Trump Tests Contemporary Philosophy

At a supper party I spoke with a young woman who was getting a degree in philosophy.  I took the opportunity to lament the state of contemporary philosophy.  I told her, “There’s no more truth!”  She responded, “If there ever was.”

There were a coterie of philosophers in recent years who maintained that there is no such thing as truth.  Some of the notable philosophers were Nietzsche, Derrida, Fish, and Rorty.  Their assertion is that there is no outside reality that language copies and reproduces with words.  Rorty wouldn’t even make an assertion like that.  Because if he had said that there is no reality that language copies, that would have been an assertion of which the predicates of true or false could be attached.  Being consistent to his own system, Rorty said that he would use language in such a way that we would be attracted to speak like him.  He wasn’t making a statement about truth.  He was persuading us to speak like him, think like him.  Rorty wouldn’t even accept the endowed chair in the philosophy department at the University of Virginia which was offered him.  He thought that philosophy was no longer a viable discipline.  So U VA created a chair in a brand new department called something like cultural studies.

What does all this have to do with Donald Trump?  A lot of us are getting sick of all the lies he is telling.  As of August 1, the fact checker at the Washington Post found 4,229 lies told by Trump.  This averages 7.6/day.  If Trump had the brains, which he doesn’t, he could claim that contemporary philosophy has eliminated the concept of truth.  Since there is no truth, he would not be making statements contrary to it.  In short, Trump is the most prominent spokesperson for contemporary philosophy.

I was always suspicious of Rorty, Derrida, and Fish when I was a student.  Their claims didn’t convince me.  Now we have a test case for contemporary.  Is Trump lying?  Or can’t he lie?  Is there such a thing called truth which Trumps 4,229 statements are contrary to?  Or are the tactics of Trump and Giuliani, which seek to poison the notion that there is truth at all, entirely legitimate and in keeping with philosophy today?

I think the public outrage against Trump’s lies is an indication that most of us believe in truth, and bristle against lies.  When it comes down to it, I think that the pretensions of contemporary philosophy is another case of the emperor’s new clothes.  We see through it, even as we do Trump’s lies.

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Trends, Styles, and the Self

It seems that every time period is plagued by trends and styles.  I am old enough to have seen many come and go.  In my teens, it was “Do your own thing; be an individual; peace, love.”  I watched some of the music, now rock classics, yield to the sensitive, bland, forgotten music of the late ’70’s.  I remember fading out of pop culture in the late ’70’s and listening to classical music (symphony, not rock).  Then came the ’80’s with money, power, cocaine, preps and Yuppies.  I rebelled against these values angrily, though I was, myself, a prep at Harvard.  I can’t find a trend that dominated the ’90’s.  But today, it seems that LGBT is the centre of gravity, along with eco-justice, women’s issues, and pop culture.

I’d like to think that in universities there is free intellectual inquiry.  But this is not the case.  There are styles and trends there too.  Back in the late ’50’s, symbolic logic was the rage.  Philosophers and even anthropologists wrote their ideas in those strange (laughable) symbols trying to look all mathematical and scientific.  That eventually got debunked.  Then I remember existentialism coming around.  When I was in grad school and when I graduated from grad school, it was all gender issues, power dynamics, wealth and poverty issues, and Nietzsche was the prevailing world-view, along with Richard Rorty.  I watched Derrida and deconstruction come and go in about a decade.

The thing about trends is that there is power behind them.  If a person wants to talk to others in society, he or she needs to buy into the current trends.  The alternative appears to be isolation.  And if a person wants to publish, one needs to write and think in the terms that are current.  But I believe that everyone has an intuitive sense of the true.  I believe that Emerson called it the Oversoul.  We know when a given trend is ridiculous, or doesn’t fit with human experience we know.  We sense the vacuity of certain ideologies.  I believe that’s why I turned to classical music in the late ’70’s, for instance.

Some people dedicate their lives to following trends.  It is their quest to recognize the prevailing trends immediately so that they can be in the vanguard.  In the ’90’s it was goatees, in the mid-2000’s it was mountain-man beards.  Maybe in Hollywood or fashion this is a necessity to survive or to make a fortune.  But I suppose there is enough of the old hippie in me not to worry too much about trends and to follow my Oversoul.

The Assassination of Aristotle

Philosophy and Religion used to provide guidance to us.  Now, psychology has taken over the role of guide for human behaviour.  It is a role that psychology is ill equipped to perform.

Plato taught us to examine the soul.  Aristotle taught us how logically to present an argument.  What is left of contemporary philosophy is only rhetoric, persuasion, and language analysis.  In the 20th century, philosophy turned logic into arithmetic and called it symbolic logic.  Then they said that logic is a closed system and does not relate to the world of experience.  That means philosophy can’t argue for the truth anymore, because you can’t argue at all.  Then philosophy said that there is no truth, only what I want.  So we are left not with arguments in search of the truth, we are left with persuading people to do what we want, what we want them to do.

Richard Rorty, one of our past great post-modern philosophers wouldn’t take an endowed chair in the philosophy department of the University of Virginia because he thought that philosophy had reasoned itself out of existence.  He had them design some sort of cultural analysis department that he taught in.

So we are left with expressing our feelings, accepting ourselves good or bad, and affirming ourselves, worthy or not.  Those are principles of psychology.  And as a consequence, we get “The Girl on the Train.”  A very long, uninteresting movie about the feelings of a girl, and her life–a life I didn’t much care about.

But I do care about people, and religion taught me to love others.  However, I have also been taught to love the good in people, to nurture it, and to bond with it.  Aristotle said that only virtuous people have the kind of temperament that can sustain friendship.  They are virtuous themselves and their psyche is not at odds with itself.  But philosophy has reasoned itself out of existence.  And religion’s influence is fading, has faded in society.  And we are left with The Girl on the Train.