On Truth and Beauty

by William McGaughey

Truth, beauty, and the good embrace the ideals which an enlightened man has traditionally desired for himself and for human society. Society made it the task of philosophy to render them intelligible. A previous paper, entitled “On Goals in Life” has discussed the nature of the good. Now it is time to scrutinize the other two members of this trilogy, truth and beauty.

Whereas the good is concern with human purposes and morals, which are open factors in life, truth and beauty keep a certain distance from common existence, entering it occasionally as snatches of rare insight. Of course, there are persons who make it their daily fare, just as there are persons who have fine steaks of caviar every day. On one hand, there is the man who makes his living by creating true or beautiful expressions for the public; on the other hand, there is a certain leisurely and intelligent clientele which chooses to live continually in the atmosphere of these rich creations, considering it a better way to spend a lifetime. Both creator and patron lead a rather artificial existence; for them the rare experience is commonplace. The world which they inhabit is called “culture”.

There is a great variety here. Culture included such fields as pointing, sculpture, music, photography, architecture, drama, scholarship. literature poetry, philosophy, etc. However, these areas have in common that they focus on certain products, fashioned by a highly subtle and original technique, which usually carry a reference to elements in common life, ad are to be judged and used according to their degree of excellence. These products are usually made by a man of intellectual pretensions, who offers them to the public, often not so much for their enjoyment as for their enlightenment. At one time culture belonged mostly to the wealthy classes, for whom it represented a way of life Now the universities have undertaken the task of instilling a taste for culture among all classes.

The cultural product is used by the mind to refine its own nations and images, but is never used up. Instead the product remains intact while thousands of minds encounter and absorb it, themselves undergoing change. Whether the product consist of words remembered or written down, paint on canvas, marble, clay, notes written for the sounds of vibrating instruments, or other media, it is fundamentally imperishable. the best way to destroy it is by ignoring it or forgetting it.

Depending upon its medium, a cultural product more less represents something taken from common life. Especially when it is made out of words, the product refers to a reality beyond itself. The words,a s in any coherent utterance, must be saying something. This literal reference to a subject is the work’s meaning. Products of the visual arts also have meaning, through their likeness to some visual appearance in the world. Such disciplines as architecture, music, and abstract art do not carry such clear references, yet even these may sometimes be considered to be expressing external realities of a more general or emotional nature. What the product’s creator chooses to represent is arbitrary, and is therefore of no significance in itself; the meaning is often revealed through the title of the work.

A casual telephone conversation may have the same subject as a great poe.m. What makes them so different is the choice of thoughts and words to express it. Expression is how the materials of a medium are arranged in various parts, combinations and qualities, so as to exhibit meaning. Expression incorporates meaning through it the delicate insights of a creative artist are given a body, visible to the common world. In it are found up all the mysteries and excellences of culture. The expression is determined by the technique which its creator learned at school or in subsequent practice, by his own conscious attempts at style, by the requirements of the subject he has chose, or by any combination of accumulated or spontaneous influences upon him while he is at work.

Sometimes meaning an expression seem to overlap: the choice of elements to include in a work is at once part of the subject and a means of expression. The meaning was originally chosen for its expressive potential. Expression is not just a matter of picking the right words from a vocabulary to match certain features which the world has. Far more important is what the creator chooses to notice in his subject and he he arranges his thoughts. It is necessary to understand the whole context of an experience before one can see clearly the materials inside. The individual subjects to be chosen take their identity and significance from their own habitat. Likewise the individual words, sentences, or other expressive units belong intimately together in the completed work. A good expression puts each truth into proper focus, which is largely a matter of arranging the emphasis accorded to subjects. the ambiguity between the two aspects may be dispelled by remembering that meaning applies to the whole work, while expression consists of all the subordinate parts and materials, whose organized combination gives quality and substance to the work.

In theory there are two steps in creating a cultural work: First, the creator, having been exposed to the world, extracts a direct perception from it. He ay perceive truth either through his immediate senses or through memory. Second, the creator employs the necessary technique to capture this perception in his medium. Ideas in his own mind must be made public. Of course, an artist is not always proficient enough to express the exact insight which flickered in this imagination Good art would do this, and bad art would not.

Yet, an insight is not so distinct from its execution. Perception is more than half of the battle. For the creative mind perception means seeing how the world may be utilized by its own technique, rather than some idle awareness. Expression is merely a further outpouring of it when the tools are in hand, Perception is the important thing. There are few good writers with nothing to say, or painters who are blind to natural color and form, yet paint masterpieces. Let the creator hold fast to his vision; in time the expression will work itself out.

Knowledge and Art

Cultural products are of two sorts - knowledge and art. Knowledge emphasizes the meaning aspect, and so is closely tied to the world where the creative perceptions originated. Knowledge is excellent when its expression takes faithful account of the subject. Art, on the other hand, emphasizes expression, and so is closer to the process of constructing its product. Art is excellent when the work shows expertise in selecting arranging, and finishing the materials of its internal construction.

Works which convey knowledge are much like everyday conversation. They say their message in so many words, and a person listens because he wants the information. Belonging to the cultural realm, however, they must surpass ordinary discourse in some respect. Accordingly, such works attempt to give the definitive discussion of a topic, either by presenting original information or by giving a more truthful, more incisive, or more complete picture of its subject than ever before. The pursuit and compilation of knowledge includes philosophy, science, and scholarship as its major disciplines.

Philosophy is concerned with the most general patterns of knowledge. Its standpoint is always that of elementary understanding looking in upon a territory from the outside. Philosophy examines whole systems of thought or activity, discovering the larger field of life. The philosopher does little more than develop his own common sense. He does not make observations with his eyes and ears so much as use his memory to recognize the conditions of a world in which he has lived with a fairly competent feel for it From his meditations he can make articulate a few principles to e at the center of his general understanding.

Science keeps the body of knowledge about the natural world, whether or not this includes “human nature”. The scientist’s eyes remain upon that portion of the world he is studying. He measures it and describes it under various conditions, and constructs general principles which conform to this evidence. As the evidence mounts, theories solidify into laws, which are meant to explain literally the mechanisms of the physical universe. Science is preeminently empirical. It does not permit simple or beautiful theories to stand which contradict the facts, and it is sill less interested in elegant reports.

Scholarship breaks down into many fields, but is usually either some form of history or of criticism. Scholars examine artifacts and written evidences of culture, revealing the qualities of certain persons, societies, or civilizations, and they form their own opinions on these subjects. A large part of scholarship involves reading books by other scholars. The historian examines records, letters, and other original evidence from the pas.t His own summary and judgment of this material helps to remake the common image of a bygone age or person to resemble more closely what it actually was. The literary or art critic examines literary texts or art objects for significant details, which ell what the work represents within its field. His careful observations correct existing opinions about art, the artists and their traditions.

Unlike knowledge, art is not careful of its references to common life. Its place within culture depends upon its own excellence of form - an uncanny balance of features plus a clean fit for its subject. Art includes many of the cultural products which are fashioned with words and virtually all the non-verbal ones. Art varies widely by the materials employed, by its use in society, and by its degree of refinement and prestige. Among its forms are:

Painting - To decorate the walls of a house different colored paints are arranged on a canvas to remember an object or scene, whose memory the artist wishes to preserve.

Sculpture - The artist reproduces the shape of an object in stone or clay.

Architecture - This is a better way to design a house or public building, so that it will blend with its environment and be a more pleasant or impressive place for people to live.

Landscaping - An expert selects plants to grow upon a certain parcel of land, which should lend color and variety to its natural features and enhance the architecture.

Fashion and industrial design - Clothing and other commercial products are givea a more pleasing appearance than its functional mechanism would otherwise have.
Goldsmithing, pottery, weaving, etc. - Thee ancient crafts produce useful objects with the singular decorative qualities made possible through hand manufacture. Craftsmanship was the origin of art.

Music - The composer decides which notes are to be sung by human voices or to be played by instruments, and he arranges these in a rhythmic sequence, concurrent with the notes of other voices or instruments, so that the whole sound is pleasing to someone who hears it.

Drama, opera, musical show, movie, etc., - With or without music, a group of trained performers speak and act their parts, which are written down in a script, so as to recreate a living human situation. There is art in writing the script to exhibit life, and art in ting the parts intended by the script.

Ceremony - The audience participates in a sequence of words and movements to commemorate a certain event or manifest a certain truth.

Essay - A thinker discusses the complete nature of a subject. The essay belongs to scholarship, but it also inclines toward art because of its elegant style.

The novel or short story - Such literature is an extended report of an action, which is usually fictitious. The writers selects details to be mentioned, which reveal universal qualities about people, localities, or forces, and he arranges the action to reach a satisfactory conclusion and his work to be an orderly whole.

Poetry - Words report actions and qualities in the world, or the poet’s feelings However, the words are selected with greater individual attention, both to create original phrases and to fit into a tight structure, built out of the accidental qualities of words. Poetry is usually shorter than prose, and it is meant to be recited from memory or to accompany song.

Expressions of knowledge tell their truth directly; those of art do so through example. Knowledge is designed to teach; art is meant to be enjoyed and admired. Although good art does often contain a good lesson, the audience has to glean it out for themselves. By presenting its themes clearly and suggestively, art makes it easy for the viewer to draw his own conclusions about the subject. It is often easier to remember the concrete instance of a truth than its explicit statement.

Knowledge pays far less attention to its own product than does art. After he has made his investigations and organized his evidence, the scholar must write it down accurately so the public will make no mistake about what he has found. The words themselves are of little importance; they merely trap the meaning as exactly and completely as possible. If it still eludes him, the scholar keeps changing words or adding sentences to catch more and more of the meaning until he his satisfied. He would like his work to be readable and economical. However, a cumbersome, wasteful structure is a less serious failing in a scholarly paper than the omission or falsification of evidence, which touches his claim to truth. Art, on the other hand, would be nothing if not done with a certain grace and skill.

Whereas the discoverer of knowledge, to be objective, removes all traces of himself from his methods and product, the artist does everything out of his own personality. He experiments capriciously with style, and seems actually to want to go off on a wild tangent. Eventually he pulls some of these fanciful developments together, tidies up his product like any good workman, and offers it to the public as the only one of its kind. Art thus develops pleasing tendencies from its own maanner of expression. Distortions from the common viewpoint serve to creat a spiritual bond between the artist an audience.

The artist sews his soul and reputation into his work. He shows off his virtuosity each time he exhibits his work, for its whole value depends upon how skillfully he has executed his delicate conception. In contrast, the creator of knowledge expects no special praise for his manner of investigation, which is set by the practices of his particular discipline, or for his ability to handle words, which he may or may not have. At most his virtues are the common ones of hard work and fairmindedness.

Knowledge and art are the separate children of the two concepts under discussion in this paper. The main purpose of knowledge is to express truth; the main purpose of art is to create beauty.


Truth is a congruent relationship between symbols and certain elements in the world. Each symbol corresponds to something in life. Symbols can be arranged together to express a definite relationship between them. The combination of symbols therefore suggests that the corresponding elements in life are arranged the same way. If they are, the combination of symbols is truth.

Reality is what we know primarily, even before truth. Reality includes everything in the world. We know that things in the world are real because they are in our own realm of existence; they are hen at least as real as we are. “Cogito ergo sum” puts first things first in this respect. And yet, reality is in general the proof of our knowledge of truth. there seems to be a paradox. However, much of what we think is based upon second-hand information or upon a misunderstanding of elements perceived.

Truth declares that these notions introduced by symbolic representation describes the real world, and one may examine the world, trying to notice the same thin. The problems in life are mostly in deciding whether our knowledge conforms to reality, not in overcoming the philosophical doubts about reality altogether. All knowledge rests upon that assumption. Reality exists whether we know about it or not, but truth exists only as our knowledge that something is real.

Therefore, while reality is a self-sufficient realm of being, truth always implies two. truth belongs to a realm which is subservient to another, as the reflections in a pond are subservient to the hills, trees, and meadows they resemble. Truth is like similar triangles in geometry. They may be drawn in different positions, one may be larger than the other, or one may be drawn in chalk on a blackboard and the other in pencil on a sheet of paper, yet despite these differences in appearance the two triangles are similar if their angeles proportions of sides, and direction of spin are the same Because one matches the other in a certain essential aspect, we allow it to be a true likeness of the other. Reality and truth are like similar triangles, except that they are on different levels of mental involvement. One exists outright and the other is a symbolic image of it. One is a material object; the other is a form. Yet, a certain quality abstracted from one, expressed by the other, is the same.

Language is the most important set of symbols, congruent to reality in this way. Each word has its reference to a general type found in life, which is its definition. The definitions are known beforehand whenever we use language. So is the way that words in a sentence are related to each other through their locations parts of speech, and customary groupings. If the words are combined the same say in the sentence as their references are in the world, the sentence is true, For example: “The sun is setting.” We know what “the sun” is, we know that “setting” when used with sun means becoming lower and less bright in the skies, and that “is” refers the association to the present. So, we should immediately pay attention to the sun, and expect to see its “setting”. If we can, the sentence is true.

The sentence is the basic unit to convey truth, because it has all the grammatical organs necessary to sustain a living span of intelligence. Individual words like “of not accept when” are meaningless. However, truth presupposes that each sentence is in order, and is more concerned with whether it states what is the actual situation. Each sentence presents a single relationship which is allegedly true. Collections of sentences juxtapose several relationships, which belong to a single field of description, a cohesive event process, argument, or some other communication. The paragraphs and larger units describe a wider range of reality, and their adjoining sentences modify each other as the words did in the sentence.

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