Zuma, Schaik or the Guptas, politicians generally do not say “Let us verify”; people are quick to say “It is a sensitive question.”
In fact, commentators who raise such questions get maligned as people who disrespect Zuma.
Thus has it become almost an established political culture in South Africa never to talk about important political questions that trouble the soul of the nation.
Once race is thrown into the picture, it becomes even worse. It does not matter how sound, a white South African criticizing the ANC is quick to be labeled racist. Black critics, also have their label: counter-revolutionaries.
As a result, public discourse has become a theatre of lies. Political commentators try their best to find the most diplomatic of words never to offend politicians – especially the ruling party.
If there is a lone commentator who does not tell lies, a vicious machinery of the state or the ruling party is quickly unleashed upon him – so as to send a clear message that truth is not tolerated in politics.
We find ourselves at a crossroad; where we must answer the question: what is the relationship between truth and politics?
Or, would it be best to list the things South Africans are allowed to talk about in our politics, and those we are not permitted to touch? If we choose to follow this route, we must also state clearly as to who wields the power to grant permission.
As we prepare our verdict on the important question of truth and politics, we ought to refer to philosopher Alexandre Kojẻve’s definition – that truth in the strict sense of the term is supposed to be a thing that cannot be either modified or denied.
The Sunday Independent, 1 April 2012