A true account
Department of Accountancy and Finance, Edward Wright Building, Dunbar Street, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK
Abstract A central professional accounting value is expressed in the imperative to give true accounts. This paper explores some philosophical background to the concept of truth, and develops a novel approach toaccounting truth that sheds some light on how true accounts can be given in a wide range of discursive environments. This approach depends upon the observation that true statements must not only be coherent with each other, but must also be coherent with the possibility of the discourse within which they occur. A demonstration that an accounting report was true would comprise an appropriatelyconditionalised demonstration that its falsehood was incoherent with the possibility of giving any account at all. This is a much less restrictive requirement than would be implied by a representational account of truth, or by a theory of accounting fundamentals which depended on a sensory/empiricist epistemology. It does, however, allow for a kind of theoretical progress that both these approaches havefailed to demonstrate. © 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Truth; Philosophy; Empiricism; Language; Theory
1. ‘Quaere Verum’ The motto of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland suggests that the discovery of truth is a central concern of its members. This is a surprising motto for a technocratic organisation, seeming to express moral ambitions more general than thoseassociated with accurate bookkeeping and conscientious vouching. In the academic accounting literature that addresses this issue, truth, in various guises, has also been a central concern. This literature has however, tended to be either dogmatic or despairing—either stipulating unconvincing (Mautz & Sharaf, 1961, as discussed by Arthur, 2001), and possibly interest
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A. Arthur / Accounting Forum 28 (2004) 369–384
driven (see Mouck, 1989, on Positive Accounting Theory) rules for the discovery of truth, or arguing that all attempts at truth discovery or truth telling in accounting are, in some sense, spurious (characteristic examples might the ‘Sociology of Knowledge’approach taken by writers such as Power, 1992, 1995). This controversy reﬂects a similar controversy in the wider academic community. The social sciences (in a debate which, in the AngloAmerican tradition probably takes Winch, 1958, as its starting point), the study of history (the range here is enormous—classically St. Augustine, Kant, Hegel, in the 20th century analytic tradition Collingwood, 1994;Hempel, 1965; Popper, 1972; and many more), are prone to regular and disruptive methodological debates, and the physical sciences are far from immune (see the debate inspired by Kuhn, 1970). The methodological issues raised with respect to research in accounting, in the social sciences generally, and in the physical sciences, are already well aired. Also, somewhat different (although clearlyrelated) problems arise in business and professional practice to those that arise in relation to academic research. The approach taken in this paper has been inspired by the particular difﬁculties associated with business language use (Arthur, 2002), and it may shed some light on the other more traditional, and perhaps somewhat stale, debates.
2. Theories of truth If we are to seek out (and tell) thetruth we should, presumably, be clear about what the truth is. Many disciplines (some more convincingly than others) attempt to deﬁne, or give some general theoretical account of, their fundamental principles and concepts. Would a fundamental theory of truth help us in the way that these theoretical accounts are meant to help the disciplines they apply to? The answer to this question is that...