Can literature "tell the truth" better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

I'm hard pressed to answer this question (and I suspect I'm not the only one, seeing as it's been so long unanswered) without knowing more precisely what you mean by "tell the truth." A work of literature can be said to have various meanings, some of them mutually exclusive, and few (if any) constraints on viable interpretations. So in that sense, it would tell the truth, because the range of what it "tells" is so very broad. But it would be the same with the visual arts, wouldn't it?

If "telling the truth" is understood to be some kind of correspondence with an external state of affairs, then it seems other areas of knowledge (mathematics, for instance) would "tell the truth" better.

Aesthetics isn't my area, and so far I'm only dabbling in Phil of Literature; I'm afraid I can't do better than this for an answer. But it is an intriguing start to a conversation. I hope you pursue it.


My answer to this is a firm "Yes". Novels, for example, "tell the truth" better than any other written material, with the exception things like diaries and letters, unless you think of the relevant passages of diaries and letters as though they were mini-novels. But diaries and letters are no better at telling the truth in the appropriate sense than the skills of their authors. What sense is the sense in which novels (or more generally imaginative writing) can "tell the truth" better than any other "Areas of Knowledge", as you call them? (I imagine that you might have the sciences in mind.) The sense is one in which telling the truth has to do with getting the details of a description absolutely right, and getting the overal balance and colour and mood of what one is describing absolutely right. Here psychology for example (which might be thought to "tell the truth" better than the novel) is no better than the sensibility (the eighteenth and nineteenth century word) of the individual working psychologist. And psychology as a whole can be worse, because its collective or institutional scientific structure blots out the most personal and individual aspects of its subjects' lives. 'What an intelligent man knows is hard to know', as Goethe observed. But I agree with Kalynne Pudner that there is a rich and rewarding philosophical literature that exists exactly on this topic. My philosophical guides in the area, who share the view I have sketched above, are Iris Murdoch and Vladimir Nabokov. I do not agree with her however that mathematics "tells the truth" better than literature, for two reasons. (1) There is no common metric which includes the two activities; (2) mathematics and literature are not competing over the same subject matter.

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