Truth among the…

(Ten year ago or so, Maurice Bloch and I started discussing a basic issue in folk-epistemic, the variety of notions of truth across cultures, and we ran several workshops in Paris with psychologists, historians, and anthropologists on the theme. I would like to revive the discussion, maybe in the form of an online workshop, but first, let me raise the issue on this blog.)

Do considerations of "truth" play a role in human intellectual and social practices in all cultures? Are diverse notions of truth involved both across and within cultures? Are implicit notions of truth involved, and, if so, how do they relate to explicit notions? In which cultural practices and domains of discourse is a notion of truth invoked? Are there institutions and social positions which entertain a privileged relationship with "truth"?

There is a rich philosophical, philological, and historical literature relevant to the issue and concerning literate, and more specifically, scholarly traditions (Ancient Greece, Buddhism, judicial practices, modern science – to mention just two examples, Marcel Détienne's The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece, and Steven Shapin's A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England) . Anthropological literature hardly ever directly addesses the issue (Pascal Boyer's Tradition as Truth and Communication: A Cognitive Description of Traditional Discourse being a notable exception), even if it often contains relevant data collected from a different perspective.



It would be useful, in analyzing notions of truth in a given cultural tradition, to consider the following questions:



Linguistic evidence:

Are there words or expressions with a meaning roughly similar to "true" in English. What are these words and expressions? How best could they be glossed? In what kind of context are they used, and how? What kind of things are such terms applied to? (in English, for instance, ideas and utterances are typically things that can be called true, and there is another quite different use of the term, where it is a near synonym of "genuine" as in a "true gold" or "true Englishman".) Same question about related words and expression such as English "truth", "fact", "knowledge", "doubt", "falsity", "false", "lie", "liar", "truth-teller", "likely", "sincere". Is some notion of truth implicit in lexical contrasts such as that between "know" and "believe", where you may only know something that is the case? The contrast is sometimes described as one between factive and non-factive verbs of propositional attitude. Such verb express the attitude of the subject towards some proposition. With "non-factive" verbs such as "believe", "suppose", "claim", "doubt" the proposition that is believed, supposed, etc. may be true or false. On the other hand, "factive" verbs such as "know", "realize", "regret", "forget", must have as their object a true proposition. Is there a factive/non-factive contrast in the semantics of the language?

Sociolinguistic evidence:
There are various social contexts where some notion of truth is particularly likely to be involved. They include:

Expressions of agreement with statements made by others, from face to face interaction (e.g. "How true!", "That's right!" "So it is!") to formal occasions ("Hear, hear" in Parliament). Reaction to children lying. Such lies typically involve trivial factual matter and are often blatant to the adults. How are received? How are they described? Reactions to children pretend play. Judicial proceedings, starting with the most trivial neighbors' dispute about, e.g. who took the pot. Contradictory versions of the facts are likely to be proffered, and public evaluations of these statements are likely to be made. In which terms? Deliberate cultural transmission, from story-telling to school. Is a distinction made (explicitly? implicitly?) between true stories vs. tales, suppositions or didactic artificial examples vs. facts, etc.?


Is there a simple true/false contrast, or are there degrees of truth? Are there kind of truths? What are the implicit or explicit justifications for accepting a statement as true? What are the respective role of evidence, argument, and authority? Are different kinds of evidence (e.g. material evidence, testimony), of argument (e.g. dialectic, analytic), and of authority (e.g. based on status, on competence, on special powers) explicitly or implicitly distinguished? Are there explicit discussions, theories (e.g. truth as correspondence, truth as coherence, relativistic views of truth), or narrative evocation of knowledge and truth? Of what content? When are they expressed? In what form? Are there social practices aimed at providing truths, such as divination, oracles, initiation, judicial proceedings, forensic investigation, religious or philosophical scholarship, scientific research? What notions of truth are involved? Are there social practices aimed at withholding truths through secrecy or deception?

Truth and value

Is truth recognized as a value in itself, or only inasmuch as it helps in the pursuit of some other value? What is the recognized value of truth in thought? How important is it to have true as opposed to false beliefs? Is the search for truth (personal, general) a goal valued in the society? What is the recognized value of truth in communication? How important is it to tell the truth as opposed to lying (or unwittingly conveying errors)? When is telling the truth encouraged or required? with what sanctions? When is deceiving acceptable or even encouraged? Are being a seeker of truth and a truthful speaker recognized virtues? Of whom are such virtues expected or required (in terms of age, gender, status, etc.)? Is the possibility of clashes between respect for truth and respect for tradition or authority envisaged? How are such clashes handled, in principle and in practice? (In many cultures, it seems, conformity to tradition is seen as truth par excellence or at least as a kind of truth, and therefore conceptualizing such a clash may be particularly difficult.)

Suggestions and questions welcome.


  • pascal engel 2 June 2009 (20:02)

    dear Dan I am happy to learn that you are interested in these issues. I think the points you raise are important, although I am very doubful about ethno-epistemology. We should one day do some workshop on that.

  • Sebastian Benavides 9 June 2009 (17:48)

    Hello Dan, thanks for this post which addresses a fascinating and troubling issue. In my own (quite limited)field experience with a Maori school in Aotearoa/New Zealand,studying the way in which folktales, legends and/or myths were used as cognitive models and educational tools, I could find a notion of “degrees of truth” as you put it. What I argue in my thesis is that “our commonsense view of history” as a “corpus of ascertained facts” (Carr 1987:9) would indicate that our current day-to-day narratives are more or less connected to what we see as a kind of abstract level of narrative and study at the same time, i.e. History. But this relationship is altogether dissociated from traditional narratives, folktales, and myths, which are relegated to the realm of the non-factual, illustrating an epistemological gap with the Māori view. Therefore, from an outsider’s perspective, in the Māori model presented by the participants, “History” was inter-weaved with myths (mainly) and local stories, connected and organised by a particular device, which in this case would be the whakapapa model (the genealogical structure). In this way, although there is a specific Māori concept for “History”, according to the interview material and bibliographical sources reviewed, the boundaries between itself and other narrative forms are porous enough to accept in the same category of a “true” background the main myth cycles. But, at the same time, influences and connections with those other forms of narrative would be present, stressing a difference of “levels of truth” rather than a clear cut division between categories. The latter would connect with Metge’s (1998:8-9) reflection about the difficulties that the Māori historical framework offer to “Western-trained historians”, stressing the fact that the former is accompanied by their “own scholarly approach to history, including their own ways of testing reliability and validity”, based on a long tradition of oral history and transmission. In other words, from an insider’s perspective, there would be a degree of superposition of “History” and traditional narratives, framed by their belief system and the Māori world-view, in which the participants established a difference between the made-up stories and the ones linked to “History”. However, there is a clear overlapping of both genres in terms of their understanding of different narratives simply as “stories”, conceptualizing them in a broader sense. It seems then that what would make a real difference between the diverse narratives would depend on specific situations and contexts, but would not exist as prior categories. An interesting discussion could be the ways in which these Maori educators (and of course many other groups which show diverse but simultaneous notions of “truth”) operate in everyday life, regarding I suppose the regular or commonsensical notion of truth needed to interact with others in a big city. Are these always mixed, kept apart,or rapidly shifted according to the context? Well, I hope some of these new questions might contribute to a future workshop on the matter.