Between many truths

This paper, originally titled, Between many truths: art, empowerment & letting-go, was presented at the Discourse Power Resistance: Talking Truth to Power conference at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, in March 2007.

Between many truths Image 1


I’d like to begin with an extract from a poem entitled, The City of the Moon, by the American poet, Kenneth Rexroth (2003: 709):

Buddha took some Autumn leaves

In his hand and asked

Ananda if these were all

The red leaves there were.

Ananda answered that it

Was Autumn and leaves

Were falling all about them,

More than could ever

Be numbered. So Buddha said,

“I have given you

A handful of truths. Besides

These there are many

Thousands of other truths, more

Than can ever be numbered.


Kinds of truth in Western philosophy

‘Truth’ is a complex term with many meanings and uses. Within Western philosophy there has been general agreement that truth is a function of what we say or know rather than a function of how things are. This follows Aristotle’s dictum, in the Metaphysics: “To say of what is that it is not, or what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, or what is not that it is not, is true”. (O’Hear 1991) Aristotle makes it clear that truth and falsity are characteristics of statements or propositions about the world, not qualities of the world itself.

Although there have been many different ways of considering these questions, three broad theories of truth can be identified. On the one hand, ‘correspondence’, or ‘picture’ theory, asserts that true statements somehow correspond to, or picture, ‘reality’ or ‘states of affairs’. Another approach taken by some philosophers is to consider truth as a characteristic of statements which best fit, or are consistent with, a particular system of beliefs. These are called ‘coherence’ theories of truth. But how things fit, who decides if they fit and which system they fit into, are all matters of potential dispute. Another approach is that offered by ‘pragmatist’ thinkers, such as John Dewey and Richard Rorty, who argue that there is some kind of connection between the truth of statements and their usefulness. Statements, theories and beliefs are considered as tools or ways of doing things in the world. Truth is what works – in so far as it is beneficial – enabling us to achieve goals such as happiness and well-being. Truth is always a working hypothesis, subject to revision and change. When it no longer works, we have to discard it, or better still put it in a tool rack until it becomes useful again. Pragmatists affirm the relativistic nature of truth, and stand against absolutist or essentialist notions. However critics argue that this approach may be tantamount to denying that truth exists as something upon which we can agree and depend.

Moving on from a consideration of what is true, to think about what it is to know, many philosophers argue that knowledge, can be defined as ‘justified true belief’. The pursuit of knowledge is also the pursuit of beliefs that we consider to be true. To distinguish the true from the false we must have processes of verification or validation in place, with agreed thresholds that determine whether a proposition is true or false. The aim of the scientific or philosophic project is to arrive at a convergence of theories and beliefs about particular states of affairs, to arrive at a degree of certainty about the truth of a particular assertion. Of course, while artworks can be said to embody or enact knowledge, and art can be seen to have a cognitive function, we tend not to look for convergence in the ways in which we think about artworks or interpret their significance. We almost expect from art, and have done since at least the end of the nineteenth century, a degree of complexity and ambiguity that challenges our assumptions or excites our senses, leading us to many and often divergent responses.

To return to ‘truth’: if truth is a function of statements we make, can we apply the term ‘truth’ to art? Almost immediately we encounter a problem: to what extent can artworks (poems, artefacts, musical compositions) be considered as ‘statements’ – statements about ‘states of affairs’? We might argue that a photograph or a painting of a landscape or a portrait is a statement about that landscape or person, and, as such, can be considered as having a truth-value. But what of a piece of music? Is Debussy’s, La Mer, a statement about ‘the sea’ in the same way as a photograph or a painting might be? But what of a Bach fugue, or a long piano improvisation by Keith Jarrett, to what do they refer, if anything?  And what of an abstract painting, say a monochrome by Yves Klein, or an untitled work by Pollock? If they are statements, what are they statements about? And what of Duchamp’s, Fountain, or one of Carl Andre’s brick sculptures – are they statements about the world? Or are they pieces of the world, designated as art objects? Are they showing us something, or trying to tell us something?

Pondering on these examples could lead us to conclude that the concept of truth, particularly if defined in terms of correspondence theory, is misleading, unhelpful and possibly meaningless if we try to apply it generally to art. Our relation to artworks of any kind is primarily through feeling, sensation and interpretation. The more the artwork stirs our emotions, excites our senses and stimulates our interpretative or story-making capacities the more value we tend to place on it. In a sense we may feel let down or constrained if we encounter an artwork that has an overt ‘meaning’ or ‘story’. The imposition of meaning or truth-value, by the artist or a critic, is something we tend to resist or react against. Overly didactic or propagandist art tends not to be valued for long, precisely because it insists on itself as ‘the truth’. What we look for in artworks is, at the very least, many truths, or probably, a zone of interpretation in which ideas about truth are contested or presented in a complex way, or in which our usual notions or assumptions are challenged and our tendency towards binary judgements (true/false, right/wrong, good/bad) are suspended.


Having outlined these theories and their limitations I want to set them aside in order to explore other ways of considering truth in relation to the arts.

Indian philosophy and the ‘maybe/maybe-not’ doctrine

Abraham Kaplan (1962: 230) mentions the term, syadvada, often used within the Jain tradition of Indian philosophy in relation to ideas of truth and philosophical arguments. Syadvada, is sometimes known as ‘the “maybe-so” doctrine, or the doctrine of “up to a point” or “in a manner of speaking”.’ According to this non-doctrinaire ‘doctrine’, ‘No matter how carefully elaborated a philosophy may be, it remains, after all, only a human point of view. It is inseparable from a particular standpoint, and therefore inescapably expresses only a single perspective on a reality which transcends all perspectives. No proposition is wholly and completely true but only up to a point, in a manner of speaking.’ Kaplan argues that we shouldn’t underestimate the implications of syadvada. It is not just that we can’t decide as to what is true or false, or that all theories can offer only degrees of probability as to what is true and, therefore, are never simply statements of ‘fact’. No, the more radical implication of syadvada is that we can only approach what we might call a ‘true’ understanding of a particular state of affairs ‘not by choosing among alternative beliefs and philosophies, but by broadening our perspectives so as to find a place for the several alternatives.’ (ibid: 231) Taking account of different perspectives, however incompatible, is more likely to give us a more rounded and richer understanding of a given phenomenon, than by selecting only one perspective and dogmatically asserting that this is ‘the truth’.


Pyrrho and early Greek scepticism

Pyrrho of Elis and other early Greek sceptics provide us with another perspective on questions of truth. According to Thomas McEvilley the Pyrrhonists used a dialectical method as,

an antilinguistic or anticonceptual force that would blow away what the Cynics called the smoke or mist of opinions and value judgments and restore attention to phenomena in themselves (McEvilley 2002: 420)

Through dialectical analysis all opinions are shown to be relative and conditional, full of distortions, imbalances and partialities. The constant deployment of counter-arguments, leads the sceptics to the realisation that in different contexts opposite assertions may be equally true. Therefore to assert any proposition as being true or false, yes or no, right or wrong, is to be in error. Dogmatic assertions of any kind are to be avoided. False certainties are the plague of humankind and human history is littered with the conflicts fought in the name of dogmatic truths of every persuasion. If we are to be free of error, to be free ‘of the domination of linguistic categories’ we have to be open to the indeterminacy of things, the awareness that all things are without essence or self-existence. This state of actuality, the sceptics refer to as aoristia, ‘lack of boundary or definition’. This is very similar to what Buddhists refer to as sunyata, or ‘emptiness’. McEvilley points out that the indeterminacy of things makes them ungraspable in epistemological terms. We cannot define or categorise or assign truth-values to what is indeterminate and indefinable. This ungraspable, ineffable quality is what the sceptics call akatalepsia. (ibid: 458)

It is interesting to note that many artworks exemplify or enact this kind of ungraspability. They resist definition (as does art itself) and tend to be quite amenable to competing, conflicting and contradictory opinions. In experiencing and engaging with works of art we are liberated from the dictatorship of unitary meanings or single truths. To get the most out of artworks (and maybe out of life) we need to be nimble-footed, non-attached to fixed positions, agile of mind, sensuously receptive, ambivalent and contrary. We have to find ways in which to embrace uncertainty and complexity, and to be able to play with many meanings and multiple interpretations. This playfulness involves both epoché, ‘suspension of judgement’ and aphasia, ‘freedom from linguistic categories’, and it is this liberating, challenging, and at times deeply disturbing, playing with ideas, values, beliefs, imaginings and doings, that contributes to the power and significance of art.

This position-less position should not be mistaken as ‘sitting on the fence’. It is just that there are no fences upon which to sit – because, as the sceptics might say, there are no essential boundaries or definitions. The important strategy is to be open to all possibilities and to maximise opportunities for possibilities to be open to others.


Paul Ricoeur and the ‘conflict of interpretations’

We can come at these issues from yet another perspective, that of hermeneutics – the philosophy of interpretation. According to Paul Ricoeur, a recent exponent of hermeneutical philosophy, all human thinking and understanding is partial. Even when we attempt to ‘explain’ something, we are involved in interpretation: interpreting what is presented to our senses, interpreting empirical data, or translating from text to text, and so on.

In his Guardian obituary, (Ricoeur died in 2005), Jonathan Ree (2005), describes Ricoeur as a ‘radical Christian philosopher’, a sceptical pluralist who believed that, in the face of the ‘conflict of interpretations’ presented to us in the fields of philosophy and religion,

it was necessary to “grant equal rights to rival interpretations” […] philosophy would perish if it took the easy path of opting for one side or another of the essential dilemmas of existence. The aim of all Ricoeur’s work […] was to teach us to feel the full force of authentic intellectual discomfort.

The purpose of thinking was not to gain knowledge, but to learn to consider the world in the light of our irremediable ignorance. (Ree, 2005)


Pragmatism, descriptions and the play of conversation

The hermeneutical thinking of Ricoeur has affinities with the ideas of the American philosopher, Richard Rorty, who argues that all we can do, whether we are scientists, historians, poets or artists, is to construct descriptions of the world and ourselves – descriptions which are always limited, but open to unlimited reiteration, revision and reformulation. Science, art, history and psychology are conversational domains in which different descriptions (interpretations) are proposed, analysed and discussed. It is the play of conversation which is important, not any search for ONE universal description. And the play of conversation brings to light descriptions which prove for a time to be beneficial in thinking about things and doing things. There can be no final or absolute description (the truth), just as there can be no final or definitive interpretation. The forces of dogmatism and many forms of ‘fundamentalism’, do tend to insist on one set of interpretations rather than another, and attempt to impose these interpretations on the world and on others, and thus to exercise an autocratic power that excludes or represses all other views. But eventually, these attempts to freeze the hermeneutical flow all fail, a melting occurs and new interpretations come along.

We can think of the sites of art, learning and enquiry, as overlapping “hermeneutical fields” – spaces or arenas in which multiple interpretations arise, jostling against each other. Sometimes there may be a fusion of interpretations, but just as often there may be a dynamic divergence between contradictory interpretations. We cannot determine what is right or wrong, true or false, because all interpretations are, or have the potential to be, useful, beneficial and enjoyable. And this polysemic and non-hierarchical state can be productive, stimulating and highly creative – a state of open-ended learning. It is a condition to be valued and sustained for as long as possible – a non-dogmatic holding in mind of many possibilities.


Heidegger, Dasein and ‘letting-be’

To denote human being, Heidegger uses the term Dasein (‘being here’ or ‘being there’), by which he means ‘the place in which being occurs’. (Zimmerman 1993: 244) Zimmerman argues that Heidegger’s ‘notion that human existence is the openness, clearing, or nothingness in which things can manifest themselves’ is an extension of Meister Eckhart’s notion of God as ‘Divine Nothingness’. (ibid: 241) Human being in this sense is groundless, a kind of ‘peculiar receptivity’ for the self-manifesting of entities that arise and present themselves to us. Heidegger’s emphasis on receptivity and on the openness of human being, leads him to make use of Eckhart’s term Gelassenheit, suggesting that we need to reorient our thinking and action around being, towards ‘letting-be’ rather than striving and willing. But, as Caputo argues, our role is not to be sleepily passive, but to be awake and open to being: “The work that man can do is not to will but to not-will, to prepare a clearing and opening in which being may come”. (Caputo 1993: 282)

This brings us back to the paradoxical language of mysticism and to the strategies of knowing by unknowing, opening up to nothingness and letting-be, practiced by many mystics. Happold writes of this state of letting-be as both ‘…a humble receptiveness’ and ‘an intense concentration’. (1970: 70) A letting-go of predetermined objectives and a freeing of the controlling ego.

While it may seem somewhat fanciful I would argue that this state of receptivity, letting-be or letting-go is an extremely important state of learning, which could be defined as a state of opening to multiple possibilities, an unfolding of multiple interpretations, connections, meanings and truths – not in order to converge on a fixed ‘truth’ or certain knowledge, but to move ever on in a continuum of learnings. The poet, Seamus Heaney (2007), makes a direct connection between art, learning and mysticism:

Perhaps the final thing to be learned is this: in the realm of poetry, as in the realm of consciousness, there is no end tothe possible learnings that can take place. Nothing is final, the most gratifying discovery is fleeting, the path of positive achievement leads directly to the via negativa.

That is, the mystical path of learning by unlearning, entering the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’. (see Anon 1961)

Mysticism, Dasein, indeterminacy & the “open work”

Taking up Heaney’s reference to the via negativa I’d like to develop a little further a connection between accounts of mystical experience in many different cultural and religious traditions, and the idea that art is a site of transformation for its participants, a place of emancipation from the dictatorship of ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’, an opening up of the subject to multiple truths. Mystical experiences involve, at some level, a destabilisation or deconstruction of the subject and a reconstruction in a form that the individual feels to be qualitatively ‘different’. Nearly all accounts suggest that some kind of transformation occurs to, and in, the individual – for instance, expressed as a process of ‘unknowing’, entering a ‘darkness’ or a state of ‘egolessness’ or unity, experiencing a profound sense of ‘nonduality’ and boundary-lessness, and a heightened awareness of ‘being here’. These experiences, which are somehow both destabilising and harmonious, liberating and reassuring, give rise to a re-oriented sense of self and a revitalisation of the personality. Accounts of mystical experiences also present a sense of ‘letting-go’, an experience of being that is more like an ‘opening’ or ‘clearing’ in which things arise without intention or will – an acceptance of indeterminacy and interdependence. Remove the cultural and religious inflexions of these descriptions of states of mind and we can easily see these accounts as being remarkably similar to the experiences we often have in our encounters with artworks.

We can link Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, being as an openness or a clearing, to Umberto Eco’s concept of the artwork as an ‘open work’, which I’ve suggested elsewhere can be extended to the idea of the self as an open work, a site of unfolding possibilities. Connections can also be made with hermeneutics: the artwork as a zone of interpretation. And these ideas can be linked in turn to concepts of indeterminacy and the indefinite. In all these theories the artwork, like the self or subject, can be considered as a nexus of possibilities – a dynamic space within which potential is actualised, interpretations are formed and re-formed, stories and images are revisioned, and beliefs and values are endlessly revised. The experiential field of the artwork is a field of liminal experience, of becoming, of betweenness, in which irreconciliable oppositions are recognised and handled as manifestations of the indeterminacy and mutuality of existence. This view of art as a zone of interpretation and a nexus of possibilities is radically different to the notion of art as a zone of truth – a place, or object, in which truth resides or is revealed.


Drawing together

In this presentation I have suggested that it is not easy to apply popular conceptions of truth to artworks and to arts practices. Truth, as a condition or attribute of statements or propositions, is usually seen as involving a closure or convergence of views, a settling of disputes in favour of one position or another that is seen to have predominant truth-value. Knowledge in this schema is considered as justified true belief. However there is a tension here between this sense of truth and the unsettled state of being open to multiple opinions, interpretations, imaginings and sensations that is characteristic of our engagement with artworks – and, I would argue, with the complex fluidity of everyday living.

Maybe it would be best to avoid using terms like ‘truth’ in relation to the arts or to radically change our ideas about truth to take account of some of the issues I’ve raised. Perhaps truth is neither this nor that, or is this and that. Maybe it is more useful to see truth as a fulcrum – a state of dynamic equilibrium – a point of balance achieved when we laugh and play on the seesaw between opposing ideas, values and ways of doing or imagining. Wisdom can then be considered as a letting-go of dogmatic opinions, learning how to play with ideas and images, and being open to a multitude of stories and interpretations.

In our engagements with artworks we are often confronted with the presence or beingness of things – a state of actuality that is neither this nor that, yet also this and that, a coincidence of opposites in which truth is always plural, bifurcated, multi-facetted and diamond-like. Artworks are very beneficial partly because they often bring us to a mental clearing – a lightening of mind and being – in which we realise that there are no fixed essences or essential truths but only a network of interdependent possibilities and potentialities open to endless reformulation and change. We find art exciting and revitalising in so far as we become open to many equal and contradictory meanings – all and none of which are ‘true’. These are the learnings referred to by Seamus Heaney. In being open to many truths we are liberated from the dictatorship of one truth, and are thus empowered. Maybe we should carry these ways of thinking and being out of the art gallery or the concert hall and use them to live with the conflicts and uncertainties that confront us in the complex uncertain world outside.


As William Empson, the author of Seven Kinds of Ambiguity, points out: “life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis”. (in Phillips 2005)


Or as Heraclitus (the Dark) is reputed to have said: ‘It is the opposite which is good for us’. (Fragment 46)


Between many truths Image 2



Anon. 1961 The Cloud of Unknowing, London: Penguin (trans. Clifton Wolters)

Barrett, William. 1990. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books.

Caputo, John D. 1993. ‘Heidegger and theology’ in Guignon, Charles. B. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Happold, F.C. 1970. Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology. London: Penguin Books.

Kaplan, A. 1962. The New World of Philosophy, London: Collins.

O’Hear, A. 1991. What Philosophy Is: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy, London: Penguin.

Perloff, Marjorie. 1996a. Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Phillips, Adam. 2005. Review of William Empson, Vol.1: Among the Mandarins by John Haffenden (Oxford: Oxford University Press) in The Observer (17 April 2005)

Ree, J. 2005. Paul Ricoeur obituary, The Guardian, Monday 23 May 2005, p. 21

Rexroth, K. 2003. The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, Port Townsend, USA: Copper Canyon Press.

Ricoeur, P. 1974. The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press

Watts, Alan. 1989. The Way of Zen. New York: Vintage Books.

Zimmerman, Michael. 1993. ‘Heidegger, Buddhism and deep ecology’ in Guignon, Charles. B. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 240-269.


Internet sources:

Heaney, S. 2007. Influences: The power of  T.S. Eliot. From: accessed: 9 January 2007. [Originally published in the October 1989 issue of Boston Review.]


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