Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Just the facts?

Recently, I posted a piece from a Toronto newspaper advancing the idea that the postmodern skepticism regarding truth lies behind the Trumpian advocacy of "alternative truths." There is something to be said for this claim. 
Yet several distinctions must be made. It is one thing to cast doubt on all assertions of truth; another to assert a binary notion of two competing regimes of truth. During the Middle Ages, there was a notion (still tacitly embraced by some Catholic intellectuals today) that there are two truths, with the crude superstitions of the masses standing over against the sophisticated elaborations of theologians. (Sometimes attributed to Averroes, this polarity is better ascribed to such thinkers as Siger of Brabant.) 
Sometimes the two-truths principle affects beliefs cherished by ethnic and other minorities. I confine myself to two examples from the LGBT realm. For a long time specialists in Walt Whitman studies denied that there was any taint of homosexuality in America's greatest poet. In time they retreated, so that we won that one. 
Something of the reverse is the case with Abraham Lincoln. For some years I was a kind of resident skeptic when my close friend C. A. Tripp worked on his book, since published, The Intimate Lincoln. Today it is something of an article of faith among LGBT people that America's sixteenth president was gay. Yet very few qualified Lincoln scholars have endorsed this view - a situation that has been stable for two decades now. 
The upshot is disturbing. Is the truth to be determined by which community one belongs to? In this latter case it is gay vs. straight. But one can easily envisage other such cleavages. For example, many Chicanos are convinced that Aztlan, the legendary homeland of the Aztecs, lay in the US Southwest, and should be reclaimed. In my view there is little evidence for this assertion, for if Aztlan existed at all, it lay further south.

The original article:  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/how-postmodernism-is-infiltrating-public-life-and-policy/article34734386/

Monday, April 03, 2017

Ancient historians

Scholars of ancient intellectual history (and those of later times as well) sometimes think in terms of antithetical pairs, such as Plato vs. Aristotle (as seen in Raphael's famous fresco in the Vatican), as well as Homer vs. Vergil and Heracltus vs Parmenides. Among historians, the contrast is between Herodotus, ostensibly merely the retailer of fables and old wives' tales, and Thucydides, the relentless detector of the difference between truth and fiction. I have come to wonder about the validity of this contrast in my endeavor to detect and expose the noxious fabrications that have long circulated regarding same-sex behavior.

Nineteenth-century German historians like Creuzer and Droysen beatified Thucydides as the patron of their "scientific" approach.  This claim seems anachronistic since T.  did not have access to the equivalent of the troves of archival documents mined by his Germanic admirers.

Exceptionally, Hegel placed T. in the lowest rank of historians.  Writing about contemporary happenings,ghe Greek writer did not have the opportunity to see things in the perspective that distance affords.