Today we’re tackling a big topic. Maybe the biggest topic there is. So if things get a little wild, you’ll have to forgive us. We can’t cover all there is to cover in our limited capacity here and now, but we want to make a few connections and think about how this is kind of important in the here and now. Today we are talking about TRUTH.
Now, a lot of people think this is best left to philosophers and theologians, but the reality is that there is a strong connection between truth and rhetoric. How you define truth will have a strong bearing on what you think rhetoric is and what role it plays in the world in which your find yourself.
For example – let’s say you’re a Sophist. You may remember them from an earlier episode. But for the Sophists truth was largely a contextual thing. The truth was whatever the rhetor could convince you of. If THAT is your definition of truth, then rhetoric is HUGELY important. Rhetoric is what CREATES truth. Rhetoric is the thing that fashions and constructs the truths we live by. This makes a skillful rhetor INCREDIBLY powerful. If you think of truth as contingent on the situation then rhetoric is pretty much the MOST important thing.
But, let’s say you’re not a Sophist. Let’s say your Plato. Let’s say you believe truth is transcendent and is not contingent on people, situations, or contexts. Then what does rhetoric do? In that case, rhetoric is at best, pointless, at worst, dangerous. Because rhetoric either doesn’t do anything, because it can’t exact real change in the world, or worse, it convinces people of things that aren’t true. If the latter is the case, then rhetoric is something to be despised and distrusted. Because the truth exists on its own – it doesn’t need anyone to convince anybody of itself because it is self-evident.
OR let’s say you believe in transcendent truth, but instead of being Platonic, you are more like St. Augustan, who thought rhetoric was useful because it served a particular purpose – it served up truth to the masses. Augustan said there is unquestioned truth and it comes from God. We get that truth from the scriptures. Rhetoric is useful not because it can persuade people to accept that truth – it is a means of transmitting truth to your congregants (Augustan was chiefly concerned with priests). Then rhetoric has a specific function – it has a job to do. It is supposed to be persuasive. But it is NOT supposed to create truth – just transmit it. So your definition of truth has a big effect on what you think rhetoric is and what its job is in the world.
This is why this question comes up in rhetorical studies as much as it does philosophy and theology. This is also why there seems to be a lot of crossover in these fields. Because we have to grapple with the same issues sometimes, but we have different overarching questions. So I’m going to give you the briefest of overviews of a few folks today and what they thought about truth and then we’re going to talk about what this means for us today.
Now we’ve already talked about Vico and Descartes, so we’ll skip them for now, but they are important to this conversation. I’ve given you an intro to the Sophists, so I’m not going to re-cover that ground. We began today with a little Plato, so I won’t make you sit through too much more of that. But we should talk about John Locke, Friederich Nietzsche, and Michel Foucault. And then we’re going to talk about conspiracy theories!
The thing about truth is that the definition has varied wildly throughout the centuries. And it is not NECESSARILY that we used to believe in capital T truths and now we’re relativists. It’s much more nuanced than that.
As we have noted before, the Sophists, who were operating 2500 years ago believed in contextual, relative ideas about truth. Aristotle, who disliked the Sophists a lot, didn’t talk about truth with the intensity that Plato did – he didn’t seem as concerned with it. His view of the world was more practical than philosophical. So in some ways his truth was a more empirical, scientific version than what we get from Plato And Plato, as I noted before, believed in unchanging, capital T truths that a person should spend their entire lives in search of. And we’ve kind of been vacillating back and forth between variations of these different ideas for a few thousand years.
In the beginning it appeared as if Plato had won the war. Christianity borrowed heavily from Plato’s ideas, plus their own ideas about godliness and sovereignty (plus a healthy dose of mixing with the state) and ideas about truth, power, and right/wrong went unquestioned for quite some time. Then around the time of the Enlightenment new ways of finding truth became popular, and scientific truth began to become as important as, if not eclipse, these supposed eternal truths. In the Industrial Revolution and in the late 1800s and early 1900s there were those that began to question the trajectory of the Enlightenment, and by the turn of the 20th century notions of truth and progress had just been blown the hell right up (more on that in a bit).
And we’re still reeling from that. So right now we’re in this weird period where we live in a world where we are hanging on to the tail end of the Enlightenment and grasping the ideas of science and democracy and technology and all that brought us, but also realizing a lot of that was not all it was cracked up to be and really questioning our life choices. And this really changes the way we see ideas like “truth.”
So one truth guy I want to talk to you about is John Lock. You may remember him from your high school history or government classes, or you may not, that’s fine. You may also remember there was a character named after him on Lost. Sadly, more Americans probably remember that guy than remember the Enlightenment thinker. But he was super important, and the Enlightenment wouldn’t have been the same without him!
John Locke was a British philosopher who concerned himself with empiricism, the limits of human understanding, and the ideas of natural rights and that sovereignty resides in the people, not the government. So, you know, big stuff.
John Locke thought rhetoric was nonsense. He thought it just served to muddy the waters. He basically believed if we all just had universal language and words and if we could all agree on the same definitions for all the words that would clarify everything. He wanted one word for everything at all times.
Okay – there’s a lot here. Let’s take it one at a time.
First, Locke is Thomas Jefferson’s (and other founding father’s) inspiration and America pretty much wouldn’t exist without him. Locke believed in natural rights – certain things were unquestionable. As it would be phrased in American, “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These are truths. They are so true that they are obvious. They don’t need to be proven because you can just see them. They are natural. They are capital T truths. This is important to understand – America was founded on the idea that there are transcendent truths that are immutable. We can’t escape that part of our history. What is problematic is that our reality doesn’t match our truth – in American not everyone IS equal. And this causes real tension. Reality and truth are not the same thing in the USA. And depending on who you are you are more or less likely to see that. And that means something for how you feel about the nation.
Secondly, Locke distrusts rhetoric. This goes back to what we said about believing in capital T truth. If you believe in transcendent, eternal truths then rhetoric is a problem. Locke thinks rhetoric makes everything hard to understand. He thinks of rhetoric as useless style and frivolous words. Locke wanted a universal language that everybody could understand.
But that implies a few things:
- It implies that we all have a universal experience that we are speaking from (which might make sense from a self-evident truth perspective)
- It means we won’t have a lot of agency in how we speak
- There will never be “what I MEANT to say was” because the words are never for you to choose. They are established and concrete
So you may gain something in clarity, but you would lose all style and individuality.
Locke was willing to sacrifice all of that in the name of clarity – in the name of what he saw as truth. So there’s a question that will haunt us for a while – in a world of transcendent truths, where truth is not contingent on a person or a situation, how important is a person or a situation? You don’t have to answer that.
The next person I want to talk to you about is Friedrich Nietzsche. He’s a bit more famous and you’ve probably heard of him. He’s the “God is dead” guy. No big deal, right?
Nietzsche was writing in the late 1800s in Germany. He wrote some pretty revolutionary stuff and has had a profound effect on modern thought. He’s kind of seen as the grandfather of postmodern/poststructural thinking.
Nietzsche argued not that truth was situational or contingent, but that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TRUTH. Truth, he said, is just a social arrangement that is only necessary because of our capacity to lie
It’s kind of important to understand how Nietzsche felt about words to understand this – words are just metaphors. They are inherently interpretive. Words are also the only real way we have of arranging our reality. So our way of arranging truth and reality is inherently metaphorical. So we don’t have truth – we have a series of things that have to be arranged and interpreted. That’s not truth. That’s a system that has to be organized and translated. So there’s really no such thing as truth – there’s just the effective and creative organization of metaphors. We’re basically lying to ourselves.
What Nietzsche is probably most famous for is his “will to power” That sounds terrifying – but it basically just means the desire to control chaos and it is necessary for ethical action. The will to power is necessary for any kind of self-control. So, yeah, there’s obvious examples like a political figure seizing power, but somebody trying to understand philosophy or being a skillful artist is also an example of the will to power because they are trying to control their circumstances. The will to power isn’t good or bad – it’s just a motivation. The Ubermensch, or Over man, Or Super Man, was somebody who had successfully mastered the chaos. (It’s important to note here that this part of his philosophy has been wildly misinterpreted. This is largely because of his sister who took his works and mis-represented them for some time before his work was rehabilitated by scholars. But groups like the Nazis took Nietzsche’s work and warped his idea of the Ubermensch to be a superior being, not an ethical one, and Nietzsche became the Nazi philosopher of choice.)
Nietzsche is also famous for his thoughts on religion and God. The world will always remember him for this: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” He was very critical of the Judeo-Christian religious systems – he saw them as slavery. But it’s more important to see this as a statement on Modernity. God had been central to understanding the world for centuries – he had been at the heart of philosophy, government, art – God was the center of everything. But Modernity was changing that. Modernity was removing God from the heart of these narratives. The “we” were the inheritors of the Enlightenment – they had killed God by moving on to narratives centered on rationality, the market, industry, and science.
So Nietzsche became the favorite philosopher of moody high schoolers and self-important college freshman everywhere because he championed atheism, he denied truth, and said everything was a metaphor. You probably knew somebody who was really annoying who liked Nietzsche a lot. But if you can get beyond the superficial fanboy-ing, he really was important.
The final person I want to tell you a little bit about is a guy names Michel Foucault. He’s a controversial figure and has some personal issues but is probably one of the top five most important theorists in the humanities and social sciences of the 20th century.
Foucault’s work was wide ranging, and it would be difficult to say he was PRIMARILY concerned with THIS particular thing. But ONE of his chief concerns was power. Basically, Foucault saw the world in terms of discourse. He never uses the word rhetoric, but his ideas are readily applied. According to Foucault, we are living in a system of discourse which is a matter of language, institutions, politics, science, and technologies. The discourse is managed by power relationship. Power is not necessarily a thing that is wielded by a person or a group, it is the “regime of truth” that pervades society and is constantly being negotiated. How the discourse defines things and negotiates power creates truth. Truth is basically power negotiated.
Take for example “madness.” What does it mean to be mad? That has been defined by a particular group of people for centuries – the medical establishment has defined madness in particular ways for a long time. At some point, the definition of madness has changed. People haven’t changed, but people who once were considered mad may not be anymore, and vice versa. This is an example of power using discourse to manage our understanding of the world. Institutions manage discourse and our relations to it to define reality, or truth.
So truth and power are intimately connected.
Now, Foucault is an incredibly complicated thinker and there is no way I could do him justice here. But the main things we need to remember are that our world is defined by systems of discourse and power. Truth is a product of those.
I have just given you a cartoonishly simple description of some pretty complex thinkers. We’re not looking to become experts, here. But I hope you’ve seen a few themes arise – people who are interested in truth are interested in ideas of immutability, meaning, context, and power. They just come to very different conclusions.
So this leads me to our current day application and where I want to bring it all to a head to day – I want to talk about conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are not new. Conspiracy has been around since as long as people organized themselves into power structures. But anybody who has paid ANY attention to current events in the last few weeks knows that conspiracy theories are playing a huge role in current discourse. Scientists and doctors aren’t just fighting the disease – they are fighting the constant barrage of fake news and paranoid narratives that are telling people not to trust the experts and that COVID-19 is just a hoax perpetrated by malevolent powers. There’s also the narrative that this is a weapon being used for population control. The very people we need to effectively beat this crisis are being painted as villains in these conspiratorial, paranoid re-constructions of the facts and it is causing a crisis of miscommunication. We just can’t seem to figure out what is true.
So to assess this situation, let’s return to the Enlightenment. Let’s think about John Locke’s world. The Enlightenment birthed science and capitalism into the world. It also brought us modern democracy (such as it is). It threatened to kill religion, but it didn’t – religion stayed strong as a guiding force throughout all of the Enlightenment and in some areas of the world just combined forces with capitalism and/or democracy. These are what Jean Francois Lyotard called the “grand narratives”. These are the stories by which we organized our entire existence. We made sense out of the world through these stories and systems – we understood life through the lenses of God, capitalism, and science. And the narratives propelled us along a certain kind of progressive line for a few hundred years. We accepted certain truths – God, science and technology, and liberalism (which for many translated to the marketplace) as the natural order of the world.
But around the 20th century things started to change. These grand narratives, these truths that we had been going by, seemed not so hard and fast anymore. Religion began to fade in the public eye in many areas of the world. Globalism meant that even in areas where religion was important, suddenly religion wasn’t monolithic. Liberalism was challenged first by a global depression that made people question the merits of capitalism, then by the rising tide of communism globally. Science, which had for generations been humanity’s means out of the dark ages, also suddenly took on a sinister edge. The World Wars showed us that science and technology could be used not just for the advancement of humankind, but for its destruction in previously unimaginable ways. The chemical warfare of the First World War and the inconceivable damage from atomic warfare, plus what we learned about the holocaust afterward, showed us a devastating side to science and technology that left some fearful and distrustful. There was, for some, a shift in the way we thought about ourselves. We seemed to go from “Look what we are capable of!” to “Oh my God, what have we done?”
This shift in thinking is referred to post-modernity. If postmodernity were to be summed up in a pithy statement it would be the idea that the Enlightenment was a failure. All those things we trusted in and thought we would use to perfect ourselves in our unassailable march towards progress fell out from beneath us. And you can see this shift in the thinkers we glossed over today – Locke, the hopeful and certain Enlightenment thinker, Nietzsche the transitional thinker looking for control over the chaos, and Foucault, seeing the world as a product of negotiated power in the absence of immutable truths.
So what does this have to do with conspiracy? Conspiracy theory is a hallmark of postmodernity. It is a symptom of our relationship with truth and its success right now is evident of how far away we have moved from the days of Locke’s proposition for universal truths and language.
Once upon a time the world was guided by the grand narratives we mentioned – God, science, capitalism, etc. But many people have rejected those grand narratives – but they still have to make sense of the world. What people tend to do then, is replace them with smaller narratives. In some ways this has netted really positive results. Where once there was just one story of humanity now there are many individualized narratives.
This means that stories of women, People of Color and indigenous people, disability narratives, and LGBT stories now can find a voice because it’s not all one metanarrative. Making room for smaller narratives can mean making room to hear those people who were boxed out when there was just one, large story to tell
But this has also created space for harmful narratives. If we are not guided by the grand or meta narratives, we try to make sense out of the world in whatever way we can. And conspiracy theories help some people do that.
Conspiracy theories are small narratives that people use to fill in the gaps that are left when the meta narratives are rejected. Because otherwise the world just doesn’t make sense, and as Nietzsche understood, we are constantly trying to control the chaos – we are trying to make sense of the world.
So conspiracy theories tell us a lot about the world we are living in – when conspiracy theories are running rampant it tells us we have rejected the universal truths, language, and narratives that a thinker like Locke espouses, and we are trying to make sense of the world by creating smaller narratives that connect the dots for us. We have rejected those big ideas and replaced them with smaller, more paranoid ones. We are trying to control the chaos by arranging metaphors and creating a truth that makes sense out of what we see before us, but in many ways the chaos is overwhelming. Unlike the Ubermensch we have lost control of the narrative. But what we DO understand is that the world is governed by power relationships. We create truths not by scientific analysis or thoughtful consideration, but by trying to understand how power is negotiated in the world – unfortunately we are not privy to most of the discourse. We do not understand the various discourses and institutions and only see small parts of the stories, so we come up with stories about power that do not account for everything. We are just arranging the metaphors we have access to. And so we create truths of our own.
This is important to understand if you want to think about how to combat conspiracy theory. Very often, providing the rational, scientific explanation for something won’t address conspiracy theory because a conspiracy theorist has rejected science (possibly because it is impossible to understand). A conspiracy theorist is trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense anymore. So to combat conspiracy theory you have to think about why the world has stopped making sense – is it because science is untrustworthy? Then science is not the answer. Is it because governments are evil – then policy and institutional responses aren’t helpful?
How does one identify with the doubt? How can you replace the metanarrative without becoming paranoid? Even if you also doubt the grand narratives that Locke espoused, how can you get somebody to replace one small narrative with another?
These are rhetorical problems that require rhetorical solutions. We have to think about how we identify with each other, what we have in common, and how we interpret the world around us. If we’re going to agree on truths, we have to understand the stories we are telling each other.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.