In which Jack and Jill Visit a Teahouse…

Recently, on the ACRL Framework listserv (copied also to the and lists as well), librarian Heather Craven started a thread called…Jack, Jill and AiCC,” which generated all kinds of interesting responses.

Here it is (re-posted here with permission):

Here is a thought experiment for talking about some of the concerns that have been raised about the AiCC Frame – while avoiding the philosophical “Is Absolute Truth a Thing?” rabbit hole:

An instructor wants their class to examine a scientific study in a medical journal, comparing the effectiveness of a certain kind of herb tea to that of aspirin for treating headaches.

Two of the students want none of it.

Student Jill says: “Questioning the value of herb tea is disrespectful to my culture, so this study is not an authoritative source for me. I value nature. My aunt is an herbalist, and my culture traditionally uses this kind of herb tea. My experience is that herbs work. An authoritative source for me is an online magazine that supports natural remedies.”

Student Jack says: “I think a study on herb tea is a waste of time, so this study is not an authoritative source for me. I value modern medicine and progress. My father is a pharmacist, and my whole family says that herbal remedies are useless. My experience is that aspirin works. An authoritative source for me is a subreddit discussing how ‘natural’ remedies are just a way to make money off of old wives’ tales.”

Jill and Jack consider the basis of authority to be congruence with their values, culture, experience, identity, etc. These students get the concept of AiCC: they recognize how their perceptions of authority stem from such factors.

But practices such as double-blind testing, falsifiable hypotheses, reproducible results, etc. are explicitly intended to limit the influence of such factors on the gathering and observation of evidence. So the study’s very attempt to examine and present evidence, instead of to support a worldview, strips it of authority in the eyes of these students.

The study could give these students common ground for discussion, i.e. “we can agree that there is evidence that herb X has effect Y on population Z in conditions ABC, as compared to aspirin which has effect Q in the same conditions.” But it does not, because their concept of authority is unrelated to evidence.

Jack and Jill are fictional, but we really do see students who reject evidence out of hand and who dismiss information resources if they feel that the sources do not adequately reflect their worldview. Is AiCC, which emphasizes construction and context and de-emphasizes evidence, problematic in working with these students? How can we best encourage these students to acknowledge and give weight to evidence, regardless of their worldviews?

(end Heather’s original post)

What was my response to this?

My recent blog post, “When Truth is Disregarded, Authority Weakens,” originally appeared as one of the messages near the end of this thread.

And… a library colleague of mine forwarded me this, which I thought was quite hilarious. I imagine readers of this blog might enjoy as well:

He says “Poking around in an old site, we find this roughly-formed parable, possibly garbled in translation*”:

So Jack & Jill walk into a teahouse and meet a person of indeterminate age & gender making tea.

Jill says, “I value nature. Do you have any herb teas which can act as natural remedies?”

Jack says, “I value modern medicine and progress. Do you have anything with aspirin in it?”

So the tea master motions for them to sit down, and serves them each a steaming cup.

“What!” exclaim Jack & Jill together. “This is just hot water!”

So the tea master says, “How do you know that?”

And Jack & Jill were enlightened.



*BTW, he just made up that… it wasn’t actually from that site. Part of the joke.

Image: Jack and Jill pic from Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)


Aristotle at the Library: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away


Copy of my email to fellow librarian heavily involved in criticism of the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame:


Thanks for engaging me on the issues here. I’m glad you see the questions I raise* being “at the heart of information literacy.”

In full disclosure, my intention is to make the case that there is much that we can learn from the classical philosophers – at some level, their questions and arguments strike us at relevant today (think of the book Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein).

That said, there is also no doubt that it appears to many – even some of the most conservative of secular thinkers – that these same philosophers (especially Plato) are no longer relevant. We might think: “What after all, if anything, can today be considered permanent much less eternal?” (read more about this in the blog post I did here). Today, other than out-of-the-box persons like Goldstein, those attempting to remain more conservative seem to be increasingly represented by knuckle-dragging religious holdouts like myself or by those associating in some form with the philosophies of Ayn Rand.

With that out of the way, you said:

I think what [Bob] is describing as Platonic is the belief that abstractions have objective reality. Such as the idea that waterfalls are objectively sublime.

To many of us, our sublime feelings are subjective; they are not a sign of innate sublimeness in whatever evokes those feelings.

I will admit that it has taken me a while to figure out how to respond to your statement here! My initial response was confusion, because someone like Aristotle — before Ockham at least — believed that an objective ideal of “sublimity” existed, but not in some other reality (which truly exists somewhere beyond the reality that the waterfall reflects) but in every waterfall.

If I am not mistaken, you are engaging my statement on the basis of a rather “historicist” orientation, which I suppose should not have surprised me (given what I write in the blog post I mention). In sum, historicism always puts the emphasis on things as apprehended by the human mind throughout time — examining these, their functions, and the best use of them — and not things in the cosmos much less in any transcendent realm(s) (i.e Plato’s Forms, etc).

Giambattista Vico, who responded to Rene Descartes

Why do I think that you are expressing a historicist orientation? Descarte’s great challenger Vico, recognized widely as the “Father of historicism,” said, for example, the following:

Abstract, or general truths are eternal; concrete or specific ones change momentarily from truths to untruths. Eternal truths stand above nature; in nature, instead, everything is unstable, mutable. But congruity exists between goodness and truth; they partake of the same essence, of the same qualities…

And where, by the way, did Vico get this kind of a view from? It seems to me that the language is similar to Plato’s, and yet, I am not positive that what he is saying is ultimately what Plato wanted to say. In any case, maybe he did have a lot in common with Plato and he simply helps us understand Plato’s diminishing influence (even as Goldstein points out the areas where he continues to speak to us) – or, perhaps, the diminishing influence of Plato as he tended to be understood classically!

It is true that in making the statement that I do about waterfalls, I am attempting to get persons like yourself to embrace a statement about the world that most all of the classical philosophers of the ancient world (as best I can tell) we know of would have accepted.

The other statement I offered: “regardless of what we think or know about Newton and Einstein, we know that when we drop objects our given sense experience tells us that the objects fall towards our feet and not otherwise” is a statement that I offered with the intent of challenging those who do not think or feel that the problems in the Framework that persons like yourself and myself identify are significant problems. This statement – appearing to me uncontroversial as a trans-cultural and trans-historical reality – is something that I have heard even academics sympathetic to those of a more conservative disposition (though not claiming to be conservative themselves) try to challenge or avoid.

Pagan philosopher Plotinus, the father of NeoPlatonism.

In sum though, I am trying to revive the importance of Aristotle and not so much Plato in our thinking. Here is what my NeoPlatonist friend has to say about this:

Aristotle was a Platonist to a point, but he went renegade on the question (related to your question [about the sublimity of waterfalls]) of the separability of the Forms from Matter. His emphasis on the Forms in Matter, and even his insistence that they had to be contemplated in this way, both helped NeoPlatonism to improve on Platonism, but if NP hadn’t also insisted on the transcendence of the Forms, it wouldn’t have been Platonism.

… Now, what’s really at stake in your question about Sublimity-or-sublimity is objectivity vs. subjectivity, and Aristotle was just as much an Objectivist as Plato was. Intellectual content (Form) is in the things already, and is discovered there by the Intellect of the observer [(NP also holds that we discover the Forms within the objects of our perception. But NP doesn’t end there)]. But Plato’s Objectivity is transcendent… [as the Forms exist somewhere outside of us in another realm]

Of course, Again, what we have today in the place of this is the all-consuming philosophy of historicism (and yes, some versions of historicism, like “right Hegelianism” try to combine concerns for objectivity with the subjective and notion of perpetual change). So why think that bringing us back to thinking more in line with Aristotle is a possible move?

Wayne Hudson, in his recent article, “Theology and historicism” (thesis eleven 116(1) 19-39, 2013) gives us a hint. He says the following about the weaknesses of historicism: “Put bluntly, it is not clear why…. recurrent structural features should not also be historicized if things change in the course of history as much as historicists suggest. Conversely, if things do not change that much, then historicizing may have limited applications in other areas as well.”

-Nathan Rinne



*The questions were (see last blog post):

Speaking generally (not just in an academic context) how do we know if we have a reliable source or resource?

How can we get better at recognizing this in general, and in specific contexts?

[y did not mention my third key question: How can you begin to determine whether your biases/inclinations are good or bad?]


When Truth is Disregarded, Authority Weakens

My recent contribution to the ACRL Framework listserv to the thread titled “S/F: Jack, Jill and AiCC”.(copied also to the and lists as well).

Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Melissa writes to Margaret:

The concern seems to be that if we acknowledge objectivity as a factor in authority at all, then we must claim that Absolute Truth Is A Thing, and/or claim that authority is absolute and infallible. (To put it in your and Perry’s cognitive development terms, the fear seems to be that any acknowledgement of objectivity is simply a retreat from Relativism back to Dualism.)

Hear, hear!

Glad to see Joe here to, though when it comes to this:

I think you can address this scenario without the weird, neo-Platonist ‘Absolute Truth’ business from threads of yore.

…I simply want to point out that this strikes me as a red herring. I would like to know who more about these fascinating neo-Platonists that Joe speaks of.

For my own part, in one of my last messages I posted on the ili board (back in April), I said this:

Librarians, like scholars, have always advocated for seeing “the human community of practice” rather expansively (at least when it comes to their international “communities” of choice) and have realized that people want people who will both:

  • try to live honestly; and
  • who, to say the least, will not continually insist that we cannot really begin to know anything about objective reality – particularly when we make careful and disciplined efforts to do so.

…. I continue to argue that there are certainly many particular, individual facts and truths that we are able to discover, even as when it comes to larger questions of Truth (the set of all things which exist), full knowledge and understanding certainly escapes us (and I believe ever will). Why should we assume that because there are many ways of “being in the world” this will change?


The fact of the matter is that for a significant amount of the human population – perhaps more outside of academia than inside it these days — matters of truth and authority are inextricably connected. Even a charismatic person in a position of authority who does not speak in accordance with the realities persons experience on the ground (cue Aristotle if anything, not Plato) – and connect with them on this basis – will begin to lose both trust and respect. This holds true even if that person seems, for the time being at least, to lose little social, cultural and political influence and/or power.

And then, saying “my aunt says,” or “my whole family says” does not “offer[] nothing,” but is increasingly valued.

But even there, we will still have common ground, won’t we? We all got here somehow. : )

I submit that this is the reason that this discussion – which assumes and attempts to bolster and sharpen the dichotomy between authority in the academic context and authority in other contexts – ultimately fails to address the real issues at stake, which would involve persons asking themselves questions like the following:

  • Speaking generally (not just in an academic context) how do we know if we have a reliable source or resource?
  • How can we get better at recognizing this in general, and in specific contexts?
  • How can you begin to determine whether your biases/inclinations are good or bad?

And we can then connect this back to the academy. I think one thing that might help is to think about what we mean by scholarship. Here is what I mean by the term: concentrated efforts, individually and collectively, to solve problems, discover the unknown, remember the forgotten. Any methodology of scholarship that does not have room for all of those factors does not deserve to be in the academy / university.

I suggest we start by uniting our own scientific and poetic sides. First, regardless of what we think or know about Newton and Einstein, we know that when we drop objects our given sense experience tells us that the objects fall towards our feet and not otherwise. Right? Second, we know that waterfalls are sublime — not only that they produce “sublime feelings” in us. Right?

By the way, let’s hear it for dualistic thinking and absolutist thinkers like Epictetus (three cheers all):

“If you seek truth, you will not seek by every means to gain a victory; and if you have found truth, you will have the gain of not being defeated.”



P.S. I’ll be at a Reformation festival for the next couple days and so will not be able to interact with any forthcoming responses for a while. Thanks.


Images: Statue of Achilleas Thniskon (Dying Achilles) at the Corfu Achilleion. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ex-Google employee James Damore and the Truth

Have you heard about the controversy with James Damore and Google?

Or should I say…

This mild-mannered yet controversial fellow has certainly not been shy, appearing on a variety of alternative media programs in an information campaign that appears to be running on all cylinders.

Whoa there! Hold them horses! Did I just give up any hope of being considered relatively impartial and credible? Well, who knows? (read on) In any case, I certainly want to talk about the issue. As I do though, it would do you well to keep in mind the good words of Caroline Jack, found in her document Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information:

The term chosen to describe an information campaign [e.g. misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, gaslighting, publicity, agitprop, “information operations,” advertising, public relations, public diplomacy, dezinformatsiya, xuanchuan, “active measures,” etc.] conveys information about who is running that campaign and the goals they might have in running it. It also reveals information about the writer — namely, how she assesses the accuracy, validity, and potential consequences of the information campaign. Misinforma­tion and disinformation should be discussed with care; writers must be mindful that their representations of problematic information in today’s world can bolster assumptions that may be erroneous, re-inscribe social divisions, or make adversar­ies out to be more powerful than they actually are (13, brackets and italics mine).

Of course, it’s not all just about power, right?

I find James Damore to be an absolutely fascinating guy – and lovable to boot. And I think he has a story to tell that is even more fascinating. I must say, I thought that this interview that he did with Milo Yiannopoulos was, surprisingly, highly enlightening (interesting to hear, for example, that he could verify the things that Tim Poole had said about You Tube’s activities towards independent reporters – particularly if they were more libertarian or conservative – about 12 minutes in).

Still, what to say? Is Damore credible? Given Lane Wilkinson’s interpretation of the ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy, the answer to this question can certainly be “no”.

Wilkinson says that “[the authority is constructed and contextual frame] deals with cognitive authority, which deals… with trust and credibility… Being an expert is having a certain body of knowledge or know-how; being an authority is having credibility within a sphere of influence independently of knowledge or know-how. It’s all in the context(italics mine).

So, basically, if you can get a bunch of persons to trust you, you have credibility. A lot of persons seem to find Damore credible. It’s plausible that many of the persons listening to him are those whose biases he is confirming. That said, the videos of him are pretty popular, and, together, appear to have been watched millions of times now. Is he a running a highly influential PSYOP? Going back to Caroline Jack’s document, is he attempting to gaslight?:

Gaslighting, a term derived from the 1938 play (and 1944 film) Gas Light, has been used to describe situations in which a person orchestrates deceptions and inaccurately narrates events to the extent that their victim stops trusting their own judgments and perceptions. The term has recently been adapted from psychological to political contexts, as journalists and commentators have adopted it to describe the Trump administration’s use of misdirection, denial, and demon­strably false public statements (9).

Or alternatively, is he a victim of the same? He has repeatedly said that both Google and the media have mischaracterized and slandered him, and is filing a lawsuit.

If a tree falls down in the woods and no one is there does it make any noise? If James Damore speaks and only more conservative and alternative media platforms take the time to listen sympathetically and accurately characterize his case, does it matter?

Of course it does. At the same time, the cost of this negligence, it seems, is something that Damore agreed with Yiannopoulos about: the likely Balkanization of the current You Tube and Google environment (around 53 minutes). This is not just to say that we all have our “filter bubbles”. This is to say that the whole dang thing is about to break apart.

Maybe for the truth that is a price worth paying? It certainly seems clear that we, like the author of Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information, simply can’t keep saying — and won’t keep saying —  “it is often a matter of perspective”.

We get that perspective matters. Everyone gets this now in theory, even if few put this into practice. That said, what about truth? Even if it’s hard and inconvenient?

Do we still think it matters? No matter who says it?

A good start?



Images: James Damor: ; Power and Leadership, NeetiR, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license ; truth image: unknown.


Is the Information Establishment Pretty Much OK? A Response to Bill Badke

Badke: “Don’t give the impression that there is nothing to be believed anymore.” Amen! And…

I really like Bill Badke. A lot.

He’s pretty much an impossible guy not to like! And, importantly for me, when it comes to the librarians’ topic of “information literacy” – that is, how we can find information, examine it for value, and put it into practice – he has a lot of wisdom to share. Let us attend!

Therefore, it’s no surprise that he had all kinds of insightful things to say about “Fake News” and information literacy in the most recent Circ Ideas podcast. If you are a librarian or one who teaches people about research, you should definitely check it out!

Six editions says “Authority!” Does authority though, as he says, really rest in the receiver of information?

As readers of this blog might expect though (oh no! – the big “but”), I disagree with Bill on a few of the things that he spoke about. Note what he says, for example (at about 26 minutes into the interview), about academics as he speaks of their willingness to seek truth:

[the academics I know] want to see rigor, want to be contradicted if they need to be contradicted, [] absolutely want to further the discipline, [and] develop knowledge that can be of benefit to society. I think that is the main kind of person that we see in the academic world….[i] And so all of those things cause me to believe that, for the most part, the information establishment is pretty much OK. Even while it needs correctives, and critical information literacy is a good way of doing that. For the most part, we’re in pretty good shape, but under threat.

Authority may not be, as Badke claims, “constructed and contextual,” but context is certainly important here! Badke works at Trinity Western University in Canada, which is its “largest privately funded Christian university” (per Wikipedia, so must be true). It is a conservative evangelical institution that no doubt attracts some of Canada’s top Christian minds. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to me – as someone who has studied extensively how Christianity has shaped the Western world – that the scholars at Badke’s institution are exceptionally active, curious and conscientious – “super devoted and dedicated to their disciplines,” as he says. No doubt, they believe that truth exists and that they have a vocation from God to seek it in their scholarly pursuits (see Philippians 4:8 and note who Paul quotes in Acts 17).

My take then, is that it is very likely the case that Bill is extrapolating from his experience in a way that simply does not scale. I agree with him that this is what academia should be, but I do not think, for the most part, this is the way it currently is.

For example, Badke’s fellow Canadian, the fiery academic Jordan Peterson, would vociferously disagree with him. Peterson’s evaluation of academia in North America is that it is chock-full of dangerous postmodernist corruption. And while his cultural and political views might be considered exceptionally conservative and even dangerous by some, he will not be as easy to “deplatform,” as folks say today, as people like Richard Dawkins, Charles Murray, or the exceptionally provocative Milo Yiannopoulos (though, interestingly, my very socially and politically liberal friend really liked this interview). In fact, Peterson has been appearing almost everywhere in the last several months. His interview on the Joe Rogan show reached one million views in days. He has been written up relatively favorably in the Huffington Post, and recently spoke to a student group at Harvard on the topic of Postmodernism and the Mask of Compassion.

What our debates are claimed to be all about today. What are the logical implications? Are some more “equal” than others? A piercing analysis by a respected military historian

Really, if you haven’t heard of him, you might want to check this gentleman – who has dedicated a great portion of his life to studying Nazism and Communism – out:


I think Peterson is largely right on the money in this interview, even as I find some of what he says to be very unhelpful[ii] and, of course, discouraging – “Overreacting much?,” I sometimes think. At the same time I also note that he talks (and elsewhere, rages[iii]) about a “war” of words that is occurring in the Western world.[iv] He is convinced that those he is challenging have absolutely no desire to meet in discussion and debate to find a reasoned solution because, in short, they do not believe reason and truth are a real thing.

Sadly, I think that is largely right (and I was recently given the opportunity to discuss this – on the podcast of a truck-driving Christian layman! – particularly how my “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” papers might relate to postmodernism).

Check out the smart podcast I was on.

Six years ago I think I would have basically agreed with most everything that Bill said in his podcast (even if I am sure I would have still been scratching my head over the proclamation of “Authority is constructed and contextual”), but I think it was right around that time that this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education tipped me off that my confidence level in higher education as a whole was not really justified.

I had an uncle who had gotten me a popular book mentioned in that article, and at the time I read it with great fascination and interest. Nevertheless, it did seem rather doubtful — and a bit fantastical — to me at the time, and the Chronicle of Higher Education article was, for me, the tipping point which led me to where I am today.

A popularized account of postmodern scholarship aiming to displace the cis white heteronormative male (patriarchal!) narrative.

I am asking — urging! — you to listen to Jordan Peterson tell you why academia is not what we might think it is or what it claims to be (again, see the video above). I think we ignore his complaints at our peril.




[i] Here, in the middle of this quote, he says the following:

“…and I think the same kind of thing happens in journalism. The people who are doing it are for the most part super dedicated to finding answers, even finding the truth. They are not dedicated to promoting a bias. They’re dedicated to actually informing the public and keeping the public aware of what’s happening in the world. They may editorialize, but they’re doing it on the basis of “this is what I believe is actually going on here, and I have evidence to support it…”

[ii] In particular, his Darwinian-driven worldview concerns me in spite of his own more gentlemanly and compassionate nature (here is a post I did elsewhere that evaluates his position from a theological perspective).

[iii] Another speech concerning academia that is impressive in its momentum and Jeremiad-like nature! Again, I find much to cheer and to jeer.

[iv] I think Jordan Peterson might agree with what Hans Gumbrecht says, which I quoted in a past post here:

“What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become synonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot” (Gumbrecht, Production of Presence, pp. 53 and 54).

At the same time, as I express in the same blog post where I quoted this, I think that this kind of argument fails, because it is ultimately only rooted in a kind of pragmatism.

Ty Cobb: a Good Example of Why So Many Distrust the Media

Ty Cobb, the “Georgia Peach”. Could no one really “stand the son-of-a-bitch when he was alive”?

As anyone who has been reading this blog will know, I like to talk about stories and pieces that highlight the importance of a media (and an academic world) that has a real concern for truth. And I think that saying things like “truth is a linguistic concept” simply makes it easier to justify untruths.

I’ll admit that not much surprises me when it comes to people’s willingness to promulgate mis- and disinformation. That said, I’ll admit that even I was rather shocked by the following video. It illustrates how, in a pre-internet era, one lying person — even when they were refuted in print by others — could completely destroy the reputation of a good man:


I shared this post with some folks very dear to me — people whose opinions I respect — and told them I was interested in their gut reaction to the post. Here is what one of them, a very big baseball fan, said:

I remember hearing stories about how big of a racist and dirty player he was, and this was before the internet. It just goes to show you the liberal media has always enjoyed a sad story to a happy story. Years ago I had someone tell me I should read a little more about Ty Cobb so I did, it was refreshing to read about him being a stand up human being. Sounds like this reporter did the same thing reporters do nowadays and that is not doing actual journalism. The liberal media tries everyday to destroy decent people’s lives, so it just goes to show you nothing has changed in a 100 years. I honestly believe liberals are more racist than conservatives.

Another simply said: “How true! Lots of anonymous sources today saying all kinds of false things with no credibility, trying to ruin someone’s good name.”

I’m not interested in being naive. I understand that people from across this or that spectrum stretch the truth, exaggerate, lie, and slander. At the same time, I also think that it is true that the views of the world that we have will influence and provide the conscious justifications we make concerning our behavior. This, or course, is something that my last — admittedly rather complicated — post was getting at.


5 Short Philosophical Reflections: From Hope to Despair


Prefatory remarks:

[This will most likely be my last post here for a while. Perhaps will be writing more with journals in mind in the next few months.]

Two posts ago, I asked whether Plato’s Socrates had the answer to how to effectively counter “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”. This post begins to address that question.

In another recent post, Can Pastors, Rabbis, Imams and Their Faithful be Good Librarians?, I doubt I got too many who disagree with me to change their mind about “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”. In all likelihood, I even turned off a good number of those who hitherto had appreciated what I had had to say!

After all, many — dismissing my statement that “the wider problem that this points us to is that the Framework is indifferent to the matter of truth in general” — no doubt believe that it is precisely these kinds of “dogmatic understandings” that a) have nothing if little to do with truth and ; b) are primarily responsible for human conflict ; and c) no doubt interfere with the kind of progressive change those like Wayne Bivens-Tatum stoically encourage their fellow librarians to so patiently wait for.

Now, however, with the 5 short philosophical reflections that I lay out below, I am asking whether the Western world, apart from its religious heritage, only has reason to despair (also see the case made here, by a conservative Jew and atheist, in this video).

This is ultimately because I think that, in general, the elites of the Western world are under the powerful influence of a very poisonous philosophy (serving as a kind of replacement theology). Some of you might think that I am thinking about postmodernism, but I am going further upstream than that.

Coming later on in the genealogy of ideas.

Before I get to that though (next paragraph), a brief remark on the matter of philosophy as a whole: I think that all philosophy, even if if not directly stated as such, has to do with how one should live, i.e. what it means to live as a human being. In short, all philosophy is about morality and human teleology (speaking rather clinically, this is the description of a thing on the basis of its ultimate purpose). Even modern philosophies (really post-Kant) that say they are not first and foremost about this, actually are, albeit more hesitatingly (e.g., see this). I argue that this cannot be avoided.

The philosophy I now think most all of the intellectual elites in the West are captive to — even if the are largely unaware of it — is that of Hegel, who took up the philosophy of historicism. Historicism (think “on the right side of history”) is not a monolith but, in sum, always puts the emphasis on things as apprehended by the human mind throughout time — examining these, their functions, and the best use of them — and not things in the cosmos or in a transcendent realm(s) (i.e Plato’s Forms, etc).*


Commenting on a post arguing for the truth of the Christian faith made on the blog of science fiction writer John C. Wright, made the following compelling statements (used with permission):

Science fiction writer — and Christian convert — John C. Wright.


Why do we seek truth?

All animals seek information: sensory data about their environment and how to exploit it. But, once they have that, they are satisfied. We are not.

We seek more than information: we seek truth. Enough sensory information to live our lives is not enough. What our society tells us is good enough for us to know, is never enough. We balk at such frontiers: we seek to know more… we seek truth… we seek The Truth.


It’s dangerous. All searches for knowledge entail effort, and often danger. Learning more will not put one’s mind at ease: often the truth is more troubling then ignorance — yet we still seek it. Discovering the truth often puts one at odds with men of power, imperiling not only one’s own life, but often one’s family. Still, generation after generation, men have sought truth.

The reasons cannot simply be biological: other biological beings stop once a need is fulfilled. It cannot be social: truth seekers are often at odds with power structures that so often require deception to function. It cannot be merely psychological: for we seek unpleasant truths, about problems we often can do nothing about.

The reason must be something higher than biology, than society[,] than psychology. There must be a Truth greater then mere nature.

Words like these, I think, are very hopeful. It is worthwhile — not in vain — to seek the truth. To be honest about the hard “facts of life” and one’s self. And in thinking that your truly seeking it will be of benefit to others as well. Even as, of course, all of this is not easy. Again, I share one of my favorite quotes from E.F. Schumacher (from his his 1977 book Guide for the Perplexed):


Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice.  Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind. — Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127 (listen to this gentlemen eloquently express much the same idea)

To my knowledge, Schumacher identified as a Christian believer, and here, I note, his words seem very compatible with the general account of the world that Christians tell (i.e. creation, fall, the desperate need for wisdom, redemption, salvation). That said, since the revolution of “postmodernism” even wise words like Schumacher’s seem too certain. And here, I try to push back:

Truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying. — “Neopragmatist” and social constructivist Richard Rorty,


When the influential Richard Rorty defined truth as “what our peers will let us get away with saying”, how does this not, in effect, make truth liable to being nothing more than a power play for one’s advantage? From which it follows that it is really true (!) that it is ultimately only things that overpower other things that can be said to exist – to be. This certainly puts a new spin on what Aristotle said about truth, namely that “to say that which is, is and that which is not is not, is true”! With this assumed, the best among us can only be those who take – and lead – leaps of faith into oceans, hoping that the evolving beliefs we think are “good” – and not just our genes – will be spread and passed on. Here, any classical notions of knowledge as “justified true belief” are banished, as whatever can function to win, if only temporarily, is all that remains for us to hope in. On the other hand, what if what we ultimately need is just such knowledge… and real wisdom… perhaps even involving a truth that even goes beyond “accuracy” – implying perhaps even a goodness that goes beyond our own subjective impressions? (comments from my paper published in the Christian Librarian).

I thought that was a well-thought-out way of challenging the postmodernist and those with postmodernist sympathies. But perhaps I largely missed the point. After all, sometimes we become convinced that winning is important — maybe even more so in an age where people are not as sure about their ability to agree with others about what is right! Why do so many continue to act as confidently as they do, taking the actions they do, trying to accomplish what they think must get done? Just ressentiment, power, selfishness… with no concerns about real justice? It seems wrong to think this…  Rather, it is because they are confident, more or less so, that they are being true, right — even if, for them, what is “right” is always changing. Therefore, keeping in mind this practical concern with morale….

Chesterton on progress: A greater realization of goodness will, ultimately, be fundamentally contiguous with more child-like (not childish) notions.


Many contemporary elites do, of course, believe that the matter of ethics is a completely contingent matter – they think we human beings could have been very different than what we are and, of course, that we are still changing (not to mention variations on themes found in different cultures). For example, persons of a more “progressive” mindset, influenced by Hegelian philosophy (whether they know it or not), see the matter of seeking justice very differently from, for example, those influenced by more classical notions of Christianity.

In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “[progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… [Today,] we are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (1909, p. 195). Of course, the more knowledgeable among non-Christians realize, en route to the positive change they seek, that building up morale through what can only be called lies and half-truths will eventually backfire. At the same time, it seems that for the Hegelian mind it is basically only a matter of time and right circumstances that determine whether we can make something that is evolving/emerging true – that we can “get away with it,” as Richard Rorty would say. In other words, going back to Chesterton, they alter the ideal, and then follow up by altering the real too (for more on these kinds of questions, see Haugaard M. (2012), “Power and truth”, European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 15 No 1, pp. 73-92).

Knowledge certainly does have a very dynamic aspect – for Plato, for example, it is always “solid” in the Heavenly Forms but, significantly, here on earth our ideas can be quite off, as we struggle with the Shadows. This, of course, is taken to new levels with Hegel (where there cannot be a statement made by human beings that is true by itself and that endures throughout time). The core idea here is that Laws, Forms, or the Ideal to which we are grasping might not change, but our interpretations of them — as elites get both more educated and smarter — does. For example, our past representations of some forms (e.g. marriage, father, mother, male, female, etc.), it is reasoned, were evidently off as we, under less reasonable influences, misinterpreted the Appearances.

Is a “good, true, and beautiful” that is always changing still “good, true, and beautiful”? Or if it is stable in heaven, but not on earth? (pictured: Plato)

But now, we are being enlightened, pulled along by Something, helping us get on “the right side of history.” Even postmodernists find themselves talking this way because they to have teleological impulses that sync with stable (for the moment!) notions of right and wrong that should be expected from all.** They must, because they are human beings. Even if one is uncertain about their views, traditional notions of law — based on Christian ideas — must be updated and/or replaced. In other words, they might not be certain about Right and Wrong, but they are confident enough about what they don’t respect and appreciate to act. And it seems to me that any conservatives looking to Plato who want to say there is some permanence in the world — and not just in the heavens — are absolutely helpless in light of this. For permanence is the illusion of the Appearances, and Hegel, bolstered of course by Galileo, Darwin, etc. rules the day (see * below). What is deemed credible by majorities or those able to influence them is “true”.

At the same time, what if they can only alter the real so much (perhaps, at least to the extent that it can be done by changing laws and mores), given the presence of things that one can’t not notice and must notice? And things that, in truth, will not alter their being — what they, in fact, are — for them?

In other words, there is a key question here not asked much today: How much do core things we can’t get away from basically stay the same?…

This idea of presence and presences does not fit with the modern elite mindset which makes interpretation (or hermeneutics) — and evolving interpretation — king of all. Modern philosophers who want to put in a word for permanence often seem to believe that Hegel’s steamroller cannot — and should not? — be stopped, but perhaps only slowed down (to prevent backlashes, “reality bouncing back,” etc). After all, Aristotle’s idea that some things and the world are eternal no longer seem credible at all… Likewise, for many, the teachings of the Bible which speak of stable realities and truths.*** They therefore try to salvage some permanence not via a defend-able principle, but simply because they feel they must. Simply to prevent chaos. Hence, Hans Gumbrecht:

With historicism, “there is no phenomenon in time that can resist change.” **** — Hans Gumbrecht


“What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become synonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot” (Gumbrecht, Production of Presence, pp. 53 and 54).

So is it, fundamentally, dogmatic understandings that are responsible for human conflict? What if, instead, uncertainty about too many things – especially those things seemingly most precious to all human beings – is to blame for exacerbating the problems caused by our more base impulses as human beings?

“…without some common baseline of facts… we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.” — B. Obama (from here)

Definitions, seemingly, are “up for grabs” like never before: What is a human being? A man or a woman? What is a father? A mother? Who do children “belong” to? What is marriage? What is justice indeed? What indeed, is guilt if the old saws don’t seem to get to me like they once did? Even if one thinks that things like this point to desirable changes, what, overall, might be the wider implications of such rapid-fire change?

The phrase “words only have the power you give them,” might be of encouragement when an individual is trying to downplay the effect of words which, in fact, hurt. At the same time, it is disconcerting to think that there are groups with influence or power that think they can make certain determinations about hitherto-considered-stable concepts – whenever they are able to “get away with it” – and that there is no power or reality recognized by them that might make what used to think were “our words,” once again, have something in common…

“[conservatives are] all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.” — Russel Kirk


What is left when even the most socially conservative of secularists cannot affirm, in the end, any rationale higher than the “human dignity of autonomous choice” (see, for example, the perceptive comments made about George Will here)? How is this not also, though perhaps more slowly, swept up into Hegel’s Mind devoted to understanding and managing constant instability? How is this not a recipe for despair – for a kind of diversity which is, at bottom, disastrous?



*In “conservative” forms of historicism, things in the cosmos (“realism”) and/or in the transcendent realms (“Platonism”) exist, but are not the focus of the philosophy. For a very helpful summary and unpacking of historicism, see my summary of Martin Noland’s PhD thesis here. Note these comments from Descarte’s nemesis, Vico: “Abstract, or general truths are eternal; concrete or specific ones change momentarily from truths to untruths. Eternal truths stand above nature; in nature, instead, everything is unstable, mutable. But congruity exists between goodness and truth; they partake of the same essence, of the same qualities…” (p. 96) Also, this comment from Wayne Hudson, in his recent article, “Theology and historicism”, thesis eleven 116(1) 19-39, 2013: “Put bluntly, it is not clear why…. recurrent structural features should not also be historicized if things change in the course of history as much as historicists suggest.  Conversely, if things do not change that much, then historicizing may have limited applications in other areas as well.”

**A friend notes: “There are people who will tell you that their own deeply held moral convictions are simply epiphenomena of their own evolution, upbringing, and personal interest. They are “a law unto their own selves” not just practically, but theoretically too. And even while fighting and killing for their own view of the world, they may frankly consider it to be an amoral conflict, nothing but survival of the fittest.” My response is that persons like this are few and far between but even they will not be content to keep this belief to themselves. Rather, they want to be seen as moral: to be known as those who are courageous (still, what is the standard?) and someone who lives honestly (i.e. they don’t lie about what is, to themselves, etc. – this is necessarily a standard that is not just about their own measures also!). And of course (I say this as an added bonus) even if they are total evolution-driven nihilists, they will not want friends who, when they ask them practical questions, continually insist that none of us can really begin to know anything about objective reality – particularly when we make careful and disciplined efforts to do so.

***Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.” More from Noland: “In summary, historicism was both a worldview and a method. As a worldview, it was identified with anti-naturalist and post-speculative realist perspectives, emphasizing the themes of the malleability of human nature and individuality. As a method, it operated with the principles of criticism, analogy, correlation, development, and the historical idea.” (p. 83) It also “looks at the world from the standpoint of intellectual, spiritual, and psychological entities and processes, even to the extreme point of explaining all natural phenomena as a cultural growth. Unlike the model of Newtonian science, which posited the fixed nature of entities and the mathematical description of processes, historicism recognizes that entities change and develop over the course of time. Such change of an entity, requiring a historical account of its origin and growth, is thus the root issue dividing naturalism and historicism. (p. 47)”

****from The Shulman Lectures, “All that Matters is Invisible: How Latency Dominates our Present”

My Paper From The Christian Librarian Now Freely Available

Click to see contents of the issue.

My article “Is Authority Always Constructed and Contextual? A Classical Challenge to the Framework for Information Literacy” published in The Christian Librarian (volume 59, issue 2) this last fall just went online. It is at:

As I said in a previous post mentioning my critiques,

[this] article is a little heavier going, as it takes a relentlessly Socratic approach…. (note that my argument is constructed with the intent of being amenable to all kinds of persons, including those of a more secular orientation)

The abstract:

The 2015 Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (or Framework) is the latest effort of academic librarians to provide relevant guidance for the teaching of information literacy. One claim made within this “living document,” in line with current academic trends of constructivism and social constructivism, is that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual.” Questions are raised concerning authority’s relationship to the idea of truth, and an effort is made, largely through a Socratic method of inquiry, to delve into the meaning of the Framework’s statement on authority using the further explanations provided concerning this particular “frame,” as well as the context of the entire document. Connections between the nature of authority, responsibility, and the ethical direction of the Framework are considered, and the relevance of the matter of truth is brought to bear here as well. Finally, the conclusion is reached that in light of the investigation’s findings, the current statement that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” is fraught with significant difficulties, and a statement akin to “Issues of Authority are Contextual and Nuanced” is warranted instead (italics mine).

Going along with that last line, I also am putting up a very rough draft of a proposed frame to replace “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”. (Hopefully, new “Knowledge practices” and “Dispositions” in the near future). No doubt much work still needs to be done here, and I invite feedback and discussion:

Issues of Authority are Contextual and Nuanced

Sources of information are evaluated based on their knowledge and credibility as well as the information needs of users. Issues of authority are contextual in that the information need may help determine the level of authority required. They are nuanced in that societal position or status may not go hand-in-hand with authoritative speech – i.e. words in accordance with truth.     

Not only scholars, but all persons seek those who trust we can begin to know some things about what is the case about our lives and the world – particularly when careful and disciplined efforts are made. Truth, therefore, is in part that which is not wholly individualistic and which can create new understandings in and between persons. Relatedly, authority can be defined as the ability to influence and persuade resulting from knowledge and experience. Ideally, those able to influence and persuade apart from much knowledge—that is, apart from much justified true belief—would not be able to receive or earn recognized positional authority. Successful quacks and con artists exist however, and this means that cultural and political influence and power cannot be strictly synonymous with credibility and authority. The need to tell the truth, seek what is really true, and to be true, must be encouraged. This includes examination of one’s own hidden and conscious biases and assumptions, whether or not these are ultimately determined to be desirable or undesirable. In sum, beginning learners should come to respect those in positions of authority while recognizing that authoritative speaking—i.e. that which is in accordance with truth—may come from elsewhere. Students should both seek voices widely recognized as authoritative and note that they may need to reason with unlikely voices that possess relevant knowledge – perhaps from different classes, races, nationalities, creeds, religions, etc.


Effectively Countering “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”: Does Plato’s Socrates Have the Answer?

“Peter Adamson, professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.”*

How to effectively counter “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”? Before I answer the question, let me encourage you to give your ear to the great Peter Adamson, who has performed an inestimable service to us all by providing us with free, highly engaging and very accessible introductions to the history of philosophy (without any gaps!)

This is one of my all-time favorite podcasts. Adamson, a reliable guide, has mastered the art.

Think that there is no way you can’t understand philosophy or that it is ultimately of no practical importance? Think that there is no real cross-cultural overlap on life’s biggest questions? Peter Adamson will make you think again!

The show, the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps is currently examining Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, but, going along with the concern expressed in this post’s title, I recommend getting started with the podcasts below.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from going right to the primary sources to see what Plato’s Socrates says about the nature of knowledge, and of course with this, truth.

That said, if you can’t do that, why not check out a 20 minute podcast?

We Don’t Need No Education: Plato’s Meno (episode 21)

Peter tackles one of Plato’s most frequently read dialogues, the “Meno,” and the theory that what seems to be learning is in fact recollection.

I Know, Because the Caged Bird Sings: Plato’s Theaetetus (episode 22)

Peter examines Plato’s “Theaetetus”, discussing the relativist doctrine of Protagoras, the flux doctrine of Heraclitus, and the two famous images of the wax tablet and aviary.

MM McCabe on Knowledge in Plato (episode 23)

What is Plato’s understanding of knowledge, and how does he think that knowledge relates to virtue? Peter tackles these questions with his King’s colleague MM McCabe in this interview.

Famous Last Words: Plato’s Phaedo (episode 24)

In the Phaedo, Plato depicts the death of Socrates, and argues for two of his most distinctive doctrines: the immortality of the soul and the theory of Forms.

So, does Plato help us in countering “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”? What do you think?

Our great help in time of need?

…and stay tuned for what I think.


* Adamson photo and bio from Western Illinois University website.


What to Do When Talking With a Political Opponent is Worse Than Getting Your Teeth Pulled

Too beyond the pale to listen to? Do you have a price?

A recent article in Vox, titled and sub-titled respectively “Motivated ignorance” is ruining our political discourse: Talking with a political opponent is almost as unpleasant as getting a tooth pulled,” explored the results of a new study published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology.

One of the good points the article reports on is the following:

This is a key point that many people miss when discussing the “fake news” or “filter bubble” problem in our online media ecosystems. Avoiding facts inconvenient to our worldview isn’t just some passive, unconscious habit we engage in. We do it because we find these facts to be genuinely unpleasant. And as long as this experience remains unpleasant, and easy to avoid, we’re just going to drift further and further apart.


Largely, the partisans were unfamiliar with [others’] viewpoints. So it’s not the case that people are avoiding learning about the other side because they’re already familiar. What’s going on here is “motivated ignorance,” as Matt Motyl, one of the study co-authors calls it…. “People on the left and right,” the study concludes, “are motivated to avoid hearing from the other side for some of the same reasons: the anticipation of cognitive dissonance and the undermining of a fundamental need for a shared reality with other people.”

This doesn’t surprise me. Though it also doesn’t describe me or a lot of the people whose company I enjoy the most. I find it fascinating, at least in many contexts, to get to talk politics with persons who have different views from my own.

It’s not that I like conflict – I definitely don’t. The fact of the matter though is that most of my political discussions aren’t so heated. I ask a lot of questions, try to learn something, and back off if persons get too irritated. If they ask me about my own views, I am happy to share them – along with reasons I hope will connect with them.

So, should everyone be like me? My gut reaction is to say “No, I think this kind of approach isn’t necessarily for everyone.” I think we all sometimes need persons who are highly informed, who care about us, and also don’t handle us with “kid gloves” when they are certain we are wrong. At the same time, I think those who are in positions of leadership (like parents, for example!) need to have both of these qualities in some measure – and be able to continue to cultivate them.

So, what can make things better? A couple key things come to mind.

First, undoubtedly, deeper reflection on the things that make all of us human beings. We are all, inescapably, moral creatures who feel strongly about what is right and wrong. Simply put, this is our existential situation. This is why, for example, a recent Ph.D. dissertation on Martin Heidegger, for example, argues that his “Being and Time is an ethics in the same way Nicomachean Ethics is an ethics” in spite of his having “nothing positive to say about post-Enlightenment moral theory.”

Second, if you both get angry easily and also want to be able to listen to others different from you, be strategic when it comes to getting started. Don’t jump right to someone with different views from you who is widely seen as being more extreme. Start small, and work your way across the spectrum incrementally (if you get irritated easily, don’t just jump into any podcast on my iTunes list). Eventually, you can explore the larger range of issues, even exploring the fringes and finding out better what makes them tick – and what makes them continue to be human (and I find people at the extremes often tend to agree with one another about things that the “middle” tends to downplay or ignore).

At the same time, even though the title of this article says talking with a political opponent is its topic, it actually reveals that even listening to a political opponent is too painful for many… Hence the article starts:

If you ever thought, “You couldn’t pay me to listen to Sean Hannity / Rachael Maddow / insert any television pundit you violently disagree with here” — you are not alone.

Covering the study, it talks about how participants were encouraged to listen to those they disagreed with:

Two hundred participants were presented with two options. They could either read and answer questions about an opinion they agreed with — the topic was same-sex marriage — or read the opposing viewpoint.

Here’s the catch: If the participants chose to read the opinion they agreed with, they were entered into a raffle pool to earn $7. If they selected to read opposing opinion, they had a chance to win $10.

You’d think everyone would want to win more money, right?


A majority — 63 percent — of the participants chose to stick with what they already knew, forgoing the chance to win $10. Both people with pro same-sex marriage beliefs and those against it avoided the opinion hostile to their worldview at similar rates.

“They don’t know what’s going on the other side, and they don’t want to know,” Jeremy Frimer, the University of Winnipeg psychologist who led the study, says.

Why is this surprising though? Why only three dollars more? And for a chance to win three dollars more? I suspect that people would be much more willing to do this were they offered more money. Maybe the real interesting question here, good for a follow-up study, would be “what’s their price”?

And if that suggestion offends you (it kind of does me to) also note this: if you  care about someone you think is really wrong, you might just try to enter their world — to the degree that you are able — in an effort to pull them out.