Post-truth is a philosophical and political concept that refers to "the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth” and the “circuitous slippage between facts or alt-facts, knowledge, opinion, belief, and truth.” Post-truth discourse is often contrasted with the forms taken by scientific methods and inquiry. The term garnered widespread popularity, in the form of "post-truth politics", in the period around the 2016 United States presidential election and the Brexit referendum. It was named Word of the Year in 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary where it is defined as "Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
While the term post-truth is relatively recent, the concept can be traced back to earlier moral, epistemic, and political debates about relativism, postmodernity, and mendacity in politics, including nontruthfulness, lies, deception, and deliberate falsehood.
Friedrich Nietzsche is frequently invoked as one of the chief predecessors of post-truth. He argues that humans create the concepts through which they define the good and the just, thereby replacing the concept of truth with the concept of value, and grounding reality in the human will and will to power.
In his 1873 essay Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense, Nietzsche holds that humans create truth about the world through their use of metaphor, myth, and poetry. He writes,
"If someone hides an object behind a bush, then seeks and finds it there, that seeking and finding is not very laudable: but that is the way it is with the seeking and finding of "truth" within the rational sphere. If I define the mammal and then after examining a camel declare, "See, a mammal," a truth is brought to light, but it is of limited value. I mean, it is anthropomorphic through and through and contains not a single point that would be "true in itself," real, and universally valid, apart from man. The investigator into such truths is basically seeking just the metamorphosis of the world into man; he is struggling to understand the world as a human-like thing and acquires at best a feeling of assimilation.”
In his essay Science as a Vocation (1917) Max Weber draws a distinction between facts and values. He argues that facts can be determined through the methods of a value-free, objective social science, while values are derived through culture and religion, the truth of which cannot be known through science. He writes, "it is one thing to state facts, to determine mathematical or logical relations or the internal structure of cultural values, while it is another thing to answer questions of the value of culture and its individual contents and the question of how one should act in the cultural community and in political associations. These are quite heterogeneous problems.” In his 1919 essay Politics as a Vocation, he argues that facts, like actions, do not in themselves contain any intrinsic meaning or power: “any ethic in the world could establish substantially identical commandments applicable to all relationships.”
Philosopher Leo Strauss criticizes Weber for attempting to isolate reason completely from opinion. Strauss acknowledges the philosophical trouble of deriving ‘is’ from ‘ought,’ but argues that what Weber has done in his framing of this puzzle is in fact deny altogether that the ‘ought’ is within reach of human reason. Strauss worries that if Weber is right, we are left with a world in which the knowable truth is a truth that cannot be evaluated according to ethical standards. This conflict between ethics and politics would mean that there can be no grounding for any valuation of the good, and without reference to values, facts lose their meaning.
Philosophers including Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Bruno Latour are skeptical of the division between facts and values. They argue that scientific facts are socially produced through relations of power. In 2018, the New York Times ran a profile on Bruno Latour and post-truth politics. According to the article, "In a series of controversial books in the 1970s and 1980s, [Latour] argued that scientific facts should instead be seen as a product of scientific inquiry. Facts, Latour said, were “networked”; they stood or fell not on the strength of their inherent veracity but on the strength of the institutions and practices that produced them and made them intelligible."
In her essay Lying in Politics (1972), Hannah Arendt describes what she terms defactualization, or the inability to discern fact from fiction—a concept very close to what we now understand by post-truth. The essay’s central theme is the thoroughgoing political deception that was unveiled with the leaking of the The Pentagon Papers in 1971. Her main target of critique is the professional “problem-solvers” tasked with solving American foreign policy "problems" during the Vietnam War, and who comprised the group that authored the McNamara report.
“The deliberate falsehood deals with contingent facts; that is, with matters that carry no inherent truth within themselves, no necessity to be as they are. Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion.”
She goes on,
"There always comes the point beyond which lying becomes counterproductive. This point is reached when the audience to which the lies are addressed is forced to disregard altogether the distinguishing line between truth and falsehood in order to be able to survive. Truth or falsehood—it does not matter which anymore, if your life depends on your acting as though you trusted; truth that can be relied on disappears entirely from public life, and with it the chief stabilizing factor in the ever-changing affairs of men.”
Arendt faults the Vietnam era problem-solvers with being overly rational, "trained in translating all factual contents into the language of numbers and percentages,” and out of touch with the facts of “given reality.” Contrary to contemporary definitions of post-truth that emphasize a reliance on emotion over facts and evidence, Arendt’s notion of defactualization identifies hyper-rationality as the mechanism that blurs the line between “fact and fantasy”: the problem-solvers "were indeed to a rather frightening degree above ‘sentimentality' and in love with ‘theory,' the world of sheer mental effort. They were eager to find formulas, preferably expressed in a pseudo-mathematical language...”
Arendt writes: “What these problem-solvers have in common with down-to-earth liars is the attempt to get rid of facts and the confidence that this should be possible because of the inherent contingency of facts.” She explains that deception and even self-deception are rendered meaningless in a defactualized world, for both rely on preserving the distinction between truth and falsehood. On the other hand, in a defactualized environment, the individual “loses all contact with not only his audience, but also the real world, which will still catch up with him because he can remove his mind from it but not his body.”
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- Strauss 2008, p. 72.
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- Arendt 1972, p. 20.
- Arendt 1972, p. 9.
- Arendt 1972, p. 6.
- Arendt 1972, p. 7.
- Arendt 1972, p. 18.
- Arendt 1972, p. 11.
- Arendt 1972, p. 11.
- Arendt 1972, p. 12.
- Arendt 1972, p. 36.
- McIntyre, Lee. "Post Truth" MIT Press (February 2018)
- Kakutani, Michiko. "The Death of Truth" Penguin Random House (August 2019)