TERRORISM OF TRUTH:

TRUTH AND THEORY IN POSTMODERN EPISTEMOLOGY

 

"The secret of theory is indeed that truth doesn't exist." (J. Baudrillard, "Forgetting Baudrillard" Social Text, no. 15 (Fall): 140-44 1986:141).

 

"The problems are the traditional problems of any philosophy which leads knowing to a knowledge of ultimate unknowability, and thereupon summons knowing to unknown itself—as by an active forgetting." (Richard Harland, Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post Structuralism (London Methuen, 1987: 118).

 

Postmodern Rejection of Logic as a Vehicle of True Truth

 

Theory implies truth, and truth, at least in the social sciences, is theoretical in character. Postmoderns are suspicious regarding modem versions of both. The essence of postmodern views of truth is the contention that all knowledge is language bound. Truth is forever arbitrary. Postmodern reconceptualization of truth as local, personal, community specific is the ultimate expression of Wittgenstein's "Language Game." Why are postmodems opposed to modem theory? This critical examination results in either discarding (sceptical) or reconstructing it (affirmatives), (resurgence of Gnostic rejection of Language, Truth, Logic and History).

Almost all postmodems reject truth even as a goal or ideal because it is the very epitome of modernity. (Foucault. The Foucault Reader (Pantheon 19844^: 72-80^ Truth is an Enlightenment value and subject to dismissal on these grounds alone. Truth makes reference to order, rules, and values; it depends on logic, rationality, and reason, all of which the postmodernists question. Attempts to produce knowledge in the modem world depends on some kind of truth claim, on the assumption that truth is essential.

 

Pluralism of Truth Claims and Linguistic Skepticism

 

Why Skeptical Postmodernists Reject Truth

 

Postmodernists deny the possibility of truth. Both Lyotard and Baudrillard see truth as either meaningless or arbitrary. Postmodernists object to the monopolistic claims made from truth in itself. Postmodernists often understand truth claims to be merely the products of power games, manipulated into position by those whose interests they serve. If truth claims are really quite arbitrary, then they do not merit special privileged status or superior authority. As Michel Foucault puts its, "We are subjected to be reproduction of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth." (Discipline and Punish (Paris: Gallimard) He maintains that it is absurd to argue that there is a sharp distinction between truth and ideology propaganda (Power/Knowledge (NY: Pantheon, 1980), p. 132). It is impossible to separate truth from power and so there is no real possibility of any absolute uncorrupted truth." (Nietzsche's influence on postmoderns is self evident. He ridiculed love of knowledge and emphasized myth over truth. For Nietzsche both truth and lies are fabrications. Neither truth nor falsity exists, herein is Nietzsche's hermeneutic of suspicion. For skeptics, truth claims are a form of terrorism. They threaten and provoke. Truth by its very existence is said to silence those who disagree. Truth claims "serve to justify the powerful and to make the weak feel at fault and inadequate." (Joel Handler, UCLA Law Review , 1988). Lyotard argues that truth "eliminates" the argument of "the other," the point of view of someone else that upsets what we define as the truth even though it is only what we have come to take for granted (Postmodern Condition, 1984). The skeptical theory of language transforms truth into a largely linguistic convention. They argue that claims of truth can never be independent of language, that truth is an "effect of discourse." (Jane Flax. Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and Postmodernism in The Contemporary West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990): 38) Postmodernists argue that language produces and reproduces its own world without reference to reality. If so, then it is impossible to say anything definite because language is purely an artificial sign system and cannot assure truth. "What is communicated about events is determined, not by the character of events themselves but by linguistic figures or forms." (K. J. Gergen, "Correspondence versus Autonomy is the language of understanding human actions" in Metatheory in Social Science (Chicago University Press, 1986): 143).

 

Linguistic meaning, always personal and idiosyncratic, can never be communicated from one person to another. Language has a will and a power of its own. It generates meaning quite independently of "human agency or will." (Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (NY: Metheur, 1982); 176). There are no precise meanings for words, no definitive versions of a text; in short, no simple truths. "Human institutions are predicated on the lie of the word." (Anne Norton, Reflections on The Political Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988): 188). Meaning does not arise from reference of signs to something outside words, but from differential relations among the words themselves. "There are no precise meanings for words, no definitive versions of a text, in short, no simple truth." (Vincent Descombes, Modem French Philosophy (E.T. London: Cambridge University Press, 1980): 182) "If meaning in language rises not from the reference of signs to something outside words but from differential relations among the words themselves, if ‘referent’ and ‘meaning’ must always be distinguished, then the notion of a literary text which is evaluated by its one-to-one correspondence to some social, historical or psychological reality can no longer be taken for granted." (J. Hillis Miller, "The Fiction of Realism," in Dickens Centennial Essays (E.D. Berkeley CA University Press, 1971) The only skeptics who retain the concept of truth redefine it so that it would be unrecognizable in a modem context. All traces of the past must lie; they are without grandeur. Postmodern truth is, they are necessarily fragmented, discontinuous and changing, i.e., constantly reconstructed and ultimately linked to death. Truth implies an author. No single person can tell us what a particular text really means. Nor can one reader argue that he or she has the true meaning of a text. Postmodernism abandons the subject and this makes sense because truth requires a unity of subjects as to the contents of the truth statements. Truth requires a distinction between object and subject so that someone can stand outside and discover what is true. (Richard Harland, Superstructuralism (London, 1988).

 

"It cannot be representative or mirror of a literal or universal substance or subject because none exists." (Jane Flax, Thinking Fragments (Berkeley: University of CA Press, 1990):200) Affirmatives also reject universal truth and dismiss the idea that truth is "out there" waiting to be discovered. Though affirmatives do accept a Wittgensteinian language game or community forms of truth. This precludes any universal context, i.e., it is relativized. Truth varies according to place and historical context. "Truth is bound; therefore there is no universal truth." (Stanley Fish, "Dennis Martinez and the uses of theory." Yale Review (96 1773-1880), 1987; also Is There A Text in This Class? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980) "What we call the mind or reason is only an effect of discourse." (Jane Flax, ibid: 35-36)

 

In the postmodern maze there are multitudes of theories and none can claim superiority over any other. This stance is a methodological critique of "modern theory." Truth seeking and theory building are characteristics of Marxist, neo-conservatives, positivists, structuralists because all have a "totalizing egocentric project," a metanarrative and each emphasizes the social whole in the form of theory over individual parts. (Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reasoning. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) and "Cynicism—The Twilight of False Consciousness" New German Critique (No. 33 (Fall): 189-206

 

Postmodernism denies that there is any such thing as a global project. It maintains the differences or the uniqueness of the parts, rather than the unity of the theoretical whole. Postmoderns predispositions guide their critique of theory, as does its views of language. Postmodernists contend that modem theory assumes an epistemological reality and that no such reality exists. (J. Baudrillard, "Forgetting Baudrillard" Social Context (no. 15, (Fall): 140-144, esp. 141) How can theory operate without variation in every context in an ever changing postmodern world? If all data and formal laws are not independent and objective, they are at best contextually relative and at worst totally arbitrary and constructed. (Fish, ibid, (:1781).

 

Postmodern critique of modem theory assumes the following: (1) Theory conceals, distorts, and obfuscates (John Nelson "Postmodern Meaning of Politics," a paper presented at American Political Science Association meeting at Chicago, Illinois Sept. 3-6,1987); Janes der Derian, "The Boundaries of Knowledge and Power of International Intrigue" International Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics (Lexington.MA: Lexington Books):6); (2) It is "alienated, desperate dissonant"; (3) It means "to exclude, order and control rival powers." (Steven Sardman, "The tedium of general theory" Contemporary Sociology 18/3 :636); (4) It is ideological and rhetorical, although claiming to be scientific—modem science is only a "cultural artifact." (Willis Harmon, “The Postmodern Heresy: Consciousness as Causal” in The Reinchantment of Science: Postmodern Proposals (Albany: State University of New York Press: 121); (5) It is overbearing, seeking "stable ground" and aiming to "anchor a sovereign voice" (Richard Ashley "Living on Border Lines: Man, Poststructuralism and War" International Intertextual Relations (1989); (6) Theory, said to legitimate a monopoly of power, is thus considered little more than an "authoritarian weapon" by most sceptics (Hans Keller, "Narrative History; Post Structuralism and Since," History and Theory (26 4: 1-29, esp. p. 6); (7) Modem theory cannot abide the "radical undecidability" of opposing points of view. It needs to choose. It has no "respect for paradox," defined as an opposition in which it is never possible to choose one opposition over the other. (Richard Ashley, "Living on The Border Lines" ibid. (1989a):271-273); (8) Postmodern skeptics argue that modern theory fails to fulfill the goal it sets for itself. It does not provide a direction; it is not the basis for praxis or action because it is rather an ad hoc justification, a generalization of previous practice (Fish, ibid.): 1781-1797, i.e., demise of cause/effect; determinism, internal/external relations, idealism/realism, debate. Feeling no need to be logical, to reconcile opposition, to test or to choose between theories (Paradigms, Legitimization Schemas, Theories and Praxis), it accepts inconsistency and contradiction (Richard Ashley, ibid,: 771-80). Skeptical postmoderns renounce the pursuit of absolute truth and call for eliminating theory altogether. The search for a "grand theory" is at an end in our postmodern maze. Generally, whether skeptical or affirmative, they reject the notion that all theories are equal. They are generally unsystematic, heterological, de-centered, ever changing and local. It does not require the object-subject distinction of modern social science. It is "true" only in terms of its own discourse. What they produce may reflect a concrete empirical reality, but it is anti-positivist, antidotal empiricism that savors detail and reserves a special place for what is unique in each and every life. Postmodernist anti theoretical focus on daily life is not the only possible perspective. It is equally possible to seek to generalize from daily life to draw micro level conclusions. As substitutes for truth and theory, the affirmatives also emphasize certain kinds of narratives— small narratives, community based narratives, rather than grand narratives. This view clearly espouses a return to either tribalism or narcissism (see Rorty, Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1979). They offer only one interpretation among many. Traditional human narratives accept error, inconsistency, and relativism. They speak of fragments rather than unity. Left wing critics of postmodernism argue that separating public problems and daily life leads to an acceptance of the status quo of injustice and inequality Postmodems reject grand narratives because they all claim a beginning an ending and a definitive theory, and this is impossible and pointless in a postmodern world. (See esp. Mark Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern Theology (London: Polity Press, 1984) esp. 62-69, 153). Replacing theory with everyday life and mini narratives is not without contradictions. But if there is no "true truth" there can be no contradictions, either in narrative or a narcissistic world. (See Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Boston: MIT Press, 1987): 279-81; Sandra Harding, "Feminism, Science and The Anti-Enlightenment Critique" Feminism/Postmodernism. ed. Linda J. Micholson, NY: Routledge, 1990)

 

If social science is to adopt a postmodern point of view it must adopt to a situation where the goal of seeking truth is abandoned, where the possibility of modem truth and theory no longer exists. Many try in vain to substitute traditional narratives for truth. (Lyotard does not attempt this mental suicide) Feminist postmodems reject modern Enlightenment versions of truth because it is assured to be grounded in a male point of view. "Feminist theorists, like other postmodernists, should encourage us to tolerate, write and interpret ambivalence, ambiguity and multiplicity, as well as to expose the roots of our needs for imposing order and stricture no matter how arbitrary and oppressive these may be." (Jane Flax, Think Fragments: Psychoanalysis. Feminism and Postmodernism in The Contemporary West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) p. 183; Mary Hankesworth, "Knowers, Knowing, Known: Feminist Theory and Claims of Truth" Signs, 14(3) 1989: 533-549) Postmodern anthropologists disclaim all modem anthropological truth and theory. Truth in anthropology, considered mere invention, is constantly being reinvented. (An example is The Maori of New Zealand) Postmodern anthropology cannot offer truth, but it is not without content. (Marilyn Strathern, "Out of Context: The Persuasive Fiction of Anthropology" Current Anthropology (1987) 28(3):251-81) How can the postmodern surrounding of truth and theory be accommodated in any of the truth-dependent social science fields? If therapists in the field of psychology were to abandon any truth claims, would they not have to admit that all insight was of equal value? Would not an admission not undermine the very activity of therapy itself? It appears that such implications in anthropology and psychology do not hinder the researchers in these disciplines. How much of the patients dream text does the reader-analyst write in the process of clinical interpretation? (Paul Kucler, "From Modernism to Postmodernism: Some Implications for Depth Psychology of Dreams" 1988 Psychiatric Journal of University of Ottawa 13(2) : 1988: 60-65) Postmodern therapists have no intention of aiding a client to sort out, get below the surface, and achieve a more adequate understanding of reality. They deal only with virtual reality. In fact, that is all the reality there is!!

 

The consequences of the postmodern view of truth and theory are enormous. Rigid truth claims are politically incorrect in our postmodern maze, while the need for theory is crucial. A world without theory means an absolute equality of all discourse and an end to foundational claims. Truth would be replaced by new forms of postmodern "clarity," irony with regard to our own disbelief, recognition of our individual "will to power," discovery of "strength through moderation" and ultimately a "trans evaluation of all values." (lhad Hassin "The culture of Postmodernism" Theory. Culture and Society. 1985, 119-181) Does Postmodern denial of truth and theory generate a pluralism of theories, all of equal study in the universe of discourse? This is irrational mental suicide!! (See my papers on the consequence of denying "True Truth" and "Theory" in "Anti Science Mode" and "Revisionist History.") Postmodern versions of truth get lost along the way, and this threatens any version of psychology, psychoanalysis or therapy that assumes reality and the superior truth value of some interpretations, those of the analyst and others of the patient.

 

Consequences of Postmodern Views of "Theories" and "Truth"

 

It is impossible to over estimate the consequences of the postmodern view of truth and theory!!! Rigid truth claims are politically incorrect in all areas of academic study today, (egs. the anti science mode, death to true truth and in the social sciences, particularly history in the revisionist mode). Even in postmodern orientation it is hard for social scientists to give up theory as the sceptics require. A world without theory means an absolute equality of all discourse, an end to foundational claims (see my paper, "The Demise of Foundationalism" and "Goedel's Theories and The Demise of Autonomous Mathematics").

 

One possible outcome of the absence of universal theory (paradigm, legitimization theory, etc.) is overlooked. Here it is not only a question of no theory but also an instance of too many theories (Pluralism of Theories) that are altogether equal. In a situation where there is no possibility of employing specific criteria to arbitrate between texts, among theories as concerns relative truth claims, there is no way of reducing their number. (e. g., irrational Pluralism/Multi Culturalism) selecting some for greater attention, and ignoring their numbers, selecting some for greater attention and ignoring those "obviously" irrelevant or fraudulent. What rational foundation is available to select irrelevant vs. fraudulent data in the universe of discourse? The New Age postmodern current speaks of a movement for truth through global unity worldwide, peace around the planet, "transformational values," guided by a "spiritual aura." (Fergus M. Bordewich, "Colorado's Thriving Cults," (New York Times magazine. May 1, 1988: 37-48; and my paper "The Presuppositions of Pagan Temptation" and "Resurgent Gnosticism and New Age Pantheism") All this would be difficult to integrate into Postmodern social science. This is pure New Age Pantheism!!

 

Surely postmodernism erases the difference between truth and error, or between theory and nonsense, and that this opens the door to Nihilism. "Since there is no true truth, there is no error either, and all beliefs are equal." (Robert Scholes, Protocols of Reading (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989): 56) Vattino, a skeptical postmodernist, acknowledges the validity of this complaint and argues that Nihilism is a respected and viable philosophical tradition (Gianni Vattino, "The Battle in Art, Truth, Revolution, Terrorism, and Philosophy" Denver Quarterly, 1982: 24-34). "For the skeptics to deny that they are endorsing Nihilism is a fatal, irrational enterprise. The absence of truth is a positive, liberating activity in as much as it accepts "complexity and complication." (David C. Hoy, "Splitting The Difference: Haberman's Critique of Derrida" Praxis International, 1989 8 (4): 447-64; also "Jacques Derrida" in The Return of Grand Theory in Human Sciences, eds. Quentin & Skinner (Boston: Cambridge University Press).

 

Derrida contends that the absence of any possibility of truth claims makes not for nihilism; rather, it makes totalitarianism impossible But since totalitarianism is a fact, it is not impossible. This is, of course, not truth, but if it were, what could be "wrong" with totalitarianism? This judgment would require a metaethic, narrative which postmodern epistemology cannot abide. Its hostility to totalitarianism has no rational grounds of ajudication! Even if totalitarianism depends so completely on its own version of truth, post modernism undercuts it by negating the possibility of truth. (Joel Schwartz, "Anti Humanism in The Humanities" The Public Interest. 1990,99 (Spring): 29-44) If there is no "true truth" what would be the rational norm for its negative. Even a negation entails a true truth claim. (See my paper, "Theories of Logic and Theories of Epistemologies") Postmodern social scientists similarly argue that postmodernism mediates against totalitarianism because (causal explanation) by abandoning truth claims, it affirms gentler practices (why?) of "listening, questioning, and speaking." (Richard Ashley and R.B. Walker, "Speaking The Language of Exile: Dissident Thought in International Studies" International Studies Quarterly 34 (3) 1990: 259-68,. 395).

 

The postmodern view that there is no truth and that all is construction, is itself the ultimate contradiction. By making this statement, postmodernists assume a position of privilege. They assert as true their own view that "there is no truth." In so doing they affirm the possibility of truth itself. Few, if any, post modem escape this dilemma, but who try relativizing everything (Derrida and Ashley for examples) including their own statements. They say even their own views are not privileged. They warn their readers that the views they express are only their own and not superior to the opinions of others. But even this relativist position once stated positively, implicitly assumes truth. It assumes truth in the statements that what they are saying is not more veracious than any other position. There is simply no logical escape from this contradiction except to reason "silent." (e.g. perhaps Buddhist irrationalism is the solution "silence;" therefore you are not saying - anything - true or false or non cognitive) Postmodern social science seeks to produce "objective theory" that can be publicly challenged on the basis of confirming or counter-factual data. Theory is data dependent and data has priority over theory in the sense that if data show the theory to be wrong, then the theory must be abandoned (e.g. the whole history of science from the Greeks to Nonlinear-Chaos Physics is "proof of this judgment (see my paper "Science, Paradigms, and True Truth: Changing Paradigms in The Historiography of Science;" also, "Bube's Seven Patterns of Christianity's Response to Science (University Press, 1995); and my paper "Postmodern Revisionism in History.") given the rules of method have been respected. Data and evidence are the basis for distinction between two conflicting theories. They may eventually both be wrong; but both cannot be right. All this, the postmodernist "argues" is mere propaganda because either theory does not exist or if it does, the data are subordinate to theory (K. J. Gergen, "Introduction: Toward Metapsychology" in  The Analysis of Psychological Theory: Meta Psychological Perspectives, ed. H. J. Stam, et al, (Washington, D.C-: Hemisphere Publishing Corp., 1987): 2).

 

Every fact is itself theory laden, a construction without meaning independent of language, intuitive interpretation, and context. Facts are defined, even invented, by the community and have no meaning outside that collectivity. (Paul Smith, Discerning The Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988): 105) Postmodernists reduce social science knowledge to the status of stories. The great gulf between postmodernists and classical positivists version of social science must not overlook the common points of encounter.

 

Both antagonists argue about the complexity of the global village. Both would admit that True Truth in the social sciences is never attained. While the postmodems would deny that there is any such thing as True Truth, the classical positivistic social scientist would be hesitant about its present truth condition or reduce truth to quantifiable questions of genetic behavioral phenomena. The postmodernists believe that reality is so absolutely complex as to render all "truths," no matter how absurd, equal in the universe of discourse. But in the real world, the necessity of decisions precludes that all alternatives have equal standing in the market place of dialogue or else all decisions are arbitrary and solipsistic. This is a cosmic insane asylum!! Postmodernism's questioning of truth and theory is only one dimension of its larger challenge to the social sciences. The dispute is between two incommensurable interpretive schemas, but it is especially severe as concerns Methodology.

 

Dr. James Strauss Lincoln Christian Seminary Lincoln, IL 62656