Metaphysical matters in post-truth cultures

by Joshua Stein

In the early months of the Trump administration, and even the late months of the Presidential campaign, social theorists and commentators started to write Jeremiads on the death of truth and its relata, knowledge and disagreement and accuracy. Most of these characterizations focus on a range of questions about the status of knowledge and disagreement. [1][2][3] I do not want to disparage these sorts of characterizations, but many of them (as well as conversations with my colleagues and friends) has led me to suspect people are missing the point in disagreements about the important questions, though often they rub elbows in the course of the analysis.

My colleague Aaron Thomas-Bolduc made the following observations in his discussion of the issue. “… facts are true things or facthood is a property of truth things.” [4, emphasis in original] Those who think that this is a sort of naïve, arcane metaphysical claim detached from the modern intellectual realization of the importance of context and contingency, I’ll have words for that in a bit. But the goal here is just to lay out a foundation for the discussion of a standard metaphysical view. Thomas-Bolduc’s observation is supposed to be a triviality about the relationship a fact and a statement being true. A sentence is made true by its disquotation. If I say, “it’s raining outside,” then that sentence is true if and only if it is, in fact, raining outside. These sorts of straightforward observations will seem boring to the philosophically uninitiated, but they get important quickly when we dive into the modern conventions around truth.

Consider the fascinating and oft repeated claim, recently crystalized by Hugh Hewitt, “[The Affordable Care Act] is in a death spiral.” [5] The category “death spiral” describes a set of conditions; the claim is true or false if the Affordable Care Act meets those conditions. It doesn’t seem that complicated. It can be complicated, of course. Perhaps it meets some conditions and not others; perhaps there are borderline cases, or interpretations of “death spiral” that allow for the statement to be, or at least be read as, not straightforwardly true or false. In the case of Hewitt’s statement, it seems to be straightforwardly false, but there are others that are not so straightforward.

Historically, it is so-called “postmodern” or “continental” critics who are taken to advance this sort of claim, sometimes to the celebration or lament of academics. [6][7] It has a place in Anglophone metaphysics as well. There is a doctrine, that still has its defenders, that every sentence (barring, perhaps, a few exceptions) is either true or false; a number of prominent philosophers have suggested that this can’t possibly be right, that certain statements can be more or less true than others, either by more or less accurately tracking the facts or by getting more of a compound set of facts right.

In his seminal paper “Vagueness, Truth and Logic,” the British philosopher Kit Fine proposes an account where interpretations of a sentence can determine an intermediate truth-value for that sentence. [8] Consider the sentence, “Trump was surveilled by the Obama Administration.” On many, even most, interpretations of this sentence, it seems to be false; interpreting the sentence as a direct action, where Trump was targeted, or where the behavior was intentionally directed at Trump, seems to be false. There are some very minimal interpretations, though, where the sentence counts as true. If “was surveilled by the Obama administration” simply describes some parts of the intelligence community gaining some information about the subject in the course of general surveillance efforts, then it is true. On Fine’s view (though his views have evolved considerably since this paper) we might represent a truth-value as a number between (1) and (0), where (1) is true on all interpretations and (0) is false on all interpretations. The closer the truth value of the statement “Trump was surveilled by the Obama Administration” is to (1), the truer it is.

Sociologists and anthropologists, as well as social critics, are fascinated by the term “ontology,” though they rarely use it all that well. Here’s the simple series of moves that get from the ontological (properly, metaphysical, though that word is scarier) claim to the epistemological claim; the rapid-chess version, if you will. For any sentence, there are a range of possible interpretations of that sentence, and for each interpretation there are facts in virtue of which that interpretation is true, false, or some value in between. The sentence, then, gets to be true or false based on the aggregation of the value of those interpretations. We evaluate a sentence as true or false based on whether the range of possible interpretations tends to be true or false. A sentence where all of the interpretations come back true is a sentence we know to be true, and the same for falsity.

I’ve become fond of a particular locution in the Trump era. “There is no interpretation of that statement that’s true.” This is how I regard Hewitt’s “death spiral” claim, and those relevantly similar. Similarly, “that’s mostly false” approximates my evaluation of the surveillance claim; there are some minimal interpretations that come back true, but for the most part, the sentence is false.

One of the hot takes around this issue is that we live in a world where critics have made void the notion of truth, that “it is all relative” now, and that is responsible for the inexorable tide of bullshit filling our living rooms through television sets and facebook feeds. This is only true for those with un-nuanced stories about truth and facts. Relativism, post-modernism, or whatever label the hot taker sticks on the perceived destroyer of facticity is this evil culprit; but, in reality, it is hard to find well-interpreted versions of the account offensive. The problem isn’t a particular philosophically salient ideology, but the combination of lazy interpretations of an ideology with political inclinations, malice, ignorance, greed, or some combination.

This is not to say that the philosophically oriented writing dog-eared as “relativism,” “post-modernism,” or whatever reappropriated academic term is dredge up in these commentaries is particularly good, or even benign. (Surely, there are a lot of writers with philosophical predilections who are quite bad along nearly every imaginable axis of evaluation, but that is another tangent.) That said, the hot takes are, themselves, illustrations of the same intellectually lazy claims about truth and relata that are getting us here. Reductive analyses of anything are weak; even the expedited analysis of truth I’ve offered is only a preface to a much longer set of interlocking discussions. There are lots of reasons we’ve wound up in the political and moral vacuum, but clawing our way out requires more work, rather than less.


[1] Carrigan, Mark. March 27, 2017. “The Ontology of Fake News.”
[2] Buckingham, David. January 12, 2017. “Fake News: is media literacy the answer.”
[3] Kreilkamp, Ann. December 2, 2016. “Alt Epistemology 101: Truth in the Age of Trump.”

Alt Epistemology 101: Truth in the Age of Trump

[4] Thomas-Bolduc, Aaron. January 26, 2017. “Some Facts about Facts.”
Some Facts about Facts
[5] Graves, Allison. March 26, 2017. “Is Obamacare in a ‘death spiral’?”
[6] Hanson, Victor Davis. August 4, 2016. “Donald Trump, Postmodern Candidate.”
[7] Read, Rupert. November 22, 2016. “Richard Rorty and How Postmodernism Helped Elect Trump.”
[8] Fine, Kit. 1975. “Vagueness, Truth and Logic.” Synthese 30: 265-300.


Joshua Stein is a doctoral student in the department of philosophy at the University of Calgary, where he works on a range of topics, particularly metaethics, philosophy of mind and neuroscience, and philosophy of social sciences. He blogs periodically at APhilosophersTake and elsewhere around the internet. He can be found on Twitter at ThePhilosotroll.

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