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.

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.

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.

Geertz on Comparative Anthropology and the Law-Fact Distinction

(Continuing my series of notes on Clifford Geertz’s Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, Basic Books, New York, 1983; earlier notes appear here and here.)

Geertz’s Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective (first presented as the Storrs Lectures for 1981 at Yale Law School; an online version is available) should be essential reading for philosophers of law. In it, Geertz explores the relationship between law and anthropology by way of examining how comparative anthropology–especially that concerned with legal systems in different cultures–provides us a means of examining how our legal categories and assumptions could be reconfigured. To confront a legal mind from another culture is to not only examine a new legal sensibility but to have ours made more aware of its particular qualities: how has it sliced up the world and established its categories, how has it come to this particular ontology? There is a whiff of relativism and incommensurability in the air but,

[I]t is one that neither argues for nihilism, eclecticism, and anything goes, nor that contents itself with pointing out yet once again that across the Pyrenees truth is upside down. It is, rather, one that welds the processes of self-knowledge, self-perception, self-understanding to those of other-knowledge, other-perception, other-understanding; that identifies, or very nearly, sorting out who we are and sorting out whom we are among. And as such, it can help both to free us from misleading representations of our own way of rendering matters judiciable (the radical dissociation of fact and law, for example) and to force into our reluctant consciousness disaccordant views of how this is to be done (those of the Balinese, for example) which, if no less dogmatical than ours, are no less logical either.

Geertz holds out this possibility of transformation because of the view of law that he holds, one which assimilates it to:

[N]ot… to a sort of social mechanics, a physics of judgment, but to a sort of cultural hermeneutics, a semantics of action. What Frank O’Hara said of poetry, that it makes life’s nebulous events tangible and restores their detail, may be true as well, and no less variously accomplished, of law.

Such an understanding of law has immense potential to inform philosophical debates on the nature of law, on whether natural law, positivist, legal realist or critical legal theories best describe it. Central to Geertz’s intervention in this debate–via his empirical attention to the three alternative systems that he considers–is his critique of the fact-law distinction:

The rendering of fact so that lawyers can plead it, judges can hear it, and juries can settle it is just that, a rendering: as any other trade, science, cult, or art, law, which is a bit of all of these, propounds the world in which its descriptions make sense. I will come back to the paradoxes this way of putting things seems to generate; the point here is that the “law” side of things is not a bounded set of norms, rules, principles, values, or whatever from which jural responses to distilled events can be drawn, but part of a distinctive manner of imagining the real. At base, it is not what happened, but what happens, that law sees; and if law differs, from this place to that, this time to that, this people to that, what it sees does as well…..

If one looks at law this way, as a view of the way things are, like, say, science or religion or ideology or art–together, in this case, with a set of practical attitudes toward the management of controversy such a view seems to entail to those wedded to it–then the whole fact/law problem appears in an altered light. The dialectic that seemed to be between brute fact and considered judgment, between what is so and what is right, turns out to be between…a language, however vague and unintegral, of general coherence and one, however opportunistic and unmethodical, of specific consequence.

Geertz’s essay makes for essential reading, not just because it abounds in marvelous insights like these, but because of the richly informed comparative study it provides of what Geertz terms the ‘Islamic, Indic, and Malaysian” legal systems. It should be read by anyone interested in the conceptual foundations of the law.