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“People of every age seem to be in a sort of post-truth scenario here, where I get to pick my own facts. There are a lot of facts out of there, I get to pick the ones that I like, and I can go with those, and nobody can really tell me that those aren’t the facts because it’s my truth. Those are my facts, and don’t tell me they’re not.”

— Robert Prentice[1]

Most conspiracy theories contain a grain of truth. Some are completely true. There has to be something for the credulous to glom onto.

Critical theory’s grain of truth, ironically, is “there is no such thing as a grain of truth”.

Well, not quite — “it is true that there is no truth” refutes itself, after all — but rather that the idea of “objective truth” is incoherent. There is no objective truth, because the very idea makes no sense.

“Things” are properties of the universe. They have (we presume) temporal continuity,[2] whether we see them or not, and whether we talk about them or not.[3] “Truths” are propositions about things. Propositions put things into a relationship with each other: “the cat sat on the mat”. “Gordon is a moron”. “Propositions” are a property of language: they only exist within the framework of a language.

Thus, things aren’t true or false: only propositions about things are. Propositions are prisoners of the language they are articulated in. Beyond it, they are only marks on a page.

“گربه روی تشک نشست”


Truths are propositions. Truths, therefore are a function of the language they are articulated in. A truth cannot “transcend” the language it is expressed in, because that language gives the proposition meaning. It doesn’t make sense for the truth to transcend it's medium.[5] There is the further difficulty that “language” itself is an indeterminate, incomplete, unbounded thing; no two individuals share exactly the same vocabulary, let alone the same cultural experiences to map to that vocabulary, let alone the same metaphorical schemes. It is what James P. Carse would describe as “dramatic” and not “theatrical”.[6] This makes the business of acquiring and communicating in a language — where meaning does not reside in the textual markes, but in the indeterminate cultural milieu in which the communication occurred — all the more mysterious. That we call it “communication”; that we infer from that a lossless transmission of information from one mind, is a deep well of mortal frustration.

This is its debt to post-modernism, and it is a proposition that contemporary rationalists find hard to accept, whether hailing from the right — see Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds for an articulate example — or the left — see Helen Pluckrose’s patient and detailed examination in Cynical Theories.

The problem, all seem to agree, is this post-modern rejection of truth. And it isn’t by any means limited to the critical theorists: it lives in Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts”, in Elon Musk’s Twitter feed, and the generally relaxed attitude to rigorous fact-checking of the populist right.

At the same time we lament the death of “authenticity” — is it the same thing as truth? Is it what we mean by “truth”? — and with it, the terminal defection of logic from the mechanical operation of the world.

We think: what have we done? Have we syllogised truth away altogether? Have we passed a point of no return? Some kind of event horizon between truth and post truth; an invisible force-field from the outside in a collection of received veracities, which once you permeate it, once you cross its threshold all reality dissolves and it is suddenly the only visible truth that remains, in a twisting kaleidoscope of unfathomable nonsense — truth is no longer possible?

Nowhere is this more evident than the blockchain, and its two most startling, and contradictory creations: bitcoin on one hand: the utter rejection of any underlying reality: bitcoin unashamedly represents “value” as a totally abstracted essence; a theoretical quality, disconnected from our ugly Platonic cave, floating free of any messy, ugly corporeal, earthly extension that might taint it with mortal frailty; the non-fungible token on the other, a means vouchsafed by that very same essential abstraction from the earthen shores, of achieving unimpeachable authenticity. A non-fungible token cannot be replicated, it can’t be cloned, copied or imitated: it is immutably, eternally, digitally unique

The irony deepens, for defenders of the enlightenment bring critical theory to book for its ignorance of obvious truths, while critical theory itself has bootstrapped itself into assembling a new set of of objective truths, which happened to be different to the conventional enlightenment ones.

The deep problem that critical theory has, all agree (from Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Helen Pluckrose, Douglas Murray and recently Matthew Syed) is that something things — physical sciences are a favourite example — just are true. No amount of identifying with an alternative theory of gravity will stop you from hitting the ground if you throw yourself out of a window.

On the other hand Jacob Howland made the interesting assertion recently that so completely has critical theory escape its postmodern origins, that it has become captured by, of all people the high modernists who inhabit an intellectual world that seeks to solve all problems by top-down taxonomies and computation.

An illiberal alliance of technological corporatism and progressivism is rapidly turning universities into a “talent pipeline” for the digital age. When fully constructed, this pipeline will deliver a large and steady flow of human capital, packaged in certifiable skill sets and monetised in social-impact or “pay-for-success” bonds. But the strongly particular or eccentric shapes of mind, character, and taste that make human beings, as John Stuart Mill says, “a noble and beautiful object of contemplation” would clog the talent pipeline.

Critical theory has escaped its usual confines in the liberal arts faculties of universities and is now inhabiting the management and human resource departments of corporations, and who are using their rationalist framework to advance what is a fairly radical political agenda. Critical theory is not an alternative narrative by which we can puncture the arrogant assumptions of the capitalist class: it has displaced them altogether and is making its own arrogant assumptions in their place.

That’s not altogether a bad thing — although the practical effects of the updated dogma seem more pronounced the further from the executive suite you go — but it seems to me to substitute one set of bad ideas with another.

The idea of transcendent truth — a truth that holds regardless of language, culture or power structure in which it is articulated — is not false (that would be a paradox right?) So much as incoherent. It is incoherent because, as Richard Rorty pointed out, truth is a property of a sentence about the world, not the world itself. Truth depends on language.

And languages are intrinsically ambiguous. This is the tragedy and the triumph of the human condition.

The statement there is no truth is not an article of postmodern faith, by the way: you can trace it back as far as David Hume, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty. I know, I know: all old, dead, white, men. And Nancy Cartwright.

If you accept the proposition that truth is a function of a sentence and therefore the language of that sentence, for there to be a transcendent truth the language in which it was uttered would necessarily need to be complete, comprehensive, and itself true. The nearest linguistic structures that we have to to complete languages are those of mathematics. Yet we know that mathematics is a necessarily incomplete language: from that we know that any natural language is necessarily incomplete; and in the case of science we know with certainty that science is not what a complete and comprehensive statement of the laws of the physical universe.

We haven’t solved the universe yet. There are large fundamental unknowns; dark matter; dark energy; the incommensurability of quantum mechanics and and special relativity. Even if the concept of transcendent truth were coherent we would have nothing like enough information to access it. In the same way that the fielder does not have enough physical information to calculate the trajectory of a cricket ball, and therefore pragmatically approximates it, so we do not have anything like enough information to confidently predict the scientific performance of the universe and therefore we pragmatically approximate it.

Pragmatic approximations, being provisional, contingent, and subject to revision at any time are are more tolerant, plural and liberal than concrete scientific calculations.

The lack of a a coherent concept of transcendent truth is a a roadmap to tolerance, pluralism, and liberalism. It obliges us to treat as contingent anything we know, to expect things to change and to be prepared for new and more effective ways of looking at the world. All it requires is that we substitute a certainty about how we view the world and ash that we see it as true with a pragmatism about how we view the world, seeing it as effective.

Truth and practicality

We should not let the wholesale categorical commitment to truth and probity let us, well, up the garden path. What matters at any time is not what is true so much as what works. Industries with real skin in the game know this: in financial services everyone knows what matters is what the market believes, not the sober mathematical reality of the situation.

Other parts of the Republic are not practical. We can imagine the prosecution of Donald Trump over formal irregularities in the payment for escort services. No doubt be careful diligent acquisition of a case has taken three and a half years and it is now The logical time to present the case, end of the fact that it happens to be the lead up to the next election in which Trump is running and desperately short of attention is a marginal point.

See also


  1. Robert Prentice, quoted in Gabrielle Bluestone’s Hype
  2. Though even temporal continuity is a function of language: computer code has no tense, and therefore no temporal continuity.
  3. David Hume’s causal scepticism put paid, centuries ago, to the idea that we can be sure about this.
  4. Translated from Persian into English: “the cat sat on the mat.”
  5. This is not even to take the point that, thanks to the indeterminacy of closed logical sets, no statement in a natural language can possibly have a unique, exclusive meaning.
  6. In his Finite and Infinite Games.