Post-Truth Times

People say that we live in a post-truth age. What they mean by that is that people not only do not agree on facts or on the interpretation of facts but, beyond that, do not agree that there are commonly accepted standards for gauging truth. People are free to make any claim, however outrageous it may be, and not have to ground it in evidence or have it open to criticism. People can simply stew in their own juice of cynicism. Clearly that is the case in politics, where President Trump is rife with remarks based on bile that he asserts but cannot defend and feels no embarrassment that his remarks cannot bear the weight of being scrutinized for their truth, the establishment of truth inevitably a collective process wherein everyone recognizes that there is something objective out there, something that can be confirmed to any reasonable observer, whether or not that is in keeping with your political or emotional predilections. Paul Krugman, for example, is ever outraged by the fact that Paul Ryan and other Republicans have no respect for the truth and simply lie to their heart's content so long as it serves their political purposes. But this problem is not limited to politics. Serious scholars wonder if truth is a chimera invented by philosophers to cover up the fact that some people are simply advancing one ideology or another, all of us prisoners of a point of view that is not objective. Nobel Prize winning economists like Daniel Kahneman have built reputations by saying that people almost always get things wrong, preferring their superstitions and their predilections to what a rational approach to the world would dictate. I want to employ some standard philosophical concepts to get around the post-truth arguments and suggest what is really at stake.

The distinction between truth and opinion is as old as philosophy. A truth is universal and holds in all times and places even if it is a truth about a particular time, as when one claims it is true that slaveholders believed slavery as an institution was necessary to the preservation of democracy among a southern state’s white citizens. That fact will always be true and sociologists might also claim that it always was true in that peoples who ran societies long before the slaveholding American South believed that a subject class was necessary to allow a degree of political freedom for the elite. That was the view of the citizens of the Greek polis and, possibly, of the Pharaoh in “Exodus”. Opinion, on the other hand, may or may not be true, but Socrates, who originated the distinction between truth and opinion, thought opinion could be recognized as such by its inherent vagueness, its lack of intellectual clarity.

And so the idea of truth as a bedrock concept persisted, reaching its high point at the turn into the Twentieth Century, when Bertrand Russell went so far as to suggest that unless one could assert the truth or falsity of a proposition, the proposition itself was meaningless, just a collection of words without sense. You didn’t have a contrary view, just a muddled one. Twentieth Century philosophy did not much alter this view. What John Austin pointed out was that language served multiple functions other than to ascertain a truth. It could be a way of being mannerly or it could offer a liturgical like utterance that made things happen, as when one says “I do”. In either case, the basic idea that language describes reality remains, as is clear every time we utter a statement, such as “it is raining outside” or “the dog looks hungry” or “I don’t know why I am upset”. Something true about the world is being claimed just about every time one opens one’s mouth. How could it be otherwise?

This consensus about truth was challenged by those in the second part of the Twentieth Century said there were only paradigms of truth, and that these were ever changing. Everyone or every class or every era has its own point of view and these so color the thought of people living in those classes or times that everything that was said could be seen in terms of the basic assumptions, themselves unproven, of the people involved. So there is no objective truth, only the truth of your class or your race or your gender. The mistake here is that the idea of ideology has been transferred to all thought. Ideology, as that had become to be understood ever since Marx, is a complex system of interrelated propositions that rests on a few assumptions and once taken into mind influences every aspect of thought. There are Communists and Fascists and Liberals and Conservatives, and never can there be a meeting of minds between them because their assumptions are different. No one is other than a creature of the ideology in which they have faith. But ordinary thought, as that is pursued on the everyday level of going to the supermarket or dealing with a boss, does not require such an overarching ideology for it to take place. We are courteous to our superiors and, perhaps, to our inferiors as well as when we ask a store clerk if an item is still on sale, because that is the way to move life along: by being mindful of truths about prices and social deference.

Ideology certainly isn’t what Trump is about just because he has thrown in with Republicans and so adopts their point of view because it is expedient rather than because it reflects the original or deepset New York Liberalism that made him, as a campaigner, say he would protect gay rights. Rather, what Trump does, rather than just lie, is to challenge something very basic about the idea that truth is objective. He is saying, though I doubt he thinks abstractly enough to put it this way, that the truth value of a statement is only one way to evaluate a statement, however much logicians are obsessed with and how to apply “T” or “F” to a statement. There are any number of other values or qualities that can be applied to a statement. A statement can be ranked on whether or not it is beautifully stated or not, and that is part of why we pay such attention to Charles Dickens or to the Declaration of Independence. Truth, or something more important than that, may indeed lie in beauty. Or it may be that a statement is judged on its morality. If a statement reflects a moral sentiment, then it is either true or subject to a more pressing valuation than its truth. So we reject a question, to cite a recent matter in the news, about whether it is possible for a white person to wear blackface on Halloween as a matter of what in fact are the prevailing or the changing customs with regard to once unacceptable practices, and reject even the asking of the question as an affront to moral sentiment. Questioning a norm is itself a violation of the norm, so Al Roker says to Megyn Kelly. Similarly, no one asks anymore whether Jews should have resisted the Nazis more forcefully. That is no longer a question for history but a matter of bad taste, an affront in itself, even if good reasons could be found for more resistance or even less resistance.

More relevant to the present discussion is another qualifier for statements, which is whether they are more or less imaginative. What Trump favors are statements that appeal to his imagination. When he says there are Middle Easterners and members of violent gangs among those in the Caravan who are travelling north in Mexico, he does not claim that he has evidence to support this, as if a President would not be required to offer evidence for an assertion he makes, but he there might be and he suspects there is. That suits the way he thinks about the world. The world is an externalization of his imagination about it rather than an objective entity about which facts need to be ascertained.

Now most people, and that includes Senators and the local grocery man, hold different and, so I would maintain, higher standards on which to judge statements, trying at least to ascertain what is true or, giving up on that, offering the opinion that all politicians are crooks and so not to be trusted, which is just a cover for being uninformed. Discovering the truth of a statement is a hard job. But offering opinions is what passes in Trump for thinking and we are stuck with it for as long as he is around. Therefore I am not overly disturbed by this moment in our culture. Most politicians and most people will go back to the everyday reasoning by which they proceed with life, which appeals to both their imaginations on how compelling a statement is as well as to whether some particular statement can be assigned any truth value at all. What philosophy once discovers endures and such flights of fancy as Gilbert Ryle’s mid-Twentieth Century belief, as expressed in his “The Concept of Mind”, that consciousness could not really exist because we had no direct evidence of it, just falls away after a generation. The idea that there is such a thing as truth has endured for quite some time and is likely to endure, the present climate just a passing fancy that, as it is, takes hold only as rhetoric for people who do not otherwise know how to express their hatreds except by embracing the meanest public figure that they know. That meanness fills their imaginations, and that fact is as true as any other.