A family of connections between statements and meanings.

Truth can take many forms, and here are five of them.

1. Material truth is direct, plain, literal description of situations and events: no greater depth of meaning is intended. It is an account of a reality which is “bounded”—that is, there is no interest for the moment in exploring the deeper implications, insights and echo-meanings. This is the truth which tells you about the route taken by the hot water pipe from the boiler to the bathroom, how to make flatbread, how to photograph otters, what Darwinism is, why a herd of cows’ milk yield is higher if the cows are named as well as numbered, what a well-tempered scale is, what a Higgs boson probably is, why pregnant women don’t topple over, whether you went to the pub last night. Accuracy is not essential: it does not have to be true to belong in the domain of material truth, but it does have to be the speaker’s intention that the other person should understand it to be true. It can use metaphor or simile that helps to get an unfamiliar idea across. The intention is to provide a truthful and uncluttered description. Here facts matter.T38

2. Narrative truth (or poetic truth) is the truth present not just in storytelling but in myth, art and the whole of our culture. This is the truth of Pride and Prejudice. It is not materially true, in that it is fiction; on the other hand, it is true-to-life: it is as accurate an insight into human character as we have. Elizabeth Bennett’s story can neither be dismissed as untrue nor accepted as true; it is in the middle ground. The narrative says something that cannot be said in any other way. It extends beyond metaphor.

Narrative truth may be a parable with a clear message, or a story for the story’s sake, or the meaning may be forever unknown: a question to be reflected on, perhaps in a lifetime’s exploration of ironic space. It is the domain of poetry, music, laughter; if you ask whether it is true, you are at the wrong party.T39

3. Implicit truth is the product of reflection about a person, a thing, or an event. Two (or more) people may reach sharply different insights which may, however, all be true. They are different in that they are features in the landscape of the observers’ different cognitive homelands. One student may think about the cypress tree growing in the quadrangle in a quite different way from another student. Two interpretations of the same observations may be different, even contradictory, but both represent implicit truths.

The crew of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner had good reason to think of home in a way which is resonant with this—as “their native country, and their own natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival”. Native country naturalises common experience in different ways.T40

4. Performative truth is the truth that is created by statements that do something: I challenge, I thee wed, I bet, I curse, thank you. The speaking makes the truth; a promise is brought into existence by being spoken: loyal cantons of contemned love make love come alive (for a variant—it does not quite qualify as a performative truth, but it is a good try—see “Making It Come True…” below).T41

by saying it often enough

So if it’s not focus that breeds success, how do you get a project as vast and ambitious as Eden off the ground? Simple: you just announce you’re going to do it. I discovered a technique that revolutionised my life. It’s called lying—or rather, the telling of future truths. It’s about putting yourself in the most public jeopardy possible and saying “I am going to do this”, so the shame of not doing it would be so great it energises every part of your being.

~ Tim Smit, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Eden Project, Cornwall, 2009.T43

5. Self-denying truth is paradox which contradicts itself: it is (materially) true until it is spoken: the speaking of a self-denying truth kills it. Example: “I refuse to admit my addiction.” Self-denying truth is the opposite of performative truth. It is a statement which makes itself untrue. By unpacking a useful mystery you are making it no longer a mystery, and maybe no longer useful.T42

Logic literacy depends on all of these forms of truth, with varying degrees of emphasis. All five are there, exuberantly, in religion, which, if confined in the narrow space inhabited by material truth, decays into fundamentalism. And all are needed for the common purpose of making a future, which needs both brain and soul.


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!