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August 10, 2007

The arts as means to experiencing "objective truth"

John Stoehr

This is from Gary Panetta, the culture writer and resident philosopher at the Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star. He offers further commentary on this morning's post. It's too good to get lost in the comments. Thanks, Gary. -- J.S.

Thank you for this post and for raising the issue again.

"Truth" can be broken down in several ways.

(1) What's logically true or true by definition, i.e. mathematics. Start with certain premises and certain conclusions must follow.

(2) What's empirically true, i.e. what is factually the case. The standard here is "true beyond reasonable doubt." No history can claim to be the definitive, once-and-for-all time account of an important event. But some histories are more factually accurate than others, some histories are better informed than others. Just because we lack godlike, absolute knowledge doesn't relieve us from the responsibility of making reasoned choices about what we believe.

(3) What's morally or ethically true, i.e. what reflects the deep truths about what makes us human and what helps us succeed or fail to live together.

This kind of truth is difficult because it doesn't exist in the abstract -- it is always embodied in the concrete. Unless I've experienced a loving act or deed, abstract discussions of love will do me no good. Unless I can embody love or justice in my own life, just thinking about such things abstractly is pointless.

This is why the arts, especially theater and storytelling are so important. They put flesh and blood into what are otherwise abstract discussions about conscience and struggling with conscience, with guilt and the need for atonement, generosity and tight-fistedness, etc.

Such things can't be embodied in our lives or in the arts once and for all -- they have to be embodied again and again. We have to discover what they mean again and again.

Notice the word "discover." I may think I know what it means to love or to sacrifice, but experience is going to teach me whether I was correct in my presuppositions. In other words, there is such a thing as "objective truth" although we humans have a hard time grasping it.

We forget sometimes the continuity of human experience. King David is a product of an ancient, alien culture that I don't understand. But his temptation to lust and murder is perfectly contemporary. Non-Western societies have no trouble grasping the essentials of Shakespeare. There is something called collective human wisdom -- so much the worse for us if we ignore it.

Posted by John Stoehr at August 10, 2007 10:10 AM