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Truth in postmodern times


The classical theory of knowledge is based on the opposition of knowledge and opinion. Plato says that opinion (Gk. doxa) is inferior to the genuine knowledge (Gk. episteme). Opinion is an expression of a belief which is not always justified. Only by rational examination of a belief we can determine whether it may be accepted as knowledge. Knowledge is therefore a collection of justified beliefs that correspond with reality. In other words, knowledge is about how things really are while opinion is how things appear to be. Most people go through life holding several basic unstated convictions about the nature of the world: the world exists independently from our minds; our minds mirror the world; objective knowledge about the world is possible; knowledge transcends individual experience; it can be expressed in words; it is fundamentally different from opinion.

Yet, nowadays, these convictions are being questioned by postmodernists who claim that knowledge is constructed and not discovered and should not have universal pretensions. Post-modernists give themselves freedom to create their own world view, not constrained by objectivity and rationality. The question of truth, is once again at the centre of our attention.

Postmodernists want to give people total freedom in expressing their views about the world. In the past, knowledge was built from coherent and testable statements that corresponded with reality. Hence, broadly speaking, there were three theories of truth depending on what characteristic was stressed (the correspondence, the coherence and the pragmatic theories of truth). Postmodernists not only rejected these theories but, quite simply, they lost interest in truth. What they want is a kind of individualistic pragmatism: I believe in what is good for me; I create my own version of the world; I do not have to justify my opinions and can change them any time because I am my own authority. All ideas are permitted. Postmodernists want to replace philosophy, which is a love of wisdom, by philodoxy, which is the love of opinion.

This hostility to truth leads to confusion and detachment from reality. In the postmodernist world, we are stuck in a limbo between objects and words. Our verbal utterances do not reflect what really is because there is nothing behind the words. To Nietzsche, there are no facts: only interpretations. To Derrida, there is nothing outside the text. According to postmodernists, truth is dead. Richard Rorty, American philosopher and a self-confessed pragmatist, dismisses questions about the nature of truth as pointless. He claims that, so far, nothing interesting has been written about the subject. The Platonic tradition with its questions about the nature of Truth, Beauty and the Good is not worth continuing because these big questions have lost their relevance. For post-modernists, grand questions about the nature of reality and our place in the universe are pointless. There is no truth; there are only provisional statements that are neither valid nor invalid. Distinctions between good and evil, beautiful and ugly and true and false are not discernible any more. No-one has the authority to utter definitive statements. No group of people can claim that they know what reality is. We apparently create meaning and do not discover it.

We are being told that we live in times of absence of grand narratives. Platonism and Aristotelianism, two grand narratives on which European or Western civilisation is based, are said to be dead. Platonism is based on the belief that behind the world of appearances there is a domain of ideas of which material reality is a mere reflection. Plato thought that we live in the world of Becoming where everything is in a state of flux but that we aspire to access the world of Being where pure and abstract ideas reign. Our perception of reality is, according to Platonists, based on clear boundaries between sacrum and profanum. Our lives have temporal and spatial limitations but we refuse to recognise them. In Christianity, which absorbed Platonism through Neo-Platonism, there is a tension between our bodies, dragging us down, and souls, lifting our spirits upwards. One can make similar observations of dichotomy between Becoming and Being, vertical and horizontal, sacral and ordinary, carnal and spiritual in many aspects of our lives.

Postmodernists want to get rid of this allegedly antiquated worldview. They insist that there are no ideals behind appearances; there is only Becoming and no Being; profanum and no sacrum and everything is ordinary. People are motivated by base instincts, human behaviour is just a power game and nothing is serious any more. Postmodernists distrust Reason. For Platonists, belief in Reason (Logos) is the core itself of philosophy. Socrates linked Reason with the Good. God was for him good and rational; He created an orderly world and gave us mental powers to discover this order. The orderly character of the world may be hidden behind layers of appearances and might be difficult to discover but it is nevertheless there. Western civilisation is based on faith in God’s reasonableness and goodness.

Postmodernists are attached to cultures and distrust civilisation. As truth is necessarily supra-cultural it can only flourish in an atmosphere in which civilisation is valued more than cultures. What is true must be true in all cultures. We now live in a Romantic period when feeling is more valued than thought. We are being told that all cultures are equal and that they are superior to civilisation. Cultures are supposedly warm and human-friendly while civilisation is cold, brutal and destructive. Cultures are a testament to the diversity of human experience while civilisation is apparently a simplistic invention of the Enlightenment when Reason was glorified, if not deified as during the French Revolution. Feelings are considered superior to Reason which, embodied in science, is being blamed for destroying Nature.

According to post-modernists, ordinary people know very well what is good for them. Those insisting on canons, standards and values are branded as elitists whose motives are highly suspicious. What they supposedly want is to create an intellectual apartheid. The majority of people are not willing to scrutinise their opinions and to look for truth at any cost. Stephen Hart describes the road to truth, in ‘The Wayfarer’, as a pathway ‘thickly grown with weeds’ where ‘each weed was a singular knife’. No wonder that ‘none has passed here in a long time’. The democratisation of truth and moral norms, when only the majority has the power to legitimise them, is the source of today’s relativism.

Platonism was as a shield against crude pragmatism, scepticism, relativism and irrationalism. Postmodernism has opened a Pandora’s box with all these plagues. Truth has been one of its first casualties. Russian and Islamic propagandists thrive in this environment. They put so much effort into their propaganda because they are aware that confusion makes people defenceless.


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