Post-structuralist thought seems, to me, to be quite hard to argue with as a concept. Clearly, we understand the world through language, which both stems from culture, loading concepts with cultural meanings, and is imprecise. As such, the idea that we cannot arrive at an objective truth about the world, and could not communicate it fully even if we did, seems clear.

However, the truth of gravity, in the sense that things do not float off the surface of the earth, is also clear. Sure, explanations of why this happens have varied down the ages but it doesn't stop it from being true. And the explanation we seem to have arrived at with Einstein is accurate enough that our heavy and frequent tests of it would seem to support it.

These two things are not in immediate opposition. If I understand post-structuralism correctly (which I probably don't) there is no dispute that there is an objective reality, nor that science is a reasonable way of approximating it. The dispute is, rather, about the way in which science is given a privileged position as an arbiter of truth. Post-structuralism suggests the findings of science should be treated with a degree of humility.

But this in itself leads to practical problems. From a scientific point of view, we are left in a position where topics of critical importance in medicine and environmental science can be thrown into doubt by opponents with political axes to grind. From a philosophical point of view, we have a position where post-structuralism has muddied the waters to the extent that the Sokal affair can take place and some well-known philosophers, even venerated names like Lacan, can be shown to be abusing mathematical and scientific terms in the service of gibberish.

I've seen attempts to argue that the two positions are different because philosophy is at its core "qualitative" and science "quantitative". However, this strikes me as false. A counting system, for example, that only deals with estimates rather than exact quantities, cannot deal with even the most basic concepts of scientific mathematics. Yet a post-structuralist reading applies equal weight to the claim of truth for both quantitative and estimate-based systems.

Given that post-structuralism arose in the 1960s and the "science wars" were in the mid-90s I had hoped, looking into the question again now, that some kind of synthesis between these two positions could be reached, especially given that the accuracy of both seems hard to dispute. But I can't find anything recent to suggest that there is. Has philosophy found any way to reconcile these arguments?

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    I'm not aware of any "reconciliation" but I'm in doubt that it is possible, considering that the issue is on the table at least since the ancient Sophists: Protagoras' "Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are that they are and of the things that are not that they are not’ (Plato, Theaetetus 151e)" May 3, 2022 at 14:08
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    Post structuralism is too focused on absolutes -- nothing is true. Scientism/Logical-positivism held the opposite false view, that science and logic are absolutely true. The reconciliation is by abandoning absolutisms of thought, and instead accepting that pragmatic truths are what we can achieve, and pragmatic truths are not always true. Post structuralism is correct -- we cannot have certainty through science, or even more suspect personal observation, due to our hidden biases. But we can fight the biases with science process, and the result will be imperfect but pretty good.
    – Dcleve
    May 3, 2022 at 20:42
  • Your question assumes that Man invented language. That hasn't been established..
    – Marxos
    May 5, 2022 at 21:08
  • Clearly, Woman invented language.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 14, 2023 at 22:27

3 Answers 3


Clearly, we understand the world through language

If by this you mean we understand the world only through language, this is not clear at all. In fact, it is false, because it entirely discounts the value of nonverbal thoughts. Language is highly useful for understanding the world, but as they say, "a picture tells a thousand words." A map of the globe tells you more, and more clearly, than an essay describing where the countries are. Aside from pictures on paper, we think using mental pictures, with our emotions, and with our other senses: taste, hearing, smell, touch. How can you describe the smell of your grandmother's house in words? You cannot; the sensory experience is nonverbal.

Most of our brains evolved before our ancestors developed language. We share most major brain features with mice and dogs. It follows that a very large proportion of what our brains are doing to think and act effectively is not automatically verbal. And this matches with our experience.

... language, which both stems from culture, loading concepts with cultural meanings, and is imprecise. As such, the idea that we cannot arrive at an objective truth about the world,

There is an equivocation here, when you talk about "arriving" at objective truths. There are (at least) two things we may do with an objective truth: we may state it, and we may be certain of it. We may state an objective truth without being certain of it. Your premise supports the notion that we cannot be certain that what we have stated is an objective truth. But we can still state objective truths, even though we are not certain we have done so.

And even though we cannot be certain, we can reasonably be very confident in some of our statements.

For example, there is a mug of water on my desk. This is an objective truth I have stated. I am confident of it, but never certain; perhaps an evil demon is fooling my senses, or something like that. But my lack of certainty does not stop me from asserting the claim with high confidence, and I'm very probably right about it, too.

Next to address is the notion that all our knowledge is culture-bound.

It's true that most of our knowledge has some dependence on culture (with the exception of facts known through personal experience alone, such as my knowledge of the aforementioned mug of water). Science depends on culture. Politics depends on culture. Literary criticism depends on culture. But to say this alone is to neglect the degree to which a field of study depends on culture, compared to the degree to which it depends on external, non-cultural facts.

Different fields depend on culture to different degrees. Literary criticism and politics depend to a great deal on culture; a great deal of what is talked about has to do with what views affiliate with what faction, or what views are similar to high-status views expressed in the past. Physics, on the other hand, still does depend on culture, but external facts - collected from measuring devices - also have a strong influence on physics, much stronger than the influence of external facts upon literary criticism or politics. Physicists can be, and have been, refuted not by a consensus of other physicists, but by experiments coming out in a certain way. See my post about impersonally-accountable communities.

See also Isaac Asimov's wonderful essay, the relativity of wrong, about whether we have or have not "got the basis of the Universe straight." In brief, we may not have exactly the right answers, but the answers we do have are much more right than they used to be. Rightness and wrongness in science is not a black-and-white affair. If two theories were wrong, it does not mean they were equally wrong.

From that article:

John, when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.


"we are left in a position where topics of critical importance in medicine and environmental science can be thrown into doubt by opponents with political axes to grind"

We were going to be in that position anyway. Look at US politics on covid & climate change - nothing to do with Structuralism.

I would argue that thinkers grouped under 'postmodern thought', including structuralists, shouldn't be thought of as advocating relativism, but as advocating attention to discourse and pursuasion. Discussed here:

Why is post-modernism so often equated to Relativism, are there any responses in postmodern philosophy that challenges this?

We already know social discourse has fragmented largely along partisan lines, to the extent of people living in different realities. It's not the first time it's happened, in WW2 ideology was also weaponised, and a with-us-or-against-us tribalism used to coerce people into accepting realities and narratives. Putin has been doing it in modern times.

Like aspiring to Socratic Dialogue, an adherence to scientific standards of verifying reality is a great ideal. But even there we find politics: apparently the era of tobacco-science started with scientists trying to undermine the idea of nuclear winter, because they felt it undermined US nuclear options, and the same group moved on to climate change denial. You can't just dismiss people for having bad motives, they have to be taken on not just with evidence - but also with rhetoric. We can wish society was otherwise, but we don't get to be like Socrates and ignore people with no interest in the truth, public opinion matters, and all our futures depend on it. We need the tools of observing cultural change and discourse, not simply appeals to the one reality with best evidence as modelled by science. People don't choose the best evidenced reality, they choose the most pursuasive, and that depends on evidence, but also how that is put to them.

There is an inclination in Structuralism to see in it the explanation for all human behaviour, in linguistic and cultural conditions, and that is I think over-reach, in a crucial sense.

"Freedom is neither a legal invention nor a philosophical conquest, the cherished possession of civilizations more valid than others because they alone have been able to create or preserve it. It is the outcome of an objective relationship between the individual and the space he occupies, between the consumer and the resources at his disposal." -Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Tristes Tropiques”, p.145

On the face of it I find this hard to reconcile with the heritage of Existentialism, and Sartre's insistence that properly understood freedom cannot be taken from someone who does not give it:

"no limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself or, if you prefer, that we are not free to cease being free" -Being and Nothingness: an essay on phenomenological ontology, 1943

I would argue this denial of a deeper reality to freedom by Levi-Strauss, misses that the core purpose of philosophy since Socrates has been to unbind ourselves from the rhetoric of Sophists, by dynamically cultivating wisdom, as the capacity to act from the centre of our own concerns and know where that is, separate from those aiming to pursuade us without regard to our interests. That is, gaining wisdom is exactly the tool to make our own choices more freely, and not be bullied or lied into them. Of course, that 'integrated self' has many layers, and Functionalist tools can help look at them. But I think it's critical to acknowledge there is a direction of being more free in our thoughts, away from 'bullshit', pursuasion without regard to truth. And I'd go further, that science is founded on that premise, on Socratic dialogue, combined by Plato with the Pythagorean math-cult into the Academy, and academia.

Russia is experimenting again with unlimited propaganda, of the kind that led to Lysenkoist agriculture and famine, and even trying to claim that as a success. Some social structures of truth-making, succeed in their own or short terms, but at costs. We might say, they involve intelligence, but not wisdom - they don't involve acting from the integrated centre of concerns, they involve contradictions and the potential to be self-defeating. Having the bests scientists free to think, is just much more effective than propaganda. In the US the anti-climate-change-action lobby feel they are succeeding, but they will see future generations there pay a massive price for their small temporary revenues - they are not being wise.

So, I would use Structuralist ideas like Durkheim's structural-functional picture of how societies maintain their cohesion, to look at realpolitik and the dirty business of cultural discourse and social change, to try and understand how to impact the world for the better, or simply interpret how society is changing. Like, we can look at pursuasion through first finding where there is common ground or shared values, or I like Haidt's Moral Foundations theory for looking at the undrecognised (by the left) role of sanctity in maintaining social cohesion among those who feel under threat. I enjoy Zizek's use of Lacan to unsettle assumptions about our times, and sometimes helping to feel a little more sane about them.

But I would prefer to discuss with those committed to Socratic Dialogue, and to compare evidence with those trying to find the best hypothesees to account for them, because that is the wiser path, and even if the fruits of those discourses don't pursuade people now, in the long run if they truly involve acting from the integrated centre of concerns, their wisdom will speak for itself. We live in an age when many societies are becoming less wise. It is not enough to just disengage. We must seek to knock down Sophist arguments, without becoming them. We are animals, and our societies have animal-spirits, that must be understood too, by the wise.

  • @ScottRowe: & sometimes make you drink hemlock. Define 'well'. He did what he wanted, not what other people wanted. He listened to his daimon, not the public or the powerful.
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 14, 2023 at 22:47
  • @ScottRowe: On the contrary, that's when it's worth the most.
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 15, 2023 at 0:37

You remark, "The dispute is, rather, about the way in which science is given a privileged position as an arbiter of truth." I'll make my response short:

Science is indeed given a privileged position as an arbiter of truth in scientific matters- where the truth content of an assertion can be determined in ways that are sufficiently independent of the cultural context of the practitioners involved that we can justifiably label that determination as objective.

Regarding advocacy of attention to discourse and persuasion, it is the objective of the scientific program to engage in answering questions where the rhetorical cleverness or power position of the answerer can't make a wrong answer right. Mathematics is handy here, and postmodernist deconstruction (for example) isn't, which is one reason why for example particle accelerator laboratories do not hire postmodern deconstructivists to check the work of the experimental physics staff.

  • Who's science? How is the privilege given? You jumped over those questions.
    – CriglCragl
    May 4, 2022 at 23:03
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    @CriglCragl The privilege is deserved for specifically the science that meets the criteria stated: science in which the truth content of claims can be and is determined in a sufficiently culture-independent way, and for which "the rhetorical cleverness or power position of the answerer can't make a wrong answer right." To ask whether a body of work deserves the privilege, ask whether it meets those criteria. Whether it deserves the privilege is the most important question, to be resolved first; whether in practice authorities do grant it the privilege is a second question.
    – causative
    May 5, 2022 at 2:34
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    @CriglCragl So, who decides when the privilege is deserved? You do, and I do, the same way we decide any other philosophical question; we weigh the arguments on either side and try to come up with a justified position as to whether the privilege is deserved in a particular case. And who in practice grants science this deserved privilege? That's a matter of politics; politicians and CEOs do that, or fail to do that, depending on them, and what they do should have little bearing on our own judgment of whether the privilege is deserved.
    – causative
    May 5, 2022 at 2:49
  • @CriglCragl Science is a somewhat democratic affair, and so a list of the influential 'who' can be found starting with a list of the national academies of science. See also international bodies of various sciences.
    – J D
    May 5, 2022 at 13:59
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    @CriglCragl Yes, but again, you have only described what happens, not what ought to happen. Both are important; descriptive and normative. Normative accounts say what kinds of intellectual behavior tend to lead towards true and useful conclusions, and what kinds of intellectual behavior fail to do so. The OP's question seems to be more about the normative account; he wants to know if he ought to trust the conclusions of science. In other words, he wants to know if and when the process of science tends to lead towards true and useful conclusions.
    – causative
    May 5, 2022 at 21:17

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