“WWWSD?” Cultural relativists come from relativist cultures

I’ve spent the last semester sitting in on a seminar taught by a Vanderbilt philosopher named Robert Talisse. I’m not a student at Vanderbilt, so it was really great of him to let me sit in on his seminar. At the same time, despite the fact that one of my dissertation advisors is an analytically trained political philosopher, I’ve had minimum contact with the brand of epistemologically-founded political philosophy Talisse propounds. It was quite an enriching experience, frankly. It’s also been a while since I’ve spent any time with someone who believes in capital ‘T’ Truth.

Actually, I should probably say that I’ve never seen Talisse capitalize ‘truth’ in that reifying way, so it’s not a matter of him being some holy crusader convinced that he is right and righteous and willing to kill for his beliefs. Frankly, he was pretty cagey and slippery on these matters, as one expects from any good philosopher. But he has managed to maintain his epistemological commitments in the messy face of the polis. Living as we do in a country that can’t agree on the facts of well-founded science, claims about truthiness are obviously subject to all sorts of strategy and manipulation. So to claim that something is T/true, a matter of established fact, has a strong rhetorical force, which I respect.

Truth-defenders believe we should give reasons for our propositions, that we should be willing to defend truth-claims or else admit defeat (and falsification.) Here too, I would side with epistemologically-minded citizens. Moreover, when the crusaders for truth point out that victors in disputation ought to be able to coerce losers, I can’t help but agree. What good is power/knowledge if you’re not ‘supposed’ to exercise it? The whole point to truth is to legitimate the suppression of epistemological minorities, to marginalize all the phlogiston-supporters and eugenics proponents.

What about when the dominant paradigm ignores the wisdom of mid-wives because the epistemological authority has escheated to medical doctors who thought they knew better (and didn’t)? On Talisse’s view, as I understand it, this is simply a case of maldistributed authority, not a real challenge to truthiness. After all, we now agree that the midwives were correct, right? How can we say that unless we believe in truth, just as the stupidly arrogant Victorian doctors did? Our disgust in this case is due to our certitude that ignoring women will lead to bad epistemological consequences, a truth-claim that we will defend at the expense of misogynists everywhere.

This strange dancing around poorly-won epistemologicaly victories requires a certain fallibilism, a willingness to subject one’s own beliefs to correction and revision. Yet where Talisse parts company with my usual companions, forcing me to pick amongst my various ‘wise friends,’ is on the matter of our disposition towards this fallibilism. Ought we to hold our truths loosely, knowing they are contested and may someday be disproven? This seems to be the Rortyan move, insofar as it requires an ironic detachment from our deeply-held doctrines. Or ought we to struggle devoutly with our detractors in hopes of winning the battle for our dogmas? This is the line taken up by Chantal Mouffe, and perhaps in a different register, by Iris Marion Young.

Faced with the decision, a crossroads where various friends of wisdom part ways, I find myself forced to choose. As with all such decisions, it’s a tough choice, and I feel torn by conflicting loyalties. Yet ironically, I think this is a moment where Talisse may part ways with himself. At times, he proports to be fighting an unflinching battle, as when he defends propositions about the grounds of truth or the structure of deliberation. At other times, however, he recommends ‘epistemological modesty,’ as when he questions the modesty of activists who organize in solidarity with policy-propositions without consulting with their political opponents. Is this a form/content problem? That is, must we be zealous in our defense of the grounds and dispositions of epistemological wrangling so as to preserve a space where disputation and contestation can happen safely and out the truth? This would paint Talisse as a fanatical fallibilist, a dogmatic relativist in good company with post-structuralists like my friends and I. This is the sort of corner into which analytic philosophers usually avoid painting themselves, the conversation they avoid at the cocktail party.

Here’s what’s wrong with truth: everything breaks down when we ask what sorts of reasons one should use to dispute epistmological claims. Are we required to use mutually-persuasive reasons? Can I pull out a copy of the journal Nature ? What about Derrida’s Of Grammatology? Can someone else use the Bible? (Why isn’t Bible italicized, by the way?) What if I stand up and proclaim that my momma told me not to take wooden nickels and not to invest social security in the stock market? My momma’s got epistemic authority aplenty. Should that proclamation carry the same weight as economists? What happens when a presentation on global warming is greeted with jeers? “Lies, damn lies, and statistics!” they shout. Or, as Talisse himself is fond of asking: “What would the white supremacist say?” (We’ve shortened this to “WWWSD?” for concision.)

Rules for reason-giving break down because initiating someone into the culture of philosophical reason-giving is a long, slow process. If you will, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Enlightenment didn’t illuminate Europe overnight. People don’t think rationally, as a demos. They respond to irrational authorities, like horoscopes, as easily as they do to scientific proclamations, because in both cases, the modeling and ‘research’ is beyond their specific ken. When it comes to moral propositions, most of us come to the world unarmed and defenseless, and we mostly find moral authorities who play on our basic intuitions, developing edifices of ethics that include inconsistencies and non sequiturs. Plus, even our moral authorities can’t agree.

And at the limits, in the penumbral realm of politics, we all run into trouble. When does life begin? When does it end? Who should have the right to the privileges of citizenship? What do we owe to the suffering of strangers in the Sudan, in Louisiana, in Iraq? How much is too much money? How poor is too much poverty? What are our goals? Who gets to be an expert on morality? What sorts of reasons are good reasons?

I suspect that Talisse would agree that these are all problems. I suspect that he believes these are reasons to support representative democracy over direct action, and to ignore the demos whenever its demands become unreasonable. I’m not ready to become so cynical, nor am I sure that he really espouses some of the views he performed in the classroom. Yet where we definitely part ways is at the crossroads of his faith that there is a truth-of-the-matter for such questions. As my momma says, there’s plenty of room for both of us to be right. I’m always willing to welcome him, if he comes over to my side of the argument.

Second Opinions