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.

Susan Sontag on Truth’s ‘Value’

Susan Sontag, in reviewing Simone Weil’s Selected Essays, offers some remarks on the nature and function of truth, and its placement in our schema of intellectual and emotional endeavor. In doing so, she strikes a slightly Nietzschean note:

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

So, the ‘sane’ is the true, but it is not always the most desirable. Truth–as the remark for the ‘need for repose’ indicates–may only represent a kind of quiescence, an accepting of the world as is, an illusory freezing of its vitality. Other kinds of ‘ideas’, which may shatter this calm, disturb this peace, distort the placidity and stillness, may do more, may ‘serve’ us better; they may provoke us and move us to further inquiry, to further activity, to a continuation of our physical and spiritual quests. Later, we learn ‘the truth is balance’, an imagery that confirms the impressions we have been led to form of it: an equilibrium of sorts, a compromise, an arbitration of compelling impulses. Truth is moderation; not always desirable.

And then,:

In the respect we pay to such lives [as Simone Weil’s], we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

Here the ‘possession of truth’ entails a denial of ‘mystery’; given truth’s metaphysical standing these may be the most primeval puzzles of all. And taking on board of the truth is ultimately ‘superficial’, the denial of the mystery, the acceptance of the surface baldness of the true statement, the refusal to look further, the happy satisfaction with the bare presentation of the world.

So, truth, in these depictions, becomes a life-denying force. It speaks of the cessation of motion, of resting; the peace it offers is that of the endless repose in the grave. Truth becomes a paralytic dogma; it is literally, the end of inquiry. It thus generates an irony about itself: its pursuit might be life-giving but its gaining might not be.

These remarks’ Nietzschean flavor should be clear, for in them Sontag is doing no more and no less than struggling to find a more appropriate–and perhaps less exalted–placement for truth in our ‘table of values.’

Nietzsche on the Discontinuity Between Definitions and History

From The Genealogy of Morals, Essay 2, Section 13:

Only something which has no history is capable of being defined. 

The first time I read the Genealogy, I somehow skipped this line, or at least did not pay undue attention to it. When I read the Genealogy again, I didn’t miss it, and I paid attention: I underlined it, put the book down, and went for a walk.  This is no exaggeration; I did have to stop reading for a bit so that I could think about what I had just read. Nietzsche, more than any other philosopher, manages, somehow, effortlessly to produce line after line like this, rich and textured, pregnant with diverse possibilities, meanings, and allusions. Freud famously said he had to stop reading Nietzsche not just because he feared he would find that Nietzsche had anticipated too many of his ideas but also because–as he noted on another occasion–he found the constant barrage of ideas and philosophical theses too rich to digest all at once. While Nietzsche is immensely readable, he is not ‘unputdownable.’ Quite the contrary.

Incidentally, the line that precedes this sentence, reads, in full:

(Today it is impossible to say clearly why we really punish; all ideas in which an entire process is semiotically summarized elude definition. Only something which has no history is capable of being defined)

Only Nietzsche, I think, could have written such a line as part of a parenthetical remark, and only he, I think, could have used that line as a follow-up to the clause that precedes it, amplifying and sharpening it brilliantly.

The line I have quoted is a famous line, and the shelves of libraries the world over creak under the weight of scholarship related to its meanings. (Now I exaggerate, but I’m posting on Nietzsche here, so these sorts of excesses should be forgiven. Constant engagement with a mode of discourse often tends to induce those same modes in oneself.)

But  consider, just for a moment, how much Nietzsche manages to encapsulate in his statement: an acknowledgement of the Heraclitean nature of being as endless becoming, of its history as a ‘record’ of change and contingency, and given the nature of definition as either a statement of identity or the enumeration of necessary and sufficient conditions–so that the definiens and definiendum are linked by a biconditional–the clear, stark, opposition between the two. Being is in time, and thus has history; definitions place themselves outside of time, by attempting to circumscribe, delineate, and establish sharp boundaries. The two are destined never to meet.

The mathematician’s or logician’s definitions work within a formally defined system with tightly anchored meanings; their formal structure, their definite anchoring of symbols is what makes possible their definitions. So the ‘eternal’ truths of mathematics and logic are timeless precisely because they rest on symbols whose meaning is anchored within a formal system and thus, lack history. (Of course, for Nietzsche, even this is a sort of elaborate fiction, an agreement to look past the histories of meanings of the symbols employed; for these systems’ ideas too, have entire processes ‘semiotically summarized’ within them.) For anything else, subject to history and interpretation, caught up in systems of constant reinterpretation and articulation, truth can remain a moving target.