Fragment from a recent go at Theory Thursday:
The knowability thesis helps us think about truth, about the word “truth.” These aren’t shudder quotes here; I’m using them to emphasize the word over the concept, to indicate that it is, after all, a word, and thereby to shove it into the light from which it so often hides. I want to separate “truth” from the protean, untouchable, liminal thing that is truth – truth, which is visible only from the corner of the eye – so that I can hold onto that word while its meaning becomes unmoored, changes slightly, and, after its shifting, returns to possess the word once again. A meaning as large as truth cannot be grasped directly – it is at once everywhere and nowhere, and, like a dim star, it disappears altogether before the overly-forward gaze. We can’t look a meaning squarely in the face, and so we clutch at its word instead, repeating it over and over, staring at that word without blinking until eventually we see it it for what it is, or for what it is not. Once the word has become alien to us, that is when, without removing our gaze, we can allow its meaning, freed for just a moment from its usual vessel, to drift and change. The meaning takes on new colors, new dimensions and shapes, without us doing anything at all, until finally everything resettles like so much dust. And we find that the word is once again invested with the thing, and that the thing is just a little different than it was before. In this way, we encounter a concept anew. This exercise can be done with nearly any word – with “gender” (gender), or “chair” (chair), or “truth” (truth).
The knowability thesis states that a truth is by definition knowable, and the startling logical conclusion of this thesis is that all truths are actually known. This conclusion sets up Fitch’s paradox of knowability. It appears obvious that we – humans, or even all sentient beings – are not collectively omniscient, so we assume the abovementioned conclusion is false. The knowability thesis, by extension, must also be false. If truths are not all known, then some truths must be unknown, and if some truths are unknown (meaning they have not been discovered), then there must exist an unknowable truth: a truth that is never known. But of course, we cannot really know that an unknowable truth exists, because while we might have some knowledge of an unknown truth’s existence (in the event that we don’t quite know this truth but we know it is there), we cannot have any knowledge whatsoever about the existence of a truth that is never known. It is the absolute darkness, the darkness behind the dark of which we are aware.
But this darkness cannot actually be said to exist, and in fact we cannot even ask whether it exists in the first place, because to ask that question is to ask a question about something else entirely – about something that we know or imagine or surmise is there. We cannot speak of the unknowable unknown. So can we call something fundamentally unknowable a “truth”? Can there really be an “unknowable truth”? Let us imagine for a moment that we accept the knowability thesis: that truth is knowable in principle. Does this really mean that everything true is known? Or does it mean that everything “true” is “known”? Perhaps we could make a slight amendment to the argument: instead of claiming simply that truth is knowable in principle, we might clarify that truth must be knowable in order to be called truth, while that which is fundamentally not knowable is something other than truth – something for which we do not have a word or a concept, for which we cannot have a word or a concept. Instead of doing away with the knowability thesis, we might acknowledge that we are speaking of words as much as things, that our argument is one of terms as well as meanings. Of course, this begs the question of what difference there is between the two – but there is no urgent need to prod further in this direction.
At the very least, we can now consider the possibility that truths are not truths unless they are to some extent known or knowable. The attendant picture of reality and knowledge is strange, with truths appearing as we know them, their existence dependent upon our ability to know them. They do not emerge as prior wholes from somewhere out of sight, nor do they come together in a convergence of disparate elements, nor paint themselves like ghosts over a cluster of disjointed parts which are not really unified at all – but they simply come to exist, produced by us even as they seem to produce themselves. The relationship between truth and knowledge, however, is not simply causal; knowledge does not cause the existence of a truth, but rather knowledge – whether limited or thorough – provides the conditions for us naming something a truth in the first place. This understanding of “truth” suggests that it arises in the relationship between ourselves and the world. The knowable – which comprises both truths and untruths (since untruths only gesture towards truth, through loud silences or false declarations) – the knowable stands at the intersection of the human subject and everything that is not the human subject.
But something is fundamentally unknowable only if it exists apart from this relationship, apart from this intersection, and because we cannot claim even a rudimentary awareness of anything existing apart from this relationship, and because we cannot, in fact, even imagine anything apart from this relationship, we cannot then refer to unknowable things as “truths.” The knowable, the true, and the untrue – these are within human provenance. We cannot refer to the unknowable at all. We cannot think of the unknowable. So truth does not exist apart from sentience. It is produced by us, and also produces us; it is produced by the world, and also produces the world (the world as we know it, which is the world). Ultimately, this picture is not one of reality and knowledge, but one of reality as knowledge: in it, they are one and the same. And it is a frustrating picture, because it forces us to consider what is not reality and not knowledge, to wonder what is known that is not real and what is real that is not known, while at the same time we are faced with the recognition that these questions are actually questions about what is real and what is known (because we are incapable of thinking apart from knowledge-as-reality).
Here we arrive at one of the most momentous contributions of feminist literary theory: the subversion of liberal humanism’s trust in the objective (male) gaze; the suggestion, not that we do not know, but that we do not know from nowhere, no matter our position or gender. No-body knows nothing; only a body can know. It a claim about power as much as it is a claim about knowledge.