b h a g . n e t    visual and conceptual exchange    b h a g . n e t

bhag cover page          bhag philosophy         John Clay philosophy


Truth and Fiction, Story and Theory

Since the 1970s, it has been considered chic among postmodernist scholars and writers—whose conceptual heritage is predominantly the idealist literary tradition rather than the pragmatic scientific tradition—to do away with real-life usage-based distinctions between the concepts of truth and fiction, and likewise between the concepts of story and theory. They have promoted instead the esoteric idea that all our thoughts and expressions about the world are fictions and, moreover, that all fictions are stories. I recommend restoring the semantic distinction between truth and fiction, and between story and theory, because these distinctions are useful in real life.

truth and fiction
Postmodernist writers have claimed that all human propositions—all our thoughts and expressions about the world—are fiction, because fiction is something that is "made up" and all our thoughts and expressions likewise are made by us. According to the sociologist Jean Beaudrillard, the categories real and imaginary into which we sort things are themselves artificial creations of scientific culture, part of an explosion or proliferation of categories which ultimately must "implode" again so that the categories break down and everything merges. So for human beings, the postmodernists claim, truth and fiction are identical. The postmodernists wish to make a valid point: that all our propositions (and all our categories) are humanly constructed, that they are interpretively conceived and cannot be proven true to an absolute certainty. But the postmodernists fail to recognize that even after we assume that propositions are humanly constructed (an assumption already well-established within modern science), we continue to have a practical need for a distinction between propositions intended to describe an objectively real event and those intended to describe a fictional event.

Let me clarify that "objectively real" means existing or occurring independently of human awareness. We might or might not be aware of an event at a given moment—a stranger turning the page of a book in the privacy of his home, or the proverbial tree falling in the forest. But when we suggest that it is objective, we are suggesting that it occurs all the same with or without our awareness. That it is an objective event of kind X as opposed to kind Y, and indeed that it is objective at all, are of course very simply our own propositions (proposals, statements, beliefs, ideas) about the significance of our subjective living experience, of our flow of thoughts and sensations. No proposition can be proven true to an absolute certainty, not even the claim that there is an objective reality—a point which the philosopher George Berkeley made, maddeningly and so far irrefutably, 300 years ago. Without absolute certainty, what's the use of making any propositions at all about our experience? In the early twentieth century, William James suggested that the choice of one proposition over another is a matter of individual decision and social consensus concerning the usefulness, for our purposes, of living by one belief as opposed to another.

Following James, if we choose to adopt the proposition that there is an objective universe (as assumed by science and by most other systems of interpretation and belief throughout the world), then we will take different practical measures in response to an event deemed objectively real as opposed to one deemed not objectively real. In other words, we continue to have need of a distinction between truth and fiction.

If someone, even a postmodernist, sees a friend blindly stepping in front of an oncoming car, she likely will not remain silent and still under an assumption that her understanding of the situation is merely a fiction. Most likely, she will shout or pull her friend to safety. While it will remain possible for her to reexamine the case in restrospect and contemplate whether her understanding was "truly real" or whether indeed all her life experience might be only dream and delusion, she probably will be thankful that, for all practical intents and purposes, she responded effectively to the situation and her friend is safe. She has exercised a practical distinction between truth and fiction. The friend likewise will make a judgment as to whether the postmodernist acted out of an intention to respond to an objectively true danger, or whether the intention was to perpetrate a fiction (pretending to respond to a car where there really wasn't one). The friend will feel differently toward the postmodernist, depending on this judgment as to truth or fiction.

Science calls thoughts and expressions "propositions", rather than fictions, as a way of indicating that they are human constructs. A proposition is a statement or concept which is put forward as a proposal. Anyone may judge it to be valid or invalid and may make a case for their judgement by explaining to others how they came to their decision. Calling thoughts and expressions propositions acknowledges that they are humanly conceived and constructed instruments which do not have an absolute status placing them beyond question. It thereby encourages us to critically assess all statements and ideas and to carefully and generously consider the input of other persons in the process. When we use the term proposition to indicate human constructs, then we are free to restore the terms truth and fiction to their common, everyday usage. Truth is commonly used to refer to a specific class of propositions—those which we deem objectively true. (Remember that even though objective truth cannot be proven absolutely, we still can adopt a proposition that "such-and-such is objectively true" and can explain our decision to others. If later we find that this proposition isn't fitting with our actual experience or that others have convincing arguments contradicting it, we might choose to change our decision.) Fiction is used to refer to another specific class of propositions—those which we deem not objectively true, but represent as if they were true, either deceptively or with the knowing consent of our audience. By restoring the common meanings of both terms, we restore the practical ability to express both classes of propositions.

story and theory
Postmodernists likewise fail to recognize the need for a distinction between stories and theories. Jean-Francois Lyotard asserted in his 1977 work Instructions Paiennes that all theory is narrative, and postmodernists typically assume that all theories are stories and are, moreover, fictional stories. The postmodernist charge of fictionality is again based on the unnecessary assumption that "fiction" is a synonym for "humanmade thought or expression". But as we have seen, "proposition" is a better name for this broad category, because this allows us to sort down into the additional categories of true and fictional, thereby acknowledging an additional level of diversity in human thought and expression. The conflation of story and theory seems to be based on the assumption that all fictions (which, to the postmodernist, still means all human thoughts and expressions) are stories, but this assumption likewise fails to acknowledge an additional level of diversity: namely, story and theory, which intersect both truth and fiction.

The defining difference between story and theory is that a story describes an instance of some kind of event, while a theory explains how a kind of event can be expected to unfold, if ever instantiated. Stories are proposed descriptions of instances of kinds; theories are proposed models of kinds. Instances stand as particular moments in time and space. We can tell a story, for example, about a particular person who is conceived and born in a particular time and place: John Smith was conceived in May of 1850 in Los Angeles, California, when Thomas Smith and Jane Smith made love, and then he was born in February of 1851 in Denver, Colorado. Kinds, on the other hand, are ahistorical; they are generalized beyond particular instances in time and space. We can develop a theory about what constitutes personhood in general or how human beings, in general, are born. Stories rely upon theories for source material, for the kinds of objects and events which the story will map out in particular instances in time and space.

As with truth and fiction, the distinction between story and theory, which might be lost on us in the course of postmodernist wordplay, is made clear in real-life usage. Sometimes disputes arise concerning the validity of stories presented as true. A dispute might focus on instances (he was not the one who was born there or then) or it might focus on kinds themselves (it is not possible to be born in that way, there is no such kind of birth—as, for example, if our story had maintained that John Smith was conceived by his parents but was carried and birthed by his parents' pet cat Fanny). Both kinds of dispute—about what happened and about how things happen—really do arise in everyday life and are important to address. But we would have no way of addressing, or even expressing, both kinds of disputes if story and theory were synonymous terms.

The best use can be made of the concepts of truth and fiction through distinction and coordination, instead of conflation. The same goes for story and theory. If we conflate truth and fiction, we lose the verbal tools needed for distinguishing between, on the one hand, that which we deem true and represent as true, and on the other hand, that which we deem not really true but represent as if it were true, either deceptively or with the knowing consent of our audience. If we conflate story and theory and refer to both only as story, we lose the verbal tools needed for distinguishing between the telling of instances and the telling of kinds. In both cases, truth and fiction, and story and theory, the semantic distinctions are important for our behavior and do persist in our actual usage. There is no justifiable cause for scrapping the verbal tools which currently fill these real-life needs.

© 2001 John Clay