Ontology and Epistemology of Post-Truth
Post-Truth. It’s the biggest buzzword of the moment. Enough to be named Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year. According to the Oxford living dictionary, Post-Truth is “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”
You can find a plethora of articles addressing the impact of Post-Truth on 2016 U.S. politics. You can find calls for the importance of digital and media literacy in education in this “Post-Truth world. ” But what I haven’t seen so far is an ontological and epistemological evaluation of “Post-Truth” or the personal epistemology that goes along with this frame of mind.
Post-Truth, by definition, makes a number of ontological and epistemological assumptions. The largest of which are that there are “objective facts” and “personal beliefs” and these are of not only different, but of differing value when it comes to “Truth.”
Note I am using capital T for Truth here, denoting one reality, that is accurate for everyone, and that we may or may not be able to come to know. This is in contrast to lower-case t for truth, which denotes a multiplicity of realities, reflecting different experiential and situated realities, which we can come to know. There is a lot of complicated philosophy that goes into making this nuanced distinction, but I think it is important. Because if you believe in Truth or truth matters and changes how you come to understand and conceive of the world.
So back to Post-Truth. Although not explicitly stated, it can be assumed that the ontological perspective assumes Truth; this can be taken from the phrase “objective facts” which suggests that 1) there is a way to be objective and separate your personal beliefs from your interpretation or experience of a situation, and 2) that there are facts-–indisputable information–at all. Put together, that there is information that is indisputable and separate from interpretation. And that because of the phrasing of the definition, and connotations of the words it uses, it is assumed that this Truth–these “objective facts“, are more valid and more important than personal beliefs–let alone [gasp] emotion.
So we have an ontology of Post-Truth; what about the epistemology. What does that mean for coming to know something, what does that mean about knowledge?
I argue it means that there is an authority in what is knowledge–what is objective facts. That this authority determines what is knowledge, what is right and wrong, and transmits that down to everyone else. And that subjective–personal–information is not fact but rather something not True. You come to know from the authority, not through your interpretation.
Now I don’t believe this. Personally. I believe in little-t truth. I believe we all create knowledge, and coming to know something is a process of interpretation necessarily shaped by one’s experiences and understanding of the world. It is necessarily based on personal beliefs and emotion. But that doesn’t mean I’m in support of a free-for-all, anything goes, epistemology either. What is true is contextual, situated in certain experiences and supported by evidence. There is a truth, but no way to be post-truth, because there are no indisputable objective information. Everything is laden with information that clarifies meaning. We come to know by gathering evidence, constructing our knowledge from supporting information. Things are subject to different interpretations. And because of that we should always be critical. Always be gathering evidence to support the perspective we are taking, and change our perspective when the evidence doesn’t support it.
So where does that leave the “Post-Truth” phenomenon for me? As a clear expression of Subjective Personal Epistemology. That is, where there is no Truth, and therefore no authority; everyone is entitled to their beliefs because that is their beliefs. Knowledge is what you make it. And anything goes.
From literature on Personal Epistemology, which bad Britni–I won’t be citing, this is the hardest epistemology to move out of. It is also the most prevalent epistemology (particularly when considering personal epistemology as an overall belief system rather than domain specific).
And it doesn’t surprise me that we find ourselves here.
Our education system, at least in the U.S., encourages an absolute perspective of knowledge. There is a Truth. Your teacher knows it, and tells it to you. You memorize it, show you know it by picking it out on some test. You are right or wrong.
This is especially descriptive of Kindergarten through 12th grade public education.
Then we find out not everything we learned in school is True. There is no omniscient authority. And from years of training not to have an active role in knowledge creation and crafting evidentiary opinions and arguments, it’s easy to see how we decided that knowledge is a free for all.
So what do we do about that?