Was postmodernism on the base of post-truth?
The goal of this paper is to answer the question if postmodernism is at the base of the current post-truth society. A plurality of our current society, including a part of our leaders, is in denial over basic facts (McIntyre, 2018, p. 10). The society is in denial on the aspects achieved in science and rationality. This raises the question how this post-truth society could emerge? Was it because of the relativism of postmodernism? McIntyre (2018) defines postmodernism as “the godfather of post-Truth” (McIntyre, 2018, p. 150). Also Bruno Latour (2004) concludes that de deconstruction of truth by postmodernism can be seen as the base of the post-truth society. My claim is that postmodernism is not necessarily responsible for a post-truth society and we can conclude this by analysing Michel Foucault’s notions of ‘truth’ and ‘critique’.
In order to examine this claim I will start with defining the post-truth society and its causes, using McIntyre’s (2018, pp. 10-13) explanation that facts are subordinate to political colour and opinion. This means that truth does exist but that the structure of power makes the political view, what we should see as true, more important than the truth as such. “We live in a world in which politicians can challenge facts and pay no political price whatsoever, post-truth exists in us as well as our leaders” (McIntyre, 2018, p. 15). Helen Pluckrose expands this idea by adding two ideological views that are present in post-truth society which challenge the idea of truth as it was realised in the enlightenment (Pluckrose, 2017).
After defining the post-truth society I will explain why postmodernism is seen as the cause of it. Therefore I shall discuss the points of view of L. McIntyre (2018) and B. Latour (2004). McIntyre states that postmodern thinkers see truth as a perspective and there is no such thing as truth (McIntyre, 2018, p. 150) If this is the case also the mainstream news can be called into question and one can doubt what facts should be dominant, a standpoint which leads to the fact challenging post-truth society (McIntyre, 2018, p. 150). Latour is also worried about the post-truth society and concludes that it is an excessive, wrongly used, version of the postmodernist thought that there is no such thing as scientific certainty (Latour, 2004, p. 227). A thought that Latour himself also spread, in order to emancipate the public from an objectified truth (Latour, 2004, p. 227).
In order to reason towards my claim that postmodernism is not necessarily responsible for the post-truth society I shall discuss Foucault’s notion of ‘truth’. In his paper ‘What is critique’ Foucault states that critique is an ethos on how not to be governed (Foucault M. , What is Critique?, 2007, p. 45) This attitude should be critical on what can be seen as true. There is no such thing as one truth, but knowledge and power are a grid on what makes something acceptable (Foucault M. , What is Critique?, 2007). It is the power that defines what is the truth (Foucault M. , What is Critique?, 2007, p. 47). In addition to this he describes in Truth and Power that power has an effect on knowledge and that it forms a paradigm of meaning and truth (Foucault M. R., 1972, pp. 54-56). He also defines this in his essay What is enlightenment where he states that enlightenment is an attitude to use our reason critically (Foucault M. , What is Enlightenment?, 1984, pp. 41-46)
After this analysis I shall reason that it is not (scientific/factual) truth itself that is relative in postmodernism, but the concept on how that what is seen as the dominant truth is the relative aspect. Therefore postmodernism did not necessarily lead to post-truth society.
To discuss the relation between postmodernism and the current post-truth society, I shall start with a definition of this post-truth society based on McIntyre’s (2018) and Pluckrose’s (2017) theories. Post-truth refers to “circumstances in which public opinion is primarily based on emotions and opinions than it is on objective facts” (McIntyre, What is post-truth?, 2018, p. 5). The notion of ‘post’ in post-truth does not state that we are beyond the truth in a temporal sense but that we have made the truth, or objective fact, irrelevant (McIntyre, What is post-truth?, 2018). The truth matters less than the emotions and opinions of people. A large role in forming the public opinion, and therefore forming the post-truth society, can be found in politics. According to McIntyre (2018, p. 13) practitioners of ideological views, mostly from a political perspective, try to convince people to believe in them despite the presence of objective evidence. “Politicians can challenge the facts and pay no political price whatsoever” (McIntyre, What is post-truth?, 2018, p. 15) The idea of challenging the facts is accepted in our society. The manner of challenging these facts does not state that objective truth does not matter, but it normalises the idea that factual information can always be shaded, interpreted or selected in favour of the relevant political context (McIntyre, What is post-truth?, 2018, p. 6). So, truth does exist, but it is less important than the political view that is stated to be true and that uses the objective facts in such a, subjective, way that it fits within the political ideology. The truth is subverted and used in favour of the political point of view.
Helen Pluckrose (2017) expands that idea of a post-truth society that is led by political ideology by stating that there are two major ideological views that challenge the idea of truth as realised by the enlightenment. First, the political ‘left’ which sees objective truth as a fantasy of the enlightenment and that states that truth depends on identity and cultural background, and therefore as a subjective matter (Pluckrose, 2017). Second, the political ‘right’ which also declines the idea of an objective truth and reason as devoted by the enlightenment, by degrading truth to common sense and simplistic reasoning in a manner that fits daily life (Pluckrose, 2017). There is an absence of critical notes that enforce society to change, but instead there is a form of truth that glorifies that what has always been. So political and cultural life in society have two different tastes of truth, the moral truth on the left and the intuitional truth on the right, both rejecting the idea of objective truth as a dominant value.
Regarding both theories I state that post-truth society is formed by public opinion which is influenced by political ideological points of view. These points of view subjectify the truth by using it in favour of their own interest, and by doing this they undermine the ideals of the enlightenment which have a strong appeal to the objective truth. In doing this, truth becomes a product of morality when used by the left flank of politics, and a product of common sense or everyday logic when used on the right. This ensures that political life, cultural life and public opinion are formed by this usage of truth and that this manner of handling the truth is normalised. This characterises post-truth society.
With a clear characterisation of post-truth society I shall now describe the ideas of McIntyre (2018) and Latour (2004) which state that postmodernism is the cause of this post-truth society. McIntyre (2018) claims that postmodern thinkers are at the origin of post-truth society, because they see truth as a perspective. He states that postmodernism is a movement that is build on the idea that meaning in human behaviour (Human behaviour: Everything people do, such as thinking, speaking, writing, producing, etc.) is not always understood by the actor, so there is no right or wrong answer to the question of what behaviour meant (McIntyre, 2018, pp. 124-125). When interpreting meaning in human behaviour people bring their own context and values, which leads to many possible ‘true’ interpretations, which are all narrative (McIntyre, 2018, p. 125). This leads to the thesis in postmodernism that there is no such thing as an objective truth (McIntyre, 2018, p. 126). When applying this idea to people who have a profession of truth, people who claim to know something, we can see that they are not educating people but they are oppressing people by claiming their (political) point of view as the truth (McIntyre, 2018, p. 126). So, postmodernism’s claim undermines the idea that objective fact matter, because reality is based on the context of the subject and people who claim to know things make a claim on their version of the truth. This opens the door to questioning mainstream ideas. People can use this theory to doubt the mainstream news and put their belief into a conspiracy theory or alternative view (McIntyre, 2018, p. 150) This way of thinking leads to the fact challenging post-truth society. McIntyre (2018, p. 126) does admit that postmodern thinkers cannot be fully blamed, but that their theories did lead to post-truth society and its problems and that they must accept some responsibility for it.
In Bruno Latour’s essay Why has critique run out of steam (2004) he also sees a partly causal relationship between postmodernist’s ideas and the current post-truth society on which he has severe worries. He states that the postmodernist movement spent years to reveal the subjectivity of objective facts and these ideas are still present in (philosophical) education (Latour, 2004, p. 227). Ideas with claims that there is no natural reality, that facts are made up, that language ensures that there is always a biased access to truth and that facts are a social construct (Latour, 2004, p. 227). He describes the lively presence of postmodernist ideas in our society, ideas that question truth and certainty. These ideas specifically are being abused by extremist movements to destroy scientific evidence that could be relevant to save our lives (Latour, 2004). These movements abuse the postmodern reasoning by questioning truth in order to realise and spread their own, political, standpoint. Latour himself also participated in spreading the postmodernist message which made knowledge and truth relative and he thinks that the presence of this abuse of ideas is proof that this postmodernist reasoning has gone too far (Latour, 2004, p. 227).
Analysing the ideas of McIntryre and Latour, that postmodernism is the cause of the post-truth society and its problems, leads towards the following description. Postmodernism is a catch-all term for ideas that state the truth as relative and socially constructed. When the truth can be subjective, biased and socially determined, this opens the possibilities to doubt mainstream scientific reasoning, regarding alternative facts as true and abusing facts in favour of a political point of view. All of these consequences are present in the characteristic of the post-truth society and therefore a partly causal relationship between postmodernism and post-truth can be found. Postmodernist thinkers cannot be held fully responsible but, being at the heart of post truth implies that they are at least partly responsible. One could see them as the ‘godfather’ of post-truth.
Now that the positions of McIntyre (2018) and Latour (2004) on the indirect causal relationship between postmodernism and post-truth are clear I shall start reasoning towards my claim that postmodernism is not necessarily responsible for a post-truth society. To conclude this I shall analyse the notion of truth in works of Michel Foucault as representative for postmodernist thinking. In his paper ‘What is critique’ (2007) Foucault defines his notion on what critique is and how it should be applied on the concept of truth. This is relevant because post-truth society is characterised by a critical attitude towards everything that is stated as true and postmodernism is supposed to be on the base of this. Foucault (2007, p. 42) states that critique only exists as a reaction, and this reaction towards something starts from a certain point, a discipline such as politics, philosophy, science, etc. It is subordinate to this discipline, as it is a function of this discipline so that it can be positively constituted (Foucault M. , What is Critique?, 2007). This means that critique helps to realise certain disciplines and that is therefore a part of this discipline. When regarding the characterisation of post-truth society, the idea of a positive constitution of a certain discipline is not there. It primarily exists in order to convince people of a certain point of view. Furthermore Foucault defines critique as an attitude (2007, p. 44) and this attitude has at its core “the art on how not to be governed” (2007, p. 45). This means that critique is mainly directed towards power, not necessarily toward truth as such. Truth can be called into question when it is a product of power. This means that one should not accept things as being the truth because an authority tells you that it is true, but only accepting the truth for its valid reasons (Foucault M. , What is Critique?, 2007). One should be critical towards those who state something as true, to the idea that power determines that what is the truth. When applying this notion on the post-truth society a significant difference is visible. In post-truth, critique is towards everything that is considered to be true and the truth is subjectified by opinions and emotions. But Foucault means that critique should be used in order to question the power which claims the truth, that what should be seen as true. Postmodernism therefore defines a different way of criticizing truth, a manner which could even be the solution to the problem of truth-abuse instead of being the cause. Critique should not be about what is true or false, but what is the link between power and knowledge (truth) (2007, p. 59) This calls into question the characteristic of post-truth society that public opinion has accepted the manner in which power uses the idea of truth to its advantage by selecting, changing or manipulating matters of fact. Instead of causing this characteristic, Foucault offers an attitude which makes it possible to recognize and criticize the way in which (political) power uses the truth to its advantage.
In addition to this notion of critique towards power and truth relations, Foucault describes in his essay Truth and Power (1972) the effect that power has towards the truth. He describes the scientific constitution of true knowledge as a paradigm (Foucault M. R., 1972, p. 54). Science develops knowledge and in order to do so, it is governed (Foucault M. R., 1972, p. 54) Governing science is about the way in which the scientific method is formed and the manner in which its outcomes are measured. Foucault (1972, p. 54) speaks of “the politics of scientific statement”. It is the power that defines this politics of science and therefore this power has an effect on knowledge, it gives meaning to it. With this idea Foucault (1972) implies that scientific knowledge is constituted and influenced by power and its effects. In post-truth society there is a sceptic attitude towards scientific truth. People doubt the truth and search for other truths. But when regarding this notion of Foucault, it is not scientific knowledge that should be evaluated critically, but the standards which form this knowledge to become something meaningful and the way in which these standards have been constituted.
This idea of a critical attitude can also be found when analysing Foucault’s essay What is enlightenment (1984). In this essay he describes the idea of enlightenment as being an ethos, or an attitude, so it is about human behaviour. This attitude is a critical attitude and it is critical towards oneself (Foucault M. , What is Enlightenment?, 1984, pp. 39-42). It is an attitude of limits because criticism is about analysing and reflecting upon limits (Foucault M. , What is Enlightenment?, 1984, p. 45). Therefore, people should be critical towards authority, power, but especially towards themselves. They should know their limits and use their reason to be critical about these limits. Foucault adds the characteristic of permanent reactivation to the limit attitude (Foucault M. , What is Enlightenment?, 1984, p. 42). The idea of being critical should be applied constantly, over and over again. This analysis of ourselves should be focussed towards “the contemporary limits of the necessary”, it should make clear what people need to become an autonomous subject (Foucault M. , What is Enlightenment?, 1984, p. 43). This focus on autonomy reveals that this criticism still aims against authority. It should be a critic of transgression, instead of necessary limitations, so that it is made clear what is universal and what is arbitrary (Foucault M. , What is Enlightenment?, 1984, p. 45). This defines the goals of (self-) critique as a historical investigation towards how we are constituted, how we behave ourselves and which events (Events: Something that has a beginning and an end, such as all human activity, ideas, concepts, definitions, etc.) realised this, and therefore is has a genealogical design and it uses a archaeological method (Foucault M. , What is Enlightenment?, 1984, pp. 45-46) It is archaeological, because it searches for events with meaning in history, and genealogical because it aims at the events which made us what we are, what we do and think (Foucault M. , What is Enlightenment?, 1984, p. 45). So, this constant critique towards ourselves defines how we have constituted ourselves, reveals our limits and therefore explores what we need to become autonomous beings. In post-truth society, everyone is searching for a truth matched with their opinions and emotions, but that is different from Foucault’s claim. He states that one should analyse and reflect upon themselves, using reason to decide which knowledge is relevant. It is not the content of knowledge that is relevant, but the meaning that it has in someone’s life.
By summarising these arguments, I shall reason that Foucault shows that there is no causal relation between (his) postmodernist theory and post-truth society. The arguments for this claim are found in Foucault’s’ notions of critique and truth, which are relevant because a critical attitude toward the truth and subjective usage of the truth are characterisations for post-truth society. Firstly, Foucault argues that critique is a subordinate function of a certain discipline which helps to positively constitute a certain discipline (Foucault M. , What is Critique?, 2007). This is a different position for the notion of critique then it has in post-truth society as critique there is not for a positive constitution but it primarily exists in order to realise a (political) point of view (Latour, 2004). Secondly, critique in post-truth society has a claim towards the truth, whether something is right or wrong. But Foucault states that critique should be towards the relation between power and truth (Foucault M. R., 1972). Post-truth society has as a main characteristic that public opinion accepts the way in which power manipulates, selects and uses matters of fact (McIntyre, What is post-truth?, 2018). Foucault’s theory declines this power and truth relationship and states that public opinion should be critical towards these kinds of relations. Therefore, the theory of Foucault cannot be causal but can be seen as a possible solution. Thirdly, Foucault has a different notion of criticism towards scientific knowledge. In post-truth society, scientifically proven truth is called into question, people doubt which facts should be dominant (McIntyre, What is post-truth?, 2018). Foucault’s argument is not stated against the scientific facts as such, it is stated toward the manner in which these facts are formed and become meaningful. Power gives meaning to knowledge (Foucault M. R., 1972). Therefore, Foucault criticizes the structure instead of the content while in post-truth society the content is criticized. Lastly, Foucault argues that the enlightenment is a self-critical ethos which leads towards autonomy by defining limits and needs, based on reason (Foucault M. , What is Enlightenment?, 1984). So, people define their own meaning in knowledge based on reason. In post-truth society it is not about autonomy, but about authority. Power, by practitioners of ideological views from a political perspective, gives meaning to a subjective version of truth, or no truth at all, in order to make people believe in them (McIntyre, What is post-truth?, 2018). They constitute power through the meaning of truth, while Foucault aims for autonomy. So, there are a lot of intrinsic differences between post-truth society and the postmodernist theory of Foucault. The goals and essence of postmodernism are totally different, as postmodernism does not challenge the truth, but the power that states what is seen as true, while post-truth society is defined by power and degrades the truth. Because Foucault, as a postmodern thinker, is at the heart of the meaning and goals of postmodernism he has a stronger claim on the implications of these ideas. Analysing it afterwards, like Latour, Mcintyre or Pluckrose, implies that they use their context to constitute their version of truth. They search for causes of post-truth instead of giving meaning to postmodernism. Therefore I state that postmodernism is not necessarily responsible for a post-truth society.
In this essay I claimed that postmodernism is not necessarily responsible for a post-truth society. To argue for this claim I started with defining post-truth society as a society in which the society is formed by public opinion which is influenced by political ideological points of view, based on the theory of Lee McIntyre (2018). These standpoints subjectify the truth to be at use of their own interest which undermines the enlightenment ideals. Truth then becomes a morality on the left or a product of common sense on the right and this ensures the normalisation of this usage of truth in the constitution of political life, cultural life and the public opinion.
After defining post-truth society, I explained why McIntyre (2018) and Latour (2004) claim that postmodernism can be seen as the cause of the post-truth society. Their claim is that postmodernism, as a catch-all term for ideas that state the truth as relative and a product of social construct, opens the possibility that people can doubt mainstream scientific reasoning, see alternative facts as true and abusing facts in favour of a political ideology. These aspects are to be found in post-truth society and therefore postmodernist thinkers can be held partly responsible for the constitution of post-truth society.
Then I made an analysis of the concepts of truth and critique in the works of Michel Foucault, as a representative of postmodern thinkers. From his works I extracted four arguments which I used too argue for my claim. The first argument was the difference in the notion of critique in the theory of Foucault and in post-truth society. Foucault sees critique as a subordinate function for the positive constitution of certain disciplines as post-truth society had critique as a dominant factor in realising a political point of view. The second argument states that critique should be targeted towards the relationship between power and truth, in which power defines what should be seen as true, instead of the aim of critique in post-truth society which is the truth as such. Therefore, Foucault’s theory is more a solution to post-truth problems then it is a cause. In the third place Foucault criticizes the structure that gives meaning to scientific knowledge, where post-truth society doubts the content of scientific knowledge as such. Lastly, Foucault states that the enlightenment is a (self-) critical ethos on how not to be governed. It seeks for autonomy through the use of truth, while in post-truth society truth is used as means to realise authority (power). Therefore, the usage of truth has a different characteristic in post-truth society then is has in Foucault’s theory, which implicates that there is no such thing as causality between them. We should give Foucault reasoning priority over subjective analysis afterwards, as he is at the heart of postmodernism.
Then I argued for my claim, based on these arguments, that postmodernism is not necessarily responsible for a post-truth society and we can conclude this by analysing Michel Foucault’s notions of ‘truth’ and ‘critique’.
Foucault, M. (1984). What is Enlightenment? In P. Rabinow, Foucault Reader (pp. 32-50). New York: Pantheon books.
Foucault, M. (2007). What is Critique? In The politics of truth (pp. 41-82). Massachusets: MIT press.
Foucault, M. R. (1972). Truth and power.
Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. In Critical Inquiry (pp. 225-248).
McIntyre, L. (2018). Did Postmodernism lead to Post-Truth? In Post-Truth (pp. 123-150). Massachusetts: MIT press.
McIntyre, L. (2018). What is post-truth? In Post-truth. (pp. 1-16). Massachusetts: MIt Press.
Pluckrose, H. (2017). https://areomagazine.com/2017/12/08/the-problem-with-truth-and-reason-in-a-post-truth-society/.
Essay Enlightenment & Counterenlightenment | graded | Tilburg University| Wordcount: 4047 | Author: B. Coppens