Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Politics of Truth - David Detmer


FOTCM Member
In the Jung thread - Carl Jung's Secret Life: "The "Aryan Christ" - something rotten in Jungian psychology? - I mentioned that I had started the book that is the title of this thread. I am now over half way through it and it appears to be a very good read for those into logic and philosophy and truth.

The amazon blurb says:

According to proponents of postmodernism, one of the principal achievements of recent Continental philosophy is the rejection of the idea of "objective truth" in favor of the notion that truth is a social construct, which varies from one culture to another. This claim has given rise to heated reactions among philosophers of the Anglo-American analytic school. Their criticisms usually take the form of wholesale dismissals, which do not address the texts and arguments of postmodernists, and they almost always stem from a politically conservative vantage point, which is hostile to the generally leftist orientation of postmodernists. As a result, philosophical differences are frequently obscured by the conflict arising from differing political agendas.

In this accessible, nontechnical discussion of the controversies surrounding the ideas of truth, philosopher David Detmer faults both the critics of postmodernism for entangling the philosophical discussion of truth with their disapproval of postmodernist political views, and the postmodernist critics of objective truth for the defective logic and incoherence of their critique. Unlike most analytic philosophers, Detmer engages extensively and directly with the texts of postmodernists. He provides substantial discussions of Husserl, Sartre, Rorty, and Chomsky, and also addresses the topics of journalistic objectivity, scientific truth, political correctness, and other timely issues. While sympathetic to Continental philosophy, Detmer nonetheless defends the idea of objective truth and attempts to show that doing so is a matter of considerable political importance.

Detmer's thorough and lucid discussion will appeal to anyone who finds the postmodern rejection of objectivity and truth dubious and who is yet uncomfortable with the highly conservative political rhetoric of the loudest voices in the anti-postmodernist crowd.

It's a darn good read though it does take focus; I can't read it late in the day because my brain gets tired. Young'ns probably won't have this problem!

Detmer's takedowns of the Postmodernists are delicious. But one thing he makes clear is that ignorance is a big part of Postmodernism (and Conservatism, for that matter). He discusses the failure of the media, or rather, its active participation in creating an ignorant population, and his critique of the US - especially foreign policy - is pretty damning. In other words, he goes at both sides because, TRUTHfully, both sides are abysmally ignorant each in their own way.

If you ever have to deal with such types as friends or family, you may want to read this book to know, at a deeper level, what you are dealing with and possibly, how to challenge it.
In the Jung thread - Carl Jung's Secret Life: "The "Aryan Christ" - something rotten in Jungian psychology? - I mentioned that I had started the book that is the title of this thread. I am now over half way through it and it appears to be a very good read for those into logic and philosophy and truth.

The amazon blurb says:

It's a darn good read though it does take focus; I can't read it late in the day because my brain gets tired. Young'ns probably won't have this problem!

Detmer's takedowns of the Postmodernists are delicious. But one thing he makes clear is that ignorance is a big part of Postmodernism (and Conservatism, for that matter). He discusses the failure of the media, or rather, its active participation in creating an ignorant population, and his critique of the US - especially foreign policy - is pretty damning. In other words, he goes at both sides because, TRUTHfully, both sides are abysmally ignorant each in their own way.

If you ever have to deal with such types as friends or family, you may want to read this book to know, at a deeper level, what you are dealing with and possibly, how to challenge it.
Thanks for this Laura! I think it is a timely book for me. In the forum and even on Sott, the left is seen as the ultimate enemy. I consume a lot of news from both side of the ideological spectrum. The comments are always revealing to me. Alongside this, I interact with a lot of people on Twitter. It increasingly seem to me that only focusing on the degenerative left reduce the conversation. Even those for free speech as well as those non/anti left are equally guilty of ignoring reality in favor of their bias.

The mental gymnastic that some of these people do is incredible. For example, I had someone on the left using all kind of power theory to justify why Ivanka called a -kunta kintay- wasn't really bad. And then I had someone on the free speech side arguing about how comparing black people to monkey was truly not racist at ALL. He used all kind of elegant terms and accused people of being PC, but none of it could hide the fact that he was lying to himself and to some extent us because he wanted that event to fit a specific world view.

Trump/ USA fanatics are a good example as well.

For me, we should be careful of movements on both side of the divide. While the left hide their fickleness through social justice and identity, the non-left use "science" and reason to shroud their prejudice, never truly able to hide their hypocrysy.
For those who are interested in a physical copy of this book, the cheapest one I could find was from Penguin Random House. The regular price is $38.99, but for now the coupon code PRHANNIVERSARY318 works for 20% off.
  • Like
Reactions: Ca.
It's a darn good read though it does take focus; I can't read it late in the day because my brain gets tired. Young'ns probably won't have this problem!

No, I started it a few days ago. It requires some definite concentration to catch all the reasoning behind why each argument put forward by the post modernist proponents are logical fallacies. Of course I'm not exactly young myself. :-)
I'm still working my way through it interspersed with other reading. One reason is that it is a gut-puncher. When you read the quotes from post-modernist/deconstructionist/relativist types and realize that these people are in positions of influence over the minds of young people, you just feel like you've been sucker punched. How the hell did we let this happen?

Parents really need to be paying attention to what is being poured into their kids' heads at school, right through Uni, and get active to remove these kinds of influences.

If there is a text version of this book, that would be useful for sharing quotes because it's a stunner.
In the first chapter the author examines a passage by Tom Bridges - "passage representing (and, indeed, confidently summarizing and defending) the "post-modern" position".

Here it is:

The failure of the Enlightenment project is by now simply a fact. ... Of course, there are still many in our midst who out of misunderstanding, habit and resistance to intellectual change routinely make claims to objective knowledge of history and nature. The trouble is that such people cannot give us a credible account of how such knowledge is possible. Since the publication of Kuhns The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, a vast arsenal of arguments has been stockpiled - arguments drawn from Dewey, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida and Rorty, to name just a few - arguments entirely sufficient to persuade anyone paying attention that human knowledge is historically conditioned, that there is no privileged standpoint outside of history from which human beings can contemplate things or events as they really are in themselves. Do ... any of the defenders of objective truth have any response to these arguments? Can they show precisely how it is that a particular human being, conditioned by gender, historical and spatial location, class, ethnicity, nationality and religion, can somehow assume the purely universal and timeless standpoint of a pure knower?Just how is this miracle possible? How do we manage to jump out of our historical skins to rub up against the cold steely surfaces of objective fact? ... Progressive today is not a return to the foundationalist conceptions of truth and knowledge that served us in the past, but rather the new postmodernist rhetorical conceptions of discourse that alone are capable of giving pluralistic, multivocal vocal and multifaceted critical political discourses the central place they must have in any free socicty.

Tom Bridges, "Modern Political Theory and the Multivocity of Post-modern modern Critical Discourses," Inquiry: Critical Thinking across the Disciplines plines 8, no. 1 (September 1991): 3, 7.

And here is his examination of the statement above:


One of the most persistent criticisms of postmodern forms of relativism or skepticism[...] concerns their failure to deal adequately with straightforward questions concerning their self-referentiality. To illustrate this, consider the popular position which is sometimes called "cultural relativism": the doctrine that all "truth" is socially constructed and thus must be understood as obtaining only within a particular culture, which it can in no way transcend. The present objection to such a position is brought out by considering such questions as: If all "truth" is merely relative to a particular culture, then is not this truth merely relative to the culture in which it is asserted? If so, then how is the claim to be understood, since it appears to be a universal, transcultural claim? On the other hand, if this truth is an exception to the general rule that all truths are merely relative to a particular culture, then why cannot there be other exceptions? Similarly, if one claims that all truth is socially constructed, what is the status of this claim? Is it, too, simply the product of a particular culture and thus devoid of valid application outside of and beyond it? And if there is no truth, what is the nature and status of the claim, that there is no truth?

Let us now apply all of this to our representative specimen of postmodernist thinking. Recall Bridges's assertion that we cannot "rub up against the cold steely surfaces of objective fact," since "human knowledge is historically conditioned" and also "conditioned by gender, class, ethnicity, nationality," and so forth. Notice that, on Bridges's own terms, his statements must be taken not as capturing the way things really are-not as objective truths-but rather as expressions of his own peculiar perspective, which is through-and-through conditioned by his gender, ethnicity, nationality, and so on, and which, therefore, cannot be assumed to be otherwise, let alone universally or uniquely, valid. The way is left fully clear for others, with different perspectives, perhaps, as Bridges would have it, because of the different kinds of conditioning they have undergone, to deny everything he says. What seems needed, then, is a standpoint external to these opposed standpoints, from which their opposition might be adjudicated. But Bridges, of course, denies that this is possible, as when, in connection, specifically, with historical conditioning, he remarks: "there is no privileged standpoint outside of history from which human beings can contemplate things or events as they really are in themselves." So Bridges is stuck.

Part of his problem, it would seem, is that his argument depends upon, and his rhetoric also suggests, the idea that his claims are really true, or at least better than their denials, and this in turn entails, at the very least, that something more can be said for his claims than that his conditioning has led him to believe them and to issue them. For, with regard to his rhetoric, it is perhaps sufficient to note that he calls it "simply a fact" that the Enlightenment project has failed, only to ridicule, a scant three sentences later, those who are foolish enough to "make claims to objective knowledge of history." As for his arguments, it is not only that his conclusion seems to undermine itself (e.g., "all knowledge claims are historically conditioned and do not necessarily reflect how things really are" clearly implies that "the claim that all knowledge claims are historically conditioned is itself historically conditioned, and does not necessarily reflect how things really are"); his conclusion also seems to undermine its own premises and the pattern of its logical reasoning.

As Husserl puts it, such a person "will not bow to the ordinary objection that in setting up his theory he is making a claim to be convincing to others, a claim presupposing that very objectivity of truth which his thesis denies. He will naturally reply: My theory expresses my standpoint, what is true for me, and need be true for no one else." I will only point out, by way of reply, that such a stance relieves anyone not initially tempted to adopt the thesis in question of any obligation to refute it.

A second strategy, favored especially by Heidegger, Derrida, and some of their followers, is to claim that such incoherence is at present unavoidable since, while we are able to see that the "logo-centric" centric" Western metaphysical tradition, with its characteristic understanding of, and emphasis on, truth, objectivity, reason, and kindred concepts, is thoroughly exhausted, untenable, and in need of replacement, we are not yet able to see how to think, write, and speak in the radically new way that is required, so we are forced, reluctantly, to make use of the very concepts and ways of thinking, writing, and speaking that we are simultaneously attempting to overthrow.

The incoherence of this approach can be somewhat mitigated by the use of irony, and, in general, a highly literary, rather than expository and argumentative, style of presentation, together with the use of lines to cross out some of the problematical words, so that the words are both used (because written down) and not used (because crossed out). Derrida's term for this technique [...] is writing "under erasure."

A final response, and perhaps the most common one, which defenders of postmodern claims issue in reply to the charge that such claims are self-referentially inconsistent is to reply that those who press such claims are nitpickers who are hung up on the strictures of logic and who are either unable or unwilling to embrace a more expansive, albeit more uncertain, way of looking at things. Thus, G. B. Madison states, approvingly, that "postmodern philosophical discourse ... often deliberately ignores the requirements of logic (e.g., the principle of non-contradiction), because what it wishes to say necessarily cannot be said in logic (in the eyes of many postmodernists modernists it is no objection to an utterance that it be `inconsistent' or `improbable')."

I think very much in the spirit of Husserl, that an unwillingness to face up to, and to take responsibility for, that which experience reveals to be inconsistent or improbable is not a purely logical error, but rather a moral, political, and existential failing of the highest order, as is the refusal to eliminate flat contradictions from one's thinking.

Thus, the fault that I think Husserl, and even more so his "existentialist" followers, such as Sartre, would find in many contemporary postmodernists is not merely that they fail to subject their beliefs to abstract, artificial, purely formal and logical tests, but that they fail to notice that they cannot live by those beliefs.

If the claim that we should be tolerant is to be upheld as a universal truth, how can this be squared with the idea that all truths are relative, perspectival, and thoroughly conditioned? If this claim is an exception to the general rule, what are the grounds for this, and why can there not be other universal (transcultural, transperspectival) truths? If, on the other hand, the idea that we should be tolerant is to be considered as just one perspective spective among others, then such relativism is inimical to the claim that everyone, irrespective of the peculiarities of their own cultural perspective and conditioning, is truly obliged to be tolerant, and leaves us powerless in the face of those whose perspective is one of opposition to tolerance.

Thus, relativism removes one of our most powerful motives to study the views of the other - the idea that the other might be right and we might be wrong.


[...] to attempt to explain logic in terms of psychology is to explain the more certain by the less certain. It is, in short, to commit the fallacy of obscurum per obscurius.

Now let us apply this argument to our specimen of postmodernism - the passage by Bridges quoted above. Let us concede that there is some evidence to support many of Bridges's central contentions. Certainly there is no shortage of evidence to support the conclusion that much of our thinking is, indeed, "conditioned by gender, history, class, ethnicity," and so on. Perhaps there even is evidence to support the claim that all of our thinking is so conditioned, together with the further conclusion that, as a result, we cannot "contemplate things or events as they really are in themselves (let us here waive the self-referential inconsistency objection). But the presence of some such evidence, even if it be both powerful and abundant, is not yet sufficient to sustain the conclusion. For we would first have to weigh that evidence against the available evidence supporting the denial of this conclusion. Thus, the evidence that all of our thinking is thoroughly conditioned, and in such a manner as to cut us off from all knowledge of "how things really are," together with the inference from this that our belief that 2 + 2 = 4, for example, is a thoroughly conditioned belief which, for that reason, cannot be granted transcultural and transhistorical validity, must be weighed against the evidence that, simply, 2 + 2 = 4.

It seems to me clear that, however strong may be the evidence that at least much of our thinking is conditioned in the ways described by Bridges, there are at least some logical and mathematical, and even empirical and evaluative (both moral and nonmoral), judgments for which our evidence is much stronger. Thus the attempt by postmodernists such as Bridges to explain away these judgments when they run afoul of epistemological strictures less certain than are the judgments themselves is to commit an evidentiary fallacy and to reason obscurum per obscurius.


Finally, it seems to me that Bridges goes wrong by assuming, without argument, that a knower must achieve a standpoint stripped of all particularity in order to have access to knowledge that is not thoroughly conditioned by the particularity of the knower. But an alternative possibility, defended at length by Husserl but ignored by Bridges, is that it is possible, even from a particular standpoint, to see truths which transcend that standpoint, and which further transcend the particularities of what is seen, so that the knower "rubs up against" truths which are not only objective, but also universal and necessary.

We are now in a position to turn the tables on Bridges and ask, "If I judge that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles, can you show precisely how it is that my gender, historical and spatial location, class, ethnicity, etc., undermine the objectivity of this judgment? They seem quite irrelevant to this judgment, though, of course, not to others." Or again, "If from the fact that A is taller than B, and that B is taller than C, I draw the conclusion that A is taller than C, how, precisely, does the fact that I am a historical being, living in a particular time and place and culture, preclude me from rubbing up against this truth?"
I'm in the second half of the book where he discusses objective reality and the US media and US foreign policy. It's a pretty devastating critique even considering that he was writing in 2003. Definitely a must read.
I'm still working my way through it interspersed with other reading. One reason is that it is a gut-puncher. When you read the quotes from post-modernist/deconstructionist/relativist types and realize that these people are in positions of influence over the minds of young people, you just feel like you've been sucker punched. How the hell did we let this happen?

Parents really need to be paying attention to what is being poured into their kids' heads at school, right through Uni, and get active to remove these kinds of influences.

Thank you Laura for mentioning it. When I hear about some of the Left-leaning arguments makes me wonder "Where the hell they got these ideas?" - self-righteousness, relativity, overprivileged bubble. Youtube generation (kids) are automatically lead to these left-leaning shows make them pawns in the bigger unseen battle using their so-called advanced algorithms based on end-less data collections.
From chapter 2 "Self-referential inconsistency":

[...] the first obstacle facing any ambitious form of relativism, subjectivism, or skepticism is the venerable objection that such theories cannot even get off the ground, let alone succeed, because they are "reflexively" self-undermining.' The point of this objection is that when these doctrines are subjected to the test of self-application, they appear to nullify themselves.


This point can be explained in several ways, eight of which I will pursue here in connection with one particular (albeit very broad) kind of relativism. My chosen example is the doctrine holding that all "truth" is "socially constructed."

A. Self-Referential Inconsistency

The first point to be made about this form of relativism is that it appears to be self-referentially inconsistent. In other words, when it is judged, as seems only reasonable and fair, in the light of its own explicitly stated content, it seems to contradict itself. For if all truth is indeed to be regarded as socially constructed, rather than as reflecting accurately how things "really are," then surely this claim itself-that is, the theory of social constructionism-must also be viewed merely as a social construct and precisely not as an accurate reflection of how things really are.

B. Incoherence

To put the point another way, social constructionism seems to be an incoherent doctrine: it asserts what it denies and denies what it asserts and thus fails to communicate any clear meaning at all.

C. Performative Contradiction

Even if, for the sake of argument, we were to waive the objection that social constructionism is straightforwardly incoherent, we would still have to consider whether or not such a doctrine can be articulated without contradiction. Let us consider an analogy. There is nothing incoherent or self-contradictory about the idea of a person who never makes remarks about herself. But there is something self-contradictory about the statement "You know, the remarkable thing about me is that I never make remarks about myself." For then the act, or the performance, of making this statement contradicts the content of the statement itself.

In short, social constructionists commit a performative contradiction whenever they treat an opposing position not simply as another construction, which might for all they know attain a certain validity relative to its own social domain, but as really wrong, truly incorrect, and/or simply inconsistent with the relevant evant facts of life.

D. The Epistentologist's Fallacy

Social constructionists commit a similar reflexive fallacy when they claim to know things which, according to the position on knowledge that they themselves are endorsing, neither they nor anyone else can possibly know.

E. The "Bold but Incoherent" / "Coherent but Weak" Dilemma

These considerations strongly suggest that social constructionism is trapped within the following dilemma: either it is to be understood as boldly making an objective truth claim, in which case it is self-undermining and incoherent (not to mention arbitrary, for if somehow it is possible for the "truth" of social constructionism to elude its own strictures and establish itself as an exception to its own rule that all truths are merely relative to a particular culture, then it is unclear why there cannot be other exceptions), or else it is to be construed merely as a social construction (presumably just one among many) expressing a localized cultural consensus, in which case it regains its coherence but only at the cost of losing much of its interest and critical force (in part because it leaves the way fully clear for others operating from different cultural, personal, or paradigmatic standpoints validly to assert everything that it is itself attempting so strenuously to deny).

F. Evidence and Reasoning

The same dilemma applies, moreover, when we shift our attention away from the grand conclusions drawn by social constructionists and instead focus on the evidence and reasoning to which they appeal in support of these conclusions.

How can social constructionists, while consistently maintaining their own doctrine, claim to know the truth of these premises? For such a claim seems to imply that at least one cultural group (e.g., social constructionists and/or the anthropologists on which they rely) is sufficiently competent not only to understand and to describe accurately the beliefs held by people of another culture, but also to assert that these beliefs are different from, indeed often mutually incompatible with, those held by people in still other cultures. Even more impressively, this cultural group claims to be able to understand the beliefs of people in other cultures so well as to be able to understand the specific cific ways in which those beliefs are embedded in, and inextricably connected with, other practices and norms peculiar to the culture being investigated.

Thus, it is in their assertion of evidence, and in their reasoning about it, every hit as much as in their statement of conclusions, that social constructionists convict themselves either of impotence or of incoherence: either they are powerless to criticize others as mistaken (in part because they cannot achieve a standpoint from which to do so soundly), or else they simply contradict themselves.

G. The Inquirers and the Inquired-About

Thus, social constructionism's emphasis on the importance of cultural groups leads to its downfall. For social constructionism must, after all, either make, on behalf of that cultural group which seeks to understand others (anthropologists and other social scientists, for example), an arbitrary and incoherent exception to its own strictures concerning the epistemic limitations of all cultural groups, or else admit that its findings can only aspire to a culturally relative validity.

H. The Incoherence/Infinite Regress Dilemma

The same logic applies on the meta-level. "What is true is determined by cultural consensus" is either intended to be objectively true, or else it means, "It is the consensus of my culture that truth is determined by cultural consensus." This, in turn, is either an attempted statement of objective truth (in which case it is false, in addition to being self-referentially incoherent, the latter disability being one plaguing all of these when construed as covert attempts to state objective truths), or else it means that "it is the consensus of my culture that it is the consensus of my culture that truth is determined mined by cultural consensus."



I will begin with a passage from Michael Berube, in which he clearly and confidently summarizes and defends the "postmodern" rejection of objective knowledge and truth:

"[Fjifty years of anti-positivism from people as diverse as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Kuhn, and Michel Foucault have led the cultural left [which I take Berube to be defending here] to argue that objects of knowledge are locally and historically specific, and that they become available for human understanding only within certain `language games', `paradigms', and `discursive formations' (not that these are three names for the same thing, either)."

Any careful attempt to understand Berube's position will reveal, however, that it is caught within something like the following dilemma. Either there are indeed no objects of knowledge which transcend local and historical specificity, and which escape the constraints straints of certain language games, paradigms, or discursive formations, or else this is not the case and there are some (or at least one) such "transcending and escaping" objects of knowledge. But if the former alternative is correct, then neither Berube nor anyone else is in a position to know it to be correct, since in that case we would not ever be able to get our hands on anything but a locally and historically cally specific and paradigm (or what have you)-relative "human knowledge" as an object of knowledge.

Next let us consider the position held in common by various "feminist standpoint theories," as Mary E. Hawkesworth terms them. This position holds, according to Hawkesworth's summary, that "knowledge is always mediated by a host of factors related to an individual's vidual's particular position in a determinate sociopolitical formation at a specific point in history. Class, race, and gender necessarily structure the individual's understanding of reality and hence inform all knowledge claims."' But once again, if the claim that "class, race, and gender necessarily structure the individual's understanding of reality and hence inform all knowledge claims" is itself a knowledge claim, then surely it too must be understood as issuing from an understanding that has been structured by class, race, and gender.

Unqualified skepticism

[...] skeptical positions, unless they are simply baldly asserted (in which case one need not take them seriously), are usually supported by arguments of some kind. But this raises obvious reflexivity problems with regard to the status of the premises of the arguments. For if the conclusion is that nothing is known, or that nothing is true, then neither can the premises supporting such a conclusion be known or true. Thus, how can the argument even get started, let alone establish its skeptical conclusion? The central fallacy here is the attempt to claim knowledge of some sort (e.g., we should be tolerant, or all cultures are equal, or we are prisoners of language, or what have you) from the premise that no knowledge of that sort is possible.

Subjectivism (Personal Relativism)

Subjectivism, the doctrine that "knowledge" is relative not to cultures but to individuals, faces similar self-referential problems. For if, to take a crude version of the theory, all "knowledge" is said to be reducible to personal opinion, then who can fail to see that the truth of this subjectivist principle must itself be conceded to be reducible to personal opinion?

While Brian Vickers's position is considerably more sophisticated than the one just described, it clearly faces similar difficulties. Vickers writes:

"Our whole act of experiencing reality is subjective.... and anyone in search of objective truths in a world after Nietzsche, Husserl, and Popper, say, is doomed to a dusty answer.... We have now reached a stage in which relativism can be defended-not cynicism, not amorality, not indifference, but an honest admission that, in phenomenological nomenological terms, the acts of perceiving the world, interpreting its signs, evaluating its actions, arc all irremediably personal."

But this means, of course, that none of Vickers's own claims in this passage can qualify as "objective truths." Rather, they must be seen as issuing from his own "irremediably personal" perceptions, interpretations, pretations, and evaluations.

Historicist Relativism

Historicist relativism is the position holding that all "truth" is historically conditioned and historically relative, there being no possibility of an objective, universal, or eternal truth which would transcend all such contingencies. Now, as we have seen, this position cannot itself coherently be asserted as an objective truth which escapes historical contingency, but let us waive that objection for a moment so as instead to examine the reasons that might be put forth in its support. One such reason is simply that all previous attempts to formulate ahistorical truths have (allegedly) failed, as all are revealed upon careful analysis to bear distinct traits which not only mark them as products of their own particular time, but also reveal their inability to apply validly to temporal periods differing significantly from their own in relevant respects.

[...] it would appear that the logic of the historicist argument must suffer the same fate as that confronting its premise and conclusion. For the reasoning here used-that the failure of all previous attempts to formulate transhistorical truths establishes (or at least strongly suggests) the impossibility of any such successful formulation-is itself asserted either as valid in a transhistorical sense or else as valid only in a historically relative sense. If the former, the argument is self-referentially inconsistent; if the latter, its critical force is weak.

Cultural-Belief Relativism

Nor does the relativist argument fare any better when it is cast in an anthropological or sociological form, in which truth is said to be reducible to cultural consensus and thus to vary from one society to another, than it does in its historicist version, in which the vicissitudes tudes of time are stressed. For, once again, either the sociological relativist's claim is asserted as a universal truth, holding equally for all cultures whatsoever, in which case the claim is incoherent and self-undermining, or it is to be understood as holding true only within the relativist's own culture, in which case it fails as an instrument of criticism of claims of absolute or universal truth, when such claims are issued from within cultures other than that of the relativist.



Friedman offers this response to the self-referential inconsistency objection:

"This criticism of skepticism, however, is very limited. If successful, it would undermine only an extreme skepticism that denies that any human assertions are true, including those of the skeptic herself. self. The refutation of extreme skepticism, however, does not establish that there is an objective, impartial truth to he discerned about any and every specific subject matter. That is, the failure of extreme skepticism would not establish that the truth-claims of, say, political or moral theorists were objectively or universally true. Philosophers are very familiar with qualified forms of skepticism; logical positivists, for example, reject the notions of metaphysical and moral truth while still championing scientific truth. A partial and limited skepticism that challenged a particular realm of study ... might succeed where extreme skepticism fails. The important point is that such limited skepticisms would not have to he formulated in self-contradictory or otherwise self-defeating terms."

First, it is not true that the only kind of skepticism that is self-contradictory is "an extreme skepticism that denies that any human assertions are true." Rather, what makes a skepticism self-refuting is entirely captured by the last clause in Friedman's formulation: the denial that the skeptic's own assertions are true. For example, suppose I were to say that "all unqualified generalizations are false." Notice that this statement is self-refuting, since it is itself an unqualified generalization. And yet it certainly does not claim, nor does it in any way imply or entail, that no human assertions are true. So Friedman's major claim about the limitations of the self-referential inconsistency objection is false.

My second comment is that even when limited skepticisms are not directly self-refuting in this way, often the arguments used to support such skepticisms will undo the skepticisms themselves. Thus, to give just one example, if the phenomenon of disagreement within a given intellectual domain is alleged to prove that there is no truth within that domain, then the disagreement over the validity of such a proof should establish that it is itself untrue.


That Fish thinks he can defend "anti-foundationalism" in this manner stems, or so it seems to me, from his confusions concerning what it means to defend objectivity. To see this, consider the following lowing passage from his writings:

"Not only is there no one who could spot a transcendent truth if it happened to pass through the neighborhood, but it is difficult even to say what one would be like. Of course we would know what it would not he like; it would not speak to any particular condition, or be identified with any historical production, or he formulated in the terms of any national, ethnic, racial, economic, or class traditions. In short, it would not he clothed in any of the guises that would render it available to the darkened glasses of mortal - that is, temporally limited - man. It is difficult not to conclude either (a) that there are no such truths, or ... (b) that while there are such truths, they could only be known from a god's-eye view. Since none of us occupies that view (because none of us is a god), the truths any of us find compelling will all he partial, which is to say they will all be political."

[...] much of Fish's work falls apart, it seems to me, as soon as one refuses to follow him in committing the fallacy of false dilemma in two specific ways. The first is his strange notion that all norms and standards must either be (a) contingent, historical, potentially revisable, and having only local validity, or (b) objective, established permanently, and having universal validity. He then gives reasons for concluding that all values and standards in fact fall under category (b), (a) being a chimera. The problem is that he ignores the possibility (c) that some norms might be objective, have more than local validity, and yet still be potentially revisable. After all, one can defend objectivity and still be a fallibilist. That is, one can believe that there are truths that transcend the particular and contingent judgments of particular individuals or cultures at particular historical moments, without thinking that all, or even many, or even any, of our beliefs concerning the identity of these truths can be known with certainty to be right. Moreover, one can be a defender of objectivity and still be a contextualist. That is, one can believe that there are objective truths - truths that are in no way dependent for their truth on what anyone happens to think - that are context sensitive.

Fish's other false dilemma is his idea that all norms and standards must either be (a) experienced and produced locally and historically, and therefore-note the genetic fallacy-having only local validity, or (b) experienced in some (unfathomable and inexplicable) nonlocal and nonhistorical way; and not produced at all, but rather having the status of having always existed (perhaps in some Platonic or heavenly realm); and having universal and objective validity. He then has an easy time establishing (a) over (b). The problem, however, is that he ignores the possibility of (c) values and standards that have universal and objective validity in spite of (from his standpoint) the fact that they are instantiated and articulated and made manifest in particular, local, contingent, historical circumstances, contexts, and experiences.

Thus, Fish's claim that all truth-claims must necessarily achieve no more than a local validity must be understood as itself achieving no more than a local validity.


[...] I pointed out that some postmodernists shrug off the self-refutation objection by suggesting that there is nothing wrong with transgressing the strictures of logic. The irresponsibility of such a position is perhaps brought into an especially clear focus in the ease of performative contradictions, since their structure, that of saying one thing while doing another, is familiar to us in everyday life under the heading of "moral hypocrisy."
When reading this book its just reminding me the slogan from Orwell's 1984


Now I can see how could such thing ever come to happen in our society, which frighteningly looks ripe for it.
Some interesting quotes from chapter 3 "The argument from disagreement"

The "Both Sides" Model

Part of the contemporary journalistic ethic of "objectivity" is that when controversial issues are to be addressed, the reader (or viewer or listener) must be presented with "both sides." Such an approach is deeply flawed, and for a good number of reasons.

The first such flaw is revealed as soon as one considers that a rational consensus can only be reached if the focus of the discussion is centered on issues concerning the quality of the evidence and arguments supporting various positions on the issue at hand. But if that is the focus, it immediately follows that one will not automatically select two sides for consideration. Rather, on many issues, especially those of some complexity, the present state of human knowledge is such as to render more, and often many more, positions plausible and worthy of serious consideration.

With regard to other issues... it may be that one position is clearly correct, even if that position is not widely recognized as such. In the former kind of case, a consideration of only two issues illegitimately narrows and constricts the discussion, while in the latter kind of case an insistence on considering two views serves only to foist an unmerited plausibility on decisively refuted theses. Moreover, even in those relatively rare cases in which the rational procedure would indeed be to consider precisely two views, it is far from clear that the two views selected for inclusion in contemporary mass media discussions are the two which most merit this distinction in virtue of the strength of their supporting arguments and evidence. Rather, the two are selected by other criteria, such as entertainment value, or popularity, larity, or, most notably, conformity to the spectrum of "mainstream" political opinion. Thus, both the insistence on presenting exactly two views and the criteria by which the two views are selected serve to distract us from the proper object of our attention (the strongest and most relevant evidence and arguments pertaining to the issue at hand), and often either deprive of us of a consideration of the positions most worthy of our attention or else dilute that consideration by juxtaposing it with unworthy competitors.

But even more disastrous than the decision always to start with two positions is the insistence that one must also always end with two positions. Representatives of the two positions to be presented (I am thinking primarily of the broadcast media here) are chosen not for their knowledge, rationality, intellectual responsibility, fairness, willingness to consider carefully the merits of the other person's argument, openness to counterargument and counterevidence, and zeal to arrive at the truth, but rather for their entertainment value, which, in the context of pitting "both sides" against one another, usually translates to a lawyerly commitment to one's assigned side come what may, together with a readiness to engage in gratuitous name-calling calling and other varieties of specious argumentative strategies.

I suspect that the effects vary from person to person, but in just a few-I will mention three-standard ways, all of them bad. One likely effect is the reinforcement of dogmatism. Viewers and listeners who are most struck by the fact that the media experts never change their minds, never say something like, "Oh yes, I see; that's a good point; I overlooked that; perhaps I need to rethink my position," but rather stick to their guns no matter what, are most likely to be influenced enced in this way.

On the other hand, another likely effect is the fostering of relativism or subjectivism. Audience members most likely to be influenced in this way would be those who are most taken with the "both sides" model's insinuation that there are always two equally credible sides to every question, and that no one can ever demonstrate strate that one is true and the other false. From there it is but a short step to believe that one may as well believe what one wants, or that such a belief will be "true for me," or that it is "all a matter of opinion." Finally, the "both sides" model may foster a centrist bias in some viewers and listeners. Some people are apparently quite easily persuaded that when two sides are locked in an intractable disagreement, the truth must lie "in the middle," somewhere "between" them. The fact that the participants in these media discussions are encouraged to be combative and stubborn may further encourage this belief by suggesting that the two sides are "extremes," even when, as is far too often the case, they represent a rather narrow range of opinion. What all three of these effects have in common is the discouraging of engaging in any effort to examine evidence and arguments in an attempt to arrive at the truth. Rather, one can simply stick with one's present position (the dogmatic reaction and one kind of relativist/subjectivist reaction), decide that there is no right or best position (another kind of relativist/subjectivist reaction), or else assume that the truth lies in between the two presented positions (the centrist bias reaction). In this way, the search for truth is killed and an intellectual quietism fostered.

Confusions about Tolerance

Another force acting in opposition to reason is the widespread idea that it is arrogant, oppressive, and intolerant to make truth claims. For example, Andrew Cutrofello asserts that "truth claims and violence lence go hand in hand.... [Our] sole `truth' is the certainty that we do not possess truth.... So long as one claims to possess the truth, the will-to-violence is inevitable."

But such an assertion is open to at least five objections:

(1) It seems to commit the obscurum per obscurius fallacy. Is the (alleged) fact that we do not possess truth the most evident thing in the world? Is it more evident that we do not possess truth than that giraffes are taller than ants, that happiness is better than misery, or that colors are not shapes?

(2) If all we know is that we know nothing, then what is the status of the claim that truth claims and violence go hand in hand, with the former making the latter inevitable? Surely we do not know that and had best not make a truth claim concerning it, lest we be led to violence. What sort of terrain are we on here? How would one go about determining what sort of epistemic status this utterance has?

(3) Is there any way to investigate the claim empirically, perhaps by comparing those who make truth claims with those who do not, so as to see whether or not the former are more prone than the latter to engaging in acts of violence or to supporting such acts? Unfortunately, to perform this test we would have to find someone somewhere where who does not make truth claims.

(4) Why can't one affirm, as truths, that giraffes are taller than ants, that happiness is better than misery, and that colors are not shapes without hauling off and punching someone? Couldn't one also affirm as a truth that violence is evil and to be avoided?

(5) Granted, dogmatism, imperviousness to reason, an unwillingness to entertain and consider other points of view than one's own, and general intolerance can lead to violence-though even here surely it is an exaggeration to say that this must happen "inevitably"-but this is not the same thing as merely making truth claims.

One reason why many people make such strange claims is that they apparently think that the only alternative to relativism or skepticism is to believe that "our" views (whatever that means) are better than those of another culture.

Thus, the realists' main point is not that they have the right answer, but rather simply that there is a right answer. It is the latter claim that relativists dispute; and when they hear realists make it they tend to conflate it with the former claim. In any case, it is clear that many confused claims about tolerance stand as obstacles to the effective employment of reason, and that these confused claims, in turn, often spring from something like the argument from disagreement. In this case the variation on the argument goes something like this: Because we can't agree, it is arrogant, oppressive, and intolerant to claim to know the truth. So we'd better conclude that there is no (single, objective) truth. That way we can be tolerant of those who disagree with us.

Second, notice that the paradoxes of tolerance are revealed whenever-and it happens with maddening and
increasing frequency, both inside and outside of the academy-someone states, with great moral indignation, that it is morally wrong for anyone to make moral judgments about the actions of anyone else, and in so doing fails to notice the self-contradiction involved. And the paradoxes are revealed yet again whenever a scholar claims that tolerance is morally mandated by our lack of moral knowledge, without noticing that this claim is itself a claim to moral knowledge. Finally, they are again revealed whenever someone asserts that tolerance is required, universally, by the "fact" that all knowledge is socially constructed and thus culture-specific, without noticing that, on its own terms, that claim itself would have to be understood as a social construct having only local validity, and as illegitimate in its claim to universality.
Thanks for that one Altair. He sure lays bare the head games the postmodernists play on people's minds. This one hits home:

"What all three of these effects have in common is the discouraging of engaging in any effort to examine evidence and arguments in an attempt to arrive at the truth."

And this truly, utterly, astoundingly bizarre postmodernist claim:

"Andrew Cutrofello asserts that "truth claims and violence go hand in hand.... [Our] sole `truth' is the certainty that we do not possess truth.... So long as one claims to possess the truth, the will-to-violence is inevitable."

Detmer sure takes that one apart.
Quotes from chapter 4 "Sartre's defense of truth"

...Sartre maintains that we have an ethical - and he would add a political - obligation to proportion our beliefs to the relevant evidence, and not to indulge in beliefs that are not warranted by a scrupulous examination of the relevant arguments. Truth and Existence, he repeatedly associates the pursuit of truth with responsibility and identifies the courting of ignorance with irresponsibility...:

"The will to ignore is ... the refusal to face our responsibilities. Since indeed, Being appears, in principle, as that for which we have to assume responsibility without having wanted it, the For-itself can project the veiling of Being in order not to he obliged to assume it. As a bourgeois I want to ignore the proletariat's condition in order to ignore my responsibility for it. As a worker, I may want to ignore this condition because I am in solidarity with it and its unveiling obliges me to take sides. I am responsible for everything to myself and to everyone, and ignorance aims to limit my responsibility in the world.... Ignoring = denial of responsibilities."

A second, though closely related, reason for regarding truth as essential to morality and to sound politics is this: Immoral policies are propped up by lies and sustained by ignorance. If a policy is indefensible, surely an accurate understanding of the facts relevant to it, coupled with an appreciation for the force of the arguments concerning it, will support those attempting to overturn it, and not those determined to keep it in force. For this reason, oppressors of all kinds have always sought to weaken in other people a sense of reality and an appreciation for truth. Ironically, it seems that they are lent considerable unwitting aid in this project by many contemporary postmodernists.

Douglas V. Porpora makes the point in connection with United States foreign policy:

"Intellectual reelection holds little interest for the majority of United States citizens, who tend to accept uncritically whatever beliefs have been handed down to them.... Such lack of interest in critical reflection is one of the factors that make Holocaust-like events possible. Right actions require right beliefs, for if our beliefs are mistaken, taken, our actions can he right only by accident. Often, the actions guided by mistaken beliefs will he mistaken as well...Thus, particularly when our beliefs are socially consequential, we have a moral obligation to take responsibility for our beliefs, to constantly scrutinize them in light of new evidence, and if need he to refine them, modify them, or even outgrow them altogether. In the end, the quest for truth cannot be left to an intellectual elite in their ivory towers. It is a quest that each one of us is morally obliged to join. That may be the most important lesson of the Holocaust."

Moreover, in Truth and Existence Sartre even goes so far as to say that the rejection of truth stems from a rejection of Being itself, and conversely, that "the love of truth is the love of Being." Alternatively, natively, he sometimes says that to love the truth is to have "a taste for being,"" or "to enjoy Being."

His main point, however, is that the embracing of an anti-truth epistemology serves as a general foundation for a wide range of specific excuses-that is, in a global way, it serves to relieve us of our responsibilities (just as the acceptance of determinism does). Specifically, , it relieves us of the responsibility to discover the truth, and to act accordingly. Rather, it always allows us to say, even in connection with an issue about which we have undertaken neither detailed research nor even a project of thinking, and even to an interlocutor whom we know to be very knowledgeable about it: "You have your opinion and I have mine, and who is to say which is right? They are both just opinions. Mine is as good as yours."

Similarly, it entails that we need never fear having to change our way of life on the grounds that some aspect of it might be inconsistent with what is true. Here is perhaps Sartre's clearest statement of these matters, in which he explains how an avoidance of a localized and specific truth can lead, eventually, to the denial of truth itself:

"And, finally, I hide the very idea of truth.... Ultimately, truths are replaced by opinion. Opinion is no longer free and verifiable anticipation ipation of Being.... It appears ... as pure present or as pure contingency. We have an opinion, we do not know why. If we want to explain, we will seek the explanation contrary to the future one: the explanation by means of (past) causality. Opinion comes from heredity, our environment, education.... I am not responsible for my opinions.... Opinion being what it is, I feel no obligation at all to verify it. Since I am not responsible for it, why should I he obligated gated to find out if it is true? Ultimately, opinion is a pure character trait. In conclusion, to want a world of opinions, is to want a lesser truth, that is both a lesser Being, a lesser freedom and a looser relationship between unveiling freedom and the In-itself...

Bearing these Sartrean points in mind... one can also criticize post-modern modern truth-rejection on grounds of reductionism and simple-mindedness. To see this, let us look at a specimen of such thinking. Barry W. Sarchett, while endorsing what he calls "the post-modern modern turn" writes:

"The postmodern turn ... requires that we pay as much attention to who is speaking and who is not authorized to speak as we do to what is being spoken. It requires a sense therefore that all knowledge and values depend on power differentials.... When people talk about what is true or false, good or had, the postmodern response is to pose more questions: better or worse for whom? In what context? For what purposes?"
Moreover, in Truth and Existence Sartre even goes so far as to say that the rejection of truth stems from a rejection of Being itself, and conversely, that "the love of truth is the love of Being." Alternatively, natively, he sometimes says that to love the truth is to have "a taste for being,"" or "to enjoy Being."

That pretty much describes the Postmodernist Liberals.
Found this quote in “The Old Testament,” by Neils Peter Lemche regarding biblical studies:

“It is possible that postmodernism creates a status of serfdom for biblical studies, subjected to the tastes of the individual. The individual becomes more important than anything, maybe more important than Christ. Remember the very existence of Christ is, from a postmodern perspective, something that exists only in the encounter between the modern reader and the text of the New Testament. If there is no reader, there is no Christ.”
Top Bottom