An Urgent Need

A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need.
— Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

In 1961, the philosopher Erich Fromm discussed ‘mobile truth.’  In his Afterward to George Orwell’s 1984, he proposed a fictional employee, who works for a large corporation, which claims that its product is better than any other.  This employee comes to believe this claim, whether or not it is justified.  It becomes his/her truth.  However, if that employee moves to a rival corporation, he/she will accept another truth, which is that this new corporation’s product is the best.  Though both beliefs can’t be possible, this new truth will be as true as the old one.  So much for cognitive dissonance.

Fromm saw this lack of objective truth as “one of the most characteristic and destructive developments of our society” as man “transforms reality more and more into something relative to his own interests and functions.”

He was prescient in his concerns.  Two generations out, America and much of the Western world no longer operate from an agreed upon set of facts, theories, or understandings.  Truth is personal and unmoored: an art form.  I paint my reality and you paint yours.  Each of us, a potential minority of one.

As Orwell wrote in 1984, a ‘minority of one,’ is a lunatic who will ultimately be convinced that he/she is insane.  He believed that no ‘minority of one’ could hold out against the consensus view of reality.  Despite his prodigious gifts, what Orwell could not foresee was the day when there would be no ‘minorities of one,’ a time when any view of reality, no matter how outlandish, would find adherents in the expanding cosmos of a billion and a half websites.  Similarly, Fromm could not have anticipated how we would be able to situate our ‘mobile truths’ in a thousand cable channels and countless social media outlets.

So how can we arrive at the object truth if our respective pictures of reality do not overlap?  How can we separate mere opinion from justified belief?  How can we hope to re-establish governing principles from an agreed upon foundation of moral and societal values?

The answers lie, now as always, in the respective philosophical disciplines of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  We’ve been seeking the answers all along; we’ve only forgotten the questions, the great many of us.

At a time of great technological and climatic change, we urgently need to revisit these questions.  We need debates that run deeper than ideology, that challenge the dogma on every side of every divide so we can arrive at something close to an objective, unifying truth.

Unfortunately, at the places where many of these debates should occur, our universities, the study of philosophy and the humanities have been in decline.  It’s unclear whether it’s the decline in the study of history, literature, philosophy and art that led to the hardened convictions in our own relative, self-serving truths and realities or vice versa, but the correlation seems clear.

A higher education is scandalously expensive, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) is branching out all over because students want earning, not learning.  Who can blame them?  Yet, according to the law of supply and demand, scarcity makes a commodity more valuable.  So it would seem that the ability to question the prevailing narratives and break through personal and self-serving beliefs to discover the objective truth and reality will become ever more valuable.

This seems to be playing out.  For example:

  • Last year, Johns Hopkins University received $150 million from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to set up an “Agora Institute” in order to “facilitate the restoration of open and inclusive discourse that is the cornerstone of healthy democracies.” This year, the Hopkins Department of Philosophy accepted $75 million from Wall Street investor, Bill Miller, in what is believed to be the largest gift ever to a university philosophy department.  Note that these two gifts are to a single university.
  • The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, recently stated that philosophy will be critical in healing our post-truth societies and is seeking to institutionalize the study in the Irish education system.
  • Last month, Ben Hunt, chief investment strategist for the Salient Partners hedge fund, wrote in his excellent Epsilon Theory: “I want to hire comparative literature majors. I want to hire history majors. Why? Because it’s training in how to think about the WHY and not just the WHAT.”

And I’m for establishing a contemporary agora on the National Mall in Washington D.C. where we could install a modern-day Diogenes the Dog, a cynic philosopher who will live in a box, reject convention and materialism, and pursue the truth through moral excellence.  “I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels,” the ancient one claimed.  The new one could do that too.

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