Is Truth Valued in Our Culture?
Berny Belvedere

Truth and Postmodernism

I initially thought this was a parody of conservative thinking, but on second reading, I realized that it was a genuine (albeit likely willful) lack of understanding of postmodernist thinking. Thus, there are some critiques the discussants should consider.

First, postmodernism (and epistemology generally) distinguishes between subjective truths and objective truths. The former are statements about one’s individual experience of the world, while the latter comprise propositions supported either inductively or deductively.

For example, the colour red contains both objective and subjective truths. Objectively, ‘red’ is the term given to light in the visible spectrum with wavelengths around 650 nm. However, seeing the colour is a subjective experience that happens within the brain of each observer. Thus, my experience of seeing red need not be identical to yours.

The discussants might still object to the existence of subjective truths, saying that they are not actually truth-valued objects. However, this position would just be a special case of expressivism, which is the meta-ethical position that moral statements do not have truth values, but instead express opinions on actions. Under expressivism, the statement “stealing is bad” just means “I disapprove of stealing” or “Stealing? Boo!”

However, expressivism falls victim to the Frege-Geach problem, which states that if moral statements do not have truth values, then complex statements containing moral statements cannot have truth values. Thus, the statement “if stealing is bad, then embezzlement is bad” would be a nonsensical statement. Conditionals require truth-valued antecedents and consequents, but expressivism denies that moral statements have truth values, meaning they cannot be used in conditionals (or with other logical conjunctions).

Yet this statement seems quite sensible, meaning the expressivist account cannot explain these statements. Likewise, people use subjective truths, including in complex statements, both formally and colloquially, meaning that they must express some truth value.

Second, the discussants create a false dichotomy between pure ‘objectivism’ and pure ‘subjectivism.’ Their claims seem to suggest that anyone who rejects the notion that there is one pure, unadulterated, capital-T ‘Truth’ automatically accepts the notion that truth doesn’t exist at all.

This is not the case. In William Perry’s schema of cognitive development, students progress through four distinct relationships with beliefs. The discussants seem to support Perry’s first stage, dualism, where there is one objective truth and people should strive to figure out ‘how the world is.’ They contrast this against Perry’s second stage, multiplicity, where there are many truths or no truth whatsoever.

From a developmental perspective, students start as dualists, believing their role is to obtain facts, preferably from authority figures. However, when they face a situation where their preferred authority figure is wrong, they often become multiplicists. This shift is effectively an over-correction, based on the same false dichotomy that the discussants use: if there is not a single ‘Truth,’ then truth must be completely subjective.

Yet this is merely a stop along the cognitive development towards relativism and commitment, which argue that knowledge is contextual and depends on scrutinizing the validity of supposed experts and evidence.

Third, postmodernism stresses the distinction between objectivity of facts, versus objectivity of knowledge or people. It accepts the possible existence of facts outside human context, but argues that all knowledge is mediated by an individual and that the experiences, biases, beliefs, and identity of that individual necessarily influence how they mediate any knowledge.

The essence of postmodernism is a criticism of the mythical ‘view from nowhere.’

The critical idea is that knowledge is not simply a collection of facts, devoid of context, but the systematic organization of facts into a coherent narrative through an individual. Thus, the apparent rejection of truth that the discussants decry is not denying the existing of objective facts, but rejecting the existence of a single, true narrative (Lyotard’s metanarrative).

Postmodernism argues that people are fundamentally subjective because their unique beliefs and values alter the way they organize factual data. Thus, the narratives they construct around data will also be subjective.

However, it doesn’t follow that postmodernism cannot distinguish between narratives. Again, the discussants rely on a false dichotomy between ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity.’ If a narrative is a poor organization of the data, then it is a bad narrative. Yet a postmodern narrative can simultaneously be a good organization of the data (and be more true than the bad narrative) and be subjective.

Finally, postmodernism criticizes individuals’ claims of objectivity via a critique of power. Specifically, it argues that the degree to which society accepts an individual’s claim of objectivity is directly proportional to that individual’s structural power.

This view sees knowledge and power as unavoidably connected. Postmodernism argues that an individual’s claims of objectivity are used as a rhetorical tool with which to beat their opponent. If someone claims objectivity, then their interlocutor’s position must be wrong.

The core criticism is that this ability to seize the mantle of objectivity has little to do with the strength or weakness of their argument, but their ability to marshal power against their opponent. Someone may have the weaker argument, but if they can overpower my opponent, then they ‘win’.

However, since the visible use of power would reveal the weakness of their argument, they must disguise their power; hence, the claim to objectivity.

Under the postmodern view, the powerful are the most likely to claim objectivity, since they have the most to gain by hiding their use of power and the most power to hide. Thus, the postmodernist would claim that ‘objectivity’ is merely collusion among the powerful to disguise their subjectivity and grant themselves free use of their structural power.

There are many good questions to ask about truth, facts, knowledge and society’s subjective relationship to each. Postmodernism is a useful frame to ask these questions, since it alerts us to the relationship between individual beliefs, facts, and power when constructing knowledge.

However, this discussion rests on blatant ignorance of the nature or ideas of postmodernism. It mostly serves to flatter the discussants’ beliefs in their own objectivity and to repeat conservative nostrums about liberal criticisms of their structural power.