Certain questions from antiquity are best left in the ancient context. The question of what accounts for motion is an example. Ancient people did not have the concept of gravity.
Other questions from antiquity are eternal. The gospel writer John has Pilate pose to Jesus the question, What is truth? The question about truth is an eternal question; it never goes away.
The eternal question about truth, however, does change its colors from one generation to another, and our generation lives in the postmodern age. Since approximately the 1960s, when postmodern culture began to take hold of our collective psyches, the assumption that truth is unchanging gave way to truth as a negotiated construct. Truth does not exist as an object; it exists as a perception.
It is not easy to explain how truth became a negotiated construct in postmodern understanding. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) is a good place to start. Feuerbach focused on projection, the problem with human knowledge. Humans project their own image upon the horizon. Religion, for Feuerbach, originates from the act of projecting ideal human qualities, like goodness, against the threatening skies of the natural world.
Feuerbach’s insight was not new. Even in antiquity, Xenophanes (570–480 BCE) stated that if horses had hands, they would paint gods in their image. What was different about Feuerbach was his remarkable examination of how projection works.
Projection is based on the very human experience of insecurity in the world. We are not all equally insecure, but we are all insecure in various ways. The counteraction to insecurity is familiarity. Projection is the act of making things familiar, or making them human-like, to counteract natural insecurity. A simple example is moving into a new home. One of the first things we seek to do is make the new surroundings familiar with all of our old stuff.
Postmodern thought recognizes that everyone has a different way of making things familiar. What is normal for me is easily weird for someone else. Everyone must occupy, and can only occupy, a specific space and time. We cannot undo the date we were born or the parents who raised us, and we cannot undo the point of view we have always had. Postmodernity recognizes that we each seek to make the world familiar from our own experience of being in the world.
To adopt a postmodern consciousness is to recognize that pluralism is at work in any particular claim about the world. Our interactions with the world, our ways of making it familiar, are projections upon the world. Projections will differ across cultures and through time. Postmodernity is about understanding the many differences that exist simultaneously between cultures and among people.
While there is nothing wrong with the act of making things familiar, this act can go very wrong. The problem is that not all acts of projection are equal. For example, I cannot project unguarded familiarity on uranium without risking self-harm. I might understand uranium and its properties, but if my familiarity is not critically based, the uranium will poison me. The postmodern understanding of projecting familiarity upon the world cannot be used to deny the reality of the world.
The overwhelming problem with postmodern thinking is the projection of uncritical familiarity. When I project familiarity on the world in an uncritical way, two things happen. One is that my projection becomes normal. It is no longer one element in a plurality of elements. Second, what is normal to me becomes tribal. Only people in my group who see things as I do speak the truth or belong to the truth. When these two things happen, when my projection defines normalcy and my group has the truth, postmodern thinking collapses into delusion. It becomes unchecked by what is different. It enters the world of fake news, stolen elections, justified violence, and worse.
What can happen with truth in postmodern times is that truth stops being a negotiated construct and starts being an isolated island. The further “truth” goes into isolation, the more extreme it is likely to get. The cost of truth isolated from shared reality, as we have seen over the past four years, is socially devastating. The worry in postmodern thought about truth understood as a construct is that “truth” can become the basis of an isolated cult.
Despite this worry, there is still good news in postmodernity. Postmodern truth, understood in a critical way, is a community accomplishment. Truth needs a lot of dialogue and understanding to surface as a collective value. Truth requires knowing and respecting how others create familiarity in the world differently. Postmodernism values difference as the pathway to a mutual or common construct of the world.
Reconciliation with indigenous peoples is an example of a postmodern value. Reconciliation is possible because white settlers recognize that their history of making the “new world” familiar was at the expense of those already here and already familiar with the world in a different way.
Reconciliation is about negotiating a new, shared reality that encompasses two distinct (settler and indigenous) histories.
The same is true for feminism.
Prior to postmodern thinking, there was little thought that human gender roles are negotiated; that is, gender is a truth built on the respect of difference. Modern thought had built-in roles for men and women, and beyond the boundary of those set roles lay only delinquency. Postmodern thought has completely deconstructed this impoverished understanding of gender.
There is a lot to celebrate about postmodern truth. We can offer thanks to someone like Ludwig Feuerbach who, in many ways, started it all. Still, it is important to be conscious of our natural habit of constructing familiarity through projection.
Without critical awareness of our natural habit to create familiarity, the gift of postmodern understanding can collapse into a cult-like world of never-ending conspiracy.
What is truth? The postmodern answer is that truth is negotiation. Provided our forms of negotiation are not built on socially harmful delusions, the world before us is an adventure to create and a promise to discover together.
David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University.
Subscribe to our email list and receive updates, news, and more.