Truth in the Public Sphere-Opinions and Their Space- Simon Staelens09-30-2011
How are we to understand Hannah Arendt’s repeated statement that politics require an independent and prior discourse of truth-telling? How can we understand the disturbing phenomenon in contemporary politics, consisting in the presentation of factual truths as being ‘mere opinions’ – the blurring (if not disappearance) of the dividing line between truths and opinions?
In what follows, these issues will be addressed in the context of Arendt’s understanding of the relation between truth, politics and opinions. By way of orienting the issues addressed in an Arendtian understanding of political activities, the conclusion that will be defended at the end, will be that, in order to ‘make democracy more truthful’, more public-political spaces should be guaranteed where not truth, but opinions can flourish.
To understand the role ‘truth’ – in the sense of a shared and unquestioned (factual) reality (objectivity) – plays in an Arendtian understanding of politics, a connection with the notion of plurality needs to be made apparent first. A comparison, by way of example, may help. Imagine the public sphere, around which the actors who politically secure it are situated, as a circled mirror painting.
[caption id="attachment_1344" align="alignnone" width="355" caption="Image by graphic designer Hartwin Calmeyn @2011"][/caption]
The image mirrored, only appears as a whole if and when there is a variety of different perspectives encircling and perceiving it. In other words, the plurality of perspectives is constitutive of the public sphere: if there would only be a single ‘Perspective’, one would always be looking at one single side of the mirror painting – which, as such, would never fully appear. The image mirrored ‘appears’, as a whole, because one can communicate to one another ‘how it appears to me’, ‘how I see it from my point of view’ – in brief: one can give his opinion and try to persuade others to consider one’s perspective on the matter. These opinions, according to Arendt, are not to be understood as mere (arbitrary) ‘subjective standpoints’ on an independent objective reality (the circled mirror painting), but rather as the different ways in which the objective reality opens up to the multiplicity of opinions of the political actors, communicating and trying to understand one another.
What, however, is necessarily assumed in all this, is the prior implicit acknowledgment that, although every actor has a different and unique location in the world (a different location around the mirror painting), all are still confronted with the same world (the same painting). Prior to the entrance into the public-political realm, one thus has a basis of knowledge, decided by truth: in order to be able to understand how the world appears to the other’s point of view, one has to know the other is looking at the same, unquestioned ‘objective’ reality.
The establishment of unquestioned (factual, rational or philosophical) truths and laws, marks off the space in which politics take place, and is thus prior to political action and speech, activities aimed at understanding the world from the other’s perspective, understanding the other’s opinion on the matter.
Truth does not support opinions. One cannot meaningfully be of the opinion that 2+2=5: truth is compelling, and necessarily valid for all individual subjects, irrespective of one’s concrete existence – one cannot be a democrat in matters of truth. Truth is characterized by an inability to overcome difference and precludes all debate. For opinions (?????) – the objects of political speech – to be meaningful, they must be devoid of all elements of necessity: truthfully expressing one’s view on ‘things, as they are, how they appear to me’, cannot be pre-determined by necessary truths, or function as a means to something else (e.g. private interests), that is itself external to the political space, the space in-between subjects.
In order to truly look at things ‘as how they appear’, one needs to be liberated from all sorts of necessities that predetermine one’s political speech and judgment. This does not mean that truths are no longer true in the public/political realm, but only that, insofar as they are true, they cannot be the object of public debate. To return to the example above: the communicative exchange between the different perspectives encircling the mirror painting, is only possible as long as the objective status of the mirror painting itself is not put into question. If its factual reality does become the object of debate, this debate is no longer of a truly political nature, but has become a debate about truth, a debate in which differences of perspective are irrelevant, since truth is the same for all.
The antithesis between politics and truth Hannah Arendt puts forward, together with the statement that matters of truth ought to be located outside the realm of politics, does not imply a value-judgment – it is not the case that Arendt deems truth to be ‘unworthy’ of, or ‘irrelevant’ for public/political concern – but rather expresses Arendt’s concern for the status of opinions. The problem with contemporary politics as Arendt understood it – namely that “unwelcome facts are tolerated only to the extent that they are consciously or unconsciously transformed into opinions” – does not primarily reside in the experience that truth seems to have lost its compelling, unquestioned nature; but rather, that in modern democratic societies – although power has been given to the citizens – there are no durable, politically guaranteed spaces where they can truly act as citizens. As analyzed in her ‘On Revolution’, the problem is that public power has been given to the citizens, in their status of private persons.
The phenomenon we’re witnessing today – the dissolution of the public-political realm into different, separated ‘audiences’, holding different truths as self-evident – is part of the ongoing privatization of the public realm, against which few, if any, shared truths are safe. Rather than the ‘defactualization of our world’, we are facing today the loss of a shared world altogether: private concerns, and the truth-claims associated with them (of a religious, ideological, social, biological,… nature), prevent citizens to act as citizens: to act and speak freely – persuading the other of one’s judgment on the matter, not by recourse to truth (since truth compels but cannot persuade), but by truthfully expressing things-as-how-they-appear from one’s perspective, while simultaneously looking at these things from the other’s point of view. Only as such, according to Arendt, political judgment can attain the one kind of validity it is aiming for: an inter-subjective validity, not concerning the individual subjects in their singularity, but concerning that, which literally is in-between-the-subjects: the world which, despite all their differences, is shared between them.
The search for shared truths in politics – in a world where even factual truths are capable of being considered as opinions – will not be helped by political debates about truths, since their mode of asserting validity, prevents the other to be persuaded by (and not compelled to) taking a look ‘from a different point of view’. Where no shared truths, at all, are held in common, no meaningful public realm can appear. And one cannot expect problems of truth to be settled in something which does not appear. The ‘world’ which is held in common – the truths shared in-between-subjects – can only be enlarged, if there is something to be enlarged in the first place, namely: the truthful acknowledgment that, despite all differences between us, it is the same world that opens up to me and you.
Instead of trying to re-identify and secure already existing ‘objective’ spaces, that precede politics and where truth is of concern (e.g. the judiciary, the media, universities, etc.); what is needed, are places where citizens can truly act as citizens: secured and institutionalized spaces in which politics can become more political again. Where facts are transformed into opinions, or vice versa, what should be of concern from a political viewpoint, is the threat that the various opinions will become – and be perceived as – pre-determined by truth-claims and private interests, preventing political action and speech as the truthful expression of ????? ??? (‘how it appears to me’) – and, finally, annihilating all public aspects of what could once be considered ‘the public realm’.
Paradoxically enough, if one wants to ‘make democracy more truthful’, the most pressing thing to do, is not to search for ‘absolute yardsticks of truth’, but to expand those places where opinions, not truths, can thrive. It is because the public realm and the public debates taking place inside it, exist only insofar as different people can freely exchange their opinions about it, that whatever is drawn into the ‘public light’ is able to reveal all its aspects. Plurality, for Arendt, is not only the condition sine qua non, but also per quam of all political life: only where a political space is truly ‘political’ – the free inter-action between a plurality of utterly different perspectives – shared truth can truly manifest and reveal itself. It is only by acting and speaking freely with each other in the space of politics, that truth held-in-between will reveal itself, namely as that which in the first place enabled their mutual understanding.
- Simon Staelens