What is the Virtual Circle?

The history of thought gives us many examples of a process that might be termed insight, inspiration, revelation, or Gnostic knowledge.  The common qualities of such experiences are their indubitability and their ineffability. Recipients treat them as certain knowledge of truth but cannot communicate any justification for that certainty. These kinds of claims are often but not always religious in nature.

A related term is intuition, a less forceful but equally mysterious mental operation in which a person gets some notion of what is true, good, or beautiful but without the degree of certainty provided by revelation. This term traces its roots to Platonic idealism with various mechanisms provided by later thinkers from Kant to Fichte.

What is common to these kinds of claims to knowledge is the notion of transmission. Truth, goodness, or beauty is figuratively breathed into the recipient by God or by memory of the ideal, by nature, or by some subtle perceptual signal. While the method of communication might be mysterious, adherents regard the knowledge so received as being like other kinds of knowledge of reality. Even if the reality so revealed be part of a metaphysical realm, adherents proclaim their truths as being threads in the fabric of a reality we all participate in and try to find what evidence they can for the truth of their claims, an effort typically doomed by the ineffability of the experience. In these cases, miracles or some claim mystically transmitted yet subject to ordinary truth tests would provide adequate proof. From the standpoint of justification, what matters is that the claimant seeks to correlate the claim to the reality we all know and share.

None of this is true for the unique justification I call the virtual circle, an invention of postmodernism and a truly original method of warrant unknown until the latter third of the twentieth century. Though its origins lie in the long tradition of the terms discussed above, the virtual circle is different because it denies the concept of transmission entirely. This difference only becomes apparent when one ignores the truth claim itself and examines the justification. Postmodernists, their access to metaphysics blocked by the nature of their schema, must not only disavow the non-material but must also question nearly all ordinary means of justification for knowledge of reality as well. These means in general order of reliability are empirical, rational, expertise, authority, and experience.

Their rejection is not absolute. First, even postmodernists must accept empirical warrants unless they also reject technology. However, as empirical methods can make no statements about qualitative or moral goodness, this acceptance may not carry the force one might expect, particularly since knowledge of what is true in these pursuits is merely a means to the end of choosing the good.  Postmodernists see rationality and expertise as products of experience and therefore subjective. They reject authority as the mask power puts on to commit its depredations as the Reformation proved, which leaves only experience as their justification of choice. But as the perceptions which produce experience are private and their comprehension equally private or at most culturally determined, no appeal to universal intersubjectivity is possible, rendering experience as the only means of warranting truth claims that are not empirical while specifying that means as being only personally or culturally valid.

If you have followed the argument thus far, you might agree that postmodernists have argued themselves into a box for which traditional conceptions of knowledge hold no key. But I wish to remind the reader that postmodernists arrived at this juncture only after a long and arduous intellectual and historical journey through the catastrophic failures of authority in the 1500’s and 1600’s and the smoldering attacks on modernism’s alternatives– reason and rationally examined experience– over the next two centuries. It was the attacks on modernism that made the virtual circle not only possible but inevitable. (A more thorough history of this process is laid out in my book, What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful? Challenges to Justification, available on Amazon and Kindle.) So cleaving the truth claim from the warrant seemed the only thing to do. And that way lies madness.

What strikes me forcefully about what happened next was its ad hoc quality, a kind of creeping synthesis made up of equal parts bold imagination and misinterpretation.  Hadn’t Kant said we cannot know things-as-they-are but only things-as-they-appear? And hadn’t Thoreau famously pronounced, “What I think is right is right. The heart’s emphasis is always right”? Didn’t Freud claim dreams as the royal road to the unconscious? And hadn’t the American pragmatists argued that truth and goodness were constructed rather than discovered? And perhaps most famously, didn’t Einstein argue that fundamental realities depend on the frame of reference of the observer? To seek the taproot of the virtual circle in philosophy seems far too restrictive, though roots are there, just as to dig into the increasing abstraction of the physical sciences reveals other deep connections, yet by no means all. Perhaps the power of the culture’s obsession with the human sciences with their shoddy methodology and lack of objectivity is the clearest source, especially in the strange efforts to find some compromise between Enlightenment reason and Romantic emotion that so preoccupied Victorian bourgeois life. Many components built the Rube Goldberg machinery of the virtual circle. It drifted into popular culture like smoke floating over the killing fields of World War I and finally found its place in the popular culture as a finished product in the 1970’s thanks to a cadre of brilliant French theorists. Its foundation rested on a simple premise: the truth of a proposition lies in its agreement with earlier propositions already accepted as true. The single necessary justification for the virtual circle is non-contradiction at least or logical entailment at most. New ideas are accepted as true if they do not logically contradict ideas already accepted as true. No external referents are necessary. No transmission from external reality is required. Truth is constructed, not discovered. As the popular saying goes, “Perception is reality.”

The implications of this theory of truth are the subject of next week’s entry. Enjoy your week.

S. Del


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