Monday, July 22, 2019


The Nordic Wittgenstein Review has a special issue out now on the idea that we live in a post-truth world. The idea of post-truth is, I think, a bit like Nietzsche's idea that God is dead: large numbers of people have stopped really believing in something that used to make a big difference in our lives. It's a problematic idea because it's hard to imagine life without some sort of belief in, or commitment in practice to the value of, truth. Nevertheless, there does seem to be something in the suggestion that we do, in some sense, live in a post-truth world. The question is what is there in this idea, why, and what can we do about it?

Lorna Finlayson doubts that there is really anything new that ought to be called 'post-truth', rejecting claims that there has been a rise in bullshit or relativism in recent years on the basis of lack of evidence. As Rupert Read points out in his response, it would be hard, if not impossible, to prove an increase in bullshit (how do we measure sincerity, for instance?). But I do think there are more grounds for plausible speculation than Finlayson acknowledges. Read's conclusion is, in part, this:
I claim, contra Lorna Finlayson, that what has grown over the past generation or more is a trend toward a lack of interest in the claim of truth among some/many voters, and toward a rank contempt for truth among those (some in the academic world, some in thinktanks, some in business, some in politics) who have deliberately promoted a ‘consumeristic’ attitude toward truth. This lack of interest and this contempt are absurd: but I submit that we live in absurd times.
Do we therefore literally live in post-truth times? Of course not: but it is nevertheless as if we do. Much like we used to live in times in which it was as if there was a God.
Well, how did we get here? No doubt the story is complicated, but I think part of it does have to do with the bullshit and relativism that Finlayson downplays. Harry Frankfurt claims, with little supporting evidence, that:
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit [...] has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.
I think he has a point. Skepticism has an ancient history, of course, so it is not new. And, as Finlayson points out, lying and propaganda are not new either. But I think there has been a renewal in recent decades of the idea that one need not be ashamed of lies, bullshit, and propaganda. One need not be ashamed, the idea is, because bias is inevitable. It is naive even to try to discover or speak the truth. The main supporters of this view seem to be on the left, but its most successful exploiters are on the right.

Since 1996 Fox News has been hitting the American public with right-wing propaganda. Opinions vary as to whether watching it actually makes you more ignorant, but it is certainly, and demonstrably, a very inefficient way to become more informed, and it does push people to the right politically. These facts are sufficiently well known that there is little excuse for watching Fox News, but I'll leave questions of whether to blame viewers or the network aside. The important point is that there is a significant new possible cause of false beliefs.

OK, you might say, but this is only in the US. True (as far as I know), but the Murdoch media empire is global. OK, then, you might continue, this explains some false beliefs, but not something new that needs its own name ('post-truth'). True again, but Fox News openly mocks the idea of objective reporting with its slogan "Fair and Balanced". Arguably it sees itself, or its viewers see it, as genuinely fair and balanced, in contrast to the allegedly leftish mainstream media, but this is prima facie implausible (why would all other news sources have a leftish bias, especially when so many are owned by large corporations?) and utterly implausible when taken together with the facts about bias and ignorance mentioned above. So Fox News not only keeps its viewers ignorant and pushes them to the right, it also undermines their faith in the value of truth and objectivity. Biased reporting is nothing new, but before cable news channels like Fox News did not exist. And its open contempt for the ideal of objectivity is, if not new, at least not as familiar a phenomenon as old-fashioned lies, bias, and propaganda.

Another thing that is new is certain trends in the teaching of English. The fight between descriptivists and prescriptivists seems to have been won by the descriptivists. (For more on this fight see David Foster Wallace and me.) That is, people who teach languages, including English, appear (overwhelmingly, from what I can tell) to prefer descriptivism. A common belief among them seems to be that it is elitist at best, and racist at worst, to regard some ways of using language as correct and others as incorrect, because the "correct" uses are so often those of the privileged while the "incorrect" ones are those of the working class, the less educated, and members of ethnic minorities. The feeling behind this belief is good, but there are some obvious problems with having no standards of correctness. Perhaps a sophisticated descriptivist would take the most common usage to be correct, or would have some other way of distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable usage. In practice, though, I think a lot of teachers are reluctant to call anything wrong.

A colleague of mine says she was taught in graduate school never to tell a student that what they have said is wrong. I don't know whether this is related to descriptivism or whether it's meant to be a kinder or more effective teaching technique, but in practice it's easy to imagine how teaching this way combined with a fuzzy version of descriptivism could lead students to think that anything goes. (And this applies not only to grammar but to ethics as well. More than one person (i.e., two) with a PhD in English has told me either that relativism is fundamental to their discipline or that it is politically preferable to the alternative, which they see as inherently conservative.)

I suspect that this leftish concern with students' feelings, which of course goes very well with the rightish idea of students as consumers that schools should aim to please, is what produces this kind of thing. It's worth clicking on the link and reading the whole thread, but here's a summary. A woman in her twenties was apparently reduced to tears by being told that she had spelled 'hamster' incorrectly. She was not used to being told that anything she had written could be improved in any way, and did not accept that a dictionary was authoritative on spelling. This one case proves nothing, of course, and might not be the result of the preferred teaching styles or ideology of English teachers. But it is exactly what one might expect from people taught English by relativists who don't believe in telling students they are wrong.

Then there's also the problematic teaching that all beliefs are either matters of fact or mere, arbitrary, opinionJoel Backström is good on the idea that 'everyone is entitled to their opinion' (as is Agnes Callard). This commonly repeated idea is more a result of scientism, or just crude thinking, than anything politically motivated, I suspect. But it surely encourages the belief that anything political is free from legitimate criticism. 

In other words, I do think that there is a real problem in the form of a recently increased lack of shame about lying. Or perhaps in the form of confusion about how to respond to relatively sophisticated defenses of shameless lying (and possibly sincere repetitions of lies). And 'post-truth' seems like a reasonable name for this problem, since no one will say that they think lying is OK. What they might say is that there is no such thing as objectivity or the ability to know the truth ("truth with a capital T" is likely to get mentioned at this point), or that everyone has their biases. And then the conclusion is that bias and non-true statements are fine because they are inevitable. Indeed, not only are they inevitable, they are protected by the universal right to one's own opinion. So how dare you attack what I think! No doubt this kind of thing is very often said in bad faith, but if you were brought up to believe that everyone is entitled to their opinion, that all that is not science is mere opinion, that we all have our biases, and that it is cruel to tell people they are wrong, then you are likely to struggle to respond well to this kind of argument.     

Which is why I think that the problematic term 'post-truth' gets at something real and bad, and I think that the origin, apart from basic problems like greed and dishonesty, is a combination of neo-liberalism (which gave us both the idea of students as consumers, who must be kept happy, and the 'freedom' to air propaganda as news--perhaps the First Amendment does this, but it seems that the fairness doctrine could have been applied to cable news if it hadn't been dropped) and a well-meaning but sloppy kind of relativism that has been adopted by many teachers (from elementary level up). 

What to do about all this, assuming I'm right, is an interesting question. To a large extent much of the problem is driven by money. Murdoch and Sinclair have the power, because they have the money, to push their political views. It's hard to fight that. But another source of trouble is bad philosophy, much of which might be called degenerate Wittgensteinianism. Think of a sort of bluffer's guide to Wittgenstein-influenced thought, including logical positivism, fideism, Lyotard, Rorty, and Kuhn, and then imagine people who understand this guide imperfectly, but who believe it implicitly, teaching children at all levels of education. Very roughly speaking I think that something like this has happened. (Although the possibly excessive concern with students' self-esteem is partly Ayn Rand's fault, so we're back to libertarianism there.) If so then part of the solution might be better Wittgenstein scholarship. Or rather, Wittgenstein scholarship that trickles down better. Which might be Wittgenstein scholarship that doesn't trickle down at all. Or some new fashion for graduate programs in English, journalism, etc. that is more committed to the value of truth.      


  1. I found this post disappointing and in parts infuriating. What I find frustrating about this style of truth defence is that it does not begin with an honest acknowledgement of the "fact" that truth is a philosophically as well as linguistically difficult concept. Its referential foundations lead to multiple paradoxes and its social dimension makes it difficult to place outside its contingent context (and yes, I am channelling the 'bad' philosopher Rorty, here).

    If you think that we live in terrible post-truth times, then I would invite you to begin with a paragraph simply outlining the definition of truth and the universal criteria for determining whether something is or is not true.

    But I don't think this is really necessary. Because, I suspect, the times we live in are not challenging the common-sense concept of truth without which simple daily lives would not be possible. They are challenging the traditional sources and arbiters of truth. This is an emotionally and socially unsettling situation - it is not in any way uncommon over time and space but it seems to be happening right now to those with the most space and self-appointed right to talk about it.

    That is the thing that disappoints me. What infuriates me is that the defenders of the 'Truth' with the capital T often don't bother to avail themselves of the many readily available 'truths' with lower case ts. Contingent, provisional, imperfect, yet better-than-nothing truths. In the same way that sceptics show a remarkable lack of scepticism about ... well, you know, or scientific method proponents, who don't bother to find out about how the scientific method works in practice.

    Case in point is your excursus into 'descriptivism/prescriptivism' debate. Descriptivists don't claim that there are no rules or correct ways of expression. Only that those correct ways are not inherent to some idealised notion of something like 'good English' but to a socially conventionalised code. These codes can and are routines switched in real life. So, when they teach young children from dialectal backgrounds 'standard'English, they do it as another code, rather than starting from a premise that what their communities speak is inferior or depraved. They don't base this on some abstract notion of everybody having their truth but on the voluminous body of research that can justify their claims about the working of language (singularly ignored by most philosophers of language). Prescriptivists, on the other hand, tend to base their claims on half-remembered injuctions from their formative school years that are often wrong and factually incorrect. (See Orwell's own overuse of the passive against which he railed). This is amply documented but would require at least a few days' study.

    In the same way, the debate about how to correct students in order to balance their need for fluency with the need for accuracy goes into the 1970s (cf. the work of Krashen on filters). There is no easy way to find the right balance between correct every little thing and never correct but I would doubt your colleague's claim that her training came down that closely to one extreme. But for some reason, in a post bemoaning others' post truth, you chose not to investigate this deeper to establish such facts of the matter as can be established.

    1. With regard to the points you make in your last two paragraphs, I'm not talking about the relevant theory or the best version thereof. I'm talking about what actually happens in practice, based on my interactions with friends and colleagues. (I realize that this is not a good basis for a serious academic study, but then I don't see myself as engaged in any such thing here. It's just a blog post.)

    2. That is exactly the source of my frustration. 1. I don't think 'it's just a blog post' gives you 'plausible deniability' if you're looking for a source of the present 'post-truth' malaise, you should be scrupulous about warrants in all contexts - this is after all how these things spread.

      2. I don't think you are talking about 'what actually happens in practice' if all you talk about is interactions with colleagues. What steps have you taken to avoid observers bias? How are you better here than Fox News? What have you done to check your prejudice. Why should this sort of thing only happen in academic papers? If you're worried about post-truth - perhaps allow yourself to be inconvenienced by the pursuit of truth.

      Having said that, of course, practice varies wildly from espoused principles. But it goes in the opposite direction - as classroom studies show. Teachers taught not to correct, correct more than they think. And teachers of a descriptivist bent are much more prescriptivist in practice. And either has a very tenuous connection to 'post-truth'.

    3. I'll have to think about this. Perhaps I should just have kept my mouth shut.

      What I was responding to was the suggestion that if there is anything to talk of "post-truth" then we might expect to find an increase in bullshit or relativism in recent decades, but that there is no evidence of such an increase and no reason why it would have occurred. I admit that I have no proof but I thought it might be helpful to offer some speculation about where such things might come from. If there is anything to my speculation then perhaps others will confirm this. If there isn't, then perhaps others (such as you) will point this out. That seems like a reasonable way to try to get at the truth. But perhaps such speculation is itself too dangerous to be worthwhile.

      Above you said: I would doubt your colleague's claim that her training came down that closely to one extreme. But for some reason, in a post bemoaning others' post truth, you chose not to investigate this deeper to establish such facts of the matter as can be established.

      I don't know what grounds you have for doubting my colleague's claim. Whether she's wrong about what she was told or not, it is interesting to me that this is how she understood what was told to her. My concern in this post, as I have said, is to try to identify possible reasons why there might be more bullshit and relativism now than there was a few decades ago. I don't know that there is more, nor why there is, if there is. But in the face of people asking why on Earth there would suddenly be more of such things now (as if there is no conceivable reason why there would be) it seems reasonable to me to raise the possibility that new kinds of news media and new kinds of approaches to teaching might be factors. If they aren't, great.

  2. I'm not going to express this as well as I should, but it seems that to a large extent our culture is motivated by the idea that there are only two alternatives, that either we are stuck with an everything goes relativism or some form of absolutism must hold. As if these were contradictions of one another and not merely contrary. Relativism is wrong not because absolutism is right, and absolutism is wrong not because relativism is right. They both fail on their own grounds.

    So what are we left with? Is there a middle road that is neither strictly relativism nor absolutism? Folks like Isaiah Berlin and Bernard Williams have suggested that pluralism fills that gap and I am inclined to agree. Wittgenstein said, after all that a language is not true or false but what we say in it. Truth belongs to the activities we are engaged in, and those activities are grounded in what works. It isn't 'anything goes' because either you are doing something or you are not. Either you are playing chess, doing math sums, using the English language, or you are not. Relativism has nothing to do with it except to acknowledge that any truth we claim has a context. So the idea of post-truth is the fabulation of people who just don't want to play by the rules. If at the bottom of our activities is simply "this is what we do" as Wittgenstein suggested, then there is no outside justification other than that this is what we do. But this is what we do counts for something if not everything.

    If post-truth is a reaction against the obvious wrongness of absolutism then we can be on board that absolutism doesn't explain much of anything without thereby casting the baby out with the bathwater. Post-absolutism is not the same thing as post-truth, though I gather they are being treated as essentially equivalent. In fact, the idea of post-truth is fundamentally incoherent if it is being claimed that it is *true* that post-truth is the case. It cuts its own legs out from under it. If there is no truth in post truth it isn't the result of somehow solving that paradox. The facts speak, unless we are also throwing out facts and all matters of the case. If we can use language we can use it to do the various jobs in which it is ordinarily employed. Such as telling us how things stand. There is no metaphysical implication, just a language game we use with words connected up with our activities in the world. Language is part of that world, and so truth is as well.

    running out of steam, but it seemed worth laying this out for consideration. Hope some of it made sense :)

    1. I agree with you about the incoherence of the idea of post-truth. Rupert Read makes this point too, as have others. But, as I say, I still think there is something to it, and I'm trying to figure out what that might be. One question that comes up in these debates is what might have happened in the last few decades to make a change. This isn't going to be something philosophical, although I think philosophy is involved. That is, I think that what people are concerned about is a cultural change. Philosophy has a role in culture, but working out what is the cart and what is the horse is notoriously difficult.

  3. Fox News openly mocks the idea of objective reporting with its slogan "Fair and Balanced". Arguably it sees itself, or its viewers see it, as genuinely fair and balanced, in contrast to the allegedly leftish mainstream media, but this is prima facie implausible (why would all other news sources have a leftish bias, especially when so many are owned by large corporations?) and utterly implausible when taken together with the facts about bias and ignorance mentioned above. So Fox News not only keeps its viewers ignorant and pushes them to the right, it also undermines their faith in the value of truth and objectivity.

    This is not incorrect as far as it goes but it goes awry when you ask "why would all other news sources have a leftish bias, especially when so many are owned by large corporations?" The answer to that is simple: it's lies in the value of finding an audience niche and using that to build its subscriber following. If the other outlets divide up a large part of the pie, it pays for Fox to identify and capture the large part that rejects the messaging of the others. Thus Fox gets a significant audience through its branding of its "news." Importantly, while they pile on commentators who are biased and focused on broadcasting a trumpian message, they retain their news credentials by providing some serious straight news programming as well. So while they are guilty of pandering in their entertainment offerings to a certain political faction, they are not by their bias demonstrating that the others don't have a bias, too. Of course, the bias of the other news outlets is more in sync with the views many of us hold so it's harder to notice. And Trump is such a large and inviting target it's hard to see the antagonism he inspires in those other news outlets but it's there. Whether justified or not, it is not journalistically objective.

    Of course, with Trump, it's hard to be that

    1. All news sources are likely to have biases of some kind, yes, but some have more extreme biases than others (i.e., some have a moderate or centrist bias, unlike others) and some are more consistent in their bias than others (i.e., some have more variety in the biases they evince). So I think it's a distortion to say only that all are biased. This is exactly the kind of simplification that enables the consistently and extremely biased to rationalize what they do.

      And I understand why commercial news organizations would try to target either a particular audience or just as large a slice of the available audience as possible. What does not make sense to me is why this would lead all of them, until the emergence of Fox News, to target a left-of-center audience, as is often alleged. It seems to me that ABC, NBC, and CBS, for instance, are aiming for the moderate center. It would be weird if that were not the case.

    2. What one can hope for, to offset unavoidable bias, is fairness (willingness to air the other side without slanting the coverage, at least too much or too obviously) and reporting facts honestly whoever is burnt. This is easy when we're talking about the best way to build a car, put a person on the moon, cure cancer. Not that it's easy to find the best ways to do such things but easy to adhere to a standard of let's see what's going on and faithfully report it. All you have to do is be as accurate as possible (based on the feedback from the world).

      But in politics (and political reporting) the issue is not merely a matter of finding the best way to cross a river (find a bridge or shallow ford or a boat). It's about finding ways to make things in the world the way you think they SHOULD be. In politics the argument is much more complex than just what configuration of components makes an engine run, what fuel yields maximum speed, reliability, etc. Of course, some of what politics is about means determination, too, but what makes a society run best is less clear. The ideal society we want may differ. One person wants maximization of individual liberty, another maximization of economic equality, another social stability and another redress for past grievances, etc. There are truth claims, too, e.g., are the grievances real, are there sound reasons for what is sought, what are the anticipated effects, etc.? Or is it true that the best way to achieve overall human happiness in a society is economic well-being and, if so, is it true that the best way to do that is to unleash normal human competitiveness? Or should we suppress such behavior in favor of communal responsibility, downgrading one set of personal satisfactions (getting ahead, getting the things we want, being free from external constraint) for another (living without stress or worry about meeting our needs, knowing society is there for us)?

      These things look like truth claims but they're not resolvable by accuracy in reporting. They're assertions about what is best and we really don't know how things will turn out if we choose one approach over another. If they turn out badly they won't have been "best." We can guess but will the results really make us happier or better off?

      But if truth claims are themselves just variants of value assertions (what we call "true" are just those assertions which work best in getting us to our objectives), then everything kind of blends together. And politics is about that blending, about navigating competing claims and demands. What is most likely to work qua what we want to work. Who would deny that there are true claims to be made about astronomy or physics, since such truths determine our ability to reach to the stars (or at least to visit nearby celestial bodies), but when it comes to achieving the society that's best there's much more room for debate.

      We're all biased but that's no excuse for journalists to undermine the role of truth in our lives. The issue of whether we have entered a post-truth world hinges on where we locate the problem though: in the loss of respect for accuracy in observation and reporting (not just journalistic reporting) or in the loss of belief in reporting accuracy as a form of truth. I doubt the latter has occurred but agree there is much evidence that the former has.

    3. As well as the question whether reporters are as dedicated to accuracy as they used to be (I would guess that they are) there is also the question of what this means or how to do it. A common complaint is that news media too often equate accuracy with balance in the sense of presenting both sides. And then even when the evidence is far more on one side than the other, they present both sides as equally worth taking seriously. This is the kind of thing that might be called relativism and that is associated by some people with 'post-truth' thinking.

    4. Yes, it's a difficult road to navigate. If you're a journalist, serious about doing your job, and you believe the president you're reporting about is lying or intentionally mangling the truth to mislead, do you have an obligation to stand back and play objective reporter by presenting "both sides" as if it's just opinions? If a president makes a clearly false claim should the reporter hold back because, hey, everyone's entitled to his or her opinion?

      Some claims are plainly false by any observational standard but some are subtler. They DO reflect nuances of opinion. Isn't a journalist obligated to navigate differences like this before inserting his or her own opinion of what's true into the discussion? But this isn't easy to negotiate and partisanship on both sides makes it problematic. On the other hand, don't we want a William Shirer reporting, especially when great issues are afoot, rather than a reporter who doesn't want to take a stand on what's true?

      Yet it can be argued that taking such a stand puts the journalist, him or herself, in the narrative and isn't that subject to abuse? What happens to truthful reporting when those reported on are habitually untruthful? Can partisan journalism still be honest journalism?

      I see a problem in all this but it's not that recognition of what's true has changed. It's that respect for it has. Maybe that's all you mean by "post-truth," eh?

    5. Well, what "post-truth" means or should mean, if anything, is one of the main questions in this debate. The starting point is the common claim that we now live in a post-truth era. Some people say that's nonsense, that there is nothing special or new about our relation to truth, and that there is no reason why anyone should think otherwise. Against this is the idea that something has changed, and then the challenge is to say what this is and why it happened. My suggestion is indeed that respect for truth seems to have declined. I admit that I can't prove this, though, and of course there's a danger of believing without proof that we have left some golden age when things were better. Still, there's no reason why everything must always be equally good/bad. Decline can happen, and when there is a widespread sense that it has happened (as in the 'post-truth' hypothesis) then it's worth considering the possibility that it really has. As for why this might be, people on the left often point to right-wing propaganda while people on the right often complain about postmodernism. It seems to me that there is some truth in each of these claims. Which is not to say I can prove it, or that the blame should be divided exactly 50/50, or that only people on the right have any bias, or that postmodern theory has been well understood by the people who might be having a bad influence because of it.

    6. If by "post-truth" you mean there's a different attitude abroad in the land today towards the idea of speaking truthfully (with honesty) we agree. There's a marked willingness to give those speaking untruths a pass if they're on "our side." Of course, truth is still truth and getting something wrong because we choose to believe something we know to be false (or just because we don't think anything can really be true a la post-modernist skepticism!) is contrary to human experience.

      Rorty didn't deny the value of getting things right in our day-to-day experience though as I understand his views (which aren't always easy to get right). His objection was to the abstract idea of "truth" (or "Truth") which is a different sort of notion from reliable reporting. He said we don't need to have a concept of "the Truth" to be able to make true statements.

      We're always going to believe what our senses tell us within a reasonable range of possibilities after all (assuming we can discount for illusions and such). We aren't going to walk off a cliff or cross a busy highway with a truck barreling down upon us without having some reason to doubt our own eyes (am I dreaming, seeing a mirage or optical illusion, etc.?). But "truth," the concept, seems at times to extend beyond such uses.

      Did Donald Trump tell the truth about what the Constitution allows him to do as president the other day? (Does he even know or was he saying something else in a clumsy way?) Was he honestly reporting about his inauguration crowd size or just emoting back in January 2017?

      His supporters say the facts behind such statements as these aren't the point because they're expressions of his momentary feelings, not necessarily genuine reports (though he often sounds as if he means them as reports). Presumably the president isn't going to deny the evidence of his own eyes, opening the wrong door on Air Force One and stepping into the void just because he thinks saying the hatch is the bathroom door makes it so -- even if he hates being thought of as wrong and maybe he initially mistook the airplane exit for the lavatory door.

      Truth telling is not merely about what our senses tell us, or what our judgments, based on our senses, acknowledge. It's also about signaling to others the sort of person we are, whether they can depend on us or not. Those who accept false claims by someone they wish to support are rejecting the usual signal of "I'm an honest person, you can trust what I say" for other signals, such as "I'm with you" or "I will do what you want, trust me."

      Truth telling and truth (or "the truth") aren't the same. One is is about getting the world right (often difficult when the issues are complex) while the other is about sending a certain signal to others. On the level of signaling there are signals we may want to send which drown out the ones that tell others they can rely on our reports about the world.

  4. A genuine Wittgensteinian question: I would have imagined that Witthgenstein would have been the first culprit for the source of post truth relativism. Isn't his career pretty much a template for disillusionment with the 'truth'?

    What is "degenerate Wittgensteinianism"? I'm also finding it hard to lump Kuhn and Rorty under the same banner here. Wouldn't someone like Feyerabend make more sense?

    1. "Degenerate Wittgensteinianism" is a term I made up to cover a range of views that can, in one way or another, be traced back to Wittgenstein. That's what makes it Wittgensteinian. It's degenerate in the sense that it's a mess, involving misunderstanding and possibly internal contradiction.

      Kuhn and Rorty belong there because they are people likely to be read or cited by the kind of people--roughly, English professors--that I have in mind. Kuhn is the author of one of the most assigned books in US colleges (see here). Rorty was very popular with graduate students in English in the 1990s. Both are often considered relativists, and both, I think, were influenced by Wittgenstein. Perhaps Feyerabend belongs on the list with them, but I don't think he's as popular.

      I don't read Wittgenstein as being a relativist (although obviously the definition of 'relativism' matters) or as being in any way post-truth. Cora Diamond and James Conant have written good papers on this. See Cora Diamond, 'Truth: Defenders, Debunkers, Despisers', in Leona Toker, (editor) Commitment in Reflection, Essays in Literature and Moral Philosophy, and "Freedom, cruelty, and truth: Rorty versus Orwell" by James Conant in Robert Brandom (ed.), Rorty and His Critics. Blackwell. pp. 268--342 (2000)

    2. I don't mean to imply, by the way, that either Kuhn or Rorty is a degenerate Wittgensteinian. I have in mind not philosophers of their standing but people who studied a very little philosophy as graduate students in some other subject.

    3. Thanks for the clarification. That makes sense. I misunderstood that paragraph linking Rorty and Kuhn. Feyerabend probably would not be in that company.

  5. ... let me put forth another thesis. We are not in a post-truth period; we are in the period of intoleration. There are two simple reasons why.

    #1. Platforms have perfected the telling of reality in the way the audience wants to hear it. News is now marketed like this. (Religion has always been like this).

    #2 People are now more likely than ever to confuse truth for its framework. You cannot have truth (or do anything with it) without a framework. It used to be that we didn't conflate the two. We used to see them outright. If someone said, "I'm conservative," we would grant a social excuse for various things they believed in (individualistic society). It wasn't wrong or a false belief; they sort of got a social pass not unlike the one we grant in religion ("I'm Catholic"). The post modern culture encouraged social passes for things that followed from such declarations, because a framework was seen as being distinct from "truth."

    But now, all of that is gone. A person having a rival frame must be the "wrong believer," because what is truthful must now be having the correct frame. Why? Because the market is good at saturating people with the things they want, and they want reality told to them in the way they prefer to hear it.

    And so we are now making holy wars out of politics. The wrong believers simply must be exposed.

    How does Wittgenstein fit in? Simple: connoisseurship. One must force rival frames upon people (therapy) so that whatever they believe is first forced to confront the other ways that people connect its meaning. And this is quite true for our liberal friends as well. You cannot watch politics in America and not tell me that leftists do not need interventions on the scale that is being proposed for the fox watchers. A great many of our passions need abandoned, and for those where a rival framework is at least accredited, we need to start giving out social passes again.

    1. Combining being more tolerant with forcing rival frames on people sounds tricky, but perhaps someone with good diplomatic skills could do it. I'm not convinced that where we need to be is in the dead center, but that's a different (and huge) question.

  6. For what it is worth (an i'm not sure what it's worth), a part of me is suspicious about the question whether we are living in a post-truth world in which ppl don't value the truth as much as they did. I tend to suspect this is some kind of mythology we like to tell ourselves. It serves us in some way. And I suspect that making such a claim is like claiming that ppl used to appreciate music more than they do now, or that the value of family is declining, or that love is not as important as it used to be. I am not sure this is the right way to see it, but it sometimes strikes me as the sort of thing old ppl complain about--nostalgic about a past that never really existed. After all, Plato made a whole career out of fighting the bullshit of rhetoricians. So these fights are old.

    This is not to deny that the fights have changed in all sorts of ways. Plato's rhetoricians are not the rhetoricians of today, not exactly. And some of the changes are deeper, and some of them are just a matter of fashion. But--and this is the source of my suspicions--it seems to me that denying that truth is important (in the various form this denial takes) is just a very human thing to do--like denying that love is important, or that family is important, or that ethics is important etc. It always was, and it always will be. It's old news.

    And one more thing, it may be true at the same time that those who speak like despisers are sometimes throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and still that those who speak like truth lovers are sometimes over-reacting. And I realize that the debate becomes heated very fast, partly b/c it seems valuing truth is not just a hypothesis *in* a discussion, but should be a transcendental condition *to* the discussion. But it is a good question, I think, and not at all obvious, why truth matters, and what truth is in the first place. I just wish we could de-mythologize the discussion about truth. Expressions like "post-truth" seem to me unhelpful in this regard.

    1. Thanks, Reshef. I think you're right to be suspicious, but I still think it's reasonable to ask whether there really is something different now. And by that I don't mean unprecedented in human history, just different from, say, the 70s and 80s. And the difference I have in mind is not necessarily one about respect for the truth. It might be just a difference in how people speak.

      One thing that seems new (as well as old) is the idea that it is naive to believe in truth and objectivity. I doubt this makes much difference to ordinary life, but it might complicate debate, muddying the water. The idea that everyone is biased might make no real difference to anything, or it might make a superficial difference to how people speak, or it might really make a substantial difference to politics. I don't know. My thesis, which is perhaps too weak to be worth defending, is really just that there might be something here. It seems worth investigating, if we can work out how to do that.

      If there is something, then whether the real cause is anti-realism, new forms of media, or the end of the post-World War II economic boom, or something else would be anther question.

      Whether anything has got worse or not, my suspicion is that bad philosophy and badly understood good philosophy are harmful. But I don't know how harmful. And even if it isn't, we still should be trying to do philosophy well (if at all) anyway. So in that sense it makes no difference.