In the chaotic flurry of consternation, excitement, and viral postmortems that followed the US election, two notions stood out to me as slightly contradictory yet strangely connected: the dreaded concept of “post-truth,” and the prescience of a philosopher who supposedly predicted Trump 18 years ago.
“Post-truth” describes the blatant disregard for facts that has been characterizing politics this year not just in the United States, but worldwide. Many who deplore the epistemic and political state we’re in have blamed our current, twisted notion of truth on postmodernism and relativism.
The prescient philosopher is Richard Rorty. Although he did not identify himself as such, Rorty was famously associated with postmodernism and relativism—the very same ground the reviled notion of post-truth is said to have emerged from.
The same philosophical movement that was able to bastardize the truth could also accurately predict the future; the same prescient philosopher who warned us of a coming dystopia would also help realize it. How could this be?
Critics of postmodernism and post-truth insist that to rebuild our society, Truth must be rehabilitated. But what if we got it all wrong? What if what brought us here in the first place was an excessive reverence for truth? What if there was such a thing as a tyranny of truth, and all it did was divide people against each other?
In the light of recent political developments, perhaps few of us would agree with this. But it is what Richard Rorty—the “visionary” who predicted Trump—seemed to believe.
Rorty and the Tyranny of truth
The snippet that went viral is from Rorty’s book Achieving Our Country, and speaks about the boiling point of a nation that would soon realize it has been duped and ignored by the political and intellectual elite. At this point, something will crack, he says. People will elect “a strongman” and all the political correctness the academic left had been trying to build for decades would come flooding back as discrimination, stronger and ruder than ever.
In Achieving Our Country, Rorty describes a rift between academics and regular people and denounces the excessive theorizing of new leftist thought, as well as the unwelcome interference of academic philosophy in politics. But throughout his work, Rorty has pointed to many other sources of divisiveness. The tyranny of truth was one of them.
Rorty spent most of his career arguing that “Truth” and “Rationality” were nothing but relics of the authoritarian “Plato-Kant canon” (1989, p. 96), which needed urgent discarding. According to him, thinkers of this canon attempt to explain the contingent multiplicity of day-to-day reality by appealing to higher “Forms” or Divine Reason. Thinkers of the Enlightenment, for instance, based the notion of rationality on the assumption of equivalence between the origin of truth and the means of achieving it (1991/2000). Truth and the human ability to reach it were placed in the world by God; therefore, Enlightenment thinkers believed, we can discover the truth, provided we use our reason the right way. Whoever does not manage to get at the truth simply hasn’t been using their God-given intellect the right way, and therefore needs to be Enlightened.
This kind of paternalism, Rorty believed, does nothing but further deepen the divide between “us,” those who are using our reason the right way, and “them,” those who are not. Since it is human to use your reason, those who have not reached the same truth as we have are often deemed subhuman. In the name of the subhumanity of others, Rorty argues (1989, 1998/1999, pp. 167–185), we have committed the worst crimes against humanity. This is why someone like Thomas Jefferson was able to proclaim “equal and exact justice to all men” and own slaves at the same time.
By accepting the rational truth vs. irrational error dichotomy and its corollaries, we exclude the opportunity for improvement and the possibility of new ideas that drive progress. Quoting Donald Davidson, Rorty shows that by delineating the applicability of the word “rational”, we are forced to deem as irrational many of the things that are the very essence of a liberal community: “a form of self-criticism and reform which we hold in high esteem, and that has even been thought to be … the source of freedom” (1989, p. 49).
From “Truth” to “Truths”
Meanwhile, an article blaming the post-truth era on postmodernism and relativism reads:
More than 30 years ago, academics started to discredit “truth” as one of the “grand narratives” which clever people could no longer bring themselves to believe in. Instead of “the truth,” which was to be rejected as naïve and/or repressive, a new intellectual orthodoxy permitted only “truths”—always plural, frequently personalized, inevitably relativised. Under the terms of this outlook, all claims on truth are relative to the particular person making them; there is no position outside our own particulars from which to establish universal truth.
Indeed Rorty proposed replacing the unilateral narrative of one absolute truth with a pluralism of contingent vocabularies. This was partly because he appreciated how Nietzsche’s perspectivism had revolutionized how we see truth and morality, partly because Rorty himself was an antirepresentationalist, and partly because he believed that only by accommodating the plurality of individual values will we be able to achieve genuine solidarity.
In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty explains his antirepresentationalism. Knowledge, and implicitly truth, are indissoluble from language, he argues. Our language is contingent. Therefore our relationship to the world is bound to be contingent as well. We, as humans, are not in an epistemically privileged/representational relationship with the world. Instead, Rorty invites us to adopt the Darwinian narrative according to which we, along with many other species, cannot really know the world, but only adapt to it. Our intellects and vocabularies “have no more of a representational relation to an intrinsic nature of things than does the anteater’s snout” (1998/1999, p. 49).
Furthermore, philosophers such as Nietzsche fundamentally changed how we see Truth and Reality. In Rorty’s reading (1989), Nietzsche brought contingency to the forefront of philosophy, as the thinker argued truth was so accidental and relative to the perspective of the truth-seeker that every philosophy is a mere “involuntary and unconscious autobiography” and every metaphysics a “confession of its originator” (1886). Nietzsche liberated us from the Plato-Kant canon, prompting us to replace unity with multiplicity, to start creating instead of hoping to find.
If we are not in a representational relation with nature, and there is no fundamental Truth or Morality, we can create our own values and identities. Borrowing a phrase from Nietzsche critic Alexander Nehamas (1985), Rorty advocates for a variety of individual projects of “self-fashioning.” Moral values can be as varied as there are individuals, and within their private sphere everyone is free to manifest their self-created identity as they see fit, as long as they do not interfere with someone else’s well-being. The public sphere should be kept as separate from the private one as possible, and in fact for Rorty, John Stuart Mill’s suggestion that the government’s only role is to ensure a balance between individuals’ private lives and the suffering of others is pretty much “the last word” in moral-political philosophy (1989, p. 63).
Rorty’s solution to the fragile social-political balance between private values and the public sphere is more complex than the scope of this article. But in his work there is one more element that may ring especially true today, and could help explain how someone who did not believe in absolute truth could predict today’s politics with seemingly absolute precision—Rorty’s views on conversation.
The Importance of Conversation
If truth is not representational, we cannot—strictly speaking—test the validity of our beliefs by appealing to an external reality. The best thing we can do is confront our contingent vocabularies with those of other people. Truth becomes a matter of “social justification,” instead of “accuracy of representation” (1979, p. 170).
Rorty’s views inject epistemology with a fair dose of intellectual humility. Given the contingency of our language and the impossibility to think outside of it, knowledge itself is bound to be contingent and relative to our idiosyncrasies. If we cannot pretend to faithfully reflect reality, then all of our judgments are, to some degree, flawed. In other words, “there are no assertions that are immune from revision” (1979, p. 181).
This intellectual humility, Rorty thinks, is bound to bring us closer together. Social solidarity flows from the realization that there is no distant Form of Truth to validate our beliefs. Instead, we turn to each other for support or confrontation, testing our convictions against those of our interlocutor. The closest thing to “truth” that we can aspire to is building a case so strong that it can resist most conversational objections. “Rational certainty” becomes “a matter of victory in argument rather than of relation to an object known” (1979, pp. 156–7). Truth no longer means interacting with a “nonhuman reality,” but communicating with real people. For Rorty, abandoning the search for Truth means finally finding each other. The fear of “truths—plural” and “relativism” is just “fear that there is nothing in the universe to hang on to except each other” (2000, p. 62).
In this context, the need for conversation is perennial—and its importance extends well beyond the theory of knowledge and into Rorty’s social-political philosophy.
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), he describes the liberal ironist as a citizen of his ideal liberal society. In Rorty’s liberal utopia, the ironist understands that their vocabulary is not the only one out there, nor is it definitive; and that the only way toward progress is by confronting our vocabulary, narratives, and descriptions with those of other people.
The ultimate goal of a liberal, according to Rorty, is to erase the boundaries between “us” and “them.” To extend the applicability of the pronoun “we” to include every being that is capable of suffering. To learn to extend our empathy and build ever more inclusive communities. We do this through conversation, whether it’s conversation with other people or conversation with the books and “sentimental narratives” that expand our moral imagination.
Truth as Conversation Stopper
Absolute notions of Truth, Knowledge, Right, and Wrong are seen as conversation stoppers. The recourse to such irrefutable concepts only deepens the gap between “us” and “them.” As soon as we have convinced ourselves that something is right beyond objection we cancel the opportunity for conversation and therefore progress. This is not acceptable for Rorty—not epistemologically, nor morally or politically—because for him, nothing is “immune from revision,” whether we’re speaking of scientific claims or claims about social justice, about racial discrimination or liberal thought. The immutable conviction that you are absolutely right while others are wrong only brings social divisiveness and inhibits reform.
Instead of insisting that “we” are right or know the Truth, we should focus our intellectual efforts on eliminating cruelty, avoiding the humiliation of others while encouraging autonomy, and building ever more inclusive communities. Traditional philosophy would have us believe we need a common Truth to coalesce around, but Rorty thinks all we need for solidarity is an awareness of a “common danger” (1989, p. 91). The danger of humiliation and cruelty, of creating a political situation where we and those like us—who have the ability to suffer—do.
Ironically, history shows us the way we usually end up actualizing this danger is by rejecting those who do not share our idea of Truth as irrational or subhuman. The conviction that the other is fundamentally different from us, coupled with blind faith in our Divine Truth is what brought about the holocausts and the genocides of the world, and its most cruel dictators. The danger is just as real whether we delegitimize the other by calling them racial epithets, animal-like metaphors, or simply “deplorable.”
It is surely difficult to refute the need for fact-checking and accuracy in public discourse. It would also be difficult to imagine Rorty doing so. “Relativism” takes on various degrees of strength, and I do not believe Rorty’s “relativism” would deny the importance of taking public responsibility for one’s political assertions. But if it did, we can arguably still keep some good pillars of one’s philosophy without having to embrace the whole edifice. It is certainly what Rorty has done in his own work, borrowing from continental and analytic philosophers alike to describe his ideal society.
We could be tempted to believe that a return to Truth with a capital “T” is what we need right now to stop the world from spiraling. But we could also allow ourselves to be reminded that an excessive attachment to truth is always an attachment to our truth. And an uncompromising confidence in our truth creates epistemic walls, information bubbles, and moral divisiveness.
In his prescient piece that went viral, Rorty warned of a time when “all the sadism which the academic left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back.” But the reason he feared this was something he elsewhere referred to as “cultural chauvinism” (2000, xii). The resentment he describes is more likely to build up when both halves of a society think they have access to the way things truly are; when one half of society is convinced it possesses the ultimate truth and uses it to discipline, admonish, enslave, or educate those who disagree with them. It is what Enlightenment thinkers, Christians, and bigots of all kinds are equally guilty of doing—and what Rorty exhorted academic liberals to avoid repeating.
It’s difficult to imagine what a mind as complex as Rorty’s would make of today’s social-political landscape. But it is probably safe to say he would have encouraged us to resist the temptation to dehumanize supporters of the opposing camp. He would perhaps remind us that bigotry and chauvinism do not just come in racist and misogynist hues, but they can also be liberal, pass as “progressive,” and sometimes exclude in the name of inclusion. Finally, he would probably urge us to extend our version of “we” to include those who choose differently from us, and invite us to simply have a conversation with them.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer and researcher living in Brighton, UK. You can follow her on Twitter @annasandoiu.