Alex Holznienkemper is a lecturer of German in the University of New Hampshire's Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. An expert in contemporary social theory interested in religion’s role in a presumably secular society, he also studies the theological genealogy of faith in markets and the ethics and aesthetics of organized sports.
As momentum grows for the March for Science, Nature’s editorial team recently prompted readers and scientists to reframe questions about the scientific community’s relation to current political realities. And as laudable as it is that this community has joined others in rising to the occasion, the March for Science still reveals a blind spot in its appeal—the humanities and their role in evaluating the afactual. Even before the buzz surrounding “alternative facts” picked up in recent months, two other related terms had previously begun to stir up a sense of disquiet in journalistic and academic circles: the post-factual and post-truth. The latter had been voted as word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary, while the former had been deemed word of the year by the Society of the German Language. Though the phenomena that these terms are trying to capture are indeed unsettling and worthy of public vigilance, we should be similarly unsettled by the subtle implications that arise out of the coining of these phrases. The simple addition of the prefix “post,” taken together with the sense of discomfort inherent to these terms, would seem to imply two claims: first, that we’ve moved on from a presumably “more factual” world, and secondly, that there has been a historical development from lesser forms of knowledge (myth, narrative) to more robust factual knowledge. Some historical considerations seem apt.
Given the justifiable enthusiasm for the tangible breakthroughs enabled by the scientific method since early modern times, we must remind ourselves that “facts,” in their common modern understanding, do not actually constitute all (or arguably even most) of our knowledge. Many of us cling to a romanticized notion that in shaping our opinions, we soberly gather facts about all matters of life, synthesize these facts in a kind of collage of knowledge, and arrive at our judgments based on level-headed analysis. However, our final thought process of synthesizing can itself not really be viewed as factual knowledge assembly. It may well feed off of numerous facts, but putting these various facts together in a network of knowledge always entails complex, and ultimately opaque, operations of ranking, valuing, interpreting, (de-)contextualization, abstraction, generalization, and networking. This intellectual exercise, even if exclusively based on facts alone, remains highly subjective and isn’t so much a part of factual knowledge creation as it is a hermeneutic, interpretive exercise.
Scientific knowledge, which seeks to derive laws and theorems from scientifically verifiable observations, is merely one piece in the much larger pie of overarching knowledge constitution, albeit a very significant one. During the Enlightenment, philosophers came to make the case for a rather rigid distinction between our two dominant forms of knowledge: facts and norms (frequently referred to as the fact/value divide or fact/value distinction). Thus, on one hand we have objectively verifiable facts of the highest truth import, while on the other hand we have value judgments, which appear to rank much lower in terms of their epistemic verifiability. Facts concern objective claims about events and conditions of the world, while values concern subjective (at best, intersubjective) claims about how things should be in the world. Values concern social norms, rules, and behavior expectations and are simply not subject to scientific verifiability, but rather to individual and collective interpretive judgment.
Regrettably, one of the unintended consequences of a strict fact/value distinction has been the neglect and privatization of values. When envisioning public discourse, values and norms have become ever more equated with mere opinion. In order to enable greater social consensus, the impetus has been on factually informed knowledge. All the while, public debate is largely concerned with highly normative questions addressing which values and individual norms are worthy of large-scale implementation.
If norms and values are not strictly facts, that does not mean they are outright lies, or counterfactual, which seems to be the primary concern when invoking a post-factual age. In thinking about facts or the post-factual, we often subconsciously neglect an entire realm that still is of vital necessity to knowledge creation and discovery: the afactual. In his recent work on social norms, Leibniz Prize recipient Professor Christoph Möllers highlights the centrality of the afactual, especially for our normative thinking, which makes up the bulk of political debate. A scientists’ march on Washington is certainly an excellent idea to counteract forces responsible for fostering a post-truth, alternative-facts-infused public discourse. But when values are ultimately driving electoral behavior and public discourse is shaped more prominently by efforts to “control the narrative,” it is high time for fields of inquiry that are primarily devoted to evaluating narratives and norms—the humanities—to be at the forefront of efforts to improve public discourse. The German language already highlights the proximity of the humanities to the hard sciences, as both are forms of Wissenschaften, the former being the Geisteswissenschaften (science of the mind/spirit), the latter Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences).
The humanities and their ability to interpret, articulate, and shape the overwhelming realm of the afactual are of the utmost importance—not just now, but at all times.
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