Every truth has two sides. It is well to look at both before we commit ourselves to either side.


This weekend I took part in a panel discussion on the meaning of literacy at the Battle of Ideas. Before I was about to go on, grammarian Nevile Gwynne asked me about the stance I was planning to take; I said he’d probably find me ‘quite traditional’. He then took me to task for my equivocation. Gwynne is a man untroubled by doubt and dismissed the position that to err is human as nonsense. But how can we ever know with any degree of certainty what is true? We can, apparently divine truth through perception, logic and faith.

We can know whether a thing is true by consulting the evidence of our senses. This might work for certain quotidian truths, but I’m not sure it works for anything much beyond this. Sometimes we cannot trust the evidence of our own eyes.

Logic tells us that since we know dogs can’t fly, I don’t have to see every dog to know a particular dog will be flightless. While this may be true, logic is a notoriously poor predictor of black swans.

And finally faith. We take our birthdate on faith. We take the fact that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 on faith. Whenever we accept the authority of others we act on faith. On faith, I accept that the holocaust occurred; that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; that Al Qaeda was responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks. Others may not be so eager to take accept these articles of faith. And, on consideration, there are all too many ‘truths’ about education which I’ve been prepared to take on faith which have turned out to be plain wrong.

Maybe truth is a little more slippery than all that? Maybe contradictory truths can coexist? Or maybe truth can sometimes be subjective? Can a thing just be true for me? These epistemological debates have occupied far deeper minds than mine for thousands of years. Gwynne’s view is that Aristotle tells us everything we need to know and possibly, excepting a few jarring errors on natural science, this might be true.

But I confess to finding the reaching after uncertainty espoused by Keats as far more satisfying than just accepting the very limited, limiting truths as revealed by perception, logic and faith.