Monday 7 January 2008

Why Truth Matters

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

The battle lines have been drawn, armies marshalled and weapons assembled, welcome one and welcome all to the catch-all conflict of our times: Truth vs Postmodernism. Choose your side wisely or you’ll be lost in the crossfire…

Why Truth Matters, first published in 2006 and now in paperback, is another explosion in the recent volley of attacks on postmodernist thinking, following Simon Blackburn’s Truth: a guide for the perplexed, and the mini-militia of Dawkins and associates. The troops are out to search and destroy postmodernism and its sympathisers with logic-gun and truth-bomb. In line with the authors Ophelia Benson’s and Jeremy Stangroom’s Butterflies and Wheels, this little volume is for ‘fighting fashionable nonsense’, taking pot-shots amidst well-mannered discussion. The authors discuss philosophical notions of truth amidst broader societal and political concerns, and the most exciting passages cover the rise of social Darwinism and eugenics in a discussion about the interplay between ideology, science and politics. The nitty-gritty nasty involves taking to task the ideas of, for example, Mary Midgely’s critique of Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’, Carol Gilligan’s theory of feminine morality, and Bloor’s account of the sociology of science, amongst others. There is the sulphur whiff of ‘agenda’, but this is war and Benson and Stangroom are taking no prisoners.

The premise of the book, that ‘wishful thinking and denial had replaced a rational acceptance of grim truth’, is gateway to 181 pages of in-depth corrective. ‘Wishful thinking’ is presumably short-hand for postmodernism, which itself has become shorthand for a clutch of views including epistemic relativism, moral relativism and a certain moral malaise, dislike of binary oppositions, suspicion of ‘Western’ knowledge and rejection of the grand narrative. But postmodernism here is not just philosophical or even cultural: it’s political, and the ‘postmodern left’ fights a different set of battles from the traditional left, seeking to achieve liberation and egalitarianism in the main by ‘doing away with hierarchies’ intellectual as well as social. This comes to a head in its treatment of science:

authority is seen as one of the chief opponents and obstacles of these more subtle, nuanced, covert, non-literal forms of imprisonment and inequality. Expertise tends to be associated with authority, now that the hierarchies of birth have lost much of their power. The most entrenched, respected form of expertise…is science…therefore its claims must be undermined and ‘demystified’. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant; their harmfulness rests not on epistemic status but on their ability to compel assent and to exclude the ignorant. (p49)

The truths of science are disliked not from consideration of their content, but because – at root – they’re seen as making us less free.

There’s strategic sense in lumping this all together to lampoon the lot, but there’s also a need to understand why and how the tables have turned – the truth used to set us free; now it’s simply another mind forg’d manacle – and the greatest threat to our liberty is not tyranny of the state or even other people, but cold, impartial science.

But it seems not so much that the postmodern left or the generally-dubbed postmodern don’t care about truth, since – as far as they’re homogenous – their defence often includes it: it’s everybody else’s conception of truth that’s wrong. Likewise, political parties frequently wield ‘the truth’ in support of their views, what’s considered legitimate often changes according to what we know to be true, and we get frustrated when politicians lie. But arguing over the truth will only ever yield agreement on the facts, and the bald facts don’t dictate a course of action on their own. Deciding the truth question will not obviously decide the political one. Further, and as the authors point out, turning to scholarly texts to arbitrate the issue will not do the whole job either, and the fact that past masters have been misinterpreted to fit current agendas is often more interesting than what this agenda itself actually is. In this, when strange new views set themselves up as being legitimated by a new reading of Wittgenstein, scholars might set them straight but crying over the crime will do little to stem the problem, especially when the motivating factors are more ideological than philosophical.

Rather, the focus on truth is serving to refashion and rejuvenate public philosophy. Since the logical positivism on the 1920s and 1930s, with its anti-metaphysical project of reducing language to bare logical form and glossing truth in terms of verification, the notion of truth has become a bit thin in the public imagination. And not too surprising, since it led many of its historical heroes to their deaths and has a stereotypical penchant for attracting self-flagellating old men who spend their lives sitting in dark rooms, alone, deep in contemplation. Reconstituting and defending truth was always going to take more than ordering people to stop telling – and believing – falsehoods; and fighting the multifarious nature of epistemic and moral relativism was always going to take more than bringing people in line with the truth. Why Truth Matters goes a long way on the truth side and certainly doesn’t patronise, but there’s also a political component that needs to be addressed.

Postmodernism, as far as it philosophically goes, is most fruitfully seen as a test for the more traditional notions of truth, objectivity and rationality – since it questions the very assumptions on which these are based. Showing why truth matters is a good response but it’s also a difficult one. The final answer – that since humans are the only ones that can discover the truth ‘it would be a waste not to’ – slightly misses the mark. The better answer comes in the first chapter, that the more true things we know the more we can understand – and then change – the world, the more we can progress towards being better human beings. And the attendant defence of knowledge, that ‘no one brief generation has the right to tamper with it [the truth] for the sake of its own ephemeral satisfactions’ seems noble but deeply conservative: unless we’re free to question and challenge the platitudes of our time – and unless we can show why we hold as true what we do – our knowledge will be all but useless. When it comes to showing why truth matters, one of the first points – which is more implicit than explicit in the book – is that having a proper grasp of what truth is allows us to decide matters for ourselves.


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