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What Happened to Truth?

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“Post-truth” carries a catchy, advertising-agency ring. And that may be exactly what is wrong with it and with our times. We do not live in an era stripped of truths. We live, to the contrary, in a political-cultural moment saturated with competing claims on truth, each insisting on its veracity. We have contrived to construct an open marketplace of truths, and it is not a happy state.

If there can be said to be an era in recent American history when the essence of truth was under critical scrutiny, it was the generation after 1960. In both popular and academic culture, that was when the belief that truth lay in a sphere of certainty independent of truth’s inquirers began to fragment. Social scientists learned to grow much more self-critical about their methods. Anthropologists realized that they could not write themselves out of their ethnographies. Historians learned that archives contained fictions as well as facts. Paradigms, in Thomas Kuhn’s phrase, shaped the very worlds of assumption in which natural scientists worked. None of truth’s seekers, it was increasingly realized, could wholly escape the perspectives and experiences they carried with them. What seemed “natural” was, as often as not, not natural at all but a product of culture and unspoken assumption.

“Don’t truth me and I won’t truth you,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote as that era began. But although the moment for which Kuhn, Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, and the best-seller proclamation “I’m OK, You’re OK” spoke is easy to caricature as a fit of mere relativism, that self-criticism brought enormous gains as well. The epistemological anarchists of the era never formed a very large number. For most of those who tried to think through the politics and epistemology of a world beyond certainties, truths were not dead. Truths needed to be argued out. They took shape in discourse, debate, and dialogue. They were provisional, plural, subject to amendment, to new standpoints, critiques, and re-examination. Truth-seeking demanded doubt, demanded the ability to entertain more than one hypothesis, demanded patience. Post-positivist, post-ideological truths were formed in the act of self-critical inquiry. Whether in the laboratory, social fieldwork, or the humanities seminar, teachers taught students to search for them.