D’où parles-tu? The post-truth world

Power, illusion and the open society: how postmodernism undermines our foundational concepts

“Truth is a mobile army of metaphors”: Friedrich Nietzsche, painted in 1906 by Edvard Munch (©Peter Barritt/Alamy Stock Photo)

“That’s not the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you (journalists) are studying that reality . . . we’ll act again, creating other new realities . . . you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Thus an adviser to George W. Bush, castigating the journalist Ron Suskind for attempting to report on what he took to be a discernible reality, out there and open to objective scrutiny; as Suskind was told, the world is not like that any more.

It would be hard to find a more succinct statement of what has come to be known as a post-truth position in a post-truth world. What it amounts to is the claim that there is no truth or reality out there. Truth and reality (or, better, “truth” and “reality”) are things that those in power construct, and, says the Bush advisor, the rest of us just have to march to their tune.

This attitude to truth is not confined to the political right. If anything, it is more deeply embedded in left-wing thinking. For many so-called post-modernist thinkers, particularly when dealing with matters of history, morality and politics, not only is there no such thing as the truth, but any view that is expressed is to be seen as no more than the vehicle of some interest, class, race, gender or whatever. The question of the source of an opinion or a “fact”—d’où parles-tu?—becomes far more important than its truth or validity, because there is no such thing as truth or validity. Truth and validity are simply words we use to enhance the standing of what we construct.

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that, philosophically speaking, talk of “constructing” truth and knowledge is nonsensical. You can actually know only what is true, and what is true is true because it actually is the case, independently of what anyone thinks or believes. Beliefs and thoughts are, in a certain sense, constructed, psychological entities, in our minds and underpinning our actions. With luck and experience and work, and also thanks to our biology and upbringing, many of our beliefs and thoughts are true, and amount to knowledge in the sense that we have good grounds for holding these truths.

Some of what we think we know, though, we do not know. For example, Newton did not know that space and time were absolute, although he had plenty of reasons for thinking thus, and for 200 years or so nearly all good scientists followed him in this erroneous belief, which should make us cautious in claiming to know. Knowledge transcends what we construct—it is not in our gift. None of which stops those in charge of educating our children from asserting that children (and adults) “construct or build their own knowledge . . . (rather than having it) ‘given’ or ‘delivered’ to them,” to quote from one of the most widely used texts in teacher training—J. Wellington’s Secondary Education, the Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2006, page 53). This  view is taken as gospel in great swathes of teacher training. The rot starts early. 

Nor is there anything new in this rot, in undermining (or deconstructing) foundational concepts that are normally and properly taken to refer to reality in a substantial way. In Plato’s Republic, the sophist Thrasymachus announced that justice is what serves the interest of the stronger.We might say in reply that in any particular society, what is called justice may reflect the status quo and the interests of the rich and powerful, but
that there is nevertheless an absolute standard (true justice) against which particular acts and institutions and societies are to be judged—but that would not move Thrasymachus. He knew what Thucydides knew, that, particularly in times of strife key words—those like “justice” and “truth” which refer to basic values—are slippery. The way people use them changes.

Writing of the civil war in Corcyra (Corfu) in 427BC, Thucydides says:

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their normal meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect in a party member. To think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward. Any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character. Ability to understand a question from all sides meant one was wholly unfitted for action . . . If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect.

He adds that “love of power, operating through greed, and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils”. It still is today, when we see similar linguistic deformations. Power and self-interest distort what is said and even the use and meaning of words. But what if there is no truth or justice, absolutely speaking, but only what particular people call truth or justice, to further their own ends? Then there is nothing left in discussing an opinion or “fact”, but to ask where it comes from, whose interest it is serving.

This is precisely what we find in Nietzsche. In an early work, he wrote:

Truth is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification . . . truths are illusions of which we have forgotten they are illusions.

If truth is an illusion, all we can do is to ask where an opinion is coming from: “d’où parles-tu?”, not “is what you say true?”. Nietzsche does not appear to ask himself what credence we should give to his views. If there is no truth, they are not true. Why, then, should we accept them, coming from that somewhat self-dramatising source?

Postmodernists such as Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard argue that in the face of the Nietzschean undermining of what they call the “narratives of legitimation” of Enlightenment thinking (no truth in other words), we are obliged to adopt a stance of opposition to everything which appears to them to be a product of the power structures and institutions which those narratives upheld—Western culture, in other words. What, though, of the self-refuting nature of their own position? In Roger Scruton’s words:

. . . the advocate of deconstruction cheerfully accepts the disproof of his own philosophy; for what matters to him is not the truth of an utterance, but the interest that is being advanced through it. Your criticism shows you to be a denizen of the “traditional criticism”, a parasitical resident in the house of Western culture . . . to think that you can get rid of deconstruction by disproving it, is to fail to recognise that proof itself has been deconstructed. Proof is what Others do; and it’s Them that we’re against.

Consider this from Slavoj Žižek:

The truth we are dealing with here is not “objective” truth, but self-relating truth about one’s own subjective position; as such it is engaged truth, measured not by its factual accuracy but by the way it affects the subjective position of enunciation.

So, we will not deal with “objective” truth (what most of us would call truth, simpliciter), but with self-relating truth, that which expresses one’s subjective position, and is suitably “engaged”. What is chilling about this is the way it reduces any argument to a contest guided not by reason, or undertaken with a view to discovering reason or truth, but to a shouting match between how the participants feel or stand for (self-relating)truth. It is chilling also because Žižek basks in quasi-popstar adulation among swathes of the “educated” young, despite (or is it because of?) his view that Mao’s cultural revolution was “the last truly great revolutionary explosion of the 20th century”. We must also note his admiration for Robespierre and what he calls, in an article of that title, the ‘divine violence’ of the terror the revolutionary unleashed. The terrorist past, Žižek says, has to be accepted as ours, as he extends his blessing to mobs from the favelas of contemporary Rio de Janeiro looting and burning supermarkets in the richer parts of that city.

We are back to Thrasymachus and Thucydides with a vengeance. No truth, no natural goodness, no valid arguments, no firm vocabulary with which to discuss such things, but only contests between rival interests and power groups, each sheltering behind their own redescriptions and shifting linguistic forms. In such a context, argument is futile. We are each going to mean different things by our words. Moreover, each person’s words are only a way of asserting their own power, or that of their group. What counts is what is hiding behind the words, the interest that is being promoted in each case. And allowing someone a voice is allowing their interest some weight, which is something that is not necessarily desirable. As long ago as 1974, Sartre wrote that in all the conflicts of our time, “class, national, racial . . . are particular effects of the oppression of the under-privileged . . . the true intellectual finds himself, as a man conscious of his own oppression, on the side of the oppressed”.

We can speculate as to why the true intellectual finds himself on the side of the oppressed and also as to just how oppressed Sartre was, but what we are now in a position to understand is why for many of today’s intellectuals what matters is not the quality of an argument but, as would be said, where they are coming from, and why, consequently, some should not be heard—if they are promoting the interests of the oppressors, or those who are perceived to be oppressors.

The whole postmodernist position, like that of Thrasymachus, rests on a failure to distinguish between what is true and what is believed to be true, and also on a failure to acknowledge that its inherent nihilism and consequent repudiation of argument and validity undermines its own acceptability. Far from speaking truth to power, postmodernists misrepresent any attempt to search for truth as simply a mask for the exercise of power: and where, as all too often, they deny others the chance to speak, censoring what they want to say, their own position stands revealed as simply an exercise of power. They would return us to the situation of the Corcyreans in 427BC, the outcome of which I need not spell out.

If, on the other hand, we are prepared to accept the possibility of reasonable speech and to recognise it when it occurs, which is surely a fundamental aspect of an open society, we should also recognise that good ideas (and indeed truths) can come from any source. Let us begin by underlining the distinction, between what is true and what is believed by us or others to be true. Bearing in mind the fate of Newtonian physics and admitting that even the best of what we believe may not in fact be true, should (in Karl Popper’s words) lead not just to a humility on our own part, but also to the view that “everybody with whom we communicate (is) a potential source of argument and of reasonableness”.

It is important to emphasise that Popper thinks that everyone involved in or affected by a social or political issue should be included in the conversation. There is a tendency in such matters to attend only to the articulate, the so-called “educated”, and to the political and administrative mandarins. But, Popper insists, if we really want to know what the effects and indeed the value of an institution or a policy are, we should also listen to those who are at the bottom of the heap, so to speak. For it is they who are most likely to be adversely affected, even if they may on one scale of evaluation be marginalised, or even, on another, regarded as “deplorables”. We now know all too clearly just what eventually happens when deplorables are ignored.

Considering the thought rather than who has the thought will establish what Popper calls “the rational unity of mankind”. The contrary will, as Popper emphasises, lead to splitting mankind into friends and foes, with all the potential for censorship, repression and worse, that is characteristic of closed societies.

What Popper calls rationalism—basically admitting one’s own fallibility, combined with a readiness to allow anyone who is not intolerant themselves a right to be heard and to defend his or her arguments—depends, as he also says, on the existence of “social institutions to protect freedom of criticism, freedom of thought, and thus the freedom of men”. Foremost among such institutions will be universities, which is why intolerance there is no small matter. It is something which is serious for the society in which they exist (as was shown all too vividly in post-1933 Germany).

We live in paradoxical times. Social media allows anyone to publish a view on anything. In many ways this is a good thing. But this freedom also generates great swathes of hostile messaging, which makes individuals afraid to express themselves. Universities should be places where individuals should be able to express their opinions, discuss and disagree, without fear of mob hostility or loss of job. To the extent that they allow censorship of views some find objectionable and tolerate violence in their suppression, as seems to be the case in 2020, they are no better than Corcyreans described by Thucydides. In considering this dismal scene we should not overlook the way in which postmodernist thinking in the academy has contributed to it.