On truthiness

Who said this:

I was recently reading the works of contemporary scholars such as Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, and Jacques Derrida who argue that there is no such thing as objective truth and that all knowledge, all values, all morality, and all ideas of right and wrong, good or bad, are merely the products of an ongoing “community narrative” and social dialogue within a “global village.” They say that truth is a construct not a precept. It is a conversation not a conclusion. Truth is really not true you know. It’s all relative. It’s all a matter of opinion.

I want to ask you a question: Do you really believe this and are you willing to live with the consequences of such ideas?

If you said the president of a university with nearly 1,000 students, you’d be right. It was Dr. Everett Piper, President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

One of the things that’s always interesting in these attacks is the claim that if something is constructed it is “merely constructed” as if not invested with full ontological status.

For example, he says “values… are merely the products” of something else and “truth not really true.” This is wrong prima facie and on any intelligible interpretation. First of all, just because something is constructed does not make it unreal (is his desk unreal? his office, salary and respect he has earned?). Similarly, race is constructed rather than a biological reality but it is still the lived experience of millions of Americans.

And the latter example really sets off the issue well in the sense that a contrast is being made here between something constructed (not real) and something natural (real). This line of reasoning can lead to all sorts of problems including biological reductionism.

And this is all to assume that Rorty (who died earlier this year), Foucault and Derrida actually said any of the things Piper thinks. To my knowledge, they did not. Here then is a failure of scholarship in Dr. Piper’s commentary. Rorty for one wrote often about how only “the most cooperative of freshman” believes in relativism any more (Consequences of Pragmatism, p. 166, see this nice memoir). He noted that the fact/value distinction would not be sustainable since norms are embedded in ascertaining scientific facts (an observation that dates to the early 20th century).

But Piper is no naive freshman, he’s in charge of the whole university and therefore his views are therefore not only wrong but insidious. I realize that Piper is merely entering the discussion from earlier this year concerning “opinion” in the classroom as noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but still.

In contradistinction to Piper, the Chronicle piece (written by a Dean at Illinois) concludes:

What I am suggesting is that while the apotheosis of opinion is a broad social problem, those of us in higher education — especially in administrative posts — should take the lead in demonstrating that all opinions are decidedly not equal. That’s exactly why we in the academic world exist in the first place: to sift through multifarious data and perspectives and arrive at reasoned conclusions.

One might even enlarge this to life in general: our responsibility and even our nature to constantly question or take issue, rather than to pass over or fit into some scheme. To engage rather than disengage. To acknowledge and develop political commitments (partisanship), and of course (dare I say it!) to understand the production of truth.


6 Responses

  1. I can answer Dr. Piper’s question without equivocation: Yes, I believe that all knowledge is constructed & I am willing to live with the consequences. Let me turn the question around & give it an historical twist: Dr. Piper, what have you got to say about the actual, documented horrors that have been rationalized & defended in the name of one essentialist truth or another?

  2. A very interesting and neglected diagnosis of this sort idiocy (hardly deserving of a response – remember the Aristotle quote that Heidegger was fond of using in response to skepticism – ‘It is a mark of the uneducated to not know what needs to be proved and what does not’) is Elaine Scarry’s
    “The Made-Up and the Made-Real.” The Yale Journal of Criticism: Interpretation in the Humanities {Baltimore, MD}5, no. 2 (1992): p. 239-64.
    A more recent and equally powerful response is Bruno Latour’s
    “Why has Critique Run out Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry Vol 30 n° 2 pp.25-248 (Winter 2004).


  3. […] out this insightful post about truth, opinion, and the academy.  Where do people come up with these summaries?  Have they […]

  4. You’re correct to say he’s got Foucault wrong. His claim is, I think, more properly understood along the lines of what is presented as knowledge is always linked with power or social-relationships, some of which involve domination and self-subjugation. I think it’s a mistake to think that Foucault denies the possibility of any propositional knowledge about the empirical matters. His claim is that our procedures for discovering truth are a thing of this world and not independent of it. A good book on this topic is Searle and Foucault on Truth by C. Prado.

  5. […] aside for the moment that weasel-word that truth is “merely” constructed (as noted here before) I think Foucault’s argument was more complex if you also look at his later […]

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