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April 21, 2006

Discussing Truth: Is There a Factual Definition?

Hello Everyone,

This month there has been a lot of discussion about the concept of "truth." Do you recall the film Dekalog 8 by Krzystof Kieślowski? It had everything to do with telling "the truth," remember? So did the documentary Strongwoman. Several of you, I might add, expressed that you did not believe Justyna's testimony (which seemed to horrify Maria Z. who, in fact, did!)

In our last exercise we looked at Henry Adams's (1838-1948) admonition to learn as the prime directive. In other words, the ability to learn or the process of learning, above all, is the most important thing of all since it gives a person "enough" to get by in life. If we take this statement for granted, are we then to assume that we should be learning "truthful" things? Would Adams sound nearly as clever if he told us to go out and fill our heads with "untruths"? It seems important, then, if we are to learn let it not be wasted on lies and propaganda (useless data) but on knowledge that we somehow know to be true . . .

. . . With the public release of the possibly gnostic Gospel of Judas, even many traditional religious believers are left wondering what is really true about what they believe(d)? This is especially interesting when/if certain fundamentalists apply the same measures of authenticity and textual criticism against the newly released gospel against their own canonical sacred texts. The whole business reminds me a lyric from the infamous rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (also "narrated" from the Judas point-of-view), where J.C. tells Pontius Pilate "I search for truth, and find that I get damned" where Pilate replies "We all have truths. Are yours the same as mine?" In our postmodern reality of 2006 can we be sure that anything is really true or we must we only rely on the hope or belief that something is?

So, today, I'd like you to consider quotations from two other well known personas, John Locke and Maya Angelou:

• “It is one thing to show a man that he is in an error, and another to put him in possession of truth.” ~ John Locke (1632-1704)

• “There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”~ Maya Angelou (1928 - )

Normally, I'd ask you to choose one of these quotations and write on just one of them. Instead, I'd like you to comment on both of them. Let's go into our expository mode. Talk about them one by one and then compare:

1. What is each writer really trying to say, in your own words?
2. What is important or significant about each of these approaches to truth?
3. Are they different? If so, explain how.
4. Does one quotation build on, add to or expound upon the dynamic of the other. In other words, does one quotation sort of change the definition (and thereby the understanding) of the other? How?

Please enter your responses below. Let's aim for about three solid paragraphs of information. I look forward to reading your remarks.



Posted by lhobbs at April 21, 2006 12:48 PM

Readers' Comments:

Professor Hobbs,

When I read John Locke’s quote, I think about the difference between trust and fact. When you trust in a person, you believe what they say is true, despite previous occurrences. A fact is something that is proven true by trials and tests. Locke is trying to saying it is one thing to believe someone based off of facts, but it is another to believe them out of trust. Maya Angelou’s quote is also very similar. She suggests that facts and truth are completely different, and that facts can refute the truth. Just because someone says that they are telling the truth, it does not mean that it is true. Facts are accepted, because they are tested under many circumstances, and produce the same result every time. We can never know if someone is telling the truth unless they back it up with valid examples and facts.

This significance of each quote is the importance of truth. We can not determine if someone is telling the truth unless they present evidence. Truth is a very sensitive subject, and can be easily misconstrued. If the right things are said at the right moments, a story can go from being unbelievable to believable.

Maya Angelou’s quote changes the idea of John Locke’s quote. By her saying, “Facts can obscure the truth,” Angelou leads us to believe what a person says can not always be believed. John Locke suggests that error can be found, and corrected, but truth is already assumed true. Angelou encourages us to find the absolute truth behind every situation, while Locke just wants us to be aware that facts are more reliable than truth. The main idea that can be gained from each of these quotes is do not trust everyone’s word, but first consider the facts, then decide if the statement is true.

Kashiff M.

Posted by: Kashiff M. at April 23, 2006 08:49 PM

The quote said by John Locke I think means that showing a man that he is not perfect rather than telling him the truth about himself are two completely different things with different possibly reactions. The quote said by Maya Angelou I think means that facts are not always true and truth is not always a fact, but sometimes fact can taint the truth. The importance of both of these approaches to truth are that truth is sort of in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes truth is not always the same for someone else and may think that it is false. The two quote are different in a way because the one said by Angelou is more about facts and truth when the quote by Locke is not anything about fact. I do not think that either of the quotes changes their definitions. They are just two different quote that are kind of similar to the same thing.

Posted by: Liz L. at April 23, 2006 10:24 PM

Professor Hobbs,

“It is one thing to show a man that he is in an error, and another to put him in possession of the truth.”
- John Locke (1632-1704)

I think that Mr. Locke was trying to say that even when you tell someone that they are wrong about something, and they may realize it, however, they may repeat the same mistake again. If you show a person a truth, they see the way others see them and are going to change much more easily because they see themselves the way others see them, and usually do not like it.

“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”
- Maya Angelou (1928- )

I think that this quote discusses the idea that though something may be a fact and known to be true, it can change and alter the truth, because the truth is what the facts say it is. Whatever the facts may be, they are much more clear – cut than the truth will be. This leads to leaving out the details sometimes, and in the end, changing the entire story.

I believe that each of these quotes is true in their own ways. The first is more about a person realizing his or her own truths, while the second is more about exploring what truth is. The first and second quotes can be connected by when a person is trying to know a truth, like the first quote is talking about, it can sometimes be hard to tell what the truth really is, or if there even is such a thing as a whole and complete truth.

Kelsey L.

Posted by: Kelsey L. at April 23, 2006 11:04 PM

Professor Hobbs,

I feel that John Locke is trying to describe the difference between correcting a person’s error by showing them the right way and just simply stating that a person is incorrect. On the other hand, it seems that Maya Angelou is trying to differentiate the definitions of the word fact and the word truth. A fact can be interpreted in many different ways by many different races and ethnicities. Just because something is a fact does not mean that it cannot be proven wrong at any given time. The truth is a valid statement that’s meaning can be scrambled due to the vague definition of a fact.

There are many fine lines between vague words such as the word truth. Both of these quotes approach the word from different directions yet both explanations completely understandable when interpreted. The only reason one quotation changes the understanding of the other is because each person is using different definitions of the word truth. Although we have dictionaries, that does not change the fact that people have personalized definitions of what the “truth” really means.

Angela H.

Posted by: Angela H. at April 23, 2006 11:55 PM

Professor Hobbs,

It seems as if John Locke was saying in his quote that it is one thing to say someone is lying, but it is a totally different thing saying that he is telling the truth. It makes the whole situation hypocritical. It is one thing to tell a person that they are a liar and then tell them later that they are telling the truth. The whole thing can be confusing.

With the second quote, it can say that facts are the truth to some things, but it doesn’t necessarily make them right. Facts can’t really tell the truth to a story.

These quotes in a way can seem the same. They could also be different, but it would depend on how you see the situation. In a way it looks as if the second quote is just another way of explaining the first quote.

Kelly J.

Posted by: Kelly J. at April 24, 2006 02:18 AM

Dear Prof. Hobbs,

I strongly believe that John Locke was stating that there is a difference in pointing out a flaw in someone than to instruct them in what is right or "true". Pointing the finger is an easy task for many people to do. In many cases it requires little thinking and/or care for whether the person who was at fault gets better. Helping someone getting better requires empathy and/or dedication. The difference is that the person may not fully understand the "error" of his/her ways and how to change their thoughts when one merely points out a fallicy. On the other hand, that he/she will most likely understand what was wrong and know how to correct it.

In Maya Angelou's quote, I find a fallicy in it. I can not reason why a fact can obscure "the" truth. If something is fact, that means it is "true information", thus a truth. Something that regardless of circumstance will remain constant. This quote appears to me to be something that wasn't thought through. The quote is an oxymoron.

In the first part of John Locke's quote, there may be truth to what the person says when they point out a fault. But how truthful is it to know how something is wrong and not pass this information on to your fellow man? Is this truly help? Or is it self-righteousness? I believe this is what John Locke was trying to illustrate.

Both quotes are quite dissimilar. The quote provided by Maya Angelou I didn't understand the context of how she was using either words. But in John Locke's quote, I believe the meaning was clear and easy to determine.

Posted by: Holden B. Jones at April 24, 2006 02:31 AM


The first quote by John Locke speaks of man and what possibilities he may have if he comes in possession of truth. It is one thing to be in error and to admit that one is at fault but it is another to be placed in a position where one is shown why there was fault in their reasoning. From this knowledge man can both build upon it and formulate another stream of truths or he can try to find facts that will back up his own truth. This quote can mean many things as well. It can hint at the power that truth can hold and how troublesome it can be to prove a man wrong, or it can also mean that man is a developed rational thinker and that with truth in his hand he can reach farther heights.

The second quote written by Maya Angelo compares the two sides of a truth. There is the side that has no rational explanation other than its pure self. It is a side which has no proof behind it and has to be valid in one’s mind in order for it to be truth. Then there is a truth based on facts and accounts which can be false to some who have a different record of the facts at hand but certain to others who have a different side to the story. If one were to take this world and examine it from a factual point of view it would prove to be false. There is no explanation for everything. Something can only be explained by faith while other things have a rational basis upon it. It has been an ongoing fight whether people should recognize science as a truth which is built on multiple facts or faith as a truth which is built on belief.

These two quotes are similar in that they both speak of truths. The first quote examines the potential of man and what he can do with the truth. He can perhaps derive truth to all matters in this world and from then on people might turn their backs on what they once believed to be true and instead seeing it in a new light an understanding. The second quote compares both sides of the spectrum. There is no way of knowing which quote makes the most sense since each is correct in its own right, but the second quote explains more of its reasoning behind it and its meaning while the first by Locke lets the reader read into it what they may.

-Emily S.

Posted by: Emily S. at April 24, 2006 09:57 AM

Professor Hobbs,

The quote by John Locke to me means you can tell someone they are wrong, or you can tell them what is right. The truth is right and anything else is wrong, or an error. The second quote my Maya Angelou to me means that truth is a complex thing that can be looked at in different points of view. Facts can not, they are set in stone. Something that is true can be made wrong or sound wrong by facts that disagree with truth. I think these two quotes are very different in the message they are trying to send. They are similar in that they both are about truth.

C. Robinson

Posted by: Cathy at April 24, 2006 11:35 AM

Dear Professor Hobbs,

Truth is whatever you believe to be true. It is an opinionated world that will never change. What John Locke is trying to say in the first quote is that it is somewhat croppling to find a man in error, but to put him in the possesion of truth the opposite. With the truth you can use it to your adavantage or disadvantage, with alot more power.

The second quote by Maya Angelou can be taken as the fatcs that we live by are simply something we are topld to believe, they are not the truths that we can make them to be. Thats why i believe she said that facts obscure the truth.

The two quotes are similar in that they both state that truth has alot of power based on how we make it. It can be whatever we want it to be. With that I can say I complete agree with that, and that everyones truths are different.

Posted by: P.Beckles at April 24, 2006 12:13 PM

Professor Hobbs,

In his quote, John Locke is saying that there is nothing wrong with telling a person the truth. If a person is misunderstanding something, it is acceptable to tell that person the truth of the matter so they can better understand what was confusing them. Maya Angelou is saying that the truth is very often overlooked. Some people find fact better than truth and fail to see the importance of telling the truth.

Both Maya Angelou and John Locke express the importance of truth in these quotes. They also say how the truth is different from a fact or even telling some one they are wrong. Although these quotes are relatively similar, they do express differences. Locke says how telling a person he is wrong is not the way to go about exposing the truth. Angelou says that facts and the truth are different and sometimes if a person knows the facts, it can alter what they think is the truth.

Ali L.

Posted by: Ali L. at April 24, 2006 01:15 PM

Dear Professor Hobbs,

I think Locke is saying its one thing to show somebody they are wrong, and another to point them in the right direction towards the truth. Maya is saying that facts can change the perspective of the truth. It reminds me of the Duke Lacrosse team situation. The facts are that she was beat up and sexually assulted that night, but that doesn't mean a player did it. There was no DNA evidence that matched a player, but that doesn't mean they are not guilty of anything. The facts are there, but we don't know the truth.


Posted by: Brendan at April 24, 2006 01:23 PM

• “There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”~ Maya Angelou (1928 - )

I believe that in this quote, Maya Angelou is trying to get the point across that facts and truth vary from person to person. What may be a fact to some person may be merely an opinion to another. In this sense, this fact dims the light on the truths of another, making the truth seem less important, or less truthful.

The importance of each view of fact and truth in this quote is that it shows two different sides of a viewpoint. A fact supposedly made up of 100% of truth, while the truth may be altered based on beliefs. The fact that truth may be altered also suggests that fact could also have some false-natured percentages. I do not think there is much of a different between fact and truth. I believe each can be taylored to ones' own beliefs and desires.

I see a relationship in both Maya Angelou's quote as well as John Locke's in that both speak of the meaning of facts and truth and their possible and probable affects on eachother. These affects show the different natures each human being which are held in their beliefs and opinions.

Posted by: Missy Z. at April 24, 2006 01:49 PM

Professor Hobbs:

The quote by John Locke that states "It is one thing to show a man that he is in an error and another to put him in possession of truth." This means that we do not know what a man can do when he has the truth. Knowing the truth can do many things to one person or a group of people. It could ultimately destroy someone or it could make another's day. He who holds the truth can have the power.

If we show him that he is an error though, that could be hazardous yet at the same time, it would help him. Depending on who he is, his pride may not be able to look past the error. If he is a man of integrity however, he would accept him mistakes and try to better himself and the community around him.

Linda M.

Posted by: Linda M. at April 24, 2006 01:59 PM


John Locke is saying just by telling someone that they are wrong, doesn’t help them know what is right. If you are going to point out an error to someone then you should also show them the correct way. From experience, my friends and family tend to always want to correct you when they think you’re wrong but a lot of the time, that’s all they do. They don’t take the extra step to actually explain the situation and show you what is right. By taking that extra step they would help you acquire new information that will be useful to you in the future.
Mya Angelou quote about there being a world of difference between truth and facts says that just because someone proclaims something to be a truth doesn’t make it a fact. A fact is defined as knowledge or information based on real occurrences and in my definition, truth is just an assurance that one makes on their own based on what they know.

Adrianne E

Posted by: Adrianne E at April 24, 2006 02:04 PM

Professor Hobbs,

“It is one thing to show a man that he is in an error, and another to put him in possession of truth.” ~ John Locke (1632-1704) What Locke is saying is that it is possible to prove a man wrong than to passively allow him to think he is right. It might not just be a wrong or a right, but it is better to discuss and enlighten the man on the matter. It is better to see a situation from both sides, rather than having a close minded opinion.

There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”~ Maya Angelou (1928 - ) Now what Angelou is saying is that someone may believe in one thing, but with the right facts, it could prove them wrong. But is not always as simple as what these facts mean. There may be facts making a situation look true, but in actuality it is false. Concluding that facts might not always prove truth.

Locke is saying that there are different ways of viewing truth while Angelou is saying that truth may be blinded by facts. These quotes are taking truth in a different direction. Locke wants people to see that you may think something true or false, but its better to understand both instances before presuming. Angelou wants people to see the difference between facts and truth. Facts often reveal the truth, but it can also prevent someone from seeing the truth.

Samantha V.

Posted by: Samantha V. at April 24, 2006 08:27 PM

“There is a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”
-- Maya Angelou

As I looked at the dictionary, one of the definitions of “fact” is “truth”. But there may be a difference between them.
The facts may obscure the truth. Just take the case of Anne Frank. I think that for her, it is true that “people are really good at heart”. But the fact remained that she lived in the midst of “bad” people, who killed many people and committed millions of murders and numerous crimes. But the fact remained that she lived in the midst of “bad” people, who killed many people and committed millions of murders and numerous crimes.
It is also just like the quote, “all men are equal”. It is true. But the fact remains that men are different. Some are tall while others are small. Some are rich while the others are poor. But still, the quotation is true.
It is likewise true in the classroom. It is true that the teacher regards all students as equal. But it is also a fact that he does not give them equal grades, equal attention and the like.

Leonard A.

Posted by: Leonard at September 8, 2006 10:37 AM

Who is credited with saying..."All my stories are true... and some of them actually happened".

Posted by: Dan Hanley at February 3, 2009 03:50 PM

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