Knowledge and the Pursuit of Truth

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Dear Dr. Adler: At best, it seems like we only ever have partial knowledge. How then, or when, can we ever consider ourselves to have sufficient knowledge to get, or shape a conclusion? How can just a “part” ever grasp a portion of the “whole?”

Response: The word “knowledge” has the connotation of truth; in fact, it is inseparable from it. There cannot be false knowledge, as there can be false opinions and beliefs. The phrase “true knowledge” is redundant; the phrase “false knowledge” is self-contradictory.

With this in mind, the pursuit of truth in all branches of organized knowledge involves (1) the addition of new truths to the body of settled or established truths already achieved, (2) the replacement of less accurate or less comprehensive formulations by better ones, (3) the discovery of errors or inadequacies together with the rectification of judgments found erroneous or otherwise at fault, and (4) the discarding of generalizations–or of hypotheses and theories — that have been falsified by negative instances.

By all such steps, singly or together, the sphere of truths agreed upon enlarges and comes closer to being the whole truth.

We may have to live for a long time with disagreements that cannot be easily resolved. That should not cause us to regard them as permanently tolerable. Unanimous agreement is the appropriate condition of the human mind with regard to anything that is a matter of truth.

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