CONTINUUM £12.99 £11.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

The truth? You can handle the truth

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

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders