The domain of Truth – Jacques Ellul

Before this summer I knew nothing of Jacques Ellul.  I discovered the late French theologian and social critic almost by accident, when I glanced into his book, The Humiliation of the Word, and heard a voice that, as they say, “spoke to my condition” (La Parole humiliée, 1981; ET Erdmans, 1985).

Jacques Ellul (1912-1994)

It’s no secret that philosophy adores the supreme importance of language.  But Ellul takes this principle much more seriously than most philosophers. For him the Word has become the sole provenance of Truth. Which means that Truth must be considered independently of all images and sense data.

“language … permits us to go beyond the reality of mere existence to… something different from the sensually verifiable universe.  Language is not bound to reality, but to its capacity to create this different universe, which you may call surreal, meta-real, or metaphysical. For the sake of convenience we will call it the order of truth. The word is the creator, founder, and producer of truth.” (1.2)

Ellul compensates for this wholesale dethronement of images and other sense data from the court of Truth by readily conceding to them the illustrious name ‘Reality.’

By differentiating Truth from Reality – and by relegating so much interesting stuff to ‘Reality,’ Ellul makes it clear he does not aim to dismiss the significance of images and sense data.  He is determined only to prevent all such categorically foreign elements from obscuring the search for Truth.

I don’t know if Ellul’s generous concession can appease the most shrill acolytes of science, who – unlike actual scientists – believe scientific method to be the universal solvent of all really tough human problems.  But we are probably not equipped for understanding Ellul if we do not thoroughly understand that accuracy is an epistemological value existing on a lower moral level than veracity.

Theologians, too, may find it hard to give up words like ‘image’ and ‘reality’ in honor of Truth – until they remember that this concession is at least in keeping with teachings that have never equated truth-seeking with pursuit of images or of the data of the five senses.

When Ellul differentiates Word from Image, he does not separate language from ‘reality’ – he merely assigns it a certain dominance.  In one example, language shows its power over images and sense data by the fact that the race of speakers hold a distinct evolutionary advantage over non-speaking predators (though we are less endowed with speed, strength, endurance, intuition, reflex, etc.). But Ellul does not view evolutionary advantage as a standard of Truth – in fact he views the evolutionary gains of language as only an epiphenomenon of the Word. While he would admit that language is the secret of material mastery, he would insist that its real essence as the Word unlocks higher attainments that utterly transcend all material forms of success.

“What is Truth?”  Ellul hears the question being asked, but wisely avoids definitions of Truth in terms of observable or identifiable content. Instead he recommends we discover what belongs to the domain of Truth ourselves, by seeking to understand it as the object of our highest human endeavor.

“Anything concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth.  And by ‘destination’ in this sense I mean ‘meaning and direction in life’. We can add to this everything that refers to the establishment of a scale of values which allows a person to make significant personal decisions, and everything related to the debate over Justice and Love and their definition.” (1.3)

I’m not sure I have ever underlined a book more often than I did this one.  Jacques Ellul makes me want to go back to Kant’s epoch-making arguments for the primacy of Practical Reason (First and Second Critiques) and reopen the whole discussion on behalf of religion that Fichte more or less fumbled, and that Schleiermacher seems only to have made ambiguous to modern minds.


18 thoughts on “The domain of Truth – Jacques Ellul

  1. I haven’t studied Ellul enough directly, but I plan on reading him more. Didn’t he have some incredible theories about the pervasive motivations of death in culture & individuals — or am I confusing myself?

    • idiolalia, I haven’t seen that side of him yet except maybe indirectly in his heavy critique of technology. i’m more interested in his religious writings. But Ellul had a broad range – he even criticized Marshal McLuhan for missing the point about language and media (if you can imagine what that meant in the 60s when McLuhan was sweeping everyone off their feet). He has been claimed by some anarchists – but they don’t cite this book or his other more theological writings. In fact his biggest following these days seems imune to his religious perceptions and tend to downplay it.

      Thanks for writing.

  2. I don’t know if this move would appease our shrill acolytes of ‘Science’ who – unlike the professionals within its working ranks – believe ‘the Method’ to be the universal solvent of all really tough human problems. But a materialist who does not thoroughly understand that accuracy is a value existing on a level completely different from veracity or honesty is probably not equipped for understanding Ellul.

    Oh please. Your penurious description of the understanding by us ‘shrill acolytes’ about appreciating the difference in meaning between accuracy and veracity is a grossly intentional misrepresentation. It reveals your paucity of knowledge about the position of those who insist that to have any relevance to what is true in the universe we occupy you inform your faith-bathed claims about reality on reality.

    I know… so very shrill of me.

    What you want to do is protect your faith-based claims by changing the basis on which we can validate truth claims made about reality away from reality… to the meaning of words. You want to inform your truth claims with whatever meaning you wish to apply. Just look at the highlighted words to see what you are proposing: that anything “concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth.” But destination doesn’t mean the final arrival point, now does it… because that would mean allowing for this a priori argument to be exposed for the fallacy it is; instead, he re-defines the word ‘destination’ to be both meaning, which is self applied to any activity we undertake (and about which ‘science’ as a method has no application), as well as direction, which also self-applied (and about which ‘science’ as a method has no application). Meaning and direction that we self-assign to our activities has everything to do with change over time, which obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with arriving at what he call our ‘ultimate destination’ before both are fully experienced. Ellul then inserts the term Truth as a substitute for this destination but dishonestly suggests that the travel time towards it means the same thing. (Our ultimate destination is death regardless of how much or little we apply various liberal doses of meaning and direction.) In other words, he wants to have his cake and eat it, too; he wants to make equivalent the destination for the journey, and this is cheating. We do not achieve ‘Truth’ by making it equivalent to apply self-appointed meaning unless we are willing to call everything any human being wishes to appoint meaningful to as ‘Truth’. This entails altering the definition of the term ‘Truth’ relevant to a state of being in accord with fact or reality to any state of being accorded meaning which has no necessary bearing whatsoever with fact or reality!

    You think this is deep. I think it’s turtles all the way down and offers us nothing to help us attain knowledge in accord with fact or reality but creates imaginative ways to divorce our beliefs about meaning and direction from being accountable to fact or reality, which you reveal is very appealing to you. No wonder. It’s a shell game and you’ve fallen for it.

      • To respond or not to respond, that is the question.

        I see you’re right on top of current comments.

        My education has taught me to think critically, so I’m not the least embarrassed to point out that reality – and not the pseudo-intellectualism of PoMo relativistic ramblings and contortions – deserves to be the arbiter of what’s true about it. You would prefer to have your beliefs do this job of arbitration and think the more you try to inform your beliefs, the more educated you think yourself to be. That’s why it’s a shell game; all you are really accomplishing is to fool yourself about reality, achieving the polar opposite to the goal of thinking critically.

        Whatever your educational achievements may be, and I know no more about yours as you know about mine, you have managed to fool yourself and, in exchange for this kind of education, undermine your own intellectual integrity and honesty by impeding your ability to think critically.

        No matter how you look at it, that’s a fail.

        • It is you who have fooled yourself, tildeb.

          And I’ve seen you troll other sites (the trollish habit is that of refusing to stop tearing off a new piece of bandwidth for a new rant as long as you get fed more thread).

          You’re done here.

        • PS to tildeb:

          Your ‘education’ I’m guessing was a single Critical Thinking course at the secondary school level – those are generally taught by hacks who believe that ‘critical’ equates with blanket scepticism in regard to all that cannot be seen or touched or measured.

          Your anger tells me you came up from an evangelical splinter group who foolishly believe the whole bible to be true and innerrant. Your rudeness toward host blog owners and your smug self-assurance tells me you have not yet graduated from secondary school.

          Any of my readers who believes your ‘argument’ has merit can easily follow the link next to your anonymous moniker and go pat you on the back.

  3. Hi John,

    Thanks for this post on Ellul. I haven’t read any of his works but I understand that he was a Barthian of the Reformed tradition who espoused nonviolence. I think you are correct that he sees the Logos as the truth and that the logos was incarnate in Jesus.


    John Arthur

    • I benefitted from several precious mornings in which I had the perfect brew of coffee and hours of uninterrupted reading time.

      Now I have had to send my marked-up copy back to the university library and find I don’t have sufficient written notes (I don’t usually write in other people’s books, but I was on fire).

  4. I am amused by this sentence in your otherwise fine post: “He has been claimed by some anarchists – but they don’t cite this book or his other more theological writings.”

    Ellul described himself as an anarchist, and was happy with both theist and atheist anarchist of the nonviolent sort. At least Christian anarchists certainly cite this book, and his reflection on Ecclesiastes, and, obviously, Anarchism and Christianity which, as the title suggests…

    • Thomas, glad to hear from you and thank you for your correction of my hasty comment.

      I admit ‘anarchism’ is a word that doesn’t have alot of cognitive content for me in the context of life, and I have too quickly dismissed its importance for a total understanding of Ellul.

      As a strategy of economy in my own philosophy, I have no problem accepting what has inspired me in Ellul while passively rejecting his association with anarchism. If you see this strategy as inconsistent with the expressed emphasis of my short review, I welcome further comment.

  5. Your blog is probably way over my head, but of course, I still cannot resist saying the obvious as being the answer to “What is truth”, which is, “The Spirit is the truth”.

    • I agree, crossroman. I should try a post on the Lord’s Spirit of Truth. Ellul’s title, “Humiliation of the Word” refers ultimately I think to the incarnation of the Word of God. His book implies a final overcoming of darkness by light. .

      And the quote from Ellul at the end of the post:
      “Anything concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth.”

      Thanks for writing.

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s