Postmodernism: The Decline of Truth

15 July 2019

Did postmodernism have any part to play in the rise of the post-truth era? At first glance that seems very hard to believe. When we see Kellyanne Conway talking about “alternative facts” or Rudy Giuliani saying “truth isn’t truth,” we don’t immediately assume they’ve been busy reading Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty. Still, maybe the question isn’t quite so simple.

For one thing, there are a few documented cases of right-wingers explicitly drawing on postmodernist theory. Take Vladislav Surkov, Kremlin ideologist. Or Phillip Johnson, one of the originators of the “intelligent design” idea. (‘‘I told them I was a postmodernist and deconstructionist just like them,” said Johnson, "but aiming at a slightly different target.’’) Or Mike Cernovich, an alt-right conspiracy theorist, who actually said the following: “I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative. I don’t seem like a guy who reads Lacan, do I?”

And even when it comes to folks like Kellyanne Conway or Rudy Giuliani—people who almost certainly did not read any Lyotard—there is perhaps a case to be made for postmodernism having an effect, by creating an environment conducive to their flourishing. Kurt Andersen points out that postmodern ideas didn’t stay locked in the ivory tower but gradually circulated in the wider culture, convincing more and more people that each person has his or her own “truth,” and that it’s impolite (if not downright hegemonic) to say that someone is wrong. The result, according to Andersen? “Once the intellectual mainstream thoroughly accepted that there are many equally valid realities and truths, once the idea of gates and gatekeeping was discredited not just on campuses but throughout the culture, all American barbarians could have their claims taken seriously.” And thus “postmodern intellectuals… turned out to be useful idiots… for the American right.”

Andersen's suggestion, in other words, is that postmodernism helped to create an environment in which there was less pushback against the Conways and Giulianis—like a body with a depressed immune system. One or two philosophers seem to agree with this assessment. Daniel Dennett says the postmodernists “are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts”; Timothy Williamson says, “those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.” There could well be something to this, even if Donald Trump isn’t staying up all night poring over The Postmodern Condition.

Of course, the post-truth era has a host of other causes, many of which may well be more significant: the elimination of the fairness doctrine, the rise of 24-hour news, the internet, social media... But what if postmodernism also contributed, in its own modest way? Shouldn’t that be a reason for us to rethink how great an idea it was, and how vital a contribution to progressive politics? Richard Rorty once wrote that “the very idea of a ‘fact of the matter’ is one we would be better off without,” and that “science as the source of ‘truth’ [note the scare quotes!] is one of the Cartesian notions which will vanish” in the era he was calling for. Well, we’re living in that future right now, and it's not a utopia; it's a hellmouth. The dystopia we’re currently living in should, in my view, make fans of postmodern theory think twice about their enthusiasm. They were wrong to hope for a world beyond truth.

At this point, defenders of postmodernism would probably make a couple of familiar responses. For one thing, they’d probably say that postmodernists were diagnosing the decline of truth, not asserting it, let alone calling for it. Well, that may be true of Baudrillard, but it’s surely not true of Derrida, who famously claimed that words never transmit ideas but just defer meaning endlessly. And it’s also not true of Richard Rorty, who said that “there is no sense in which any [scientific] descriptio[n] is an accurate representation of the way the world is.” (As Bruno Latour pointed out, that kind of attitude is one that would make climate deniers very happy.) Rorty declared that “vocabularies… are not ‘more objective’ or ‘less objective’” and that “objects are not ‘more objectively’ described in any vocabulary than in any other.” Science, in other words, is no more objective than Scientology; astronomy is no more objective than astrology. When it came to "philosophy professors who are seeking the truth, not just a story or a consensus but an honest-to-God, down-home, accurate representation of the way the world is,” Rorty thought it fun to call them "old-fashioned prigs.” And he told us that someone reading a book shouldn’t try to understand it correctly—there’s no such thing—but only “bea[t] the text into a shape which will serve his own purpose.”

And it’s not just what these thinkers said; it’s what they did. Actions speak even louder than words, and postmodernists had a way of revealing just how committed they were to truthfulness. When caught in a bind over an article, Derrida insisted loudly on his rights as an author, forgetting everything he’d said about the evils of the copyright system ("I shall therefore not claim a copyright because this entire matter of the police must be reconsidered”). Similarly, when I once asked Rorty why he kept attributing a view to Nietzsche that Nietzsche didn’t really have, he said “it just makes him into a more interesting and innovative philosopher.” And the journal Social Text eagerly published an article which stated, among other deliberately egregious errors, that pi is a variable. At the end of the day, it’s hard to accept with a straight face that claim that postmodernists were ultimately driven by a powerful love of truth. The fact that today’s defenders of postmodernism are trying to rewrite history in this way—pretending Derrida and company never said the things they said—may perhaps reconfirm the suspicions some of us have that their commitment to honesty isn’t entirely paramount.

The best argument for postmodernism, it seems to me, is that it sought to undermine the hegemony, in the intellectual world, of the white, male, heterosexual, Western standpoint. It revealed that purported claims to universality were often just a smokescreen for dangerously Eurocentric and hegemonic attitudes, and thus opened up a space for other ways of thinking to assert themselves and be taken seriously. This is an extremely noble aim, and the changes that have happened over the past decades have been vital and excellent. It’s just not clear to me that we needed postmodernism in order to achieve this. As Anthony Appiah once put it, “their complaint is not with universalism at all. What they truly object to—and who would not?—is Eurocentric hegemony posing as universalism.” It wasn’t necessary to attack the very notion of universals, in other words, or the very notion of truth. When faced with lies posing as truths, we should just call them what they are, rather than claiming that there’s no such thing as objective truth. Here Du Bois and Beauvoir (among others) can be our models; we do not need the postmodernists.

Did postmodernism contribute to post-truth? We’ll never know for sure. All we can be certain of is that insisting there’s no truth, that claims of objectivity are always driven by interests of power, and that science is no more objective than Scientology is simply not going to help. We need to get the gatekeepers back at their gates. It’s up to all of us.


Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

Comments (5)

jlsheehan13's picture


Thursday, July 18, 2019 -- 5:47 AM

Blaming postmodernism for

Blaming postmodernism for "post-truth" is like blaming Nietzche for National Socialism. The ideas of intellectuals when misunderstood can influence any number of lamentable events, but it is those misunderstandings, not those ideas, which are to blame. When post-modernists "attack" objective truth, they are not seeking to undermine knowledge, they are rather noting that all knowledge has to be understood using concepts from each person's single perspective. This opens up an enormous field of study, where philosophers can seek to develop new perspectives. What analytic philosophers are seldom able to fathom is that claiming that all truth is subjective is not a value claim. Nor does subjectivity eliminate the possibility for agreement or discussion. I think it was incredibly important that postmodernists "attacked" objective truth because it opens up an entirely new realm of study. To think that alt-righters and post-truthers have any clear understanding of the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity gives them a lot of credit. And to blame postmodernists for the misinterpretations of idiots opens up lots of philosophers and thinkers to the same kind of uncharitable scrutiny. Nietzche and Hegel for the rise of the Third Reich? Preposterous. Their ideas were warped by people who were already post-truth. Postmodernists are seldom explicitly mentioned by the alt-right. Why would they be? On the whole, they were left-wing, free-sexual, intellectuals-- everything the alt-right despises. But just because they questioned the notion of our understanding of objective truth, they are responsible for the behavior of post-truthers? Preposterous again. Politicians have been openly lying to the public since before Machiavelli.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, January 2, 2022 -- 1:30 PM

Josh asks "Did postmodernism

Josh asks "Did postmodernism have any part to play...". That is not a very high bar, and he gives examples to show that it did. If we discount those examples, I'm not sure we are in a better place.

Intellectuals are responsible for the errors in their thought, and Post Modernism has more than its share of errors.

I agree one did not cause the other. But there is intellectual history here that is tricky and unexpected.

I don't see the hugeness of opportunity here that Po-Mo creates either. Subjective truth is possible to achieve without the extreme claims of the Post Modern thinkers. Josh's personal recounting of Rorty's overreach is good enough for me.

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juliaaugusta's picture


Sunday, February 27, 2022 -- 12:44 PM

fascinating episode! stirring

fascinating episode! stirring up all the old 1980s UCSC studies and theses on foucault and feminism and dominant discourses and the deconstruction of course of Enlightenment's One (male, white, christian) Truth (obviously! apparent in the existence and acknowledgement of many and different 'truths' / 'plurealities' and different discourses of women, other cultures and people of color, etc etc . . . all very exciting for this young undergrad at the time and tbh i think i would still stand by most of it . . . ?! i'm not so immersed in academic worlds since then in the past 30 years, so i was very surprised recently to read about Donna Haraway (who was and still is very esteemed UCSC faculty member) explaining or at least claiming some responsibility for our "post truth" "truthiness" "fake news states of mess and affairs in this guardian article from 2019. would love to hear your thoughts on this and on her work as it seems directly related to your very lively discussion and she's been at this for ages, certainly since i was there over 30 years ago. . . . thanks !

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 4, 2022 -- 6:44 AM

I have remarked on truth

I have remarked on truth elsewhere on this blog, including Prof. Perry's post on levels-of-reality from a dozen years ago.
Also posited a notion about contextual reality, which piggy-backs on something once called situational ethics. Anyway, I'll share an anecdote from an earlier association with an administrative law judge. We worked together, years ago. I would visit his office to discuss cases he was to hear. Our exchange banter would sometimes begin with my inquiry: what is the law? He would reply: whatever the hell I say it is! The point being, it all depended upon a standard of proof- the preponderance of the evidence. He was to decide who won and who lost, depending on this "feather's weight".

His decisions were appealable to a federal government office of administrative law judges.. Which meant that his word on 'truth' was not the final word. Or, the law was not necessarily whatever the hell he said. That said, I do not recall any decision of his ever being reversed. So, truth is what it is, on a good day. My friend had a lot of those. Until he was discharged for refusing to have his job description changed, so that his employer could assign duties he did not wish to assume. Is truth always truth? It depends.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 4, 2022 -- 7:00 PM

So. Now that I have given an

So. Now that I have given an account of 'truth', with a practical example,...Is it too simple? I don't think so..Your example,featuring Einstein's admonition about simplicity, was true enough. Truth, however is far more than the mathematics and physics that led the great man to his findings. In the ' broadest possible sense of the term' truth depends on circumstance; content; context; and, contingency. In a different sense, it is fragile. THAT truth we make up as we go. If it be considered that it is all right to manipulate truth to our own ends, that is not my call.. I cannot fix it
Nor can anyone else. Seems to me...

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