The Truth in Stories

Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society
Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society
Public group

Philadelphia Ethical Society

1906 Rittenhouse Square · Philadelphia, PA

How to find us

On the south side of Rittenhouse Square near the corner of 19th Street; first-floor auditorium; use front entrance except for wheelchair access at the rear of the building (let us know if you need access).

Location image of event venue


Are stories, as Marina Warner claims, "a form of inquiry"? Are our values for good storytelling rooted in the retrospective, reconstructive modes of flashbacks, biography, and history? Does such storytelling necessarily reshape history? Are all our everyday storytellings 'feigned histories' as W. H. Auden suggested? When story takes a speculative form, when it offers an hypothesis or hypotheses, does it become fantasy with a prospective, forecasting view? Are both the retrospective and prospective forms inquiries? Are even the assertions in stories veiled questions?

Is there a truth of the imagination? Are imaginative stories tools of truth-telling? Is truth an important component of tall tales, proverbs, jokes, riddles, parables, satire, romances, ballads, elegies, comedies, tales of wonder and magic, fairy tales, animal fables, and myths? Is there truth in fiction? What is the relationship between imaginative stories and truth? What do these truths in stories reveal about our post-truth era of "fake news"? Does language and image "feed and form experience" as Toni Morrison suggests? Does "Life follow art" as Marina Warner suggests? Do these insights reveal the importance, depth, and nature of the truth in stories?

This event will include brief opening remarks and a few clips from a Marina Warner video (see resources below). Most of our time will be in group conversations among participants to explore the topic.

This is a joint event, sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society and the Philadelphia Ethical Society and hosted by CJ Fearnley of the Thinking Society and Hugh Taft-Morales of the Ethical Society. Free and open to all. There will be complementary light refreshments.

Optional Resources

The ideas and questions for this topic spring from a penetrating presentation "[making] arguments for the truth of the imagination" which Dame Marina Warner gave on 7 December 2017 and entitled "The Truth in Stories" (54 minute optional video):

You can read a significantly revised and abridged but nicely illustrated version of her presentation published on 5 February 2018 at

First Round Questions: The Art of Storytelling: Are stories a form of inquiry?

• Are all our everyday storytellings 'feigned histories' as W. H. Auden suggested? Is the retrospective, reconstructive storytelling mode of flashbacks, biography, and history necessarily an imaginative retelling? Does such storytelling inherently reshape history?

• When a story offers a hypothesis or hypotheses, does it adopt the storytelling mode of fantasy with a prospective, forecasting view? Are both the retrospective and prospective forms inquiries?

• Are even the assertions in stories, veiled questions? Are they "conjectures, not theorems" as Marina Warner says? Are stories a form of inquiry? Always, sometimes, or never?

Second Round Questions: The Fabulist Imagination: Is there a truth of the imagination?

• What is the relationship between imaginative stories and truth? How can invented stories reveal truth? Is there truth in fiction?

• What do these truths in stories reveal about the nature of our post-truth era of "fake news"?

• Does language and image "feed and form experience" as Toni Morrison suggests? Does "Life follow art" as Marina Warner suggests? Are stories the tools of truth-telling? Is there truth in stories?

Key quotes from the Marina Warner video:

"A Story is above all a form of inquiry."

"Narrative literature in its manifold genres is a mode of curiosity."

"Stories are conjectures, not theorems."

"Literature, stories in multiple forms, follows history, but as it does so it also shapes it, reshapes it. The retrospective reckoning often has its face to the wind blowing from the future."

"The inquiry a story mounts may also take a speculative form: offer an hypothesis, or a set of interlocking and often contradictory hypotheses. This is the enterprise of fantasy. A broad and deep vista on a vast landscape. And its look is generally prospective, a forecast, or prolepsis."

"When the active imagination in literature looks forward as much as it looks backward, it often represents a maneuver to forestall the worst or to conjure a hope into being. This is a form of magical writing. Writers keep asking what might happen."

"The witness statement, the confession, and the traumatic speech of memory all depend on the subject's lived experience, not on dreamed or imagined possibilities. Fantasy is intrinsically disadvantaged. And that continual interplay between memory and imagination denied."

"The poet W. H. Auden, discussing the imaginative zone of speculative and imaginative fiction, adopted the term ‘Secondary World’, [he] declared, 'Every normal human being is interested in two kinds of worlds: the Primary, everyday, world which he knows through his senses, and a Secondary world or worlds which he not only can create in his imagination, but also cannot stop himself creating ... Stories about the Primary world may be called Feigned Histories; stories about a Secondary world, myths or fairy tales.'"

"The way stories reveal truth involve many varieties of imaginative
strategems. They don't photograph what took place, as it were, but they paint possibilities with eyes closed out of dreaming, thinking, and the creative faculties. ... Literature happens in the debatable land of imagined and invented events."

"The thinking imagination, developed by literature, stimulates a stance of alertness and questioning, what Terrance Cave, in an excellent book he has written called 'Thinking with Literature' has called 'epistemic vigilence'. And I truly believe that reading attentively does achieve this, it's a tool for thinking."

"Fabulism – making up stories – is not only an ancient, deep-rooted and peculiar mark of human beings ..., but its many genres ... are the tools of truth-telling, fashioned over time. But its many registers and moods, in which irony is paramount, range through the whole gamut of communicating subtleties and nuances. The oldest stories in the world – usually about lions and jackals – are directed at princes and are laced with ironies about tyranny and its prerogatives. The only caveat about the tradition is not that it does not ask stories to tell the truth, but that the truth that stories have been telling for so long has not dented the swollen brutality of tyrants one jot."

"Toni Morrison in her most recent little book called 'The Origin of Others' has a chapter called 'Being or Becoming the Stranger', and in this she writes 'The resources available to us for benign access to each
other, for vaulting the mere blue air that separates us, are few but powerful… Language, image, and experience which may involve both or neither of the first two. Language (saying, listening, reading) can encourage, even mandate, surrender, the breach of distances among us, whether they are continental or on the same pillow, whether they are distances of culture or the distinctions and indistinctions of age and gender, whether they are the consequences of social invention or biology. Image increasingly rules the realm of shaping, sometimes becoming, sometimes contaminating knowledge. Provoking language and eclipsing it, an image can determine not only what we know and feel but also what we believe is worth knowing about what we feel.' —She is putting image along side language, but I want to go back to language.— 'These two godlings, language and image, feed and form experience.'"

Supplementary notes:

The Marina Warner video is a rich resource. To keep the event description short by only highlighting a "minimal discussable set", I have omitted the following segments that I hope participants will find despite their omission above: 1) the wonderful segment on Claire-Louise Bennett's "Pond", 2) the provocative commentary on arrivants (the more welcoming word of Kamau Brathwaite for refugees or migrants or illegals), 3) the profound interpretation of Oedipus Rex as a story of denial, and 4) the Arabian Nights where Scheherazade gives the 'talking cure' to the cruel Shahryar with storytelling. You are, of course, welcome to bring these segments (and more) to the event.