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Matthew Sharpe “A Question of Two Truths?”

November 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Sharpe, Matthew 2007. A Question of Two Truths? Remarks on Parrhesia and the ‘Political-Philosophical’ Difference. Parrhesia 2: 89-108.

Although one may profess one’s convictions sincerely before an assembled body, for example, the ‘threshold’ of parrhesiawill be crossed at the point where these true beliefs concern, or aim to correct, the interests or perceived shortcomings of one’s addressee[s]. (90)

Philosophy features in his account as one part of a wider ‘proto-Hellenistic’ context wherein parrhesia‘moves beyond being considered primarily as a political act’ to becoming something else. (91)

The highest political potentiality of philosophy Plato instead envisages in the letters (one which he had tried, but failed, to institute in the court of Dionysius) is to act as private counselor, or even – as he characteristically puts it – a ‘physician’ to the bearers of absolute power. (92)

First: the question of the relation between truth and politics presents itself to the citizen, as against the  philosopher,  as  a  question  concerning  specifically  factual  truths  about  the  passing  political matters of the day. The issue is whether some things that were said by politicians and advocates to have occurred or to have been the case in fact were not, and whether some things which have been publicly denied were truly so. (96)

What demarcates factual truths from the rational, scientific, transcendental or mathematical truths dear to the philosophers, as Arendt stresses, is that these truths have no immanent necessity about them. They concern acts, events, or states of affairs in the world that are only contingentlythe case, which means they could just as well have been otherwise, or not been the case at all. From a philosophical perspective, that is, the brute ‘that-ness’ or ‘just-being-the-case’ of historical occurrences means that their type of truth is the least substantial form of truth of all. (97)

By drawing on Arendt’s conception of the truth proper to the political realm, I want to argue that, much more troubling than the simple deceits or secrecy of politicians, is the increasing encroachment into the political realm today of claims—some the basis for the most grave actions (including  going  to  war,  revoking  citizens’  legal  protections  …)—which collapse  or  simply  fall outside  the  sphere  of  what  can  be  publicly  assessed  as  truthful  or mendacious.  Factual  truth  is to political action as rational truth is to philosophical reflection, Arendt claims schematically in ‘Politics and Truth’. Just as philosophy must ail if the possibility of rational truth is foreclosed, so  political  action  can  only  devolve  into  something  else—principally  forms  of techne and/or violence—when  the  claims  upon  which  it  is  based  become  by  their  nature  ‘above  and  beyond’ public scrutiny. (101)

In his final lectures, Foucault argued that parrhesia‘can no longer occur in our modern epistemological framework’. The reason is that the Cartesian conception of philosophy consecrates the final divorce of episteme from practices of ethical self-formation. After the epistemic shift initiated by Descartes, in principle anyone could now discover the scientific truth given only the very limited ‘askesis’ involved in following correct and repeatable procedures. Correlatively, the enunciation of scientific truth is in the modern conception an ideally wholly anonymous business. Just  as  anyone  can  (re-)discover  the  truth  of  scientific  hypotheses,  Foucault  means,  so  the  very meaning of modern scientific objectivity is that the enunciator’s public or symbolic identity is not on the line in this speech-act – outside of some very particular, unusual cases (the case of Galileo, for example). (101)