Truth? What is truth?

I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the words ‘insight’ and ‘insightful’ frequently lately. I’ve found them to be very useful terms, as they suggest that something essential has been revealed without tying this essential something down to something scientifically verifiable. When you want to say that a person has said something valuable but you don’t want to get embroiled in matters of objective truth, ‘insightful’ is the description to go for.

Insight has some interesting properties. The fact that it exists as an idea, and the way the word is used, show that we think it is possible for a person to see inside an issue and draw out a special, revealing aspect of that issue through talent or intuition. On the other hand, if we attribute insight to a person, it means we recognise that thing they have found out as being valuable – it strikes a chord in us.

This relationship is seen in the relationship of reader to writer in literature. The writer tells us something that is not verifiably true – it is in the context of fiction after all – and yet we recognise that something is described of which we already have some awareness, in the depths of our minds somewhere. The author makes it explicit. Of course insight is only one of the gifts a writer can have. There was a recent article in Brain Pickings that identifies memory as another, here.

Why have I been using the word ‘insight’ so much? Maybe I’m scared of the word ‘true’. There is clearly a link between saying something with insight and saying something true. However, I was reminded recently that ‘truth’ is a disputed concept. There was a long conversation on twitter disputing it, which if you are interested you can trace by looking at my twitter feed around about 23/8/14 – @MarianRuthie. 

Inspired by this discussion I picked up the following book:



One of its selling points is that it can be read on a commute. Well I commuted from London to Birmingham without finishing it, and the commuter on the cover doesn’t stand much chance. But I can say that it starts well, by pointing out that truth, once the jealously guarded property of religion, has been rudely grabbed by science. So we are back to disputes.

Truth has been coveted by many, but is a slippery thing. I intend to review the book. If this slim volume gives me some insight into truth I will let you know.

22 thoughts on “Truth? What is truth?

  1. Is it that the author has the gift of insight, or is it that both the author and reader have insight, but that the author’s gift is in making it explicit – in putting it into words.

    Is being perceptive the same as being “insightful”? I have just read a biography of Britten in which the author on many occasions refers to a writer’s review as “perceptive”. Now is the author saying that the review matches his own insight, or that the thing perceived is new to him and he agrees with it. Or is this a case of “opinion” and therefore not “true”???

  2. Well, I’ve been thinking a bit more about this after hearing a review of the Turner exhibition which pointed out that his contemporaries thought the work (it’s his late work) was pretty rubbish. Nowadays, we might say it is insightful and perceptive work, because we can ‘read’ it with modern eyes that have been brought up with more abstract art than was around at the time (we’re also told it’s good). So we can see now that Turner was insightful, but it couldn’t be seen, by most, then. Does that mean it wasn’t insightful because the ‘world-view’ was not shared with the viewer? Is it just an opinion/belief now that “this work shows insight” or is the statement true? Could it be proved false? Do we need to ‘prove’ something for it to be true? So many questions.

    • What is it then that we need to “know”, that is “in the depths of our minds somewhere” (to quote ruthi), that enables us to appreciate art in the way that we do literature? Perhaps we need to agree first that in literature the insight concerns humanity; I am trying here to imagine a novel where a tree or a house is the main protagonist and of course it’s coming up as Lord of the Rings or Baba Yaga!

      • Hmm, interesting comment, JudeMary52.
        Do we only have insight in the realm of literature, because it concerns humanity, or can we have insight in other areas (eg in teaching, to bring in Karmala’s point)? Humanity comes into that too. Which begs us to ask about objective truth, as owned by rationality, and subjective insight. Is subjective insight owned by human experience, perhaps? And what’s the relationship with truth?

  3. Sometimes ‘an insight’ becomes an obsession. People can get so wrapped up in their ‘insights’ that they lose the ability to think around the subject and notice other ‘truths’ within it. I know this is not your phonics blog, but I think this applies particularly to synthetic phonics. The original insight into the need for phonics overtakes all the other aspects of reading until it becomes an ‘obsessive dogma’ for its proponents. They lose the objectivity and relaxed calmness to notice other factors and, because of this, their original insight loses value.

    • Thank you for your interesting comment, karmala123. You have pointed out an instance in which ideas about insight and truth might be able to comment on events in the everyday world. And there was me, worried that my blogpost was just a bit of navel-gazing on my part. It is interesting how these philosophical questions come up if you just nick the surface of our society, culture, or in this case, education systems.

      I agree that the defence of systematic synthetic phonics has become dogmatic in some cases. I think some people are convinced of its value and then just follow a party line supplied by others. There are also political and economic influences that have informed the way SSP has been introduced in England. You say that an initial insight has turned into a dogma, and this is very close, in miniature, to what is said in the book I linked to in the blog (or in the couple of chapters I have read)about the way rationality and religion have at different times claimed truth as their own domain. Perhaps the synthetic phonics ‘dogma’is an example of a particular insight being given the status of ‘the only possible truth’ to be said about an issue. ‘Truth’ can be an autocratic concept! Looking into the history of the adoption of SSP can, perhaps, inform a greater insight into its appropriate place in the teaching of reading.

      • It happens a lot with government ‘led’ initiatives. They see that something in working well for lots of people and decide that that makes it something which will work for everyone- which is never true. Synthetic phonics is a good example in education, in mental health they have done a similar thing with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and have decided that is the thing for people with depression. It can work well, it’s quick, and relatively formulaic, and it’s easy to understand the science behind it- which makes it easy to show how it works. Unfortunately that makes it easy to try and fit into a one-fits-all mould. However it probably wouldn’t work for the most severe depression, and it works on the idea that our thoughts causing depression are irrational, which is not always true.

        Earlier in the history of psychology it was more likely that people would be given ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) for the same sort of illnesses which would now get CBT. Well maybe not particularly humane it had evidence which showed that it did work. Psychologists still don’t really know why (which sort of makes me wonder why they tried it in the first place). It was dangerous though which makes me think about how going for other ‘proven’ ideas solely could prove dangerous. Maybe not physically as ECT can be, but on some other level e.g. patients not getting the treatment which suits them, children not learning because they aren’t ‘compatible’ with synthetic phonics.

      • Thank you, Lucybird, the info on CBT is very interesting.

        Quick fix solutions which can be easily measured are very attractive to government departments, offering a chance to show decisive, positive action in the short period of a government’s term. The synthetic phonics check is just such a measure; results are available quickly and results have improved over a few years. But whether this means reading has improved, and whether it means SP is the right route to reading for all children will take longer to assess.

  4. Fascinating stuff – in natural science, apparently conflicting truth claims normally mean that one or both of them are false. Not necessarily so in social science and the Arts. Eg. 1913 riots at first performance of Rite of Spring – crudely, one part of the audience were saying that it was dreadful (not just that they disliked it, but that the claim that it wasn’t good ballet was ‘true’.) Their opponents were claiming that Stravinsky’s work was wonderful, earth shattering, etc – again – not just that they ‘liked’ it but that the positive claims were true. Arguably both sides of the argument needed listening to. Or – take a marriage break up. Conflicting stories abound. Sometimes this means they are all false. Other times there is truth in various perspectives on the break up, even though they apparently conflict.

  5. That’s interesting. So – as the ‘The Rite of Spring’ is now acknowledged to be a masterpiece, does this mean that the dissenters at the original performance were wrong, or that the admirers won an argument to which there was not a right answer? Does the idea that there is not a ‘right answer’ mean it’s a free-for-all and contradictory judgements can be true? I’m sort of hoping that both the dissenters and the admirers had insight of their own sort, but would also like to think the piece was most definitely a masterpiece. On the other hand, I don’t want ‘The Other Hand’ by Chris Cleeve to be regarded as excellent literature – see my review in my first blog – but somebody else might be highly impressed and find it insightful. My insight is different. Does this mean the argument continues for ever, with perhaps better and better insights being thrown into the fray? Some negative, some positive. Now I’m reminded of ‘The Magic Mountain’, another masterpiece which some would regard as a crashing bore. In that book there is an ongoing conflict between world views that co-exist in the hero’s mind and pull him in different directions, represented by two characters – the idea being that the dichotomy produced progress (I think). Of course, Hitler burned ‘The Magic Mountain’ which presumably did not serve his Truth.

    • Read the Magic Mountain during a bout of severe flu – not a good idea..
      Great questions, as always.. here are my tentative stabs at answers.
      The fact that there may be no ‘right answer’ when judging the arts doesn’t mean its a free for all, or so I believe. The only way I can model this is via those ambiguous figures like the duck/rabbit – where rabbit judgements conflict with duck judgements, but it would be crazy to say that the rabbit adherents are ‘right’ and the duck supporters ‘wrong’. We never reach the end in our judgements of social situations and the Arts – there are an endless series of interpretations. If you want a kind of support for this, try Gadamer..

      • Thanks.

        I can’t imagine what reading ‘The Magic Mountain’ through a haze of flu was like, but perhaps it mimicked the fevered consciousness of TB, in a small way.

        I can see that because artistic endeavours are open to interpretation judgement might hover in a sort of multi-dimensional limbo. I’m also wondering what happens if some refuse to tolerate this. I’ll try Gadamer…

  6. People like OldAndrew (are there people ‘like’ him?) can’t tolerate this situation. For him, its the TRUTH – and we can access it, it’s clear what it excludes and once we have it..End of (I never thought I’d find myself using that dreadful phrase)

  7. Great blog with fascinating discussion.

    My question has to do with where “insight” is located. If someone makes a truthnclaim they will often claim it is a feature of the world or, if pushed, it is a formal correspondence between world and thought. The truth “I packed you a lunch” can therefore be:

    1. A feature of your lunch box (it contains food).
    2. A feature of your utterance (it corresponds to the contents of your lunch box).

    In either case, if you get to work and find the box empty you will be justified in your annoyance at me.

    So, your concept of “insight”, of what is it a feature?

    • I’m glad you have enjoyed the blog.
      The lunch example: although this is unlikely to happen on a daily basis I think the insight bit comes in with the judgement of what ‘lunch’ is. So:
      “I packed you a lunch” could be factual (I recall putting some food in the lunch box), or “I packed you a lunch” could involve a judgement (I recall putting some foods in the lunch box which correspond to your idea of lunch). This may be what you mean by a ‘feature of your utterance’, not sure. But it does depend on the cultural/social understanding of ‘lunch’ – now I think of it, a disputed concept. On opening the lunch box to see the wrong food stuffs you might say, “Call that lunch!”.
      Oh dear, I’ll never be able to look at a curly cheese sandwich the same way again.

      • We have all been disappointed on that front, I think!

        So as I understand you, an insight refers to knowledge held in the cultural and social practices around us. This might be a tad simplistic on my part but let me follow that up.

        Say I honestly believe you have been provided with lunch. I could be said to lack insight that you will not be satisfied by a packet of mini cheddars, that you have higher standards of dining than me. Insight then must exist between at least two living subjects (like cultural and social practice). It can’t be a lone observer and the world.

        The search for insight then, distinct from the search for truth, involves an effort to understand human experience in relationship, particularly the experiences of others. Clearly this can involve true knowledge, but it also enables us to involve disputed or fictional information. As Andrew says above, we make a mistake if we regard such information as being true or false, and can wind up rioting at the ballet.

        FWIW “feature of the utterance” is a picture of truth I borrowed from Hugh Sockett whose definition of truth begins “a feature of statements”. Take the statement P: “Medea could not have done otherwise”. The objections

        1. Medea was a myth.
        2. It follows from 1 that Medea did nothing.
        3. Therefore P is not true.

        Are you prepared then to say that P is insightful but not true? I think this is conceding rather a lot of the force which Classics scholars can bring to bear in debate (” That is obviously untrue of Medea! “), perhaps rather more than they and those in related disciplines would be willing to give up. Do you accept this, and if so are my imaginary scholars wrong to want to pursue their disagreements in terms of “truth”?

      • Thank you for explaining the “feature of the utterance”. Am I right in seeing this as a truth which is consistent within the bounds of a fiction – so it is not an actual event, but it makes sense within the conditions of a fictional event? So would this feature have as much validity as an item of truth as a real event, if it was insightful?

        I can see that ‘insightful’ is about shared beliefs, something which JudeMary52 brought up earlier in the discussion. However, the condition of being ‘insightful’ has to remain a provisional condition because other insights come along and cast a different light on an event. Insights are flexible, and the stuff of discussion. The opposite of rioting at the ballet!

        The riot still happened, though, as a sign that some think their insights are true and others’ are false.

        We might be getting into the realms of morality and ethics here.

  8. The feature of the utterance…. not an actual event but makes sense within the conditions of a fictional event. I think it is valid because we discuss the actions and motives of characters in fiction as if they could have done otherwise. We do not say, “Stop the discussion here – these are not real people. This is not true, it is pointless.” It hurts that one can disregard Medea’s action just because she belongs in a myth.

  9. Insights being provisional..yes..but the same can be said of natural science claims such as those in general relativity theory. Some months back, the Large Hadron Collider people thought they might have fired a particle under the mountains into Italy faster than the speed of light. This would have undermined some of the heart of modern physics..for a while we had the sense that Einstein’s claims are ‘provisional’. It turned out to be a technical measurement error. I guess the crucial point is that new insights in the Arts should not be thought of as ‘falsifying’ previous ones even if they appear to conflict. Some Art critics, however, don’t seem to feel this about their latest pronouncements. I think something similar applies to apparently conflicting assertions about transcendent being in religious discourse.

  10. Yes, that quality of ‘continuing and containing’ (I can’t think of another way to put it) is characteristic of judgements in the Arts.

    To take a further step, perhaps the problem here is that some want to see truth as ‘fixed’ and provable in the Arts (Social Science might be a better example), with contradictions necessarily having to be resolved, while others want to see truths in these domains as not falsifying conflicting truths. This creates a conflict about who is right about truth rather than who is right about the Rite of Spring. Does use of the word ‘insight’ get us off the hook on this one? Or do we need to look the T word in the eye and make a case for a different sort of truth in different domains?

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