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51 of 57 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The false, the phoney, and the therapy, 29 Jan. 2007
This review is from: Why Truth Matters (Hardcover)
The shocks of The Great War of 1914-1918 spawned a social movement known as "nihilism". Values once held meaningful were rejected by those who felt the conflict demonstrated such beliefs to be invalid. The Second World War may be considered the foundation for a similar movement arising in post-War France - "postmodernism". A close cousin of nihilism, the "French philosophy" strives to place all cultures on an equal footing. That equalitiy, moreover, is absolute - any declared stance must be granted equivalent respect with any other. Accompanied by many synonyms such as "cultural relativism" and "post-structuralism", the pestilence quickly spread in Western Europe where its symptoms are clearly seen in media presentations. More significantly, it became firmly established in the US, particularly in universities where it generated such programmes as "Women's [in a variety of spellings] Studies", "African Studies", all with a strong anti-Enlightenment and anti-science orientation. Benson and Stangroom here apply some vigorous therapy to counter the assault on rational thought. Although brief, this book is direct and incisive, clearly exhibiting the malaise infesting our universities and political institutions.

The purpose of this book is to re-establish that "truth" is indeed a valid concept. Postmodernism's contention that there are as many "truths" as there are tellers of it cannot be sustained. Benson and Stangroom, who founded the Website "butterfliesandwheels", explain that truth is empirically based and not a highly variant cultural phenomenon. Because our species appears to be the only one that can define truth, the authors address such fields as anthropology, evolutionary psychology, "women's ways of knowing" and various philosophies in describing how truth has been both supported and distorted.

Certain figures loom large in their presentation, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty and Sandra Harding, among others. The authors show how "cultural relativism" has attempted to discredit research in human behaviour with the objective of achieving "political correctness". In anthropology, for example, the episode of Napoleon Chagnon's work among the Yamomano of South America being falsely challenged raised a storm of controversy in the discipline. Although Chagnon was finally vindicated, the controversy brought suspicion on the science and besmirched Chagnon permanently. A related circumstance lies in the pronouncements of Sandra Harding that empirical evidence can have a gender bias and that a "feminist empiricism" should replace long-standing work. Harding, who still teaches at UCLA, has produced a population of graduate students who have fanned out to their own teaching posts and public affairs roles. Among other criticisms, the authors point out that even Harding admits her "philosophy" leads to a wide range of "ways of knowing". Women have indeed been excluded from science, but revising the methodologies isn't going to grant women more places at the lab bench. For all Harding's rhetoric, "E" still equals "mc2".

These examples indicate how knowledge, long and often painfully gained, can be cast aside in the name of some minority's demand for "respect". The authors make it clear that tearing down established knowledge and the methods of attaining it does not enhance or restore elements of society who feel they are victims of injustice. Part of the work of empirical research is to examine those injustices and right them. Their cause, however, isn't due to truth being false, but being misused. The fascisti mis-applied Charles Darwin's idea of "survival of the fittest", but that, the authors insist, doesn't reflect a flaw in the basic premise. The danger in not knowing how to make the distinction only results in repeating that kind of history under a new guise. Such distortions are being perpetrated in North American universities on a daily basis and carried into the public realm.

Postmodernism, the authors contend, is more than just a "philosophy". It is an assault on knowledge itself. By contriving the results of research into "tools of oppression", the postmodernists conveniently overlook not only how science works, but who is actually doing the "oppressing". Bench scientists aren't imposing social conditions resulting from their work. Science, no matter how haltingly and hesitantly, is the one means to establish what is valid. Its answers are authoritative because they can be proven correct or not. To undermine those answers through treating them as options instead of data, is simply to falsify the results. The Enlightenment began as a means of overcoming false mythologies. It's depressing to see how a new wave of such mythologies has required a re-starting of Enlightenment principles to overcome it. That long-held standard will prove the needed therapy. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 22 Mar 2008, 16:28:00 GMT
A few comments on Stephen Haines' interesting review: The point to stress is that the malaise of cultural relativism, political correctness and even `postmodernism' cannot be blamed entirely on a flimsy theory of truth and anti-Enlightenment prejudices. Its roots surely lie elsewhere in complex social and political factors, and the use - the misuse - of philosophical insights by certain parties to serve their own agendas. The fascists' mis-application of Charles Darwin's idea of the "survival of the fittest", mentioned by Stephen Haines, is an exact case in parallel.

Relativism is not a modern invention; like many ideas it emerged in antiquity. Plato credits the sophist Protagoras with the doctrine `man is the measure of all things' -things are as they appear to each one of us (Theatetus, 152) -Aristotle was to point out the absurdity of this doctrine (Metaphysics, IV.5). However, I suspect it was not logic but Christendom and later science with its vision of a law-governed cosmos which kept relativism in check until more recent times. Yet that vision itself was to prove deeply unsatisfactory. It offered - and in some eyes, still offers - only a mechanistic, deterministic world, incapable of accommodating human freedom (despite Kant's best endeavours), incapable too of accommodating human values, art and culture. Enlightenment assumptions were threatened from within when Hume declared our fundamental concepts (causality, substance, personal identity) to be imaginative constructs. The French Revolution show-cased irrationality and violence. The stage was set for Romanticism, as Isaiah Berlin shows (`The Roots of Romanticism'), and the promotion of liberty, self-expression, creativity, individuality, values which we still espouse - all epitomised in art and the artist, but destructive of universal truth and values. The ground for nihilism was surely prepared here (Nietzsche's `God is dead') rather than in the Great War of 1914-18, though that War spawned a "crisis of spirit", as George Steiner describes it.

So far as truth and relativism are concerned, the genie can't be put back in the bottle (though Plato and Aristotle managed it for two millennia!). We cannot ignore the insight - misappropriated by the relativists - that understanding and truth require context - in Wittgenstein's terms a language-game, a background of assumptions, practices and purposes, down to a history and culture. Even the celebrated E=mc2 requires an understanding of `mass' and `energy', `light' and `velocity', within a physical context, mathematics too - in other words several years of science education - without which the famous equation means less than a fragment of Linear A. Quine may have been exaggerating in `Two Dogmas of Empiricism' when he said: "the unit of empirical significance is the whole of science" - but only slightly. Truth is hard - in every sense - and it's naïve of us to think otherwise.

Posted on 4 Nov 2009, 13:17:46 GMT
A. J. Davies says:
Excellent, in depth review. Thank you.
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