The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Truth and Facts

Until the Enlightenment, everyone thought that there were Absolute Truths. It was the only way to understand the physical, social and psychological state in which humans existed. God spoke to humans and established the Absolute Truth. Those who trespassed against that Truth were burned at the stake, as Giordano Bruno, or exiled. That was true of all religions and all philosophers too.

That view has never died out. It’s the root of fundamentalisms of all denominations, and even among quasi-believers it is widely held. I think is is a core principle of conservatism, at least in practice. For example they all seem to believe in the Absolute Truth that tax cuts are always the solution to any perceived problem. And neoliberals assert it too, at least in their public statements; who knows what, if anything they actually believe or if there is an authentic neoliberal self that has a principle that doesn’t involve money or power.

It’s important to note that not all religions today teach that they are in possession of Absolute Truth. From its beginning, for example, the Jews did not name or describe the Almighty. They knew they were not like the Almighty, and thus could not expect to understand the nature of the Almighty. In the same way, Catholics who accept the teachings of Vatican II know that even the moral guidance of the Pope is subject to the considered judgment of the People of God. Catholics do not surrender their moral agency. Instead, dogma is guided by the lived experience of the faithful believer.

It seems odd that anyone would claim to speak for the Almighty, but people always have and still do. Some claim to know the will of the Almighty from an ancient text or because they heard it from someone who they believe speaks for the Almighty in our time. Still others claim the authority to interpret those texts as a guide to living in a society vastly different from that in which they were first written down.

It’s a small step from believing that one knows the will of the Almighty to believing that some social practice is ordained by the Almighty. It’s another small step to believe some theory of society or economics or politics reflects the will of the Almighty. It’s easy to see how this practice infects and affects vast numbers of people.

The struggle among these people is for dominance in the definitions of Absolute Truth. It isn’t just preachers and religious leaders who try to create Absolute Truths, there are plenty of politicians and others whose interests are served by linking their projects to Absolute Truth. Obviously this struggle doesn’t take place in the realm of reason, because absolutes are not subject to reason, or to argument, or to persuasion of any external kind. The truth is a whole, and the believers hold that whole. As an example, the Nazis tried to root out “Jewish Physics”, embodied by Albert Einstein, as anti-Aryan. Einstein was a theorist, not an experimenter, and the guy driving this absurd idea was an Aryan experimenter.

In contrast to the absolutists, a lot of people began to lose that certainty at the time of the Enlightenment. By the early 1900s, most thinking people were trying to come to grips with the absence of certainty. The members of the Frankfurt School certainly did not believe in Absolute Truth. Here’s Martin Jay:

… Dialectics probed the “force-field,” to use an expression of Adorno’s, between consciousness and being, subject and object. It did not, indeed could not, pretend to have discovered ontological first principles. It rejected the extremes of nominalism and realism and remained willing to operate in a perpetual state of suspended judgment.

Hence the crucial importance of mediation (Vermittlung) for a correct theory of society. No facet of social reality could be understood by the observer as final or complete in itself. There were no social “facts,” as the positivists believed, which were the substratum of a social theory. Instead, there was a constant interplay of particular and universal, of “moment”* and totality.
P. 54, emphasis added..

One way to think about this point of view is to recognize that scientific theories are subject to massive revision. That’s the point of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s a painful process, but necessary for science. If that’s true for our best and most focused practical thinking, it’s impossible to imagine that there are Absolute Truths about human beings and their intricate social relations and their personal projects and desires. Dialectics, mediation, neither will uncover universal truths.

This general view has been common for some time among academics. Here’s a nice example provided by Andrew Bacevich. It’s a speech given by Carl Becker in his capacity as president of the American Historical Association in 1931. Becker defines history as “… the memory of things said and done.” Those memories may include things witnessed or said or done by a person, and it may include other people’s memories passed along in writing or otherwise, and it may include true, false and mixed memories. He explains that “For all practical purposes history is, for us and for the time being, what we know it to be.”

Throughout the speech, he compares the professional historian to Mr. Everyman, the average person in the street.

In constructing this more remote and far-flung pattern of remembered things, Mr. Everyman works with something of the freedom of a creative artist; the history which he imaginatively recreates as an artificial extension of his personal experience will inevitably be an engaging blend of fact and fancy, a mythical adaptation of that which actually happened.

We can see this process when we look at how the myths of slavery and the Confederacy were generated purposefully by those with something to gain, as Ibram Kendi shows in Stamped From The Beginning. The process continues today as the true believers on the Texas School Board work to erase from our collective memory the vicious brutality of slavery and to replace it with the absurd view that slaves were happy under the whip of their white owners.

The Frankfort School teaches that all our ideas and theories should be tested by what Jay calls the tribunal of reason. According to Jay, they didn’t have a clear definition of “reason” or of “truth”. As he explains, the dialectic is great for attacking existing ideas, but it won’t establish any truths itself.

Jay says that the Frankfurt School “…remained willing to operate in a perpetual state of suspended judgment.” That’s fine for analysis, but at some point, you have to act. It seems to me he is saying that the role of reason is to make sure that when you act you are making the best possible choice about the act, and about the goal of the act. And that is a good description of praxis.

I won’t go further, because the contributions of the Frankfurt School in understanding society and working towards a better society do not depend on it. One such contribution, the concept of the Authoritarian Personality, deals directly with the true believers.

9 replies
  1. SpaceLifeForm says:

    When one has to believe in a $DEITY, they are not thinking. If they were thinking, and accepted that it is ok to not understand, then they would not try to force their beliefs on others. But they can not allow that others can not agree with their mindset. Once their faith in their $DEITY is implanted in their mind, others that believe in a different $DEITY that contradicts their mindset are considered bad or worse. I do not have time to even attempt to make a list of conflicts over millennia that demonstrate this problem.

    But this may help. There is no one true $DEITY.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Capitalism is a religion. Its truths are revealed to the few, its benefits flow to the many. Its precepts, like its benevolence, are unassailable. Those who oppose it are heretics. They are treated as heretics have always been treated. Reality is irrelevant; the gods make their own. A few, such as masons of cathedrals, might be allowed their reality, but it has no affect on what happens inside their temples.

    As with medieval Christianity, reality was often at odds with scripture and propaganda. Bishops, for example, were principally tax collectors, not shepherds of their flock. Souls were important, at least rhetorically. Daily life? The only parts of it that mattered were that the flock remained passively approving and gave up its labor whenever required. Cruelties and injustice were realities that could, should only be addressed in the next life. We haven’t changed all that much.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I’d put it this way: Capitalism in its neoliberal form presents itself as an Absolute Truth. Its proponents probably don’t believe in Absolute Truth, and probably know that capitalism and neoliberalism are just two of many possible forms of social organization, and that the neoiberal view of the human as isolated utility-maximizer is stupid and reductionist; but they will never admit to that.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        The extent of the problem we face is suggested by the view that capitalism and neoliberalism are forms of social organization.  They may be.  I prefer to see humanity as a robust bush (to borrow from Gould), with social organization a main branch, economic organization a part of it, capitalism a smaller component branch, and neoliberalism a vine threatening to strangle them all.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Becker may have been waxing on historiography – the history and sociology of its study – and epistemology – knowledge and belief and what legitimately constitute them and what doesn’t.  His quote foreshadows Orwell:

    Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.

    Orwell in 1984 and the Texas School Board’s arch-conservatives are interested in the political power associated with the control of the past.  How we see and remember it helps determine who we are (cruel and racist or proudly traditional), how we came to be (adventurous pioneers or murderous land grabbers), and what we can do in the future.

    The Roman church, for example, like its bible, had no past, no origins that could be dissected and argued over and made human.  It just was.  Therefore, it would always be.  The power arrangements it represented could not be changed; indeed, they were ordained.

    Texas elites and most others like that approach.  The critical study of history, whether of the Roman church, of a first century peasant village Jew, or of the origins and exercise of power by the Chandlers, Dohenys, Rockefellers, Kochs, Trumps, and Bezos are always unwelcome.  What makes critical thinking essential to humanity and democracy is what makes it such an important target for the authoritarian.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    OT, as for Trump and his endless attempts to belittle and dominate, the WH press corps should boycott him and them.  Stop reporting.  That would be news worth covering.  Trumprums about his being ignored would not be news.  Coverage of Trump’s acts, not his tweets, would be news.  If the press insists on covering “tweets”, it should cover his statements, not the venue through which he makes them.

  5. John Casper says:

    IMHO, a lot of Americans–mostly those who work in the real economy–the part that makes stuff–the part that matters, hold onto the idea that they will get a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. That imho is central to any functioning economy. Doesn’t matter what you call it.

    Below I’m trying to be helpful in sharing data about the interplay of facts and truth. Apologies if it’s not.

    WRT the Hebrew scriptures/Xtian Old Testament and the New Testament; there is plenty of literal truth. Moses, the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, David killing Uriah the Hittite to get Bathsheeba, are examples in the Hebrew scriptures. Hebrews were embarrassed by David’s conduct, but there were enough people who knew about it–and had enough influence–to insure that the story was included in the tradition/scriptures.

    Most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth had a three-year ministry. The synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke contain only one Passover.  John contains three. Scholars agree it’s hard to see Jesus having such an impact in one year.

    All four gospels agree that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Outside of dying on a cross there aren’t many things that all four agree on. In Luke’s version of the virgin birth the angel appears to Mary. Matthew’s version has the angel appear to Joseph. Mary sounds like an unwed Mom. Mark and John ignore the story implying they had members of their churches who were on both sides of Mary’s virginity and Joseph’s paternity. Even something as basic as “expiatory sacrifice,” Jesus’ blood washed away our sins–unanimous in Paul’s authentic letters–which predate the gospels–and the Synoptics is rejected by John’s gospel. It was Jesus’ birth that saved us. “The Word became Flesh.” Jesus did not have to die.

    Once you understand the pluralism in the scriptures, Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist looms over any attempts to define Jesus’ relationship to God. You can still claim Jesus is divine, but at a minimum there’s evolution in his understanding of it.

    Another fact that informs that discussion are Jesus’ healings. I can’t explain them, but the evidence is overwhelming that no one in the first century CE disputed that he healed a lot of people and they stayed healed. Twenty-years after his death, Paul talked to relatives of those who were healed. They stuck to their story. According to Luke, Jesus’ band had support of wealthy women. Their only other source of income would have been from his healings. He couldn’t heal everyone. He needed a community of faith. Most of the healings are in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John has very few. Scholars attribute this to John’s gospel being the last written and that none of Jesus’ followers had been able to continue his healing.  As with the three-year ministry, it’s difficult to explain Jesus’ popularity–no one disputes that–without the healings.

    The first schism in the early church was over whether Jesus intended his preaching for the gentiles. Peter and Paul were thrown out of Jerusalem, because they thought he had. Paul had wealthy Greeks who wanted to convert, but they didn’t want circumcision.



  6. John Casper says:

    I was remiss in not adding that there’s plenty in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament that’s flat wrong. I doubt presented with 21 first century evidence, the Genesis authors of the two creation stories would have a problem accepting our view. They did the best with what they could.

    Jonah and the whale, no. Most of these stories were transmitted orally for centuries before they were written down.

    The story of Pontius Pilate washing his hands, we know that’s crap. There are letters from Rome demanding Pilate quit crucifying 800 people at a time.

    If the Jews had wanted Jesus dead, some did, they could have stoned him. Didn’t need Roman’s permission. There’s a story in Luke about just such an attempt, but Luke didn’t understand “stoning.”

    Aside from being excellent about Jesus’ closest associates at the time of his death, the post Resurrection narratives are so varied as to be indefensible. Where did he appear? What did he look like? Was he a ghost? Could he walk through locked doors? Could he eat? How do you explain all the people he didn’t appear to? You had to have an “Ascension” to get him back in heaven, but why does the Messiah delay conquering the Romans? Jesus preached a fire and brimstone end  of the world. He was wrong. Decades after his death, Paul rescued the faith. Believers demanded to know how long this was going to take. Where is our Savior? Paul made the shift from an imminent eschatology to a realized one.

    Acts of the Apostles is of value on the history of Luke’s Churches, but it’s later and completely different on Paul’s life than Paul’s authentic letters.

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