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umpireAmong the many conversations I have had with Great Books students over the years, none is more lively than when we discuss various theories of truth. It seems to always come up when we are reading and talking about Thomas Aquinas’s Summa. In order to make immediate connection with them, I tell the story about three umpires in a bar after a game. These officials are discussing what really happens when they call balls and strikes. What they are really doing is discussing the relationship between reality and human apprehension of said reality.

The umpires are discussing the relationship between the pitching of the ball and the calling of said pitch by the umpire. It goes like this:

1) When it comes to making calls behind the home plate, I call it the way it is….

2) When it comes to making calls behind home plate, I call it the way I see it….

3) When it comes to making calls behind home plate, it ain’t nothing until I call it….

Those of us who have played or enjoyed the game of baseball get the import of this conversation. The truth is that it is easy to hear what each is saying and recognize the legitimacy of their respective claim. Additionally, it is also relatively easy to extrapolate from their statements and expand them to the point of seeing how wrong they are in their claim.

1) Is it possible that this umpire would ever admit to being wrong?

2) Is the reality of the ball and strike rooted in the perception of the umpire?

3) What if the pitcher threw the ball twenty feet over the catcher’s head and it struck the press box and the umpire called it a strike, it would be, but he would be fired–why?

In steps Etienne Gilson as the “umpire” I would want calling the game. The recent re-publication of his short masterpiece, Methodical Realism is must reading for all baseball and softball officials, and it should be for all thinking people. If you have ever wondered about the chasm that separates most old school Humanists and most modern Social Scientists, here is the debate between the coherentists theory of truth and the correspondence theory of truth. Gilson does a spectacular job of showing that we are all correspondence theorists, but we do not all know it.

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3 replies to this post
  1. From another contrarian: There certainly are folks around who subscribe to the silly view of truth that is rebutted here, so the rebuttal is indeed apt to that extent.

    The problem is, there are many serious critics of a correspondence theory of truth who do NOT subscribe to such a silly view. One can provide all sorts of examples of situations in which a sentence (such as “That was a strike”) clearly involves something that looks like correspondence, but it does not follow that truth JUST IS the correspondence and nothing more. Coming at the same point from the other direction, philosophers who deny that truth should be understood most fundamentally as correspondence DO NOT deny that truth looks like correspondence in many cases.

    The two best examples I know of here are William James (in “The Pragmatist Conception of Truth) and Martin Heidegger (in “On the Essence of Truth”). Both are misread as “anti-realists” who deny that truth is EVER a matter of correspondence (by both supporters and critics), and this is not a correct characterization of their views. Both endeavor to show (compellingly, I believe) that if you are going to talk about what truth is most primordially, or most essentially, it CANNOT be reduced to correspondence. Neither of their accounts renders us unable to affirm the obvious fact that an umpire could be wrong!

    For an excellent discussion, in pragmatist terms, of the problematic “representationalist” assumptions that underlie these worries (and a defense of a form of relativism by a conservative), see James K. A. Smith’s recent book, Who’s Afraid of Relativism?

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