Post-Truth Riffing With the Squad, Jamming, 17/01/2017

So my colleagues at SERRC have been tossing around the idea of a project engaging with the notion of post-truth.

A bit of a serious topic these days. It’s a term that cries out for analysis from the professional social epistemologists. I’ve signed on to be part of the project. Its timeliness (and general mainstream media ubiquity) makes it a good topic to throw down on as a group of public intellectuals.

Besides, the general discipline of the organization is social epistemology – the study and investigation of how social interaction at all levels of individual, group, cultural, and institutional processes creates knowledge. The concept cries out for our analysis.

Rather, the general idea is crying out to become a concept. ‘Post-truth’ is largely just a buzzword with a little academic pedigree. But when philosophers go to work on a messy, complicated phenomenon, we can craft a concept that can do some useful work in helping us understand clearly a muddled, confusing real-life situation.

So here are some initial thoughts on what to do about this post-truth idea. We’re still in the early stages of working out this project, and I’d like to get some thoughts from my likely collaborators, anyone else in the SERRC, or any of my friends and readers so inclined.

The notion that we're in a post-truth world isn't exactly new. We've been
slipping in this direction for a long time. What's happened lately is that
we've crossed a threshold. But the conditions have existed for a while.
First of all, here’s a few things my approach won’t be. I won’t rest with the idea – very valuable and important though it is – that a ‘post-truth era’ is basically a world of lies. Or the fulfillment of Stephen Colbert’s ‘truthiness’ – strength of self-belief and the emotional intensity of your opinion matters. Whether it reflects actual facts at all? Not so much.

This notion is true. But it’s too simple. It’s the idea of ‘post-truth’ before philosophical creativity has really gone to work on it. We don’t know the idea’s inner structures, possible implications, its links to other concepts of different philosophical approaches and positions. It’s just an idea. Only when we’ve engineered it into a concept can we know what it means.

Yet you also can’t take the idea too seriously. There are certainly dangerous elements to how easily knowledge is undermined. A. C. Grayling cites one example – that one of the first auto-complete suggestions for the phrase “Did the” is “Holocaust really happen?” and some of the top hits are from denialists.

Definitely serious. But you can’t approach the ‘post-truth era’ as if we were in some radically different mode of politics and society than we were only a few years ago. It passes blindly over the real continuity in history from the current moment to the past.

We see only a huge difference – it’s there since we’ve apparently crossed a post-truth threshold in 2016 – but we also have to see its conditions and precursors. The journalist Jonathan Mahler got the philosophical ball rolling a few weeks ago.

The loops of knowledge – the social connections through which we learned about the world – began closing off a while ago. Some of the first to close their knowledge to outside input were the leaders and many figures in the W Administration.

Turning their eyes from the intelligence reports that would have denied their desire to invade Iraq. Occupation leaders unable to see the growing insurgency until it was too late to stop anything. Even when the UN was bombed and many people who could have helped build a better post-invasion Iraq were killed.

Everything was normal. Their blindness is the precursor to our closed feedback loops of partialities, dogma, and conspiracies. It’s a normal development in continuity with the past. But those situations only become conditions retroactively.

This is my starting point. I want to touch base with my collaborators and see what else can develop from this project. It could be a fantastic blend of philosophy, sociology, politics, and historical anthropology. Hope to hear from everyone soon.

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