I had a recent conversation about “truthiness,” if you believe me. The word truthiness never came up, but I am using this word to name the topic of our conversation which, after all, was beginning to explore the the ability to teach the “great books” of philosophy in an introductory philosophy course. The awareness both me and my conversation partner had was that there is somehow something invalid of allowing a bunch of dead, white guys (I am still not certain that the Greeks – Plato, Aristotle and the like – actually fall into our “white” concept, although they, as biological beings, certainly are dead guys) to define the subject. Eventually, the comments came down to the concept of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the subject of Reason itself, and how it, as a concept, is not immune to marginalizing other perspectives on what counts as “reasonable”. Our conversation came down to a kind of intuition, an “it seems to me,” that what comes to count as true, and the means by which that is determined is, well, truthy. It feels right. It has all the feelings of justification, evidence, and being grounded. Here we were, two live white guys, from Western countries speaking truthy things with each other, with the awareness that everything we said could be imbued with types of power. Thus, I left the conversation with a lingering doubt: maybe everything we are doing academically is a charade? At least that was my doubt.
Of course, there are recent events in the political realm which contribute to the tale “that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other” that Hannah Arendt pointed out more than fifty years ago (1967 – Truth and Politics). As interesting as beating a dead horse as they are to point out, it seems that there is no point in documenting the already well-known lies of presidents, newspapers, actors, corporations, priests and national security advisors, or the role of deception in international diplomacy. Plato himself, in the last sentence of the allegory of the cave, remarked that he who forced his fellow citizens to take him seriously by trying to set them free from falsehood and illusion was in danger of his life: “If they could lay their hands on [such a] man … they would kill him.” The narrative is long and storied, with contributions from varied contexts, not all of which are in the “West”, and not all of which are political.
However, there is an interesting counter-narrative which has also emerged. This counter-narrative, which asserts that all “truth” is impacted by “power”, somehow negates the concept of truth itself. Not only are statements that reach for something beyond mere opinion not statements of facts, they could never pretend to be if the speaker is truly authentic with themselves and their conversation partners. Certainly, this seems to be the conversation of writers such as Thomas Kuhn, who writes humbly about “scientific paradigms,” but also of Michel Foucault who more assertively says, “The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power … truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it includes regular effects of power.” (Truth and Power: an interview with Michel Foucault – 1970) The counter-narrative goes back as far as Leibniz, and asserts that truth is produced by the human mind, unlike the standard version of truth as either discovered by or disclosed to the human mind.
It is perhaps at this distinction where we can come to terms with the differences between truth, power, and truthiness. Arendt distinguishes between philosophic truths, which Plato’s philosopher brings back with him from the realm of ideas, and factual truths, which are seen with the eyes of the body and are dependent on the existence of others. Rational truths are those that disappear into the diversity of views that are mere opinions, and at least the philosopher can console herself with the experience of a necessary consequence of bringing philosophical truths to the marketplace. Factual truths, on the other hand, seem to belong with opinions due to their very public nature, and their inevitable involvement with things like interpretation and perspective. We can rearrange the facts to suit a narrative we wish to tell, but we shouldn’t touch the factual matter itself. The factual matter itself is that which is disclosed and discovered, but it is the narrative that is produced.
In this case, factual truth is the stuff like there were widespread abuses in Canadian residential schools of aboriginal populations. Narratives are such as “there needs to be reconciliation,” or “it was not systemic, so European descendants can stop apologizing.” Truthiness is a reasoned response to the narratives, while in a sense not looking at the factual truth. It is perhaps why there is such a concern with “fake news” and what is at stake when the term is used. And so, when it comes to having any clarity regarding truth, power, and truthiness, our existence in a primarily social media world, with its precedent of the 24-hour news cycle, the best we can hope for is truthiness which rarely focuses on factual truth. Our consumption of social media usually focuses on narratives, and like the example above concerning the residential schools, those narratives are inevitably tied to power dynamics.
So long as we understand our citizenry role as complete if we are sufficiently informed via social media, I fear that the counter-narrative will win out. However, it may be of more importance to get beyond truthiness than simply putting to rest the lingering doubts I mentioned earlier; it may in fact be an issue crucial to the importance of the survival of freedom of thought and opinion altogether.