Monday, April 07, 2008

Enlightened doubt and post-modern truth

Mankind's longest running intellectual debate -- from Aristotelians to the Age of Faith to the Enlightenment to French deconstruction and post-modernism -- isn't the stuff of everyday newsroom practice. But you do have a dog in that fight.

The essential question used to be "What is truth?" but devolved into "Is there truth?" and beyond. In some elementary form (philosophically speaking), it's the central question we ask every day. (Jack Fuller offers as good a definition of journalistic truth as I've ever seen in "News Values"; he calls this testing and discovery "the truth discipline," a journalistic process that produces a useful and robust, if crude, version of truth that serves us well in the everyday workings of the world. (Find a discussion of "truth discipline" here, or many other places in the book every serious journalist needs to read).

I mention all this only to introduce you to a fascinating post on the NYT blog of Stanley Fish. You do not need to read this, but God, is it interesting.

His post is either a review of or a meditation on a book by Francois Cusset to be published next month – “French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States” – that I certainly would not (and probably could not) read. But in Prof. Fish's clean, accessible prose, I feel like I can understand it. Here's a taste:

Obviously the rationalist Enlightenment agenda does not survive this deconstructive analysis intact, which doesn’t mean that it must be discarded (the claim to be able to discard it from a position superior to it merely replicates it) or that it doesn’t yield results (I am writing on one of them); only that the progressive program it is thought to underwrite and implement — the program of drawing closer and closer to a truth independent of our discursive practices, a truth that, if we are slow and patient in the Baconian manner, will reveal itself and come out from behind the representational curtain — is not, according to this way of thinking, realizable.

That’s a loss, but it’s not a loss of anything in particular. It doesn’t take anything away from us. We can still do all the things we have always done; we can still say that some things are true and others false, and believe it; we can still use words like better and worse and offer justifications for doing so. All we lose (if we have been persuaded by the deconstructive critique, that is) is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything.

Okay, here's one sweet, final item: almost immediately following the Fish post, Berkman Fellow Gene Koo added an addendum: "Enlightened doubt: Wikipedia's post-modern search for truth" that extends the meditation into the contemporary techno-communications realm. Says he:

Fish may as well be describing Wikipedia, for Wikipedia exemplifies the quest for truth in a deconstructed world. Wikipedia harnesses individuals’ faith in truth, yet ultimately tempers it within a fundamentally relativist framework. Wikipedia ultimately guarantees not so much the truth as the ability to argue for the truth by appealing to a common cultural understanding — the Neutral Point of View — as the final arbiter of truth. In short, Wikipedia resolves the postmodern dilemma of truth by ultimately relying on process. Through the give-and-take between many committed individuals who hold strong beliefs in what is true, as well as a common commitment to what truth means, a truer (or truthier) encyclopedia of knowledge emerges.

How does any of this relate to producing news in today's bewildering environment? Well, not at all. Except totally.

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