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Did Hegel Hold an Identity Theory of Truth?


On the issue of the identity theory, I think, we can definitely say that
Bradley "followed" Hegel, at least to the extent of developing a line of
thought that is present in Hegel's Logic ... This is not the place to explore Hegel's position, but it will suffice for now to cite one characteristic passage. "Truth in the deeper sense", Hegel writes, "consists in the
identity between objectivity and the notion", (p. 40)
The sentence quoted comes from the Zusatz (lecture note) to 213 of Hegel's
Logic (Part 1 of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences) (1975, p. 276).
Why is it wrong to interpret this sentence as endorsing an identity theory of
truth? In order to see the mistake, let me first introduce a distinction used by Heidegger between propositional truth and material truth (1977, pp. 118-22). Truth
is propositional when it is attributed to statements, judgements or propositions on
the basis of their accordance with the way things are. Truth is material when it is
attributed to something on the basis of the accordance of the thing with its
essence. Thus, whereas propositional truth applies to our judgements or statements, material truth applies to things and their natures. The latter conception of
truth is one that has almost been lost sight of in contemporary discussions of the
concept, but is echoed in such locutions as "God is truth", or "He was a true gentleman".
My claim is that while the identity theory of truth is essentially a theory of
propositional truth, Hegel's remark concerns material truth, and that it is a misMind, Vol. 102 .408. October 1993

Oxford University Press 1993

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In a recent paper (Baldwin 1991), Thomas Baldwin has discussed the role of the
identity theory of truth in the writings of Bradley, Moore and Russell. In the
course of that discussion, he strongly suggests that in defending this theory, Bradley was following Hegel; and, in so far as Moore and Russell developed it further, Baldwin claims that the identity theory might even constitute "a Hegelian
origin of analytic philosophy" (p. 49).
While applauding this attempt to find points of influence and continuity
between Hegel's thought and that of the "analytic" tradition, and accepting that
many such points do indeed exist, doubts must nonetheless be raised regarding
Baldwin's specific thesis. It will be argued that Baldwin has misunderstood
Hegel's conception of truth, and so is mistaken in the historical claim that he
makes for Hegel's influence in this matter.
According to Baldwin, the identity theory of truth is "the thesis that the truth
of a judgement consists in the identity of the judgement's content with a fact" (p.
35). He attributes this theory to Hegel in the following passage:

646 Robert Stern

There are several points to be noted about this passage. As the opening few sentences suggest, Hegel is largely unconcerned with the question of truth as "correctness", that is, truth as consisting in some relation between our judgements and
the world (whether or not the relation is one of identity). Rather, Hegel's interest
is in material truth: in how far an object can be said to be true, in the sense of
conforming to its "notion" (Begriff), where by this he means its nature or essence.
As Heidegger observes, this conception of truth "implies the Christian theological belief that, with respect to what it is and whether it is, a matter, as created (ens
creatum), is only insofar as it corresponds to the idea preconceived in the intellectus divinus, i.e., in the mind of God, and thus measures up to the idea (is correct) and in this sense is 'true'" (1977, p. 120). Hegel himself is quite explicit
about this theological background to his account of truth at the end of the passage.
Thus, whereas Baldwin might be right in attributing an identity theory of truth
to Bradley, he seems to be mistaken in reading such a theory back into Hegel: for,
We must however in thefirstplace understand clearly what we mean by Truth.
In common life truth means the agreement of an object with our conception of
it. We thus presuppose an object to which our conception must conform. In the
philosophical sense of the word, on the other hand, truth may be described, in
general abstract terms, as the agreement of a thought-content with itself. The
meaning is quite different from the one given above. At the same time the deeper
and philosophical meaning of truth can be partially traced even in the ordinary
usage of language. Thus we speak of a true friend; by which we mean a friend
whose manner accords with the notion of friendship ... Untrue in this sense
means the same as bad, or self-discordant. In this sense a bad state is an untrue
state; and evil and untruth may be said to consist in the contradiction subsisting
between the object's determination or concept and its existence. Of such a bad
object we may form a"c6rfect~represelitati6ri, but the import of such representation is inherently false. Of such correctnesses, which are at the same time untruths, we may have many in our heads. (Hegel, 1975, p. 41; translation

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take to equate the two. That this is so can be seen clearly when the passage from
which Baldwin derives his quotation is looked at in full:
Truth is at first taken to mean that I know how something is. This is
truth, however, only in reference to consciousness; it is formal truth,
bare correctness. Truth in the deeper sense consists in the identity between objectivity and the notion [Begriff]. It is in this deeper sense of
truth that we speak of a true state, or of a true work of art. The objects
are true, if they are as they ought to be, i.e. if their reality conforms to
their notion. When thus viewed, to be untrue means much the same as
to be bad. A bad man is an untrue man, a man who does not behave as
his notion or his vocation requires. Nothing however can subsist, if it be
wholly devoid of identity between the notion and reality. Even bad and
untrue things have being, in so far as their reality still, somehow, conforms to their notion. Whatever is thoroughly bad or contrary to the notion is for that very reason on the way to ruin. It is by the notion alone
that the things in the world have their subsistence; or, as it is expressed
in the language of religious conception, things are what they are, only in
virtue of the divine and thereby creative thought which dwells within
them. (Hegel, 1975, p. 276)'

Did Hegel Hold an Identity Theory of Truth? 647

while Bradley is focusing on the issue of "correctness" and propositional truth,

Hegel is interested in the question of material truth, and it is with this alone that
Hegel's talk of identity is concerned. By "identity between objectivity and the
notion" he means that what exists is true only if it realizes its nature properly and
to the fullest extent. Clearly, this is a view of truth that takes us in a very different
direction, one from which the identity theory of truth in Baldwin's sense can
hardly be said to have derived.

570 277V

Baldwin, Thomas 1991: "The Identity Theory of Truth". Mind, 100, pp. 35-52.
Hegel, G.W.F. 1975: Hegel's Logic, translated by William Wallace. Oxford:
Clarendon Press.
Heidegger, Martin 1977: "On the Essence of Truth", in his Basic Writings, edited
by David Krell. New York: Harper & Row.

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Department of Philosophy
University of Sheffield