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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?

  • Why "public" ?? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 28 '17 at 18:55
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    The same as that of the previous 3 millenia, starting from e.g. Socrates: to show (or at least try to) how the current catchwords (like e.g. "post truth") are useless or a used to deceive people. In a word, to develop "critical enquiry". – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 28 '17 at 18:58
  • One role is to call out the OED's nonsense definition. – Ben Mar 28 '17 at 19:25
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    @Mauro ALLEGRANZA "Public" because most philosophers spend most of their time talking to each other (rather than the public) in a vocabulary that is for the most part shared. As for your second comment, the point is, as I briefly tried to point out in the middle paragraphs of the question, that the notion "objective" ["fact", "reason", etc.] does not quite have the currency that it once did. That it has to some extent been displaced by notions of consensus, intersubjectivity, etc. in concluding about what it means to get something "right", what is "true", etc. – gonzo Mar 28 '17 at 19:48
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    Most of OP reads like an answer to another question. The question itself, on the other hand, is very vague, and seems to be asking for personal opinions on what the public role of a modern philosopher should be. Should be according to what or whom? "In light of our intellectual history" does not much help (and according to you, "our" philosophers "spend most of their time talking to each other"). So what exactly is the SE answerable question here? – Conifold Mar 28 '17 at 20:14
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There is an assumption here, that there is such a thing as "post truth" world, as an unprecedented phenomenon. The fact that a concept exists with its own term does not make the phenomenon it describes a fact. For all we know, this might be a temporary moment where systematic alterations of truth are being used to influence masses, such as there have already been several in history (not the least the European authoritarianisms of the 1930s).

But supposing we were entering a post-truth period where "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief", then this would be trouble for a philosopher or intellectual. A much more mundane term would be that "post truth" is the reflection of obscurantism ("a policy of opposition to enlightenment or the spread of knowledge" -- Wordnet).

What post-truth describes, is not people acting under their own rationality or observation, but reacting to appeals to faith or emotion. Clearly, this tendency of people, would be called "intellectual nonage (minority)" as Kant described in his essay What is Enlightnenment: "Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor." Indeed, what post truth generally describes is people acting irrationally under the influence of fear (of economic difficulties, immigration, terrorism, etc.). This intellectual nonage would be opposed to enlightenment, the ability of an individual to think for oneself, which requires an individual ability to observe facts and analyze them independently (sapere aude = dare to know).

What this would describe is a society where individuals would no longer be citizens (something that requires the courage to assume independence of mind), but subjects. Elections and votes (and thus democracy) would therefore lose their meaning, since people would vote according to suggestions they are receiving instead of according to their reason.

Separation of powers would be hurt, since neither justice nor the parliaments could work serenely. Republic (as Kant or as we understand it) would deperish, since power would be held by people who are capable to manipulate emotions and personal beliefs (i.e. superstitions). The result of this individual disenfranchisement would be tyranny.

In a post truth context, the position of a philosopher, intellectual or any person who seeks to practice their freedom of knowing (enlightenment) would be difficult in a largely comformist society, and liable to be restricted by law (typically laws preventing lèse-majesté against the ruler, the government or the status quo). This is nothing particularly new for thinkers, as they would face the same challenges as from authoritarianisms of the twentieth century or from the absolute monarchies of Europe.

If they were true to the traditions of American or European democracies, they would have to defend freedom of thought and expression. I imagine however that they would split in two, like they did in the 19th century: those who feel that the cause of "one-human-one-vote" is lost (as this would lead to ochlocracy, the rule of the mob) and would advocate the rule of an elite minority who are worthy of governing the post-truth people (oi polloi); and those who advocate that in spite of everything, "the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world" (Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

These would be existential questions!

  • @fralauThis is a delightful answer. As was once quipped: "Isn’t it pretty to think so? I wonder, however, whether its patent wisdom and thoughtfulness, is sufficiently informed. For instance, how much 20th century Anglophone analytic/pragmatic philosophy have you perused-I mean the Dewey, James, Quine, Wittgenstein (in his second incarnation), Sellars, Goodman, Davidson, Kuhn, Putnam (who's on the fence), Rorty (there are many others) progression (not to mention the French postmoderns)-and how do you defend enlightenment modernity in the face of their observations. I struggle with it. – gonzo Mar 31 '17 at 23:35
  • Moreover, is not Is political power not already “held by people who are capable to manipulate emotions and personal beliefs?”, as opposed to those capable of providing evidence and reasoned argument in support of their position? In other words, do not a very large plurality of us already vote [primarily] “according to suggestions they are receiving instead of according to their reason?” – gonzo Mar 31 '17 at 23:38
  • Has it not always been more or less this way? Possibly exacerbated in recent times by the skeptical epistemology referenced above, social media and the increasing complexity of the issues we confront. (See, if you like, the discussion with Conifold in “Comments” under the initial question). – gonzo Mar 31 '17 at 23:41
  • Further confounding the problem in our society is the moral taboo of employing deploying certain categories of thought and/or certain lines of reasoning to formulate a fully considered judgment for fear offending others that come to different conclusions (an issue associated with identity groups/politics, "political correctness," etc.). Thereby abridging the free flowing of competing ideas. – gonzo Apr 1 '17 at 19:13
  • I understand if you don't feel compelled to address the concerns outlined in the comments above, but I am very interested in what you meant by "These would be existential questions!" – gonzo Apr 3 '17 at 0:34
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The 'post-truth' idea changes nothing. Either we know the truth or we don't. The philosophers role is to identify it, just as it always has been.

If the idea that there is no truth takes hold in philosophy the Heaven help us all, but I can't believe that many people will ever arrive at this ad hoc conjecture.

In short, I cannot see that anything has or ever can change the role of philosophers. It might make people more sceptical of what they are taught about philosophy and this would be a good thing, but nothing has really changed. The 'post-truth' society is just another fashionable topic of conversation and it'll pass. It's just convenient for people who don't want to know the truth and prefer their own opinions, the very people most in need of philosophy.

For the time being the role of philosophers would be to make fun of the idea of a 'post-truth' society, but it's a temporary distraction.

  • "Truth" is just a method of persuasion to try and convince people that there is no point considering alternatives to your stated position on something. Objective truth is unknowable, due to a lack of omnipotence on our part, but the ego makes it unlikely that this realisation will ever take hold on any meaningful level. The irony of your answer is that you are yourself hiding behind convenience, and your own opinions, yet talk as if from a position of authority on the truth. Do you have omnipotence? If not, how can you know the truth of anything, with your mere human senses? – Callum Bradbury Mar 31 '17 at 15:34
  • Callum - We cannot know much via our senses. I was not suggesting that we could. One way or another we can know enough to know that the the idea that there is no absolute or final truth of any matter is absurd. . – PeterJ Apr 2 '17 at 10:41
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I will attempt to expand on my previous answer, from a different angle (and hoping that it helps): the term post-truth seems to contradict not only itself, but also the definition attached to it. It has entered common usage and is accepted by dictionaries, so we might have to use it for now.

It remains nevertheless problematic because it smacks of doublethink. Truth, philosophically, is supposed to be (regardless of how we define it) is generally understood as a rather absolute notion. It carries with it the idea that if something is true and remains ontologically unchanged, then it continues to be true. Now, what is post (after) supposed to mean in that context? Just because a group of people are rejecting that truth, truth stopped existing? What kind of "truth" would that be? Furthermore, "truth" is a rather lofty idea and for now there is not even a scholarly consensus of what it is nor whether it can even be reached.

Evidently, the word "truth" here does not mean "truth" in a philosophical sense, but something else. What would that be? Is it intended ironically, i.e. does it imply that "truth" doesn't exist anyway? But if we read the definition ("…relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief") it seems to imply that there was some initial standard anyway.

The catch is that "truth" is a misnomer. What the definition seems to refer to ("objective facts") is not truth, but reality, in a scientific sense -- a verifiable account of observable facts. At the cost of repeating the obvious, scientists are not in search of "truth" but of models that explain how some phenomenon works, so that other people can use replicate an experiment and get (or not get) to the same conclusion (on this see e.g. the Introduction of Poincareé's work Science and Hypothesis). Speculations or discussions on whatever the underlying truth could (or could not) be, e.g. whether electric current flows from plus to minus or vice-versa, are of entirely secondary importance as long as results are the same.

I am not sure who invented the term post-truth, but the proposition that a person who is saying something not objective is violating some truth is undecidable. But apparently that leads to the idea of creating "Truth Authorities" who will punish those who go against whatever they establish as "truth". We are fortunately not (yet) in a society where there is a centralized Authority that defines what "truth" is erga omnes -- that would be a tyranny of the worst kind and probably the death of scientific independence.

It all (IMHO) boils down to the fact that whoever devised that term ignored (voluntarily or unvoluntarily) the way in which science works -- i.e. by personal observation and verification, something which implies a radical rejection of Authority.

To add to @gonzo's pointed mention about the

the moral taboo of employing deploying certain categories of thought and/or certain lines of reasoning to formulate a fully considered judgment for fear offending others that come to different conclusions (an issue associated with identity groups/politics, "political correctness," etc.). Thereby abridging the free flowing of competing ideas.

this takes us back to Enlightenment, by which I understand the maxim sapere aude, i.e. personal observation and reasoning, as well as radical rejection of external authority -- no more, no less. In particular I do not mean here by "Enlightenment" the philosophical movement of the same name, or the period, or some historical interpretation of how human knowledge has evolved (except for the fact such issues were being raised at the time). The one answer to a social taboo from a person who honestly applied the maxim is the earlier quip attributed to Galileo Galilei after he had escaped punishment from the Holy Inquisition: Eppur si muove ("and yet it moves"). Perhaps it might be more readily understood under a heading like scientific integrity?

  • @fraulau Your points are well taken. But my interest/concern is not with the impact of epistemic relativity upon the integrity of science, or practicing scientists [their community can take care of itself, but with its impact upon democracy’s public and pundits. A question with which philosophy has grappled for well over a century, and which Poincare well understood, is whether traditional philosophy’s capital “T” Truth, as in a strict and unique “correspondence” between a claim/proposition/belief/sentence and “reality” is coherent. The consensus came to be that it is not. – gonzo Apr 4 '17 at 17:45
  • “Post” here does not mean [merely] “after.” It does not necessarily mean that the notion has ceased to exist-- but only that [because incoherent as traditionally defined] it no longer matters, it is no longer relevant. As you yourself correctly noted, whether a statement is rue [pursuant to the correspondence theory] is undecidable, and “scientists are not in search of "truth" but of models that explain how some phenomenon works, so that other people can use replicate an experiment and get (or not get) to the same conclusion.” (Instrumental models leading to pragmatic consensus.) – gonzo Apr 4 '17 at 17:45
  • While this proposition may [to a few of us] be “obvious” today, that “science is not in search of truth” would have been a scandalous proposition not too long ago. These observations OF YOURS precisely constitute the point which underlies my posted question: Does a public philosopher/intellectual have a pedagogical obligation/role to play in such a world in order to, for instance, undermine the de facto establishment of what you have called “truth authorities” – say, the very pundits and press that formerly [it is said] provided only true/objective “facts.” – gonzo Apr 4 '17 at 17:51
  • It used to be said that everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts,” While the distinction remains valid, the complexity of the issues we face today, and the plenitude of potential sources of conflicting authorities, mean that distinguishing the one from the other it is no longer the relatively simple matter it used to be [perceived to be] not so long ago. – gonzo Apr 4 '17 at 17:56
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In an interesting other post 'you cannot refute the truth; for Socrates is easily refuted': How does this rebut disagreeing disputatiously? there are two great quotes from Socrates and Aristotle.


"I cannot refute you, Socrates", said Agathon, "Let us assume that what you say is true."

"Say rather, Agathon, that you cannot refute the truth; for Socrates is easily refuted."

~Socrates, Symposium


Indeed to be our duty, for the sake of maintaining the truth even to destroy what touches us closely, especially as we are philosophers or lovers of wisdom; for, while both are dear, piety requires us to honor truth above our friends. Plato and Aristotle here give us advice that most people ignore. Most people think that winning the argument is what matters, not learning the truth.

~ Aristotle, Ethics


The point of both of these thoughts is that the truth is sacrosanct. Inherent in this argument is a refutation of the validity of a "post-truth" concept. Rhetoric has existed throughout history - it is acknowledged in both ancient statements - but the impact of rhetoric will often result in its own self destruction. That destruction resolves in an appeal to reason and truth foundational to discourse and discovery. A point that precipitated the OP I cited above:

There is no point in winning an argument if you know or suspect you are wrong. Practically, of course, it may get you ahead in the world for a short time. But honesty is the better policy in the slightly longer run.

~ How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (Revised 1972 ed.), p. 145 Bottom - 146 Top.

I would point to historical precedent to advocate that there is a waxing and waning for even the most successful rhetoric. Oppositely, there is a longevity of truth that demonstrates its value. Therefore, the current role of philosophers, as well as many other fields of study, is to preserve references to truthful ideas and maintain the commitment to truth in their endeavours.

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