The pursuit of truth has been the major preoccupation of philosophers from Thales’ search for the most elementary component of the universe or Heraclitus’ claim that everything is in constant flow down to Descartes’ attempt to found a new science of nature on purely rational principles and Kant’s systematic enquiry into the universal principles of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Generation upon generation of thinkers endeavoured to propose new systems of thought, buttressed by superseding concepts and models. For the twentieth-century American philosopher Thomas Khun, ‘men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific purpose.’
Up to the 1990’s, it can be said that Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx exerted a considerable and almost inescapable influence on the knowledge and understanding of the human psyche and its neuroses, on the one hand, and the structure and workings of capitalist society, on the other. Rooted in ‘scientific’ methods of analysis, Freudianism and Marxism towered over rival interpretations to the point of becoming hegemonic ideologies. However, both started showing signs of fragility with the rise of challenging new psychological theories in the 1960’s and the demise of communism at the end of the 1980’s.
Postmodernism appeared at a time when both encompassing ‘metanarratives’ were under threat, opening an era of uncertainty in all the domains of human sciences. In his dire diagnosis of our ‘postmodern condition’ Jean-François Lyotard remarked as early as 1979 that ‘scientists, technicians and instruments are purchased not to find truth, but to augment power.’ Francis Fukuyma, for his part, proclaimed ‘the end of History’ with the victory of the neoliberal ideology over communism. Science too gradually came under attack for its universal claims when, for some, it was seen as nothing more than a social process engineered by the scientific ‘élite’. Finally, culture itself was put to the test by postmodern relativists who argued that since there is no such thing as an ultimate standard of good and evil, any judgment about right and wrong is a product of society and a simple matter of cultural perspective.
Being systematically degraded by social media users as well as political figures, the very notion of truth has lost its former legitimacy and authority. For this very reason, studying philosophy has become the best and probably last protection against the rampant threat of terminal ‘truth decay’ before the ultimate triumph of ‘smug ignorance’. Descartes, for one, did not give up on his momentous enquiry until he could find fundamental truths on which to build his entire philosophical system.
Although postmodernism paved the way to a highly volatile world of false illusions and real dangers to the future of free intellectual investigation, the study of great philosophical texts remains the best antidote to ‘Newspeak’ and a heartening reminder that the world always needs open-minded thinkers driven by a love of truth.