Truthfulness in a post-truth society

“Absolute truth, which would be the same for all men and therefore unrelated, independent of each man’s existence, cannot exist for mortals. For mortals the important thing is to make doxa truthful, to see in every doxa truth and to speak in such a way that the truth of one’s opinion reveals itself to oneself and to others.”
Hannah Arendt, “Socrates” (previously published as “Philosophy and Politics”)

Over the past few months there has been a surge of interest in the emergence of “post-truth” or “post-fact” politics. This term has been used to describe Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the US, the Leave.EU campaign during the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the rhetoric of the Kremlin in regard to the situation in Ukraine. Apparently we are currently facing a new era in politics: if in the past it was important for political actors to at least appear truthful — even if they were distorting the facts (knowingly or not) — today politicians no longer seek to ground their claims to power in facts, instead playing into people’s emotions and tapping into their fears. The situation is complicated by the fact that even when we try to hold politicians to account for not adhering to factual truths, we run into even greater perplexities: most “truths” that are in dispute are portrayed as statistical “facts,” which are themselves socio-economic constructs and thus are not absolute. As the saying goes, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

The recent focus on post-truth or post-fact politics has brought to the fore some very important questions: what does it mean to be truthful in the political realm in a post-traditional society? Is truthfulness about being meticulous with facts? Or is it about being blatantly straightforward and “honest” about one’s thoughts — as is, for example, Donald Trump? Or about grounding one’s opinion in the advice of experts and in the findings of the socio-economic sciences — as did, for example, the Remain.EU campaigners? Or adhering to broadly defined “true liberal” values?

Arendt’s works can help us think about truthfulness in politics. To begin with, Arendt demands of political actors an absolute respect for factual truths and a commitment to not distorting them. Her point is that without recognising and acknowledging the facts of the past, there can be no common ground upon which political actors can start new beginnings, no common world for them to share with contemporaries and future generations.

The Acropolis imagined in an 1846 painting by Leo von Klenze

Yet, for Arendt, truthfulness in relation to the political realm represents more than just a willingness to recognise and respect facts, since political speech is always more than the mere reporting of facts. One way to perceive the complexity of Arendt’s view on truthfulness is to turn to an early work of hers — “Socrates.”[i] In this essay, she transports the reader to ancient Athens, creating her own portraits of the great philosophers Socrates and Plato. She demonstrates that there is a radical difference between how they each understood truth in relation to philosophy and politics. For Plato, as Arendt represents him in “Socrates,” the role of the philosopher is to employ the absolute Truth — which, as a philosopher, only he possesses — to rule over the polis. Socrates, she contends, also saw himself as playing a very important political role, but his intention was not to relay the philosophical Truth to his fellow citizens. Instead, he wanted to act as the “midwife” of the polis — someone who “delivers” the truths that inhere in the citizens’ own opinions. Socrates termed the method of making the city more truthful maieutics, or the art of midwifery, a method that consisted in engaging as many citizens as possible in dialogues in the agora with the sole purpose of talking through their opinions. Arendt sympathetically notes that Socrates’ maieutics was informed by the following insight:

“Absolute truth, which would be the same for all men and therefore unrelated, independent of each man’s existence, cannot exist for mortals. For mortals the important thing is to make doxa truthful, to see in every doxa truth and to speak in such a way that the truth of one’s opinion reveals itself to oneself and to others” (19).

What does this passage tell us about truth and truthfulness in relation to the political? Firstly, politics is not about establishing absolute truth or attempting to reach absolute consensus: it is about articulating diverse doxai, a Greek word for “opinion.” This does not mean that Arendt rejects the possibility of Truth with a capital “T,” such as religious or philosophical truth. What she wants to demonstrate through Socrates is that such truth, in the singular, has no place in politics. As soon as truth appears in the political realm, it is contested, doubted and questioned by the plurality of political actors and recast as a multitude of particular doxai.

A demand that Arendt’s Socrates puts on humans is to “make their doxai truthful” — implying that an opinion is not truthful by default. As Arendt represents it, Socrates believed that “nobody can know by himself and without further effort the inherent truth of his own opinion” (15). How different this proposition is from the contemporary treatment of opinions! Think, for example, about opinion polls, conducted under the assumption that opinions can be recorded as facile statements, the sum of which will represent the truth about the view of the majority in a given society. People are assumed to form opinions in private independently of one other and announce them to others after they have already been formulated. Nothing could be further from what Arendt’s Socrates thought about opinions — that an individual can constitute a truthful opinion only if she is prepared to put additional “effort” into it, and this effort is not about solipsistic contemplation but about engagement with others.

This effort required from an individual who wants to constitute her opinion in its truthfulness consists, firstly, in “seeing in every doxa truth,” that is, in learning to appreciate every doxa, every opinion — whether it agrees with her own opinion or not — and recognise all doxai as equally meaningful. Note that this is different from the imperative to achieve a rational consensus from various opinions, since the practice of endowing all doxai with significance does not mean erasing differences between them. For Arendt, the very beauty of the political realm lies in the interplay of diverse, diverging and often conflicting opinions. “Seeing in every doxa truth” means celebrating this turbulent plurality of opinions and finding the inspiration to attend to opinions that are in opposition with our own and even confronting to us.

Also, the demand “to see in every doxa truth” requires more than merely a willingness to tolerate different opinions: it requires that an individual be willing to actively seek out others — including people with whom she agrees and disagrees alike — listen to them and genuinely attempt to understand what meanings they seek to construct of the world. This in turn can be possible only if an individual approaches others without assuming that she already knows where her fellows stand in the world and what their opinions are (or should be). Arendt derives this insight from Socrates’ famous wisdom “I know that I don’t know,” which she interprets as follows: “I know that I do not have the truth for everybody; I cannot know the other fellow’s truth except by asking him and thereby learning his doxa, which reveals itself to him in distinction from all others” (19).

But how does Arendt justify the notion that in every opinion potentially lies its own particular truth? In “Socrates,” Arendt puts great emphasis on the fact that a Greek word for opinion — doxa — means “comprehension of the world as ‘it opens itself to me’” (14). The world is not understood here as a thing that exists out there but as that which “appears” to humans from a plurality of distinct perspectives. Since every individual occupies a particular standpoint in the world, a single, absolute, true perspective on the world is not possible for humans. Rather, every individual has a unique opening to the world and can constitute her own doxa — a distinct understanding of how the world appears to her. Doxa thus corresponds to the domain of meaning and significance, not knowledge. Therefore, there can be no right or wrong doxa — or, to be more precise, there can be no pre-given absolute standard that can be applied to evaluating doxai. Every doxa is potentially truthful, but only potentially: a doxa can become truthful only if an individual is willing to constitute it in relation to other doxai.

Socrates, as Arendt portrays him, saw his role in the polis precisely as facilitating the relational activity that would allow his fellow citizens to constitute truthful opinions. By inviting his fellow citizens to take part in dialogues in the agora, he saw himself as encouraging them to voice what they think in the presence of others, as well as helping them to bring their diverse and often opposing and conflicting perspectives into relation and see how they coincide and differ.

View southwards from The Queen’s House to The Observatory and General Wolfe statue in Greenwich Park, Greenwich, London, England (Source)

What was at stake, for Arendt’s Socrates, in fulfilling this role of midwife of the polis was a sense of a common world. As Arendt highlights it, life in ancient Athens represented “an intense and uninterrupted contest of all against all” (16). The problem was that “because the commonness of the political world was constituted only by the walls of the city and the boundaries of its laws, it was not seen or experienced in the relationships between the citizens” (16). The common world which Socrates wanted his fellow citizens to collectively build is not achieved through arriving at some kind of rational consensus and overlooking differences and disagreements. Rather, through taking part in dialogues about doxai, citizens can develop a reciprocal understanding of what the world means for themselves and others. They can endow the phenomena of the world — built environment, facts, art works, actions, events, and so on, — with meaning and significance and constitute a framework of shared meanings between them. What they can come to realise in this process is that “the same world opens up to everyone and that despite all differences between men and their positions in the world — and consequently their doxai (opinions) — ‘both you and I are human’” (14). The process of constituting the meaning of one’s opinion and engaging with others in their own search for meaning is simultaneously a process of learning how to share the world with others and be equal partners in this world.

Speech is of crucial significance in this process. For Arendt’s Socrates, it is important that everyone can speak in such a way that the truth of one’s opinion reveals itself to oneself and to others (19). This means first and foremost that every citizen needs to be accorded a voice and invited to speak with others about her doxa. But it also means that truthfulness involves the willingness to speak in a way that is meaningful not only for those whom we expect to naturally agree with us but also those whom we expect to have a very different perspective on the world. This does not mean sugarcoating things and making speech palatable for everyone but rather ensuring that others are not discouraged from engaging with our perspectives on the world — which so often happens when people deliberately wield speech as a weapon and a tool of insult. If we deliberately frame our speech in a way that is repugnant to others, this will weaken — rather than strengthen — the possibility of a common world since this will preclude others from being willing to launch into meaningful conversation with us and see truth in our doxa. As a result, we can miss out on the opportunity to relate our doxa to the doxai of others, and thus on being able to draw out the truth inherent in our opinion and demonstrate it to our opponents and our supporters alike.

Building on Arendt’s insights in “Socrates,” we can understand truthfulness as the orientation to the world that is needed for a political actor to be able to constitute a truthful opinion. This truthfulness has three aspects to it. Firstly, a truthful individual is one who is willing to appear to others and constitute the meaning of her opinion through dialogue with them, thereby engaging with as many diverse doxai as possible, including those that are in opposition with her own and originating from different socio-economic classes, cultural and religious backgrounds, geographical areas, and so on. Secondly, a truthful individual is one who does not assume that she knows where others stand in the world and is genuinely committed to finding out how the world appears to them and what meanings they constitute of the world. Finally, a truthful individual is one who speaks about her doxa in a way that does not avoid tensions and disputes, but at the same time does not short-circuit potential dialogue with any human being. Truthfulness thus understood is essential for grounding a common world and ethics in a post-traditional society or, shall I say, post-truth society.

The political developments mentioned earlier can be interpreted as a symptom of a lack of truthfulness in the threefold sense considered above. Brexit can be seen as an outcome of the inability of the political elite to engage with the opinions of working-class members of society who appeared not to share the “liberal” consensus and who had been left out the public dialogue about the world. Meanwhile, the Remain.EU campaign can be viewed as an illustration of how truthfulness is not the same as a sincere intention to “be right”: those who campaigned for Remain seemed to believe that, even though other opinions on the matter can exist, their doxai were the most “righteous” because they were the ones informed by expert advice, socio-economic theories and “true liberal” values. This desire to “be right” among Remain campaigners often made them unwilling to genuinely engage with the doxai of those with a different perspective on the EU project. The referendum thus exposed deep-seated fractures and divisions in society and an urgent need to start reconstituting a common world and developing a common framework of meanings.

The Donald Trump phenomenon also provides an insight into truthfulness. On the one hand, parallels have been drawn with the EU referendum, as Trump appears to voice the doxai of those who are not included in the public dialogue about the world. At the same time, however, his example highlights that being blatantly honest about one’s views does not necessarily mean being truthful in the sense I articulated above. Trump promotes himself as an honest politician and boldly speaks his mind, which is an important prerequisite for truthfulness, but is he fully truthful if by truthfulness we mean the willingness and ability of an individual to develop a genuine insight into as many different doxai as possible, including those that conflict with her own, and to speak in a way that recognises the dignity in each doxa, and does not preclude future dialogue among different perspectives on the world? What is at stake here is not political correctness but attending to the possibility of a common world — not to be confused with national unity — which statespeople are entrusted to protect.

However, for Arendt, the notion of the political is not restricted to government and public affairs as narrowly understood. For Arendt, the political realm is constituted by a “web of relationships” that potentially encompasses all individuals who involve themselves in speaking and acting, in launching new beginnings and seeing them through together with others. The demands of truthfulness concern not just professional politicians but every one of us who sets out to act and speak. We can all ask ourselves whether our ethical orientation towards the world meets the demands of truthfulness in Arendt’s sense.

Arendt, Hannah. 2005. “Socrates.” In The Promise of Politics, edited by Jerome Kohn, 5–39. New York: Schocken Books.

[i] Arendt drafted this material in 1953 as a set of lecture notes. It was first published as an essay in 1990 under the title “Philosophy and Politics.” In 2005, it was republished as “Socrates” in The Promise of Politics, a collection of essays edited by Jerome Kohn.

Valeria Pashkova is finishing up the final amendments to her PhD thesis, “Arendt’s political thought: The relationship between truth and politics,” which she completed with the Institute for Culture and Society in Sydney. Her next project is to publish a book, Truth and Politics in a Post-Truth Society, which will interweave a theoretical analysis of Arendt’s essays with political case studies from Russia, Australia, the US and the UK.

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