views updated


Falsity (from Lat. falsum, supine of fallere, to deceive) is defined by its opposition to truth. Since truth is the conformity or adequation of intellection and being, falsity is their deformity or inadequation. Falsity then is not the same as ignorance, which is the mere absence of knowledge conformed to being, as in the newly born child. Nor is it the same as partial or obscure or incomprehensive knowledge, which does not exhaust the knowability of being. In this sense all created knowledge is imperfect or negatively inadequate to being. But falsity is positive inadequation, namely, that between being and knowledge asserting that being is other than it is. Hence falsity is the evil of the intellect, depriving it of the good for which it is made, frustrating its inborn longing for truth. By reason of the duality of terms (intellection and being) in the relation of inadequation that falsity denotes, falsity can be considered either from the point of view of intellection (logical falsity), or from the point of view of being (ontological falsity).

Logical Falsity. Logical falsity, or error, is the deformity of human intellection from being. Since truth is properly and formally in the judgment, falsity, which is a deprivation of truth, is properly in the judgment only. Logical falsity is therefore a judgment asserting that what is, is not, or that what is not, is. How is it possible for a judgment to be false? St. thomas aquinas teaches that truth is consciously in the judgment, because the intellect judging knows itself as conformed to being (ST 1a, 16.2). The intellect knows its conformity insofar as in judging it exercises complete reflection on itself (De ver. 1.9). Must it not follow then that falsity is properly in the judgment, insofar as the intellect knows itself as deformed from being (see ST 1a, 17.3), and this by reason of its exercised complete reflection? How, then, can the intellect know its falsity without correcting it?

Conformity and Deformity. To state that truth is consciously possessed in the judgment means that the judgment by its very nature presents itself as conformed to being. When, for example, a person says that the paper on which he is writing is white, he knowingly intends to assert that the thing across which his pen moves justifies or verifies what he asserts about it, that it is as he judges it to be. The judgment presents itself as conformed to being, because it involves complete reflection on the intellect's conformity to reality. If the same person inadvertently keeps on his green-tinted sun glasses as he begins to write, he might assert with surprise that the paper on which he is writing is green. In such a case, he knowingly intends to assert that the paper is actually green. He consciously presents his judgment as conformed to being, whereas it is not conformed to, but rather deformed from, being. Thus his erroneous judgment is a conscious deformity from being.

This particular deformity from being is known, but it is known not as deformity (which would equivalently remove the error), but rather as if it were conformity. The core of falsity lies here. The intellect does not avert to its deformity, but confuses this with conformity, and hence takes its partial ignorance for knowledge. In other words it thinks it knows itself to be conformed when actually it does not.

Reflective Awareness. How is this confusion possible if the judgment involves complete reflection and self-knowledge? Firstly, the complete reflection of the human intellect is not the translucent vision of the angel. In knowing, angels are entirely transparent to themselves, because the content of their natural knowledge is entirely from within themselves and so excludes the possibility of error. Man's complete reflection, on the other hand, belongs inseparably to the exercise of his intellection, but it is an exercise whose content is inescapably implicated in a multiplicity of images and sense data that remain necessarily extrinsic to intellection. Hence human intellection must progressively clarify its content by a succession of acts and inferences. The complete reflection objectivizes in general the content of this knowing, and so refers it in general to being and knows itself in general as conformed to being.

But such complete reflection and such general reference to the intellect's conformity to being do not of themselves justify the intellect's particular interpretation of this content (i.e., the objectivizing connection of its elements), on which the truth of the particular judgment depends. Nor do they guarantee the rectitude of the intellect's inferences, nor the logical connection of the various acts by which it concludes to a judgment. The particular interpretation of this content demands reflection on, and sifting of, the sense data (external manifestations of reality) that the content generalizes. It also involves attention to the images (figurative and emotional) evoked by this content, by reason of its similarity to other situations, and a careful weighing of the memory elements involved in the content. The rectitude of its inferences demands that the intellect examine with care each step of its reasoning, and reflect on its connection with, and the validity of, the principles applied.

False Judgment. When the intellect judges falsely, this critical attention to, and discerning reflection on, the data of sense, the association of images, the reliability of memory, the connecting reasoning, and the validity of principles, either is lacking or is insufficient. The intellect judges precipitately without fully reflecting on these sources of its judgment, and so not withholding its assertion until sure it has sufficient evidence for it. By reason of this insufficient reflection, the intellect asserts as true what only seems to it to be true, and hence it asserts beyond what it knows. It makes such an assertion under the influence of the will. The will, either by reason of its attachment to prejudices, or by its impatience or disinclination to effort, or by not applying its attention, moves the intellect to judge what only seems to be. All falsity lies in this chasm between seeming and being. If something did not seem true, man could not assent to it, since his intellect is a faculty of truth. Yet his intellect can take the seeming true for being true because its judgment is under the influence of the will. From the point of view of the intellect, no error is inevitable.

Ontological Falsity. Ontological falsity is false being. Since being is true insofar as it is in conformity to intellection, it is false insofar as it is in deformity to intellection. If being, as being, is true or conformed to intellect, every being is true insofar as it is. How then and in what sense can one speak of false being? Is not false being the same as nonbeing or nothingness? If so, there is no such thing as ontological falsity. Yet one speaks of such things as false prophets, counterfeit coins, sham jewels, artificial silk, synthetic rubber, and false teeth, and these things exist. What is the meaning of their falsity and wherein does it reside?

Being is true as conformed to intellect. If there were no intellect to which being is conformed, being would not be true and so would not be. But if there were no human intellect, being would still be true. Conformity to man's intellect is not essentialit is only accidental to being. If, on the other hand, God's intellect did not exist, being and its truth would cease. Conformity to God's intellect makes being to be. Hence no being can be under any aspect to which God's intellect is not conformed. But a being can be even though man's intellect is deformed from it. As regards God's intellect, therefore, no being is or can be false. Hence no being, as it is in itself, can be false.

The only way, then, that a being can be false is not as it is in itself, but as it is outside itself, i.e., as it appears externally. A thing cannot be false simply, but only under a certain aspect, i.e., under the aspect of its external manifestation. Hence being can be false only in relation to a faculty (intellect) that reaches to what is through appearances, or to an intellect depending on senses, i.e., to a human intellect. Falsity, then, is attributed to a being only as it appears to the human intellectand that within definite limits. One does not call a tomato a false being because it leads the inexperienced child to mistake it for a rosy apple. A thing is called false only when it would deceive the normal, developed human being, or men in general. The falsity of such things lies in their appearances' being so similar to something else that the average man would not detect the difference. Hence falsity is not in the being of things, but only in their appearances. Moreover, it is in these appearances not formally but only dispositively, in the sense that these appearances tend to provoke men to a false judgment about the reality whose appearances they are. Since the being of what appears is true, and falsity lies only in the appearances of certain beings, ontological falsity is founded in ontological truth.

See Also: truth; absurdity; fallacy.

Bibliography: l. w. keeler, The Problem of Error from Plato to Kant (Analecta Gregoriana 6; 1934). j. h. nicolas, "Le Problème de l'erreur," Revue thomiste 52 (1952) 32857, 52866. m. d. roland-gosselin, "La Théorie thomiste de l'erreur," Mélanges Thomistes (Bibliothèque Thomiste 3; 1923) 25374. a. marc, Psychologie réflexive (Brussels 1948) 1:36675. s. carmella, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 2:3038, 25758. e. valton, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 5.1:43547.

[f. p. o'farrell]