Is Postmodernism to Blame for Post-Truth?
Friday, February 17, 2017 -- 12:14 PM
Truman Chen

The famous American philosopher Daniel Dennett is currently touring the UK to promote his new book From Bacteria to Bach and Back, but the reality of Trump's presidency couldn't escape his thoughts. As he put it, "I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics."

In an interview with The Guardian, his tone took a quick turn and he placed the blame squarely on postmodernism as an "evil" school of thought. In responding to the state of American politics, Dennett argued: "Philosophy has not covered itself in glory in the way it has handled this. Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren't quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You'd have people going around saying: 'Well, you're part of that crowd who still believe in facts.'"

There are a couple reasons here to doubt the soundness of Dennett's admittedly harsh accusation.

First, the accusation carries the assumption that "post-truthism" is something that occurred after the emergence of postmodernism, whereas one might have good reason to think that fake news and post-truthism had always been around—not to mention ignoring all the other historical factors at play here. After all, for all the people reading Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, isn't a fundamental feature of the rise of the Nazi regime the disrespect for distinction between truth and lies?

Second, in a time when most seem to be lamenting the lack of influence of philosophy in general, is invoking the "postmodern" bogeyman even reasonable? Is Kellyanne Conway reading Derrida?

Third, might blaming postmodernism here be the reverse of what we should be doing? As it was put in clever tweet: "Blaming post-modernism for post-truth, alt-facts, and [T]rump is like blaming romance novelists for unsatisfactory marital relations." This point is a good one, for it brings out the opposite potential reading: namely, postmodernism makes something out of an already existing reality. Like the romance novelist who uses unsatisfactory romances for their material, the postmodernist diagnoses and predicts the post-truth world. This argument has at least been made by Andrew Jones, a teacher in the UK. That is, maybe we should be thanking "postmodernism" for giving us frameworks and vocabularies to make sense of this world we live in.

Dennett may be asserting that postmodernism brought about this reality when it's really the fact that reality lived up to and confirmed postmodernist theory.

Comments (1)

werewolf500's picture


Sunday, February 19, 2017 -- 1:10 PM

Post Truth?

Re: "isn't a fundamental feature of the rise of the Nazi regime the disrespect for distinction between truth and lies?" not having read the book in question I can only say; nope the problem with the Nazi regime was more the difference between 80-90% truth 20-10% lie.