The End of Truth: Living in a Post-Truth World?

The Oxford dictionary recently defined  “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The key here is not to ponder ‘post-truth’, but the notion of our reliance on ‘objective facts’ as the source and trust in a stable world or reality in which the public sphere of doxa (‘opinion’) has given way to the affective and personal beliefs of the average citizen.

What’s not said in the Oxford definition is the reverse is the more accurate, that truth was once considered solely ‘God’s Truth’. During most of the ugly history of Western Civilization truth was always ‘God’s Truth’, and was used to justify not only genocide, war, and military and religious atrocities against for foreign and domestic foes, but as the cornerstone of the Christian worldview. A regulatory idea that supervened on all other local truths whatsoever. Then with the advent of atheism, the Enlightenment, the Sciences and modern world order of democracies etc. something else took over from this regulative idea of Truth as ‘belief’ in the new dispensation and placeholder of scientific or objective truth. Now the idea of truth as objective is simply that no matter what we believe to be the case, some things will always be true and other things will always be false. Our beliefs, whatever they are, have no bearing on the facts of the world around us.

During the 1990’s of the last century many would argue against objective truth, saying instead that it was all relative to the culture within which one is situated. Relativism is “the doctrine that knowledge, truth and morality exist in relation to culture, society or historical context, and are not absolute”. The primary appeal is that people have realized, for example, that “Is it rude to do X?” is a different question depending on the context, especially depending on what culture you live in. This is the same kind of issue as the day of the week above. Relativists are correct to insist that a lot of the ideas of our culture are not universal truths, even some that most people assume are universal truths.

However, relativism overstated its case and is blind to its own fallible stance, because it says that all knowledge depends on the context. Contextualism describes a collection of views in philosophy which emphasize the context in which an action, utterance, or expression occurs, and argues that, in some important respect, the action, utterance, or expression can only be understood relative to that context. It’s a bit like saying that all questions are ambiguous just because some are and because precision is difficult. Also, relativism is ambiguous about whether contextual knowledge is absolutely true within that context; many relativists object to the idea of any absolute, permanent, unitary truth. But why should the truth for a given context ever change? Relativism provides an argument that the context is important, but no argument that the truth can change if we keep the context constant.

Nietzsche once argued in the Genealogy of Morals, III, 25: “That which constrains idealists of knowledge, this unconditional will to truth, is faith in the ascetic ideal itself even if as an unconscious imperative – don’t be deceived about that – it is faith in a metaphysical value, the absolute value of truth, sanctioned and guaranteed by this ideal alone (it stands or falls with this ideal).”

Nietzsche thus argues that truth, like the God of Plato and traditional Christianity, is the highest and most perfect being imaginable: “we men of knowledge of today, we godless men and anti-metaphysicians, we, too, still derive our flame from the fire ignited by a faith millennia old, the Christian faith, which was also Plato’s, that God is truth, that truth is divine.” (Gay Science, 344)

He would even berate the supposed atheists and free-spirits of knowledge (i.e., of scientists and objective knowledge):

These nay-sayers and outsiders of today who are unconditional on one point — their insistence on intellectual cleanliness; these hard, severe, abstinent, heroic spirits who constitute the honor of our age; all these pale atheists, anti-Christians, immoralists, nihilists, these skeptics, ephectics, herectics of spirit, … these last idealists of knowledge, within whom alone intellectual conscience is today alive and well, – they certainly believe they are as completely liberated from the ascetic ideal as possible, these “free, very free spirits”; and yet they themselves embody it today and perhaps they alone. […] They are far from being free spirits: for they still have faith in truth. (Genealogy of Morals III:24)

Yet, in pragmatic and practical matters of daily life most humans Nietzsche would argue “recognize untruth as a condition of life: that, to be sure, means to resist customary value-sentiments in a dangerous fashion; and a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself , by that act alone, beyond good and evil.” (Beyond Good and Evil, 333) He would even ask:

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions – they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.

For Nietzsche truth was not so much relative as it was untrustworthy. Every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases—which means, strictly speaking, never equal—in other words, a lot of unequal cases. Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. (Truth) This is the movement of truth from actual experience of a person in his/her daily confrontation and struggle, to the after-thought – the distilled and abstracted kernel that suddenly gets objectified into a concept, subtracted from the changeable and experience ridden world of things and placed into some pure world of Ideas. What we forget in this process is what is unique and cannot be reduced to the pure concept, what remains in excess of its supposed objective universality: the messiness of reality that cannot be reduced to our significations.

Yet, to go back to the Oxford pun on all this, what their conveying is that we’ve allowed the whole treatment of knowledge as scientific objectivity to fall into abeyance as concerns our day to day lives in politics and other affairs. And that instead of seeking some standard against which we can make judgements, we’ve allowed ourselves to believe anyone and everyone is worthy of their own truth, their own beliefs. In other words that nothing is truth, and everything is shaped by the lowest common denominator: personal belief. In such a society everything is atomized and truth can be shaped and presented as malleable and plastic according to the whims of those in power.

8 thoughts on “The End of Truth: Living in a Post-Truth World?

  1. The unfortunate subjectivity of what people refer to as ‘truth’ is disheartening . . . Truth no longer requires proof, people connect dots out of order to form their own picture to go along with whatever their perceived version of truth might be. It’s left me with a rather pessimistic view of most things I read and hear, it can be difficult to tell truth from versions of truth sometimes. I have become an avid fact checker 😊

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  2. While the reification of every individual’s opinion certainly does not bespeak to the greatness of our times, the objectivity of scientific knowledge has also been emphasized to death, and has contributed to produce the current state of affairs. It is in his lectures of 75-76 in the College de France, if I remember correctly, that Foucault ask this question about psychoanalysis. He says, “the question is not whether psychoanalysis is a science, but rather why does it aspire to become a science. In other words, what knowledge or knowledges does it seek to suppress?” (not an exact quote). This, of course, is the sophisticated version. One might also give a coarse example from Stephen Hawking’s vociferous statements against philosophy from the high chair of scientific truth, to see how scientific authority can be used to suppress other knowledges, in fact, without even displaying any erudition in those knowledges.

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    • Yea, that was the whole “subjugation of knowledges” he addressed in many lectures of that period up to 1976, or what Deleuze and Guattari referred to as “minoratarian knowledge”. The whole notion that the large institutionalized knowledge systems elided and repressed the minor knowledge’s that were at times much more needed in the world at large. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say. 🙂

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  3. Reblogged in my facebook account; the german society of language crowned the non-word “post-faktisch” for the word of the year. Facts are the tools ready-to-hand, to reveal the concealed, creating a shadow of a truth. Never forget. Truth is only one side of a body. For example: the body of the holy church contains Jerusalemme and Babylon, to sides of the one and only body; the evil lives beside the good, like the lamb lives beside the lion. Contamination is the key-word, or parasite.

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