Waking From the Dream of Total Victory in the Contests for Public Truth

This essay first appeared in Civil American, Volume 3, Article 1 (January 19, 2018), https://www.philosophersinamerica.com/2018/01/19/waking-from-the-dream-of-total-victory/

Can academics support the democratic struggle not just to critique fake news, but also to engage the public in the stories that make those false facts appealing?

The Oxford English Dictionary named “Post-Truth” its Word of the Year for 2016.  The dictionary cites “appeals to emotion or personal belief,” which have gained more influence than “objective facts … in shaping public opinion.”  The sober scholars of the OED spotlighted this word not to glorify this way of thinking, but to call attention to a disturbing trend.  In 2005, Stephen Colbert had already identified “truthiness” as the posture of public figures who “feel the truth” even in the face of contrasting facts and reasons.  The particular items of recent history are new, such as the claim that Democrats have been managing a ring of pedophiles out of the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, DC, but fabricated news has always been the exaggerating cousin of political spin.  The multiplication of media outlets appealing to diverse clusters of people has made it particularly difficult to sort out corrupted truths from authentic stories.

Intellectual responses surely help identify the really true stories, but the problem of fakery runs deeper because of the way fake stories can seem plausible, at least to segments of the population, as a way to explain what’s happening around them.  The political problem with “post-truth” is that, in its tendencies toward exaggerations of the truth, it reinforces already sharp suspicions about contrasting points of view.  And it gets worse: people convinced by the fake stories, especially ones with lurid depictions of contrasting positions, tend to believe that the other side should not even get a hearing.  At the righteous extreme of these extreme reports, fake news encourages the assumption that one side will simply need to defeat the other.

1-Making a Case for Listening to the Stories that Make Fake News Appealing

Post-truth statements are not hidden in dark corners gaining no attention.  The kindred label, “Alt.Truth,” is in wide enough circulation to be the name of a popular Homeland episode.  The wide appeal of these distortions, not their merits, makes them an issue.  And it is our democratic culture and commitments that makes popular appeal significant.  Respect for the voice of the people calls for attempting to understand how stories stripped of truth gain supporter.  That suggests a special role for academics and teachers, as long as they do not get so caught up in their learned ways that they come to believe that they can’t learn anything from the thinking of the average citizen.  One of our most intellectual of presidents, Thomas Jefferson, even believed that the tangible experiences of “a ploughman” would foster a better decision on “a moral case” than the abstract reasoning of “a professor.”  Even when not learned, citizens can shed light on the lived experience of democracy, and those lessons travel on the wings of stories instead of the highways of scholarship.

In The Death of Expertise, professor of comparative politics Thomas Nichols honors the “specialization and expertise” that have produced the marvels of the modern world, and he laments the squandering of those achievements by the “unfounded arrogance” of citizens with “stubborn ignorance.”  Philosopher Zach Biondi has issued a call to action for philosophers to help the public “recognize incompetence and poor argument.”  Investigative journalists gamely try to bridge the gap between knowledgeable professionals and citizen indifference about expert insights.  The organization Snopes evaluates public statements from True to Mostly False to downright Legends that circulate despite their lack of factual support.  These experts do great work and deserve wide support.  This approach shows great faith in the power of knowledge, with the tacit assumption that people just need to learn objective facts to correct the appeal of false facts.

Accuracy of facts is surely important, and they can sometimes be persuasive, but the appeal of misinformation persists.  American psychologist William James offers helpful insights for addressing this challenge.  He formed his thoughts in the late nineteenth century, just as the age of information abundance and expertise was taking on its modern shape.  His psychology both helps to explain the appeal of false facts and suggests ways to respond to them.  Without understanding the appeal of fakery, the responses won’t get very far.  His insights can actually support the goals of the experts and fact checkers.

First, James points to the formative role of selective attention in the establishment of sharply different views.  In the vastness of experience, there is not only room for different interpretations of facts, but also for selection of different facts.  To make sense of situations, James observes, we select portions of the abundant facts to construct likely stories, which provide guidance within the complexities of experience based on prior assumptions.  The most basic elements of false information can generally be corrected rather directly with true information.  But the false is often not simple; more complex settings call for deeper inquiry into the sources of those likely stories.

Second, when facing the resulting cacophony of different points of view, James acknowledges the complexity, and suggests the humbling effect that awareness of this range of interpretations can have for coping with this diversity.  In reminding that “to no one type … whatsoever is the total fullness of truth … revealed,” his point is not that there is no truth, but that truth is immense and complicated.  Even with his awareness of human limitations in the face of the vastness of experience, he firmly critiques those ready to use the elusiveness of truth as a cover for active promotion of untruths.  In recognizing the rich complexity of truth, he points to the need for constant inquiry and cooperation among us mere mortals who each have portions of truth in degrees.  Attention to the truths of others can even shed light on one’s own truths.

James’s insights about selective attention and the overarching complexity of experience suggest the importance of looking at problems of fabricated news not just as reported (false) information, but also as storytelling, people’s efforts to find meaningful truth in their experiences.  Every claim to fact is embedded in a story, which enables that fact to be accepted or not based on the plausibility of the story surrounding it.  Awareness of the power of stories is not an endorsement of the sometimes false facts within them, but an acknowledgement of their significance in the human mind, and this awareness can also serve as a resource for addressing their unsavory power.  This is especially important when the well-informed voices of experts are not enough to persuade citizens.  And this is most especially important in a democracy that values the voice of the people.

2-Learning From People We Disagree With

This essay could end here, with a message about listening for the appeal of stories embedded within the fake news.  In fact, an earlier draft, “Telling Likely Stories,” effectively ended at this point.  That essay, attempting to bridge from scholarly thinking to public discussion, ran the gauntlet of a major bastion of scholarly work, the Peer Review.  Designed to ensure quality, this process of review by experts in the field helps to prevent the publication of errors and of sloppy thinking; as a result, the finished work tends to be more authoritative and trustworthy.  In addition, because Peer Review involves multiple views from within the profession, it also tends to hive off points of view that stray from mainstream interpretations.  The anonymity of the readers reinforces the tugs toward consensus because without having to reveal their identity, they can critique different perspectives at liberty.

My reviewers both helped me improve the composition of the essay and took issue with my departure from mainstream views.  Most helpfully, they pointed out that, despite my intentions, reference to “telling likely stories” can seem like an endorsement of those stories of fakery, or at least a casual disregard for the intellectual and public problems they involve.  The first reviewer said, “Your argument does not recognize how problematic ‘alt truth’” is, and urged addressing “the latest [President Donald] Trump nonsense” by pointing out how wrong it is.  This helped me to realize that I needed to make clear that understanding fakery is not instead of outrage for its problems, but a step toward undercutting the power and appeal of post-truth talk.  For those who have focused only on outrage, until that first step emerged clearly, my argument could be perceived as consorting with the enemy.

My professional reviewers went further, taking issue with the very attempt to address how false information can seem plausible and my depiction of the storytelling roots of the problems of misinformation.  Instead, they maintained that the misinformation is simply and literally wrong, by confusion or from deliberate manipulation.  Call them out!  About one half of the country, from water coolers to talk shows, are taking just this approach to scold the other half.  But many people are not listening to the professors’ proposed corrections, except those who already agree.  This seems a formula for amplified polarization.  Mow down the latest “nonsense,” and more will soon sprout until we address those stories at their roots.  Identification of the trends is not a celebration of them, but a blueprint for action against them.

“No way,” declared my second reviewer, who stated firmly that in my openness to hearing out different views, “you appear to deny that there’s any such thing as truth.”  It’s fine to care about other people, but “you can’t mix the idea of caring with the road to understanding.”  Without adopting “independent standards for truth,” this professor said, my argument “seems magical and hard to take seriously.”  This view represents a school of thought that does not reckon with the work of recent psychologists and philosophers who, in the spirit of William James, have emphasized the relationship of caring and other non-rational factors within the process of knowing, including Antonio Damasio, Catherine Elgin, Nel Noddings, and Martha Nussbaum.  Without considering these perspectives, my reviewer colleague regarded my James-inspired proposition as a species of relativism.  Then, “if all facts are relative, the facts of those we disagree with are at best useless to my own mind, or we are left to surrender to someone else’s facts becoming my facts.”  This position would have been familiar to James whose pragmatism mediated objectivist and relativist philosophies, frustrating both sides.  And he came to expect scolding from advocates of each, respectively, who called him a roader for the other side.

My reviewer seemed so confident, but I wondered, How would this perspective address the endurance of different points of view?  As James’s student Walter Lippmann noted a century ago, “Knowing how unjust other people’s inferences are when they concern us,” can help us to understand how “ours may be unjust to them.”  Considering the unprecedented superabundance of information and interpretations now available to so many people, add in the complexity of the world, and now what?  The confident assertions of my peer reviewers seemed like a declaration of constant warfare, with the tacit hope that one set of standards will triumph or face “surrender.”  This is the conventional wisdom of our time, even as there are variations on the ultimate source of triumph.  With enough persuasion, the victory will be intellectual; with enough conversion, the victory will be religious; with enough proof, the victory will be scientific; with sufficient electoral majorities, the victory will be political; with enough force of arms, the victory will be military.

I planned my essay precisely because I don’t see much evidence that these plans for total victory have been working very effectively.  Every victory brings a defeat for others; and those others, especially those with views that one side finds appalling, have not been ready to surrender.  This has not stopped the insistence that my reviewer colleagues represent, and this insistence comes with great fear as one of them went on to explain: “Without independent standards, no one can be wrong or foolish.  If no one is wrong or foolish, society is utterly adrift.”  Yet I wondered, who among us in this democracy will remain content when called wrong or foolish?  And when called so by a smarter set, aren’t those very people ready to wear that scorn with pride?—and prepare a fighting response.

Bring on more shirts and bumper stickers like the ones saying “I’m a deplorable!” after Hillary Clinton’s painfully quotable critiques of working-class citizens.  When these slogans appear—brashly declaring “I’m wrong and foolish!”—the listening and learning will have stopped.  In addition, the insistence on standards, planted firmly in the fluid world of political debate, offers an either-or contrast: either standards with certainty or rudderless drift.  James suggests a third way.  He calls for inquiry in pursuit of truthful directions emerging not by prior absolute plan, but in response to particular concrete experiences.

I read my reviewer comments feeling that I had just gone through a bracing scholarly seminar review of my work.  My thoughtful colleagues represent the posture of many academics impatient with the contemporary level of public discourse.  Their work has the benefit of encouraging constant intellectual vigilance about public claims to truth.  In his call for just this kind of work, Biondi also urges intellectuals to avoid “complacently call[ing] their [surrounding] culture ‘anti-intellectual.’”  Beyond avoiding this slur, the next step is to understand how average citizens think.  In fact, and ironically, despite their intellectual merits, sophisticated critiques of public understanding, can seem like tit-for-tat responses to the impatience that many average citizens feel for the thinking of intellectuals.

Academics can up their game as contributors to the work of democracy.  Other political systems have found effective but cruel ways to deal with distasteful positions or unwelcome people, through imprisoning, banishing, or killing the outliers.  In living with the voice of the people, a democracy calls for getting along, even with people holding views that many, for many good reasons, call outrageous.  James’s awareness of the role of selective attention in the formation of wildly different views and of the elusive complexities surrounding these and all views, suggests ways to get along without endorsement of any particular position, outlandish or otherwise.  And in the openness to different people’s stories that he encourages, we may even learn new layers of truth that had remained out of view when in the comfortable embrace of discoursing with those who share our own perspectives.  By letting go of our attempts to seize victory for any one of our positions, when we attempt to see the world through the eyes of others, we may achieve an even larger victory, not for any one position, but for the whole democratic community.


Challenging His Teacher’s Racism: Was Huck William James?

This essay first appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Press Blog, December 17, 2017, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/challenging-his-teacher%E2%80%99s-racism-was-huck-william-james; and then in the Huffington Post, December 31, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/challenging-his-teachers-racism-was-huck-william_us_5a490387e4b0d86c803c77a9

A moment of awakening to an honest reckoning with natural facts

In his youth, William James tried on a range of career possibilities.  In the 1860s, his attention was focused on a career in science.  He had spent his childhood in a host of schools on both sides of the North Atlantic guided by his father, Henry James, Senior, who promoted experiential learning and familiarity with natural facts for his five children.  The elder James had high hopes for a “scientific career for Willy,” his oldest son.  Like his father, Willy James had an appetite for the natural facts of scientific investigation and a reflective temperament.  Henry James noticed the growing authority of science in this era, and hoped that his eldest son would train in science to give more respectability to his own idealistic belief that all the natural facts of our empirical world are mere shadows pointing to higher spiritual truths, which he hoped would help shed society of selfishness.

This was the picture of science William James brought to his first scientific training as a chemistry student starting in September of 1861 at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University.  His chemistry teacher, Charles Eliot would become the university’s president eight years later.  As president, he would bring the example of the science school’s specialized training to the founding of the Graduate Department in 1872, a major forerunner of what would become the premier path for professional training in graduate schools around the country and around the world.

In the next few years, William James studied, in addition to chemistry, physics, anatomy, physiology, and medicine.  In his science classes, young James would meet a very different form of science than he was hearing at home.  Most of his teachers, including Eliot, insisted that the distinctive strength of science was in its experimental method, with controlled investigations into empirical facts.  This materialism of method, for specialized inquiry into material dimensions of nature, sometimes encouraged a materialist philosophy, the view that nature is only physical matter while all apparently immaterial dimensions of life, including thought, belief, feelings, and life itself, can be explained by empirical facts.

Eliot remembered his nineteen-year-old student as an “agreeable pupil, … tolerably punctual at recitations,” but “not wholly devoted to the study of Chemistry.”  Instead, “his mind was excursive.”  William’s exploration of “other sciences and realms of thought” was in keeping with his father’s approach to education, and his mental excursions show that he was retaining his father’s spiritual questions even if not endorsing all of the elder James’s idealistic answers.

When William James turned twenty one in January of 1863, he wrote to a cousin with a joshingly earnest declaration about “the choice of a profession,” and listed “four alternatives: Natural History, Medicine, Printing, Beggary.”  Still feeling the tug of his father’s philanthropic ideals but also forced to “consider lucre,” he said of his choices, “much may be said in favor of each,” which he named “in the ascending order of their pecuniary invitingness.”  In the next year, he would indeed enroll in the Medical School.  His talk of printing would foreshadow the popular writing he would take up, starting with book reviews in 1865 and continuing with his public intellectual work years later.  But at this point, natural history was at the top of his list.

The prospect of becoming a field naturalist especially caught James’s attention, and when one of the teachers at the Lawrence School, Louis Agassiz, organized with his wife Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, a natural history trip to Brazil in 1865, the young science student jumped at the chance.  The Swiss-born Agassiz was one of the most famous and charismatic scientists of his time.  He charmed audiences with his exuberant enthusiasm for the wonders of the natural world, and was so instrumental in organizing professional science and spurring financial support that his most recent biographer, Christoph Irmscher, calls him the “creator of American science.”  David Starr Jordan, who would become president of Stanford University, declared that “graduate instruction in science in America began” with the exuberant teaching of Louis Agassiz.  Before his arrival in the United States, Agassiz had first established his academic reputation with a definitive study of the fish of Brazil collected by German explorers in 1819-1820.  For his own expedition to Brazil, Agassiz had still bigger plans.

When Charles Darwin proposed the development of species by means of natural selection in The Origin of Species (1859), the first critiques were from scientists.  Agassiz objected to Darwin’s methods and conclusions.  Gradual evolution challenged the Ice Age theory that Agassiz used to explain the periodic creation of species followed by climactic destruction, in rounds of special creation that integrated divine action into scientific theory.  Darwinism did not overtly reject religion, but it explained natural facts without religious references.  Agassiz presented the trip to Brazil as an opportunity to show the special creation of species through the work of glaciers, as “God’s great plough[s].”  Finding evidence of multiple successive species and ice even in the tropics would, Agassiz announced, disprove Darwinism.

For William James, the expedition was an opportunity to try on the profession of natural history, with a scientist who shared some of his father’s idealistic views, no less.  Agassiz and Henry James had even attended the same Saturday Club discussions in the early 1860s.  They also shared kindred racial views.  The elder James sentimentally patronized African Americans as a more “sensuous” people, who needed the guidance of whites.  When his third son, Wilkinson (Wilkie) James volunteered to serve as an officer in the “Colored” Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the father doubted the resolve and courage of the African American troops; Wilkie quickly corrected him about their adamant bravery at the Battle of Fort Wagner (featured in the movie Glory).

Louis Agassiz held even more virulent views of African American inferiority, and he amplified his prejudice with the authority of science.  As part of his Darwin-disproving goals for the trip, he also lined up what he called human specimen of different racial hues, hoping to demonstrate the hierarchy of races.  He set his photographer Walter Hunnewell on task to create a gallery of races, each also separately created, in keeping with his overall theory of special creation.

William James went to Brazil to get “valuable training from the Professor,” and he respected Agassiz as a “vast practical engine” with a prodigious knowledge of natural facts.  As a student, he tried to learn when Agassiz would “pitch… in to my loose and superficial way of thinking.”  But James veered away from his teacher’s theories, and even began to think that Agassiz was making a “burlesque misrepresentations of Darwin’s book.”

James also ebbed away from the ideas of racial hierarchy that the expedition was designed to promote.  Despite the authority of his father’s sentimental views of race and the immediacy of his teacher’s insistence, James looked squarely at the natural facts around him and did not find the Native and African American people inferior at all.  As his thoughts veered against the conventional wisdom pushing his thoughts toward assumptions of hierarchy, he cautiously started dropping the negative stereotypes.  At first, he observed that the people in front of him were “at all events not sluttish.”

James’s words read like Huck Finn’s guilt-filled thoughts while floating down river with Jim, the runaway slave who was also becoming his respected partner.  Both Huck Finn and William James were surrounded by racism, but their own experiences were telling a different story.  Shelley Fisher Fishkin boldly asks Was Huck Black? (Oxford University Press, 1993) in identifying the African-American rhetorical traditions that inspired Mark Twain’s free-spirited, down-home, all-American character.  Similarly, William James displays a fledging moral courage that parallels Huck Finn’s shifts away from the racist norms all around him.

James’s school of experience was his own natural history work, which prodded his steps into a more respectful acceptance of racial differences.  Circulating with non-whites, James maintained that even though “these are peasants,” scorned by Brazilian society and by his own expedition leader, “no gentleman of Europe has better manners.”  And he added that the Brazilians, “masters and servants” alike, had “not a bit of our damned anglo saxon brutality and vulgarity.”  James even found that the people so readily regarded by most European Americans as exotic primitives lived lives not unlike what he knew back home.  He recognized that “the amazonians have not the pleasures of [the] domestic hearth which are so dear to us, … but in the mosquito net, hardly domestic, but personal they have a faint substitute for it.”  While in their household, you have the “feeling of … security” that you get with a “big blazing fireside in our winters [when] you hear the icy storm at work out of doors.”

By contrast, to support his theory of racial hierarchy, Agassiz regarded Brazil as a case study of his worst social fears since “all clearness of type had been blurred,… leaving a mongrel nondescript type.”  Yet even Agassiz and his wife had to admire a “cafuzo” (with “a mixture of Indian and black blood in her veins”), who worked for Elizabeth Agassiz.  Young Alexandrina had “keen perceptions,” Elizabeth Agassiz admitted, and was “a very efficient aid.”  The North American was, however, very ready to explain away the non-white woman’s virtues by adding dismissively that she was “a person whose only training has been through the senses,” a view resonating with the patronizing racial theories of Henry James, Senior.

William, however, picked up on another part of his father’s theories, about the best way that Henry James himself had insisted for raising his own very non-cafuzo children: with an experiential education in natural facts.  William found virtues in the vices claimed by the expedition leaders, and he used his father’s own methods of thinking to see Alexandrina with direct clarity, challenging his father’s racial assumptions.  In sharp contrast with Agassiz’s exploitative portraits, young James drew a sketch of Alexandrina with individual dignity, a hint of sadness, and even some skeptical detachment.

William James’s egalitarian awakening in 1865 did not keep him from engaging in his own stereotyping of racial and ethnic differences.  He even showed pride in his “organ of perception-of-national-differences.”  His casual directness could be crude by twenty-first-century standards, but he repeatedly found impressive qualities at the heart of otherness.  For example, in 1878, James relays a story of medical missionary David Livingston in Africa eager to “dissuade [a] savage” from his primitive healing practices.  James did not balk at use of the denigrating word, but focused instead on the African’s approach to healing.  Purveyors of modern medicine may sneer at such “proverbial philosophy,” but while the African’s approaches are incomplete, so too are even the most sophisticated and scientific propositions: “sometimes the patient gets well and sometimes he dies, just as when you do nothing at all.”

Back in Brazil in the 1860s, William James rendered Alexandrina with a serene look and knowing eyes.  His portrait suggest her knack for spontaneous encounters with nature, just what he was striving to master in the work of natural history.  Alexandrina seemed to harbor insights into nature that the most civilized scientists simply overlooked with their theories distracting from direct perceptions of natural facts.


Johns Hopkins University Press published Paul Croce’s Young William James Thinking in December 2017, https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/young-william-james-thinking; and see stories from research on the book at youngwilliamjamesthinking.tumblr.com