Truth as “a function of power” has a nice ring to it—for some people. The rise of a cynical relativism that declares that truth doesn’t exist as anything “objective”, i.e. outside our perceptions of it, has parallels in the relativisation of morality. If “good” cannot exist unless, as Hamlet once put it, “thinking makes it so”, then good is relative to human beings, and we know from experience that different historical times/different circumstances “construct” the thinking of different people, so if it’s thinking that constructs the idea of the good then objectivity of morals is dead in the water. But does it follow that even if we accept this questionable sort of reasoning about “good” we should accept that truth must go the same way?
Nietzsche actually didn’t say that truth was a function of power[i], but he could see how possession or control of what was seen as the truth could provide the power to dominate how people think about reality: declaring some accounts of reality true and others false are power plays in larger struggles over defining reality. But from here do we inevitably go to “there is no truth”? The end-point of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was, depending on the edition, either “2 + 2 = 5” or “2 + 2 = ?” and the two slightly different conclusions to draw are, respectively, “absolute power determines what we agree to call reality” or “absolute power makes it impossible to know what is reality”. In neither case is it inevitable that the absolute power decides what is true, only that the absolute power controls people’s access to the truth. Orwell wasn’t postmodern enough to make the external reality in the novel subject to the same “suspicion” that is engendered by the “unreliable narrators” and frequent shifts in perspective that call into question all perspectives, which are the staple of some 21st century literary fiction. The only “suspicion” of all perspectives is the suspicion engendered in the characters in the novel by the controlling power. The “truth” that is a “function of power” is only the pseudo-truth of Big Brother that is ground into the denizens of Airstrip One so comprehensively that they lose all faith in there being any other reality, or any “real” truth.
There is a logical fallacy in the reasoning that conflates “truth” with the dictates of power. The PoMo “suspicion” that would relativise truth out of existence works fine at a first-person level: what I perceive to be true is, tautologically, what I perceive to be true. The fact that I can’t get “outside” my perceptions to somehow “perceive” the noumena rather than the phenomena has tempted many modern thinkers to apply (subjective) first-person criteria to (objective) third-person phenomena and conflate the two realms, thus relativising the objective realm by sleight-of-hand.
While we’re on Nietzsche, his idea of “Perspectivism” is most apposite to talk of truth. The notion that he put forward, in a muddled way perhaps, was that a broader perspective gave one a closer approximation of truth. There’s an obvious dependence on the simple visual analogy that goes: observer A sees one person, observer B sees two, one of whom from A’s viewpoint is hidden behind the other. A says there is one person, B says there are two… being familiar with visual perspective I will judge (“objectively”) that A is wrong and B is right. But Nietzsche’s melange of “perspectivist” theorising was immediately reduced, by various thinkers, to “relativism”. He didn’t endorse a full-blown relativism, but some of his less-considered remarks can be construed that way. A C Graham did a very careful analysis of Nietzsche’s “Perspectivism” and found that it did not reduce to relativism:
Throughout much of his work Nietzsche is faithful to the visual analogy, and assumes that the wider the range of perspectives from which one views the better one knows, the nearer one approaches the kind of objectivity he recognises…[ii]
Graham then quotes various passages from Nietzsche’s works that either support or undermine the non-relativist theme. But he believes that there is one “rescuable” argument in Nietzsche for a Perspectivism that does not reduce to relativism:
It is inherent in the visual analogy that perspectives are related, not to the persisting and self-centered viewpoints of individuals or communities, but to the vantage-points towards which, as with spatial positions, they direct themselves in order to get the most informative view of the scene. Nietzsche is always searching for the unnoticed perspective from which what he has himself said is revealed to be inadequate; and this constant requestioning is for him not a plunge into skepticism but a strengthening and enriching of knowledge.[iii] [My itals]
Graham allows that Nietzsche’s discussions of truth and knowledge are “very varied”:
Nietzsche may be seen as ranging between two poles; at one he rejects their very possibility, at the other he dismisses the all-or-nothing truths affirmed from single perspectives only to insist on the more-or-less of truth in multi-perspectival views.[iv]
It is when he unduly privileges the Ubermensch that Nietzsche leaves himself open to charges of relativism; this and the “will to power” form a very important strand of his thought, and it is this aspect that gives rise to distortions like “Truth is a function of power”. However, in Ecce Homo he talks of having “an eye beyond all merely local, merely nationally conditioned perspectives; it is not difficult for me to be a ‘good European’ ”—a superior perspective to the German historians’, who have “utterly lost the great perspective for the course and values of culture…they have actually proscribed this great perspective. One must first be ‘German’ and have ‘race’, then one can decide about all values and disvalues…—one determines them.”[v] Here, Nietzsche disavows the “truth as a function of power” perspective that was later formative of Nazi ideology.
We can talk of “telling truth to power” and as long as the Bear, or the Panda, or the Eagle doesn’t just obliterate us, because any of them can, we can be sanguine about the relationship of truth to power. But first we must consider where power really lies in our post-millennial new world…
Globalisation, turbo-capitalism and exponential growth in digital technologies have created massive inequality, socioeconomic distress and the destruction of communities, and this has seen a profound shift in the locus of power, which has altered the pattern of winners and losers from the system—financial and technocratic elites operating at a global level are appropriating the power that was once invested in liberal democratic nation states. Technology is a relentlessly dynamic force that recognises no limits other than the limits of possibility (consider how the “limits of possibility” have changed in just the last two decades…). A technocracy is by nature totalitarian, the rule of a self-perpetuating system with no controlling centre and therefore no bearers of political responsibility and no real accountability. Liberal order, in what is left of “democracy” before it is subsumed in plutocratic totalitarianism, is reactive to technology, but it cannot control it: consider the recent Facebook man’s stonewalling of a parliamentary “grilling” as merely the first failure in a losing battle. Michael Hanby[vi] sees technocratic totalitarianism as “post-political” and suggests that post-political absolutism may inflame the desire for a political absolutism that promises to restore control, perhaps partly explaining the Trump phenomenon.
The unstoppability of technology, with the limits of the possible heading exponentially upwards, has led to the notions of desirability, morality and truth being perceived as old-fashioned and irrelevant beside the beckoning glitter of the rewards from the monetisation and the commodification of everything in the reign of quantity that consumer capitalism has ushered in. Truth is not so much a function of power, but the new power coming up—rich techno-power—is in essence totalitarian and anti-human, and, importantly, it relies on the trashing of the concept of truth in order to continue expanding like a cancer. And why is this? Well… the whole concept of “telling truth to power” conceives of truth as an absolute, and totalitarian states do not countenance any absolutes other than themselves, but our situation is more complex than that, and has deep historical roots.
Close analysis of the building-blocks of modern academic philosophy reveals various ideological constraints on what they can say about truth, knowledge and meaning, which conspire to render today’s philosophy inadequate to fully explore the concept of truth. Grossly oversimplified, three general ways to truth have had broad acceptance in Western philosophy over its history: “rationalist” contributions, which suggest that truth is amenable to reason; “empiricist”, or experience-based contributions (the modern materialist/scientific worldview is associated with the empirical approach); and modern and “postmodern” approaches to truth after Kant, which have called into radical question the traditional approaches and in many cases have called into question the notion of truth itself. “Modern” and “postmodern” philosophy in the Anglosphere grew out of the empiricist tradition—the Anglo-American “broadly analytic tradition”, as some call it, owes much to the 17th Century rise of empiricism as a philosophy, whilst “postmodern” strands owe as much to Continental neo-rationalist ideas and also to the social sciences.
While “philosophy bakes no bread” is a truism, there is a trickle-down effect from an academy that is so obviously opposed to the notions of “traditional wisdom” and the Learning from History that used to be part of an ongoing intellectual endeavour. With neo-liberal capitalism and the marketisation and commodification of everything, education was unlikely to escape, and there was a (predictable in hindsight) synergy between the need to price everything and sell everything and the sort of thinking that became, increasingly, “privileged” in the universities: i.e. there is no truth, no certainty; the “grand narratives” of the Western tradition are rationalisations that legitimise racism, sexism and persecution of minorities; the way forward is to fight for the individual rights of the oppressed… This led to the identity politics and narcissism which took the heat off the systemic wrongs and emasculated any genuine opposition to the political/social/technological system that was being established. The “postmodern suspicion”, ostensibly of all grand narratives, becomes a sort of paranoid obsession, and it permeates the modern world. One of the early results of this trickle-down suspicion in the world at large is the destabilisation of a culture of truth as a strong concept, which allows the “newspeak” merchants, the plutocrats and the opportunists, aided by various forms of mass media, to behave with cavalier disregard for anything but self-interest and the accumulation of wealth and power.
Parallel with the rise in narcissism and focus on the individual, which has been exacerbated by the overwhelming surrender to digital technology and “social” media that is presently moronising the population, is the naturalising of the market as the universal arbiter. The market allows only quantity as a yardstick (quality is an inconvenient judge of the value of anything measured in saleable units…), and a concomitant of this is that everything has its price; anything outside the market—things with no monetary value—are seen as valueless (love, compassion, community feeling, spirituality, etc.), and thus human life is degraded. The opportunity to “like” anything and everything renders everything “measurable” and for sale…
Measurable, quantifiable, numerable, countable—the C17th rise of science, and the parallel rise of Empiricist philosophy, saw the enshrining in the Western mind of the logical part of human thinking. It severely impeded academic philosophy in the UK and The US (the “broadly analytic tradition”) by denying it access to what might be 80 to 90% of human thinking. A. C. Graham makes it abundantly clear that “analytic reasoning” is but a small part of our thinking:
Logicality itself is only one of the varieties, and not necessarily the most important for judging someone intelligent. Reason in the narrow sense can presume too much on being the capacity which distinguishes human from animal; an exclusively logical mind, if such is conceivable, would be less than animal, logical operations being the human activity most easily duplicated by a computer.[vii]
And back to Nietzsche: his “Perspectivism” can be nicely aligned with Graham’s version of how we think, viz: the “constant requestioning” that is for Nietzsche a “strengthening and enriching of knowledge” allows all relevant perspectives to be taken into account:
There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity” be.[viii]
And the main “affects” that analytic philosophy denies itself are those available via the arts:
The arts can develop, clarify, and intensify awareness at any or every level, sharpening sense impressions, vivifying imagination, waking to unnoticed similarities, loosing correlation from conventional schemes, educating the incipient simulation by which we understand persons from within – analysing too, but never like philosophy and science uprooting the logical form from its bedding in other kinds of thinking. [ix]
The separation of the “rational” from the “emotional”, and the concomitant diminution of perspective, has been a trend since the C17th which has become chronic in the C21st. The “bubbles” and “echo chambers” of the internet reinforce tribal beliefs and actively work against reasoned debate, or even exposure to thinking outside the thought-bubble straitjacket. There are parallels with the phenomenon, just prior to wars, of the vilification of “the enemy” as other than human; many stories attest to the difficulty in killing a fellow human being if he/she is perceived as such. (Orwell’s vignette of the Spanish Civil war—he found he could not shoot a running man who was obviously trying to hold his trousers up after losing his belt to some exigency—illustrates just this human trait. Soldiers are routinely brutalised to minimise its effect, and propaganda emphasises the “otherness” of the enemy.) In the same way, exposure to only “our” ideas makes others’ ideas alien. The concomitant narrowing of the human thinking process is cause for alarm—Facebook addiction in hoi polloi is one thing, but a generalised closing-off of the rational element in our thinking is dangerous: it is exactly what is required before the propaganda victory that creates “the enemy”…
The emotional/non-rational/irrational wave of C21st radical fundamentalism is to be expected as an equal and opposite reaction to the “scientistic” trend in analytic philosophy and the hyper-rational successes of technology. The trend to “spiritualism”, Eastern religious and yogic practices, etc., but without any but superficial grounding in traditional ideas that might give them depth, is also part of the push-back against hyper-analytic thinking. The internet is awash with “alternatives” to the modern hyper-rational world, most alas modelled on the neo-liberal consumerist blueprint and competing for attention in the Babel of shouting, over-simplified messages online.
The hyper-rational pole is represented in this environment too: dip not too far into Google Scholar and people are discussing the “quantified self” (there is even a “Quantified Self movement”). They speak of a “qualified self”, constructed by applying the same Big Data algorithms and devices to track and alter mood, emotion, etc. Individuals will have “an increasingly intimate relationship with data as it mediates the experience of reality”—“creating qualitative feedback loops for behaviour change”… (Guénon’s “reign of quantity” might seem old hat.)
That these “poles” are further “polarising” would appear to be a verifiable fact. The fact that they have been poles apart for some time is verifiable, too: C P Snow’s “Two Cultures” (1959) is well-enough known, but C S Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (1943) is most interesting to revisit in the light of our present juxtapositioning of the rational/irrational poles. Lewis wrote his three-chapter polemic in response to a textbook for senior high-school students that sought to “modernise” their thinking. What he railed against was its unconscious acceptance of a bias of the then-current Oxford philosophy that denigrated emotion, in the sense that it sundered fact from value. The is/ought impasse was cutting-edge then, and the well-meaning English teachers who wrote the book were utterly submerged in that zeitgeist. Lewis speaks in a language alien to the C21st, but he put his finger on the same sort of polarisation we are seeing today in a slightly altered form. He was defending the objectivity of values at a time when radical subjectivism, emotivism and the “linguistic turn” were coming into the ascendant—and he correctly identified what a distorted focus on an exclusively rational analysis would lead to. Because, as David Stove puts it:
It does not follow…because no reason can be given to believe p, that it is unreasonable to believe p, or that belief in p is groundless. Unless some propositions were known directly or without benefit of reasons for believing them, none could be known indirectly or by means of reasons.[x]
Or, as Coleridge put it, more poetically,
From the indemonstrable flows the sap, that circulates through every branch and spray of the demonstration.[xi]
As Lewis saw it, in the teachers writing the textbook and in the philosophical mainstream at the time:
Their extreme rationalism, by ‘seeing through’ all ‘rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behaviour. If you will not obey the Tao, … obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere ‘nature’) is the only course left open.[xii]
Practically all traditions throughout recorded history show a striking convergence in the sorts of beliefs, behaviours, rules and attitudes that comprise the right way to live—the “perennial philosophy” has many strands, many different applications in many different cultures and traditions, but, mutatis mutandis, all these strands comprise the same Way. In the first chapter of The Abolition of Man, Lewis outlines what he is going to mean by “the Tao”:
In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta … Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’… The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. … It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road…. It is also the Way which every man should tread in … conforming all activities to that great exemplar [for Lewis, Christ].
This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’. … What is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain values are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are….[it is to] recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.[xiii]
Lewis saw the polarisation as being “follow the Tao”/return to a state of “nature”. “Follow the Tao” can be simplified for our purposes (but not by undue distortion) as a paraphrase of Stove’s “unless some propositions are known directly or without benefit of reasons for believing them, none could be known indirectly or by means of reasons”; if you reject these universal values that cannot be derived from reason alone, you can have no grounds for judgement—all your reasoning floats without foundation:
My point is that those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse…
For without the judgement ‘Benevolence is good’ — that is, without re-entering the Tao — they can have no ground for promoting or stabilizing these impulses rather than any others. By the logic of their position they must just take their impulses as they come, from chance. And Chance here means Nature.[xiv]
And “return to a state of ‘nature’” can also be aligned with our polarities. By “nature”, Lewis does not mean Tao as “Nature … the Way, the Road…”. He says it (nature) has varying meanings, and proceeds to define it via its opposites (“the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural”). From “nature” come our basic drives, impulses and emotions. For Lewis, the intellect (reason) alone is inadequate to keep these in check. In a nod to Plato, he uses a three-part notion of the human as comprised of head, heart and gut: the intellect, the sentiment (the “heart”) and the aforesaid basic drives. By following the Tao, the heart can be educated, emotions can be civilised, and basic drives can be kept in check. A very traditional notion of the human, and one that has been desperately unfashionable for almost a century, but the relativisation of values has had certain effects—of which Lewis was perhaps not too dimly prescient in 1943.
There is irony in the current polarisation: of the hyper-rational techno-elite world of Google, Amazon, et. al. and the hot, primitive emotions moiling on the world wide web. Science, and scientistic and empiricist/materialist thought—in the academy, in business, in planning, in politics (“it’s the economy, stupid!”)—has moved away from the non-rational, the emotive, that which cannot be pinned down in propositions that can be manipulated and tested. This provides a rich matrix for two sorts of reaction: the anti-rational rise of populism seen everywhere, and the hyper-rational rise of techno control. On the surface these seem diametrically opposed, but they are two sides of the one phenomenon. Two sides of the same coin are not the “full two bob” in themselves, of course, and one of them is being duped—some hoi polloi who fulminate on twitter, who vote for the likes of Trump or just about anyone out of the current sad crop, who have knee-jerk reactions to everything from individually-crafted inducements to buy to traffic-rage outside their kids’ school, no longer accept the old “values” of community, democracy, decency, etc., which have been “shown” to be fabricated by a system that is unfair— one that has been exploded by the academy… these hoi polloi are surrendering, via the technology they have become addicted to, to the purely rational/analytic control of elite very rich groups.
And the crushing irony is that the rational/irrational dichotomy is a false one. If, as A. C. Graham has demonstrated, 80+% of thought is “non-rational” from the point of view of analytic reasoning, the two sides are part of the same coin: Graham explores this notion in a number of essays in Unreason Within Reason: essays on the outskirts of rationality. There is no “rational” way to prove just about any answer to any of the “big” questions, and in fact there is no “rational” way to prove that a “logical” argument actually “proves” its conclusion. As David Stove said: “The greatest logician in the world cannot explain, any more than the layman can, why ‘All swans are black and Abe is a swan’ entails ‘Abe is black’.” What are our reasons for believing:
- a) M a P [all M’s are P’s]
- b) S a M [all S’s are M’s]
- c) \S a P [all S’s are P’s] ?
Graham, a sinologist and not an analytic philosopher, but one with a strong empiricist bent, had an acute and unconditioned mind to bring to the “problems” of rationality, consciousness and the fact/value dichotomy that have perplexed the broadly analytic tradition for many years. After showing, with a rather delightful allusion to Pavlov, that most of our thinking is correlative, he demonstrates that we have an emotional response to facts as well as a (probably later) rational one. In fact, most of our thinking is correlative; as Graham asserts:
…all analysis has its starting-points in the pre-logical underground of thought – in concepts born from spontaneous correlations, which may be discredited if the conclusions drawn from them are contradictory or refuted by observation, but can be replaced only by a spontaneous correlative switch; and from spontaneous motivations which are to be evaluated by the degree of awareness of oneself and of the objects to which one finds oneself responding. (p208 my emphases)
And it is this “spontaneous correlative switch” that happens when we are open to wider and wider perspectives which causes us to “change our minds”—no-one is persuaded by rational argument to adopt a different view: it is only when we have “decided” pre-rationally to allow ourselves to be moved in a particular direction, in the light of a wider array of facts about it, that we choose a “position”.
A most important observation of Graham’s, in the present context, is that:
No mode of thinking, poetic, mythic, mystical, whatever you please, is to be called irrational merely because it is pre-logical, but it is irrational to accept it without having a test which it satisfies. Rationality is intelligence excusing none of its varieties from logical tests. (p15, my italics)
And my thesis is that the great divide, which probably started during the Enlightenment or before, is a traducing of the human, which has always had two at least (and pace Plato, possibly three) components, which, when properly aligned in the “right” proportions, has resulted in the Tao, or the right way to live. A purely analytic-rational focus denies important parts of being human and important ways of arriving at truths—the juggernaut of technology is a totalitarian force that by “uprooting the logical form from its bedding in other kinds of thinking”, to use Graham’s words, has taken the locus of power out of human hands. And the only sorts of truths it recognises in this supposedly “post-truth” era are the thin truths, the truths that are instrumental in consolidating its absolute power.[xv]
The pressing question for our age is how to reconcile the two divided parts of our humanity, somehow to heal the rift, and thus to show that C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” and C. S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man are not accurate predictions of our near future. At present, “telling truth to power” is a fraught undertaking, because those who might do so are hampered by the legacy of the last three hundred-odd years and its insistence on truth’s only being available via the narrow analytic-rational route, which is the operating system of the main technological and financial power blocs in today’s world. A recognition that human rationality is much broader and more varied than logical operations might be a good place to start on the “reconciliation”.
[i] “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth” are said to be Nietzsche’s actual words… [my italics] [https://www.reddit.com/r/philosophy/comments/1g1fz8/a_question_about_nietzsches_epistemology/ ]
[ii] Graham, A. C. Unreason Within Reason: essays on the outskirts of rationality, Open Court, Illinois, 1992, p30
[iii] Ibid. p31
[iv] Loc. Cit.
[v] Ibid. pp30-1
[vi] Hanby, M. “A More Perfect Absolutism” in First Things Oct. 2016, p26
[vii] Graham, Op. Cit. pp15-16 (my italics)
[viii] Nietzsche On the Genealogy of Morals, in Graham Op. Cit. p30
[ix] Graham, Op. Cit. p215 (my italics)
[x] Stove, D. The Rationality of Induction, OUP, UK, 1986, p180 (my italics)
[xi] Coleridge, S. T. (ed. I. A. Richards) The Portable Coleridge, Penguin/Viking, N. Y.
[xii] C.S. Lewis. 1944. The Abolition of Man, Ch. 3
[xiii] Ibid. Ch. 1
[xiv] Ibid. Ch. 3
[xv] What might seem apposite here, perhaps, is Aphorism 4 of Beyond Good and Evil: “TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.”