Introduction: Politics, Political Theory, and the Question of Truth
Jeremy Elkins and Andrew Norris
We live in a political culture that is deeply ambivalent about truth. On the one hand, it is said that there are basic truths on which our politics must be grounded. We are told, for example, by the right (mostly) that a certain version of liberal democratic capitalism is the end to which all of human history has been directed, and that the abandonment of the belief in a Judeo-Christian god and adherence to his universal moral commandments leads to radical relativism; while on the left (mostly) we have witnessed the growth of a universal human rights discourse that holds certain truths to be self-evident, as well as a renewed reverence for the natural sciences as a paradigm of rational inquiry and a bastion of truth against superstition and faith. Yet at the same time, we hear from various quarters that the very idea of "political truth" is necessarily tyrannical or hegemonic. And so, for example, from the right comes the insistence that any public valuation of goods, even if concluded through a democratic process, is inherently authoritarian, while from the left we are told that "truth-talk" stands as a threat to the very possibility of cultural and epistemic pluralism.
There are, no doubt, many reasons for this ambivalence. Surely the skepticism about or dismissal of truth is in part a response to some of the claims that have sometimes been made for and about truth—about its nature, about access to it, about what it can do for us—and about what has sometimes been done in its name. And yet in the actual lives that we lead we cannot consistently avoid claims of truth; much of what we do and say is in fact unintelligible except as resting on an implicit commitment to truth and other virtues that themselves depend on some notion of truth. And so like many of those exaggerated claims with which we live, the dismissal of truth is reserved for particular occasions, paraded about to great effect, and then stored in the back room while the regular business goes on. Even Richard Rorty, despite his sometimes much more extravagant dismissals of the idea of truth, at times acknowledged that most people are quite right to be concerned about having adequate information available and not being lied to by public officials, and he argued that while we need not focus on truth, truth is one of the valuable consequences—"a bonus"—of political freedom. It is hard to maintain that it makes no difference how attentive we are to the specific conditions of the world that we seek to affect, or that the quality of the decisions that we make is wholly unrelated to the strength of the evidence behind them and the care of the analysis underlying them. And though there will obviously always be differences of judgment—about the evidence itself, about what to do about it, and so on—even with respect to the political-philosophical differences that come into play, most will believe that at least their own views are based on truthful (if contested) propositions about the world.
Yet the anxiety about talk of truth remains great: that once any such talk is allowed through the door, it must bring with it a history of metaphysical baggage and a future of political domination. In the academy, this anxiety has perhaps been greatest in the humanities and in political theory, where many have responded to it by either rejecting or avoiding the whole topic. John Rawls and many of those who have followed in his path have, by and large, taken the latter tack and explicitly put aside questions of truth on the grounds that not doing so will undermine the possibility of consensus on fundamental political principles and encourage the imposition of "comprehensive doctrines", while many of those influenced by poststructuralism have treated the concern with truth as a threat to plurality and as bound to the dangerous utopian fantasy of overcoming political agonism. Appeals to truth are thus said, on the one side, to threaten consensus and, on the other, to undermine a healthy dissensus. More fundamentally, many worry that concern with questions of truth suggests a return to the idea of a "true world attainable [only] for a man who is wise, pious, virtuous," threatening that part of the Nietzschean (and following that, the Heideggerian and Arendtian) project of recovering the world of "appearance" from its Platonic denigration.
Against this tendency to reject or neglect questions concerning truth, a number of voices have been raised in recent years. Prominent among them was that of Bernard Williams, who in his final book, Truth and Truthfulness, noted the ironically simultaneous commitment within the humanities to truthfulness on the one hand and to the "rejection of truth" on the other, and who asked, sensibly enough, "If you do not believe in the existence of truth, what is the passion for truthfulness a passion for? Or—as we might also put it—in pursuing truthfulness, what are you supposedly being true to?" But for Williams, as for other critics of (what he dubbed) the truth "deniers," the problem was not merely conceptual and the question by no means idle. The neglect of truth, as Williams put it, had significant consequences both for "real politics" and for the humanities. We share that view. The volume we have assembled is concerned with "real politics"—that term taken broadly to include already within it ordinary reflections on political life. It is also concerned with the discipline of political theory, particularly insofar as the kinds of questions that it asks might fairly be thought of as continuous with the kinds of questions and reflections that members of a polity might, at least in principle, engage in with respect to it.
The broadest question that motivates this volume is whether our politics and political reflections should be concerned with truth at all. But there is also a second, more complex question: the question not of whether but of how truth should matter. And while the volume itself (in contrast to a few of the essays within it) rests on an affirmative answer to the first of these questions, it does not present a single answer to the second. Nonetheless it rests on the assumptions that a concern with the latter question itself matters for our politics; that the character of our politics depends in part on what kinds of truthful inquiries it promotes and how it deals with various kinds of disputes about truth; and that the question of how truth ought to come into play into our politics is an important political and not merely theoretical question. The volume as a whole, apart from any of the particular reflections on these questions offered in the essays it collects, is intended to reopen the question of truth and its place in political life to more sustained attention than it has in general received within the discipline of political theory. It grew out of the belief that, whatever may be said about particular claims that have been made about or in the name of truth, a serious engagement with the problems of social life cannot do without questions of truth; that questions about truth are inevitable in any society that takes politics seriously; and that questions of truth are not adequately resolved by dispensing with them.
Like various claims that have been made about truth, the contemporary dismissal of "truth-talk" too has a history. While in its academic versions, it has often been represented as an "anti-essentializing" response to (those woefully overessentialized terms) the "Enlightenment" and "Liberalism," the skepticism toward claims of authority based on the possession of "the Truth" is, no less than skepticism toward claims of authority based on revelation and tradition, itself part of Enlightenment and liberal thought. Indeed these traditions of thought are characterized in part precisely by both a commitment to truth—and the associated notion of objectivity—and a recognition that among the truths to be recognized are the plurality and subjectivity of human life and the limitation, for that reason and others, of human understanding. Neither of these two strands of thought—which include, on the one hand, the objective facts of plurality, subjectivity, and finitude and, on the other, the necessarily perspectival aspect of objective judgments—is limited to these traditions, and wherever they have together appeared, so too have attempts to deny one or the other. It is not, then, surprising that today we should find once again that inclination to deny one or the other of these: the most arrogant claims to the possession of truth and the dismissal of truth in the name of subjectivity.
There are a variety of forms of this, some of which we already noted. In the field of political theory itself, the subjectivist strand appears, for example, in the tendency to slide from the important recognition that plurality is an irreducible fact of political life that must be respected to the absurd thought that any particular differences are simply irreducible facts that must be respected as such; and from the worthy recognition that the appeal to truth has sometimes been invoked in an attempt to eliminate political difference to the unwarranted thought that any concern with truth in politics—or in any case one that goes beyond such elementary virtues as not lying—must have this as its aim or implication. Similarly, and aided in part by a vulgarization of certain strands of poststructuralism, the thought that all we have of the world is how it appears to us too often slides quickly into the thought that all we have is immediate appearance. Confronted with the existence of a plurality of opinions and recognizing that there will always be differences of judgment, the unarticulated thought seems to run that nothing more can be said about these differences except how to respect them, and that because truth cannot set us free of our differences, questions of truth have no role to play. Yet at the same time, these ideas themselves are often held with a kind of dogmatic contentment. And like many ideas that are held in that way, these have largely, and ironically, resisted their own historicization. Thus while history is appealed to for evidence that all is flux, that every notion, no matter how solid it may appear, is transient, and that the world therefore is a world of appearance, that idea itself is too often held as though our grasping of it were the end of history—as though only now, finally from the privileged position of the present, can we see the foibles of those who did not understand the contingency and historicality of their own ideas.
In one respect, it not surprising that in these movements of thought Nietzsche has become such a central figure, for Nietzsche himself often wrote as though mankind were at the end of its history—that is, that we had come to the end of a history of a certain kind of creature—and that the end of this history and this creature was bound up with the end of a certain idea of truth. But for Nietzsche such dichotomies as that between truth and appearance, and truth and perspective, were themselves part of that history; and in this way Nietzsche's understanding of the demise of truth in the contemporary world was itself much more deeply historical that that of many of those critics of truth who take themselves to be writing, in part, under his name. The specific form of nihilism to which modern man has been led is, Nietzsche thought, the consequence of a particular understanding of truth, namely, as something otherworldly, and of a particular, correlative understanding of this world as a mere show. And it was because of this that that form of nihilism must ultimately be self-negating. The beginning of a different history thus requires, in part, rethinking the question "What is truth?"—a question that had been "turned on its head" so long as "someone who champions nothingness and negation passes for the representative of 'truth.'" Nietzsche's assertion in his late works that the will to truth is will to power was indeed an attempt to unmask a particular conception of truth. But it is only on a vulgarization of the idea of "will to power," and of other Nietzschean ideas (such as that truth is "a kind of belief which has become a condition of life") and the dismissal of other of his thoughts on truth (such as that the "measure of a man is how much of the truth he can endure without degenerating") that this can be read as a rejection of the idea of truth in general. For Nietzsche, the history of mankind was inseparable from the history of its understanding of truth, and the question of mankind's future was similarly bound up with the problem of truth. But the thought that the solution to that problem is simply to abandon the idea of truth, or talk about truth, in favor of appearance is a symptom of the disease, not its cure.
It is, for us today, also perhaps a symptom of a broader cultural trend in liberal societies toward the glorification of subjectivity. Liberal societies depend on the bracketing, in political life, of a certain kind of questions of truth—such as, paradigmatically, the truth of religious beliefs—and there is a sense in which such matters might thus be regarded as "subjective" from the perspective of public reason. But this has at times led, unfortunately and mistakenly, to the idea that questions of truth in general must be bracketed in our politics, and to the associated idea that beliefs concerning any such questions can be correct or valid only within the larger "value system" of the individual or discrete community. Such relativism can limit itself to a simple subjectivism in which each belief is true insofar as it is held by (and true for) the individual or community, or it can go further and declare truth irrelevant to such beliefs, which are justified instead by their emotional or ritual significance to those who hold them. In one respect, then, it is only an apparent paradox that the beliefs thus held all too often take on a dogmatic tone, for in the absence of any confidence that one's beliefs might be justified by the appeal to how things really are, the virtue in most requests is stridency.
The intense and increasing focus on subjectivity in late modern life and the commercialization of its signs and vehicles have greatly contributed to these tendencies. The apotheosis of the market as the means for distributing social goods in a pluralistic society easily leads to an individualism in which preference—or more specifically, preference as revealed in market decisions—is treated as the sole ground of value. Yet at the same time, capitalism itself tends to promote not only concentrations of political and economic power, but with them various forms of authoritarianism, including ideological. And if in one sense there is a tension between the subjectivism that appears within the market and the dogmatisms that surround it, the common casualty is the orientation to questions of truth. For that orientation is threatened on the one side by the denial that there is such a thing as truth that matters and, on the other, by the smug assurance that it is already ours.
The end result of this is a society in which truth is either passed over in favor of "tolerance" or missed though a strident refusal to entertain alternative points of views and possible criticisms. In his recent book Truth: A Guide, Simon Blackburn assails the shared intellectual laziness of that culture, seconding William Clifford's demand in "The Ethics of Belief" that one has a right to a belief only when one has "honestly earned it by patent examination, not by stifling [one's] doubts." Blackburn argues that one reason that this demand is so easily skirted is the common assumption that the expression of belief is an attempt at manipulation and not a contribution to a cooperative endeavor. Blackburn recalls, "It is sometimes said that one of the casualties of the general suspicion and mistrust that permeated the old Soviet Union was that the distinction between truth and other motivations to believe tended to break down. Upon hearing a purported piece of information, the reaction was not, 'Is it true?' but 'Why is this person saying this?—What machinations or manipulations are going on here?' The question of truth did not, as it were, have the social space in which it could breathe." While totalitarian regimes are characterized in part precisely by their much greater capacity to suffocate the "social space" of truth, it is not hard to recognize parallels to what Blackburn describes in our own political culture. Thus we find the widespread tendency, in both the popular press and what passes for much sophisticated commentary, to focus on the rhetorical, strategic significance of political claims (and the acts that rely on them), while leaving aside sustained attention to the question of their plausibility as an account of the world. Here too, albeit in a different form, the question of truth is deprived of the social space in which it can "breathe."
A volume such as this can hardly do much to restore that social space. Perhaps the most that it can do is to point to the significance of it for political life, to suggest why it still matters, and to indicate some of the kinds of questions and problems that must arise if such a space is to be restored and sustained. In line with this, we have sought to produce a volume of essays that will initiate a conversation, not close it. Our aim here is neither to offer a unified argument nor to attempt a comprehensive canvassing of contemporary positions. We have structured the volume in four sections, each of which includes two or three primary essays and two or three secondary essays written in response to the questions raised by the original essays. These essays approach the question of truth and politics from a variety of perspectives, in diverse vocabularies, and within the context of a variety of specific concerns. Our aim has been to foster a dialogue, and we hope that the cumulative force of the primary and secondary essays is to suggest the importance of attending to truth in democratic political life, while at the same time remaining very aware of what such attention cannot do. There is—one hopes needless to say—no suggestion here that questions of truth are all that matter to politics or, absurdly, that focusing on such questions will resolve all of our political disputes; nor do we read any of the particular essays as suggesting either such thing. Just as it is important to ask how questions of truth ought to matter for our politics, it is necessary as well to ask about their limitations, and of what we have no right to expect from an engagement with them. There is no simple answer to either of these, and the exchanges presented here suggest, we hope, some of the complexity of both.