Truth Under Cultural and Conceptual Assault

Chris Yeh pointed me to a very good article in the New Yorker about bullshit, but more importantly, the state of philosophy’s argument over the nature and authority on truth. First, on bullshit, the author Jim Holt reviews several of the academic arguments over the nature of bullshit and concludes that a liar knows what the truth is and leads the other person away from it while the bullshiter is more nonsensical with a perverse indifference to truth.

I have posted before about how "we’re all postmodernists now" and it is increasingly clear to me that it is quite difficult to argue for an objective truth. As much as I love Pope Benedict’s name, I must disagree that the church should impose moral absolutes on its faithful. I myself am more of a relativist – as Holt quotes Nietzsche: "There are no facts, only interpretations." Whether in journalism or otherwise, Holt correctly comments that perspectivism means "we are all condemned to see the world from a partial and distorted perspective, one defined by our interests and values."

With all this "whose truth" talk, promoted by prominent Stanford scholar Richard Rorty, Holt notices that this trend is offering aid to bullshiters. Rorty’s response, which is good enough for me but maybe not for everyone, is that "even though the distinction between truth and consensus is untenable, we can distinguish between frivolous and serious…serious, decent, and trustworthy versus unconversable, incurious, and self-absorbed. Serious people care not only about producing agreement but also about justifying their methods for producing agreement."

2 comments on “Truth Under Cultural and Conceptual Assault
  • The best article written on the subject dates back probably to just before you were born. LOL

    Frankfurt, H. “Reflections on Bullshit.” Harper’s, 02.1987.

    The bottom line: lying == “deliberately telling something contrary to the truth”; while bullshit == “deliberately avoiding having to either tell the truth OR lie.” That’s a subtle difference to every one of us who never thinks about it. Which would be most of us.

  • Just picked up On Bullshit–reading it causes one to give that ominous giggle that indicates what is being read is not funny, but creepy. It almost seems like a SNL skit, if one were to read the text in a comical voice.

    Re:perspectivism; I don’t know if you get the New Yorker, but the Aug 29th issue with a feature on radio host/blogger Hugh Hewitt touches on bias in the media. Again, reading this article gave me the same uncomfortable feeling as “On Bullshit,” which is usually indicative of me unearthing some new, non-contextualized idea–while I found a few of Hewitt’s probing questions as having odd starting points in terms of applicability to journalism’s ’cause,’ I was also compelled by his candor and insistence–and a bit disturbed by the end of the article, where I got the distinct feeling that the author of the piece had completely missed the point. In any case, if you do happen to read this piece, I’d be curious to hear your take.

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