Postmodern Truth

Postmodern Truth February 17, 2014

Tim Crane points out in his TLS review of John Caputo’s Truth that “Aristotelian” ideas of truth are in no way incompatible with the insight that there is a plurality of perspectives on truth:

“to believe in truth in this [Aristotelian] sense is not to believe that there is only one truth about the world; there may be many distinct true interpretations, just as there may be many false ones. Believing in truth does not mean believing there is only one big story or meta-narrative, to use Jean-François Lyotard’s term. Nor does it mean believing in certainty: we can obtain the truth about a given subject without being certain of it. . . . the mere fact that there are multiple interpretations of reality . . . does not threaten the idea that true interpretations are those that say how things really are.”

For Crane, this means that “there is really no such thing as the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment idea of truth.” He distinguishes between “the Enlightenment idea of truth,” which is just Aristotle’s idea of truth, and “the things the Enlightenment thought were true.” What Caputo is really attacking is not the former but the latter, ideas like “context-free interpretation, absolute certainty, dogmatism, ultimate moral or epistemological authorities, and one grand meta-narrative.” Crane notes that “someone who accepts the distinction between truths about reality and reality itself is not obliged to accept any of these dubious ideas.”

Caputo’s book thus undermines a common objection that postmodernism is self-refuting: “If you claim that all truth is dependent on a standpoint, from which standpoint do you say that? If the claim is made from the postmodern standpoint, then it makes no universal demand on us; but if it is a universal claim, then there is at least one truth that is not dependent on a standpoint.” This doesn’t work because postmodernism “does not present any doctrine, but rather an attitude: look for complexity, paradox, contradiction and ambiguity, and be sceptical about all attempts at universal, systematic categorization.”

The issue, Crane suggests, is “not that [postmodernism] is self-refuting, but that it gives those who do not get excited by contradiction and ambiguity no motive to accept it.”

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