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.

  2. The possible exception might be social epistemology, but as that deals with social and political aspects of knowledge, that is hardly surprising.






32 responses to “There are Four Lights: Trump and Postmodernism”

  1. Parallax

    I agree with your recommendation, specifically when it comes to journalism. According to Pew only 34% of Democrats trust the information they get from national news organizations a lot. The number drops to 15% for Independents and 11% for Republicans. To rebuild the trust journalists should go back to basics and distance themselves from politics. Unfortunately this means not defending your preferred politics and forfeiting financial gains that comes from participating in the left’s version of entertainment-industrial complex.

    However you stopped at a curious point, the natural question is: why did Breitbart have an audience to begin with? And the answer is that they are the people in the right who gave in to the temptation of saying “What lights?”.

  2. ombhurbhuva

    Seeing as we are in a philosophical mood can you identify which modal universe Hillary Clinton occupies. She claims that she does not rule out challenging the 2016 result but sees no legal path whereby to do so. (according to the Washington Post)
    Is this a possibility negated by a necessity or a possible impossibility or fake news to promote her book.

  3. Preferring to set off an “Anglophone” philosophy, rather than the more encompassing ‘Analytic’ (which is now practiced in many countries of different languages), is an ethnocentric mistake (Frege, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Reichenbach – I believe they originally spoke another language). And it of course targets those who engage in Phenomenological philosophy, who read or write in French, unjustly. But that’s not the worst mistake of the article.

    To engage a meaningful conversation on the problem of post-modernity, one should begin by distinguishing those writers who have struggled to analyze and critique the problem and those who promote the idea and advocate its apparent relativism. Failure to make this distinction is essentially fatal to this essay. All who write of post-modernism seem lumped together as advocates, and the essay really seems to be a cringing yelp to the effect – ‘let’s stop talking about this!’

    When the subject of the post-modernism was first broached among French intellectuals, it was because they were confronted by an intellectual crisis. In the wake of Second World War, only two grand narratives of history seemed viable. Neither the Kantian, with its hope for a ‘universal history,’ nor the Hegelian march toward a ‘rational liberal state,’ the principle European narratives taught before the War, made any sense in the ruins of blasted cities and death camps. That left the Marxist narrative seeming ascendant with the rise of a modernized Soviet Union, or the American myth of its own ‘leadership of the Free World,’ which sanctioned support of dictators across the world, economic bullying, and the Vietnam War, and that suppressed memories of slavery and of the attempted extermination of the American Indians, not to mention various thefts of lands, gunboat diplomacy, and cynical manipulation of politics and economics south of the border. The French weren’t having that.

    But by the mid-1970s, the intellectuals who adopted the Marxist narrative as the structural framework for their understanding of history had to confront their failure politically beyond the universities (the failed rebellion of ‘68), and the grim reality that Soviet Stalinism was every bit as cruel as its critics said of it (eg., the Gulag prison system).

    Stripped of their own narrative of choice, and unable to accept that of Americanism, many French intellectuals began examining how these ‘meta-narratives’ were formed to begin with, and what about the Second World War and its aftermath essentially stripped them of their power.

    Post-Modernism is a condition – the state of knowledge in the aftermath of WWII – or, as some theorists put it: “After Auschwitz.” It didn’t happen all at once. It didn’t happen for just one reason. It happened because capitalism engendered needs and enjoyments undreamt of previously. It happened because there is a myriad of media of communication, without a grounding principle or agency of regulation or shared value. It happened because new technologies have given us the ability to realize materially just about anything we fancy – no matter how silly, eg, a skyscraper in the shape of a clothespin. But it comes “After Auschwitz” specifically because the Holocaust revealed that everything Europeans told about themselves as decent civilized human beings, ever progressing toward a brighter future – was a lie. There is nothing inherently superior, nothing necessarily decent, and nothing particularly civilized about people of European descent, or about the cultures their economics have spread across the world. The West is partly a televangelist’s mega-church where Big Macs are served for communion, partly a gaudy whorehouse where one doesn’t even get to have sex – one pays to wear virtual-reality goggles and pretend. But that of course is not the worst of it: we must always remind ourselves that all of this is built on literally millions of lives that were brutalized in slavery or near-slavery servitude, as well as those ground into meat in unnecessary wars, and of course, in that factory of death, Auschwitz.

    Now, in the best writings of – ‘non-Anglophone’? – philosophers, it is pretty clear that all this lingers behind their writing – indeed, it is often discussed explicitly. But when we turn to Anglophone writers – that is, the Analytics – and search for their views on such issues, we come up with a great big – nothing. Almost complete silence. Google “Quine on the Holocaust” and see what you get.

    The problem of the Post-Modern that is discussed by Lyotard or Sloterdijk or recently Agamben is not about why – as Denialists argue – we ‘cannot know that Auschwitz happened.’ Auschwitz happened, no theorist of the post-modern suggests otherwise. The problem they discuss is why we have a culture that allows them an audience for that argument. And how that allowance bleeds into media and politics and cultural institutions. Because it’s not about the question of the Denialist’s legal rights to spew such nonsense, but rather, what is the condition of knowledge in the culture such that nothing stops some people forming an audience around them.

    And that, David, is a much trickier problem than the one you suggest here. You’re suggesting that a handful of those advocating for post-modern relativism – who are hardly read at all outside the academy – somehow have so much influence they are deluding us into thinking that phenomena like Trump are acceptable. Nonsense. Young people are more likely to learn relativism from game shows, or pop songs, or televangelists promising that if they just accept their own church’s reality, all others will be damned.

    Because post-modernism is a condition of knowledge in a given culture with a given history, there is no “path back to sanity and modernity” as you argue for. There may a path forward toward some sort of sanity, but no path back – because the graves of 6 million Jews bar that path.

    Let Analytic philosophy explain the Holocaust; let them have it make sense in terms of the British Empire, or of America’s ‘leadership of the free world’ as inevitable expression of the superior decency of Western civilization. Then maybe we’ll find our way ‘back to modernity.’

    No, wait; modernity gave us Auschwitz. Let’s not do that.

  4. David Ottlinger:
    Do you agree that as in 1984, perhaps under sufficient torture everyone will begin to see four fingers as three fingers?
    Do you also agree that all humans lie to themselves (self-deception) to different degrees and about different matters?

    Have you written something about Transcendental Idealism which I can see on internet? I very much would like to know your thoughts on it.
    Thank you.

  5. [Tried to comment earlier; trying again (slightly amended).]

    “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.”

    You write well, David. To me it is a pity that a number of the causes you espouse (*especially* your unusual tolerance, as you put it, for metaphysics) are not congruent with my own.

    And it seems to me that a couple of deprecatory, in-group remarks you make here are rather at odds with your talk about respect for truth.

    Trump did not “take over” the GOP. Not by a long shot. He won their nomination. Nor did he take over the presidency. He was elected president.

  6. 1970scholar

    This is the best elucidation I have seen of the importance or centrality of truth and falsehood as meaningful concepts.Thank you.

  7. David,
    My original response (supposing it’s allowed, given its length) constituted about a third of my critique of your essay. There is so much wrong with it… Post-modernism is, whether you like it or not. You might silence proponets of post-modern attitudes in the academy or in the blogosphere; but the reality of post-modernism has nothing to do with them; it is revealed in how people actually talk, and what they actually do (eg., the confrontation between Trump supporters and Juggalos in Washington this past wek, and how that was reported.

    This is not about what intellectuals decide to talk about, it is simply what people choose to talk about.

    And I did want to note that Picard is probably right to respond “what lights” in his interrogation with the Cardassian. A life and death situation is first about survival, and then about what we are agreeing to in terms of surrender, and also about what we are willing to witness going forward. One plays the game one must in order to survive, in order to bear witness in the future. You play the game you must in order to achieve this.

    Your fundamentally Kantian moral realism met its match in the concentration camps and death camps in the ’30s and ‘4-s.

    But there I go again, introducing history into what you want to be an esoteric discussion of the grounds of “truth” justified true belief).

    But I can’t give you that, because that’s not how real people live. Ask Viktor Frankel if Kant had any purchase in the camps.

    Kant had a near-fetishistic paranoia about bedbugs. You probably didn’t know that, and you probably think it doesn’t matter.

    Philosophy is – or ought to be – about people. It is not about science, and it never was.

    One reason I am fond of Hegel (without thinking he was ever right about anything) is because he was a functional alcoholic – he drank beer for breakfast, wine and beer with his meals, wine before going to bed. No wonder he had so few children! But rather than discredit him in my mind, as Mark English would undoubtedly wish – this endeared him to me. The Dialectic is the phantasm of a drunkard. That’s exactly as Rabelais could have predicted.

    You need to put down your philosophy texts and read more history and more literature. Post-modernism’s prophets are the poets and novelists of early Modernism. Or, in short, post-modernism is an inevitable development of modernism itself.

    That’s all the theorist/critics of post-modernism had to say.

    Except this much more – given that we are stuck with the post-modern condition – how do we live with it?

    But that’s a different story.

    Are there four lights, or none at all? I don’t give a damn – what are the conditions for disagreement or agreement?

  8. Anonymous Poster

    Thank you for writing this, David.

    Regarding the conclusion of the piece, I worry that it is too ambitious. You write that:

    “Breitbart readers know that Obama was born in Hawaii (etc.)… But like Picard’s interrogator, they create a world of their own invention and then demand we give our assent to it.”

    Is this really the case?

    Every time I read one of these articles (and I don’t mean to single you out here), I can’t shake the feeling that the “post-moderns” are on to something about human psychology if not the analysis of concepts. Nietzsche and his lineage saw right through the veil of “intellect”, for better or worse, and I think it’s unfortunate that so many analytic-minded philosophers see this as a drawback rather than an important insight into human psychology.

    Whatever the flaws, at least take into account for the fact that so much of human thought and action really is dependent on the local context of particular groups and agents, and largely motivated by non-rational forces. This is a possibility that I believe many analytic philosophers tend to rule out because of the emphasis on conceptual analysis and a naturalistic flirtation with science, along with a corresponding distaste for social and historical methods.

    While I’m never clear in these discussions who, or what claims, are actually indicated by “post-modern” — I imagine it’s a bit like Continentals slamming “analytics”, as if Frege, Russell, Carnap, Quine, Davidson, Kripke, Putnam and Lewis all believed the same thing — I do believe that philosophy has to be a socially and historically sensitive discipline if it is to be anything.

    I guess my problem with pieces like this is that I just don’t see that the characteristic retreat to the ivory tower is going to cut it. I don’t just mean that it’s an insufficient explanation. One upside of Trump is that he’s brought to light how seriously dysfunctional our mass-media truly is, how epistemically fragile our position is as individual reasoners, how much we have to rely on testimony and consequently how important *trustworthiness* (rather than *truth*) is for us.

    When you say that you think Breitbart readers know better but refuse to believe, I don’t think that you’ve really gotten to the problem. Truth isn’t relative, but that doesn’t mean it boils down to the analysis of the truth conditions of propositions, or believing that CNN, but not Breitbart, is the party making true assertions.

    By leaving the analysis at the level of rationality and truth in the most thin sense, we leave out all the thick empirical realities. Truth may be in one important respect invariant; but this ignores the *psychological* and *sociological* facts about our evidence, our justifications, our testimony and our beliefs in its trustworthiness, even the higher-order *standards* we accept for all of these epistemic criteria, are heavily dependent on local outlook.

    I don’t think Breitbart readers are any *more* deluded than the average CNN or MSNBC viewer. Which is not, of course, identical with the statement that they are not deluded. The problem here runs deeper than a simple binary between “the right side (us)” and “the wrong side (them)”. Run that to its limit and we’re right back at the fragmentation that the “post-moderns” warn us about. It’s tribalism all over again, and that’s the real complaint I have with the “Trump vs. Truth” genre.

  9. I’m sorry for the near incoherence and abrasive tone of my second comment. When I post off the top of my head in the early hours, I am not at my best.

    My point was two fold. First the problem of post-modernism has to do with the complicated relationship between contemporary culture and the history that brought it about. This is clearly worthy of discussion however difficult.

    Secondly, people in dire situations need not to be judged by moral standards developed for ordinary social experience. Confronting such problems has long been the work of great storytellers rather than philosophers, so that when we find ourselves in dire situations, or meet those who have suffered in them, we are prepared with greater understanding.

    The Analytic tradition developed to clarify the knowledge found in the natural sciences. The Phenomenological tradition developed mostly as a study of the social sciences. The Analytic tradition naturally endeavors to achieve maximal success in the communication of ideas. The Phenomenological tradition finds its most interesting problems in the failures to communicate found in any social situation. But there is no communication at all except there are people involved.

  10. Good essay, I don’t think I could add much. I fear, though, that the path back to sanity and modernity may not be easy. In Australia there is a man, a rich and successful advertising executive, with many powerful friends in politics and who writes for a number of mainstream media outlets and appears regularly on television.

    He calls himself an ‘outsider’ and says that he is being censored by ‘elites’ and ‘insiders’. And people buy it. Sometimes it does feel like the truth, for any practical purpose, is not what is the case, but rather what people clever and powerful enough to control the narrative want to be the case.

    But only sometimes.

  11. alandtapper1950

    I’d like to think that philosophy could help us with everyday social and political matters, but immediately two difficulties arise. One, what sort of philosophy? Two, what if the matters rest largely on empirical considerations?

    Is “philosophy” a purely conceptual discipline? If so, what can it have to say about Mr Trump or about the Holocaust? Or is philosophy a form of meditation about the meaning of modernity or the meaning of the Holocaust and other huge imponderables? If so, what are the standards of argument? What counts as a useful philosophical contribution? How much historical and sociological knowledge is required to do that sort of meditation well?

    It can be done badly no trouble at all. For instance, ejwinner (after making a great contribution in defence of postmodern insights and aims) gives us this throwaway line: “modernity gave us Auschwitz”. What?!

    Or this one: “The Analytic tradition developed to clarify the knowledge found in the natural sciences”. What?!

    David’s article (in the paragraph beginning “Anyone who thinks modern Anglophones are positivists is not paying attention”) took some trouble to explain how he sees “Anglophone” philosophy. But granting that view of the discipline, it remains a giant step to get from there to Trump or to the Holocaust, and it surely can’t be made with just conceptual moves.


  12. Ej,

    Somewhat amused to find how exercised you are about these topics. I had no idea! I must say I am not impressed with your reductio ad Aushwitz. It’s very strange to blame modernity for Nazi atrocity when Nazism (and Stalinism) seemed to be reactions against modernity or at the very least the enlightenment. Besides any historical event is partially based on historical contingency. It is not as if Nazi Germany just grew out of modern ideology. It was occasioned in part by that society being plunged into war and economic ruin. I believe in liberal democracy and if you want to tell me how the Holocaust proves me wrong that will be up to you. I don’t envy your task.

    To your statement that “Post-modernism is, whether you like it or not.”, I would say we are in a condition certainly but post-modernism will not help us describe it. That is because post-modernism is a tissue of confusions. All post-modernist that I have encountered have coupled their descriptions of social reality to their suspicions of language and rational norms. They hold that when we understand that rational norms are not universal that all readings are misreadings etc., we will understand our cultural condition. As such their cultural criticism is contingent on their metaphysical claims. Since their metaphysical claims are nonsense I am not interested in their cultural critique. A bunch of nonsense about truth, sanity, information etc., will not help us understand Trump.

    “You need to put down your philosophy texts and read more history and more literature. Post-modernism’s prophets are the poets and novelists of early Modernism. Or, in short, post-modernism is an inevitable development of modernism itself.”
    It will please you to know that I am reading a lot of history at the moment. But no. These literary politicos like Heer need to put down their history and lit and read more philosophy. Maybe they’d get better at it.


    Yeah I get this a lot. That was what my twitter exchange with the historian turned into. If you want to say that the postmodernists are fundamentally confused and they can be used to understand the confusion of say Breitbart readers, I can give that a hearing. But that’s not what people are saying. The people I quote in my opening seem to be genuinely putting their beliefs in truth and objectivity etc up for a rethink. They seem to think Trump changes how we think about that stuff. They are taking postmodernist metaphysical claims seriously. That is a mistake.

    Thank you.

    “Trump did not “take over” the GOP.”
    HE ran against the party and the candidates it favored and one. That is very commonly called a takeover in politics.

    “Do you agree that as in 1984, perhaps under sufficient torture everyone will begin to see four fingers as three fingers?
    Do you also agree that all humans lie to themselves (self-deception) to different degrees and about different matters?

    Have you written something about Transcendental Idealism which I can see on internet? ”
    Yes, yes and here:

    Best way to answer you would be to show you some good political philosophy. Recommend Michael Sandel’s Public philosophy and Philip Kitcher’s Life After Faith as great contemporary examples.

  13. alandtapper1950.

    “David’s article (in the paragraph beginning “Anyone who thinks modern Anglophones are positivists is not paying attention”) took some trouble to explain how he sees “Anglophone” philosophy. But granting that view of the discipline, it remains a giant step to get from there to Trump or to the Holocaust, and it surely can’t be made with just conceptual moves.”

    Actually, I agree. Which is why I think this essay asking too much and not, in the final analysis, delivering on its promised resolutions.

  14. alandtapper1950,

    The notion that the Holocaust was somehow an aberration is falsifiable on the textual evidence. It followed one thread of Modernity. Not the only one, but certainly derived from certain Modernist biases toward ‘racial’ absolutism (that is easily proved.)

    That the Analytic tradition originated to clarify the languages of the natural sciences is hardly in dispute. I’m surprised that anyone could think otherwise. Frege, Russell, Carnap, etc., etc., have all written explicitly on the matter. I’m frankly curious as to why anyone could think otherwise.

    It should be noted that the Analytic tradition now encompasses Pragmatism (which does have social concerns), but this is not to be found at its origins, nor in its later extrapolations until first Austin and the later Wittgenstein, then later Quine and Rorty. The effort to get Analytic philosophy extended beyond justification of science (and scientism) has been an uphill battle.

  15. alandtapper1950

    EJ: If you had said that positivism and logical positivism “originated to clarify the languages of the natural sciences” then of course I’d agree. But if like me you think of analytic philosophy as the sort of analysis of arguments and everyday concepts practised by Moore, Austin, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Strawson, Williams, Searle, Anscombe, Kenny, Winch, Rawls, MacIntyre, and many others, then the thought that they were mainly clarifying the language of the natural sciences does not compute. But it’s probably just a verbal disagreement.

    David: Thanks for the recommendations; they look good. But I doubt they discuss the meaning of the Holocaust or the meaning of any particular politicians, which was my point. (I taught political philosophy for quite a few years.)

  16. David

    “[Trump] ran against the party and the candidates it favored and won. That is very commonly called a takeover in politics.”

    I wouldn’t call it one in this case. I know that he was once a Democrat and doesn’t have deep roots in the Republican Party, but he did not “run against the party”, as I see it. He ran against the party establishment. Or, more precisely, he ran against a variety of candidates, some of whom represented the party establishment. He won the nomination. Ever since then there has been an ongoing battle between various factions – some associated with the party establishment (e.g. Pence), some not – for influence.

    But your reference was to a Trump takeover of the GOP *and (subsequently) of the presidency*. Is the election of a president commonly called a takeover of the presidency? Not in my book.

    You may not consider this sort of usage issue a big deal, but I think it matters. Quite a lot actually.

  17. I don’t think it “matters a lot” at all.

  18. David,
    ” All post-modernist that I have encountered” well, then, you need to encounter more post-modernist theorists and read them more charitably.

    “These literary politicos like Heer need to put down their history and lit and read more philosophy.” No; and it is presumptuous (and, frankly, arrogant) for you to assert that. And I realize that this is what I really dislike about this article: logic aside, it is snobbish and arrogant. So you think you know all the answers, do you? Well, by all means, join the Democratic Party and give them your wise instructions.

    Those who have struggled to understand the confusions of Post-modernity have searched for understanding. That is a necessary component of wisdom.

    And Heer has clearly demonstrated in his succinct article that he has read philosophy. Not the kind you like, obviously – but philosophy none the less. Your dismissal is *repugnant* and unacceptable.

    Your essay evidences everything I hate about the smug, white, privileged, classiist Analytic school that I had to sit through at conferences – every bit as bad as Leninists, every bit as rigid, every bit as cut off from the practical realities of everyday life.

    And there is no “reductio ad Auschwitz” in what I had to say – I asked what your precious “Anglophone” philosophy had to say about the the Holocaust; you do not give me an answer, sir; instead, smugly, you dismiss the point. But the point is this – your precious Kantian moral realism died at Auschwitz. Give me a response to that! Tell me all the ways the prisoners in the death camps *should” have acted. And explain why your beloved “Anglophone” philosophy has nothing to say on the matter.

    Yes, I am “excersized” – by the evident intolerance and lack of ethical or political realism (in the practical, not the Platonic, sense) in your article.

    Real politics needs to deal with people as they are in the given moment. The given moment is post-modern, whether you like it or not (and evidently you don’t like it; but despite your arrogance – it is the world you live in. It is the world we all in the West.

    So *how* do we live in it? Not by denying it – but by working our way through it.

    It is what it is – you don’t like it? Too bad.

    Go to the DNC and make your argument. Go to Black Lives Matter. Go to Antifa. Go to the Catholic Workers. See if anyone cares.

  19. Without history, there is no politics.

  20. Dave,
    Once again I’ve written late at night, and more aggressively than I should have.

    I will only make one last remark, then leave the field.

    The two most prominent ‘Francophone’ theorists of post-modernism, when the term was becoming a catch phrase, were Lyotyard and Deleuze. Both these thinkers had spent years in scholarly study of Kant – Lyotard’s reading of the Third Critique remains the best I can think of. ( And Lyotard’s main text on the problem of philosophy ‘after Auschwitz,’ – The Differend,- evidences a deep reading of classical philosophy, modern philosophy, Analytic philosophy, modern literature, modern history..)..

    Is it just possible that these scholars, in their reading of Kant, noticed something,, that you missed?

  21. alandtapper1950

    EJ: I am a white analytical philosopher (male too). I was taught by an analytical philosopher whose family had a very close encounter with the Holocaust and with Stalinism. I am friends with another such philosopher whose work is partly on current and past anti-semitism, including the Holocaust.

    Whether I or we are smug, privileged, classist, rigid, and cut off from reality is perhaps not for me to say. But you don’t improve a discussion by making a baseless ad hominem accusations against whole classes of people. Those on the receiving end tend to feel offended.

    End of sermon.


  22. Alan: Seems to me he already apologized for it. We all get a little hot sometimes.

  23. alandtapper1950

    Maybe that was an apology. It looked rather self-excusing. I’d don’t mind being a bit rude about it myself.

    EJ, if you apologised, I apologise too.

  24. alandtapper1950

    Footnote: I finished re-reading WG Sebald’s “Austerlitz” last night. Now there’s a book worth discussing.

  25. alandtapper1950

    There’s a simple way to test whether a topic has been discussed by philosophers of any particular school. You go to PhilPapers, type the topic in the search box, and stand back. Type in “Holocaust” and you get 888 hits. Then scan down the list and look for authors and journals you regard as of that school. I can see quite a few that I’d regard as analytical.

  26. I take it that this essay locates the main problems with our ‘post-truth’ culture in people’s ability to deny facts, to hide and manipulate truths as means to other ends. I’m sure that is part of the problem but I’m not sure how much it really is responsible for the cacophony of what people do and believe. To start with, I am having difficulty imagining our problems with truth begin with our problems with facts.

    One thing that struck me as a clue to how our culture finds itself in a mess with truth is that we are able to make important points about truth with Captain Picard and his Cardassian torturers. If we can find truth among our wildest fictions, the facts as they represent the world may simply not be all that is at stake. If we can learn about truth, discuss truth, make telling observations about truth using examples that are anything but the case, I just wonder if we fail to draw a precise line between fact and fiction in other ways. Reality is not the official border of truth, and fiction is not only the home of falsehood.

    What seems likely is that in our ordinary lives truth is always a tangle of certain facts mixed with the stories we tell. Truth doesn’t stand apart for us but makes an appearance on the stage of our expectations and the meaning we give things. Truth is entwined with our values, why this story matters rather than that one. Truth never seems to stand before us naked and alone, but comes at us within the ramble of human interests that make some facts stand out and others disappear. Some truth is simply safe to ignore, and (beyond the obvious) there is no one rule to determine what gets counted and what doesn’t. The truth we care about is not the whole truth but our truths, the ones that matter to us. And if they involve Captain Picard and the Cardassians, that just seems like a very human thing to do.

    The post-truth world is not a world that denies all truth, it simply faces the difficulty where the grand authoritarian sources of truth have either been overturned, diminished, or simply have to live side by side with increasingly autonomous stories that give meaning to the humans living out their truths. Whatever ultimate metaphysical truth exists, not everyone cares. Too much else matters in conducting our affairs.

    Trump had a story folks were willing to believe. Tiny facts hung on big values…… Climate science deniers are not opposed to truth, they simply have a different story that explains the world to them. The facts that may be important to climate science believers have no real home in their lives. Those facts don’t help the narrative they are interested in. There is no specific need to deny something that is irrelevant. If you are a meat eater there is no sense in which you are necessarily denying vegetarianism. Its just what you do. It doesn’t need to be explained by every available fact.

    Dan wrote about the epidemic of morality in our culture, that everything now seems to have moral consequences, and mostly that seems to come from our ability to tell the stories in which these things matter. Morality everywhere would be a strange bedfellow of a world without truth. If Dan is right (and I think he is) that we are faced with a time in which moral implications seem to be found in almost anything we do, that is not from the *absence* of truth but from its proliferation. It is not a failure of truth but in a strange way its success. Captain Picard is as much a witness to human truths as a laboratory microscope.

  27. animal symbolicum

    Some points:

    (1) Being skeptical about the existence of a NEUTRAL ground for adjudication is not the same as being skeptical about the existence of a SHARED ground for adjudication. The lack of neutral ground is NOT the same as the lack of shared ground. I take it that post-modernists needn’t, and often don’t, deny the sharedness of grounds; they deny the contentlessness, or purely formal nature, of those grounds. That is, they deny that the grounds we do share have the property of being acceptable by anybody in any position or any context. Their enthusiasm and hyperbole often obscure the point, and perhaps their imaginations get the best of them — imagining language speakers who don’t distinguish between what we call truth and falsity, for example, is very hard for me to conceive. But they tend to agree with you that shared grounds are presupposed by the very act of using language to make claims. I think they make a robust point that deserves more than silver-bullet attempts at refutation.

    (2) Concepts that find their home along a spectrum can embody and presuppose distinctness from one another, just like concepts (such as truth and falsity) that don’t seem to be spectrum-concepts. To understand or apply the concept , for example, presupposes, as you note, that we understand what it is for the concept not to apply. But that doesn’t mean can’t be a concept that applies to a range of cases along a spectrum. Indeed, the shades of black, black-grey, grey, grey-white, and white do exist along a spectrum, and we have perfectly distinct concepts for each of them. There are borderline cases, of course, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t clear, paradigm cases that supply the core significance of the concepts they’re paradigm cases of. There’s nothing erasing the difference between, say, what we understand by black and what we understand by grey-white. My point is that being spectrum-concepts like and doesn’t imply a lack of distinctness between those concepts. So if a post-modernist argues that a family of concepts we thought were not spectrum-concepts actually are spectrum-concepts, this doesn’t mean the post-modernist is erasing the distinctions between those concepts.

  28. animal symbolicum

    The comments field erased the words around which I had typed brackets (in order to denote a concept). So allow me the following amendations:

    Second sentence of (2): To understand or apply the concept BLACK, for example, presupposes . . . .

    Penultimate sentence of (2): My point is that being spectrum concepts like BLACK and WHITE doesn’t imply . . . .

  29. animal symbolicum

    And third sentence of (2): That doesn’t mean the concept BLACK can’t be a concepts that applies . . . .

  30. alandtapper1950,
    II did write in a hot-headed mood, and I regret the broad strokes of my comment and the language used. I do apologize.

    I don’t think the way forward is by discarding whole segments of people with similar political sympathies, but differing philosophical views, and I felt the essay was doing just this.. But I am aware that in the heat of the moment, I made that very mistake myself. I’m sorry.

  31. EJ, you are such a productive and valued contributor here that surely we can all be charitable. Beyond that, would that everyone who slipped so slightly would be as generous as you have been.

  32. alandtapper1950

    Thanks EJ. I find most of your comments well-stated and thought-provoking.