During the last Presidential election, I noticed a trend in philosophy columns, like one I was enjoying in the New York Times, where philosophical concepts and arguments were brought to bear on political opinions that seemed already set in Stone (sorry about that).
For instance, when the President fumbled during the first debate in 2012 (which shocked many, given Obama’s reputation as a superb orator vs. his supposedly ungifted rival), much of the media seemed to have settled on an explanation that Mitt Romney was a master of factual knowledge which he used to his advantage during that first encounter.
Naturally, the President’s allies and supporters used time-tested (and perfectly legitimate) strategies to try to turn an alleged strength of an opponent into a negative (by claiming Romney was trying to hoodwink the public by overwhelming them with wonky recitations of facts, many of which could not be trusted).
But a number of writers seemed to go one step further, questioning whether facts actually existed, or at least whether anyone was in a position to judge truth from falsehood with regard to factual knowledge in a world of so much complexity, competing narratives, and endlessly expanding channels of communication.
While I was unaware of the scale of epistemic risk associated with declaring that fact might no longer be real (having not started my philosophy crash course until the election was over), I was involved with a project at the time that did get me questioning whether we needed to make such a leap quite so quickly.
That project was called Critical Voter (now a book) and consisted of a free curriculum anchored with a set of podcast lectures that I had originally developed to teach my own children the importance of logic, rhetoric, cognitive science, media, and Information Literacy and other tools that fell into my own quixotic definition of “Practical Critical Thinking.”
The series ran in parallel with the 2012 Presidential campaign and included guest speakers (including the editor of that aforementioned NYT Stone column). And, even with my limited philosophical experience at the time, it seemed as though anchoring an argument in first principles (i.e., the philosopher’s mental toolkit, which made up a bulk of the Critical Voter curriculum) pointed toward reasonable theories regarding what was going on that did not require first jettisoning reality.
For instance, if you looked at that election in the context of Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion, Mitt Romney was clearly more gifted in logos, while the President’s oratory relied more on emotion (pathos) and connection (ethos). This meant that televised debates (which don’t allow opportunities for the kind of rhetoric Obama did so well in front of large audiences), simply provided Romney the chance to play to his strengths.
With regard to cognitive science principles, arguments that followed the debate (such as Republican claims that Obama had shown himself to be an “empty suit,” or Democrat accusations that Romney was a liar whose “facts” couldn’t be trusted) were simply attempts to get our story-loving fast process to assimilate a preferred narrative before the other side’s desired story line sunk into public consciousness.
This year’s bizarre election might confirm that we are entering a post-factual age, or that some other major cognitive or political transformation is happening to our species or polity. But before jumping to such a conclusion, perhaps it’s worth looking at today’s scorched political landscape based on similar first principles.
–Jonathan Haber is an educational researcher whose Degree of Freedom website describes his attempt to replicate (l)earning a BA in philosophy in one year. He is the author of MOOCS: The Essential Guide from MIT Press and Critical Voter: How to Use the Next Election to Make Yourself and Your Kids Smarter. He is currently helping to build a new graduate school of education.