73. A Critique of Palmer’s Critique of Objectivity

In his book The Courage to Teach,[1] Parker J. Palmer claims that objectivism is false and that a new conception of truth needs to be put in its place.  Without this new conception we will perpetuate “disconnections between teachers, their subjects, and their students” (52).  Objectivism, according to Palmer, “portrays truth as something we can achieve only by disconnecting ourselves, physically and emotionally, from the thing we want to know” (52). In what follows I want to briefly present what I take to be the correct view of truth, facts, and knowledge and then, based on this data, articulate some fundamental mistakes Palmer makes in his notion of truth—mistakes that are bound to generate more disconnection than the objectivism it is supposed to supersede.

What is truth?  Pontius Pilate’s question is a difficult question to answer—if only because we tend to assume a certain conception of the truth as we look for the truth of the truth![2] Nonetheless, there are some notions of truth and its relationship with knowledge and facts that have been well-received by logicians. Consider the following:

  • Truth and falsity are properties of propositions that assert or deny something about facts.  Truth and falsity are not properly predicated of facts: we don’t say a television set in front of us is true or false; we say it is a fact about the world and that there are a variety of propositions that assert things about the television set that can be true or false.
  • If a proposition is true it is omnitemporally true: it always was, is, and will be true. What changes is our estimation of the truth not the truth itself.  Some might say that propositions about the future have no truth values yet.  But if propositions about the future have no truth values then arguments that make future predictions would be impossible since all the propositions in an argument need to be truth claims. The consequences of this for science would be devastating insofar as science must present such arguments.  Moreover, we think it was true before humans existed that pure water freezes at 32 degrees F.  Did the proposition ‘pure water freezes at 32 degrees F’ become true only when it was discovered to be true?  Surely not.
  • Facts are states of affairs.  Traditionally, many facts are understood to exist independently of humans.  For example, many would agree that there is a fact at any moment about how many trees exist on Earth.   At each moment there is a fact of the matter and if all humans disappeared the fact would remain.  Of course, with the advent of quantum mechanics, the notion of certain facts about the subatomic world existing independently of observers became implausible (cf. pp. 99-100).  It seems there are some facts that result from the transaction of objective and subjective factors.  Of course, it is hard to generalize from this that all facts are transactional in nature. But facts, whether independent of us or dependent on us, are not true or false. If a proposition is true the proposition will correspond to them.

But how we do know when such a correspondence is in place? This leads us to the nature of knowledge, another difficult topic. Luckily, there is a well-received account from Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus: knowledge is justified true belief (JTB).[3]  On this account, we need three things (1) proposition p is true; (2) x believes p; and (3) x has a rational justification for p being true. Such a view of knowledge is certainly not perfect and some serious objections can be brought against it.[4]  But it will do for our purposes.

Now Palmer claims that “truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline” (106).  Is this statement true?  I can think of a few reasons why it isn’t.   Let us look at these reasons given the above data.

(1) Logicians would say truth is properly predicated of propositions not conversations.  We have conversations about truth and whether certain propositions bear truth values.  We have conversations to acquire knowledge in order to demonstrate that certain propositions do indeed correspond to the facts.  And we engage in conversation as we carefully seek out the facts we need to make these correspondences clear.   This makes sense of our experience.  But if truth is a conversation then we run the risk of absurdly searching for the truth with a conversation that is the truth.  True, we can drop speaking of the search for truth and speak of being in the truth seeking a subject matter (105-107).  But if we are going to turn our backs on over 2000 years of logic this new paradigm should have more benefits than problems.  Does it?

(2) Well, Palmer’s vision of truth as a certain type of conversation would have to be understood as a process whereby we exchange ideas, evaluate theories, make mistakes, change our minds, etc.  As already stated, logicians (and most people) would see conversation relating more to the justifications we give of truth claims. Palmer, however, criticizes what he perceives to be objectivism’s equation of truth and justification and how this equation leads to an untenable  changing conception of truth.  He writes: “Unlike the objectivist, I do not understand truth to be lodged in the conclusions we reach about knowledge.  How could it be, since the conclusions keep changing?” (106).  As far as I know, no objectivists claim truth lies in a fallible conclusion of an argument.  Like most of us, they see arguments as justifications of truth claims rather than the truth itself. But that aside, Palmer is making the same mistake he attributes to the objectivist: he is pointing to something changing—the process of inquiry—and equating that process with truth.  As a result, he would have to say that truth changes rather than saying our estimations of the truth change.  This would threaten the very foundations of logic and he himself wants to avoid it. Moreover, in a conversation of the size he envisions, there are many viewpoints and often inconsistent and contradictory ones.  This would mean, absurdly, that the truth itself is inconsistent and contradictory.

Given these objections, I don’t see the value in adopting this paradigm.  Why is Palmer so interested in it?  I think because he illogically carries over certain insights about knowledge and facts to truth. Let’s take knowledge and its relationship to truth first.

He argues persuasively that we need to be in a relationship to the things we know. This is plausible: if there was no relationship then how could we know anything?  But he considers this insight to be powerful because it can undermine objectivism that “portrays truth as something we can achieve only by disconnecting ourselves, physically and emotionally, from the thing we want to know” (52). I don’t think an objectivist is committed to the view that we need to be physically disconnected from objects we come to know. But it is true that many objectivists would argue emotions need to be put aside when considering certain sets of facts. Is this so wrong? Consider jury deliberations.  Shouldn’t jurors keep their emotions about the facts from influencing their evaluation process?   Emotion can be present and can even motivate the search for truth. I can desire to be an objective juror who will not allow my personal biases to enter into my assessment of the facts.  But objectivity would be valued despite the fact that we are related to the facts in a variety of ways.  In any case, Palmer is correct in arguing that our relationship of knowing is dynamic and can often include many things some objectivists tend to exclude such as emotions.

However, just because our knowing relation is dynamic and partially subjective doesn’t mean truth changes or is subjective. Palmer rightly wants to exclude the “hierarchical, linear, and compulsive-hygenic” of objectivism which sees truth as a property of propositions (103-104).  But we can easily maintain that truth is a property of propositions and believe we have fallible justifications of these propositions.  We can then agree with Palmer that, as fallible humans with a limited reference frame, we should join a “community of truth” that throws out the hierarchical model. But if we carefully distinguish knowledge from truth with my opening distinctions, we can adopt both the traditional view of truth from logic and adopt many of Palmer’s prescriptions for an anti-authoritarian and communal view of education.

Palmer also thinks that facts are not independent of our physical and emotional relations.  As already mentioned, I believe some are independent.  But assuming he is right, it doesn’t follow that truth is relational or that it is somehow causally related to us or affected by our emotions.  A proposition is true or false.  We can come to know if it is true by putting ourselves in relation to certain facts.  We can then construct an argument—a fallible argument—that seeks to exhibit the correspondence.   This whole process can include emotions as we passionately search for the truth and it can include changing relationships and time. But truth doesn’t change and propositions are not related to us emotionally as we are emotionally related to other humans.

So we have seen that, according to a well-received tradition of logic, truth and falsity are predicated of propositions or statements that assert facts.  Facts, whether independent or dependent on us, are states of affairs and are not themselves true or false.  Knowledge is usefully understood to be justified true belief and when we know a proposition we have reason to believe it corresponds with the facts.  Palmer’s account of knowledge and facts is fairly accurate, yet it carries over certain properties that hold true of facts and knowledge to truth itself.  In doing so, it open up several problems that we should seek to avoid.  And we can avoid them while incorporating many of Palmer’s other prescriptions.  There is no good reason why we can’t both drop Palmer’s conception of truth and embrace his insights about community and enriched relationships in education.  Indeed, I think that it is precisely by dropping his conception that we can have a coherent and meaningful relation to the truth.


[1] The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: Wiley, 2007).

[2] See John 18:38 for Pilate’s infamous question. For a very helpful overview of philosophical accounts of truth, see http://www.iep.utm.edu/t/truth.htm

[3] Read the dialogue here: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/theatu.html

[4] See Edmund Gettier’s famous critique of JTB here: http://www.ditext.com/gettier/gettier.html

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