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The Philosophical Muddles of Postmodernism

August 26th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.