Philosophical Notes: Did Columbus `discover' America?

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"IS THERE such a thing as `the truth'?" It would be foolish to claim that philosophy had definitively answered this most difficult and intractable of questions. But just a little philosophical reflection can help us to avoid the terrible muddles even intelligent, educated people get into when they talk about truth. Consider how the Professor of English Terry Hawkes replied to that same question on the radio last week:

[The] idea that there's a single truth out there to which we have some immediate access is an illusion, it's a delusion. We know that somebody called Columbus set foot in North America in 1492, but is it true to say that he discovered North America? I think that if you were a native American who was already living there you'd probably have quite a different story to tell.

Hawkes was defending a view which was once seen as shocking, but is now de rigueur: that there is no one single truth and that what is true for one person may not be true for another. In other words, truth is relative.

You don't need to commit yourself to any of the major philosophical theories of truth (correspondence, coherence, pragmatic and so on) to see the difficulties in Hawkes's argument, and by proxy in the received wisdom about truth and relativism. Given his conclusion, it is surprising that Hawkes actually states that something is true: Columbus set foot in North America in 1492. Obviously, to say it is true is not to say it is beyond dispute. But, even if it turned out Columbus arrived in 1493, it cannot be true that Columbus both did and did not set foot in North America in 1492, unless "set foot in" contains some ambiguity. Either way, there is some truth in the matter.

Given that Hawkes seems to acknowledge that there are some objective truths, what does all he says about "discovering" show? All it demonstrates is that some words in some contexts are vague, ambiguous or misleading. It is accurate to say that the statement "Columbus Discovered America" seemed true to the Europeans and false to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. But you cannot jump from the obvious fact that people believe contradictory things to be true to the conclusion that contradictory things are or can be true. For instance, there was a time when many people believed that the world was flat, while others believed that it was a sphere. Obviously it cannot be the case that the world is both flat and a sphere at the same time. The fact that people held different beliefs about the shape of the world tells us nothing at all about what is true of the world.

What is more, if you actually asked Europeans and indigenous Americans what they meant by their assertion or denial of Columbus's "discovery", they would provide totally compatible answers - that there were people who lived in the Americas before Columbus got there, but that Columbus was the first European to land there. No competing "truths" here.

Of course, there are more serious and profound arguments for the idea of the relativity of truth. But, unfortunately, it is this sloppy version of relativism which has captured the popular imagination, and it just won't wash. As a further example, last year a survey showed that people who believed that "what is true for me may not be true for you" were more likely to admit telling lies. But even to recognise that one has told a lie one has to acknowledge the difference between truth and falsehood. It seems no one can affirm their belief in the relativity of truth without implicitly undermining it in their next breath.

Dr Julian Baggini is editor of the quarterly `The Philosophers' Magazine', an issue of which is due out next week (