What Is Truth? Truth and Contemporary Culture

Article excerpt

In 1999, Pulitzer Prize winning historian and biographer Edmund Morris released his much-anticipated work on Ronald Reagan. Entitled Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, this novel-or biography, or biographical novel-set off a great deal of controversy, not least among those who had hoped for a successor to Morris's magisterial and quite factual, if interpretative, biography of Theodore Roosevelt.

Morris was quite upfront that his intention was to capture Reagan's essence in a mixture of historical narrative, biographical interpretation-and fiction. His publisher, Random House, even had the audacity to claim in its advertising that through this device, Morris was merely telling the truth in an altogether new way. Morris, himself the object of no small amount of criticism, said concerning his project, "It was an advanced and biographical honesty." In other words, by inventing a good percentage of the biography, he had made the book more honest than it would otherwise have been.

We are living in an age of great confusion about the issue of truth. In recent weeks, Ralph Keyes has authored a book entitled The Post Truth Era, in which he suggests that society has now moved beyond a concern for truth. Truth has become such a contested category, he writes, that most persons go through life actually expecting to be lied to, to be the recipients of dishonesty, and to be confronted with endless misrepresentations by advertisers, cultural leaders, and now even biographers. In a world of media invention and virtual reality, truth has become a distant category to many persons, especially in the academic elite. Sociologist Jay A. Barnes, in his recent work on lying, suggests that people have grown so accustomed to untruth that many postmodernists now claim that lies are actually "meaningful data in their own right."1

Today, in sociological analysis, philosophical discussion, and of course, political debate, the issue is truth itself. Recent debates over issues like embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, sexuality, and human cloning are really disguised arguments about the nature of truth itself.

So what is truth? What is the true state of affairs in these situations? What are the truth issues at stake? Whose truth will be victorious?

In every corner of culture, confusion and chaos run rampant in this post-truth age. In literature, for example, postmodern narrative has grown so minimalist that it has reached the point of having no point at all. As critic George Steiner explains, "God the Father of meaning in His authorial guise is gone from the game. There is no longer any privileged judge, interpreter, or explicator who can determine or communicate the truth, the true intent of the matter."2 Similarly, artists, musicians, architects, and filmmakers have now openly embraced nihilism. There is, as one critic said, "a noticeable hole in the soul of our contemporary culture, both at its popular and elite levels." Objective meaning has been lost; whatever meaning and truth we find in the artifacts of culture, we are told, is brought there by the viewer in a subjective experience. Directors in the cinema now say that their sole ambition is to tell their truth, as if that were something different from the truth.

In large sectors of academia as well, truth has become such a contested category that no debate is more intense than whether truth can be known at all. The same is true in law, where truth is now a matter to be decided, not discovered. No longer does the nation's judicial system operate on the assumption that judges and juries will reach objective decisions after evaluating evidence presented in an objective manner.

How did we get here? Of course we could begin answering that question at almost any point in intellectual history, but we must begin at least with the Enlightenment. Modernist philosophers like Descartes, Locke, and Kant confronted Western culture with a series of tough questions-the problem of knowledge, most notably, and the subsequent postmodern hermeneutical shift to the subject. …