Theory of Knowledge
Can literature “tell the truth” better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?
February 20, 2006
Word Count: 1600
Even as children, people are on a never-ending quest for “the truth.” Anyone who has witnessed a toddler incessantly ask his mother “Why?” can attest to that. Writers, artists, and scientists all have methods of finding “truth” and telling it to others. While the standards for what truth can be vary between Areas of Knowledge, no Area of Knowledge is significantly more capable of telling the “truth” than another. Since each area is strictly a human enterprise, they all face difficulties created by human nature, which makes them all equally capable (or incapable) of telling the truth.
Before the effectiveness of different Areas of Knowledge in conveying truth can be evaluated, however, it is necessary to define truth, or rather, to clarify its nature. Typically, people rely on their senses, observations, and information taken from sources they believe to be reputable to learn of the truth. History has shown repeatedly, though, that “common sense,” authority, and consensus gentium are not always the most reliable methods of obtaining truth. For instance, from the 2nd century until the l6th century, people believed in the Ptolemaic system with the Earth as the center of the universe and all of the planets and stars revolving around it.1 The idea also corresponded well with people’s personal observations of the Earth as stable and the stars and planets as moving and was even supported by the Catholic Church. Today, however, we know (or at least, we think we know), that the Ptolemaic system is incorrect and that the Earth and other planets in our solar system revolve around the sun. What people thought to be true back then because of “obvious” reasons turned out to be false after all.
Can there ever be an absolute truth then? And if there is, is there any way for man to know it and to be certain that he knows? For the foreseeable future, or for possibly all eternity, I believe that absolute truth, if it exists, is beyond our grasp. After all, humans have too many limitations, such as senses that can be deceived. There is no way for humans to know with absolute certainty that what they believe is true, even if it is true. There always exists the possibility that what we believe to be the truth is not actually the truth. Furthermore, beliefs, experience, and other factors cause different people to have different truths. A psychotic thinks his delusions are true, but sane people tend to believe otherwise.
Outside the realm of philosophy, however, this concept of a lack of an absolute truth becomes impractical and cumbersome. As C.S. Peirce said, “Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”2 Thus, when addressing the ability of literature, other Arts, and other Areas of Knowledge in conveying truth, truth must be thought of in a different, pragmatic way. The standards set for truth can change, though, across Areas of Knowledge.
In literature (in reference to novels, poetry, and other writings aside from scientific and historical nonfiction literature), the author tries to convey his own truth. That is, the message or the “truth” of the work is tied inexorably to what the author believes to be the truth, and thus is subject to all the factors that have influenced the author. Many great works of literature illustrate this idea, such as “Master Harold”…and the Boys. If Athol Fugard had had a different life where he had not acted wrongly towards his childhood friend and felt guilty for the racist act afterwards, his masterpiece would have had a decidedly different view on the “truth” of racism. The same idea holds true for authors within the magic realism genre of literature, such as Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Isabel Allende. In their culture, events such as people levitating in the air are considered perfectly natural. What others outside of their culture think of as figments of their imaginations, they think of as reality and as the truth. As such, truth in literature varies from one author to another.
Truth also varies in this way in other Arts. An artist, like a writer, tries to convey his insights about the world. No matter how he does it, it is he who decides what the truth of his work is. As a result, other arts are like literature in that everything affecting the artist affects the “truth” of the work. The question then is whether literature or other arts are better at conveying what the creator believes to be true. Both face the same problem here in that they are open for interpretation by the audience. Thus, the viewer or listener’s background, beliefs, and other variables play into how well the artist’s “truth” can be told. Two different people can read the same novel or look at the same painting and uncover different truths. For instance, the book The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald ends with the line, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”3 An optimistic reader may gather from this line and the rest of the novel that Fitzgerald is emphasizing the “truth” that perseverance in the face of difficulties may be difficult but is necessary, while a more pessimistic reader may think Fitzgerald is revealing that some of humanities’ efforts are just futile and worthless. Some may even say that other arts face even more difficult problems in this respect because the artist does not write down his/her message, but must instead convey it indirectly by invoking feelings. This “problem” with other arts, however, is actually dependent upon the audience. For instance, a concerto is much more likely to be able to “tell the truth” to a child with a limited vocabulary than a Charles Dickens’ novel is.
It may be countered, though, that other arts have an advantage over literature in that they need not be translated for various cultures. It is difficult to translate and capture the essence of a literary masterpiece (especially with poetry) because words have connotations that may not translate into other languages. In some cases, the word does not even exist in another language. For instance, the Portuguese word saudade has no equivalent in English because no English word carries the same amount of emotion.4 Other Arts, however, actually do face this same intercultural challenge because symbols or sounds vary in meaning from one culture to another. The color red symbolizes good luck to the Chinese and permeates their artwork. In some parts of Africa, however, red is strictly a religious symbol that cannot even be worn on clothing. As such, a piece of art that uses the color red heavily and whose message is not clearly evident may be interpreted in different ways. Therefore, both literature and other Arts face the same problems when it comes to the audience and their interpretations. That is not to say, however, that neither literature nor other Arts have a great influence on the masses; often times, it is exactly the opposite. It is highly unlikely, though, that literature and other arts are always able to successfully “tell the truth,” or in this case, what the writer or artist believes is the truth, to everyone.
The natural sciences, however, differ from literature and other arts when it comes to the truth. The “truth” in science cannot be taken as the scientist’s individual truth, as it can be with the author or poet or artist, but must rather fit set standards. The scientist’s biases and prejudices must be taken into account and other scientists have to critically evaluate the evidence before any research can be considered to be “true.” Science faces a problem with truth, however, when it comes to interpreting data. Scientists are able to legitimately ignore some variables in their studies, such as whether or not the participants in a study of how effective a new treatment for cancer is have blue or brown eyes. Other variables are simply beyond their control though, and may affect the outcome of the study, like the diets of the aforementioned participants. These variables affect not only the research, but also whether or not people believe the results. Some may see the inability to control the patients’ diets as a reason to invalidate some conclusions. Furthermore, different people can interpret the same data and come to two conflicting conclusions. There are people who look at the same environmental data as others and still surmise there is no such thing as global warming. Since science is unable to successfully tell everyone the same “truth,” just like the Arts, it must thus progress in the direction believed to be the most truthful.
Some people may argue, however, that the Arts are still better at revealing the truth than the sciences because people must have specific scientific knowledge to obtain truth in the sciences. The Arts, however, also require work and knowledge on the audience’s part. The audience must read between the lines and make inferences, since the writer or artist rarely explicitly states what “the truth” is.
While literature, other Arts, and the sciences have different standards for what can be considered to be the truth, none is more effective than the other at telling the truth. Each must face problems inherent in human nature in conveying their messages and none of these problems can easily be addressed. Nevertheless, none of these Areas of Knowledge should be discarded as methods for communicating truth. Instead, people must individually and collectively evaluate every work or study on its own merits to attain a better grasp of “the truth.”
Farrell, Patrick. (2004). Portuguese Saudade and Other Emotions of Absence and Longing. Semantic Primes and Universal Grammar. Empirical Findings from the Romance Languages, ed. by Bert Peeters, Amsterdam and Philadelphia.
Fitzgerald, F.S. (1925). The Great Gatsby. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Magee, B. (1998). The Story of Philosophy. New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.
Peirce, C.S. (1868). Some Consequences of Four Incapacities. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 2, 140-157.