Are we wrong to believe?

There are no facts in themselves. It is always necessary to begin by introducing a meaning in order that there can be a fact (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted by Roland Barthes in The Discourse of History).

Gilles Deleuze, in Proust and Signs, asserts that “Philosophy supposes direct declaration and explicit signification, proceeding from a mind seeking the truth. Physics supposes an objective and unambiguous matter subject to the conditions of reality” (Deleuze, 1972: p90). Given that our knowledge of both nature and culture is shaped, conditioned, classified, and formulated by our language (Norris, 1982: pp4-5), “We are wrong to believe in facts; there are only signs. We are wrong to believe in truth; there are only interpretations” (Deleuze, 1972: p90). 

In the view of Roland Barthes, “it’s impossible to consider a cultural object outside of the articulated, spoken, and written language which surrounds it” (Barthes, 1985 (9): p65).

In Language, Truth and Logic, A J Ayer states that “the propositions in which we record the observations that verify these hypotheses are themselves sense-experience. Thus there are no final propositions” (Ayer, nd: p94). 

On such a basis, then, the objectives of physics and philosophy are unattainable: all their writings are “cultural products” (Barthes, 1983: p4) — constituting (borrowing Barthes’s description of Gide’s novels) “a fine fiction … in which one agrees to believe because it explains life and at the same time is a little stronger, a little larger than life (it affords the image of an ideal; every mythology is a dream)” (Barthes, 1982 (1): p13). 

Of course, such statements are no more ‘the truth’ than the assertions they challenge and deny; accordingly, they might be read not as an attempt to express the inexpressible, but rather as an endeavour “to unexpress the expressible” (Barthes, 1972: p15).  Their intention (their ‘revolutionary task’) is not to supplant physics and philosophy but to transgress, to recognize and to reverse, to challenge, to deny (Barthes, 1985 (1): p47).

Ultimately, then, the narratives, rhetorics, and ideologies of physics and metaphysics — indeed, all notions of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ — are subject to a transcendence at once elegant and sublime: “The odor of a flower, when it constitutes a sign, transcends at once the laws of matter and the categories of mind” (Deleuze, 1972: p91). 

Whereas — in terms of anything that language might articulate — there is no truth, it is equally clear that (for Barthes, as for Deleuze) “Everything is implicated, everything is complicated, everything is sign, meaning, essence” (Deleuze, 1972: p91).  It can fairly be said, then, that (like Proust) Barthes is ultimately concerned neither with philosophy nor physics, neither ‘culture’ nor ‘nature’, but with ‘the peculiar interplay between nature and culture’.

All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth (Friedrich Nietzsche).


Ayer, A. nd. Language, Truth and Logic. New York: Dover.

Barthes, R. The Discourse of History, translated by Stephen Bann, on a web-page identified as belonging to Patricia Craddock, Department of English, University of Florida

Barthes, R. 1972. Critical Essays. Translated by Richard Howard; copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Translated from the French Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil.

Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. (1) ‘On Gide and His Journal’ (1942). Translated by Richard Howard. Translation copyright © 1981 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. ‘Notes sur André Gide et son Journal’ was published in July 1942 in Existences, the magazine of the Sanatorium des Etudiants de France at Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet (Isére).

Barthes, R. 1983. Empire of Signs. London: Jonathan Cape [“First British edition”]. First published by Hill and Wang, New York, in 1982. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1982 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as L’Empire des Signes; copyright © 1970 by Éditions d’Art Albert Skira SA, Genève.

Barthes, R. 1985. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962‑1980 [39 items], translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. London: Jonathan Cape (1985). Translation copyright © 1985 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as Le Grain de la voix, copyright © 1981 by Éditions du Seuil.

Deleuze, G. 1972. Proust and Signs. New York: George Braziller, Inc. Originally published in French under the title Proust et les Signes, © 1964, by Presses Universitaires de France. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1972 by George Braziller, Inc.

Norris, C. 1982. Deconstruction : Theory and Practice. (In a series: New Accents; General Editor, Terence Hawkes.)  London & New York: Methuen & Co.

See also


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