The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Fact vs. Faith

March 17, 2006

Marc Schulman wants his regular readers to publicize one of his recent posts, in which he reflects on French philosopher André Glucksmann’s recent article in Democratiya, “Separating Truth and Belief.” It is an interesting read. Marc emphasizes a particular passage:

Civilised discourse analyses and defines scientific truths, historic truths and matters of fact relating to knowledge, not to faith. And it does this irrespective of race or confession. We may believe these facts are profane or undignified, yet they remain distinct from religious truths. Our planet is not in the grips of a clash of civilisations or cultures. It is the battleground of a decisive struggle between two ways of thinking. There are those who declare that there are no facts, but only interpretations – so many acts of faith. These either tend toward fanaticism (‘I am the truth’) or they fall into nihilism (‘nothing is true, nothing is false’). Opposing them are those who advocate free discussion with a view to distinguishing between true and false, those for whom political and scientific matters – or simple judgement – can be settled on the basis of worldly facts, independently of arbitrary pre-established opinions.

Whatever the merits of Glucksmann’s other arguments, this doesn’t strike me as very credible. The contemporary zeitgeist is not a great clash between those who believe there are “no facts, but only interpretations” and those who believe in the possibility of truly objective knowledge. Holding the former view–or some variation of it–does not produce a trend towards “fanatcisim” or “nihilism.”

The problems with Glucksmann’s argument deserve greater elabotation than I have the time for. In brief, he stacks the deck by describing the two opposing camps as “scientific truth” and “faith.” We have here one dichotomy pivoting around whether we can treat something as “true” only if it can be verified through some set of objective procedures, or whether something can be treated as “true” even it does not meet those criteria. A conflict, if you will, between scientific rationalism and religious experience as modes of disclosing reality. But here we have to introduce another distinction, between those who believe that scientific rationalism–in some unspecified form–discloses facts that really are objectively true and those who believe, in one form or another, that our knowledge of the real is culturally or socially conditioned.

The latter does not imply that religious experience discloses objective reality. One could not hold to it and also embrace “fanaticism”–at least as Glucksmann describes it. It is also not clear to me why the latter produces nihilism. It can lead to humility and fallibalism, among other things. Some argue, indeed that an embrace of scientific rationalism requires admitting the limits of objectivity. Max Weber, for example, believed that true “objectivity” involved recognizing these limits and the role of our own values in producing our accounts of truth.

This matters because Glucksmann’s argument seeks to equate, in my view both counterintuitively and wrongly, “postmodernism” and militant jihadism or, if you will, skepticism about the possibility of objective knowledge with fanaticism. By declaring the primary contradiction of our times as one between epistemological objectivism and its critics, Glucksmann’s argument tars natural enemies of religious fanaticism as their allies.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.