Is it a truth universally acknowledged?


For reasons that may or may not be revealed shortly, I am currently re-reading the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

Among many other things, this has one of the most famously ironic opening lines in all English literature:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

I recently came across this discussion of this sentence by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which I thought it would be amusing to share:

Let us ask what it is when we say “It is a truth universally acknowledged” that something is the case. Isn’t this a queer thing to say? How can we possibly understand it? At first sight it may appear that “it” is simply the something that is the case (ie that a man possessed of a certain degree of wealth will always feel the lack, or perhaps, without feeling it, be in need, of a wife). This “it”, however, can be no more than a pronominal anterior reference to the “truth” that is being claimed, without as yet there being any evidence for it, even though it is later stated to be acknowledged as a truth by everyone. In such a case it seems to us that the truth has been claimed a priori, since nothing can be acknowledged until it is proposed, although once proposed, such a supposed truth may be further tested through opinion and behaviour. Consider the much simpler proposition: “A man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”. We might reply “How do you know?”, a response that immediately raises the idea of possible exceptions to such a generalisation, such as (among other more complex forms of exception) that he may have a wife already, or may be a secret lover of men. To claim universal acknowledgement of a truth is to claim that a probable “truth” is undeniably true, which can be no more than a specious tautology. Moreover, as we have seen, the “it” with which we began has already laid claim to the existence of something (a kind of truth, as it soon turns out) that can only be assumed through this insistent and superfluous pronoun, which is a form of private acknowledgement by the speaker alone, and is by no means obviously universal. That this “it” is true, and that truth is also true, is what is being claimed here, and the double tautology becomes a distinct puzzle. To be induced to assent to an “it”, when there may be ample reason to doubt its very relation to the proposition which follows, is to be invited not to understand it.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

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