Philosophical Objections to the Knowability of Truth: Answering Postmodernism

Introduction

Postmodernism is a recent development in the field of philosophy. Postmodernism emerged between 1960 and 1990 as a cultural phenomenon, spurred in many respects by the advent of information age. Just as the factory is the symbol of the industrial age, which produced modernism, the computer is the symbol of the information age, which produced postmodernism. Postmodernism is complex and its tenets are sometimes contradictory. Postmodernism rejects most of the fundamental intellectual pillars of modern Western civilization. Specially, it regards as illegitimate and obsolete certain important principles, ideas and methods characteristic of Western culture. In short, postmodernism represents a rejection of the philosophy that has characterized Western thought since its inception.

The aim of this paper is to answer several of the main philosophical objections to the knowability of truth as presented by exponents of postmodernism. Because the philosophy of postmodernism has permeated contemporary culture, the paper aims at confronting the enemies on their own ground, with a view to helping our uneducated Christian brethren who, under God, have no defense against the intellectual attacks of the heathen, but depend on us (Christian intellectuals) to help defend the faith. Lewis is quoted as saying that “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered” (McDowell, 613). Contrary to postmodernist argument that objective truth is unknowable, the paper argues persuasively that we can and do have objective knowledge of truth. It is the contention of this paper that though human knowledge is partial/imperfect, it is not a sufficient condition to assume that we cannot have objective knowledge. Before we establish this fact, some conceptualization is germane.

What is truth?

The problem of truth has a long history and has been a central issue in epistemology. In the first century, while cross-examining Jesus Christ during his trial, Pontius Pilate asked Jesus Christ: ‘And What is Truth’? Ever since then, attempts have been made to answer the question. Today, in all areas of human endeavour, ‘truth’ has become  the standard of measuring the success and acceptability of beliefs, claims, findings and theories (Offor, I).

Now, what is truth? Things by themselves are neither true nor false; they just are or are not. What makes things true or false are our judgments and our propositions about them. Truth has to do with the assertions or claims that we make about things (Titus and Smith, 267). Philosophers past and present have differed concerning the nature of truth. Consequently, three theories of the nature of truth have been postulated. First, there is the correspondence theory, which states that truth is the agreement between a statement of fact and an actual state of affairs, or between a judgment and the situation the judgment claims to describe. Second, is the coherence theory, which states that a judgment is true if it coheres or is consistent with other judgments that are accepted as true. Thus, true judgments are those that are logically coherent with other relevant judgments. Finally, there is the pragmatic or utility theory which states that truth is what works out in practice, what leads to satisfactory results.

Apart from the theories adumbrated above, there are basically two schools of thought regarding the notion of truth. They are individualism (subjectivism or relativism) and objectivism (universalism or absolutism). While the former holds that what the individual is acquainted with or the interpretation his subjective mind is capable of giving concerning a state of affairs is what constitutes truth, objectivism holds that reality is what exists in nature and truth is our reflection and estimation of this pre-existing reality which everybody tends to agree with.

What is Postmodernism?

Also called deconstructionism, postmodernism is a relatively recent movement in the advanced capitalist cultures in arts, philosophy, literature, history, social science and architecture, that has permeated the length and breadth of the entire humanistic intellectual endeavours. Postmodernism is antithetical to modernism. In a sense, while modernism is the culture of modernity, postmodernism is the culture of postmodernity.

Postmodernism is said to have originated in the 1960s among artists and critics in New York and was taken up by European theorists in the 1970s. The leading postmodern thinkers include Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, Richard Rorty, Paul Feyerbend, Roland Barthes, and a host of others. In particular, Jean-Francois Lyotard is said to havve attacked the legitimating myths of the modern age (‘the grand narratives’), the progressive emancipation of humanity through science, and the idea that philosophy is capable of restoring unity to learning and developing universally valid knowledge for humanity. Postmodernism thus became associated with the crique of universal knowledge and foundationalism. Lyotard believes that it is no longer possible to talk about a totalizing idea of reason for there is no reason, only reasons (Sarup, 131-132). It rebuffs the belief that there is a stereotype, a standard, a foundation or any unique way of determining rationality (Ozumba, 60). Thus it rejects such modernist ideas or notions as presence, centrality, foundationalism, structuralism, universalism or any theory that ‘goes beyond’ the manifest to the latent (Sarup, 132). The reason is that these ‘grand totalizing’ concepts attempt to explain all manifestations of reality. For instance, Marxism limits the phenomenon of the historical evolution of human society to the dialetics of class struggle. Hegel’s idealism which equates the real with the rational and vice versa is also all- encompassing. Hegel and Marx reflect the polarization that exist between two outstanding totalistic camps namely, the rationalists and the empiricists, respectively. However, repudiations of modernist ideals as manifested in the form of sprouting new cultural features and in the emergence of a novel social and economic order provided the impetus and raw materials for the emergence of postmodernism (Effiwatt, 188).

Postmodernism has constantly constituted a serious threat to the fundamental epistemological assumptions of philosophy and science since Descartes in the modern period. Inquires into how we know no longer revolve around the concepts of universalism, objectivity, foundationalism and essentialism. In other words, the post modern  thinker does not subscribe to the belief in external or universal truths. He repudiates the claim that investigation of the nature of being is crucial to the determination of the true character of reality. Lyotard and Foucault, for instance, reject any attempt to ground reality in one all-encompassing theory or system of thought. The deconstructionist Derrida tries to show that the belief in the existence of an independent external reality that can be intersubjectively interpreted is a myth. For him, the dichotomy of binaries or opposites (eg presence/absence, nature/culture, male/female) that is characteristic of much Western philosophical tradition is illusorry and hence deserves deconstruction. A situation where the second of the binaries is subordinated to the first is strongly rejected. Reality or truth thus ceases to be defined in terms of a correspondence to a fixed entity that the descriptions and manipulations provided in our language must perfectly fit. Rather the preponderant view is that reality both conforms to language and is shaped by it. Language, as it were, is the repository of a people’s culture. Culture itself is a complex phenomenon which revels variety, alterity and ephemerality. The epistemological and metaphysical implication of this is that truth or reality is neither one nor objective but subjective and many. Lyotard posits that there are many discourses and the rules governing these discourses differ in corresponding proportion to socio-cultural and linguistic variations. Thus, our understanding of reality and interpretation of truth must differ in accordance with and reflect the linguistic and cultural variations. By this, deconstruction means dismantling and reorganizing language to expose the anomalies inherent in modern Western philosophical tradition (Effiwatt, 191-193).

Finally, postmodernism is atheistic, anti-metaphysical, anti-status quo of objectivity, consensus and  prescriptivism. It is a deconstruction of all status-quos and standards in all realms of human endeavour. It is a philosophy of ‘anything goes’ (Ozumba,60).

Postmodernists’ Philosophical Objections to the Knowability of Truth and Possible Replies

We may be able to understand postmodernism  better by looking at its objections to the knowability of truth. Below, attempt is made to critically examine some of its main objections.

1. Truth Does Not Correspond To Reality : For the postmodernist,  a true sentence is not true because it corresponds to reality. Truth is not established by the correspondence of an assertion with objective reality or by the internal coherence of the assertions themselves. There is no need to worry about what sort of reality a given assertion corresponds to. Instead of searching for truth we should be content with interpretations. The postmodernist shares with the positivist the Baconian and Hobbesian notion that knowledge is merely a tool or power for coping with reality. In place of the notion of truth as correspondence with reality, he avers that modern science does not enable us to cope because it corresponds, but simply because it enables us to cope. For him, because we are surrounded by so many truths, we must necessarily revise our concept of truth itself, that is, our beliefs about belief. This implies that truth is made rather than found. Truth is constructed by the mind, not simply perceived by it, and since many of such constructions are possible, none necessarily is sovereign. It follows then that the nature of truth is ambigious and that there is no such thing as true reality out there to discover. Grenz highlights the position of postmodernism thus:

Post modern thinkers no longer find this grand realist ideal (that truth ultimately corresponds to reality) tenable. They reject the fundamental assumption on which it is based – namely, that we live in a world consisting of physical objects that are easily identifiable by their inherent properties. They argue that we do not simply encounter a world that is ‘out there’ but rather that we construct the world using concepts we bring to it. They contend that we have no fixed vantage point beyond our own structuring of the world from which to gain a purely objective view of whatever reality might be out there (McDowell, 614).

The implication of this is that postmodernism rejects the assumption that the knowing autonomous subject arrives at truth by simply establishing a correspondence of reality that is objectively given and the thoughts or assertions of the knower. Such correspondence is impossible because our access to ‘objective’ reality is limited by our own linguistic and conceptual constructions.

In reply or answer to the objection above, it can be argued that the postmodernist assertion that truth does not correspond to reality is self-defeatist. For one thing, the postmodern view can be seen as another arbitrary social construction like other ideologies that it sets forth to debunk. We have, therefore, no compelling reason to accept the theory as tenable. We can simply dismiss it as the creative work of some extremely cynical people. For another, if postmodernism can be shown to be true, then its main thesis (rejection of objective truth) is wrong. It is tantamount to saying that there is at least one objective truth and, that is, that postmodernism is true. In either case, the postmodernist rejection of rational objectivity is self-defeatist, self- refuting or self-destructive. It is either that it denies the plausibility of its own position or it presumes the reliability of reason and the objectivity of truth. To claim, for instance, as postmodernists do, that the ‘history of philosophy is closed’, or that ‘metaphysics has come to an end’ is self-refuting. The reason is that postmodernism cannot avoid using philosophy and metaphysics in such statements. How do they know this unless we can know something? What sort of epistemological status should we give to such statements? If they were true, they would be false. If they are mere poetical protests, then they do not destroy objective meaning or metaphysics (Geisler, 193-194). To disbelieve in truth is self-contradictory, whereas to believe means to accept that something is true. To say that ‘it  is true that nothing is true’ is intrinsically meaningless. The very assertion that ‘there is no absolute truth’ is an absolute truth itself.

Craig, as quoted in McDowell, levels this atack on postmodernism:

To assert that ‘the truth is that there is no truth’ is both self-refuting and arbitrary. For if this statement is true, it is not true since there is no truth. So-called deconstructionism thus cannot be halted from deconstructing itself. Moreover, there is no reason for adopting the postmodern perspective rather than, say, the outlooks of Western Capitalism, male chauvinism, white racism and so forth, since postmodernism has no truth to it than these perspectives. Caught in this self-defeating trap, some postmodernists have been forced to the same recourse as Buddhist mystics: denying that postmodernism is really a view or position at all. But then, once again, why do they continue to write books and talk about it? They are obviously making some   cognitive claims and if not, then they literally have nothing to say and no objection to our employment of the classical canons of logic (McDowell, 620).

Obviously, postmodernism involves an illogical leap. How, for example, does the presence of many religious worldviews that are incompatible with christianity show or prove that distinctively christian claims are not true? Logically, what it implies is that all of them cannot be objectively true. But to infer from this that none of them is objectively true would be fallacious.

2. Truth is Perspectival:

Postmodern philosophers opine that truth is community-based. In other words, whatever we accept as truth is dependent on the community in which we participate. This implies that there is no absolute or objective truth; truth is simply relational. For them, we have only the world of experience in which we are embedded as  mere participants. Consequently, we can speak only as we are in it, not by searching for it outside the realm of experience. Postmodern philosophers apply the theory of literary deconstructions of the world as a whole. They maintain that just as a text will be read differently by each reader, so reality will be ‘read’ differently by each knowing self that encounters it. This implies that there is not a single meaning of the world and there is not a transcendant centre to reality as a whole. Thus, there is no single correct world view, but many views and, by extension,many worlds. By implication, there is no knowledge but interpretation.

Good, as the above view may sound, it can be argued that truth is objective rather than perspectival. The point is that, if cultural consensus is the measure of reality, what happens, for instance, when a culture decides that a certain race or gender is non-human and those non-humans are targeted for extermination? If reality is defined by cultural consensus, it would amount to an act of imperialism for another culture to intervene. In the absence of an absolute standard, there is no basis for judging a Nazi any more than there is for defining a human life. The fact that man’s knowledge is imperfect is not a sufficient condition for us to assume that objective knowledge is not possible. The fact that we often make mistakes in our judgments and may sometimes have to change our mind is not sufficient for us to relegate our beliefs to the status of private opinion. Truth seems to be the only thing worth believing and when we have apprehended it, we must hold it with universal intent. Granted that human knowledge is partial, but it does not necessarily follow that it is objectively untrue. It is better to believe that the senses sometimes deceive us than to maintain that they can never be trusted.

3. We Can Never Epistemologically Encounter The Thing-in-Itself:

Postmodernists insist that any attempt to describe a single world behind the world of change is bound to fail. In the end, such attempt will produce only fictions. Postmodernists detach human explanation from the notion of an underlying objective world. Thus, for them, objective world resides not in external reality or text but in the interpreter. This tends to cut us off from things and leave us with only words. Thus, we cannot enter into relationships with things themselves. Postmodernism recognizes that human knowledge is subjectively determined by a number of factors; that things-in-themselves can neither be accessed nor posited; and that the value of all truths and assumptions must be constantly subjected to direct empirical test. It holds that critical search is of necessity tolerant of ambiguity and pluralism, and its result is necessarily knowledge that is relative and fallible rather than absolute or certain (Tarnas, cited in McDowell, 616).

Contrary to the above position, it can be argued with equal tenanciy that we can know the thing-in-itself. Let us start by postulating that knowledge is the presence of the object in thought. This means that knowledge occurs when the knower (subject) and the known (object) unite in one; or that the being of the object itself is imposed on the being of the knowing subject. Here there is fusion of two things which fall together at the moment of their union. Although the sense differs from the sensible, and the intellect from the intelligible, the sense is not different from the object sensed, nor the intellect from the object which it has actually come to know. In the words of Gilson, “it is literally true that the sense, taken in its act of sensing becomes one with the sensible taken in the act by which it is sensed, and that the intellect taken in its act of knowing is one with the intelligible taken by which it is known” (Cited in McDowell, 623). We can thus conclude that every act of knowledge supposes that the object known is present in the knowing subject.

4. There is no Metanarrative (Grand Story) That Can Explain All Reality:

Postmodernism is incredulous to metanarratives. A metanarrative is a story of mythic proportion that is big enough to pull together philosophy and other disciplines and give them a unifying sense of direction. Good examples here are the Marxist political theory of class struggle and revolution, the Enlightenment’s intellectual story of rational progress and the Christian religious story about God working out his will on earth. Postmodernism is not saying that all people have ceased to believe in all stories, but that the stories are no longer working, partly because there are too many of them. It holds that claims to metanarratives (Universal truth) are oppressive and must be resisted. Postmodernism dismisses as logocentric all global worldviews, be they social, political, or religious. It reduces to the same order all totalizing theories: Christianity, Marxism, Feminism, Islam, Capitalism, Socialism, Secular humanism, Stalinism, Modern Science , and all totalizing metanarratives that anticipate all questions and provide predetermined answers. They equate all such systems of thought with witchcraft, magic, voodoo, astrology and primitive cults. The goal of postmodernism is not to provide an alternative set of assumptions but to demonstrate the impossibility of establishing any such underpinning for knowledge.

We can debunk the position above by arguing that though there are many sorts of metanarratives, we should not however lump all narratives as though all of them are the same. Granted that some of the metanarratives are dubious, we should not however dismiss or reject all grand narratives. Again, postmodernists reject grand narratives because they are simplistic and reductionist. They offer us a theory of postmodern condition which presupposes a dramatic break from modernity. But certainly, the concept of postmodernism presupposes a totalizing perspective. While postmodernists reject grand narratives, it is logically impossible to see how one can have a theory of postmodernism without one.

5.       There is no Ultimate Foundation Upon Which Knowledge or Reality is Based:

All postmodernists share the premise that foundationalism is not tenable. Foundationalism is the idea that knowledge can be erected on some sort of bedrock or foundation of indubitable first principles. Postmodernism holds that there is a continual change of perspectives, without any underlying common frame of reference.  In other words, there is a manifold of changing horizons. Reality at once is multiple, local, temporal and without demonstrable foundation.

Against this position, it can be argued that the idea of a foundation in terms of which everything else can be made evident is not only important but necessary. Foundationalists would argue that no knowledge would be possible unless there were first principles without which it would be impossible to know if ideas are consistent and non-contradictory. They contend that no web ever hangs in mid air; it must be anchored somewhere. Foundationalists do not however claim that every statement needs a foundation. Rather, they argue that only statements that are not self-evident need foundation. They hold that such statements must be evident in terms of something else that is self-evident. Once one arrives at the self-evident, it need not be evident in terms of anything else (Geisler, 260).

Conclusion

From the forgoing discussion, it is clear that objective truth is possible. Truth exist in nature independent of our objective minds or what we individually hold or believe to be truth. Reality is what exists in nature and truth is simply our reflection or estimation of this pre-existing reality, which every body tends to agree with (Uduigwomen, 145). Truth as correspondence emphasizes the extra-mental reference of what is thought or said. To provide this point of reference for universal (as distinct from particular) truths, the medievals spoke of ontological truth, that is, the objective reality of ideal universal architypes as distinct from particulars, which exemplify them. Thus, to speak of justice or of human nature is to refer to their ideal forms, rather than to offer empirical generations or mental abstractions. The medievals went as far as locating these universals in the mind of God-the ultimate theistic referent for truth (Ferguson et al, 695-696).

The implication of all this is that truth is objective rather than perspectival or relative. No one can function or live very long if he consistently acted as though truth were relative rather than objective. In fact, a person who lives by a perspectival view of truth concerning his moral activities is a potential danger to himself and to humanity. He can issue bounce cheques simply because ‘to him’ he has money in the account, take hard drugs which ‘to him’ are refreshing, get knocked down by a lorry which ‘to him’ is not moving. Thus, a person who wants to function and live effectively in the world cannot do without some sense of truth’s objective correspondence to reality. Objective knowledge is possible. Though we sometimes make mistakes in our judgment and sometimes change our minds upon discovering that our earlier judgments were not true, this is not enough to relegate our beliefs to the status of private opinion. The only thing worth believing, living for and dying for is the truth. While Christians may appreciate elements of truth found in other religions, they need not open their minds to every religious claim, since they are not under any obligation to embrace religious relativism.

Works Cited

Effiwatt, I.E. “Postmodernism”, in Philosophy and Logic Today. Edited by Asouzu, 1.1. Nigeria: The African Pacific & Allied Press, 2002, pp. 188-194.

Ferguson, S.B. et al.(ed). New Dictionary of Theology. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Geisler, N.L. Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

McDowell, J. The New Evident that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.

Offor, F. “The Nature of Truth: A Relativist Approach”, in SOPHIA: A Journal of African Philosophy. Vol.6, No.1, 2003.

Ozumba, G.O. “ISMS of Philosophy”, in A Concise Introduction to Philosophy and Logic. 2nd Edition Edited by Uduigwomen, A.F. & Ozumba, G.O. Calabar: Centaur Press, 2002.

Sarap, M.     Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism. 2nd Edition. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

Titus, H.H. & Smith, M.S. Living Issues in Philosophy. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 2974.

Uduigwomen, A.F. “A Textbook of History & Philosophy of Science. Aba: Vitalis Books, 1996.

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