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Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom
The truth? You can handle the truth
Sunday 14 May 2006
Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom have written a sassy and profound response to this cascade of superstition and silliness. Many of the attacks on postmodernism have come depressingly from fusty conservatives, but this is a defence of Enlightenment values and the pursuit of uncomfortable truths from the radical left. They start by debunking the most sweetly silly of all claims about truth: Keats' belief that "Truth is Beauty". Benson and Stangroom note dryly, "Romantic poets had many virtues, but rigour of thought was not always one of them. We suspect that at least part of the truth is that we are a nasty, short, brutal species with a strong taste for torture and murder." One of the best ways to protect ourselves against these, our most terrible instincts, is to make ourselves accountable to the person with the best evidence rather than the person with the biggest gun or the most stirring myths.
Yet over the past 40 years, there has been an intellectual movement that has assaulted this idea, with a whimsical smile and a vicious rage. Postmodernism is a bizarre phenomenon: an intellectual movement systematically divesting itself of all intellectual tools. Benson and Stangroom trace its roots right back to Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), the first great thinker of the counter-Enlightenment. He presented reason and the demand for evidence as simply another local custom, useful perhaps in its European birthplace but no more valid than, say, Native American beliefs about mystical bird-gods. Postmodernists have developed this, presenting their theories as a brave assault on "colonial" and "Western" systems of thought. "Truth is just whatever passes for truth in one's shared community," they declare. Indeed, since science and reason are a source of authority, and therefore power, they must be demystified and undermined.
As Benson and Stangroom note, they do not pause to ask whether the authority of science is in fact justified. To give just one of thousands of examples, Enlightenment science eradicated smallpox, a disease that killed over a billion people in the most painful possible way, from the human condition. Yet many postmodernists try to claim that this science is "tyrannical" and inferior to the "ways of knowing" of people who tried to treat smallpox with witchdoctors. "It is one thing to say that people should not be oppressed and exploited," the authors note, "[but] it is quite another to claim that the 'ways of knowing' of the oppressed and exploited are privileged in some systematic way."
The postmodernist academy presents this as a battle on behalf of oppressed peoples, but in fact it is a profound betrayal of them. These groups do not need science and history to be distorted or suspended on their behalf. As Benson and Stangroom argue: "Truth-claims, evidence, reason, logic, warrant, are not some fiefdom or gated community or exclusive club. On the contrary. They are the property of everyone, and the only way to refute lies and mistakes... The real tyranny is being required to let humans - the community, the mullahs, the Vatican, the Southern Baptists Convention - decide what the truth is independent of the evidence." After reason and evidence have been stripped away by postmodernists, what remains? Tradition, religion, instinct, blood and soil, the Nation, the Fatherland - the tropes of the oppressive right. This is why the Hindu fundamentalist right in India and the new creationist right in the US are so well-versed in postmodern language.
Of course nobody wants to go back to a naïve correspondence theory of truth, where we assume we have very simple, straightforward access to the objective world. All our understandings of the world are, as Wittgenstein showed, filtered through our language and culture. We need always to put in place controls and checks (as the scientific method demands) to minimise the problems that arise from this. But that does not stop the world from being there, it does not stop the need for us to try to maximise our understanding of it. It does not mean we should simply slump into a glib epistemic relativism that assumes every theory, no matter how evidence-free, is equally valid.
In Why Truth Matters, Benson and Stangroom answer the clotted, barely readable sentences of the postmodernists with sentences so clear you could swim in them. There should be a law demanding every purchase of a Jacques Derrida "book" be accompanied with a free copy of this shimmering, glimmering answer.
Co-author Jeremy Stangroom takes part in a discussion, 'Does Truth Matter?', at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 on Weds 17, 7pm. Also on the panel are Kenan Malik, Stephen Law and Nick Cohen. For tickets and information, call 020 7930 3647
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