May 2007 -- Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, Why Truth Matters (New York: Continuum, 2006), 208 pp., $26.95.  

In 1972, philosopher Richard Rorty wrote a celebrated essay called “The World Well Lost.” The context for his article was a question that goes back millennia: How can the human mind gain knowledge about the external world? Rorty’s surprising answer was, in brief: The question is meaningless, because there is no “external world.” Or, as he liked to joke: What does “the external world” mean, “out of doors”?
I doubt that Rorty, when he wrote his article, had any idea that he would contribute to an outbreak of irrationality in Western culture. And yet he did. His may not have been a large contribution, but the essay did help lead American academics and their students into anti-rational lines of thinking. After all, if our ideas do not “reflect” reality, then perhaps they are determined by our cultural environment. And if our culture determines our ideas, perhaps different cultures and subcultures can have different but equally valid ideas. Perhaps, then, the ideas adopted by different cultures and subcultures are just the ideas that most empower them. So, perhaps all these “discussions” and “debates” we are supposedly having about the truth are actually battles about who shall have power—who shall control whom? And if that is the case, why, let’s be frank about it and literally battle those speakers with whom we disagree.
Benson and Stangroom are not prepared to defend the Enlightenment’s ideals.
Such, in synopsis, was the thinking that gave rise to postmodernism. For reasons explored by Stephen Hicks in his book Explaining Postmodernism (see the interview in this issue), the postwar left allied itself with postmodernist thinking far more closely than the right did. Today, however, we are beginning to see on the left a reaction against that alliance. Call it “pink modernism.” The very title of Paul Boghossian’s pro-modernist Fear of Knowledge (reviewed in the April TNI) comes from his assurances to leftists that they need not fear objectivity will frustrate their “progressive” goals—goals he evidently shares. Likewise, Benson and Stangroom’s Why Truth Matters constantly takes pains to argue that objectivity is ultimately a progressivist doctrine. To the chants of “Take Back the Night” and “Take Back the Country,” the authors apparently hope that left-wing protestors will soon add “Take Back the World.” But on the evidence of these books, they won’t.

The Modernist Persuasion

How does one go about selling the idea of objectivity to the leftists of a postmodern age? In an earlier book, The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, Benson and Stangroom (editors of the ButterfliesandWheels.com website) ridiculed postmodernism, but it was not an impressive effort. Indeed, I do not think I have ever read a book in the “Devil’s Dictionary” genre that was less funny. One of their better jokes described “light” as a “notoriously sexist phenomenon, privileged because of its position at the very top of the speed-hierarchy. Since speed is a guy thing, so is light.” That is the sort of stuff graduate students think up when they have been sitting at the bar too long.
In Why Truth Matters, the authors apparently attempt to advance their program by recalling and extending the Whig view of history that was so beloved of early-twentieth-century Progressives, in the hope that it will appeal to contemporary progressives. That, at any rate, is my interpretation of their strategy; it is never asserted or made explicit.
“Pink modernism” is a reaction on the left against postmodernism.
Certainly, they assume the fundamental outline of the Whig narrative, which is familiar: Once upon a time, there was a stultifying pre-modern world full of superstition and taboo. Along came the modern world of reason and science and vanquished it, together with its social injustices, such as slavery and the unequal treatment of women. Alas (this is the new part), postmodernism has shown itself to be a revival of the religious premodern world, through reactionary superstitions like Afrocentrism and taboos like political correctness. Turn aside from all that, the authors seem to urge; return to modernism and recover our rightful Enlightenment heritage, which is truly progressive.
The argument is not without merit, although I shall later lodge some objections against it. For the moment, however, let us look at the starting point, which is the authors’ basic account of the Whig narrative:
Holy books, tradition, fiats, laws, priests, judges, monarchs, inquisitions, prisons, chains, axes, fires, manacles, expulsions. The advantage of all these is the clarity, the lack of ambiguity (unless one notices the places where holy books contradict themselves, but people seem not to). The system was never total.… [And] the system became less total over time, as various upstarts came along to throw spanners into the works. The Renaissance, secular scholars, worldly popes, Copernicus, Machiavelli, Luther, Galileo, Montaigne, Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Bayle, Spinoza, revolutions and regicides—all did their bit.
There you have it: the pure essence of Whig history, and all on one page.

As for the authors’ extension of this narrative to postmodernism, that can be illustrated through two types of examples. First, they show that many postmodern ideas are, like superstitions, baseless in fact and reactionary in application. One of their candidates is “difference feminism,” the idea that men and women are deeply different, not least in their epistemologies, their “ways of knowing.” Perhaps the most famous exposition of this view was Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, in which she claimed to have found a uniquely feminine form of moral reasoning. Say Benson and Stangroom: “The first problem, then, with the argument that women have their own distinctive voices, or their own ‘ways of knowing,’ is that even if it were true, it is not at all clear that it would be a good thing. The second problem is that there is actually no good evidence that it is true.” According to the authors, then, difference feminism (true or not, it seems) is just reactionary patriarchalism promoted by postmodern feminists, and it must be stamped out: “Such ways of knowing, if they exist, should be at least supplemented if not trained out of existence by remedial education.” (But even if they are ways of knowing? Wouldn’t that constitute an Inquisition?) 

The authors’ second type of example links postmodernism with taboo and persecution, and of this they have many instances, including the case of E.O. Wilson and his writings on sociobiology. As is well known, Wilson’s theory, more usually called evolutionary psychology today, attempts to explain behavior (including human behavior) in terms of evolution. When first presented in 1975, his theories were widely damned as heresies against left-wing dogma. Benson and Stangroom write: “The American Anthropological Association, in a move which Time magazine likened to the Catholic Church’s denunciation of Galileo, debated a motion to censure sociobiology on the grounds that it was ‘an attempt to justify genetically the sexist, racist, and elitist status quo in human society.’” And just to show how wrong-headed this persecution was, Benson and Stangroom throw in one of Wilson’s denunciations of President George W. Bush and his “minimal government.” (I guess that if Galileo had supported the George W. Bush of his day, his persecution would have been less horrifying.)
Rorty’s essay led academics into anti-rational lines of thinking.
Each of these two categories—postmodern superstition and postmodern taboo—is evidenced many times over in Why Truth Matters, and often both aspects are involved in a single case, as when someone like Wilson contradicts a postmodern superstition and thereby breaks a taboo. Another case occurred when Wellesley professor Mary Lefkowitz took on the absurdity of Afrocentrism. She was attending a Martin Luther King Day speech at which the speaker said that Aristotle stole his ideas from the library at Alexandria (located in “black” Egypt, of course). In the question period, Lefkowitz says, she asked how Aristotle could have done so, inasmuch as the library was built after his death. Not only did the lecturer say he “resented the tone” of her inquiry, not only did students come up afterward to accuse her of racism, the dean of her college told her that “each of us had a different but equally valid view of history.”

Modernist Difficulties

At the epistemological level (if not the political level), Benson and Stangroom are espousing ideals that are good and true. But the method they use to fight for those ideals is deeply flawed. They are attempting to restore the Enlightenment without acknowledging that it was modernist philosophy’s inability to defend Enlightenment ideals that brought on postmodernism. Thus, it is no good for them to say we must go back to the Enlightenment’s ideals unless they are prepared to do a better job of defending them. And Benson and Stangroom aren’t prepared—not in epistemology, not in philosophical anthropology, not in ethics.
The most critical failure of modern philosophy, as Stephen Hicks pointed out in Explaining Postmodernism, was its inability to validate the methods of rational thinking—especially, perception and induction. Descartes believed that his method of systematic doubt had refuted direct realism. Cartesianism led to John Locke’s representationalism, which led to David Hume’s skepticism, which led to beginnings of postmodernism in Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. Benson and Stangroom insist that “in our bones” we know skepticism is false (which is itself an anti-rationalist statement), but their alternative is just a modernist version of perceptual and conceptual representationalism. They endorse the assertion that “there’s an objective world out there,” but they accept “the fallibility of perception.” They say: “We may claim that our representations of nature are largely correct while still acknowledging that we may have to revise them tomorrow.” This is hopeless. Representationalism does not give us knowledge of reality. It is all well and good to reject Humean skepticism, as Benson and Stangroom do, but Kant also rejected Humean skepticism, and so do many postmodernists.
Secondly, the sine qua non of rational thought—the volitional ability to weigh evidence objectively—was dismissed outright by Enlightenment scientists as a holdover from medieval metaphysics. Benson and Stangroom are also apparently unwilling to assert the existence of free will. How, then, do they confront the postmodern belief that our ideas are caused by a desire for power? Incredibly, they resort to the shift of suggesting that scientists’ ideas may be caused by a desire for truth. After all, they say, “scientists and enquirers are … notoriously an unworldly, peculiar bunch, with motivations that differ from those of ‘most people’—that’s why they are called geeks and nerds.” Talk about different ways of knowing! If our ideas are “caused” by our desires—whether for power or knowledge or chocolate—then they do not constitute knowledge. Knowledge is a form of awareness, and it can arise only by volitionally obeying epistemological rules of evidence and argument. Our desires may make it easier or harder for us to obey those rules, but desire cannot substitute for the freely chosen act of obeying the rules.
The authors provide no good grounds for saying what does or does not matter.
Lastly, Enlightenment thinkers notoriously failed to provide a basis for human values, to bridge the “is-ought gap,” which one must do to defend the assertion that truth or anything else “matters.” And here is the gravest disappointment in this work. Like modern philosophers in general, the authors provide no good grounds for saying what does or does not matter. They merely resort to exhortations that they personally find persuasive. And, as it happens, Benson and Stangroom are much less interested in the importance of truth to individuals’ lives and happiness than with the importance of truth-seeking disciplines, such as the sciences and history. Thus, one answer they give to the question posed by their title is this: “[Truth] matters because we are the only species we know of that has the ability to find it out.” To which they add: “In a way that makes it almost a duty to do so.”
But is truth a value to me? Will it help me to live more securely and more richly? The authors declare: “Anyone can settle for just survival and reproduction and comfort, but we can do more.” What “more”? Well, they say, we can dedicate ourselves to the search for truth, heedless of whether we shall find it or use it. We can just—search. And that, ultimately, is why we must believe in objective truth—so that we can search for it.
Real enquiry presupposes that truth matters. That it is true that there is a truth of the matter we’re investigating even if it turns out that we can’t find it. Maybe the next generation can, or two or three or ten after that. . . . But we have to think there is something to find in order for enquiry to be genuine enquiry and not just an arbitrary game that doesn’t go anywhere. We like games, but we also like genuine enquiry. That’s why truth matters.
No. If that’s why truth matters, then it doesn’t.

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