Saturday, October 1, 2016

On Truth

(Draft written perhaps in 2014, published now).

A bunch of years ago, I read Harry Frankfurt's 1986 essay "On Bullshit", and agreed with him but moved on.  Today, I'm rethinking just how right he is and I am terrified.

My main take-away from the essay was this quote:

Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are
indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in
telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting
things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to
tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying
certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The
first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This
would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The
second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the
way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.

His conclusion is at once snarky and hopeful:

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various
forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an
objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things
truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of
disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the
intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of
confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the
ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by
pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive
at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying
to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no
inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he
devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that
since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead
to be true to himself.

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence
susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the
ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As
conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know
ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and
certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is
the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about
ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our
natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial— - notoriously less stable and less
inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity
itself is bullshit.

This to me is a rallying cry to fight this modern tendency to retreat from attempts to seek "Truth" and instead to settle for personal truth or "what I feel".

Serious Americans (indeed all serious humans) must fight the urge to retreat into what we feel.  We must seek truth, certainly (and maybe especially) in our public discourse because a body politic can only hope to advance its collective interests if we can get beyond what we individually and sincerely feel to what we collectively "know".

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