Identifying postmodern approaches to truth

“Truth isn’t truth,” said Rudy Guiliani on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He later tried to clarify that his “statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology.”

Actually, I would argue that Guiliani’s statement has more to do with philosophical epistemology than with moral theology; that is, with the philosophical study of how we know the world. I would further argue that Guiliani’s statement reveals his indebtedness to the philosophical stance of postmodernism. To see what I mean, the first paragraph of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on postmodernism may prove helpful:

“That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.”

The relevant point here, I think, is that post-modernist statements such as “truth isn’t truth” and “alternative facts” can be considered attempts to destabilize the concept of epistemic certainty and univocity of meaning — that is, these are attempts to upset my sense that I can know something to be true, and to upset my sense that truth is the same for all reasoning beings. Statements such as these are trying to make us feel that we do not know the world adequately, and that we cannot know the world adequately through use of reason.

Guiliani’s statement is notable for its lack of nuance. I also think we’re seeing an uptick in fascist politics in the United States, a politics which increasingly seems to rely on postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty. I see this as a troubling trend: a link between fascism and the denial of epistemic certainty.

At the same time, I’m also thinking that some discourse by political liberals may also prove destabilizing to epistemic certainty, though with different intention and probably different ultimate effects. Some varieties of identity politics may involve assertions that person within one identity group cannot fully understand persons in another identity group, which assertions, if nuanced, may be useful and reasonable. For example, a woman could say to me, with great reasonableness, that because I’m a man I cannot understand many aspects of what it’s like to be a woman. Usually, there are several levels of understanding implicit in such a statement, e.g.: that while a man can’t understand fully what it is like to be a woman nevertheless a man can reason out something of what women experience (as exemplified by male novelists who write reasonably convincing female characters); that a transgender person who transitions from male to female can experience something of both male and female directly; and so on.

In a similar vein, scholar of religion Stephen Prothero asserts in his book God Is Not One that religions have different goals and different end points — and he also makes it clear that it’s possible to engender understanding between different religions, and between practitioners of different religions. In sum, then, one can assert that certain kinds of understanding between different persons may never be fully possible, while at the same time leaving room for the possibility that significant understanding may happen with effort. As a man I’m never going to experience what it’s like to bear a child, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m never going to experience the submission to Allah characteristic of Islam, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience.

But here’s where it gets tricky. I think political liberals have to be careful of how they use identity politics. Identity politics has been rightly critical of those who assert truths that are self-serving, as, for example, male scientists who assert that it is a “truth” that fewer women are capable of being scientists. This kind of argument is effective when it it appeals to reason, e.g., by pointing out how one’s bias can affect how one interprets data, i.e., how bias blinds one to reason. On the other hand, identity politics can move into the realm of postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty, for example with assertions that different identity groups have different truths that can not be mutually understood. If one is going to assert “Your truth isn’t my truth,” one must be careful to explicate how that statement is different from “Truth isn’t truth.”

Postmodernism and postmodern ideas are widespread in our society, and in our public discourse. We are all affected by them. The point I’m trying to make is that we have to be critical of our own discourse, and be aware of how we’re being affected by postmodern efforts to destabilize epistemic certainty. Because no one wants to wind up like Rudy Guiliani, saying in a public, “Truth isn’t truth.”

Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists

Kim Hampton nails it in a post titled “Anti-intellectualism in Unitarian Universalism”:

“Why is it, for all of our supposed intellectualism on a wide range of subjects, most Unitarian Universalist show absolutely no curiosity regarding religion itself? Part of the reason Unitarian Universalist social justice work can be so haphazard is because most UUs don’t understand that the only way to sustain oneself in the work of social justice is to have a firm religious grounding.”

Examples of our anti-intellectualism are easy to find: fundamentalist humanists who refuse to engage in thoughtful dialogue with angry theists (and vice versa); those who reduce Unitarian Universalist thinking to thoughtless recitations of the “seven principles”; those who conflate politics of the U.S. Democratic party with Unitarian Universalist social justice; etc.

I think Hampton makes an especially good point about the anti-intellectualism that pervades Unitarian Universalist social justice work. Yes, Unitarian Universalists should be opposed to the current practice of ICE separating children from their parents. But on what grounds do we oppose this human rights violation? — do we ground our opposition in natural law arguments, or in arguments from the Western religious tradition? The answer makes a difference. Back in a 2002 General Assembly lecture (see below), Prof. Carole Fontaine argued that Unitarian Unviversalists occupy a unique niche in human rights work: we should be able to talk with both secular and scripturally-based human rights workers, and thus we should be able to build alliances between these two groups, potentially a very powerful coalition.

But we can’t get to that point unless we get over our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking seriously about who we are and what we can do. And so, right now as Unitarian Universalists we are wasting an opportunity with the humanitarian crisis of the separation of immigrants and their children: had we been more thoughtful and less anti-intellectual, we could on the one hand challenge the completely incorrect Biblical justifications offered for what ICE is doing, while offering a liberal religious denunciation of the ICE abuses; and on the other hand build more effective bridges between religious progressives and secular human rights workers.

More about Fontaine’s lecture…. Continue reading “Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists”

Making the case for philosophy

At the Indian Philosophy Blog, Amod Lele has written a post titled “Making the case for non-Western philosophy.” Even though the title is ostensibly the subject of the post — even though the post is, on the surface, a book review about a book making the case for studying non-Western philosophy — Lele’s post really is making a case for studying philosophy at all, non-Western or Western.

As Lele puts it: “We live in an anti-philosophical and anti-intellectual age where philosophy, Western and Asian, needs defending.” As one specific example, he mentions “the awful US Republican debate where three different politicians took it upon themselves to take pot shots at philosophy.” It is worth noting that Donald Trump was not one of the candidates who took potshots at philosophy; this serves as a helpful reminder that the Republican party is riddled with anti-intellectualism.

Nor is anti-intellectualism confined to the Republican party. As a resident of Silicon Valley, I can tell you that Silicon Valley is a hotbed of anti-intellectualism. The only intellectual disciplines that are valued here in the Valley are those disciplines that will make you money; and really only those narrow areas within a discipline that will make money. Silicon Valley residents look down on the flyover states, but when I lived for a year in north central Illinois, an hour west of Chicago, I found more intellectual depth than I find here in Silicon Valley.

In his post, Lele discusses Paul Ricoeur’s concept of “the hermeneutic of faith” — which Lele defines as the willingness “to listen to the great thinkers of the past and take seriously the idea that they might be right — and contrasts that with the “hermeneutic of suspicion … which views previous thought as oppressive dead weight.”* Both the Republican party and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs may be accused of having their own versions of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” — the Republican party has left behind its intellectual past, and now appears to repudiate all serious thinking; Silicon Valley entrepreneurs view whatever predates computers as now hopelessly outdated and worthy only of amused contempt. Nor are Democrats immune from such thinking; too many Democrats worship Silicon Valley, and indeed the Democrats’ unquestioning embrace of neoliberalism and unrestrained capitalism also represents a kind of betrayal of serious thought. Identity politics, which now dominates the Democrats’ social policies, can also be deadly to serious thought: although identitarianism has been useful in deconstructing problematic thought processes, in practice identity politics can also serve as an intellectual bludgeon with which to shut down serious discourse and serious thinking.

Politically, socially, and intellectually, the United States is heading into a dead end. I don’t claim that philosophy is going to save us, or steer us out of the dead end. But I do claim that we need to let go of our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking about more than how to make money, and how to beat our political opponents. This is precisely where both Western and non-Western philosophy might be able to help.

We need look no further than the Confucian Analects, and the concept of rén which may be translated as kindness, forebearance, humaneness. For example, ren is defined as follows in the Analects (6.30): “The person of perfect virtue, wishing to be established, establishes others; wishing to be enlarged, enlarges others.”** This kind of thoughtful selflessness would do much to change both U.S. politics and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

And Confucius even had an answer for someone who wants to know how just thinking about something will affect the real world: “Ren is not far off; the person who seeks for it has already found it.”


* It is significant that the spell checker in Firefox, my Web browser, does not contain the word “hermeneutics”; though you can be assured the spell checker contains every tech buzzword.
** My rewording of Legge’s translation.

Not thinking about being human

At the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, writes about what it’s like to be a black professor.

Back in December, 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Yancy titled “Dear White America,” a thoughtful essay that asked white Americans to reflect on their position as white persons in a social system that provides structural benefits for white people. From my perspective as a former student of philosophy, this op-ed piece was primarily philosophical: it was written in the spirit of dialogue and openness, and designed to evoke serious reflection on an insistent social situation.

Rather than evoking reflection, Yancy reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he received “hundreds of emails, phone messages, and letters, an overwhelming number of which were filled with racist vitriol.” Yancy offers quotations from perhaps a dozen of the communications he received. Sadly I was not astonished by the level of vitriol; it was about what I expected. I was mildly astonished at how badly written these communications were, and how thoughtless — I mean “thoughtless” not in the sense of a lack of civility (though they did lack civility), but thoughtless in the sense that the writers had not actually thought about what they wrote.

Since Yancy’s essay was structured to provoke thoughtfulness about the topic of race, how is it that hundreds of people responded thoughtlessly? Part of the problem may be the American cultural tendency towards “evasion of philosophy” — the phrase used by American pragmatist philosopher Cornel West to name the American propensity of avoiding systematic thinking. Another part of the problem is American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon which includes those ostensibly well-educated Americans who value entrepreneurship and “business” over the life of the mind.

But I think the major problem here is the inability of most white Americans to think seriously about race and racism in America — to think, to think seriously. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has identified the problem of “white fragility,” but there is more to Yancy’s experience than white fragility. Yancy was attacked for asking white Americans to think, reflect, be introspective. The refusal to think can only be called intellectual fearfulness.

Another way of saying this is that white Americans are fearful of thinking seriously and deeply about what it means to be human. This fearfulness on the part of white Americans is, I suspect, amplified by the general American anti-intellectualism which is in large part a fear of thinking outside the narrow boundaries of technical achievement or outside the even narrower boundaries of American white Protestant evangelical theology. Thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence and other technical matters is acceptable. Thinking about, and either accepting or rejecting, the Protestant evangelical conception of God is acceptable. Thinking about what it means to be human as a white American is not acceptable, and evokes fearfulness rather than serious reflection and introspection. I find that very troubling.