From the truths of the 20th century to 21th-century post-truth

Taking responsibility in the humanities


Keywords: truth, humanities, post-truth, existentialism, postmodernism, constructivism, emancipation

Contemporary humanities are increasingly criticized for their abandonment of rigorous scientific methods and their indifference, if not hostility, to the issue of truth. Particularly postmodernism is accused of being directly responsible for the emergence of the post-truth era in the academic and cultural field. Such critiques have been recently appropriated by conservative thinkers and the far-right, who turn them into political attacks against liberal values.

The article aims at identifying and analyzing those features of the contemporary humanities which risk to offer theoretical support to the practical attitudes characteristic of our post-truth era. I suggest some ideas for a revision of those features, arguing at the same time against conservative attacks on the humanities.

The article starts by comparing some fundamental moments in the development of the discourse on truth within the post-Nietzschean philosophy of the 20th century. The propositional and the phenomenological-existentialist conceptions of truth elaborated in the first half of the century are used as background to understand the impact of the “linguistic turn” on the humanities since the 1960s, with particular attention to the constructivist paradigm which grew out of the “linguistic turn” and continues to dominate the humanities today. Constructivism is the main object of conservative critiques of the humanities, though what conservatives really target through constructivism is the discourse of emancipation, which have linked the work of scholars in the humanities with the struggles of minorities and marginalized groups in society.

The article rejects conservative critiques and affirms the necessity to develop the emancipatory potential of the humanities after the “linguistic turn”. This presupposes a renewed attention to the issue of truth, which would avoid a return to pre-Nietzschean, metaphysical or positivist approaches, looking for theoretical support rather in the 20th-century propositional and existential understandings of truth. The article takes issues from this point of view with three aspects of the contemporary humanities which are becoming more and more problematic in our post-truth era: ‘postmodernist relativism’, ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, ‘discursive imprisonment’. Rehabilitating facts, questioning the legitimacy of interpretations, reinstating agency, freedom and responsibility are the strategic moves suggested in the article to equip the humanities with the tools for critically facing the theoretical and practical challenges of the post-truth era and adequately respond to conservative attacks.

Daniele Monticelli (b. 1970), PhD, Tallinn University, School of Humanities, ­Professor of Italian Studies and Semiotics (Narva mnt 25, 10120 Tallinn), daniele.monticelli@tlu.ee


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