Critical Theory And The Supposed Post-Truth Era: The Ideological Reaction

The tools that critical theory provides enable the undermining and subversion of established structures of power–political, cultural, discursive, technical, material, governmental, architectural, scientific, moral. They expose ideological pretensions and foundations, thus making it possible to see that all that is seemingly permanent and absolute may rest on evanescence. on historical contingency and accident and luck; they enable a corrosively suspicious response to any claims to political virtue. Critical theory is subversive; it should induce a kind of vertigo of possibility, one tinged with both fear and excitement; moreover, if the kind of critical position it points to is available for all dominant systems of cultural and political and intellectual formations, then it should also induce a fierce counter-reaction to its ‘revolutionary’ possibility, a co-opting of its ‘tools’ to be used against it. That is the least you would examine of any sophisticated ideology with a track record of survival; the ability to utilize the features of its opponents to undermine it.

The current brouhaha about how postmodernism made the Donald Trump presidency possible, by clearing the decks for fake news and alternative facts and truth-free daily briefings for the White House Press Corps and Pinocchio-inspired press spokespersons, by inspiring disrespect for ‘truth’ and ‘justification,’ is part of this counter-reaction. It is perfectly predictable; when those in power are subjected to the critique that their claims carry with them their pretensions to power, that they are invested with their own selfish material interests, that their philosophies are but their autobiographies, they will use those critical tools against the critique itself.

The suggestion that tools of critical analysis, the ones used to unmask pretensions of power, are the ones used to prop up an authoritarian regime that plays fast and loose with ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ and all of the other components of a realist, respectable, scientific, naturalistic epistemology is a reactionary one; and a predictable one too. It is of a piece with all those claims that point out problems with the form and content of protests; never the right time, never making its points in the right way, or speaking at the right volume. When directed at critical theory, this reaction says that your kind of protesting, its form, its methods, its techniques have resulted in the creation of a new and deadlier political and cultural monster; cease and desist with your critical analysis at once. It suggests that our tools are being used against us; we should lay them down at once; we should exert no other form of critical analysis to help us make political, cultural, or epistemic judgments. We should have known all along what was coming at the terminus of this ‘critique’: the claim that power in place should not be criticized, that critique has gone bad.

The perfect predictability of this ideological maneuver makes its deployment unsurprising; the personnel recruited for it–philosophers and journalists–are also the expected ones. Their easy acquiescence might be a little worrisome, of course, but all kinds of resistance breaks down when power comes calling.

Durkheim On The Pragmatist Conception Of Truth

Pragmatism’s much reviled ‘theory of truth’ received a sympathetic and yet critical and rigorous treatment in Émile Durkheim‘s little-known–to philosophers–Pragmatism and Sociology (John P. Allcock, ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1955.) As part of this treatment, Durkheim notes that:

If thought had as its object simply to ‘reproduce’ reality, it would be the slave of things, and chained to reality. It would simply have to slavishly ‘copy’ the reality before it. If thought is to be freed, it must become the creator of its own object, and the only way to attain this goal is to give it a reality to make or construct. Therefore, thought has as its aim not the reproduction of a datum, but the construction of a future reality. It follows that the value of ideas can no longer be assessed by reference to  objects but must be determined by their degree of utility, their more or less ‘advantageous’ character. [emphasis in original, p. 66]

Understanding the ‘aim’ or the objective of thought as the ‘construction of a future reality’ causes a reconceptualization of truth too; truth is not ‘mere correspondence’ with reality but rather some other recognition of the ‘value’ of an idea; the former is exclusively semantic, the latter is a richer notion, more complex than the simpler notions which preceded it:

[I]n rationalism truth is….necessarily placed above human life. It cannot conform to the demands of circumstances and differing temperaments. It is valid by itself and is good with an absolute goodness. It does not exist for our sake, but for its own. Its role is to let itself be contemplated. It is so to speak deified; it becomes the object of a real cult….’To soften’ the truth is to take from it this absolute and…sacrosanct character. It is to tear it away from this state of immobility that removes it from all becoming, from all change…from all explanation….instead of being thus confined in a separate world, it is itself…naturally part of reality and life….It poses problems: we are authorized to ask ourselves where it comes from, what good it is and so on. It becomes itself an object of knowledge. Herein lies the interest of the pragmatist enterprise: we can see it as an effort to understand truth and reason themselves, to restore to them their human interest, to make of them human things that derive from temporal causes and give rise to temporal consequences. To ‘soften’ truth is to make it into something that can be analysed and explained.

It is this ‘irreverence’ for, and ‘softening’ of, truth that allows pragmatism to make its most ambitious and ‘outlandish’ claims; it is what allows it to participate as a theoretical contributor to the sociology of knowledge; it makes comprehensible the ‘value’ of truth and its importance for us in our thought and action; unlike rationalism, which takes truth’s value as a given, pragmatism inquires into the role it plays in our theorizing and investigates whether the goods it promises are actually delivered or not.

Durkheim On Social Facts As Things: Methodology As Metaphysics

In The Rules of Sociological Method (The Free Press, 1982, pp. 35-36) Émile Durkheim writes:

The proposition which states that social facts must be treated as things…stirred up the most opposition. It was deemed paradoxical and scandalous for us to assimilate to the realities of the external world those of the social world. This was singularly to misunderstand the meaning and effect of this assimilation, the object of which was not to reduce the higher forms of being to the level of lower ones but…to claim for the former a degree of reality at least equal to that which everyone accords to the latter….we do not say that social facts are material things, but that they are things just as are material things, although in a different way.

What indeed is a thing? The thing stands in opposition to the idea….A thing is any object of knowledge which is not naturally penetrable by the understanding….It is all that which the mind cannot understand without going outside itself, proceeding progressively by way of observation and experimentation from those features which are the most external and the most immediately accessible to those which ‘are the least visible and the most profound. To treat facts of a certain order as things is therefore not to place them in this or that category of reality; it is to observe towards them a certain attitude of mind. It is to embark upon the study of them by adopting the principle that one is entirely ignorant of what they are, that their characteristic properties, like the unknown causes upon which they depend, cannot be discovered by even the most careful form of introspection.

This passage of Durkheim’s is rich in metaphysical import–precisely because it offers a definition of ‘thing’ and suggests existence can be ascribed to orders of being that are not ‘material,’ and which are not for that reason, lacking in ‘reality.’ The fundamental opposition for Durkheim is between objects of the intellect–‘ideas’–and those that are not–things, which require externally directed study. These ‘things’ can be ‘material,’ made up of material substance, or they can have some unknown constitution. But a ‘thing’s’ reality is not a matter of its composition, or its location in space and time; rather, it is a matter of what relation our thought bears to it. The opposition between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial’ is not one between ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’; the immaterial can have just as much reality as the material. Rather, if the ‘thing’ in question is an object of a particular kind of study, if it is a component of our theoretical schemes, it has reality.  The notion of ‘reality’ coming in ‘degrees’ might remain obscure, but whatever it is, Durkheim suggests that the lack of materiality of social facts does not prevent them from being ‘things’ if our methods of study for them–non-introspective, directed outward–treat them as such. In this blend of metaphysics and epistemology Durkheim’s claims reveal a certain pragmatist sensibility at the heart of the social science whose foundations he was establishing; here, yet again, Durkheim shows that methodology is metaphysics.

Richard Dawkins’ Inconsistent Reliance On Pragmatism

A very popular video on YouTube featuring Richard Dawkins is titled ‘Science Works, Bitches.’ It periodically makes the rounds on social media; as it does, Dawkins acolytes–in the video and on social media–applaud him as he ‘smacks down’ a questioner who inquires into the ‘justification’ for the scientific method. (A familiar enough question; for instance, science relies on induction, but the justification for induction is that it has worked in the past, which is itself an inductive argument, so how do you break out of this circle, without relying on some kind of ‘faith’?) Dawkins’ response is ‘It works, bitches!’ Science’s claim to rationality rests on its proven track record–going to the moon, curing disease etc.; this is an entirely pragmatic claim with which I’m in total agreement. The success of inductive claims is part of our understanding and definition of rationality; rationality does not exist independent of our practices; they define it.

Still, the provision of this answer also reveals Dawkins’ utter dishonesty when it comes to the matter of his sustained attacks on religion over the years. For the open-mindedness and the acknowledgment of the primacy of practice that is on display in this answer is nowhere visible in his attitude toward religion.

Dawkins is entirely correct in noting that science is superior to religion when it comes to the business of solving certain kinds of problems. You want to make things fly; you rely on science. You want to go to the moon; you rely on science. You want to cure cancer; you rely on science. Rely on religion for any of these things and you will fail miserably. But Dawkins will be simply unwilling to accept as an answer from a religious person that the justification for his or her faith is that ‘it works’ when it comes to providing a ‘solution’ for a ‘problem’ that is not of the kind specified above. At those moments, Dawkins will demand a kind of ‘rational’ answer that he is himself unwilling to–and indeed, cannot–provide for science.

Consider a religious person who when asked to ‘justify’ faith, responds ‘It works for me when it comes to achieving the end or the outcome of making me happy [or more contented, more accepting of my fate, reconciling myself to the death of loved ones or my own death; the list goes on.]’ Dawkins’ response to this would be that this is a pathetic delusional comfort, that this is based on fairy tales and poppycock. Here too, Dawkins would demand that the religious person accept scientific answers to these questions and scientific resolutions of these ‘problems.’ Here, Dawkins would be unable to accept the pragmatic nature of the religious person’s answer that faith ‘works’ for them. Here, Dawkins would demand a ‘justified, rational, grounded in evidence’ answer; that is, an imposition of standards that he is unwilling to place on the foundations of scientific reasoning.

As I noted above, pragmatism is the best justification for science and the scientific method; science works best to achieve particular ends. Dawkins is entirely right to note that religion cannot answer the kinds of questions or solve the kinds of problems science can; he should be prepared to admit the possibility that there are questions to which religion offers answers that ‘work’ for its adherents–in preference to other alternatives. Pragmatism demands we accept this answer too; you can’t lean on pragmatism to defend science, and then abandon it in your attacks on religion. That’s scientism. Which is a load of poppycock.

Brave Analytic Philosophers Use Trump Regime To Settle Old Academic Scores

Recently, Daniel Dennett took the opportunity to, as John Protevi put it, “settle some old academic scores.” He did this by making the following observation in an interview with The Guardian:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.””

Roughly, postmodernism brought you Donald Trump. If only Trump voters hadn’t read so much Deleuze or Derrida or Spivak, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. Dennett has now been joined in this valiant enterprise of Defending Truth and Knowledge by Timothy Williamson who makes the following remarks in an interview with The Irish Times:

No philosophical manoeuvre can stop politicians telling lies. But some philosophical manoeuvres do help politicians obscure the distinction between truth and falsity.

When I visited Lima, a woman interviewed me for YouTube. She had recently interviewed a ‘postmodernist’ philosopher. When she pointed at a black chair and asked ‘Is that chair black or white?’ he replied ‘Things are not so simple’.

The more philosophers take up such obscurantist lines, the more spurious intellectual respectability they give to those who try to confuse the issues in public debate when they are caught out in lies. Of course, many things in public affairs are genuinely very complicated, but that’s all the more reason not to bring in bogus complexity….

Obviously it wasn’t mainly postmodernism or relativism that won it for Trump, indeed those philosophical views are presumably more widespread amongst his liberal opponents than amongst his supporters, perhaps most of whom have never heard of them. Still, those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.

In the course of an informal Facebook discussion, I made the following responses to Dennett’s remarks (which I described as ‘very silly’):

[We] could just as well lay the blame on the very idea of truth. Perhaps if truth wasn’t so exalted so much, we wouldn’t have so many people claiming that they should be followed just because what they said was the truth. Especially because many lies really are better for us than some truths. Perhaps we would have been better off seeing what worked for us, rather than obsessing about naming things as true or false.

Fascist insurgencies like the ones here in our country are not relying on post-modern critiques of truth and fact to prop up their claims; they need only rely on something far simpler: the fact that talking of truth and facts grants them an aura of respectability. The elevation (or demotion) of this political debate to a matter of metaphysics and epistemology is to play their game because we will find these pillars of ours to actually rest on sand. Far better to point out to proponents of ‘alternative facts’ that these facts will not help them send their kids to school or cure their illnesses. Let us not forget that these ‘facts’ help them in many ways now: it finds them a community, makes them secure, gives vent to their anger and so on. I’ve never liked the way everyone is jumping up and down about how some great methodological crisis is upon us in this new era, which is entirely ab initio. People have been using ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ all through history and using them to achieve political ends.

On a related note, Ali Minai responds to another set of claims against ‘relativism’ made in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Alan Jay Levinovitz:

In fact, it is non-relativism that has generally been the weapon of choice for authoritarians. The weaponization of “alternative facts” may be aided by relativism but its efficacy still relies on the opposite attitude. It works only when its targets accept “alternative facts” as actually true.

What these responses to the Defenders of Truth Against Relativism make quite clear are the following propositions:

  1. So-called ‘postmodern’ critiques are more often than not, the political weapons of choice for those critiquing authoritarian regimes: they serve as a theoretical grounding for claims against ‘dominant’ or ‘totalizing’ narratives that issue from such regimes.
  2. Non-relativism or absolutism about truth is the preferred theoretical, argumentative, and rhetorical platform for authoritarians. Let us not forget that science was a challenge to the absolutism about truth that revealed religions claimed to profess; the Enlightenment brought many ‘alternative facts’ in its wake. Those worked; their ‘truth’ was established by their working. All the mathematical proofs and telescope gazings would have been useless had the science and technology built on them not ‘worked.’
  3. When fascists and authoritarians present ‘alternative facts’ and reject established knowledge claims, they do not present their alternative claims as ‘false’ because ‘truth’ is to be disdained; rather, they take an explicitly orthodox line in claiming ‘truth’ for their claims. ‘Truth’ is still valuable; it is still ‘correspondence’ to facts that matters.

The target of the critiques above then, is misplaced several times over. (Moreover, Willamson’s invocation of the philosopher who could not give a ‘straightforward’ answer to his interlocutor is disingenous at best. What if the ‘postmodernist’ philosopher wanted to make a point about colorblindness, or primary or secondary qualities? I presume Williamson would have no trouble with an analytic philosopher ‘complicating’ matters in such fashion. What would Williamson say to Wilfrid Sellars who might, as part of his answer, say, “To call that chair ‘black’ would be to show mastery of the linguistic concept ‘black’ in the space of reasons.” Another perfectly respectable philosophical answer, which Williamson would not find objectionable. Willamson’s glib answer to the question of whether the definition of truth offered by Aristotle correct is just that; surely, he would not begrudge the reams of scholarship produced in exploring the adequacy of the ‘correspondence theory of truth,’ what it leaves out, and indeed, the many devastating critiques leveled at it? The bogus invocation of ‘bogus complexity’ serves no one here.)

Critiques like Williamson and Dennett’s are exercises in systematic, dishonest misunderstandings of the claims made by their supposed targets. They refuse to note that it is the valorization of truth that does all the work for the political regimes they critique, that it is the disagreement about political ends that leads to the retrospective hunt for the ‘right, true, facts’ that will enable the desired political end. There is not a whiff of relativism in the air.

But such a confusion is only to be expected when the epistemology that Williamson and Dennett take themselves to be defending rests on a fundamental confusion itself: an incoherent notion of ‘correspondence to the facts’ and a refusal to acknowledge that beliefs are just rules for actions–directed to some end.

Does Donald Trump’s ‘Pragmatism’ Mean Pragmatism Is Incoherent?

A devastating accusation is making the rounds in America: Donald Trump is a pragmatist; therefore pragmatism is an incoherent ethical and political philosophy. This breathtakingly simple argument establishes its solitary premise by making note of Trump’s assertions that he will do what it takes to fix America’s problems. His supposed inconstancy–his curious admixture of populism, authoritarianism, the occasional progressive standpoint–furnishes the best possible proof: Trump is no ideologue, committed to a rigid manifesto; there are no sacred cows; all is at play when it comes to devising solutions for whatever ails America. (This claim underwrites assessments by Joe Dan Gorman, Mychal Massie, P. M. Carpenter, John Porter, and achieves its condemnatory form in a Washington Post article by Christopher Scalia.)

The picture of pragmatism that is implicit here is that of a toolkit of solutions geared to solving problems. So far, so good. Things get terrible, as Scalia seems to assert, when those means and ends are divorced from values:

Ultimately what sets pragmatists apart from traditional conservatives or liberals is not their faith in the effectiveness of their ideas, it’s their originality — the whatever, not the works….there’s nothing in the Pragmatist’s Playbook that forbids mocking a rival’s face, height, footwear, eating habits, energy level or spouse, or even encouraging supporters to physically assault protesters. And although it’s certainly reprehensible to promote absurd conspiracy theories — like Trump’s suggestion that my father, Justice Antonin Scalia, was assassinated — it’s not necessarily unpragmatic.

The condemnation of pragmatism now immediately follows: because there are no abiding values to guide the pragmatist–all is up for contestation and revision–the pragmatist is as likely to flirt with fascist principles as he is with socialist democratic ones. The pragmatist is at heart unprincipled, committed to a brutally reductive and desiccated means-ends cost-benefit, outcomes-oriented analysis.

You say that like it’s such a bad thing.

This critique of pragmatism glibly commits two fallacies. First, it assumes that such an outcome oriented analysis is devoid of values; but au contraire, the choice of ends–which guides the choice of solutions–is very much informed by values. For instance: Which ends should we concentrate on first? Which ones are most ‘important’ for us? Which ones can we ‘afford’ to ignore for now? Ends are not so easily divorced from values.

Second, the critic of pragmatism assumes that he or she has at hand a set of values which will ‘correctly’ guide the supposedly amoral, purely instrumentalist pragmatist in problem-solving; moreover, these values will be the ‘right ones’ to set the offending pragmatist back on the path of moral rectitude. Add some values–the ones I have in mind–and all will be well. The problem is that disagreement about values is the most interesting part of being evaluative and normative; what if the value-guided non-pragmatist happens to be inspired by ‘wrong’ values like racism or sexism?

Pragmatism did not aim to banish values from ethical and moral discourse; it only bid us examine ours more closely to see why we hold them, and under what circumstances we would be willing to relinquish them. Our values reflect our ends, and our ends reflect our values; this is the inseparability that lies at the heart of pragmatism, and which the facile claims and critiques above all too easily elide.

Donald Trump might be a pragmatist, but that does not mean he escapes normative political critique; that option remains as open for the pragmatist as it does for anyone else.

Alasdair MacIntyre On Relativism And The Immigrant

In ‘Relativism, Power, and Philosophy,’ (Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association,Vol. 59, No. 1, September 1985, pp. 5-22) Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

‘Relativism’…names one kind of conclusion to enquiry into a particular class of problems. Those questions arise in the first place for people who live in certain highly specific types of social and cultural situation…It is perhaps unsurprising that [these questions] have been overlooked by those recent philosophers who want to make a sharp dichotomy between the realm of philosophical theorizing and that of everyday belief….This attitude is perhaps a symptom of…too impoverished a view of the types of social and institutional circumstance which generate philosophical problems. What then are the social and institutional circumstances which generate the cluster of problems to which some version of relativism can be a rational response?

They are the social and institutional circumstances of those who inhabit a certain type of frontier or boundary situation. Consider the predicament of someone who lives in a time and place where he or she is a full member of two linguistic communities, speaking one language…exclusively to the older members of his or her family and village and [another language, X] to those from the world outside, who seek to engage him or her in a way of life in the exclusively [X]-speaking world. Economic and social circumstance may enforce on such a person a final choice between inhabiting the one linguistic community and inhabiting the other; and in some times and places this is much more than a choice between two languages…For a language maybe so used…that to share in its use is to presuppose one cosmology rather than another, one relationship of local law and custom to cosmic order rather than another, one justification of particular relationships of individual to community and of both to land and to landscape rather than another.

Nietzsche famously said that all philosophy is but disguised autobiography. I find such a philosophical claim plausible because, interestingly enough, it speaks to my experiences in the course of my intellectual development. I find myself sympathetic to relativistic, quasi-relativistic, perspectival (and relatedly anti-foundational) claims in many domains of philosophy because I consider myself–a bilingual immigrant, who is now a naturalized citizen in his adopted homeland–to ‘inhabit a…frontier or boundary situation.’ Philosophical theses built on such claims exercise a particular fascination for me; I find myself drawn to them. I say so because it would be dishonest to pretend that my acceptability of their arguments is purely a matter of intellectual assessment. As William James would describe it, my ‘passional nature‘ runs ahead of me here, taking me with it. As all too many immigrants and bilinguals will note, their transitions between countries and languages are not journeys through merely space-time or linguistic boundaries; rather, conceptual boundaries of considerable standing and importance are crossed. Incommensurability between worlds and ways of being seems a cosmic fact, an inescapable aspect of such a lived reality; relativism suggests itself as a ‘rational response’ to such a state of affairs.