Seek Truth – But Beware Power

April 01, 2024 5 min read

Princetonians for Free Speech
Khoa Sands ‘26

Over the past months, the response to the Israel-Hamas war in academia has triggered a necessary rethinking of what the university is for, and its proper role in society. Many scholars have advocated for the longstanding model of liberal education as the pursuit of truth as the model for thetelos of the university. In this view, which I share, the goal of academia is the pursuit of truth and the preservation of the life of learning, not civic engagement or social change. Certainly, positive social change and civic engagement can come from genuine liberal education, but to center those goals within academia is to distract and compromise from the central goal of the liberal university as an institution.

 Defending truth and the pursuit of it is a noble ideal. It’s something that those of us committed to free speech and free expression tell ourselves, that we are defending truth and the mission of the university – to freely seek truth – from those who would wish to destroy it. Many see some of these antagonists in academia as relativists, committed to postmodernist thought, which must stand against truth and only for power, oppression, and identitarian analysis. This is a common refrain. In 2020, then Prime MinisterLiz Truss blamed “postmodernist philosophy” and Michel Foucault for the problems in British education. That same year, the bookCynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay (of grievance studies affair fame) was published, blaming postmodernism for the worst trends in modern academia. 

Many of the critiques of postmodern theory hold true, but it is important to note that there is no one version of what passes for the postmodern critique of objective truth. The best version of this critique does not deny the existence of truth; rather, it stresses that what frequently passes for objective truth is contaminated by the structure of society so that it is a mere reflection of existing power. This basic idea, that what we may believe to be true may be the reflection of power, is not especially contentious. It is eloquently expressed in Orwell’s1984, where everyone knows 2+2=5 to be true – but of course, that “fact” is a mere reflection of the totalitarian dominance of the Party. This principle isn’t relegated to the dystopia of Orwell and real-world totalitarian regimes. Even free democratic societies may make it difficult to accurately perceive truth. The best ideas in the works of Lyotard, Foucault, and Baudrillard sound like a warning to philosophers and society at large: what you may believe to be true is influenced by socio-cultural and economic forces to a degree we may not even realize. 

There is also a long-standing philosophical tradition that makes an ontological version of this argument, stressing the human difficulty of perceiving things as they truly are. In theCritique of Pure Reason, Kant distinguished between the world of noumena, the unknowable and true thing-in-itself, and the world of phenomena, that which is intelligible and perceptible to people. Kant also noted that the intelligibility of the world rests ona priori frameworks – already creating prejudice that may obscure truth. Furthermore, since humans are constrained by space and time, the horizons of our possible knowledge are already limited. In the early Twentieth Century, Heidegger developed this into his account of “Being”, extending relativism from epistemology to ontology further than anyone had before. However, his space-time limitation of human knowledge and perception is an old concept. In the Middle Ages, Boethius posited that temporality was a distinguishing feature between God and humanity. The perspective of an eternal God is entirely different from temporal human experience. 

The drive for absolute truth is deemed suspicious in much of conservative thought, where the paradigm example of those who seek a homogenizing absolute truth is found in the parable of Babel. Major conservative thinkers such as Burke, Oakeshott, and Kirk have also emphasized the importance of the particularity of tradition and the inability of humanity to possess a God’s-eye view of knowledge. Anglo-American conservatism and continental postmodernism are strange bedfellows, but the similarities exist. 

Given the problems with the ascertainment of truth, what are universities and the defenders of their mission to do? Knowledge is an end in itself, and the task of learning and philosophy is thepursuit of truth. The life of learning revolves around thepursuit of knowledge and the continuous refinement of one’s beliefs – to replace falsehood with truth. A defense of academic freedom need not be a defense of the ability of fallible and fallen humans to ascertain absolute objective truth, but it must be a defense of the pursuit of truth and the life of learning. It is impossible to transcend the ontological and epistemological limitations of the human condition, but it is necessary to take into account the problem of power obscuring truth. 

Building off the ideas of Nietzsche, the postmodernists analyzed almost everything in terms of societal power structures. They were especially interested in how the “free” and democratic West disguised a deeply oppressive power structure. It is a common critique that such a mode of analysis has gone too far, and it is undeniable that it laid the foundation for the worst excesses of so-called wokeism and identitarian critical theory. However, this observation is not altogether different from Toqueville's observations that democratic society constrained “freedom of mind” and promoted groupthink, sectarianism, and the tyranny of the majority. What good is free expression without freedom of mind? For Tocqueville and many postmodern thinkers alike, there isn’t much. 

As I have written previously, free thought must precede free speech. Liberal education is the task of creating free minds, able to engage in true free expression and uphold liberalism. This necessitates overcoming the prejudices of mass democratic society. But is this type of liberal education possible? Foucault argued that even the means of knowledge production was inevitably contaminated by power. The modern university is not a cloister; it is enmeshed in broader democratic society and politics – after all, the unofficial motto of Princeton is “Princeton in the nation's service and the service of humanity.” However, as the events of recent months have shown, it’s dangerous for universities to wade into the political arena –Wissenschaft andPolitiksimply don’t mix. It’s not just politics, but most social engagement that can compromise the mission of the university. There is an explicit but irresolvable contradiction between “Princeton in the nation’s service” and Princeton as an institution that exists to preserve the life of learning and pursue knowledge and truth. The defense of free speech is one critical element of a defense of liberal education and the life of learning, which is, in turn, a defense of liberalism more generally. Part of this project must include, at the very least, an awareness of how the university’s inevitable engagement with power and broader society may at the very least distract from the mission of the university, and at worst, render it completely compromised. 

Khoa Sands ‘26, a PFS Writing Fellow, is the President of the Senate of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society and a Vice President of the Princeton Human Values Forum.

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