Truth through cross-horizon encounter
A critique of liberalism (and postmodernism)
In Cynical Theories, published in 2020 by Pitchstone Publishing, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey maintain that liberalism is at the heart of Western civilization, and that liberalism is today at risk, threatened by far-right populist movements as well as far-left social justice crusaders, who “portray themselves as the sole and righteous champions of social and moral progress.” I concur with Pluckrose and Lindsey with respect to many of their criticisms of the postmodern Left, which I reviewed in my last commentary, “Social Justice activist scholarship: The historic failure of the US left,” September 6, 2022. At the same time, I find limitations in the liberal perspective of Pluckrose and Lindsey. In today’s commentary, I offer a critique of mainstream liberalism as an inadequate response to postmodernism. I propose a liberalism that is reformulated on the basis of the Third World revolutions, which are anti-colonial and anti-imperialist, but not anti-Western.
What I am proposing is properly characterized as a form of liberalism, because I seek to rescue modern faith in reason and truth. I reject the postmodern claim that objective knowledge is unattainable. Not only is this claim based on superficial analysis, but it also has nihilistic social consequences, which we are experiencing today. I maintain that objective knowledge can be attained, but it requires, first, a sustained commitment to truth as the highest goal, standing above particular interests; and secondly, a capacity to listen the voices of leaders and intellectuals of the Third World who challenge the structures of the neocolonial world-system, leaders often dismissed in the West as “authoritarian.”
The Western left became more aware beginning in the late 1960s that knowledge is rooted in social position. The black power and black nationalist movements and the student anti-war movement had much to do with this increased awareness, because they exposed the false claims of Western governments concerning the conflict in Vietnam, and they made evident the role of Western academics and intellectuals in obscuring the colonial foundations of the modern world. But having arrived at this increased consciousness, the prevailing tendency among Western academics was to respond in an intellectually lazy and materially self-serving manner.
To illustrate, as an academic in the United States from 1978 to 2010, I frequently heard it said that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” usually expressed in a casual way, certainly not with an urgent tone. There was in this frequent proclamation no suggestion of a moral duty on the part of us academics to work through this problem, to find a way of reasonably distinguishing between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, even if our reasonable distinction between the two were to put us in conflict with the powerful, who had an interest in identifying terrorists in accordance with their political objectives of the moment.
This lack of commitment to work through the problem is one of the characteristics of postmodernism, although it certainly was not alone in this. Postmodernists did not interpret the relation between understanding and social position as a challenge to overcome. But in reality, it is a problem that must be overcome, because if it is not, if truth ultimately is inescapably relative to social position, then we are left in an epistemological situation in which there are multiple truths, and in which differences in understanding are resolved in the political terrain. Which means that truth becomes what the powerful say it is.
As I reported in my last commentary, in my own lived experience, as an academic with some sense of duty to truth, I could not be satisfied with the notion that truth is defined by the powerful. I felt a moral imperative to work through the problem of objectivity to some resolution, one that could respond to the need of the poor and oppressed to convincingly assert that their claims of fact were more than an expression of their feelings from the standpoint of their lived experiences, having no more validity than the ideological justifications of the wealthy, but with considerably less power behind it. This need was expressed to me by the Honduran activist Sara Rosales in 1998, who in reflecting on postmodern tendencies in the women’s movement in the North, declared, “Our children do not have enough beans to eat. This is wrong, and everybody knows that it is wrong.”
Driven by this moral imperative, I turned to study of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan, and subsequently to a study of the method for seeking understanding employed by Marx, discerned through his writings. I arrived to the conclusion that it is possible to attain objective understanding, not an eternal or certain understanding, but a valid understanding in a particular historical context that had a high probability of being correct. The necessary method involved listening to leaders of social movements of the oppressed and to intellectuals who have cast their lot with said movements. Through attentive reading and listening to the discourses of leaders and intellectuals that have been formed in other cultural and political horizons, with the intention of broadening and deepening one’s own understanding, a person who seeks understanding discovers relevant questions that previously had not been considered; and driven to address these relevant questions, arrives to a revised understanding. This process of understanding could arrive to involve “intellectual conversion,” or a radical transformation in understanding, which could bring the person to an understanding that is not constrained by the limiting assumptions of his or her social position. Such a method provides a foundation for developing an understanding that possesses validity, which is based in the expressions and feelings that emerge from the lived experiences of the oppressed, but goes beyond them, because it takes into account the formulations of leaders and intellectuals that have been lifted up by the oppressed people. And it would be the basis for critique of the ideological manipulations of the powerful, breaking their hold on claims of truth. It would be the basis for making truth claims with moral authority, and therefore with credibility.
The method of cross-horizon encounter could rescue the Enlightenment faith in objective knowledge from the populism of the right, the mob rule of the left, the cynicism of postmodernism, and the moral laxity of Western academics. It provides a way to search for truth, a method that recognizes that the road to truth necessarily begins with experiences and understandings that are rooted in particular social positions. Yet a method that empowers a person to move beyond the limiting assumptions of experience in a particular social position and the initial understanding rooted in that social position, if the person places the desire to understand above all other desires, such as career advancement.
Pluckrose and Lindsay also want to preserve Enlightenment faith in reason and the possibility of objective truth, but they do not have an adequate response to postmodern confusions. Relying on the classical liberal method of supposedly value-free empirical verification of truth claims, they see science and reasoning as self-correcting, due to its active skepticism toward truth claims. With this approach, they are not responding to post-modernism with a method that nullifies its cynicism; they are simply asserting a liberal counterpoint to postmodern cynicism.
What Pluckrose and Lindsey fail to recognize is the profound failure of liberalism and its promise of democracy during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They maintain that colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, class systems, and enforced heterosexuality were challenged and overcome by liberalism, with rapid progress especially occurring during the 1960s and 1970s, when racial and gender discrimination were made illegal and male homosexuality was decriminalized, which all occurred before postmodernism became influential. They are right in interpreting the peoples’ movements challenging the established order as liberal movements, and in their affirmation that the gains of the movements were significant. But they do not see that the social changes attained by these movements were less than fundamental structural transformations in defense of the people.
In my last commentary, I discussed the unfinished agenda of the peoples’ movements. I noted that the movements had failed to put forth consistently an anti-imperialist proposal for U.S. foreign policy. Nor had they addressed with conceptual clarity the responsibility of the state to formulate and implement a comprehensive plan for the nation’s economy that would expand productivity in an ecologically sustainable manner and would ensure the protection of the social and economic rights of the people. The movements had merely rehashed New Deal proposals, which were not economically and politically sustainable in the long term. Nor had the movements formulated an understanding of the role of the state in relation to the large corporations in the age of the concentration of capital. Nor have they consistently put forth proposals that would facilitate greater citizen participation and more meaningful public debate. Nor had they addressed the need to renegotiate the treaties that the U.S. government had signed with indigenous nations, nor the question of the socioeconomic development of traditional black neighborhoods, legacies of the era of segregation. (See “Social Justice activist scholarship: The historic failure of the US left”, September 6, 2022).
The limitations of the peoples’ movements of the West were tied precisely to their liberal political-economic and epistemological assumptions. They were in harmony with the incapacity of Western liberal democracies to move forward with structural transformations that are rooted in the needs of the people and the oppressed peoples of the earth. These limitations ultimately gave rise to neoliberalism and more aggressive and blatant forms of imperialism. Incapable of responding to these dynamics, the U.S. left turned to post-modernism, abandoning the quest for empirically based knowledge, which would have provided the foundation for a critique of neoliberalism and aggressive imperialism. Confusion, division, and incivility have been the consequences. In response to this disheartening phenomenon, it is not enough to simply reiterate the methodological principles of liberalism, the inadequacies of which are now evident.
The proposal for cross-horizon encounter is a reformulation of liberal methodology, a reformulation that brings all who seek truth to encounter with the leaders of the movements of the oppressed, thus bringing them to an understanding that goes beyond what normally is possible from the vantage point of a particular social position. It enables all who seek to understand to discover relevant questions that lie beyond the Western horizon, providing an epistemological foundation for global consciousness. And thus, it provides empirical analysis with a global foundation, taking it beyond Western thinking. It rescues the Enlightenment project and its quest for objective knowledge, bringing it to a more advanced stage that seeks a universal understanding of the true and the right.
In this vision, the method of cross-horizon encounter is in harmony with the Third World anti-imperialist revolutions and movements today, which are seeking to construct a world that that respects the sovereign equality of nations, the self-determinations of peoples, and the rights of all persons to health care, affordable education, comfortable housing, and healthy nutrition, all principles of Western liberalism that have been codified by the United Nations. It is in harmony with revolutions and movements that seek the fulfillment of Western Enlightenment principles in practice on a global scale.
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