There are Four Lights: Trump and Postmodernism
by David Ottlinger
We should have known something was seriously wrong when Oxford dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ the word of the year for 2016. (1) It was a sign that a deep confusion had taken root in the fertile soil of our public’s widespread philosophical illiteracy. “The nature of reality is an open question in the age of Donald Trump,” declares the New Republic’s amateur philosopher Jeet Heer. (2) Our friends at BloggingHeads (et tu?) hosted a high-toned conversation on Trump as the “the ultimate postmodern figure.”(3) Even HBO’s John Oliver did a signature “deep dive” segment on “Trump v Truth,” in which he lamented that he could not cover stories he prefers to cover because we, as a country, first need to discuss “the concept of reality itself.”(4)
We certainly don’t, for the simple reason that Trump has nothing whatsoever to teach us about metaphysics and vice versa. I have questioned many assumptions about many things since Trump’s takeover of the GOP, and ultimately the presidency, which took me and many others so by surprise. But never did I reconsider any view in theoretical philosophy, nor do I see any reason why I should have. (5) I went into the Trump era as a broadly Kantian-Sellarsian anti-realist, and if I come out of it anything else, it will be for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with The Orange One. But, alas, in these sad, strange times, even the idea that Trump has nothing to do with the nature of reality can be lost.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want to say anything against metaphysics or theoretical philosophy. In fact, it is a field I have long admired and, if you are so inclined, you can find me on the internet talking about it at great length. Even in a room full of philosophers, I probably would be one of the more tolerant and indulgent people on the question of the value and uses of metaphysical arguments. This is because Anglophone philosophy historically has been suspicious of metaphysical speculation and has often regarded metaphysical arguments as unfounded and metaphysical controversies as unresolvable. P.F. Strawson memorably referred to these areas of philosophy as ones of “maximal pretention and minimal agreement” and sought to expose them as illegitimate. (6) Of course, these biases are not unprecedented. Contemporary philosophers are keeping alive the broader tradition of skepticism about metaphysics that is typical of the empiricist tradition. A modern American professor’s attitudes would be quite recognizable and understandable to a David Hume.
But I am a very different sort. I see value in taking up abstract questions about the nature of reality and trying to make our presuppositions as definite and perspicuous as possible. I see value in contemporary debates about the nature of universals, unrestricted mereology and, especially, realism and its alternatives. But these questions must be decided by way of careful conceptual argumentation. Nothing political is going to make a difference one way or the other.
So why the confusion? Admittedly, it isn’t hard to explain. We live in a political nightmare in which the truth finds little traction and each side retreats to its own media to affirm its own “truths” and live in its own “reality.” This “post-truth” environment, if you must, corresponds to the world as many post-modernists have described it in some pretty striking ways, and of course “post-truth” is meant to echo the earlier notion of “post-modernity.” Post-modernists are skeptical that there is or can be any neutral ground from which to adjudicate claims about what is just or unjust, sane or insane, civilized or uncivilized, scientific or unscientific, or true or false. Usually they end up blurring the relevant distinctions. Without any way in which to discriminate between what is, say, sane or insane, the two blend into each other, thereby ceasing to be distinct and thus, can no longer be understood as exclusive categories. Rather, they become two poles of the same continuum.
The basic problem with this view is that no one really believes it … and it’s bonkers. Truth, falsity and the distinctiveness of concepts are all presuppositions of speaking, so any discourse that eschews them becomes nonsense. To be able to make any claim about the world, we must possess a battery of concepts with determinate and distinctive content, so that ascribing property P to some object is different from ascribing not-P to some object. Otherwise, we do not have the resources to make claims at all. In a similar vein, claims must be either true or false, because without truth or falsity we could not consider any statement as even making a claim. If a piece of language cannot be considered true or false, as is the case with questions and commands, than it cannot be “claimed” or “proposed” by a speaker. For this reason, one cannot doubt that there is such a thing as truth, even if one doubts the truth of specific claims.
To this the post-modernist usually responds that he or she is not denying truth or rationality or opposition in that way. This allows her to play the boring game of making claims and immediately walking them back. At the same time, the post-modernist gets to mock the interlocutor for being an old-fashioned naïf, at which point she will ascribe to the sane and normal person some very outmoded and simplistic philosophy. “Nineteenth century” and “positivist” are popular choices. At the same time, the post-modernist can note with self-satisfaction that the sane and normal person has not read fifty dense, obscure, probably French books as she has, demonstrating that the person is unlearned and worse, unfashionable.
Anyone who thinks modern Anglophones are positivists is not paying attention, and I won’t waste time on the claim. Usually the post-modernist will accuse the clear-speaking and reasonable person of some hard view on which meanings are free-floating metaphysical entities, hermetically sealed from each other. This is again, simply wrong. It has been a central theme of so many analytic philosophies, though admittedly not all, that meanings are not distinct entities and that in many ways, a specific meaning cannot be thought without thinking of many other meanings. The meaning of one word cannot be considered, even in the abstract, without consideration of other words. One cannot think of the meaning of the English word ‘and’ without thinking of many other words that it may conjoin. It is no more possible than it is possible to explain a pawn without explaining knights, kings, queens, chess boards and everything else. This is a very familiar point made in Frege, Wittgenstein, Quine and Davidson, whom all analytic philosophers have read.
Post-modernists say that they reject truth, falsity, rationality and whatever else. But when you hold their feet to the fire, they start to squeal and say that they don’t really reject them, but rather, they don’t believe in them in the way that you believe in them. When you point out that you actually don’t believe in them in the way the post-modernist has described, you will be mocked pointed to some obscure and painful-to-read book. The more post-modernists insist on their claims, the more the internal critique has force, and the serpent devours its tail. The more post-modernists qualify their claims, the less philosophical interest they have. So, it turns out that all the post-modernist’s talk about truth or rationality or science was just directed against some naïve view that no one ever really held.
At this point, I feel like I owe you, the reader, an apology. But I am a faithful writer, and I would not drag you through all of this without a reason. There is a danger here, and it lies in the temptation to take this bunk much more seriously than it deserves. We seem to live in the very mouth of madness, and at such times, mad theories can start to seem sane. The truth is now beset not merely by lies, but by bullshit, spin, what-aboutism, paranoid fantasy and delusion. We seem to be inventing new and ever more feverish doxastic attitudes by the day. The worst thing the political Left can do is join in.
Some time ago, a friend of mine posted on Facebook about re-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Chain of Command” in the Trump era. For those not familiar, “The Chain of Command” is a two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Captain Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) is interrogated and tortured by the Cardassians, an authoritarian, alien race. It’s essentially the interrogation scene from every dystopian novel you’ve ever read –and especially 1984 – but Star Trek does it with aliens, which at least makes it somewhat fun.
I have always loved this episode and my friend put it back in my mind, so I resolved to watch it again. The Cardassians are torturing Picard, in an attempt to extract valuable military information from him. The torturer keeps Picard under four intense interrogation-lamps while questioning him. At one point, he insists that there are five lights and demands that Picard agree. If he does not, he will be tortured more. Picard refuses and the torture continues.
My friend had expected this episode to come across differently in our current political context, and he was right. One moment stood out in particular. Near the climax of the episode, the interrogator slips and reveals some compromising information. This slip breaks the illusion, carefully maintained by the interrogator, that he is all-powerful and in unique possession of the truth. Picard seizes the opportunity to turn the tables, and sensing that he is losing control of the situation, the interrogator suddenly stands, activates the interrogation lamps and asks “How many lights?” Picard, squinting into the glare, responds “What lights?”
What struck me was that in that moment, with that answer, Picard was playing the interrogator’s game. Though he will never admit it, the interrogator knows there are only four lights. He insists that there are five and demands that the prisoner concur in order to exercise power over him. And that is the interrogator’s essential message: truth and falsity are not determined by the facts, but by those in power. If the interrogator has decided there are five lights and he is the one in power, then there are five lights. The truth of the claim that there are five lights does not depend on how many lights there actually are, but on the wills of those in power. If Picard accedes, he accepts the interrogators control over the truth; that reality is whatever the interrogator says it is.
But for one moment, Picard does not restrict himself to the truth either. This makes good sense. The interrogator’s lies are powerful. They attack Picard’s deepest integrity. Combined with torture, they even alter his basic perception of reality, as Picard at one particularly desperate point in the episode actually sees five lights. Picard realizes that lies have power and tells lies to exhibit power of his own. You say there are five lights? Well I say there are no lights!
The moment is thrilling. When Picard insists there are no lights, one gets the feeling that he is winning; that for a moment, he has the same power the interrogator does. If the interrogator can make it the case that there are more lights than there are, Picard can make it so that there are fewer. But, in truth, this is still a victory for the interrogator, who has been trying to get Picard to admit that what is true and false is a matter of power and that reality can be changed. Picard’s assertion that there are no lights suggests that he agrees with this; that he, as well as the interrogator, can change how many lights are present. For that moment, then, the principle that what is true is determined by reality and is available to all people of reason, is abandoned.
It strikes me that Breitbart operates pretty much like a Cardassian interrogator. Breitbart readers know that Obama was born in Hawaii, that feminism does not make women crazy, that people who own pizza parlors are not in human trafficking, and I suspect that an increasing number even know that the world is warming and that this warming is caused by human technology. But like Picard’s interrogator, they create a world of their own invention and then demand we give our assent to it. As is happily the case with me, and as I hope is the case with you, Breitbart has not implanted electrodes in my body to torture me when I refuse to accept their manipulations. But they do have great reserves of invective and abuse and use them in the way the interrogator used electrodes to zap Picard. For the Breitbart types, claims of fact are about asserting power. They are as indifferent to reality as the interrogator was indifferent as to how many lights there really are.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to respond to Breitbart with lies and distortions of our own. God knows, insisting on verifiable facts and logic gets you nowhere with these people. It would be easy to start telling convenient lies with a cynical, two-can-play-at-this-game attitude. It would be easy to normalize the deep unreasonableness of the other side by declaring that everyone is biased, everyone has their own reality and that this deep polarization is our natural “post-modern” condition. Above all it would be easy to make claims not in order to evaluate them based of facts and evidence but as a way to make declarations about our values and as a way to exert power over the opposition. But remember this: There are four lights. And any path back to sanity and modernity will have to be by way of a firm commitment to reason and evidence.
Note my reply and subsequent exchange.
- The possible exception might be social epistemology, but as that deals with social and political aspects of knowledge, that is hardly surprising.