Dear list:

The Pew Research Center wrote on October 19, 2017: 
“In late 2016, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

I have a hypothesis that perhaps has enough merit that others can on the list can flesh it out. It has nothing particular to do with design but everything to do with discussion, the reason for this list.


Emphasis on personal belief as opposed to universal truth makes any challenge to a person’s truth claim a challenge to them as a person which in turn activates deeply-seated defense response mechanisms in them. 
In short, public discussion based on personal belief will always be acrimonious. 
This is a key factor driving the hostility so prevalent in current discourse not only on this list but seemingly everywhere.

How many just now are thinking along with that famous post-modern philosopher Pontius Pilate “What is truth?” (N.T. Wright, 201 Gifford lecture). Without tracing the fall of truth, most will agree that in general today truth no longer means that some things are definitely true and other things are not true (antithesis as opposed to synthesis). Though many may still affirm their personal truth, “true for me,” universal truth has fallen nearly off the scholarly mind map. On the other hand, as late as the 1970’s, Francis Schaffer proposed that we can have true truth, truth whose opposite is falsehood, a truth sufficiently descriptive of reality to be called universally true without being exhaustively true (Schaffer, The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, He is There and He is Not Silent). If the word ‘reality’ provokes in you the question “whose reality” then simply consider yourself a contemporary thinker and proof of the point that universal truth is out of fashion. 


If this hypothesis is true then reengagement with the concept of universal truth is an obvious corrective step. But rather than swing the pendulum from one extreme to another perhaps we could refine our language and conceptual models. Perhaps we can distinguish on the one hand between personal knowledge and personal truth, with personal truth being defined as our unique and distinct personal experience, and personal knowledge as that which grows from our accumulated personal experiences that we have reflected upon and verified over time. On the other end of the spectrum would be universal knowledge being defined as comprehensively shared experiences of reality and universal truth as the discussed, debated, and verified descriptions (models) that correspond to reality all the time, everywhere (sufficiently but not exhaustively, per Schaffer). I intend to re-read Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge to reflect on this more.

This mindset would restore public debate because it respects personal truth or knowledge in its context thereby removing the sense of challenge experienced by the person presenting it. For everyone else, by removing the distortion that personal truth is universal truth, the community becomes free to discuss how the personal truth fits with their experience and more broadly within universal models of reality. Seeing truth along a spectrum of applicability, from personal to universal, seems to allow for a reasoned discussion that still allows things to be true or false. In short, “true for you” means just that, no more. 

Corrective Applied

Application of the corrective action based on the hypothesis might look like this on the PhD Design list. 

Being a public list, we might agree that our aim will be on developing knowledge and making truth claims toward the universal end of the spectrum. Generalizable (universal) truth seems the point of a scholarly discussion forum. Truth claims from a personal or group context would be noted as such, for example “it is my/our experience…”, and submitted for discussion as being truth, a description of reality, from their context and valued as such and considered for their potential contribution to the whole. In short, we would avoid confusing personal or local truth with the universal truth. In all of this the recognition would be that truth claims often move from particular to universal and that the list’s orientation being toward the universality of reality and models of it, a challenge to a truth claim is judged not by whether it corresponds to reality for someone/group but to how broad a swath of reality it applies.

To illustrate with an example, a recent discussion involved the concept “mansplaining.” Using the universal truth orientation above, the discussion would accept that mansplaining does occur while recognizing that it is neither universal nor limited to men. Hence, we might agree that prolix, condescending monologue should be avoided as benefitting neither the speaker (allowed to revel in their arrogance) nor the hearer (subjected to demeaning rehearsal of what they already know) but that labeling such as “mansplaining” is inappropriate because the tedious activity it describes is not limited to men and labeling it as such is thus false and demeaning to a gender.

I would appreciate some thoughtful response to this hypothesis, perhaps some references to those who have thought this through much more than I have. As I noted, I personally plan to re-read Polanyi as a test of the merit of this hypothesis. Mostly, I hope it starts some thought on ways to move this list toward more fruitful, less rancorous, discussion. I'm afraid calls to "be nice" are inadequate.


Mike Zender
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