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True Stories are Never the Only Story

There is seems to be a tendency to believe that modern philosophy denies truth entirely, that “nothing is true” – but this is a misunderstanding. There are still true stories. What philosophers in the last century or so have come to realise is that any given true story can never be the only true story.

In his book Critical Resistance, which summarises the changes in European philosophical thought from Nietzsche to Žižek, David Couzens Hoy notes that “there are different stories, and many can be true. A true story is itself only a particular way to tell such a story, never the only story. Other drafts are always possible.” He observes, following Foucault, that it is not that there are no universals so much as those things which are truly invariant possess a universal quality so thin that they are rendered uninteresting or useless. For this reason, the focus on universals can wildly mislead – either into believing there can be only one true story, or into believing that the stories that attain to invariance are the only ones of interest.

I have often quoted Korzybski’s adage that “the map is not the territory”; Hoy’s equivalent catchphrase is his rendering of Pierre Bourdieu’s idea that “we should not confuse the model of reality with the reality of the model”. Bourdieu seems to have recognised a number of universal characteristics – that we are separate individuals, that we are confined to a given time and place, and that we know we are destined for death. But such invariant observations as these, Hoy notes, do not give us a path to absolute knowledge because their very implication is the absence of an ideal context-free perspective from which such a conclusion could be drawn. Bourdieu himself says “to escape even a little from the relative, one absolutely has to abdicate from the claim to absolute knowledge, uncrown the philosopher-king.”

Critical Resistance approaches its conclusion via Slajov Žižek’s paradox of reality, which (as Hoy puts it) asks: is there really no way that things really are? He notes that the two uses of ‘really’ in this sentence are not the same – the first concerns the ‘way’ that things are, the second the ‘things’ that are, and as Hoy himself notes “one could deny that there is a single way that things are without denying that the things are real.” We can quite happily accept that we live in a world of real things without having to acknowledge a real way to comprehend those things. He adds that Bourdieu might have said in this regard that the reality of the interpretation should not be confused with the interpretation of reality.

The challenge for our plural world has ceased to be determining the constituent elements of a single model of truth. This was the kind of goal that W.O. Quine’s ontological project was pursuing, supposing that we could tell what reality consisted of by identifying every entity our best theories allowed us to believe in. Certain philosophers are now justifiably doubtful that such a project could succeed, not least because (as Stephen Yablo observes) even our best theories are riddled with metaphor. We have thus lost any hope of finding the one and only true story – and this is a marvellous thing! For now we realise that even true stories are never the only story, and this recognition might free us from demonising those people whose true stories differ from our own.


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