There was an insane sanatorium
Whose inmates set up an emporium
They hawked all their manias
And taught their inanias
Holding class in a big crematorium.
And in this ersatz institution
They prated with circumlocution
For right was a fable
And wrong was unstable
And ethics mere irresolution.
You see this is all about power
For reality’s just a bit sour
Solipcism’s a hoot
When it’s done in cahoots
But this sure ain’t the ivory tower.
One of the high points of Western civilization was the invention of the university, an institution for contemplating truth. These days universities are under the shadow of various creeds – postmodernism, identity politics, pragmatism, moral antirealism, a whole tribe of them -- that deny the reality of objective truth. There are differences among the members of this tribe, but they all either affirm, or in the end come to, what I say of them here. Some, like critical legal theory, are frank about it. Others are not.
By objective truth I mean correspondence with reality. As the logician Alfred Tarski remarked, the proposition “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. Those of whom I speak deny this. In their view there is no reality to which thoughts must conform. They use the word truth for what the powers that be say that it is, and nothing more.
Or they use it for something that in the end comes to what the powers that be say it is. For example we may say that truth is “what works,” but since there are different ideas of how things should work, someone has to define what counts as working. Or we may say that truth is “consensus,” but since we aren’t actually in consensus, someone has to announce what will be treated as though it were consensus. “All of the people who matter say that ...”
This is supposed to be liberating.
If we examine these ideas we find mires and paradoxes.
One might think those who propound them were merely trying to criticize the hypocritical pretensions of the powerful. But to say that the claims of the powerful are hypocritical pretentions is to say that they distort objective truth. This in turn supposes that there is an objective truth to distort, which is just what they deny. How exactly does such a doctrine help the powerless? It baffles me that its proponents could be taken seriously.
They would do better to give up speaking and take up cawing, like crows. At least crows don’t claim to be uttering meaningful propositions.
The craziness goes deeper still. Logically, someone who thinks truth is nothing but what the powers that be say it is should acquiesce to power, shouldn’t he? Since the powers that be define the truth. Yet the proponents of these creeds typically make a great show of standing up to power.
The solution to the paradox is that for all their talk of standing up against the powers that be, in contemporary universities such folk are the powers that be. They are the ones who say what works. They are the ones who say whose consensus matters.
They are not standing up to power. They are trying to secure and extend it.
To them, I suppose, this seems just. For justice, like truth, is what those with power say it is -- and that means them.