8. Narrative, Myth, Lies and Truth


The situation underlying this essay is that the most pressing problems of truth begin as a matter of metaphysics and of logic (and language) in particular, but then expand into the realm of applications, or what is sometimes termed ‘applied philosophy’. Much of twentieth century philosophising on the topic, amongst those of analytical bent such as Quine and Davidson or even Wittgenstein as well as the more radically ‘post-modernist’, has been spurred on by a metaphysical wonder about whether our understanding of reality is sufficiently clearcut to sustain a sharp distinction between reality as we find it and our thoughts, knowledge, or beliefs about that reality, which any straightforward ‘correspondence’ theory of truth (about reality) seems to require. But whilst some academic arguments about the nature of truth per se may stay with the metaphysical issue when debating the merits and weaknesses of the classical truth theories – correspondence to reality, coherence with belief systems, semantic, and so on – the broad issue does not remain confined to metaphysics. The so-called ‘post-modernists’ themselves appear to shift the matter into the field of applications when they challenge scientific truth as having turned out not to be an independent presence or standard, but rather itself an ideology. Unfortunately, they are then inclined to imply we need not be concerned about either metaphysics or applications when they follow the lead of Feyerabend (1975) in suggesting that ‘truth’ might not really matter much after all. Yet it was the metaphysical issue which led to what has come to be known as the ‘deflationary’ view about truth, a view put by A. J. Ayer (1936 [1971]) together with other exponents of Logical Positivism – in this regard on similar lines to post-modernism (sic!) – which held that to say that something is ‘true’ is of no informative value.1 Ayer had illustrated this point with the example that that to say ‘It’s true that Queen Anne is dead’ adds nothing to simply saying ‘Queen Anne is dead’. In general, the deflationary view is that a true proposition is simply one which, so to speak, ‘says it like it is’ and does nothing else, so that truth has no special essence or nature beyond that.

Before proceeding, a short point of explanation: Generally I prefer the term ‘statement’ to Ayer’s choice of ‘proposition’ to denote what purports to be an item of information (and purports to be true) because ‘proposition’ usually implies a claim which the speaker or writer intends to argue and justify, whereas ‘statement’ can contain a simple point of information or else some belief or idea which I happen to hold to be true but have no intention of trying to justify to others. Whilst either term can express a belief, if we think in terms of statements it is easier to bear in mind that truth or untruth can apply to any belief whether it is being expressly justified through arguing one or more propositions or not. Either may take the form of a complete sentence, or even more than one sentence, in natural language although a statement in particular can easily take the form of a clause or phrase within a sentence. (Tarski’s semantic theory takes sentences as truth bearers but other truth theories confer that role to propositions or statements.) Now, some philosophers including Strawson (1950) and Habermas (1981) have attempted to give the deflated idea of truth more substance through the notion of evocative or ‘illocutionary’ force given to a statement by ascribing truth to it. In this interpretation ascribing truth to a statement gives no additional information beyond whatever the statement itself says, but it expresses an evocative force or commitment which means the statement is more likely to be accepted and believed. Unfortunately, although illocutionary force has such importance especially for emphasis or rhetorical purposes, that very force can be said to depend upon a general sense that truth is important for its own sake, so that the ascription of truth to a statement is commonly felt to have some special significance which the simple statement alone does not convey. My argument in this essay and elsewhere is that a special significance for truth can indeed be shown, but it is not a matter of additional information relating to the statement or sentence in question and, moreover, it takes us outside the realm of theory about the nature of truth and into thinking about applications ranging from science to story telling.

In thinking about truth in general it might be useful to think in terms of its reference being like a chameleon which can point its attention in two different directions at the same time. One of those directions, direction B, is toward the item of information; be it a statement, phrase, sentence, or proposition, which is claimed to be true. Now, if I am thinking only of my own point of view as issuing the information which, naturally, I am asserting to be true – so that assertion may be taken as implicit – then the deflationist argument that to say ‘is true’ adds nothing to what I am saying is unanswerable. That remains the case whether I sincerely believe what I am saying or not, since in any event I am staking the claim that it is true and the language reflects that. But when the viewpoint is shifted from my own so that someone else’s item of information, be it statement, phrase, sentence, or proposition, is under consideration, then the characterisation ‘is true’ or ‘is not true’ gains a new kind of importance because attention is now focused on the other direction, direction A, of truth’s reference. Ayer himself had come close to showing this point when he said that asking about truth amounts to asking how propositions (statements, beliefs, etc.) are to be ‘validated’. Validation was clearly understood to be about demonstrating that the information, and therefore the source of the information (speaker, writer, or whatever), is entitled to acceptance or agreement from other people. Ayer pointed out that for empirical statements or beliefs validation is not purely, or maybe not at all, a matter of formal reasoning such as can suffice for mathematical or logical theorems. So, once attention is turned in direction A by being given to the source of information rather than just to the statement itself, we find that although an addition of ‘it is true that’ or ‘is true’ to what is said adds no information to, for instance, ‘Queen Anne is dead’, that addition can be seen as verifying (as Ayer might put it) that the information source is reliable, i.e., trustworthy.

However, direction B of reference for truth also plays its part in the verification process by providing what can be seen as a ‘reality check’ for the information concerned. That seems to lead back to some form of correspondence to reality theory for truth, at least so far this perspective is concerned. But I have suggested elsewhere (Essay 10) that the philosophical problems which arise if we talk of our thoughts and statements of belief ‘corresponding’ to anything in the external world may be reduced, or even removed, if instead we think of thoughts and statements (items of information I am giving to others both about my beliefs and about the world as I find it) as more or less accurate representations of reality, not as alleged parts of reality itself. Such an approach would have the merit of begging fewer questions about the nature of reality.

One of advantages of this dual perspective approach to truth is that attention is drawn to the problem of securing an independent witness to any observations which I may claim have made and to be reporting, a problem which deflationist accounts of truth seem to ignore. In the traditional picture from Enlightenment rationalism (really empiricism) scientific truth in particular provides an independent witness just because the phenomena it observes can be shown by experiment to be present to us – as part of ‘reality’ – and so the trustworthiness of what science has to say does not depend upon the personal character and interests of the witness. In terms of the analysis above direction A of truth’s reference appears to end with an especially reliable information source. The practical relevance of that picture comes clear with forensic science, for example, with the contribution to justice depending upon precisely the trustworthiness science claims to hold. That means that a strong suit in post-modernist argument is to question that trustworthiness of the scientific witness to truth by noticing the growing problems with sheer scale and expense of certain types of work (especially in physics) and the political and commercial exigencies of funding for research. In certain high profile cases the reliability of forensic evidence has been seriously challenged. Science seeks demonstration of reliable witness where possible through repeatable experiment (which can be done by different people at different times), or in case of particular events like volcanic eruptions by attempting to identify the conditions in which similar events may be expected to occur again in the future (one aspect of scientific prediction). But for many instances of relevance to ethics, law, and everyday life generally, we have to deal with specific events and actions which, by their nature, cannot be tested with repeated experiment and may not be predictable simply by reference to past cases and similar conditions thereto. In some cases like child abuse it may be possible to use inductive reasoning to say that a particular case was more or less likely under certain (say) social or economic conditions or with certain types of person, but that is the very most that could be said. Very often the only kind of witness available to a court of law, for example, is someone who happened to observe particular actions and events relevant to the case or who can provide documents relevant to that case, and then the judge, jury, magistrate, tribunal, or whoever has to make a specific judgement as to how credible or reliable, i.e., how trustworthy, the witness is. Professional qualifications or broad character assessments can help, but experience makes clear that none such guarantee a trustworthy witness. But in any such case ‘validation’ of the witness’ statements, i.e., asking about their truth, means making a judgement of the witness’ personal credibility if no corroborating evidence is available. The issue of deliberate deception will be taken up later in this essay.

Narrative and myth

Recently some philosophers such as MacIntyre (1981) have taken up the theme of the part narrative, i.e., story telling, plays in ethics and sustaining an ethical culture, but the indirect and subtle relation which story telling has to the problems of truth and vice-versa, and from there of each to ethics, has received scant attention. I hope it will be understood that the relation between story telling and truth is an ethical issue in its own right which deserves further exploration. It has been felt but rarely stated explicitly that insofar as ethical values and principles may be taught and supported through story telling there is a need for the stories to bear some kind of truth, or relationship to truth, otherwise the ethics themselves are compromised. When this question of truth is considered in relation to ethical teaching in religious stories we begin to see one of the most pressing problems of ethics and morality in contemporary societies. A first step in thinking about this is to look at the difference between the ‘true story’ from other kinds of narrative, notably myth and fiction. A ‘true story’ is supposed to be witnessed; whether by a ‘personal story’ or through investigation by historians, journalists, and so on, accessing documentary, photographic and other physical evidence as well as individual witness statements. Just as important is that the reader, viewer, or listener is supposed to be told if certain embellishments have been made for dramatic purposes, or if certain characters and/or events have been omitted from the story as narrated owing to pressures of time and space in the narrative presentation. At this stage, it may be noted that one of the apparent strengths of a simple ‘correspondence’ theory of truth is that it seems to account simply and easily for what is being witnessed in a true story; i.e., that the events and feelings put across in the narrative correspond to events which actually took place in the historical frame of time and place stated in the story, and the feelings expressed correspond to the feelings of the actual characters involved in the story being narrated. It should also be noticed that a narrative can be seen as consisting of a sequence of statements which are linked together by those common themes, characters, and events forming part of the story being narrated as the statements are made in whatever sequence the narrator chooses for highlighting the story as a whole. So the statements may not be arranged in simple chronological order if the narrator chooses to arrange them by certain themes, or by particular characters, or to use dramatic devices like flashbacks or diversions, or to intersperse with pieces of relevant background information. Any or all of these methods can be used in telling a ‘true story’ provided it is understood that the statements are both individually true and between them amount to a true narrative or story.

The true story thus represents a different kind of narrative from myths and fiction, usually in aesthetic terms but certainly also in relation to truth. But the latter kinds of narrative form a complex case, since we find a continuum ranging all the way from pure invention with no ostensible relation to ‘real’ situations, characters, or events, to stories which are thought to express or represent something in the external world: be it certain kinds of situations and human relationships, or certain values, ideals, and aspirations. The notions of myth and legend apply especially to stories handed down from the past, in the oldest cases orally before being written down. The stories contained within myths are often legends, but they are in some way evocative through the principles or themes like heroic challenge and family saga which they may present. Now, it has been commonplace for the myths to embody cultural identities, but especially in the case of religious stories they will also make universal claims. In the Bible the combination of presenting Jewish history and culture with setting universal precepts (including the proper relation to non-Jews) is especially obvious just because most of the Bible’s books are also narratives; in the Qoran the emphasis is on stating and explaining God’s intentions rather than story telling so that the Arabic cultural expression is present, but more implicit. However, an essential feature of myths and the legends they contain is that even if they are not necessarily seen as literal truth, even by those inspired by them, they will be felt to contain truth about the human condition and valuable wisdom for how we should conduct ourselves in various situations. That was already the case, for example, with pagan legends and sagas where explicit ethical instruction did not appear. But the point is most obvious with the Decalogue in which the deity gives explicit commands to his followers, and subsequently a Covenant is made between God and his people; here values are not merely represented but stated and instructed. In recent times archaeological investigation has provided a degree of actual confirmation for some legends, including of the ancient Jewish presence in Egypt, as having a basis in historical fact. That emphasises that the stories never were purely fictional, even if they are not ‘true stories’ in the normally understood sense, but it may make little difference to the way they are felt to contain more general, or deeper, truths.

This last point has a bearing on some examples of actual fictional narratives. For instance, certain novels such as Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings have been able to acquire a certain mythic status, despite being penned as fiction, because they could generate the evocative power of legendary stories to convey emotions and experiences which many people feel able to relate to. These stories are not at all ‘true stories’ in the strict sense, since their characters and narrated events are purely the authors’ creations, but anyone might be able to connect with the experiences of fear, loss, betrayal, friendship, and so on which appear in the stories or, indeed, with the forms of social and family life they portray (including how that differs from contemporary experience). So, even fictional narratives as well as legends may be capable of ‘containing’ truth in the sense of representing or illustrating truths despite their specific narrative not being ‘true’ at all. A different way in which this may happen is through, for instance, historical novels using fictional characters and incident, but within an historical setting confirmed to be accurate and even underpinned with elements of factual information. Tolstoy went so far as to use War and Peace to explain and illustrate his theory of history alongside the interwoven set of stories he was telling. Another form of this underpinning of fiction with truth, and sometimes even specific facts, which has emerged especially in the twentieth century has been science fiction stories which attempt to illustrate scientific or technical ideas and social possibilities.

Implications for truth theory

It has been a natural outcome of the discussion so far to employ, by implication, some kind of ‘correspondence’ theory of truth whereby whatever ‘truth’ each particular narrative may be thought to contain within it, or represent to us, seems to correspond to one or more of the following categories: (i) Certain sequences of actual historical events and ‘real’ characters who actually existed within the location and historical time frame of the story. Such correspondence, and witness to that correspondence, is expressly asserted in the case of ‘true stories’ but may also be seen to exist, at least in part, in the case of myth and legend. This kind of correspondence does not occur at all in fiction, except to the very limited extent of some cases where factual material is used to provide a background and setting for the story. (ii) Certain kinds of events or situations in which people may find themselves (or may have found themselves in the past), together with the emotions these events or situations might be expected to arouse. A narrative can be felt by its audience to express these, alike in practical and emotional terms, so that regardless of whether it describes a specifically ‘true’ story it seems to correspond to what people can in fact experience in their own lives (or imaginations). This looser kind of correspondence is only accidentally applicable to the true story as such, but it can be found with any kind of mythical, legendary, or fictional narrative and, indeed, with dramatisations of ‘true’ stories in any medium. (It may be noted that the points made here are not intended to apply only to writing in books but to any relevant form of visual or literary story telling.) (iii) Representation of cultural values and beliefs. This form of correspondence should be distinguished from actual teaching, for instance of ethical principles, where a form of correspondence to the world external to the story teller is replaced by a form of imperative – be it example and guidance or actual command. In that case the connection believed to hold with truth is not in terms of correspondence with any events but in terms of the instructions themselves being found to provide worthwhile guidelines for how to live, how to develop spiritual life, and so on. That is to say, any correspondence will be with what people find valuable in their own experience, as distinct from the values which may be held by a particular community from which the story came. But correspondence in either of these forms can be found in myths and legends, and occasionally in fiction also, but only tangentally in actual true stories.

However, the possibility needs to be considered that, especially in cases of story telling other than the specifically ‘true story’ where the form of correspondence and what the narrative is supposed to correspond to are fairly clear, other theories of truth which have been advanced – often with mathematical and logical purposes in view – might turn out to provide a closer fit to whatever ‘truth’ the story conveys than any correspondence theory would. This applies particularly to the semantic theories of truth, such as that of Alfred Tarski. To begin with, Tarski (1939, 1941, 1944) developed the idea of establishing an infinite conjunction of sentences, each of which is satisfied by a given definition of truth2. Tarski’s choice of the sentence as truth bearer, rather than the more usual choice of statement or proposition, actually facilitates a development in relation to narratives where the sentence, or even the line or stanza in a poem, is the medium for conveying the story or the body of thought and feeling which the narrative holds. Field (1986: 57) has further invoked in this connection the philosophical conception of ‘true’ sentences which no one will ever have grounds for accepting – in which ‘true’ is taken to be a device of infinite disjunction. Field gives as an example: ‘the [sentences say] that either the maximum number of brontosauruses that existed at any one time was 10,732, but no one will ever have grounds for accepting that; or that the total amount that Frank Sinatra has spent on shirts in is life is exactly $86,526.33, but no one will ever have grounds or accepting that; or…’ Each of these ideas can suggest a relation to narrative and perhaps especially to mythic story telling in a different way: Tarski meant his idea of a true sentence to correspond to existence in the external world, but in his system that correspondence depends upon the meaning allocated to each term in the sentence in any given language. Each language generates a definition of truth which is satisfied by an infinite conjunction of sentences. Although myth does not, of course, insist upon any precise definition of truth in a Tarskian sense it does incorporate a pattern of symbols and themes with each linguistic community, as well as each religion or, more recently, ideological group, having its own mythology. The symbols and themes are expressed in a given story and there is an infinite number of stories which could express the same pattern of each. At the same time, if we switch the semantic focus from a definition (of truth) which sets the pattern satisfied (in the mathematical sense) by each sentence to the sheer disjunction between sentences (or statements), there is clearly an infinite number of different stories which we may have no grounds to accept individually but for which their disjunction holds ‘true’. That would still apply even if certain criteria in terms of common themes like heroic legend or creation story were set for each story to count as an evocative myth of any particular type, such as might be sought in cross-cultural study of mythology or efforts to trace common ideas and principles between different religions. For example, Armstrong (1993, 2007) has contended that the world’s religions do contain certain common ideas across the gamut of religious cultures, and there is no limit in principle to the number of religions which could, each in its own way, express these same ideas. Accordingly, the cross-cultural comparison of mythic symbolisms and the ideas they express might be seen as analogous to Tarski’s idea of the meta-language which should contain all the sentences in each ‘object language’ containing a sequence of true sentences and within which it should be possible to talk about all the sentences in the object language.

In a slightly different way the relation between myth and semantic truth theory holds also for the version offered by W. V. Quine (1990), viz., truth as ‘disquotation’ or confirmation/affirmation (through meanings allocated in language) of a statement which otherwise is merely quoted or reported. In this case semantic truth theory does not merely describe a semantic pattern which can be met (satisfied) by sequences of sentences – or sequences of sets of sentences each comprising a story3 – which go to form a mythic pattern, but additionally describes a process of affirmation which may find a parallel in myth making. Even if the particular events and characters narrated in the mythic story do not correspond with any events and characters in a specific historical setting the myth provides a language for expressing what people feel to be certain essential truths, more effectively, indeed, than simply stating them in abstract terms. Thus the legend of Beowulf could express the idea that we cannot ignore truth indefinitely for it is liable to bite back at our deceptions. But for people living in an ancient Saxon culture a story relating the impact of this theme in the life of an individual character would seem to convey it more powerfully than any mere statment of the idea as a general observation. In such cases the language in the myth allocates a meaning corresponding to something in the external world, usually certain kinds of situations rather then specific ones, which people responding to a myth experience in their lives.

Although the so-called ‘redundancy theory’ of truth is not a semantic theory, consisting as it does rather of the argument referred to earlier that a declaration or affirmation of truth adds nothing to what is being said, that version of the redundancy theory which holds that the concept of truth is useful for indirect reference (such as ‘what they will say at tomorrow’s meeting is true’) points up a matter of especial significance for story telling. Story telling commonly works with indirect reference. That applies not only to indirect references of the kind illustrated above where something is referred to obliquely or where a witness to the truth of someone else’s statement is herself the direct import of what is being said (or written), but also to indirect reference to abstract ideas or principles like a ‘moral’. In the latter case, indeed, the claim to truth is itself made only indirectly and so is not abstracted from the story. This version of the redundancy theory is really a way of saying that that the essential purpose of a concept of truth is witness to… (events, conditions, or whatever)… but the latter kind of indirect reference reminds us that a witness may itself be indirect. But that in no way prevents us making judgements about the credibility of the witness just as we do in case of direct witness.

Deception and witness

The last point connects to the notion usually left implicit in exposition of established truth theories that a basic test for any theory of truth has to be how well it can accommodate the concept of lying, i.e., of deliberate deception, distortion, and falsehood, as distinct from mistake or misunderstanding. This test would tie the idea of truth in with problems of ‘applied philosophy’, that is to say, finding ways of making principles like truth telling applicable to practical problems. Naturally, that can include identification of cases where a moral requirement to tell the truth may be set aside for other needs, like avoiding unnecessary stress or hurt to others, and protecting fugitives from persecution. It may be noted that some such possible exceptions, like national security or protection of members of one’s family from suspicion of wrongdoing, are liable to be highly contentious – including politically. This is not a place to follow the question of (ethically) legitimate exceptions to truth telling in detail, but it makes all the clearer that if ability to accommodate a concept of deliberate deception really is important, then a theory of truth has to be sensitive to the need for a witness to ‘true’ statements, beliefs, stories, and so on.

To begin with, the difference between lying or deception in the ordinary sense and the so-called Liar Paradox first presented by Eubulides of Miletus in the fourth century BCE, needs to be noted. Many of the complex philosophical problems connected with the latter arise from the Liar being conceived as announcing herself as a liar or at least announcing her statements as lies. In the everyday case this does not happen, since the liar is attempting to pass off false or misleading statements as the truth, and for that reason, must be expected to employ the same language operations as any truth teller would. This leads on to three very crucial points:-

(i) Habermas (and perhaps Strawson) also claims that ‘facts’ can be seen as language dependent on the grounds that (a) operations of predication as well as denotation – and presumably also explanation, description, etc., – are operations in language, and (b) as our theory languages develop our stock of available statements and facts develops also. This claim must reckon with the liar. If the liar uses the same language operations as the truth teller, how do we distinguish between the (false) ‘facts’ the liar is telling us from whatever true ones the truth teller would be presenting, unless there is some non-linguistic criterion for defining a fact? Moreover, if we accept that development of theory language actually creates facts, just how does that differ from magic?

(ii) The myth maker and story teller is commonly not a deliberate deceiver, and even the notorious instance of Maurras’ mythic defence of Colonel Henry in the Dreyfus affair was probably thought of by the writer as proclaiming a ‘deeper’ truth about national identity for all that it did not correspond to actual happenings. But the story teller, like the ideologist, is frequently trying to persuade the listener or reader in a particular direction rather than simply to entertain, as, indeed, also frequently does the reporter of scientific fact. This naturally raises a question of trust which becomes the more acute if the story teller is seen in the light of Virgil in Augustinian Rome as providing an endorsement for a particular political order or position. In any final analysis the question arises: since the social and moral directions aimed at by story tellers are frequently highly contentious what alterative is there to a trial of strength between combatants over the social and moral directions unless the story teller can appeal to some kind of independent witness, a witness which rational determination of truth has been expected by many to provide?

(iii) The problem of making sense of deliberate lying and deception applies especially to semantic theories which ascribe ‘true’ and ‘truth’ to a structure or process which may in fact be copied by the liar. (Tarski’s own special interest had been the truth of sentences in mathematical language where the issue of lying and deception arises only as regards selection and interpretation of information4.) This problem appears in different ways with differing truth theories. If a ‘coherence’ theory of truth were to be understood as internal coherence of one’s statements, then it would have the problem that coherence may be practised by the liar as well as the truth teller, subject to the pragmatic point that it is hard for any but the most practised liars to remember coherently what they say. If, however, ‘coherence’ is understood in the manner more usual for truth theory, that is, that truth is what coheres with a specific belief system, then we may be able to understand lying and misrepresentation as deception about what is in fact believed, if nothing else. However, as Walker (1989) points out in a different context, the coherence theory then relies upon the existence of the belief system being an independent fact, as it were, which would after all have to be understood as a ‘truth’ corresponding with the ‘reality’ of the external world. In the case of Habermas’ discourse theory (sometimes called a consensus theory, in respect of the consensus to be achieved through rational discourse) Habermas himself is insistent that the discourse must be rational to lead to truth, a theme which highlights the close, although complex, relation between rationality and honesty. In the case of that theory the hardest problem may be the honest believer in ideas that most rational opinion does not accept, such as creationism or biological racism. But there is in any event no guarantee that a consensus, even an intellectual consensus, will not turn out to have been misled, as in the case of the Piltdown fraud which fooled expert opinion for some forty years after 1912. James’ pragmatism introduces a different kind of problem, which may also apply to Rorty’s notion of ‘true’ as being what fits the institutionalised scientific consensus. Presumably the ‘true’ is held to be verifiable in terms of the experience, or usefulness to as shown by that experience, of ‘society’ at large – leaving open the question of whether national, regional, or familial boundaries are chosen for defining ‘society’, or whether a global perspective is taken. This would be more effective in tackling the ordinary liar in personal situations, but it may fail through excluding constructive criticism of ideas found convenient to many people or to a broad consensus. That is, many instances of self-deception would be sanctioned by the pragmatic account of truth.

If, however, the concept of truth were to be confined to a purely logical role, for instance in the way Field (1986:58) interprets Quine’s theory of disquotation5, then a serious problem arises over the position of logic itself. The standard rules of logic are themselves judged according to the principle of truth (or falsity) preservation, which is precisely why contradiction is avoided at all costs in logical argument, and arrival at a contradiction is commonly considered a decisive refutation of any argument or theory, including in mathematics.6 This means there is a danger of vacuous circularity in any attempt to define truth in terms related solely to logical operations, when that concept is then to be used both for defining the ‘truth values’ which must either be held constant in cases of affirmation or reversed in cases of negation, and for assessing the consistency of reasoning itself. But, in addition to that problem, confining the concept of truth to a logical role only again deprives us of any way even to interpret the liar or deceiver, just because the deliberate liar must be expected to follow the same logical (and linguistic) processes as the truth teller. Accordingly, the apparent strength of a correspondence theory is that we are given a simple account of the distinction to be made between the liar and the truth teller, and indeed of error and misunderstanding. The difficulty in that case transfers on to the problems which may arise when we try to identify exactly what a true statement, belief, etc., is supposed to correspond to. The standard answer to that epistemological question given by, for example, Logical Positivism, would be either observed sense data or theorems proved by formal reasoning. Unfortunately there are many ways in which the results of sensual observation at least may be uncertain.7

A crucial question for addressing the problem of the deliberate liar or deceiver may be expressed: Can any given truth claims be witnessed by others apart from the individual or group making the truth claims? The significance of witness had found its way deep into mythology itself, especially in the case of the Biblical Gospel, whilst the calling of witnesses is an ancient practice in the context of law. It is the rarely explicit claim of science and rational determination of truth to be capable of supplying a more reliable witness than the story teller, except perhaps the teller of a specifically ‘true story’. When the question is moved on to that of selection between theories of truth the supplementary question arises: Which theories of truth are capable of accommodating and making sense of the idea of testing the distinction between the (deliberate) liar and the truth teller by recourse to some kind of trustworthy witness, if such can be found? It may be observed that the importance of this question is primarily for applications in ethics, law, science, art, logic, and so on, as distinct from sheer theoretical analysis. All fields of human endeavour, and indeed everyday life, depend upon some concept of truth, sometimes for specific investigation and more generally as a standard by which endeavour and inquiry may be judged. The sheer difficulty in philosophy of finding any definition of truth which is not problematical brings the ethical and other problems of contemporary culture into sharp relief.

An alternative to correspondence?

A recurring theme in the philosophical arguments about truth, as we have seen, is that a series of problems with traditional or modern correspondence theories have been exposed, and yet none of the proffered alternatives comes without grave difficulties. Each of these alternatives has peculiar difficulties of its own, but the problem which applies more generally with them is that of how to show up, or even account for, the deliberate liar and deliberate deception when in a practical context showing up the liar is itself one of the prime functions of a concept of truth. As mentioned above, in the case of pragmatism that problem shifts to the more subtle form of difficulty with understanding or showing self-deception and cases of wider refusal to ‘face facts’ within a society. Now, when truth is thought of in that light and then in relation to story telling, we find the problem of how to unmask the liar confronts any story telling other than either the ‘true story’, which relies upon a correspondence interpretation of truth in any case, or the fiction of pure entertainment which eschews any form of teaching, instruction, or special understanding whatsoever. (Both of these are, of course, ideal types in the Weberian sense and perhaps no actual narrative would entirely conform to either of them.) Probably the commonest justification for the intermediate forms of story telling between those two extreme types, viz., myth or even outright fiction, is that they can show us ‘deeper’ truths which a simple factual description or analysis could not convey (for instance, to people without specialised knowledge). The writers who formed part of what O’Hear (1999) has called the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ in the eighteenth century gave this sort of justification for religious stories and beliefs and also for communal and national myths. More recently A. N. Wilson (2008) has advanced a similar argument, as well as arguing that with the First World War belief in many national myths and the Christian stories collapsed, removing the underpinning for Western culture. But we may actually understand contemporary anomie better if we take on board the point that the semantic theories of truth which appear better able than correspondence theories to account for an ability of certain forms of story telling to express at least some truths more effectively than simple factual description can, are at the same time unable to address lying and deception clearly and reliably. That is to say, they afford no reliable criterion for distinguishing the sincere and honest story teller, including myth maker, from the charlatan. We need not be surprised that many people, and many who are not academic specialists such as philosophers or sociologists, regard myths with grave suspicion and if they are given to understand that religions or communal solidarity is grounded on myths will assume it is, quite frankly, a fraud. That is all the more likely when contemporary historical and sociological studies have been so effective in exposing the social and political connections of myths from pagan religion to liberal progress. The myth maker is left struggling for a real defence against a charge of deception for interested purposes and therefore has no way to win trust.

The seemingly obvious way to deal with this conundrum would be to follow scientific rationalism and reject mythic culture altogether, presumably relying instead upon correspondence with observed fact or formal reasoning for our access to truth. But the weaknesses of correspondence theories of truth have been sufficiently exposed for this to be a dangerous recourse. Even from a strictly empiricist standpoint it is hard to confirm any objective (or trustworthy) knowledge of ‘states of affairs’, ‘reality’, or whatever, so as to ascertain just what true statements, beliefs, propositions, and so on are expected to correspond to, and, at least as important, what untrue or only partially true statements, beliefs, propositions, and so on are expected not to correspond to. Naturally, that point will apply also to any stories built up from sequences of supposed truth bearers.

Moreover, any idea of objective knowledge even in relatively uncontroversial forms like natural science has to take account of two matters which rational thought has found very difficult – although for differing reasons. First, any notion that we can know an objective ‘state of affairs’ or ‘reality’ through our observations then leads to argument over whether truths can be expressed and verified in any language. That latter claim cannot be entirely accepted, if only because a simple language without many technical terms could not express many ‘states of affairs’ or ‘facts’ which other languages can accommodate. But the very process of invention of technical terms (or ‘borrowing’ from other languages) demonstrates that it is more likely to be technical change which drives changes in the range of expressible facts than any development of language per se, and it appears that languages generally are flexible enough to accommodate the changing realities of objective truth. Second, we find a more difficult problem: namely, that there is no inherent reason in the empirical world or even in mathematics why rational thought and logic needs to keep to the principle of ‘bivalence’ according to which our truth bearers – statements, beliefs, propositions, and so forth – are to be treated as simply true or false, with no state in between these two. Quine (1990: 91-2) frankly points out that the principle of bivalence in classical logic is retained because it keeps things simple and relatively easy to work with. The attempts made, especially since the 1960s, to tackle the difficult and complex problem of constructing logical systems which can accommodate degrees of truth and falsity suffer, at least in the case of fuzzy logic, from specific logical problems about handling borderline cases between truth and falsity as well as contradictions and tautologies.8 But presumably, bearing in mind that some facts, as well as concepts, are vague there must presumably be some way, however difficult, to model rational thinking through problems and arguments involving vague and complex information just as classical logic models rational thinking through problems and arguments where information is precise.

What might, in any case, help with these difficult problems would be to think in terms of true statements, beliefs, propositions and the like not so much as ‘corresponding’ to anything in the external world as accurately representing whatever in the external world they purport to describe, explain, or whatever. Especially bearing in mind the simple philosophical point that an idea or concept is not in itself identical to anything in that external world; so for instance, the concept of ‘bear’ is not in itself covered with dense fur, and equipped with claws and ability to stand on its hind legs. To begin with, such an approach would still have the merit of permitting an account of both deliberate deception and misrepresentation of purported facts and of misunderstanding and simple mistake. That in turn still enables us to develop an account of independent or ‘unbiased’ witness to the veracity of whatever statements are made, so as to have the best antidote available to the deliberate liar problem.

Before summarising the possible advantages of thinking in terms of accurate representation of, rather than correspondence to, whatever elements in the external world a speaker or writer is claiming to convey to an audience, be they ‘states of affairs’, ‘events’, ‘conditions’, or whatever, possible objections to representation itself need to be looked at. Steve Woolgar (1989: 131-44), an extravagant exponent of the social critique of truth, has taken representation itself (not just scientific truth) to be an ideology. It would certainly be open to question this on the grounds that the classic conception of ‘ideology’ from Marx to date contains the idea of attempt to justify special interests and particular claims – purporting to be universal or moral in some sense – and it is hard to see how this could be present in mere textual representation, except in so far as any given text may be influenced by the usages of a particular language. Cui bono? But the deeper issue is that we already have, and always have had, alternatives to ‘factual’ representation in the forms of myth and poetry. It is the limitations of these, not least in the guise of religious texts, which could make empiricism and thence scientific truth seem more trustworthy as a witness. The Gospel itself illustrates a wider principle; that poetry commonly relies upon the witness of those, typically including the writer of poetry, already committed to the message and seems to ignore any possible witness from other sources. Perhaps the strongest suit in ‘post-modernism’ is to point out that science has now come in many cases to suffer from the same problem. It is necessary only to think of examples like climate change or the health effects of abortion where science is invoked in particular arguments to see the point. A very good test of science’s continuing ability to provide the more trustworthy witness is now being played out in the battle between evolution theory and creationism. Perhaps the success of evolution theory with a wider popular audience will depend upon the ability of science to find a convincing account of the beginning of the process of life and its evolution, bearing in mind how many people continue to imagine that for something (including themselves) to have ‘meaning’ it must have a creative principle before it.

For purposes of the more limited question of whether accurate representation can offer a better understanding of the nature of truth than the more traditional correspondence theories can, there are three points in particular to notice. First, the case of deception illustrates that while it may be correct to distinguish as Strawson does between a ‘fact’ and anything in the real world, we still understand use of the word ‘fact’ to indicate an item in whatever is being stated or reported by the speaker or writer that is true, rather than untrue. That understanding implies that a statement can be a deliberate falsehood or misrepresentation, but when a fact is (accurately) stated or reported it conveys the truth. To think in terms of accurate representation makes it easier to take that relation between ‘fact’ and statement/reportage of the truth on board without suggesting, as a notion of ‘correspondence with the facts’ may do, that a stated fact is actually identical with something present in the external world, rather than merely indicating its presence.

Second, an analysis in terms of representation of, rather than correspondence to, something in the external world by a (true) statement may accommodate, and even help in understanding, the thesis partly illustrated by Ayer’s comments referred to earlier, i.e., the thesis of truth’s ‘transparency’. That is, the argument that, as Kalderon (1997) puts it: ‘If one possesses the concept of truth, then to assert, believe, inquire whether it is true that S just is to assert, believe, inquire whether S (and conversely)’. Sometimes in Logical Positivism, and perhaps some varieties of ‘postmodernism’ also, transparency has been interpreted as meaning that the ascription ‘true’ has no significance and ‘truth’ no content. But what thinking in terms of representation helps to draw attention to (and a correspondence notion can be actually misleading here) is that the reference of ‘true’ or ‘truth’ in a sentence/statement is not to anything in the external world, not even that which is being described or explained in a statement to which truth is being ascribed, but to what the speaker or writer says about the item(s) in the outside world referred to in the statement. Hence, ‘true’ and ‘truth’ refer back to the speaker/writer and what she says, rather than forward to elements of the outside world. For example, in a sentence of the kind ‘What Fred says about X is true’, it is X that refers to something in the external world whereas ‘true’ refers to ‘What Fred says about’ and delimits whether this is an accurate representation of X. Accordingly, there is no need to suppose that ‘true’ is not telling us anything important, but it tells us something about the witness, Fred, rather than anything about the outside world that the statement itself does not already tell us.

Third, taking the idea of ‘true’ and ‘truth’ to be about accurate representation of elements in the external world can lend itself better than the idea of correspondence would, to accepting degrees of uncertainty or vagueness in what is being said or written. It is more clearly understandable what degrees of accuracy or inaccuracy in representing something means than (say) ‘degrees of correspondence’ to something would mean. That at least makes it easier to recognise a place for the insights of both Zadeh and Rorty, even if specific problems about dealing with uncertainty remain. Provided the focus of truth analysis as applied philosophy remains upon the practical need for as reliable a witness as it is possible to obtain, the warning of Rorty (1991) against supposing that philosophy could stand back from the direct relation between our words and representational statements and the world can still be respected. Further, with a conception of partial accuracy and inaccuracy in representation it is simpler to include the recognition that deception commonly works by making statements, and perhaps basing arguments upon them, which are partly true, and then trying to conceal the inaccuracies or misleading implications they convey. Much partisan propaganda notoriously works in that fashion.

Fourth, a more speculative, but possible, advantage of the representation approach over correspondence is that it that it may help in understanding those forms of story telling which are neither simply a ‘true story’ nor simply invention for purposes of entertainment but may honestly try to tell us certain things about the way we live our lives and deal with the world around us. A story teller has the opportunity to convey more sharply what it is like to experience a particular kind of situation: for example, escaping a forced marriage or working through complex financial dealings using global communications, than factual reporting or sociological analysis, however accurate, can. It would seem worth showing the difference between the story teller who is able to relate the personal experience and either deceptions or misleading propaganda of any kind. It would be more reasonable, and even more aesthetically satisfying, to interpret the advantage the story teller may have over factual reportage or intellectual analysis in terms of a better representation of, or portrayal of, an individual person’s situation and feelings about her situation. That avoids the problems with claiming that anything the story teller says corresponds more closely to the ‘reality’ of (say) forced marriages or complex financial dealing than a factual account or intellectual analysis of that kind of situation, without the perspective of an individual character in a story, would do. There is no reason to suppose the latter claim to be valid at all.


1. Some other members of the Logical Positivist movement, notably the Austrian philosopher and sociologist Otto Neurath who rejected epistemology, were known for taking a still more radical position on minimising the significance of ‘true’ and ‘truth’ than Ayer himself ever did.

2. Tarski insisted on leaving the concept of satisfaction (employed in a way resembling the algebraic notion of those values of a variable which ‘satisfy’ an equation, for instance) as the one semantic concept not to be already defined in terms of truth. Instead, satisfaction would be defined solely in physical and logicomathematical terms. Tarski thought the definition of satisfaction must have a separate clause for each predicate in a given language – so to satisfy ‘x is cold’ a room must be cold; to satisfy ‘x is wide’ the room must be wide, and so on – the reason being that satisfaction of ‘x is cold’ is a different concept from satisfaction of ‘x is wide’. This shows how ideas of infinite sequences of objects and infinite conjunction of statements (or sentences) emerge in Tarski’s semantic truth conception, as he preferred to call it (rather than theory).

3. Interestingly, Tarski allowed that set theory could form part of the (mathematical) meta-language, and that has been the most usual approach in subsequent developments of his semantic theory of truth.

4. In everyday life, selection of information given in mathematical language can be as simple as highlighting of minimum prices in an advertisement or as complex as the now notorious practice of ‘securitisation’, or packaging of securities, some far riskier than others, into formats where the less favourable data would be obscured. It always depends on particular cases how misleading such selections of mathematical information, orinterpretations of statistical data which may depend upon such factors as selection of base dates, inclusion and exclusion of data, recognition of false correlations, and so on, may actually turn out to be.

5. In view of Quine’s (1990) explanation of disquotation as amounting to removal of quotation marks from a proposition or statement, I would suggest that his theory of truth is better understood as incorporating a measure of specific affirmation beyond simply a conjunction of sentences such as ‘if x is “snow is white” then snow is white’, and so on.

6. Perhaps only the so-called ‘pragmatic’ theory of truth might, in principle, dispense with the logical requirement to avoid contradiction. However, since James, Pierce, and Rorty endorsed scientific method and the rules of logic as working well for their purposes, the dispensation is more theoretical than real. A coherence theory for truth would retain the requirement to avoid contradiction, but may limit that to consistency with certain beliefs accepted within a community.

7. The sheer difficulty of precisely accurate observation is probably more relevant for Rorty’s attempt to develop a notion of fuzziness in truth itself than to the concept of ‘fuzzy’ set membership developed by Zadeh and other exponents of ‘fuzzy logic’.

8. Alternative ways of addressing vagueness to fuzzy logic, including ‘supervaluationism’ and Williamson’s epistemic approach, may have serious problems of their own. It has been argued against supervaluationism by Andrew Cullinson that if a sentence like ‘Smith is bald’ doesn’t have a determinate truth value then empirical research to test (say) a treatment for baldness is ruled out from being able to generate results (expressed in sentences) with a determinate truth value. Again, I have argued against the epistemic approach that in many, if not all, cases of vague concepts (as distinct from vague information) the issue is that we have not decided on precise boundaries, as in the case of ‘foetus’ and ‘person’ re abortion, rather than that we do not know what these boundaries are. It would appear that as things stand we have yet to find a really satisfactory method of extending the scope of logic to deal with vagueness and uncertainty, and therefore to model how we can think rationally about uncertain and vague problems. But research on this topic is continuing, as illustrated by Ka Fat Chow’s proposal of a ‘semantic model’ which would combine features of fuzzy and supervaluation theory.


1. Cf.Armstrong, Karen, (1993), A History of God, Random House. —- (2007), The Great Transformation, The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah; Vintage Canada.

2. Ayer, Alfred J., (1936 [1971]), Language, Truth, and Logic, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London; [Penguin Books].

3. Cullinson, Andrew, ‘The Rogaine Argument Against Supervaluationism’, http://andrewcullinson.com/2008/06/.

4. Feyerabend, Paul, (1975), Against Method, New Left Books, London.

5. Field, Hartry, (1986), ‘The Deflationary Conception of Truth’, Fact, Science, and Morality, Essays on A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth, and Logic, Graham Macdonald & Crispin Wright (eds.), Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

6. Habermas, Jurgen, (1981), Theorie des Kommunikativen Handelns, Suhrkampf, Frankfurt am Main, [English, 1984, 1987].

7. Kalderon, M. E., (1997), ‘The Transparency of Truth’, Mind, 106 (423): 475-497.

8. MacIntyre, Alasdair, (1981), After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana.

9. O’Hear, Anthony, (1999), After Progress, Bloomsbury.

10. Quine, W. V., (1990), The Pursuit of Truth, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

11. Rorty, Richard, (1991), ‘Representation, Social Practice, Truth’, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, Philosophical Papers I, Cambridge University Press, 151-161.

12. Strawson, P. F., (1950), ‘Truth’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society.

13. Tarski, Alfred, (1939), ‘On Undecidable Statements in Enlarged Systems of Logic and the Concept of Truth’,The Journal of Symbolic Logic, Vol IV, 105-112. — (1941), Introduction to Logic, New York. — (1944), ‘The Semantical Concept of Truth and the Foundations of Semantics’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 4, 341-75.

14. Wilson, A. N., (2008), Our Times, Hutchinson,London, 6-9, 13-20 passim, 228-41, 420-1.

15. Woolgar, Steve, ‘The Ideology of Representation and the Role of the Agent’, Dismantling Truth, Hilary Lawson & Lisa Appignanesi (eds.), Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, London.