A Player's Guide to the Post-Truth Condition

A Player's Guide to the Post-Truth Condition

The Name of the Game

By Steve Fuller

Key Issues in Modern Sociology

Paperback, 250 Pages


November 2020

£19.95, $27.95

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About This Book

 ‘Post-Truth’ was Oxford Dictionaries 2016 word of the year. While the term was coined by its disparagers, especially in light of the Brexit and US Presidential campaigns, the roots of post-truth lie deep in the history of Western social and political theory. This book reaches back to Plato, ranging across theology and philosophy, to focus on the Machiavellian tradition in classical sociology, as exemplified by Vilfredo Pareto, who offered the original modern account of post-truth in terms of the ‘circulation of elites’, whereby ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’ vie for power by accusing each other of illegitimacy, based on allegations of speaking falsely either about what they have done (lions) or what they will do (foxes). The defining feature of ‘post-truth’ is a strong distinction between appearance and reality which is never quite resolved and so the strongest appearance ends up passing for reality. The only question is whether more is gained by rapid changes in appearance (foxes) or by stabilizing one such appearance (lions). This book plays out what all this means for both politics and science.

Post-truth should be seen as largely a continuation of the last forty years of postmodernism, especially in its deconstructive guise. Both postmodernism and post-truth publicly display a strong anti-authoritarian, democratic streak. Yet it is also a legacy rooted in Plato, who acknowledged an eternal power struggle – done in the name of ‘truth’ -- between those who uphold adherence to the past and those who uphold openness to the future. Later Machiavelli, and still later Vilfredo Pareto, described these two positions as ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’, respectively. Moreover, there has always been concern that if the struggle between the lions and foxes is made public, the social fabric will disintegrate altogether, as happened to Athens in Plato’s day. The ancient and medieval support for a ‘double truth’ doctrine (i.e. one for the elites and one for the masses), as carried over in modern conceptions of censorship, articulate these misgivings. In early 20th century, Pareto based a general theory of society on this struggle. Pareto’s legacy left the most lasting impression in the US through the Harvard biochemist Lawrence Henderson, who convened a ‘Pareto Circle’ in the late 1930s, which influenced the young Thomas Kuhn, author of the most influential account of science in the second half of the 20th century, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What distinguishes science from politics is that the lions normally rule in science because they suppress the more contested parts of their own history until their internal disagreements rise to the surface of professional discourse, which results in a ‘crisis’ and finally ‘revolution’, during which the scientific foxes are briefly in control.

The final part of the book is concerned with the implications of a systematically post-truth perspective on academic knowledge production, which is largely seen as a vulnerable target. It turns out that ‘military’ and ‘industrial’ attitudes towards knowledge production have always embodied a post-truth perspective. The book ends by suggesting an academic course of study for a post-truth world. It would put less emphasis on content and more on ‘skills’, especially those involving the propagation and deconstruction of content, much of which is normally associated with marketing, public relations as well as aesthetic and literary criticism. It would focus on arguments relating to the avoidance (lions) or acceptance (foxes) of risk. It would also examine the contrasting ‘Orwellian’ practices involved in constructing canonical (lions) and revisionist (foxes) histories. The 20th century interwar debate between Walter Lippmann (lion) and Edward Bernays (fox) over the meaning of a ‘public philosophy’ in an era of mass media would be a centrepiece.


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Author Information

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK. 


Key Issues in Modern Sociology

Table of Contents

The Contemporary Relevance of ‘Post-Truth’; 2. The Cognitive and Affective Bases for a Post-Truth World-View; 3. The Ancient and Medieval Roots of Post-Truth in the Double Truth Doctrine; 4. Mass Literacy and the Creation of a Post-Truth Culture: Managing Information Overload; 5. How Even Science Became Post-Truth: From Vilfredo Pareto to Thomas Kuhn; 6. Academic Knowledge From a Post-Truth Standpoint: The Military-Industrial Route to Interdisciplinarity; 7. Conclusion: What Sort of Knowledge Is Possible in a Post-Truth World? Notes Towards a Curriculum; Glossary; Index.


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