A hallmark of recent political developments is extreme partisanship, where each side has near total distrust of the other. To exacerbate this situation there has been a breakdown in agreement over what constitutes the truth and even how one can reasonably arrive at that truth. Each side simply accuses the other of "fake news".

The side normally labelled as "left" or "liberal" generally evinces faith in something approximating rational methods of arriving at the truth. This approach dominated academia and discourse for much of the late 20th century. That which tends to be labelled "right" or "conservative" has now moved toward a more empirical understanding of truth.

As a result, meaningful discourse between the two sides has become almost impossible, because each is using a different standard to support its arguments. Is there any philosophical thinking which might help resolve these disputes and allow the political discussion to move forward? Or is the gulf between the rational and empirical simply too great to bridge?

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    See Eclecticism. Commented Oct 11, 2018 at 14:09
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    Related How does philosophy advance despite irreconcilable background assumptions (“positions”) on every topic?. The left/right "philosophies" are rather fluid, the left is often seen as empiricist/science inclined, and the right now moved into the postmodernism earlier favored by the left. It seems more likely that philosophies are adapted to political preferences rather than the other way around.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 11, 2018 at 17:45
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    @Conifold Sticking to US politics, aside from Trump (and his circle), who often gives the impression of disrespecting traditional notions of what it means for something to be true, of real world constraint, by [arguably] yielding tools akin to those that have for decades been exclusively deployed by the political and academic left (the so called alternative facts whose provenance is postmodern critical theory and its "activistism” in the guise of unbiased scholarly social research), what other examples (people or ideas) are there of a postmodern political or academic right?
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 19:32
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    For instance, @Conifold, who are the postmodernists here [I believe I have sent you this before]: youtube.com/watch?v=a8kcNJLpRJ4 ? Thing is that the binary tags liberal conservatives, left right have increasingly become obsolete. Can you imagine a more illiberal position than that taken by the philososhpy prof Alice Maclachlan?
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 19:43
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    @Conifold For instance, See Berlin’s treatment of de Maistre, Herder and others in his The Crooked Timber of Humanity and Political Ideas in the Romantic Age. To some extent, I see the ethos of today as approaching a kind of Dark Ages, where only ideas based upon critical theory orthodoxy (rather than Catholic orthodoxy) are granted validity by academics and mainstream politics. And it is precisely this tendency that provided the fertile ground giving rise to rise to trumpism and populist “right” movements in Europe.
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 20:26

6 Answers 6


From a purely epistemological point of view, no, philosophy is not really helpful. If anything, philosophy makes things worse. See this post and this post and the responses to it.

From a social point of view, Habermas' idea of "colonization of the life world" helps shed light on the problem and how to potentially solve it, but doesn't offer a full solution.

For Habermas, communicative action is governed by practical rationality—ideas of social importance are mediated through the process of linguistic communication according to the rules of practical rationality. By contrast, technical rationality governs systems of instrumentality, like industries, or on a larger scale, the capitalist economy or the democratic political government. Ideas of instrumental importance to a system are mediated according to the rules of that system (the most obvious example is the capitalist economy's use of currency). Self-deception, and thus systematically distorted communication, is possible only when the lifeworld has been 'colonized' by instrumental rationality, so some social norm comes into existence and enjoys legitimate power even though it is not justifiable. This occurs when means of mediating instrumental ideas gains communicative power—as when someone pays a group of people to stay quiet during a public debate, or if financial or administrative resources are used to advertise some social viewpoint. When people take the resulting consensus as normatively relevant, the lifeworld has been colonized and communication has been systematically distorted. The 'colonization' metaphor is used because the use of steering media to arrive at social consensus is not native to the lifeworld—the decision-making processes of the systems world must encroach on the lifeworld in a way that is in a sense imperialistic:

In response to the comment by Gonzo:

you believe the gist of the extended quote is

I will try to illustrate by example: One form of linguistic communication is practical rationality. If one were trying to advertise a product they are selling, this would be by listing the features of the product they are selling and explaining why it is better than competing products.

Another form of communication is instrumental/technical: Here the person selling the product doesn't care about using reason or logic to communicate why their product is better, they simply want to sell as many products as possible (this is a technical or instrumental consideration). So they use the image of a scantly clad attractive person or maybe the face of a wall known personality to advertise for their product.

The gist of the quote is: If the lifeworld (i.e. civil society, public discourse, etc...) is taken over by the second form of communication instead of the first one, then debate becomes irrational.

This colonization occurs when individuals or organizations have the power or the means to use the second form of communication at scale.

its salience in the context of the question,

It should be obvious from the quote itself:

"Self-deception, and thus systematically distorted communication, is possible only when the lifeworld has been 'colonized' by instrumental rationality, so some social norm comes into existence and enjoys legitimate power even though it is not justifiable."

-- for example the NRA has acquired means of instrumental communication, so that ideas like "We should arm teachers with hand guns" and "reducing access to guns won't reduce gun crimes" become legitimate debate points instead of irrational non-sense.

[how] it sheds light on how to solve the posed problem.

This points to the reason that opposing parties can't even agree on what constitutes the truth. And helps shed light on "Is there any philosophical thinking which might help resolve these disputes and allow the political discussion to move forward?"

It does not however address the question of "left = rationalism / right = empiricism" because the dichotomy posed in the OP is false. Both left and right have been guilty at times of ignoring either rational arguments or empirical evidence.

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    I would like to add that Habermas' whole theory of Communicative Action (1981, consecutive extension until this day) is about the conditions of fruitful debate that is able to determine its own normative frame and contents in a productive manner. Habermas was indeed the name that immediately came to mind when reading the title of the question.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 9:27
  • Please tell me what you believe the gist of the extended quote is, its salience in the context of the question, and how, precisely, it sheds light on how to solve the posed problem.
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 18:54
  • @gonzo see edit Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 21:40
  • See my answer. Which also addresses our discussion.
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 2:24

Here are the questions regarding the extreme partisanship of politics today:

Is there any philosophical thinking which might help resolve these disputes and allow the political discussion to move forward? Or is the gulf between the rational and empirical simply too great to bridge?

One thing philosophy could do is clarify why the dispute is occurring. If that clarification is accurate it may provide suggestions for how the gulf might be bridged.

What might that clarification be? There are two possibilities, among perhaps many, that I will offer. The first is to consider viewing the world through the insights of moral foundations theory and the second considers viewing changes in the world through the insights of socionomics.

Graham, et. al., from the perspective of moral foundations theory, consider rationalism to be the position that thinks there is only one moral foundation. (page 4)

In this article we ask: How many “irreducible basic elements” are needed to represent, understand, and explain the breadth of the moral domain? We use the term monist to describe scholars who assert that the answer is: one. This one is usually identified as justice or fairness, as Lawrence Kohlberg asserted: “Virtue is ultimately one, not many, and it is always the same ideal form regardless of climate or culture…The name of this ideal form is justice”

The others, the empiricists, such as Aristotle and William James hold a different opinion:

Other theorists—whom we’ll call pluralists—assert that the answer is: more than one.

Combine that with "individuals" supported mainly by the rationalist and there is a ground for tension where both sides in a political dispute can feel justified to rationalize that the other side is wrong and they are right.

That perspective suggests that perhaps engaging with people who disagree with us on a non-rational level that avoids the rationalizing may be one way to bridge the gulf.

However valuable that approach may be, it doesn't explain the dynamics of why the situation should be changing now. Why are "recent political developments" so different from those in the past? What marks social periods when "each side has near total distrust of the other"?

That requires a theory of history. The problem with looking at history is we have a bias to thinking the trend should never change course. If the dinosaurs are ruling the earth they should always rule the earth, but that isn't how evolution portrays the past. It also isn't how markets behave.

Socionomics looks for sociometers marking trends and hoping to find patterns that signal when trends will change. The most detailed sociometers are market price charts and socionomists have identified patterns of the wave behavior of price action to try to predict when a trend will change and what one can expect to see when the trend does change.

What makes this relevant is that a bullish trend has less extreme partisanship than a bearish trend. Couple that with a more or less evident wave structure and one might have an edge to predict trend changes. It sometimes works in trading the markets. Socionomists would claim it works more generally.

Assuming either moral foundations theory or socionomics are correct, how would that understanding help us bridge the "gulf between the rational and empirical" sides in current social conflicts?

In a bearish environment of negative social mood where righteous claims from both the rational and empirical groups become more intense, it may help one to recognize that perhaps the best one can do is to get out of the way and prepare for a change of trend in the opposite direction.


Graham, J., Haidt, J., Koleva, S., Motyl, M., Iyer, R., Wojcik, S. P., & Ditto, P. H. (2013). Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 55-130). Academic Press. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2184440

Moral Foundations Theory, https://moralfoundations.org/

Socionomics Institute, https://www.socionomics.net/

  • I would like to add that however knowledgable Graham et. al. are in the field of social psychology, their philosophical background is quite limited. That is also why they have a very limited understanding of rationalism, one which is outdated since the dawn of new, more fluid interpretations starting with Dilthey as early as the 19th century, leading to mature frameworks like Habermas' (who clearly is both pluralist and rationalist).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 9:34
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    @PhilipKlöcking There is much I don't agree with with Moral Foundations Theory: their view of evolution of these moral foundations is exclusively human, their view of altruism is not adequate to explain our group behavior and they seem like they are still, themselves, part of the "rationalist delusion" as Haidt describes it in The Righteous Mind. However, their questioning of rationalism, individualism and providing a justification for moral pluralism is what I find admirable and worth bringing attention to. Their research is not as important as their philosophical views of what it means. Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 12:39
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    I very much appreciate this abstract and level headed take of the question.
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 8, 2018 at 2:25
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    But I particulary appreciated these keen observartions: "That perspective suggests that perhaps engaging with people who disagree with us on a non-rational level that avoids the rationalizing may be one way to bridge the gulf." and "However valuable that approach may be, it doesn't explain the dynamics of why the situation should be changing now. Why are "recent political developments" so different from those in the past?" other"?
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 8, 2018 at 2:35
  • As to the first sentence, I wonder what you though of this "debate", and particularly the positions taken by the philosophy professor, Alice Maclaphlan, who, under one interpretation, appears to be adopting the tactic you describe: youtube.com/watch?v=a8kcNJLpRJ4. Party.
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 8, 2018 at 2:47

My answer to the question posed is “No,” given that the referenced divide is but another symptom of the culture wars and science wars which have been raging between realists and antirealists in academic philosophy itself for decades, and which if one reads the responses of the various philosophical cognoscenti is alive and well on this very site. (For those familiar with the cast of characters, can Jobermark and Jo Wehler, for instance, ever hope to have a fruitful and reasonable discussion? Not likely. And my claim is that the reason for this, as described below, is closely related to why the partisanship described in the OP has come to exist.)

Accordingly, I consider the controversy issues to be much deeper than characterized by the OP, or by @Alexander S King’s explication of the Habermas (whose sophistic Frankfurt School critical theorists colleagues may in fact have contributed to what has come to be a fairly intractable problem) ideology.

In fact, it seems to me that the partisan divisiveness has arisen from popular culture’s [pundits’, those who tell the public, who are either too busy or too uninterested to think these very complex issues through, what to think and why] undue, unwarranted and hyperbolic skepticism with respect to whether objective [rather than lived] truth even exists (deflationism); whether knowledge is anything more than a function of power; whether empiricism actually provides positive knowledge of the world in light of the purported myth of the given, the theory ladenness of perceptions; and whether rationality/reason is as reliable and universal a means to achieving truth and knowledge as had been previously believed.

Of course SOME moderate skepticism about these concepts IS warranted by such notions such as holism, underdetermination. the myth of the given and others developed over the course of the 20th century. But these controversies, originally confined to academic logicians, epistemologists and philosophers of science, were usurped by academic sociologists (as the sociology of knowledge/science), whose proper domain would seem to have been discovering the social causes of people/scientists having whatever beliefs/theories they in fact do have. Not whether there are sufficient grounds to justify/warrant considering those beliefs to be designated as “knowledge” (since Kant the domain of epistemology, later to be shared logic and the philosophy of science).

This did not last long. After Quine’s historicization and naturalization of epistemology, it was not long before sociologists, historians and some philosophers of science began to claim BOTH that all beliefs/knowledge claims have social causes, and that to produce a social explanation for having a belief ipso facto discredits it, and prevents it from constituting positive knowledge. Finally concluding that knowledge is socially constructed all the way down. And with, for instance Harry Collins, that "the natural world in no way constrains what is believed to be...and must be treated as though it did not affect our perception of it," and that "what is needed is radical uncertainty about how things about nature are known." (See John Zammito's A Nice Derangement of Epistemes, p. 152.) This [radical and unwarranted] blending of ontology and epistemology is needed because, as Bruno Latour tells us, science is in fact politics by other means.

After festering in academia for decades, and continuing down the slippery slope, these ideas were published to the lay general public in a substantially oversimplified and hyperbolic form by ignorant and/or sophistic pundits, politicians, journalists, and non-natural scientist academics ignorant of the underlying evidence. (Given the subject matter of these claims, who cares about evidence, anyway?).

Not surprisingly, the net result of this history is a political ethos in which the regulative power of David Patrick Moynihan’s epigram that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts has been lost in the blurring of the boundary between fact and opinion. This has provided fertile ground for concepts like "fake news," "Post Truth," alternative facts," is part of the reason why so many of our arguments have devolved into creating and destroying straw men, invective, and ad hominem, and premised to a large extent upon critical theory’s naturalized identitarian epistemology (lived experiences, socially situated/located knowledge), essentially tribalism, which has stepped into the epistemological vacuum.

What can one reasonably expect when it is believed by an increasing number of the population, some of whose even primary education deflated any notion of truth as correspondence with the natural world, that knowledge is not to be constrained by the world but is a function of power?

This 2014 debate venued in Canada is instructive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8kcNJLpRJ4. Party A apparently wants to honestly and in good faith debate an issue that Party B contends has already been resolved, such that party B is justified in simply shutting down (“deplatforming”) anyone who would have the audacity to dispute Party B’s conclusion. One side to the debate is firmly ensconced in the silo whose genealogy is the history described above, and who would consider the other side to be naïve metaphysical realists. The likelihood that the parties to the CBA debate, whose salience attribution is so disparate that they are not simply disagreeing with one another, but are almost literally talking about different things, will ever communicate with one another is, I believe, quite slim.

The dynamics of this debate mirror the partisan controversy described by the OP, and, again, makes me pessimistic about philosophy’s ability to put the deflationist genie and its train of post truth, alternative facts and fake news back in the bottle.

(In the context of these issues, see (What is the role of public intellectual/philosopher in "post truth" world?; and Looking for a book to compliment Zammito and Mohanty in understanding the ethos of post positivistic realism.

  • I see more agreement than disagreement between us. I acknowledged the deeper epistemic issues in the first part of my answer (follow the two links I posted). And the culture pundits you mention are text book cases of the colonization that Habermas talks about. The epistemic challenge you pose to Habermas' distinction is a valid criticism, but then again that criticism can be used to deconstruct any dichotomy in philosophy from the analytic/synthetic divide to the contrast between capitalism and communism - which brings us back to the original epistemic challenges that I reference in my links. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 3:45
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    @ Alexander S King. Again, the problem is not that "opposing parties can't agree on what constitutes the truth." It is that one party believes in the existence of truth as something like correspondence, and the other considers truth to be simply a function of power. One believes that reality is discovered the other that reality is constructed. And while critical theorists are epistemic/empirical anti-realists in private, publically they sophistically appeal to realism to make rational arguments that only a realist could ingenuously make.
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 4:27
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    @ Alexander S King And then they privately justify the sophistry by appealing to a sort of moral realism. This is why it appears to be that many who aspire to be social scientists, are not seeking to be unbiased scholars, but activists who want to change the world. It is disingenuous to claim to be doing unbiased social research, when one is really engaged in social activism. Again, look at the CBC video I attached at the end of my answer. These two groups can never come to have a traditionally reasonable conversation.
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 4:42
  • "It is that one party believes in the existence of truth as something like correspondence, and the other considers truth to be simply a function of power." I disagree - both parties (left vs. right) subscribe to both epistemologies depending on what the topic at hand is. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 5:07
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    @ Alexander S King Really? When did you last meet a conservative postmodern critical theorist? Or a liberal "biological essentialist?" Remember your brilliantly prescient OP of a couple of years ago about the inherent conflict between transgenderism and feminism, and how the exquisite salience of the question was obfuscated practically out of existence when it was edited out from under you? How difficult it was to even discuss the issue with any kind of level headed rationality? The intolerant and almost religious zeal of the contemporary ethos was then only in its nascent stages.
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 16:48

For a rational individual, empirical evidence trumps bad logic. Good logic agrees with the empirical. To say that liberals use "rational methods of arriving at the truth" that disagree with the empirical is to say that liberals are irrational.

There are two ways of dealing with an irrational individual. You may try to convince them of their error, e.g. by showing a conflict in their logic or, get this, showing them empirical evidence to the contrary. Alternately, you may appeal to their irrational thought to get what you want, and leave them to their insanity.

Now, if you want to convince an empirical individual of something other than the empirical I'm afraid you are going to have problems.


The cultural/science “wars” that have been raging for decades now (going in and out of various states of dormancy in the non-academic realms of folk politics, public policy and journalism), as outlined in my answer above, have arguably begun to seep into discussion over how to deal/cope with the Covid-19 phenomena. Resulting in increasing polarization of that discussion along the lines outlined by this question.

So I thought it might be a good time to revisit the issue, and maybe fashion a more positive, optimistic response. First, allow me to quote a comment by @Conifold to an August 2018 post, (How does philosophy advance despite irreconcilable background assumptions ("positions") on every topic?, which suggests one way to ameliorate the partisan polarity of contemporary political discourse [Conifold himself references this question (and presumably his answer) in his comment to the instant post]:

I can see where the question comes from. Courtesy of classical maximalism of the textbooks and pop-postmodernism of the blogs the idea of philosophical pluralism is alien to the public mind. Pace Feyerabend, pluralism means neither that anything goes, nor that what goes goes a la carte. One can choose between mental substance or none, but each comes with a host of baggage that does not mix and match. Figuring out what goes with what and fashioning defensible positions, which are few and far between plural though they are, is what philosophical "progress" is about.

While the comment to some extent seems to presuppose a Coherence, as opposed to a Correspondence, theory of truth (see Wiki or SEP entries for definitions: eg. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coherence_theory_of_truth, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correspondence_theory_of_truth ), a distinction which roughly corresponds to the OP’s [unbridgeable?] distinction between rationalism and empiricism, its reference to intransigent “baggage,” and to the fact that “not anything goes,” suggests not only that the implications of our ideas should cohere, but that these ideas may entail [at the very least] Quinian ontological commitments, if not full throated metaphysical realism. And, on the other hand, even adherents of the correspondence theory need to make sense (be coherent) in arguing for their various positions.

I propose that in the process of “figuring out what goes with what and fashioning defensible positions,” for instance, in discussing how to deal with a global pandemic and its socio-economic implications, disputants may benefit from considering the so called Rappaport's Rules (or Dennett's Rules: (https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Rapoport%27s_Rules), named after game theorist Anatol Rapoport and philosopher Daniel Dennett, “a set of rules intended to encourage productive, critical discourse...that seek to avoid straw man [and promote steel man] representations of an opponent's argument” as well as “the backfire effect that criticism often provokes” The rules are often formulated as follows:

1: Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, "Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way."

2: List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3: Articulate anything to be learned from your opponent.

4: Only then permit yourself so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism of your opponent's argument.

The formulation is clearly seeking to instantiate something like Donald Davidson’s principle of charity, or rational accommodation, which posits, in the context of translation/interpretation of an unknown language, that when one is unsure of another’s meaning, one should seek to optimize the likelihood of agreement, or understanding, by attributing maximum sense of the words and thoughts one is trying to comprehend.


Your debate could not get off the ground . Post Modernists say there is no truth so why even make the claim ? Think of this

1 No claims are true

2 This is a claim

C This claim is not true .

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