By Jay Jeffers
The Buddha said, “Three things cannot long be hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” Or maybe he didn’t. Scholars would have to chime in on the popular interpretation through the lens of history, linguistics, and the like. Either way it’s a vivid quote. The real problem isn’t whether or not he said it, but that truth often comes in and out of view. Right when we think have it all figured out, a mistake in detail or perspective is discovered, or a revolution in paradigm overthrows our previous understanding. Views are adjusted, and confidence is restored. People deliberate and trade reasons, holding one another to rules of rationality, including consistency, accuracy, and all manner of standards in the family of reason [varying terms within the family resemblance of truth and rationality will be used liberally and interchangeably]. Misfires and re-starts aside, “Truth with a capital T,” modern science, and a kind of hard-nosed objectivity reign. Mere sentimentality doesn’t stand a chance against this onslaught.
Here in the pages of The Electric Agora, Kevin Currie-Knight pours cold water on this hyper-rational state of affairs and the role analytic philosophy plays in encouraging it. Currie-Knight is concerned not so much with the specialized application of this picture, as in science proper, but with how broadly the picture has taken hold. Human beings experience a multiplicity of emptions and motivations, yet philosophy and the over-application of the hyper-rational model disembodies and ignores what life is all about: culture; emotion; creativity; belonging. Currie-Knight writes “philosophers tend to conceptualize human cognition in their own image,” and he wants to preserve “important things our methods can swallow up, those non-rational factors like partial attachments, adherence to traditions, and areas of life that can be cheapened by overemphasis on the rational.”
There’s a lot to agree with in this treatment. Truth and reason often come with an unearned air of authority, stomping over other precious turf. Currie-Knight’s thinking falls within the framework of American Pragmatism, a more fluid and humanistic offshoot of modern rationality, making its appearance in late 19th and early 20th century America, starting with Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. After a long period of decline and public stagnancy, the Pragmatist approach was re-vitalized by the philosopher Richard Rorty in the 1970’s.
Currie-Knight places his view specifically in the Rortyan tradition, sometimes dubbed “Neopragmatism.” Rorty believed that literature is on par with science and that truth is the “compliment” we pay to our present beliefs. There is another flavor of Pragmatism, however, from Hilary Putnam, a contemporary and sometimes interlocutor of Rorty’s in internecine squabbles over the degree to which to sideline the ideals of reason. Rorty thought truth was just a pat on the back we give to our beliefs, while Putnam warned against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This essay is in keeping with Putnam’s counsel.
Admittedly, somewhere along the way, truth and rationality became hegemonic to the point of serving as the automatic default in too many discussions in our culture, crowding out the human needs of identity and emotional satisfaction, much more delicate and complex life-goods. Eventually the strength of truth required no defense at all. But this pole-position status, once an effect of its power, becomes a vulnerability. As its grip is loosened, no resources remain to save truth from its cold and clinical appearance. We become discontented with technology that alienates us from nature, and reason retreats to bureaucratic formulations. Louder dissents than Currie-Knight’s come from the Postmodern Left and Reactionary Right, the former seeing knowledge as a kind of oppressive power, the latter blaming the condescension of the highly educated for its resistance to crucial public health measures.
With science and rationality’s power and success, it becomes too tempting to see their detractors as plucky underdogs. In many rhetorical and political spaces, the value of truth and reason is far from hegemonic, appearing more as a lame duck than an overlord. From Currie-Night’s perspective, the weight of balance still so heavily favors “Truth with a Capital T” that a reprioritization is in order. Although Currie-Knight’s treatment is more tailored than that of the Postmodern Left or Reactionary Right, even his affirmation of the value of truth and reason comes as a formality, pulled along by the common sense of prudence. Truth is like living in a makeshift house with a roof and four walls. It’s nice to have, but the main thing is that the structure is needed to house what really counts, which is the love and relationships and memories made inside. But I want to contend that the clustered ideal of truth and rationality represents a value on all fours with all the other values.
Bernard Williams already started this undertaking in Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Williams was said to posses “an analytical mind with a humanist heart” and set out to provide not a theory of truth, but an account of “the value of truth.” In this view Accuracy and Sincerity, and even trust, are reliant on the notion of truth [the capitalization is Williams’s choice for handling accuracy and sincerity as terms of art]. The approach includes imagining the pooling of information that would take place in a state of nature, and indeed for “almost every human purpose.” Contributing to the pool would require having a correct belief in the first place. An objection that sometimes arises is that truth, though it may be important to human activities, is only an instrument in the process, not of inherent value itself.
The problem with the “truth as merely instrumental” objection is that the subsidiary values — values we already agree have significant moral and emotional meaning — are too intertwined with the ideal of truth to function without it. Truth has a gravitational pull, so to speak, that keeps the subsidiary celestial bodies in its orbit: In the case of truth and reason, honesty, sincerity, and more come along. Without the relative hyperobject, the other values spin off into oblivion. From the other direction, the objection selectively avoids applying the same standard to a value like love, somehow above scrutiny, as even love would appear quite sterile if imagined as completely divorced from its more manifest and specific examples – the love for parents, children, a vocation, etc.
Not only is truth on par with other values in the sense of its pull, but in terms of the impoverishment that can result from its absence. To flesh things out a bit, we can imagine a community that enacts many of the features that provide human beings with emotional and mental health, including belonging, connection, making a substantive contribution to the group, and narrative to provide integrity of identity. We can also imagine this community to be relatively free from the excesses of truth and reason that concern Currie-Knight. The rites of passage that confer some of this meaning come due, but one developing member of the community is uneasy because of a nagging worry that the myths that provide narrative aren’t true, and the roles assigned to varying members aren’t based on a correct understanding of nature. This person is unsettled, and while her initial questions are treated gently, she eventually becomes a nuisance, as the adults and leaders in the community not only have no satisfying answers, but their answers lack consistency over time, so her concerns are aggravated.
The local form of life this community practices provides some of the best psychological benefits. Nevertheless, it is the prerogative, often taken, of relatively senior and satisfied members of communities to leave people like this emotional outsider alone with their burdens. In this case, to share in her burdens would be to see the burdens, at least preliminarily, through her eyes. To decline to do this is to decline an opportunity to experience a deeper level of emotional burden-sharing and intimacy with a loved one. It’s true that a well-intentioned mentor could try to relate, but without the strong ideal of rationality, the attempt would be much more superficial than otherwise.
William James pointed out that people want to avoid being dupes and how this is one path to skepticism, but it’s also the case that we should avoid being manipulators. These roles are not always obvious to us, or even which role we fit into as we participate in their development. For Williams, deception not only betrays the trust of the deceived, but exerts power over the deceived by coercively constraining their beliefs and therefore, their choices. Similarly, the satisfied members of the community who’d rather not have their worldview disturbed, choosing to leave epistemic misfits alone with their existential angst, are indeed exercising a prerogative of power.
Even after all this, we’re still left with the reality that the standards of rationality can at times play nefarious roles in society and relationships. The move here is not to deny that this happens, but to point out that the forms of power exercised in emotional manipulation and epistemic obliviousness are no less examples of the illegitimate use of power than those that can accompany truth and reason. Power can appear anywhere.
The ideals of truth and reason are hardly the only gameable or corruptible virtues, as the psychologist Paul Bloom illustrates in Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Bloom is using ‘empathy’ not as a mere synonym for something like compassion, but in the sense that one can feel the way another feels. But this alleged virtue is demonstrably biased, even sometimes leading to racist preferences, and it’s innumerate, leading to inefficient forms of charitable giving toward more topical or local causes instead of where funds are more needed. Rather than empathy being a neutral value that can be applied by the good and bad alike, Bloom says that empathy also has a psychological tunneling effect that makes it more susceptible to bias and problems of proportionality. The book is not a sweeping dismissal of empathy in all cases, but a caution of what often lurks in and around it. Keeping in mind Bloom’s illustration of the negative potential of a common value like empathy, along with William’s positive evaluation of the value of truth, and finally with the guidance Putnam provides, the view Pragmatism should take toward the value of truth is now more illuminated. That is to say, the value of truth and its ability to stand alongside other reputed values is a force that holds whether or not “Truth with a Capital T” is hidden from view (with apologies to The Buddha). All this perhaps casts a wider net than Currie-Knight intended in his piece. Despite this latitude, nothing in this essay forestalls a re-evaluation of civic and philosophical priorities that ends up knocking truth down a peg or two. That’s a conversation for another day. I only ask here that if truth is to stand before this tribunal, that it be allowed to appear with its proper effects, that conceptual parity with the other values is stipulated, and with a plea that a world with a corruptible form of truth is still eminently preferable to a world without truth altogether.