August 4, 2016

Propositional Truth vs Representational Truth

In a recent post, Description vs Representation, I contrasted the static timelessness of description, as it takes place within narration, against the dynamic quality of narration itself, as the representation of (the human experience of) temporality. To illustrate that contrast, I discussed a lengthy excerpt from Mieke Bal's classic Narratology (3rd edition). Having established that contrast in such terms, I then asked why "Historical Jesus" scholars have tended to focus on issues of description, rather than (temporal) representation. In an update the next day I found one possible answer in a book by Frank Ankersmit. Description is essentially a form of propositional truth, while dynamic human experience is not so easily summed up by individual statements. Combining these two lines of thinking is my subject today.

Idea Number One: Narrative Description is static while Narrative Representation is dynamic.
Idea Number Two: Description is propositional while Representation invokes another kind of truth altogether.

Instead of Bal, today's excerpts are from Ankersmit's 2012 masterpiece, Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation. And so, without further ado...
In the case of true descriptions -- think of statements of the form "A is Φ" -- one can always clearly distinguish between that part of the statement that exclusively refers and another, predicate part exclusively attributing some property to the object that the statement refers to. In statements such as "A is Φ," the term "A" refers to some object in the world... whereas the phrase "... is Φ" attributes the property Φ to A... This picking out uniquely is truly crucial for a description's being capable of being either true or false; as long as we cannot be sure what object in the world the statement or description refers to, we cannot decide about propositional truth or falsity. If the condition of this unique picking out is satisfied, one may turn to the object referred to in the statement and ask whether it possesses the property. If it does, the statement is true; if it does not, the statement is false. (p.65) 
But the case of representation is quite different. Think of painting... In a portrait one cannot distinguish between spots of paint that exclusively attribute certain properties to the sitter. The distinction makes no sense in the case of portrait painting. Thus pictorial representation is essentially different from description... And the same is true for historical representation... Think of a book on the French Revolution. There you cannot pinpoint those chapters, sections, paragraphs, or sentences that exclusively refer to the French Revolution and those other that exclusively attribute certain properties to it, as typically is the case in the singular true statement... This also explains why we cannot speak of the propositional truth or falsity of representations (as they are found in portraits or history books). (p.66)
So far, what we have here is another explanation of the distinction I blogged about last time. Description is one thing and Representation is another thing. There's a cognitive mystery here (imho; Ankersmit doesn't delve into Psychological literature) but however it works we can all recognize that a whole is often much more than the sum of its parts. If propositional statements are always well defined, and dynamic experience is not so easily wrangled into subjection, then how can we understand Representation if we're stuck in propositional thinking? Ankersmit says:
I propose to define representational truth as what the world, or its objects, reveal to us in terms of its aspects.// So let us have a look at this definition... just like the more current definitions of propositional truth -- such as the correspondence and the coherence theories of truth -- representational truth succeeds in bridging the gap between language and reality. It does so by linking at the textual level of historical representation and its presented -- which is, as we have found, not a conceptual entity like a word's meaning but an aspect of the world itself. However, since these aspects are not identifiable individual objects in the past, correspondence and coherence theories explaining propositional truth could not possibly apply here. Anyway, bridging the language/reality gap is achieved by both propositional truth and representational truth. (p.107)
From the propositional standpoint, truth is defined by what we can say. From the representational standpoint, truth is found in what we can see. What follows across the next fifty pages is a philosophical tour de force over linguistic aspects of reference and truth, but Ankersmit always brings things back to (historical) Representation. In what is probably the book's most significant chapter (7), the author concludes:
The paradox is that the text -- apparently a most contrived and artificial linguistic construction if compared with the simple and ascetic structure of the true statement -- is in fact more basic than the statement. However, we believe the statement to be the basic component in our use of language -- more basic, anyway, than the text. Does the text not consist of true statements? What other access could we possibly have to the text than a route beginning with the true statement? So we tend to think. But it is in fact the other way around... Paradoxically, representation precedes true description. This, then, is the "Copernican Revolution" advocated in this book.(p.154,6)
To that last statement, in a footnote, he adds: "The dogma presupposed by most of contemporary philosophy of language is the existence of a world of objects giving us access to propositional truth. But this dogma requires the philosopher's critical scrutiny."

Despite all this sublime brilliance, I suspect the author's most practical takeaway was perhaps made way back in chapter 3, where he argued that representation precedes interpretation:
...we should distinugish between interpretation and representation and, more specifically, avoid looking at the historical text from the perspective of interpretation only. ...representation takes priority over interpretation in the historical text; there can be interpretation only after there has first been a representation and therefore an either real or imaginary reality represented by the text. Needless to say, this permanently present "memory" of a represented reality occasioned by representation will limit the freedom of maneuver of the practice of interpretation. When we interpret a text, we can never wholly discard an image, however unclear and imperfect, of what the text might be "true" of. (p.62-3)
Notice that juxtaposition between "either real or imaginary reality represented". I want to underscore this phrase with one final quotation from a delicious footnote on page 119, where this crucial point is repeated: 
...representation precedes interpretation. We do insufficient justice to the novel when we interpret it only while refraining from asking ourselves what it represents. And the fact that what it represents will often be an imaginary reality does not diminish in any way the urgency of this question... We read the novel as if it were true, and the failure to do so will make nonesense of the literary text.
As far as this goes for the novel, so it goes for historical fiction, and none the less for historical narrative. Description is propositional. Representation cannot be contained by such thinking. Representation should, rather, constrain all types of interpretive thinking, provided one is interpreting any kind of a narrative.

Representation is the essence of both fiction and historical writing, and the Gospel narratives were written as purportedly "historical narratives", even though some call them fiction. It is thus my belief that Ankersmit's work gives us more than enough reason for New Testament scholars to stop relegating "Representation" to the realm of "Historical Jesus" studies.

We have every reason to bring "Historical Representation" fully into the proper domain where it always should have belonged - that being the narratological approach of "New Testament Narrative Criticism". About this, I will hopefully say much more in future posts.

Anon, then...


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