Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Intellectuals, Totalitarianism, and “Post-Truth Culture”

Ralph Ellis

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Over a century ago, philosophers and sociologists began to suggest that moral beliefs are neither true nor false, but only social conventions that can vary from culture to culture. True, many philosophers questioned the logic of such a position, but many who took philosophy courses – including psychology, sociology and literature majors who subsequently influenced social attitudes of later generations – took such ideas as the cutting edge of modern sophistication. A.J. Ayer put the nail into the coffin of ethical truth as far as the then-dominant analytic philosophical tradition was concerned, by declaring that, since only logic and empirical evidence were legitimate epistemological criteria, moral viewpoints can be neither true nor false; under such criteria, there is no possible way such statements could be confirmed or disconfirmed. This relativist-emotivist view filtered through subsequent generations of social scientists, writers, and film-makers and eventually became a traditional wisdom of those who considered themselves “in the know” in twentieth century culture.

Meanwhile, in the Continental tradition, hermeneutic philosophers and deconstructionists who suggested that the truth is beyond the scope of human inquiry were building on a longer tradition:  Gadamer  argued that we always use motivated selective attention to interpret reality so as to fit it to an already existing worldview; essentially the same approach had already been advocated by Heidegger toward the end of Being and Time, and it was explicitly elaborated by the Heideggerian existential psychotherapist Ludwig Binswanger, as well as numerous sophisticated followers of the later Husserl, such as Gerd Brand and Ludwig Landgrebe.

Many historicists and deconstructionists among the postmoderns took this hermeneutical trend to an extreme. Once we have historically and socially deconstructed what counts as “truth,” it seems impossible to say what is left of such an archaic notion. There are constructions, mostly carried over from historical tradition, as in Foucault, or from the structure of our language, as in Levi-Strauss and Derida, or from economic self-interest, as in the neo-Marxist postmoderns.

In the human sciences, post-modernism made especially clear why the hermeneutic circle would prevent us from knowing to what extent even science distorts reality, or selects Kuhnian research paradigms that favor hidden agendas. As for social policy and its value assumptions, the idea of an objective truth had been dead in both analytic and Continental traditions for half a century, haunting academia mainly as a quaint ghostly apparition.

The question thus arises:  Did intellectuals – in philosophy, literary criticism, sociology, and even psychology – unwittingly lay the groundwork for “Post-truth Culture” and the consequent rise of Trumpian politics? Are we ourselves actually what the KGB used to call “useful dupes”?

When Donald Trump in 2016 retracted his famous false claim that Obama was not born in the U.S., polls showed that approximately half his supporters cynically assumed he still believed Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., and relented merely for political reasons. The other half assumed that Trump had always known Obama was really born in the U.S., and claimed otherwise just for rhetorical effect. Pundits even admonished the media for “taking Trump literally”; Trump’s supporters knew he didn’t literally mean what he said because, as Arendt describes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, those attracted to totalitarian movements believe that all political statements are lies.

We must acknowledge, however, that from the hermeneutic perspective all interpretations of reality actually are filtered through philosophical presuppositions that don’t arise merely from the immediate situation itself.

We must acknowledge, however, that from the hermeneutic perspective all interpretations of reality actually are filtered through philosophical presuppositions that don’t arise merely from the immediate situation itself. What one person sees as a lazy bum who refuses to accept responsibility is viewed by another as someone who has had a string of bad luck, perhaps including the bad luck of poor educational opportunities, childhood poverty, mental disability, or other such factors. The way we see any situation is based partly on an already-presupposed overall worldview, in terms of which we interpret the situation.

Arendt sees the erosion of respect for truth as the crucial step toward the rise of movements like fascism and Nazism. She stresses that the cultural elite and the intellectuals were at least as receptive as anyone else to the cynical attitude of Nazis, fascists and Stalinists toward what counts as truth.

Some might think that what intellectuals do in their ivory tower has little effect on the masses and their politics. How could obscure academic notions like deconstructionism or logical empiricism be responsible for teaching people that there is no truth when it comes to human issues – ethics, political philosophy or the meaning of life?

But wait! popular film-makers, journalists, novelists, and business leaders took college courses in psychology, literature, and sociology. The teachers in those disciplines in turn had philosophy teachers in the few philosophy courses they took as undergraduates. In that way, the attitudes of philosophers filter out to the real world, if only in somewhat simplified form. So, is it possible that we are inadvertently flooding the world with armies of moral nihilists and complete epistemological skeptics?

Reviews and endorsements for The Moral Psychology of Internal Conflict

“Ellis provides important and provocative arguments against emotivism, relativism, and nihilism. He grounds moral judgment in the desire for coherence that is part of our naturally active cognitive engagement with the world. Ellis’s innovative account of moral psychology links moral development to curiosity, the exploratory drive, the zest for living, and the love of truth. Ellis’s insights provide a thought-provoking answer to the question of ‘why be moral’, grounded in cutting edge research in neuropsychology.” Andrew Fiala, California State University, Fresno and Director of the Ethics Center

“In offering a fully humanist account of our moral psychology, Ralph D. Ellis does not countenance any hint of grounding morality on what feels like the good thing to do, nor is his perspective philosophically propped up by a critique of scientific naturalism. Drawing on a lifetime of effort in many different philosophical trenches, Ellis articulates a ‘psychological prolegomena’ for deciding what is morally right and true without relying upon illusory foundations.” Peter Zachar, Auburn University, Montgomery

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About The Author

Ralph Ellis

Ralph D. Ellis received his PhD at Duquesne University and a postdoctoral M.S. at Georgia State University. He has taught at Clark Atlanta University since 1985, and is interested ...

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