2

‘OR WHAT’S A HEAVEN FOR?’

The importance of aims in education

Robin Barrow

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

Robert Browning


A note on the idea of truth

Richard Tarnas has suggested that on the eve of the postmodern era ‘modern man was a divided animal, inexplicably self-aware in an indifferent universe’ (Tarnass 1993). Many scholars today would have us believe that the postmodern condition has human beings nursing an even more acute alienation and anomie. The Western tradition, in its long-drawn-out argument between faith and reason and between nominalism and realism, and in its scientific and philosophical revolutions, has left us with a commitment to rationality and a powerful conception of the autonomous human mind, while at the same time suggesting that certain knowledge will always be beyond our grasp, and increasingly emphasising the relativity of our judgements and pronouncements to time, place, and our way of looking at the world, particularly as determined by our language. In extreme cases, the implication is taken to be that there is no reality, there are no facts, there is no truth; there are only fluctuating and conflicting structures imposed on the world by individual minds.

In this debate, while there is undoubtedly much of great subtlety and significance, there is also all too often a failure to observe some fairly basic distinctions. In particular, it is important to distinguish between the idea of truth (and related ideas such as reality and fact) on the one hand, and the idea of knowledge on the other. There is, for example, a very important difference between maintaining that there is no reality (no world out there, no facts, nothing given), and maintaining only that we can never truly know that reality or be certain that we understand it correctly. Similarly, there is a significant difference between the questions of what knowledge

-14-

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