Updated: Jun 24, 2022
In Shifting Stories, I raise the question (at the end of Chapter 2): is there such a thing as objective reality or objective truth?
The case against truth
In discussing the ideas in the book with friends and colleagues, particularly academics, I noticed many squirm as I suggested that the approach might lead people ever closer to the truth. One said that she wished we could talk about these things without using such contested notions as truth; and someone commented on my blog: ‘It is not possible to both hold the belief that there are objective truths "out there" and practice what Michael White advocated.’ (Michael White is one of the founding fathers of narrative therapy).
The reason for this, I think, is the current intellectual fashion towards scepticism. It is, I think, linked to Foucault (though I think as often as not based on simplistic understandings of his work). Thus, one often hears that all ‘truths’ are socially constructed: they are not objective and “out there” to be discovered.
Of course, we know that we all perceive reality differently - and inaccurately (as I outline in Chapter 1 of the book). The Map is not the Territory is the mantra. And part of the interpretive lens through which we view reality is the context which Foucault was so keen to deconstruct.
Along with that intellectual background is another unease, I think: that belief in objective truth has led to wars and many other terrible exercises of human power. Again, this was an area that Foucault was particularly interested in.
The case for truth
However, to discard the notion of truth seems to me both reckless and indeed impossible. Consider the comment left on my blog: ‘It is not possible to both hold the belief that there are objective truths "out there" and practice what Michael White advocated.’ This is a truth-claim, made by someone rejecting the notion of truth.
We cannot really proceed, in dialogue, thinking or action, without belief that our perceptions of reality, however inaccurate they may be, do respond to something “out there.”
The map metaphor is helpful here. The tube map is of course wildly inaccurate (if used incorrectly). As a teenager, I used to cycle around London, using the tube map in my head to navigate. That led to some strange journeys, and in particular I learned that the stations which appear equally spaced on the map are in fact nothing of the sort. Try cycling to Watford or Epping and you will see what I mean.
On the other hand, it does communicate a set of truths that correspond to something “out there.” To get from Ealing Broadway to West Acton, one can take a Central Line train, and not a District Line one. The stations do occur in the order in which they are represented, served by the trains indicated. And when one emerges from Covent Garden station, one really does find Covent Garden “out there.”
When we deal with more complex and contested issues than the London Underground, it is worth pointing out, of course, that knowing that there is truth is not the same as knowing what that truth is. But all the scientists and medics I know recognise that their work is dedicated to furthering the understanding and use of truth; it is only in the Humanities that this is such a problematic concept.
I have problems with the claim ‘there is no such thing as objective truth’ for a number of reasons. One is that it is self-contradictory. It claims that the statement: ‘there is no such thing as objective truth’ is objectively true.
A second and more practical one is this: I believe it is important that we can say both that the Holocaust really happened (a claim to truth about the past) and that the Holocaust was a bad thing (a claim to truth about a value judgement). A philosophy which disables us from doing that, or legitimises the opposing argument that such claims are ‘merely one point of view’ or ‘a social construct imposed by the powerful,’ seems to me to be dangerous and indeed de-humanising.
A third problem is the fact of daily existence. We all act on the assumption that we have some relationship with something “out there.” When we run for a train, it is because we believe the train exists. When we argue about truth, it is because we believe that the person with whom we are arguing exists.
I believe that these are vital issues for anyone trying to help others find ‘good’ solutions to problems, and are worthy of serious consideration. I stop a long way short of telling anyone what the absolute truth is in any situation, because I do not know. However, I do believe it is there to be sought, and that seeking it is both worthwhile and important.
The point of this blog, however, is to prompt reflection and discussion. So I will be most interested in others’ comments and perspectives: especially to correct me if I have misunderstood or mischaracterised approaches I criticise, but also more generally to take my thinking forward.