Terrance Hayes

Great session with MacArthor fellow and award winning poet Terrance Hayes at BC’s Carlson Theater today. The event was billed as Terrance Hayes talking about social justice for black lives. This is what happened, but it took the form of Hayes reading new poems, poems written since the election, and talking about poetry in the Q&A. And his poems are multi-facted in the themes he explores and the ways he explores them. So the poems were hardly just about social justice and black lives. Unless that’s taken to encompass his own black life, sometimes in relation to social justice but always in rich contours and textures.

My analytical mind was overwhelmed, so I’m looking forward to the volume so I can process Hayes’ writing at something closer to my accustomed plodding pace. A few lines still stick with me. Well, one that is illuminating, for me and perhaps concerning Hayes’ method as an artist.

“Anger is a form of Heartache”

My analytical mind is not poetic, but it is fascinated with the emotions and heartache I can readily identify as a manifestation and symptom of love. We like to see love as a positive feel good sort of thing. Yet love has another face, one Elizabeth Harazim has aptly described as “fierce”. In the absence of love we’d never have anything to be angry about. And yet that condition hardly seems enviable.

Hayes described an aspect of his poetry as taking a word, and idea, turning it on one side and then another, examining its back side and so forth. So what’s the backside of love? As naive and inexperienced as I am with poetry, exploring things like this is something I make common cause with as a philosopher.

But enough of philosophy. Here’s some more of Terrance Hayes poetry.

Why you might not want to say “What’s True for You isn’t Necessarily What’s True for Me”

Here is a common sense view about truth. There is an external world that is the shared object of our experience and it is some ways but not others. To say the world is a certain way is just to say that it has some properties and lacks others. This is the standard issue common sense metaphysical view. As we are parts of the world, the way the world is includes all of the various ways we are as individual subjects. Your experience is every bit as much a part of the world as anyone’s

What we believe or what we assert with a claim is true when it corresponds to the way the world is. True beliefs and claims are true because they represent the way the world way it is. A false belief or claim is just one that fails to do so. This is how we understand the notion of truth in the everyday mundane and uncontroversial cases like when we say “It’s true that Nichols is Mayor of Seattle in 2006” or “It’s true that the Space Needle is taller than any sailboat on Lake Union.” So far, I’m just trying to describe how we use the terms “true” and “false” in ordinary discourse. What I’m going to do now is examine a few ways of understanding what people might mean when they say things like “that might be true for you, but it is not true for me.”

As a Claim about Belief

The most plausible interpretation of claims like this is that talk of something being “true for a person” just means that it is believed by that person. To believe something is just to take it to be true. So perhaps when a person says “P might be true for you but it is not true for me,” all they mean to say is that perhaps you believe that P, but I don’t believe that P. But people believing incompatible things presents no challenge to the common sense metaphysic of a shared world or our commonsense understanding of truth.
The common sense picture does require that if two people believe things that are genuinely inconsistent, then one of them must be hold a false belief. There is no guarantee that we can figure out which belief is true and which is false. But as the common sense view does posit a shared world, the possibility of distinguishing the truth in some cases may be open.  We can examine our shared world more closely, share our observations, and think critically about whether our world really does correspond to this belief or that. Science, in this manner, seems to have made a good deal of progress in understanding a few things about our world. Science does not answer genuinely ethical questions, of course. But the lack of shared purely empirical evidence for or against ethical claims does not mean that we have no reasons to consider at all when evaluating ethical claims for truth. Ethicists formulate and evaluate arguments in support of ethical claims all the time. It’s what they do. So understanding talk of things being true for some people but not for others as really just meaning that some people believe this and other don’t makes this kind of talk intelligible. But it also invites us to inquire into the truth of the matter by examining what reasons are available and it presents no special obstacles to discovering that someone’s belief really is true or really is false.

As a Conversation Stopper

Yet when people talk about things being true for some and not for others, this talk is often intended to cut off debate. But why would anyone want to stop a conversation about ethical issues. Morality matters a great deal to us. People make huge personal sacrifices for what they think is right. As much as doing good and avoiding wrong matters to us personally, you would think conversations about morality would draw enthusiastic participation. But in fact the very passion and conviction with which moral beliefs are held probably does more to explain why people are reluctant to talk about ethical issues. People are used to only seeing ethical issues discussed in the context of heated emotional conflict. In fact, through cultural phenomena like cable TV political pundits, the heated rhetoric of special interest politics, and the ever present impassioned expressions of evangelical religious conviction, we are trained to only see ethical issues discussed in a context of emotional conflict. Well nobody likes emotionally heated conflicts. So, people just avoid conversations about ethical issues (except perhaps when they are confident that they are in the a-men choir). While conversations about ethical issues can be very unpleasant, they don’t have to be. The conversations philosophers have about ethics can be difficult, but they are typically not emotionally unpleasant. To the contrary, they are emotionally pleasant on account of being interesting. The standing habits ordinary folks in our culture have of talking about ethics in unpleasant ways doesn’t generalize. It’s just a bad habit. I say it is a bad habit because it’s a habit that generally discourages folks from learning anything new about ethical matters. The people who aren’t driven from conversation make it into something personal and combative rather than collegial and informative. When people go to battle in defense of a cherished belief, they are not typically open to understanding and learning new things.

One obstacle people face in breaking the bad habit of talking about ethics only in emotionally unpleasant ways is that people tend to self identify with their passionately held convictions. Many people have this tendency. In this situation an argument against one’s cherished moral belief may feel like an argument against one’s self. But a person is not the conclusion of an argument. The conclusion of an argument is a statement that expresses a thought. A thought that might be entertained, or doubted, believed or disbelieved by any number of people. Personally, as a philosopher, it’s really not a big deal to me whether someone holds this opinion or that. People believe all sorts of crazy things and I tend to like them anyway. However, I often find that I have very little patience for the people who are reluctant to examine the reasons for and against holding a belief.

Doing ethics will be uncomfortable for anyone who brings the emotional baggage of identifying with his beliefs to the conversation. So, lose that baggage if you have it. The only other choice is to just avoid doing ethics. Lots of people do make that choice. But this way of buying the comfort and security of not having to examine your own beliefs comes at the price of perpetuating ignorance (in yourself and others that might learn from you). This practice combines the intellectual vices of closed mindedness and incuriosity and it contributes to a great many of the worlds injustices.

As an Expression of Ethical Subjectivism

Sometimes the saying “what’s true for you isn’t true for me” is intended to stop conversation by implying that there is no fact of the matter to discover. If there is no fact of the matter, then clearly we are just wasting time debating the issue. The view that there are no ethical facts is not a relativistic view. The view that there are no ethical truths is variously called ethical subjectivism, nihilism or ethical skepticism. Now here is something peculiar: when folks try to cut off debate by saying something like “that may be true for some but it isn’t true for others,” they often intend this to be a way of saying “look you are both right”. But the subjectivist view that there are no ethical truths doesn’t make both parties in an ethical debate always right, it makes both parties always wrong. In a debate about an ethical issue, one party is arguing that some claim P is an ethical fact while another is arguing that not P is an ethical truth. Subjectivism does not dissolve the debate, it just interjects a third position saying that neither P nor not P is an ethical truth. This, ironically, is a way of entering the debate, not a way to shut it down. And once the debate is entered, we need to see some reasons for thinking subjectivism is right.

As the View that Ethical Truths are Relational

Some sentences just don’t make sense by themselves because they are incomplete. Consider “John us taller.” Perhaps in the right context, the missing details will be understood and the intended complete thought will be successfully conveyed. In a context where two people are standing back to back to compare their heights, “John is taller” can successfully convey the complete thought that John is taller than Joe. Perhaps ethical truths are like this. Perhaps “abortion is wrong” by itself just doesn’t express a complete thought that can be understood as true or false. But we can express a complete thought that can be true or false by adding some details as in “Abortion is wrong relative to evangelical Christians.” This view is ethical relativism. Relativism in ethics is just the view that ethical expressions like “is wrong” don’t express ethical properties had by actions, but rather express relations between actions and individuals or groups. This view is intelligible. And it does allow for the various parties to a dispute about an ethical matter to each be right. So this view works as a means of shutting down debate. To the minds of many, allowing for all parties to be right is adequate reason for adopting ethical relativism. But this strikes me as clearly disastrous. Ethical relativism makes the Nazi sympathizer just as right in holding that the holocaust was a good thing as the holocaust survivor is in holding that the holocaust was a bad thing.

As a Fractured World Metaphysic

It clear that people had better not understand truth in the ordinary way with no qualifications when they say that ethical claims are true for some by not for others for the simple reason that the world can’t both be some way and not be that very way. Perhaps we could maintain that things can be true for one person but not for another by taking the individuals in questions to live in their own distinct worlds. If I live in my world and you live in your distinct world, then it can be true for me that abortion is wrong and not true for you that abortion is wrong. My world could have the property of abortion being wrong while yours lacks it. But to go for this view is to abandon our ordinary commonsense metaphysical view and deny that there is a world that is the shared object of our experience. If there is no shared object of experience, then there is nothing for me to learn from your experience or you to learn from mine. Worse yet, if we live in distinct worlds, then the very possibility of communication is jeopardized. What could I possibly hope to understand about your experience if our experiences have no common ground what-so-ever. Maintaining relativism about truth by adopting a fractured metaphysics of many worlds is, intellectually, a bottomless pit. There is just nowhere to go from there.



We speak of three sorts of things as being true or false

  1. Sentences
  2. Beliefs
  3. Propositions

But what are sentences, beliefs and propositions?And for each of these three we can ask the following:

  • What is it for one to be true or false?
  • Is their truth objective?
  • Is their truth relative?
  • And if their truth is relative, what is it relative to?


We address propositions first because they are the fundamental bearers of truth and falsity.  A proposition is what is expressed by a sentence.  Sentences have meanings.  When a sentence admits of truth or falsity a proposition is what is meant.  A sentence is true if and only if it expresses a true proposition.  But a proposition’s truth or falsity is independent of whether or not a given sentence expresses it.  Propositions are also the contents of our beliefs.  Whether or not a belief is true depends on whether or not its propositional content is true.  But the proposition’s truth or falsity is independent of whether or not it is believed.

So we appeal to propositions in characterizing the contents of beliefs and what is expressed by sentences.  And for a belief or sentence to be true or false is just for its propositional content to be true or false.  But what is it for a proposition to be true or false?  Here we will introduce the notion of correspondence.  For a proposition to be true is for it to represent the world in a way that corresponds to the way the world actually is.  So, for instance, the proposition expressed by the sentence “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only the world contains the intended cat and mat and the cat is on the mat.  This doesn’t sound very exciting, but there it is.  Contrary to popular opinion, the notion of truth is kind of dull.  We can say that the truth or falsity of a proposition is relative to the way the world is, but that’s it.  The truth or falsity of a proposition is not subjective (or relative to belief).  And the truth or falsity of a proposition is not open to interpretation (or relative to meaning).  This last point is crucial.  The truth or falsity of a proposition is not relative to what a sentence means. The truth or falsity of a sentence is relative to what proposition it expresses.  But the truth or falsity of a proposition is not relative to meaning and could not be for the simple reason that propositions don’t have meanings.  Rather, the proposition is what is meant.


Sentences are linguistic things made up of words that have meanings.  What a sentence means depends on what its constituent words mean.  A proposition is what is meant or expressed by a meaningful sentence.  In principle, we can assign any meaning we like to a word.  And the meanings of sentences are, in some sense, a function of the meaning of words.  So, in so far as sentences are true or false, their truth is relative to meaning.  More specifically, what proposition is expressed by a given sentence depends on the meanings assigned to its constituent words.  For a sentence to be true or false is just for it to express a proposition that is true or false.  To help see that sentences are distinct from the propositions they express, and that the propositions themselves are not relative to meanings, consider the following two sentences:

Schnei ist wiess

Snow is white

The first sentence is German for snow is white.  These are distinct sentences and this is clear because they belong to different languages.  But both sentences express the same thing.  So, the proposition expressed must be something independent of either language.  Propositions are not linguistic entities.  While propositions are the meanings of sentences, they do not have meanings themselves.  So, the truth of propositions is not relative to meanings the way the truth or falsity of sentences is.


Belief is a relation between a mind and a proposition.  To believe a proposition is just to take it to be true.  Objectively, beliefs can be true or false.  From a subject’s point of view, to believe something is just to take it to be true.  What is thought to be true in one belief system may well be thought false in another.  But this is not to say that truth is subjective (that is, relative to subjects).  To say that what is true according to one belief system is false according to another isn’t to say anything about the nature of truth.  This is just a fairly obvious and mundane observation about what is held to be true according to a belief system.




An argument is a reason for believing something.

Arguments consist of two or more claims, one of which is a conclusion.  The conclusion is the claim the argument purports to give a reason for believing.  The other claims are the premises.  The premises of an argument are offered as a reason for believing its conclusion.

Some arguments provide better reasons for believing their conclusions than others.  Evaluating an argument involves two essential steps:

  1. Determine whether or not the premises support the conclusion if they are true.
  2. Determine whether or not the premises are true.

The second of these tasks may involve evaluating further arguments in support of the premises.  There is an obvious question to ask regarding (1).  Namely, what is it for the premises of an argument to support its conclusion?  Here, I will introduce the two standards of support that have been recognized and developed by philosophers.  One is the standard of deductive validity and the other is the standard of inductive strength.

Here are two equivalent definitions of deductive validity:

(D) A deductively valid argument is an argument where if its premises are true, then its conclusion must be true.

(D’)  A deductively valid argument is an argument where it is not possible for all of its premises to be true and its conclusion false.

Deductive validity is the strictest standard of support we can uphold.  In a deductively valid argument, the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion.  Here are a few examples of deductively valid arguments

  1. If Socrates is human then Socrates is mortal
  2. Socrates is a human.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal
  1. All monkeys are primates
  2. All primates are mammals
  3. So, all monkeys are mammals

In contrast, the following argument is not valid:

  1. If Sue misses her plane she will be late for the conference.
  2. Sue is late for the conference.
  3. Therefore, she missed her plane.

To see why the last argument is not valid, try to think of a possible scenario that makes both of the premises true and the conclusion false.  One scenario is where Sue catches her plane, but her cab from the airport gets stuck in traffic.  The validity or invalidity of these arguments is fairly obvious.  But the validity or invalidity of many arguments is not so easy to see.  Formal logic provides us with tools for testing more difficult arguments for validity.

A deductively valid argument may or may not have true premises.  A deductively valid argument only provides one with a good reason for believing its conclusion if its premises are in fact true. If a deductively valid argument has all true premises, we say that it is deductively sound.  For an argument to be deductively sound is one way for it to pass both steps (1) and (2) for evaluating arguments.

The other widely recognized standard of support for the conclusion of an argument is inductive strength.  We can define inductive strength as follows:

(I) An inductively strong argument is an argument where it is not probable that its conclusion is false given that its premises are true.

Notice that the criteria for inductive strength in (I) looks much like the criterion for deductive validity in (D’).  The biggest difference is in the use of the word “probable” rather than “possible”.  This is a big difference.  Possibility is a yes-or-no-affair.  It either is possible for the premises of an argument to be true and its conclusion false or it isn’t.  On the other hand, probability is a matter of degree.  The conclusion of an argument may be more or less probable given the truth of its premises.

Corresponding to the notion of deductive soundness, an inductive argument that is both strong and has true premises is called a cogent inductive argument.  Unlike the notion of deductive soundness, it is possible for an inductively cogent argument to have true premises and a false conclusion.