The World After Truth
“You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” —John 8:32
“’What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” —Francis Bacon
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” ―Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
Soon after Donald Trump became president, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway introduced the nation to a new epistemological notion: “alternative facts.” Before this, everyone naively assumed that something was either true or false, real or unreal, a fact or not a fact.
By embracing the notion of alternative facts, the White House gives the impression that it exists in an alternative universe with its own private realities. This threatens to plunge the nation into the indifference to truth that Trump demonstrated throughout the 2016 campaign.
The problem is not that Trump says that white is black, or that he calls true what is clearly false. The problem is that he feels he can call anything whatsoever true or false, depending on whatever happens to come to mind. Truth is therefore in a constant state of flux.
To give just one example, Trump calls the Labor Department’s figures on unemployment “one of the biggest hoaxes in American modern politics.” How high does he think unemployment is? It all depends on which of his speeches you happen to hear. On various occasions, he has said that the real rate is 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 28, 29, 30 or 35 percent. He even told Time magazine “the real unemployment rate is 42 percent.”1
No wonder, then, that even before the Inauguration, pundits were saying that we have entered a new “post-truth,” “post-fact” world. Unfortunately, no one has seriously dealt with the question that “jesting Pilate” put to Jesus—what is truth? Nor have our opinion makers given much thought to what a world without truth would look like.
Philosophers have long struggled to explain the nature of truth. Theories of truth run the gamut from those that claim that reality can be objectively known to those that say that truth is something subjective, relative and man-made.
Plato famously taught that there is a realm of absolute truth and knowledge above and beyond the shifting world of mere opinion. He pointed out that popular opinion can be massaged and manipulated by politicians skilled in rhetoric; it can be beautified by poets who have no idea what true knowledge is; but only philosophers trained in Plato’s own “dialectical” method can escape the cave of subjectivity and rise to realm of Absolute Truth and Reality.
Plato himself painted an unforgettable picture of the other, subjectivist end of the spectrum. According to him, the subjectivist school was dominated by sophists like Gorgias, Hippias, Prodicus, and Thrasymachus. Protagoras of Abdera seemed to sum up the subjectivist take on truth when he declared that “man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, of things that are not that they are not.”
Following Plato, historians of philosophy have usually taken this to mean that what’s true is not a statement that refers to something objectively “out there” in the world waiting to be discovered. On the contrary, truth is something created and subjective. On this reading, truth is so malleable that it can be completely shaped, inverted and redesigned by the wily politician who happens to have the gift of gab, i.e. rhetoric—precisely what the sophists claimed to teach.
While Plato fantacized about authoritarian utopias and absolute knowledge, the sophists focused on the role of opinion in the real rough-and-tumble of Greek democracy. As an aristocrat who taught that the ideal state called for “guardians” with knowledge of eternal verities, Plato could not abide the opinions of common man.
The sophists, on the other hand, believed that the rhetoric they taught—like debate clubs and law schools in the United States today—prepared citizens for active participation in politics. Sophistry deserves the negative reputation it has in Plato’s Dialogues only when it divorces truth from justification—or “warranted assertibility” as John Dewey would put it—or when it characterizes truth as merely a function of power.
Friedrich Nietzsche agreed with the sophists that truth is created, not found or discovered (as Plato assumed). For Nietzsche, there are two ways to look at truth. From the point of view of “the herd” (i.e., common human beings), truth is a “mobile army” of customary, worn-out metaphors, irrefutable errors, and illusions no longer recognized for what they are. It is a form of “inertia” that makes the herd content. It discourages the “expenditure of spiritual energy.”
For the strong, on the other hand, truth is the ability “to impose upon becoming the character of being.” It enhances the feeling of power among those strong enough to create it and impose it on others.2 From this, Nietzsche famously concluded 1) that “there are no facts, there are only interpretations,” and 2) that interpretations are what establish “the value of the world.”
Several years ago, I reviewed a book written by Yeshiva University’s sophist-in-residence, Stanley Fish, called The Trouble with Principle (Harvard University Press, 1999).3 At the time, I naturally had no idea that the book was a philosophical harbinger of the loathsome world without truth that would be unfolding today.
Fish doubles down on Nietzsche’s “perspectivism,” arguing that principles and objectively verifiable truths do not exist. Rhetoric, ideology and politics, on the other hand, do exist—and they go “all the way down,” as Fish likes to say. In Fish’s world, facts give way to spin. The only “ground” for truth (if truth exists at all) is the opinion of the tribes (“interpretive communities”) that surround us and live in our heads.
According to Fish, the aim of human speech is conquest, not communication. The traditional, liberal ideal of “free and open inquiry” is therefore a myth. Instruction in ideologically sensitive subjects (such as religion) should be taken out of the hands of professional scholars dedicated to nonpartisan research and turned over to True Believers who “just know” what truth is. In the end, truth is whatever a person can get away with.
Psychologists and political scientists who insist that emotion and personal experience always drive politics add scientific weight to the sophistic-subjectivist take on truth. Scholars today argue that a matrix or FRAMEWORK of subjective factors—an internalized version of Fish’s “interpretive community”—determines what counts as a political “fact.”
Political FRAMEWORKS function like eyeglasses. We need them to see, define and respond to what seems to be out there in the real world. Facts—or rather prima facie, political facts—are what we see when we put on our spectacles to watch the evening news on TV.
Today, successful politicians speak not to or about objective facts; they speak to FRAMEWORKS. They don’t talk policy; they talk about where people actually are. Today, only political wonks and politicians who lose elections focus on the details of policy and research.
To be sure, Donald Trump claimed to have “plans” that would solve all of our problems. But he was smart enough not to bore his base with the details. By skillfully addressing the FRAMEWORK of his base—in very short, repeated sentences with no subordinate clauses—Donald Trump was able to put together a formidable coalition of (older, white) left- and right-wing populists, evangelicals, conservative Catholics and many traditional conservatives—and thus win the presidency (without winning the popular vote).
Hyperbole, half-truths and double-talk have always glided off the slippery, forked tongues of politicians. But today, one politician—Donald Trump—has become the “measure of all things,” as Protagoras would put it. For his base, his “interpretations” have become Nietzschean facts defining “the value of the world.” Reality has given way to a truthless surreality. “Whirl is King,” as Aristophanes would say, having driven out Truth.
Where does this leave those of us who still remember and yearn for truth?
First, we must give sophists their just due. We cannot go back to Plato’s idea of absolute, objective truth. A world of absolute truth can be as dangerous as a world without any truth at all. A liberal society tasks government with the promotion of liberty, not truth.
Hannah Arendt held that truth “peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.”4 A government that claims to know and embody absolute truth can be truth’s worst enemy. From 1912-1991, the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Russia published a rag called Pravda (literally “truth”) which was a vehicle for anything but truth.
Absolute truth may be a philosophical illusion, but truth as the on-going, pragmatic transformation of verifiable (or falsifiable) opinions into verified facts is a sine qua non of daily life, morality and political discourse. If Arendt was saying that debate is killed whenever someone claims to be in possession of absolute, irrefutable truth, then she was right.
Those who claim to be in possession of absolute truth cut off debate as quickly as do those who claim their opinions are sanctioned by scripture or divine revelation. Both claims are “conversation stoppers,” as American pragmatist Richard Rorty used to say. Those who claim to know truth absolutely often conclude that, since “error has no rights,” they can justifiably silence, persecute or even kill its messengers.
The irony of our new post-truth world is that so many political activists still lay claim to absolute truth, be it the truths of orthodox economics, natural law,5 or some other kind of politico-theological gnosis. Dogmatism of this sort is the ultimate source of the political gridlock that has seized our country in recent years.
Even truth advocates need to realize how important FRAMEWORKS are in politics. FRAMEWORKS allow us to make decisions and react to crises without having to reinvent the whole wheel of value and worldview. They therefore give us an “adaptive advantage” in dealing with complexity and change.
Because classical liberalism lays so much emphasis on abstract principle, process and procedure, it expects citizens to bring something more substantial with them when they step into the public forum—not only their needs and self-interests, but their values and commitments as well. Liberalism needs these assets if it is to function at all. Progressives therefore need to take FRAMEWORKS as serious as Donald Trump does if they intend to win elections in the future.
Because the search for defensible facts can only be carried out within all-too-human FRAMEWORKS, there will always be tension between FRAMEWORKS and verified facts. If we are ever to return to a world with truth, we need to have the courage to confront our own FRAMEWORKS with such facts.
Progressives will also need to learn—as Trump has not—how to address FRAMEWORKS without throwing red meat to voters’ fears and base instincts. Since truth is a conceptual and moral achievement, and not just a discovery, this, admittedly, will be messy and hard.
We don’t need to solve all of the philosophical problems about the nature of truth to realize how chaotic and dangerous a world devoid of truth will be. In such a world, there is no one more vulnerable than the person who fails to distinguish fact from fiction, responsible journalism from fake news, or scientific from conspiracy theories.
Hillary Clinton was wrong when she called Trump’s Grundvolk “deplorable.” But a large swath of The Donald’s base is gullible, and for this reason it will be manipulated, used and ultimately cast aside. Watch and see.
So, what will our country look like if truth disappears from the political scene the way it did in the pages of Pravda?
Democracy cannot survive without verifiable truth-claims. Without verifiable truth-claims there can be no sense of responsibility; without responsibility, no accountability; without accountability no honesty; without honesty no integrity in government. Promises, oaths of office and contracts become meaningless.
If, as Stanley Fish says, the aim of language is not communication but conquest, faith in other people will evaporate. As in the “state of war” described by Thomas Hobbes, in a world devoid of truth there will eventually be no industry, no arts, no letters and “the life of man will be solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.”
If the Constitution holds, life in this country will not come to that, even if Donald Trump continues to build his Towers of Untruth. But damage will be done.
During the next four years, Americans committed to civic virtue and the public good may have to “suffer, suffer into truth” (Aeschylus). Eventually truth will again find its rightful place in America’s political discourse, and, as scripture says, the truth will set us free.
Notes & Image Sources
1 “Trump called the government’s job numbers ‘phony.’ What happens now that he’s in charge of them?,” by Ana Swanson, The Washington Post (January 27, 2017).
Image: “Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’,” drawing by Markus Maurer [licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]. See Plato’s The Republic – Book VII for the description of this allegory.
2 Nietzsche, a self-declared immoralist, also declared that truth is simply the recognition that “a greater fullness of life necessarily demands the advance of immorality.”
3 Winston Davis, “Liberalism, the First Amendment and Religious Studies: a review of Stanley Fish’s The Trouble with Principle.” Religion Vo. 34 (2004), pp. 211-227.
Image: “Sunglasses with dark blue lenses, England, 1860-1900,” from Wellcome Images [CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons].
4 “Truth and Politics,” by Hannah Arendt, originally published in The New Yorker, February 25, 1967; reprinted with minor changes in Arendt’s Between Past and Future (1968), in The Portable Hannah Arendt, edited by Peter Baier (2000), and in Truth: Engagements Across Philosophical Traditions, edited by Medina and Wood (2005).
Image: “Pravda,” by Georg Pik (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
5 Natural law, an amorphous, self-contradictory philosophical doctrine that was used to justify both slavery and the Declaration of Independence, also provides a metaphysical rationale for unfettered laissez-faire capitalism (e.g., Adam Smith ’s “obvious and simple system of natural liberty”). Natural law also is invoked by those who reject homosexuality, same-sex marriage and abortion rights as unnatural, deviant forms of behavior. In effect, natural law is the Stoic version of Plato’s metaphysical absolutism.
Image: “Donald Trump supporters,” by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons].
Image: “Constitution We the People,” by Constitution_Pg1of4_AC.jpg: Constitutional Convention derivative work: Bluszczokrzew [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.