Focus: Post-truth and Democracy
2021 (43) Issue 2
The concept of ‘post-truth’ has existed for a while, but after the Oxford dictionary named it ‘word of the year’ in 2016, it has permeated public and academic debates. Since then, it has become synonymous with the populist threat to the liberal-democratic order. The concept points to the impression that we are entering an age of decay in which the achievements of modernity—objectivity, science, rationality, and democracy—are being gradually replaced by emotionality, agnotology, irrat...
Table of Contents
Post-truth and Democracy
Title: Are we Really Past Truth? A Historian’s Perspective
Author: Sophia Rosenfeld
The prevalence of the term post-truth suggests that we have, in the last few years, moved from being members of societies dedicated to truth to being members of ones that cannot agree on truth’s parameters and, even worse, have given up trying. But is this really what has happened? The author argues that, under the sway of the Enlightenment, truth has actually been unstable and a source of contention in public life ever since the founding moment for modern democracies in the late eighteenth century; the ‘post’ in ‘post-truth’ elides this complex history even as it accurately describes some of the conditions of our moment. What that means, though, is that rather than attempt to turn the clock back to past models and practices for restoring the reign of truth, we should be looking for new, post-Enlightenment paradigms for how to define and locate truth in the context of democracy, as well as new mechanisms for making this possible.
Title: Post-deliberative Democracy
Author: Joseph Heath
Within any adversarial rule-governed system, it often takes time for strategically motivated agents to discover effective exploits. Once discovered, these strategies will soon be copied by all other participants. Unless it is possible to adjust the rules to preclude them, the result will be a degradation of the performance of the system. This is essentially what has happened to public political discourse in democratic states. Political actors have discovered, not just that the norm of truth can be violated in specific ways, but that many of the norms governing rational deliberation can also be violated, not just without penalty, but often for significant political gain. As a result, the level of noise (false or misleading communications) has come to drown out the signal (earnest attempts at deliberation). The post-truth political condition is the cumulative result of innovations developed by actors who adopt an essentially strategic orientation toward political communications.
Title: Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Twenty-First Century
Author: Bruce Kuklick
This essay first traces change in, roughly, the epistemology of the humanities from the 1950s to the 21st century. The second section looks at how the meaning and options in moral philosophy altered in more or less the same period. The last and easily most speculative section examines how these changes permeated American culture, and how professional philosophers responded to the challenges of the new political world they inhabited.
Title: Fitting and Fudging: On the Folly of Trying to Define Post-truth
Author: Sharon Rider
I propose that the ‘post-truth condition’, i.e., the vulnerability of our institutions for establishing and negotiating what is true and worth knowing, is not primarily a pathology, a susceptibility to external manipulation or coercion, as tends to be stressed in the literature, but has first and foremost to do with the unraveling of certain epistemic assumptions. In analogy with T.S. Eliot’s modernist notion that the attempt to capture and concretize an experience or a state of mind requires ‘objective correlatives’ which it conveys, I argue that the trope of post-truth to express the embattled status of expertise can be understood in terms of failed symbolization. In the second section, I spell out what this means in terms of Donald Davidson’s discussion of the problem of defining truth. In the last section, I propose a ‘poetics of political theory’ for understanding the post-truth condition.
Title: Democracy Naturalized: In Search of the Individual in the Post-truth Condition
Author: Steve Fuller
This article takes a ‘naturalistic’ look at the historically changing nature of the individual and its implications for the terms on which democracy might be realized, starting from classical Athens, moving through early debates in evolutionary theory, to contemporary moral and political thought. Generally speaking, liberal democracy sees individuality as the mark of an evolutionarily mature species, whereas socialist democracy sees it as the mark of an evolutionary immature species. Overall, the individual has been ‘de-naturalized’ over time, resulting in the indeterminate figure who thrives in the post-truth condition.
Title: Behind the Screens: Post-truth, Populism, and the Circulation of Elites
Author: William T. Lynch
The alleged emergence of a ‘post-truth’ regime links the rise of new forms of social media and the reemergence of political populism. Post-truth has theoretical roots in the interdisciplinary field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), with sociologists of science arguing that both true and false claims should be explained by the same kinds of social causes. Most STS theorists have sought to deflect blame for post-truth, while at the same time enacting a normative turn, looking to deconstruct truth claims and subject expertise to criticism. Steve Fuller has developed a positive case for post-truth in science, arguing that post-truth democratizes science. I criticize this argument and suggest an alternative approach that draws on the prehistory of the field in the 1930s and 1940s, when philosophers and sociologists sought to define the social conditions necessary for reliable knowledge production that might stem mass media irrationalism.
Title: Symmetry as a Guide to Post-truth Times: A Response to Lynch
Author: Steve Fuller
William Lynch has provided an informed and probing critique of my embrace of the post-truth condition, which he understands correctly as an extension of the normative project of social epistemology. This article roughly tracks the order of Lynch’s paper, beginning with the vexed role of the ‘normative’ in Science and Technology Studies, which originally triggered my version of social epistemology 35 years ago and has been guided by the field’s ‘symmetry principle’. Here the pejorative use of ‘populism’ to mean democracy is highlighted as a failure of symmetry. Finally, after rejecting Lynch’s appeal to a hybrid Marxian–Darwinism, Carl Schmitt and Thomas Hobbes are contrasted en route to what I have called ‘quantum epistemology’.
Title: Capital, Ideology, and the Liberal Order
Author: Nick Cowen* and Vincent Geloso
Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology (2020) offers a powerful critique of ideological justifications for inequality in capitalist societies. Does this mean we should reject capitalist institutions altogether? This paper defends some aspects of capitalism by explaining the epistemic function of market economies and their ability to harness capital to meet the needs of the relatively disadvantaged. We support this classical liberal position with reference to empirical research on historical trends in inequality that challenges some of Piketty’s interpretations of the data. Then we discuss the implications of this position in terms of limits on the efficacy of participatory governance within firms and the capacity of the state to levy systematic taxes on wealth.