The Vast Diversity of Truth Claims

Truth claims are made in many ways besides declarative sentences expressible as: Such-and-such is the case. Expanding, and probably distorting, Paul Grices’ notion of “conversational implicature*,” many human activities, verbal and non-verbal, are explicitly or implicitly, taken as representing reality.

It must be emphasized that these human activities are interpreted as representing reality as it is; not only as it ought to be. There is little doubt that activities such as story telling are taken as giving moral and practical advice.

I am thinking primarily of literature: short stories, novels, sagas, poetry and sacred texts. Of course, good literature meets aesthetic standards by virtue of which it is entertaining and beautiful. Because of what it shows about the human condition literature implies all sorts of advice – both wise and foolish. It also is frequently taken as informing us of the human condition. Such information is crucial because few of us could ever have the experiences of the ways of being human which we learn from literature. And if literature can tell us the truth, it can also lie. For instance, stories of “hardboiled detectives” falsely represent how men are.

What I have written astounds me. After living most of my life in a university setting, I have finally realized that literature departments are in the service of truth. They are not merely charting the history and techniques of verbal entertainments. (I may have been inflicted with a implicit bias of philosophy departments.)

I now hold : Literature expresses significant truths which can be expressed only by literature.

This means, for instance, that there cannot be a short summary of a few sentences which expresses the truth presented by “The Brothers Karamazov.” There cannot be a paragraph, or indeed a book, presenting the truth of the Bible. You have to read the whole text, or much of it, to realize the truth proclaimed. Much, indeed most, of the text does not present these truths. Much else needs to be presented to make the text literature. Hence, the truth claims cannot be explicitly separated from the context of all that is written.

I am sure that some truths can be expressed only in a story but are not expressed if the story is boring. Sentimentality may prevent a poem from bringing us to realize a truth. Some factual errors might provide the proper setting for presenting a Biblical truth.

Now that I have given up the notion that there is some ideal language for representing what exists, I am also setting aside the notion that language is necessary for representing what exists. Humans can represent, and misrepresent, what exists in ways that cannot be re-expressed in any words. Music, painting sculpture, architecture, may, in part, be representations of what is. Truth claims go beyond the limits of language.

* An implicature is something the speaker suggests or implies with an utterance, even though it is not literally expressed. Implicatures can aid in communicating more efficiently than by explicitly saying everything we want to communicate.