Updated: Apr 1, 2021
I’ve been interested in the ways in which stories can be interesting and informative, even if they are not literally true. That is, maybe Socrates never participated in his famous Socratic Dialogues, but the critical insights we find in them remain unchanged in any case. In large part, what I write on this blog is an attempt to derive interesting life lessons from sources like this. For example, scientific truth may be literal truth, but we can derive further lessons by analogy to, or from the process of, scientific thinking, and those lessons may be orthogonal to that literal interpretation.
Do such things qualify as “true”? One view (held by Jordan Peterson and Brett Weinstein) is that stories can be literally false but “metaphorically true”. This is one way to view the Socratic Dialogues, and (they argue) many stories in the Bible. We learn important life lessons from metaphor and story, whether or not the events actually transpired. Both prose and poetry can hold metaphorical truth.
Whether this is really “truth” or not, seems like a pedantic distinction to me; it’s clear enough that there are at least two factors at work that we care about. For my purposes, let me use Literal to denote “literal truth” and Insightful to denote “metaphorical truth”. On this splitting, a story can be either Literal, or Insightful, or both at the same time; what you learn from a Literal story is what actually happened, whereas an Insightful story tells you something broad, general, or merely unrelated to the specifics of the story. When I tell a story about a group of friends choosing a restaurant, I might be relating the facts Literally, and/or making a general point applicable to other areas of life.
To make use of another of my favorite distinctions: Literal stories live in the Real World, whereas Insightful stories can exist either in the Real World or the Meta Level. A Literal story might be the tale of how you met your current significant other; an Insightful story might be the story of King Lear. A Literal+Insightful story might be a metaphor, like when I tell you a story from my own life that helps you come to terms with a similar situation in yours.
This is the picture I have in mind
But, don’t forget that everything is a spectrum! There exists, in fact, a whole two-dimensional plane of possibilities extending across the Literal / Insightful axes. Your favorite stories populate this plane more or less continuously.
Just a rough sketch, of course.
That’s all I wanted to say today.