The Oxford English Dictionary recently named ‘post- truth’ its word of the year. The term, whose use is said to have increased 2000% in the past year, is defined as: “…relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief, ” In the age of social media, one can profitably expand this definition by adding that “objective facts” have also become less influential than public opinion in shaping what we believe [to “exist” to “be true”].
For “philosophers”, these formulations highlight the extent to which ontology, metaphysics, and epistemology have imploded over the past century, and how the remaining conceptual elements of each have interpenetrated one another other. The quest for “absolute truth” about an “ultimate reality” became, with Kant, pure reason’s “objective” ordering of phenomena (the objects of our perception), and has now become the quest for intersubjective consensus regarding the instrumental usefulness of one vocabulary [or model] over another in describing [or marshaling] phenomena for particular purposes. Yet the pesky nature of the notion of “truth” continues to elude us – making impossible a robust consensus on the issue of what (if anything) an “objective fact” is.
Even the pursuits of science, the fach historically most interested in developing “objective facts,” have come to be orthogonal (a favorite predicate of millennial data engineers and philosophers of science] to issues of realism/constructivism/indeterminacy, etc. Consider, for instance, this abstract of Angela Potochnik’s 2015 paper, The Diverse Aims of Science:
“There is increasing attention to the centrality of idealization in science. One common view is that models and other idealized representations are important to science, but that they fall short in one or more ways. On this view, there must be an intermediary step between idealized representation and the traditional aims of science, including truth, explanation, and prediction. Here I develop an alternative interpretation of the relationship between idealized representation and the aims of science. I suggest that continuing, widespread idealization calls into question the idea that science aims for truth. If instead science aims to produce understanding, this would enable idealizations to directly contribute to science's epistemic success. I also use the fact of widespread idealization to motivate the idea that science's wide variety aims, epistemic and non-epistemic, are best served by different kinds of scientific products. Finally, I show how these diverse aims—most rather distant from truth—result in the expanded influence of social values on science.”
In other words, we are increasingly in the age of the instrumental model, not of theories about general laws of nature. In fact, the last sentence of the abstract is redolent of Richard Rorty’s suggestion that we move from objectivity to solidarity as the goal of inquiry. (It’s a shame that he failed to live long enough to see his vision begin to take hold in the culture; and maybe to comment upon whether and how “identity politics” may have hijacked his notion of solidarity.)
The question I pose here is, in light of our intellectual history, what, if any, is the role of a public philosopher, a public intellectual, in the current “post truth” (read “post objective fact”) universe of discourse?