The Resuscitation of Truth
A Pragmatic Defense of Political Integrity
Time magazine recently re-purposed a cover-graphic and feature article from 1966, changing the title-question from “Is God Dead?” to “Is Truth Dead?” The central figure in this feature was, as you might expect, the current president of the United States.
Donald Trump’s fondness for the lie, whether big or small, has been well documented and does not need much of a rehash. Suffice it to say, Politifact rated a full 69% of Trump’s public statements to be false, mostly false, or “pants on fire” false, with a mere 4% as fully true. More disturbing is Trump’s keen ability to bob and weave around accusations of spreading falsehood — “I am just repeating what I heard on the news,” “I will be proven right, which I always am,” “fake news,” “I am an instinctual person,” and so on. These ploys knock the charge of untruthfulness back onto the court of the accuser. More disturbing still is that, for much of Trump’s base, truth and falsity do not seem to matter. He speaks ex cathedra to many of them, infallible as the pope when defining doctrine. Trump himself insinuated as much in January 2016 when he claimed “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, ok? It’s, like, incredible.” Incredible indeed.
Trumpian oblivion towards fact and indifference to the truth has led pundits on the left and right alike to hunt around for the murderers of reality and objectivity in a “post-truth society.” Often the suspects turn out to be “postmodernists.” After the second televised presidential debate, Barton Swain, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a caustic summary of this point of view:
Donald Trump is our first full-on “postmodern” presidential candidate. Truth, for him, isn’t some unseen objective entity a responsible politician should refrain from crossing. If there is such a thing, “truth” is only rhetorical or rooted in perspective. The only important “truth” in Trump’s worldview is that the nation’s ruling elite consists largely of incompetents, racketeers and hacks, and they have not yet been moved aside and replaced with Donald J. Trump. Whatever he says in the service of that manifestly noble aim isn’t just excusable but good and right. Negotiating the perils of objective truth has nothing to do with it… [Trump] is the ironic, self-referential embodiment of the newer postmodern conception of truth. He is a joker, a clown, yes, but a strong and determined one — a Nietzschean Übermensch with ludicrous hair and excellent comic timing. Hillary Clinton, with her weak appeals to objective truth — “that’s just not accurate” — is no match. For two generations or more, American liberals have cheered postmodern attitudes in art, literature, music and philosophy. Now it has entered politics, and it’s time to panic.
Leave aside for a moment that this is at best a caricature of “postmodern attitudes”, particularly that of philosophers like Foucault, Derrida, and especially Rorty, and that “postmodern” is a term stretched in so many ways to cover so many different contentions that, like “paradigm shift” and “irony”, it is virtually meaningless unless it is further specified. (Moreover, if Trump is a plausible Übermensch then I am a monkey’s uncle.) But Swain does catch one worry that I, among others who give postmodernists their due credit, have regarding a skeptical current in their thought and work. It is epitomized by a famous wisecrack in Nietzsche’s Nachlass: “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Nietzsche anticipated this in his early essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense”:
[Truth is] A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (Kaufmann translation, in The Portable Nietzsche, Viking, 1976, pp. 46-47)
It is important to realize that Nietzsche was notoriously inconsistent, saying one thing in one context and taking it back in another. (It’s also important to note that both the Nachlass and “On Truth and Lies” were published, not by Nietzsche himself but, by his sister: her not-so-hidden agenda, one Nietzsche did not share, might lead one to suspect that there was a reason Nietzsche did not publish these texts when he was alive and well.) So before one issues a blanket condemnation of “postmodern nihilism” it remains important to determine the overall context in which Nietzsche is pontificating on “truth”, and what “truths” he is trying to demystify. I think it is probable that the “truths” he is deconstructing here are key metaphysical notions of Platonism and Christianity, truths like “All Forms participate in The Good” and “God is Trinity,” rather than mundane ones such as “the cat is on the mat.” The problem, however, is that Nietzsche failed to provide any clear way to distinguish between such “capital-T truths” and banal, everyday ones. It is the latter which are being tossed to the four winds by the present “post-truth” regime, truths like “There is no evidence to suggest that thousands of Muslims were celebrating the collapse of the twin towers in Jersey City on 9/11,” or “Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote.” There is nothing metaphysically dense or epistemologically problematic about these true sentences. Yet these are the ones that Trump and his minions are eschewing, and replacing with a set of their own “alternative facts.” Comparisons to Orwell’s O’Brien and “2 + 2 = 5” are all too apt.
Being indignant about a “post-truth” world is entirely justifiable. But I am not sure that grumbling about a widely distributed oblivion toward the true, the factual, and the objective accomplishes anything other than frustration and anxiety. Railing about facts rarely convinces anyone predisposed toward ignoring them, and this is not exactly news. As Upton Sinclair put it: “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” What goes for salaries goes double for worldviews and triple for satisfying pipedreams.
While there may seem to be something quixotic about persuading the stubborn, it is timid to avoid that task, however fruitless it might turn out to be. Maybe, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once quipped, the only thing that works with persistent skeptics or relativists is to tell them “go away.” But that reply is understandable only as a last resort, because I think a solid, pragmatic case can be made that objectivity, fact, and truth are live, forced, and momentous options that can be given a successful defense. Because the defense is pragmatic, rather than theoretical, it is an argument that works because it can be defended on the same grounds as the nihilist’s, even if they are armed with “alternative facts” tailored to their worldview. Thus if this defense fails to persuade them, it is no fault of yours. Rather, skeptics, relativists, and nihilists don’t and can’t really believe what they say they believe, because what they do puts the lie to it. They fail to practice what they preach, and they cannot but fail given the constraints of human discursive conduct.
Pragmatists are often caricatured as being indifferent toward objectivity and relativistic about truth, but unlike their postmodernist cousins they are supposedly “cheerful nihilists.” Most pragmatists are widely thought to affirm Richard Rorty’s offhand (and incautious) remarks like “truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying”, or that we would do well to “reduce objectivity to solidarity.” Rorty seemed at times to place everything in the hands of the local, cultural beliefs of a given epistemic community, which is the first and final court of appeal for what counts as “fact.” If this is what Rorty believes (I think there is ample textual evidence that it is not) then all facts are “alternative facts,” indexed to the actual assertions of a given community. It is therefore inevitable that Trump’s base and his fiercest critics will simply talk past each other. Persuasion implies enough common ground to agree on certain key premises of argument, and since this is precisely what is lacking, quibbling about truth and objectivity is pointless. Does this torpedo any conception of truth and objectivity that is not, in Swain’s words, “rhetorical or rooted in perspective”?
Robert Brandom, is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and was a student of Rorty’s at Princeton. He shares Rorty’s antifoundationalism and also self-identifies as a pragmatist. Nevertheless, he believes that Rorty’s views do not support the sort of “post-truth” philosophy he is often accused of having, and which he unwittingly supports when he tries to shock rather than patiently construct persuasive arguments. Brandom’s philosophical project, in his magnum opus Making It Explicit and other works, can be seen as an attempt to knock off the rough edges of Rorty’s pragmatism and to refashion it as a systematic philosophy of language that makes sense of truth and objectivity, and not just an “edifying” philosophy that provides groundless epistemic hope without “metaphysical comfort.” Any post-truth regime would be over before it starts.
Making It Explicit contains over 700 pages of dense, complex prose written in an intensely technical analytic style. (If you can imagine the late modal logician David Lewis rewriting Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, you might have some idea of how Making It Explicit reads.) But there are two strands that can be teased out of Brandom’s reflections on language that are directly relevant to contemporary Trumpian politics and its oblivion of truth and objectivity.
First, Brandom follows C.S. Peirce and Donald Davidson in drawing a sharp distinction between truth and justification. This distinction is rooted in our practices of making claims, defending them with reasons, and withdrawing those claims when evidence or argument shows them to be baseless. To use the most common example: I would be justified, if I were an 11th century cloistered monk, in believing that the earth was at the center of the universe. I could cite many reasons for this belief that could support this belief and command assent: the best available astronomical science of the day, scriptural testimony, and the ordinary experience of watching the sun, stars, and planets rise in the east and set in the west. The belief is held to be true, and the monk is justified in believing it true, but as a matter of fact, it is false. The relationship between justification and truth is a complicated and important one, but neither concept can be reduced to the other. I could be justified in believing X which turns out not to be true, and for that matter I can believe Y, which is true, without being justified in believing it — my facts could be wrong, my reasoning could be off. What Brandom is drawing our attention to is the sound linguistic practice involved in the giving and assessing of reasons. What we call “rational discourse” will involve weighing and evaluating our own reasons and that of others, responding to challenges and revising or even dropping our own convictions. There is no foggy metaphysical speculation or transcendental deduction behind Brandom’s truth/justification distinction. It is simply an unavoidable part of human sapience as expressed in our discursive practices.
Second, sapient human discourse invariably involves norms, elements of discursive practice that distinguish valid from invalid “moves”, and that enable participants in the practice to both track and evaluate those moves as better or worse. “Moves” in discursive practices are usually inferences: I draw conclusions from premises to which I am committed, and therefore are committed to the conclusions as well; I track the claims and inferences of other participants in the dialogue, and gauge whether (or to what extent) they too are entitled to their own commitments. So rational discourse centers around the inferences we draw, inferences that emerge from the sapient social practice of making claims and engaging in what Brandom calls “deontic scorekeeping”, employing shared practical norms to assess entitlements and commitments of fellow participants, and ourselves.
Meaningful human discourse, then, is a) constrained by shared norms that b) guide inferences articulating one’s commitments that c) one may or may not be entitled to hold. Our judgment of how well we, and our conversation partners, avoid error or get things right is what Brandom calls a “normative status” — a judgment that someone is entitled to believe or assert something. Those beliefs to which one is committed one takes to be true (what sense does it make to say “I believe X but it’s false”?), but I am entitled to those beliefs only to the extent that I can justify them. In discursive practices, we hold ourselves and others responsible for the commitments we hold by determining whether we are entitled to them, whether the inferential moves made in the linguistic social practice pass muster with the norms that make the social practice what it is.
There is, of course, something going on in discourse besides inference: there are also what Brandom dubs “discursive entry” and “discursive departure” moves. We are causally affected by non-linguistic beings, which cause not just sensations but perceptions, which give non-inferential access to the world but are possible only for sapient beings that are capable of drawing inferences from them and engaging in deontic scorekeeping. “Discursive entry/departure” moves anchor us to a world external to language, but it is the normative activity of holding ourselves responsible to the inferences drawn from these moves that constitutes “objectivity.”
Brandom was deeply influenced by many other philosophers in developing this “social practice” conception of objectivity: Wittgenstein’s “meaning-as-use” trope, Heidegger’s notion of Dasein as “Being-in-the-world,” Sellars’s rejection of “the Myth of the Given” and his epistemology of “the logical space of reasons.” Brandom leverages this account of the primacy of social practice into a comprehensive theory of meaning, where pragmatic ideas like “inference”, “commitment” and “entitlement” are primary, and semantic notions like “truth” and “reference” are derived from them, rather than the other way around, where meaning depends on a general theory of representation. For Brandom, we do not start out with a distinction between “subjectivity” and “objectivity” and then proceed to show how the objective world is correctly (and incorrectly) represented in subjective knowers, a path that has generated all manner of aporiae since Descartes and Locke. Rather, we establish the ebb and flow of human, sapient social practices, of assertion and reason-giving, and articulate “objectivity”, “fact”, and “truth” from there.
This is obviously just a thumbnail sketch of a few main ideas in Making It Explicit. It is a book of many virtues: clarity and ease of expression is not one of them, however. Brandom is a philosopher’s philosopher: his work is crammed with philosophical “shop talk”, and it is difficult to show how this might be relevant to what another pragmatist, John Dewey, called “the problems of men” [sic] that philosophy must address if it is to remain a worthwhile endeavor. But I do not think the connection between Brandom’s musings and constructing an escape-route past “post-truth politics” is farfetched, and I do think there are several political lessons to be teased out of Brandom’s “inferentialism.” One of Brandom’s obsessive points about inference is the inescapable normativity of human discourse, and that such norms, like “holding oneself and others responsible for commitments made” are built-into discourse and shared in common. Put in the vernacular: if you want to talk politics and make sense, you have to recognize and honor these shared norms. You can’t just do or say whatever you want. You can’t just make shit up.
The first political lesson to learn is: don’t let them gaslight you. By “them” I mean Trump and his base, their right-wing media enablers, and those critics like Barton Swain who give the former far too much credit for ushering in a supposedly postmodern “post-truth” regime. This is no time to get all wobbly about “truth”, “fact”, and “objectivity.” They are still meaningful, because discourse does not get off the ground without them. The post-truth regime is a mirage. The emperor has no clothes, so do not give him more power by fearing that the concept of truth has lost its resonance.
The second lesson is to view objectivity not as something given, as something obvious, but as something one must achieve in social practices that involve the giving and taking of reasons. One of the many shortcomings of Hillary Clinton’s hapless campaign was her assumption that facts speak for themselves and that truth follows on their heels. This would be fine if this were a campaign like any other, where everybody is on the same page when it comes to holding both others in the dialogue and oneself responsible for commitments by appealing to shared norms. There has to be an attunement to the context of discussion. No attunement, no background norms, and no compelling appeals to facts. Dropping facts as if they were truth-bombs will not work if your adversaries are unwilling to recognize their force. Decontextualized facts convince no one, certainly not anyone spoon-fed by Fox and Breitbart and the right-wing echo chamber. Little truths are no match for “the big lie”.
Third, what needs to be cultivated is not appeal to “the obvious”, but the disposition to take normative scorekeeping seriously — to hold every foot to the fire of showing one is entitled to the beliefs one claims to be true — and to make this manifest to others who might have lost their way. I think this is the most important lesson to be learned from Brandom’s magnum opus: that ultimately discourse is guided by a kind of ethical constraint, the need for both inferential consistency and inferential relevance, and a sort of guilt or shame when one deliberately fails to honor that constraint.
So when Trump claims that he would have won the vote had there not been “millions of cases of voter fraud” in California, he needs to be able to back that commitment up in order to be entitled to it, and not just any reason will suffice given the nature of the norms guiding that kind of public discourse. Appealing to “alternative facts” as if they were givens, or insinuating “Lots of people said they witnessed voter fraud,” without saying who or citing sources, don’t cut the mustard, not so much because they “fly in the face of the facts” as that they betray a mammoth irresponsibility toward the norm-governed practice of justifying whatever one claims to be true in a manner consistent with shared standards of evidence and inference. There is something worthy of guilt and shame to fail to follow these norms. If Trump has no shame, which I think clearly is the case, one cannot assume that everyone in his base lacks it as well.
It is thus wrong and counterproductive to accuse avid Trump supporters of stupidity. Partly because “Trump supporters” are a heterogeneous lot, and no one should assume that they all have the same axe to grind or the same sociopolitical agenda, and therefore can be dismissed in the manner of, say, a Bill Maher as a collection of Yahoos. But stupidity is not what is at stake here. A kind of irresponsibility is, though. For to talk of “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway did, or to unthinkingly accept them as gospel, without acknowledging the social requirement of putting up good public reasons or shutting up, is to admit that either one does not mean what one says, or does not care one way or the other. It is not to play the game of political discourse by different rules. It is to refuse to play it at all. Some Trumpians fall into that category, I think. And that is a kind of ethical failure.
It would be nice to be able to say “case closed” right here and now. But that would be quite premature. It would be far too glib and easy. One of the pitfalls of the American left is not its infatuation with “postmodern relativism,” whatever that is, but its incurable optimism. Many of those on the left think that if we all show the right just how reasonable we are, the scales shall fall from their eyes and they will walk jubilantly into the light of the true and the good. But if Brandom’s “social practice” account of truth and objectivity is even remotely on the right track, that kind of optimism is not just naïve, but delusory. For it is the health or sickness of the social practices themselves that will secure the sense of shared responsibility which supports the appeal to “fact”, “objectivity”, and “truth”. Reasonability has certain key requirements — stable practices of self-responsible reason-giving and reason-taking — in the absence of which deontic scorekeeping is impossible. Reasonable liberals and leftists and centrists and conservatives are not possible without stable, institutionalized practices that are themselves reasonable. The practices come first.
These practices are in deep trouble. I worry that there is a damaged social-moral ecology in today’s United States because of that. What happened to our institutions of political discourse that allowed the very idea, the incoherent idea, of “post-truth” to take root? What kind of dysfunction brought about the idea, given its most powerful and frightening expression by Carl Schmitt, that politics is all and only about “friends” and “enemies”, who do not so much debate and persuade as conduct war by rhetorical means? And how do you reconstruct a polity where the mutual effort to hold each other accountable for their political commitments has fallen to bits? To ask such questions is to raise the issue of how to rebuild, or build from the ground up, a democratic culture that sustains practices and institutions which take democratic citizenship seriously. This we have lost — temporarily I hope. But the loss must be recognized before it can be recovered.