Poststructuralism and Truth
Is there an Absolute Truth?
Structuralists never speculated the existence of Absolute truths and reality. They always tried to decode their own version of “universal truth” by unearthing universal structures that they thought would act as an agency to bind all humans together. In contrast to Structuralists’ formulation of Truth, however, Poststructuralists thwarted the Essentialist and Foundationalist idea of the very existence of Absolute Truth. For them, there was no Absolute Truth waiting to be discovered by means of fixed structures, but multiple truths that come out from many perspectives. I will try to decipher the veracity of Structuralists’ promulgation of the existence of a unified, universal and absolute nature of Truth through the lens of Poststructuralism, touching briefly the Post-positivist critique of Poststructuralist view of Truth to extend the argument.
Truth is most often used to mean that which is in accord with fact or reality. The opposite of truth is falsehood. The problem, however, is that the basal of defining truth, the reality, is unreliable and ever changing. Reality is not fixed and even its fickle state cannot be completely discerned. This implies that it is impossible to know reality in its entirety. The reality I know is what I know about the world, what I can see. But I cannot see everything. I cannot know everything.
Whereas the Structuralist school of thought quenched their thirst of defining Absolute Truths by trying to discover determinate structures underlying human existence and society, poststructuralists gave up the quest for Universal Truth. In fact, for them, the very act of seeking order or a singular Truth was absurd and farcical.
Post-structuralism holds that, instead of a unified, singular Truth, there is a possibility of the existence of many truths. All phenomena in the real world are in constant state of transformation and change, and hence, fixating over a singular Truth wasn’t rational enough.
For instance, for Marxists, the truth of human existence could be understood by an analysis of just the dynamics of economic and class structures. And for someone like Saussure, it was in the system of structure of signs and signification. But unlike them, poststructuralists carried no instrinsic belief in some deep underlying truth or structure; there was no objective viewpoint from which one could study discourse, society or anything else for that matter. Truth and Reality were assumed to be subjective and ever changing. Besides, the society and discourse produced them, and that they weren’t to be just found or discovered.
For Post-structuralists, there was no singular, universal truth that could be discovered through science and logic. In asserting so, they never denied material realities. They, however, believed that it is impossible to carry out any kind of research in an absolutely objective fashion.
Post-structuralist thinker Michael Foucault believed that there is strictly no Absolute Truth, and what is considered, as one is true only in a particular social context. He believed that society “forces” truth upon its civilians through various means. It is generally those at power who participate in creating Truth for others to accept. Truth, in this way, never gets a singular course because it changes with change in power structures in the society. For Foucault, “The basic ideas that people normally take to be permanent truths about human nature and society change in the course of history.”
Focault linked Truth with Power. He was of the opinion that Truth is not outside power, in that it is regulated by power. Each society has a regime of truth. By calling it a regime, he meant “the discourses that the society harbors to produce truth, the mechanisms that separate truth from falsity, the techniques and procedures to decipher truth, the status of those who claim that they are truthful.”
Foucault prefers the use of the phrase “regime of truth” rather than Absolute Truth because for him, “Truth is produced, sustained, valorized and regulated by a series of mechanisms, techniques and procedures that are ‘political’ in nature in the society. Each society creates a “regime of truth” according to its beliefs, values, and mores.”
Foucault says, in the contemporary western society, Truth is “produced” and this act comprises five traits, namely, “the centering of truth on scientific discourse, accountability of truth to economic and political forces, the “diffusion and consumption” of truth via societal apparatuses, the control of the distribution of truth by “political and economic apparatuses,” and the fact that it is “the issue of a whole political debate and social confrontation.”
By and large, the Truth that we accept as ultimate, is nothing but the construct of forces that are political and economic in nature, which inevitably particpate as majority of power within the societal web. Foucault says,
“There is no truly universal truth at all; therefore, the intellectual cannot convey universal truth. The intellectual must specialize, specify, so that he/she can be connected to one of the truth-generating apparatuses of the society”. (Truth and Power)
Religion is a means by which power is executed on the civilians. The power has many a times been so despotic that the law of religion became the law of the land. We can take an example from Hinduism, which has striking views on truth. Truth becomes utmost important of all because Truth alone triumphs (Satyameva Jayate), Truth liberates, Truth is better than silence (Manusmriti), etc. Truth, in this way, is claimed to have the highest value and order. A claim like this meets stern opposition from linguistic evidence, however, where lying sounds like a smarter and more sophisticated use of the language faculty. American Linguist Charles Hockett proposed 16 design features of human communication in which he claimed that the ability to make lies is limited only to Humans. Truthful person just repeats banal facts; a liar is more creative and sharp for he adjusts his response tactically based on his audience. The question, however, is not that if one should speak Truth or not; it is rather if one can objectively reach Truth if one wants to.
Power in any society is also exerted through film and media. In a majority of films, the good, the truthful people end happily whereas the bad ones who lie and deceive others meet a tragic, fateful end. Through such channels, people are subconsciously made to believe that truth is beneficial, and the outcome of lying is deleterious.
Nietzsche is critical of any philosophy that claims to get us towards a final Truth. For him, there is no single physical reality beyond one’s interpretations. He says that there is “no unified, explicable Truth, but perspectives”. To the concrete scientific description of Truth as any cognitive informational content that gets transmitted through linguistic expressions, Nietzsche argued that since we cannot trust language systems to convey truth, the very bases of truth becomes unreliable and unstable.
“What is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthromorphisms …truths are an illusion about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions…” (On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense).
Nietzsche expatiates the inadequcy of deliverance of truth via linguistic expressions. He says language is all about arbitrary assignments, arbitrary differentitations, and one-side preferences. There is never a question of representing Truth in languages, which is why there are so many languages in the world. For every word which is created, a nerve stimulus is transferred to an image which becomes the first metaphor. The image is then imitated in a sound that gives rise to the second level of metaphorisation. To be truthful, then, is to use the “usual” metaphors. Thus, a truthful person is merely someone who goes by fixed conventions of society. If I call a red object as red, I shall be called as truthful. But there is no logic, no truth behind why that object should be called red and nothing else. Nietzsche approximates Foucault’s view of truth that it is society that produces and forces truth on its civilians.
Nietzsche then moves towards the drive for truth. The society, he claims, seeks utlity, venerabililty and reliability when it favours truth. A liar is someone who decieves and harms others, and hence is excluded and disliked. Richard Rorty carries similar views, but puts it a little differently though; he says “Truth is made rather than found, made up by those in power”.
Jacques Derrida talks about the representation of Truth and Reality in literary work and discourse. Derrida thought that one can never reach an end point of interpretation, a truth. For him, “reality is open to a lot of possibilities and multiple interpretations”.
Delueze was also against the structuralist’s pursuit of a determinate, fixed truth; he said that “Truth may be hard to discover—it may require a life of pure theorizing, or rigorous computation, or systematic doubt to reach it. It may be practically impossible to attain a God’s-eye, neutral-point of view, but that is the ideal to approximate”.
In his theory of Truth, Lacan argued, in opposition to the traditions of classical philosophy, that “truth is not beautiful and that it is not necessarily beneficial to learn the truth. Although, he does speak about Truth in the singular, that was, however, not as a single universal truth, but as particular truth, unique to each subject.”
Lacan studied Saussurean concept of sign and signification, and arrived at the conclusion that it is the discrepancy between the sign and the signification that raises the question of truth. He says that there is no “inner, absolute” truth in signs. Signs signify objects that rest external to them. He questions, “What is the truth interior to if not the sign itself? How can the truth come to us from outside the sign and at the same time be inner?”
Like Nietzche, Lacan also believed in the fundamental inadequacy of linguistic expressions to deliver truth. He said, “I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there’s no way, to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it’s through this very impossibility that the truth holds onto the real.”
Usually whatever can be proven by empirical data, logic and reason is considered to be the ultimate Truth. The Poststructuralist argument against this is that even scientific theories get revised, updated, challenged and replaced by newer ones. Even a purely logical science like mathematics posits several solutions to one problem, and none of them can be called as more right and truer over others.
While they succeeded in deconstructing and destablizing the notion of truth, Poststructuralists faced criticism for creating ambiguity, circularity and exaggeration in the definitions surrounding fundamental terms like Truth, Reality, Democracy, etc. By proposing that there exist no Absolute Truths, they unpremidatedly gave another truth of there being no truth at all.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett felt that the claim that there are no truths, only interpretations “has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities, which are disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence. There is circularity and ambiguity in their style; nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed.”
Post-positivists shared poststructuralists’ idea of subjective, inexplicable truths, but they diverged from them, in that, for them, there are many truths that approximate reality and there is no objective way to achieve Absolute Truth. But, for them, that didn’t make social realities and truths completely non-existent. Because of limitation and constrains to knowledge, epistemology and worldview, one can, at the maximum, reach a point that approximates reality. But to say that there is “no truth” at all is over-exaggeration.
Poststructuralists, however, never aimed at demolishing truth and reality; they just wanted to destabilize and sever the illusions that revolved around the existence of Absolute Truths in knowledge and language. However, in doing that they did subvert the unity and harmony Structuralists brought by means of their universal structures.
© 2015 Payal Khullar. All Rights Reserved.