The Performing Arts: Truth and Humanness

Performing the Arts

One overarching theme of this course is to demonstrate the immense value that the performing arts offers from the point of view of the participant. That is, more than just appreciating the arts passively as an observer, the goal is also to learn to appreciate them actively as a performer.

Of course, to truly appreciate this perspective, it means that we have to GET UP THERE and PERFORM.


I know, I know. As much as you might appreciate the arts, the thought of being a participant – of performing in front of others – might make you cringe. Or hyperventilate. Or hurl.

Getting up in front of others can be TERRIFYING.

Nonetheless, because there is such an enormous pedagogical and personal benefit to doing so, we will dedicate several class sessions on performance and character development.

Last week, we had a session on acting. Everyone warmed up by walking around the room, listening to the instructor (Ashley Wallace) give directions about how to move physically through space. She had you walk at different paces – slow, medium, fast – according to her verbal commands. You had to stop when she said ‘stop,’ walk when she said ‘walk,’ clap when she said ‘clap,’ and jump when she said ‘jump.’ Once you did this for a bit, you then had to interpret the commands in reverse: walk when Ashly said ‘stop,’ stop when she said ‘walk,’ jump when she said ‘clap,’ and clap when she said ‘jump.’

At first, you may have bumbled around awkwardly, laughing at yourself for messing up, mishearing the commands, getting confused, or bumping into one another. Many of you may have been uncomfortable, self-conscious, or nervous.

It’s odd: simply walking around a room with your classmates – even when everyone in the room is doing the same thing – can be intimidating to those not used to having physical movement be the primary focus of a classroom exercise. Sure, everyone has to use their bodies everyday to move from one place to another. We have to get to class, get home, go to the store, go to the bank, and take our dog to the vet. But we rarely think much about how we are moving when we do these things. We rarely reflect on how we are standing or how fast we are walking or whether we are holding our head up or slouching or picking our feet up completely or moving our arms in any noticeable way. We usually move automatically and unreflectively, focusing on just getting from A to B rather than how we are getting there. Moving in this mindless, mundane sense is very different from moving consciously and deliberately, as the students were doing in their acting sessions.

The warm-up exercises and subsequent acting lessons had several objectives. One of the first goals was just to get everyone used to physically moving through space, communicating through and with your own bodies, listening to instructions, and learning how to coordinate physical and mental activity.  Since nearly all of you were new to acting or performing, it was helpful to have activities that allowed them to get used to deliberately and physically moving in front of their peers.

Another goal was to give a first-person demonstration on how position and movement of your bodies is a vehicle for non-verbal communication. In one exercise, you were asked to walk around the room, leading with a particular body part: forehead, nose, chest, belly, pelvis, knees, or toes. You then had to reflect and report on how it made you feel when you were leading with these different ‘psychological centers,’ and how it felt to see others moving in these ways.

You were also asked to act out short, simple, scripted scenes, some while wearing masks. The point was to get you to explore how to could communicate with fellow actors, as well as the audience, using only bodily movement, not words or facial expressions. Students were encourage to take some liberties with the script, and use it as a springboard for creative, non-verbal self-expression.

These lessons in acting might sound like fun to some, and horrifying to others. Being asked to get up and perform – however minimally – in front of peers can be exhilarating or debilitating, depending on the lack or severity of your stage fright.

But why did we do it? What practical value is there in learning how to act?

What does acted-out make-believe have to do with real life?

Why do I insist that we should – quite literally – perform the arts?

Truth and the Cult of the Untrue

If you are having difficulty anticipating how to answer these questions, you are not alone. Many philosophers have had difficulty seeing any deep or practical value to the arts as well.

This may not be surprising. Philosophers are notoriously obsessed with truth.

Some have even argued that order to be rationally responsible creatures, we should do whatever is needed to guarantee only true beliefs, and jettison false ones.  

In “The Ethics of Belief”, for example, William K. Clifford argues that poor decision-making and even immoral consequences can result from false beliefs. Because of this, we have an epistemic obligation to always make sure our beliefs are backed by solid evidence. We should never believe anything simply because we want to, or it suits our interests, or because it makes us feel better. We should only believe that which we have good reasons to support, and that “it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

While Clifford certainly did not intend for his epistemic principle to be applied to an assessment of the value of art, we can nonetheless see how someone guided by this principle would find the arts at best distracting – and at worst antithetical – to our goal of truth as rational agents. Art often seems indifferent (if not in direct opposition) to truth. A painting can be beautiful whether the subject of the painting exists or not; a play or music performance can be moving even if the events depicted in the art work have not really happened. Whether the subject of the art is real or not is completely irrelevant.

Moreover, works of art are usually works of fiction, which (as we’ll see next week) promote make-believe, pretense, and illusion – all of which are (seemingly) in opposition to truth.

In book X of the Republic, it is argued that all art is imitation, and thus is three times removed from ultimate reality. According to Socrates, all of the concrete world – things that we can see and touch and feel, such as tables and chairs and rocks and trees – are instantiations of the true, underlying reality, the world of the Forms. Forms are the ideal essence behind material this-worldly objects. While there can be many concrete tables, which come into and go out of existence, and may break and chip and age and be repaired, there is only one immutable, perfect table-Form, which all concrete tables are instantiations of.  Given this metaphysical worldview, all concrete objects are mere copies of the Forms, and hence are twice removed from reality.

Art, in contrast, is even further removed: instead of making a table, a painter paints a picture of a table. The painting is an imitation of a concrete object, which in turn is an imitation of a Form.

Art, then, is nothing more than imitations of imitations of what’s true. Since our goal is to get to reality, not away from it, pursuing art is movement in the wrong intellectual direction, according to Socrates. We (philosophers, responsible thinkers, rational creatures) are trying to find out what the world is, not dwindle or escape in what the world is not.

So, the general consensus seems to be:  if you are searching for truth, don’t waste time chasing art!

Even Nietzsche, who famously praises the arts and artists, nonetheless dubs the arts the “cult of the untrue.”


Nietzsche highly values truth and honesty because they are life-affirming virtues, but he also sees the arts as a welcome salve from the heaviness of these pursuits. In a way, art is a necessary, freeing escape – a passionate foil to the more sober work of wisdom and knowledge.

So while Nietzsche disagrees with Socrates about the value of art, he agrees (to some extent) with the claim that art is untruth.

Incidentally, you don’t have to believe in a world of Platonic Forms, or adopt Clifford’s uncompromising epistemic principle, or accept Nietzsche’s view that honesty is life-affirming, or even be a philosopher, to see the importance of aiming for truth (and avoiding falsity and illusion).  In tangible ways that you might notice in your everyday life, seeking truth helps us to become more genuine, sincere creatures, and allows us to come to know ourselves, free from self-delusion or lies. This in turn allows us to see the world as it really is, to react to it honestly, which lays a solid foundation on which to make more accurate and fruitful practical decisions about ourselves, each other, and the world – which in turn may even lead to a happier life. In contrast, a life shrouded in delusion and falsity will likely lead to mistakes,  poor decisions, and possibly even immoral actions.

But if all of this is right, then how, if we value truth, can we simultaneously value art – the cult of the untrue?

And aren’t matters even worse for the circus and performing arts?

You might have noticed that I’ve been lumping together all of the arts – fine and performing. This is primarily because skepticism of the value of art has often treated all of the art forms uniformly. But one might argue that performing arts have it particularly bad.

In the theater, for example, the disconnect between truth and illusion seems even more severe than in other art forms. We have the stage, yes, and the screenplay. According to Socrates, that is enough for us to have something that several steps away from reality: both the story in the screenplay and the scene being depicted on stage are imitations of something concrete, which in turn are imitations of true reality, the Forms. But in addition to being imitations of imitations, theatrical productions also involve actors or performers, who, by the very nature of their craft, are pretending. Acting involves playing a role; actors (while acting) need to be someone they aren’t. The added, intentional immersion of individual performers into a world of illusion and make-believe arguably makes the performing arts even more removed from truth than the fine art counterparts.

So how do we reconcile an appreciation of the performing arts while also valuing truth?

Truth and Humanness

One way to answer this question is to explore the many ways truth can come from art (untruth).

First, notice that many fictional stories, fables, and metaphors are used to teach moral lessons. While it might be difficult to teach a child abstract moral concepts directly, using a story such as The Emperor’s New Clothes could teach her about being honest about one’s ignorance, the power of deception and the perceived opinion of others, or about having the courage to think critically and think for oneself, despite having an opinion that differs from the majority. These are all fairly sophisticated moral topics, which might be difficult to communicate or teach directly. When such abstract concepts are taught through fiction, however, they become more palatable; even children grasp the ideas.

But relying on fiction to learn theoretical truths is not only for children and their fables. Even the philosophers mentioned above who so clearly value truth use stories, parables, and fiction to argue for their conclusions. Socrates uses his allegory of the cave to talk about his theory of knowledge and metaphysics of the forms; Clifford uses a fictional example of a morally irresponsible ship builder to defend his epistemic principle; Nietzsche uses a fictional story (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) to give voice to his philosophical ideas.

Moreover, the history of science and philosophy is filled with theoreticians who use what are called thought experiments to figure out what the world is like. Thought experiments are ways of using our imaginations to simulate counterfactual situations, a way of thinking through what would happen if we were to do so-and-so. While there is some controversy as to whether thought experiments really do tell us true facts about the world, they at the very least help us think through hypothetical scenarios, making vivid possibilities and consequences we might not have been aware of prior to thinking imaginatively about it.

What’s more – and may be surprising – is that thought experiments are tools nearly everyone uses, daily. Suppose you wake up in the morning thinking: I need to get some coffee, but I also want to go to the gym, take a shower, and I need to run by the bank. You think through, logistically, how you can do all of that before you have to get to work. Perhaps you run through several scenarios in your head. If you get coffee, then take a shower, then go to the gym, you will arrive at work late and smelly (and there will have been no point in the earlier shower). If you get coffee first, then go to the gym, then shower, you will have no time left to go to the bank. So maybe you skip the gym and workout later at night. And so on.

Running through the logistical possibilities of your morning, you are likely not making any great moral or philosophical discoveries. But you are using your imagination to think about how the world could be if you were to so-and-so instead of such-and-such. This is to think counterfactually; it is to think of what is possible for you, given certain scenarios. And, arguably, gaining access to counterfactual knowledge is indeed knowledge about the real world, since it is knowledge about true possibilities.

Using your imagination to run through several scenarios is something that can be done to a better or worse degree. Those individuals who can see possibilities where others do not – those who express some individuality or creativity – can often come to clever solutions or unexpected conclusions, which can yield very practical benefits in everyday life. Engaging in the arts, then, encourages this creative, counterfactual exploration, and can benefit people in a very real, practical way.

In addition to all of these advantages, however, engaging in fiction – and, in particular, engaging in the theatrical arts – might also provide deep insight into one’s own character, and humanity in general.

In Acts: Theater, Philosophy, and the Performing Self, Tzachi Zamir proposes a theory of persons that allows participants in the theater to amplify and improve their own sense of self. According to Zamir, “a person is a cluster of possibilities, and actualizes a small portion of these.” The idea is that each person understands themselves as a set of things that are in fact the case, against a background of things that are possible for them. You are in fact reading this blog, you were doing something else beforehand, you had something to eat or drink in the last 24 hours. However, you also know that you could be reading something else instead of this blog, you could be sleeping instead of reading, you could have done something else before you started reading this, and you could have eaten something different than you did, or eaten nothing at all.

The personal benefit of acting, according to Zamir, is that it broadens the scope of a person’s usual set of possibilities, potentially leading to a wider range of opportunities or ‘live options’ in real life for the person acting. Acting makes vivid a large realm of possibilities that may not have been available to the actor prior to playing a role on stage. Zamir calls this”existential amplification.” Acting (and not merely observing acting) can help someone better understand themselves as they actually are, against a broadened backdrop of what’s possible for them.

Finally, one might argue that engaging in the arts – and (again), in particular, the theatrical arts – not only helps us understand our individual selves, but also helps us express our individuality creatively, which in turn can help us connect with other human beings.

Nick Riggle in his book, On Being Awesome: A Unified Theory of How Not to Suck, introduces the notion of a social opening. In our everyday lives, as we interact with our fellow human beings, we have certain social norms (rules) that we follow. You go to a coffee shop, you order your coffee, you pay, you get your coffee, you leave. There are social rules in play here, even if you don’t usually realize it: there may have been a pleasant interaction between you and the barista, you may have left a tip, you may have said good morning to fellow patrons. But (hopefully) you did not YELL YOUR ORDER IN A REALLY LOUD VOICE, you didn’t cut in line, you didn’t intentionally slam the door on an old lady, or say inappropriately mean things to the barista just for the fun of it.  These social rules and roles are important, as they help keep order, and help society functioning relatively peacefully. But they also lend to rote repetition, making us “act in generic manner”, and in ways that “don’t reveal much about who we are as individuals.”

A social opening, according to Riggle, is when we creatively break out of these social roles, allowing for moments of self-expression, and an opportunity for others to express themselves creatively in return. (And being a master at creating social openings, according to Riggle, is one of the key features of being awesome). For example, maybe you take the opportunity to tell the barista a joke, or compliment his sweater, or connect with him in some way as an individual human being, not merely as a means to your caffeinated end. This takes a small amount of creativity, energy, and courage, and requires you to break out of your auto-pilot mode, as you play the generic role of coffee shop patron. But breaking out of a generic role – encouraging individuals to creatively express themselves and go beyond a set script – these are exactly the sorts of skills that theater students are taught.

It may initially seem that learning to act, or pretend, or make-believe you are someone you aren’t, are skills that are antithetical to a life in pursuit of truth. But acting can help participants understand how to creatively express themselves. It can help them learn how to communicate effectively with others. And, importantly, it can encourage them to put their own spin on a given role or set script, which in turn might get them to see how they can behave similarly in ordinary life, when they are doing something as mundane as ordering a cup of coffee. Acting lessons might be incredibly helpful in teaching people how to embrace and create social openings, which in turn, might improve our relationships with fellow human beings.

So: how do we reconcile an appreciation of the arts while also valuing truth?

In short: We recognize all the many ways that art (especially performing art) is a path to both truth and humanness.


Suggested Reading

**Originally published Dec. 30, 2017; updated Oct. 23, 2018


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