Communicative Deficits and Pragmatic Truth: One More Peircean Take on the Post-truth Debates
In spite of the oft-lamented flaws of the concept of “post-truth”, there is a steadily growing body of academic work analysing its significance and wrestling with its potential implications. Still, this discussion has tended to be somewhat one-sided. A review of the numerous books, articles, and commentaries published over the last three years or so reveals that the focus of the debates has been on identifying the root causes of the malady and appropriate remedies. The purported culprits have included technological transformations, broad social trends, media logics, political and economic machinations, and even insidious intellectual movements. Although these analyses differ in many ways, the vast majority agree in construing post-truth as an informational ailment that needs to be combatted rather than as something worthy of serious consideration.
However, contrary views have also begun to be articulated – positions that treat post-truth not as a malady to be cured but rather as a reasonable reaction to communicative deficits, epistemic inequalities, and hidden political assemblages. One approach within communication studies sets out from the relatively familiar criticism of the neoliberal overtake of the public sphere and the democratic shortfalls that have ensued. Here, the upshot is not a negation of post-truth, but rather a call for a radicalisation of democracy. However, in what is probably the most sustained advocacy of post-truth on the market, STS scholar Steve Fuller interprets some of the very same factors rather differently, in effect portraying post-truth as a justified reaction to authoritarian attempts to quell open communication and inquiry. In this case, the outcome is a neoliberal argument for greater democratisation. Yet, although these approaches are obviously opposed in rather decisive respects, they are nonetheless largely aligned in their negative appraisals of purported norms of truth and consensus.
In this article, I review and assess the principal motivations behind and possible implications of this critique, focusing in particular on Fuller’s explicit advocacy of what he considers to be a post-truth mindset. I will therefore take note of how Fuller rhetorically frames his account as a game or struggle between “truthers” (aka “veritists”) and “post-truthers”, leaving us with a binary choice. But there are other options. Here, I turn to the epistemic account of truth of the classical pragmatists, especially as articulated by C. S. Peirce. I argue that an adoption of this Peircean view of truth does not lead to the dreaded tyranny of consensus. Rather, the pragmatist account of the emergence of truth as a consequence of attempts to fixate beliefs does requires a recognition of the fallible nature of all truth-pursuits and the public nature of truth. And finally, I contend that this inquiry-laden conception of truth provides us with a better epistemic outlook for communicative practices such as journalism than Fuller’s dichotomy between truthers and post-truthers.