What Is the Virtual Circle?


  • Epistemological history has long honored such inner lights as intuition, insight, and inspiration, but these mechanisms for finding truth were expected to produce understandings subject to external verification.
  • The postmodern virtual circle differs in that it ignores externality in favor of an alignment of previously embraced truths producing a private schema of truth, goodness, and beauty.
  • Because they consider the perceptual wall to be impermeable and experience to be the maker of idiosyncratic reasoning, the principle of non-contradiction forms a very flexible and private truth test.
  • Postmodern justifications for the virtual circle are ad hoc combinations of skeptical conclusions produced by modernist theorists.
  • Authority’s final collapse after World War I coincided with early attempts to define and defend the virtual circle on existentialist grounds.

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 sense of certainty provided by revelation. But intuition does share the same mysteries of origin, arising like the ghost of a thought in the mind. This term traces its roots to Platonic idealism with various mechanisms provided by later thinkers from Plotinus to Kant to Fichte. Traditionally, defenders of intuition see it as an imperfect realization of some deeper reality, that imperfect conceptualization either a fuzzy view of the whole or a clarified view of some part of it.

What is common to these kinds of claims to knowledge is the notion of transmission. Truth, goodness, or beauty is figuratively breathed into (in-spired) the recipient by God or by memory of the ideal, made manifest to the inner eye (in-sight) by nature, or by some imperceptible signal. Regardless of the source, once the transmission is received, adherents regard it as knowledge/ They think it to be 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 evidence. 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 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 its justification. Postmodernists, their access to reality blocked by the nature of their theory, must not only disavow the non-material but must also question nearly all ordinary means of justification for knowledge of reality as well (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). These means in general order of reliability are empirical, expertise, competence, undistilled experience, and authority (see “What Counts as Justification?“). Indeed, it seems reasonable to claim that postmodernists, whose views are drenched in theory, can provide no theory of epistemology to defend all their other views. They regard all such declarations with suspicion, excepting only their own, but the sources of their convictions are as mysterious as religious revelation.

Their rejection is not absolute. First, even postmodernists must accept empirical warrants unless they also reject technology. However, as science can warrant 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 most pursuits is merely a means to the end of choosing the good (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). Postmodernists see expertise and competence as products of experience and therefore subjective, mind molded by personality molded by private experience. They reject authority as the mask power puts on to commit its depredations as history (specifically, the Reformation) proved, which leaves only undistilled 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 in their view, no appeal to objectivity or universal intersubjectivity is possible, so postmodernists must argue also that private experience, their only means of warranting truth claims, relies on means that must be only personally or culturally valid. This selective distortion of the empirical enterprise whose methodology and process are so clearly objective requires a careful obliviousness.

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 twentieth century theorists 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 (see “Premodern Authority“) and the eventual modernist response to those failures that produced universal reason and  examined experience as imperfect replacement warrants over the next two centuries (see “Modernism and Its Discontents“). The failures of modernism so amply demonstrated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made the virtual circle not only possible but inevitable (see The Victorian Rift”). Modernism itself provided the lever with which to pry apart reasoning and universality, leaving only the subjectivity inside the thinker’s own mind as the source of all knowledge. Confined to the space between her ears, her knowledge could pierce no other mind, formed as it was of deeply private perceptions and reflections. So what could her declarations communicate beside her own opinions and beliefs that could make no rational claim on another’s attention? Cleaving the truth claim from the warrant seemed the only thing to do. And that way lies madness and social chaos.

What strikes me forcefully about the birth of the virtual circle 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 within the perceptual wall? And hadn’t Thoreau famously pronounced, “What I think is right is right. The heart’s emphasis is always right”? Didn’t Freud claim personality a blind steed ridden by the unconscious? And hadn’t the American pragmatists argued that truth and goodness were created 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. Certainly, the depth and astounding complexity of natural science’s investigations of material reality threw ordinary reasoning, what nonspecialists call “common sense” into question. As institutional authority withered in the twentieth century, the failure to find moral direction for individuals and cultures was forestalled by the culture’s obsession with the human sciences that promised to prescribe true social goods despite their shoddy methodology and lack of objectivity (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). Their failures scarred the last half of the nineteenth century as well, their scientism promising and failing to find some accommodation between Enlightenment reason and Romantic emotion that so preoccupied Victorian bourgeois life. We are only now recognizing how spectacularly the human sciences have failed in their misguided quest to guide public moral life. Their failures are but one of many sources of postmodernist invention. 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 and mutually contentious 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 rather than any one-to-one correspondence between a single claim and a single component of perceived reality. This new truth test divorced experience from externality and turned justification inward to the sum total of the thinker’s experience. In judgments of goodness, the appeal to private moral agency was nothing new, for the modernists had already made that turn in their rejection of external authority in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What was unique to postmodernism was the conviction that the perceptual wall through which we receive the data of experience must tint the reasoning that makes sense of experience, personalizing and privatizing it. External verification for truth, goodness, and beauty claims were considered inadequate for commitment by the thinker whose reality must be uniquely her own, and declarations must be tested by an entirely different means against a very personal conception of reasoning.  The single necessary justification for the virtual circle is non-contradiction. 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, and no possibility of external verification can overturn an inner conviction.  Contemporary popular culture confirms the conversion to the virtual circle by its mantras. Perception is reality. One must speak her own truth, tell her own story.It was only after the 1980’s, presumably the turning point for cultural assimilation of the virtual circle, that postmodern theorists proposed that cultural reality operates with the same autonomy as they had earlier thought individuals did, and thus began our obsessions with identity politics as the mold of personhood, though no means has been found to reconcile personal and cultural moral agency, nor has a method been proposed to arbitrate the conflicts among subcultures as they jostle for space within the virtual circles of individuals and the cultures in which they contend. One only needs to review the existential literature of the first half of the twentieth century to see how thoroughly postmodernism’s subjectivist ethos of personal alienation has been replaced by the relativist focus on cultural power today. Accordingly, contentious theories of motivational psychology have been replaced by the even broader and more arguable hypotheses of ethnology, sociology, and anthropology. Their paradigms continue to multiply.

In its contemporary usage, it is important to differentiate the virtual circle from a conceptual category with which it is often confused, one that has revived the moral power of religion, at least in the minds of its admirers. The virtual circle must be distinguished from belief. While it is true that both are private constructs of commitment, and also that neither is substantial enough to ground public moral commitments (see “Belief in the Public Square”), two important differences emerge. First, beliefs have a very low threshold of permissibility, composed as they are of a combination of judgment and yearning (see “To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments? ) Secondly, beliefs are components of the virtual circle, not its epistemic products. One’s belief may be included as one arc of coherence, but it is rarely sufficient to compose it entirely. Nevertheless, beliefs are honored as valid constituents of the whole, and like the rest, are privately warranted among a host of other individual truth and goodness claims into what is thought consistent, though we must quickly qualify its claim by noting that logic itself is regarded not as its test but as its product. The virtual circle is happy to announce that reason itself is personal and subject to private intent just as desire is, and so must remain beyond criticism from outside the composite that includes it. That means it is also publicly indefensible. Belief is certainly private since it springs from the yearnings of its adherent, but its private acceptance per se can neither be challenged nor supported until it is integrated into some private schema, at which time it can be tested by simple coherence like other components of the virtual circle.

It might be tempting to consider the construction of the virtual circle as less revolutionary than I propose here. Granted, the justifications for truth and goodness it delivers to the thinker through the principle of non-contradiction must be inexplicable to one of differing experience, which means everyone else, and the private warrants thus created might seem no more ineffable or less indubitable than religious commitments have always been. Revelations and mystic visions cannot be publicly justified any more than the pronouncements of the virtual circle. Besides, haven’t persons always formed their schemas of truth, goodness, and beauty by a combination of public truths and private beliefs (see Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”) ? Haven’t they always tried to reconcile their hopes and their knowledge (see “Better, Blended Systems of Knowledge”? That is true, of course, but their efforts were always yoked to some external, public source that served to both ground their judgments in reality and permit public reconciliation of their disagreements by appeal to either common warrants or common axioms of commitment (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Authority served as both an indubitable and entirely public warrant during its era of dominance. Its spectacular collapse led to a less certain and less public set of warrants that eventually found experience too compromised to warrant its declarations. It was forced to pin its hopes upon universal reasoning as experience’s interpreter, but the unique circumstances of the last two centuries have cast that public source of knowledge into doubt as well. What postmodernism offers is private experience and private reasoning produced by it. It untethers us.

Now this method of warrant is convenient because it accords with the pragmatic mood of the times and maximizes persons’ freedom to choose, even to choose the degree of logical rigor to apply to their filter of non-contradiction (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). But that same lightness of moral being also compels acceptance of every other virtual circle as carrying equal moral weight or lack of it and so offers no means to resolve conflict. Ideally, this might be expected to produce a magnificent cultural tolerance, but since cultures exist to arbitrate and direct the choices of their members so as to minimize conflict and further their interests, the universal result is distrust, suspicion, and charges of bad faith in the implementation of power (see “Two Senses of the Common Good”). These characteristic qualities of the postmodernist’s assumptions can be easily observed by noting her response to any declaration that deviates from her own virtual circle, which must necessarily include nearly all goodness claims not based on identity. Rather than seek the claim’s warrant, she will examine the speaker’s motive, searching for bias and eddies of power. This immediate turn from veracity to vector of truth and goodness claims has thoroughly eroded any hope of cultural consensus. It is one of the hallmarks of the virtual circle, along with an innate suspicion of all institutional authorities as fixed agents of abuse (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“). The entirely predictable consequence is a total confusion about and even hostility toward any moral basis of culture (see “Alienation of Civil Affection ). Since the virtual circle concept and all theories of cultural relativism that derive from it deny to culture and law the implements of true moral power, we see ostensibly informed persons condemning obvious violations of moral law in terms better suited to transgressions of etiquette. “Murder,” they claim, “is inappropriate.” Such attenuation of the moral sense is a necessary consequence of postmodernism and a sign of our times.

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