The Philosophical Muddles of Postmodernism

At the urging of a friend, I sat down and read Phillip Kenneson’s essay on the nature of truth in Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World. I almost wish I hadn’t.

Count me among the not impressed.  The essay is an example of what happens when you replace one philosophical muddle with another–namely, nothing good.

The essay starts by describing what’s called the “correspondence theory of truth,” which simply means that for a sentence to be true, it has to stand in a particular sort of relationship to reality.  If you suggest that it’s raining outside on a day that happens to be pleasantly sunny, you have uttered what your grandma might call a “falsehood,” or a statement that in fact describes a state of affairs that simply doesn’t exist.

Kenneson contends that this theory of truth introduces a dichotomy between the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ that we need no longer be bothered by (a problem that, if he’s right, should probably trouble more grandmas than it seems to currently).    The postmodern approach to truth is a “new paradigm”–a phrase repeated with some persistence–which apparently is not a theory of truth at all.  Indeed, Kenneson later gives up the point:  “In short, because I have neither a theory of truth nor an epistemology, I cannot have a relativistic one.”

Kenneson is caught in a tangle, and doesn’t seem to be able to see his way through it.

Allow me to point out my agreement with him.  The language of “objective” and “subjective” with respect to truth is utterly useless, as is the language of ‘absolute truth.’  Youth pastors, if you’re using it, stop.  It’s simply not helping, as it’s the sort of philosophical vagary that a fellow like Kenneson loves to disabuse people of, even while he simply perpetuates the problem that it rests upon.

For Kenneson, “objective” truth means something more than simply a statement that corresponds to reality.  Rather, it includes within it how we know whether a given statement corresponds to reality.  As he puts it,  “Indeed, the whole point of claiming that something is “objectively true” is to say that any person, unhindered by the clouds of unreason and the prejudices of self-interest, would come to the same conclusion.”

All well and good.  Except when Kenneson uses the rejection of “objective truth” to summarily dismiss truth-as-correspondence (or what we’ll call the grandma theory from above), he commits a category error that seems to be rampant among proponents of postmodernism:  he conflates how we know what the truth is with what truth is.

Those questions–the epistemological and the metaphysical, to use the “twenty centers”–have to be kept distinct if we’re going to make any reasonable way through the questions of either discipline at all.   What’s more, Kenneson’s dismissal of “objective truth” contains a sort of psychological assumptions about how we come to know truth, which isn’t necessarily unphilosophical, but it might need to be kept distinct from the question of how the structure of justification for our beliefs.

Of course, all this is probably to put the “old paradigm” which was so terribly anxious about making sure our views line up with “reality.”  And who needs that when you have a warm-fuzzy linguistic community to help you sleep at night, rather than staying up nervously fighting off Cartesian demons?  Kenneson is at least honest in that when evaluated from grandma’s standpoint, his position is nonsense.  His goal isn’t to reshape the conversation about the nature of truth–it is to kill it altogether (a desire which should be treated with wariness in any intellectual system).

The whole essay leads up to this provocative claim:  “I realize there are plenty of Christians who think it makes good sense to say that the proposition “Jesus Christ is Lord of the universe” is objectively true; that is, our temptation is to insist that this is simply true whether we or anyone else believe it or not.  But succumbing to such a temptation is deadly for the church.”

If Kenneson is right, then someone forgot to notify the evangelist Luke–not to mention the fellow riding the donkey.

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  • http://www.ericfarkas.com Eric Farkas

    “Allow me to point out my agreement with him. The language of “objective” and “subjective” with respect to truth is utterly useless, as is the language of ‘absolute truth.’ Youth pastors, if you’re using it, stop. It’s simply not helping, as it’s the sort of philosophical vagary that a fellow like Kenneson loves to disabuse people of, even while he simply perpetuates the problem that it rests upon.”

    What exactly do you mean here? You are not saying the concept is not helpful (given the last few lines in this post), only that the language is unhelpful?

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    Eric,

    I think that the modifiers on “truth” are unhelpful in that they add nothing to the concept of truth that isn’t already contained within it. If a statement is true, then it corresponds to a particular state of affairs….regardless of the standpoint that we’re looking at it from (which I think is what people are trying to get at with the “subjective”/”objective” language).

    Matt

  • TLC

    Matt,
    Your point is a good one – “truth” NEEDS no modifiers…it is absolute by definition. However, using the synonyms “absolute” and “truth” together is useful in order to help those who the Lord has committed to our car to be able to understand truth and hold fast to it in the midst of the swirling quagmire of foolishness that Kenneson perpetuates.
    Why such a direct admonition not to use synonymns in tandem?

    • http://notesfromasmallplace.wordpress.com Jake Meador

      TLC – I agree with Matt on this point. I think the existence of so much confusion surrounding the idea of truth is the best argument for why we shouldn’t be using those modifiers. The modifiers implicitly affirm the very system that creates the confusion in the first place. So it seems much more reasonable to simply speak of “truth” and – when someone raises the objective/subjective split – tackle it head on.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    TLC,

    Thanks for the kind words!

    “Why such a direct admonition not to use synonymns in tandem?”

    Because I think that using them simply perpetuates the sort of confusion that leads to Kenneson’s essay. Why should we give ourselves over to the distinction between subjective/objective with respect to truth? From our standpoint, those distinctions are nonsense–ergo, we ought to quit using them ourselves. Does that make sense?

    Matt

  • http://bensimpson.squarespace.com Ben Simpson

    Strangely enough, this last week our topic at youth group was truth. And the definition of truth offered was, if I remember correctly, “a statement that corresponds with reality,” or something to that effect. The modifiers “objective” and “absolute” were given mention. I remember sitting among the teenagers, thinking that the next question should be that even if truth exists, how do we come to knowledge of the truth? In other words, my thoughts immediately went to matters of epistemology. Not surprisingly, we didn’t go that direction.

    I happen to have read a number of books lately that dabble in correspondence and coherentist approaches to truth, whether implicitly or explicitly. You’re dismissive of Wittgensteinian thought or the coherentist approach. Right? And if this essay is so bad, are there others you find more compelling? Whose treatment of “truth” do you find convincing? And how do you justify your position?

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Ben,

      All great questions. I don’t think I’d characterize my position as “dismissive” of coherentism so much as thinking that it’s wrong. It’s worth taking seriously, but this particular article (which was handed to me by someone with deep postmodern sympathies) didn’t do the position much good in my eyes (and in Kenneson’s defense, it’s not clear that he even wants to claim coherentism as a theory of truth, as he seems to want to ignore the burden of giving such a theory altogether).

      As for essays that I find compelling, I Merold Westphal has an essay that’s a little more provocative and careful, even if it has (I *think*) the same problem at the core. But I’m still working through that. I’ll get the name for you later, if you want. Most of my interaction with coherentism happened at one of the main springs of the stream: Quine. His stuff is definitely challenging, and worth interacting with. I think it’s wrong, but it’s quite good.

      But at the end of the day, I think JP’s articulation of truth is quite good here: http://bit.ly/bcG3Rs We could go down the rabbit whole in terms of what counts as propositions, whether all truths are “timeless” or not, the nature of indexicals, etc. But JP gives about as good a case against much of what passes for postmodern theories of truth as I’ve seen. And in re-reading it this morning, I see he actually interacts some with Kenneson and takes the same line of critique I took here. It’s a bit abrasive for some folks, so if you’re looking for a treatment that is more sympathetic, I think Leithart’s *Solomon Among the Postmoderns* is quite good.

      Best,

      matt

      • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

        Full disclosure: I’m the friend with “deep postmodern sympathies” who urged Matt to read Philip Kenneson’s essay, “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing, Too.” It’s a relief to hear that Matt still regards me as a “friend” because our recent scrape has left me feeling bruised; I suspect he feels bruised as well. I’m grateful that he engaged one of the articles that I sent him in a postmodern care package, even if he was “not impressed.” Perhaps another article will impress him, although I’m not aiming for impressiveness. I approach this inquiry believing that what the church needs is not a better argument but a better witness. To quote Kenneson:

        Too often appeals to the objective truth of the gospel have served as a means for the church to evade its responsibility to live faithfully before the world. In short, Christians insisted that the gospel was objectively true regardless of how we lived. The paradigm that I am advocating frankly admits that all truth claims require for their widespread acceptance the testimony of trusted and thereby authorized witnesses….Our efforts to argue people into the kingdom by insisting that what we are saying is objectively true reduce the Christian faith to a form of gnosticism, and ironically, a modernist form of gnosticism at that. If we could unequivocally prove to people that the proposition ‘God exists’ is objectively truth, the inhabitants of our culture would yawn and return to their pagan slumbers. What our world is waiting for, and what the church seems reluctant to offer, is not more incessant talk about objective truth, but an embodied witness that clearly demonstrates why anyone should care about any of this in the first place. The fact that most of our non-Christian neighbors cannot pick us out from the rest of their non-Christian neighbors––or if they can, what makes us pick-outable are matters relatively incidental to the gospel––suggests that they are right in refusing to accept what we say we believe but which our lives make a lie.

        A few days have passed since our scape. There seems to be three points of significant agreement:

        (1) Truth exists (metaphysics).

        (2) Truth is knowable (epistemology).

        (3) We should move beyond subjectivism and objectivism to live the truth (ethics).

        If I were a thorough-going postmodernist, I’d reject all of the above.

        Some postmodern sympathizers may be guilty of making a “category error,” conflating metaphysics and epistemology. The more sophisticated interlocutors address the complicated relationship between metaphysics and epistemology.

        Because truth exists, some people want to ask: what is the nature of truth? (Remember, it was Pilate who asked Jesus, “What is truth?”) The correspondence theory of truth holds that a belief is true if and only if it corresponds to a fact. (Matt would like you to believe that this is grandma’s theory of truth, but neither of my grandmas ever subscribed to such a theory, at least not as the philosophers handle it.) There are three basic reasons why I am troubled by the correspondence theory of truth.

        (1) Reductionistic. Is everything a fact? Put differently, does everything accommodate a proposition-to-fact relation or word-to-world relation? If I say “the grass is green” or “2+2=4,” the correspondence theory seems workable because we can factually determine the color or the computation. If I say “Jesus Christ is Lord” or “Satan is the hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost,” the correspondence theory ceases to be workable because we cannot factually determine these propositions. The correspondence theory depends on a metaphysics of facts, as if all we need to do is discover the facts “out there” like Columbus discovered the New World. If facts are in the world, it should make sense to ask where they are to be found, yet such questions as “Where is the fact that Jesus is Lord?” and “Where is the fact that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost?” admit no obvious answer. The theory is unsatisfactory because not all worldly items are reducible to facts and not all relations are reducible to facts. This leads to my second grievance with the theory.

        (2) Agnostic. The correspondence theory of truth, whose origin may be traced to Aristotle (a pagan!) but whose career really began with 20th century analytic philosophers like G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell (both atheists!), is alien to the biblical identification of truth with God––the Supreme Fact to be sure, but so much more than a fact.

        Peter Hicks wrote the entry on truth in New Dictionary to Christian Apologetics, where he says much of the philosophical discussion about truth does not keep with biblical Christianity, as described below:

        In Hebrew thought, truth is essentially a God-centered concept. Truth exists because God exists, and God is true. His nature is dependable, his ways are true and his words are trustworthy. Truth is more than correct propositions, thought it includes such, it is also something we do. If we say ‘Amen’ (one of the Hebrew words for truth) to God’s truth, we are committing ourselves to live by it. Truth that is not lived is not truth, it cannot be divorced from goodness and justice and right living. Because truth is rooted in God, it is personal and dynamic. Jesus’ claim to be the way and the truth and the life is significant, both for the paralleling of ‘way’ and ‘life’ with ‘truth’ and the linking of all three concepts with ‘coming to the Father.’ Truth is not an end in itself, but a means to finding God.

        As much as Matt might regard me as a simpleton, it’s more truthful for a Christian to say that Truth is a Person than a proposition. That doesn’t mean propositions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they must be understood in relation to the Person of Christ, hence “we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

        (3) Impractical. The correspondence theory of truth lacks traction for everyday living. The biblical conception of truth emphasizes phronesis (“practical wisdom”) and praxis (“action”) whereas the correspondence theory of truth is merely concerned about facts. Many of us, myself included, have at one time or another assented to the (creedal) fact that “Jesus is Lord” but failed to produce any fruit. Why? There might be several reasons, but here is one to consider: the fruitlessness relates to an impoverished view of Jesus as a factual relation rather than a personal and cosmic relation. He did not invite us to know him like “the grass is green” but to know him as the source of “unsearchable riches.” (Note: facts are not generally regarded as “unsearchable.”)

        For the sake of Mere O readers, I will include the last portion of Hicks’ entry on truth because I think it builds consensus among Christians who think we need a theory of truth and Christians, like myself, who think a theory is not needed in order to be truth-seekers and truth-doers.

        Offering Christian truth

        Enlightenment or modern culture, from which we are just emerging, made reason the test of truth for everything. Given that culture, Christian apologists justifiably set themselves to establish that Christianity was eminently reasonable, that the existence of God could be established by rational arguments, and so on. Christian truth was presented essentially as cerebral, facts to be believed and doctrines to be accepted. Since, despite the inroads of relativism and postmodernism, there are still many traces of Enlightenment rationalism in our culture, such a rationalist approach may still have a place. Someone, for example, who is committed to a scientific worldview may well be prepared to think through a contemporary form of the cosmological argument.

        The postmodern scene, however, presents us with the opportunity to do something different, something that seems more in keeping with the early Christian understanding of truth. For truth in the Bible is bigger than rational demonstration. It is personal, moral, dynamic and life-changing, as well as propositional and factual. Supremely, truth is God. So the apologetic task in a postmodern culture is to present the truth in all its richness, not just as something narrowly rational. We are to live truth, and people need to experience the reality of Christ who is the truth in us and see the gospel as ‘the power of God.’ If ‘community’ and ‘image’ are buzz words in our culture, then truth needs to be the characteristic of our Christian communities and our Christian image. The standard is set high in Heb. 1:3 where it is said of the incarnate Christ that ‘everything about him represents God exactly.’

        This is by no means to deny the significance of truth presented as facts and doctrines. It would be impossible to be faithful to biblical Christianity without emphasizing the key importance of God being a God who speaks truth. In Scripture he has chosen to give us his truth in a form we can grasp with our minds. Here he speaks in words; here we find facts and on this basis we can build our doctrines. In all our apologetic the revelation of God in Scripture must remain normative. It is there we find how to live truth, or to be the true people of God, or to image Christ the truth.

        A Christian approach to truth

        It is highly unlikely that our culture will be able to survive without adopting some approach to truth to replace the lost Enlightenment concept. But at present, apart from a general pragmatism, no alternative concept seems to be winning much ground. This gives the Christian apologist an opportunity to offer a distinctively Christian alternative. In keeping with what we have seen above the key points of this might be:

        Theocentricity. Just as we believe that God is the creator and upholder of the universe, we believe that truth, along with goodness, beauty, love, and much else had its origin and foundation in God. The individual ceases to be the center of the universe, and the creator of what is true, and gives these roles back to God.

        Objectivity [I don't think this term adds anything to our distinctly Christian approach to truth; it can be folded into theocentricity]. Truth is thus removed from the subjectivity of each individual, and we can return to the objective foundation for truth that was the key to Western thought for nearly two millennia. The consistency of the created universe is assured because God is faithful. The trustworthiness of truth is assured because God is true.

        Richness. God is not monochrome, nor is his truth. It is rich and deep, transparent and mysterious, factual and moral, touching every part of life. We are not to separate God’s truth from his other ‘attributes’; it is holy truth, living truth, saving truth, and so on. No one truth may be detached from the whole; to do so is to distort it and destroy it.

        Grace and revelation. In that he has made us in his image, God has enabled us to know truth, to think his thoughts after him. We have both the capacity to learn God’s truth from the world around us, and to receive it by revelation, through Scripture and the Holy Spirit.

        Holism. Because God is much more than intellect, the receiving of his truth will be much more than intellectual. The paradigm here is meeting with Christ, which impacts every part of our personhood, not just our minds. Even ‘scientific’ truth is not be taken as merely factual or cerebral. Sooner or later it must have, say, moral or personal implications.

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