If you can answer the question in the title, you need read no further. I have spent a teaching lifetime working on an answer, and have come to the conclusion that this question is more important than any other, yet also more difficult to answer correctly. Part of the problem traces to the antecedent of “it.” The kinds of truth claims we make seem to require different kinds of justifications. If “it” references a scientific hypothesis–say a claim about a new drug’s effectiveness in treating acne– then “what makes it true” becomes both more weighty and more precise than if “it” refers to a claim about the quality of the newest summer movie blockbuster. You might think that this difference traces to the relative importance of the two kinds of claims. Matters of taste are simply less important than matters of health. But that doesn’t hold water. My taste in life partner certainly trumps nearly any medical issue I can think of. So perhaps precision is the reason: a drug’s effectiveness can be more precisely plotted on a graph than a film’s quality, yet if quality is judged by box office receipts, then nothing could be more carefully evaluated than the first weekend’s grosses.
Perhaps you caught my sleight of hand in the preceding sentence. Who is to say that quality is to be defined by box office profits? Now we come to the crux of it. Our problem in deciding “what is true” is neither an issue of importance nor of precision. It is more basic. Our problem is one of definition. We thirst for much greater clarity in how we define the most basic questions we ask if only because their answers gird and buttress all other answers we seek to provide. Without clear definitions, we literally don’t know what we are talking about, an unfortunate state made worse by historical conditions too large to be the object of academic specialization.
So what kinds of terms are we talking about? The kinds that are so basic, so central to all others, that we just assume everyone knows their meanings. But I challenge you to define even a few of them in ways that satisfy your own objections, never mind anyone else’s: truth, goodness, justice, liberty, equality, freedom, beauty. Consider some of the subdivisions we must use to make sense of these meta-terms: fact, opinion, belief, faith, trust, authority, expertise, experience, quality, morality, fairness, ethics, aesthetics, art. Think for a moment of the controversies that such terms engender: in disagreement, whose version of truth should prevail? in an information age, how do I discriminate what is true from what is false? how confidently can I assert my own opinions and how much trust should I place in others? how do I decide what is qualitatively or morally good? can I trust (or resist) culture? what makes a creation a work of art? Even a moment’s thought on the terms listed should open the floodgates to a hundred such questions, each deeply significant to a fully human life.
But how can the answers be clear if the terms used to frame the questions are not? These confusions have their own history, and they cannot be untangled without recourse to the epochs that first knotted them.
We must first seek a thread to pull on. The most powerful historical justification for truth claims has been for most of human history authority founded upon religious belief. Its inability to retain the trust of its adherents in the face of challenge from other authority was laid bare in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The shock to both private and public warrants for truth claims shocked Western civilization to its core. Imagine every truth, goodness, and beauty claim suddenly cast into dispute: all institutions doubted, all facts floating in air, all judgments of quality disputed, and all morality contended. Of course, the Reformation was not primarily concerned with secular concerns but with far more important questions of eternal life, but what shattered consensus in religion reverberated through every truth and goodness claim in what had been called Christendom. The power of authority is its ease of justification. You have it when I accept it. It had always been the simplest of warrants constructed only upon a foundation of trust (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). That ease of endowment led to an equally easy withdrawal of trust as soon as adherents found it challenged by competing authority. And how could the challenged authority respond? For fifteen generations, the tortured victims of vicious religious war sought the answer, sought it in the midst of a rabid contention.
They cobbled together their replacement from scratch, combining remnants of pre-Christian thought with those aspects of religious authority they could agree to. But as thinkers began timidly suggesting new modes of justification, always groping for as much familiar authority as they could justify, they discovered themselves stuck upon the horns of a dilemma they could not reconcile. Authority requires a surrender of agency. That is, after all, the meaning of trust. I surrender my own judgment to you, trusting you to decide for me. For matters of truth, I forfeit my rational agency, and for goodness issues, I surrender my moral agency. This is why the crisis of authority was so devastating, for persons could not decide for themselves whom to trust, having surrendered the agency to decide. Only a reappropriation of rational and moral responsibility could resolve the claims of competing authority, but that would entail a rejection of authority in favor of claiming agency. Authority contested is authority destroyed. Should I renew my trust in either the original or the challenging authority, I must again surrender control. Should trust again face challenge, the painful process must begin again.
Somewhere in the midst of competing doctrinal claims to certain truth and goodness, between the holy father and the defender of the faith, between competing dogmas and revelations, between revolting peasants and fanatical lords, authority itself came under suspicion and rational and moral agency was proclaimed as the right of the individual. Authority was out, and universal reason and examined experience were in. This is modernism. Its axioms were founded upon personal autonomy and the power of the mind to direct experience to concord and happiness.
History since the seventeenth century has not exactly endorsed that that operation, but once launched, the modernist experiment could hardly be steered or limited. It created modern political institutions, science, and society. For all the progress Western societies have enjoyed since the eighteenth century, two shadows stalked the modernist enterprise. The first was the methods of modernism itself. Subjecting experience to reason and applying reason to experience are difficult tasks. The more logically one looks, the less certainty appears. From its beginnings, the modernist theorists played a long game of mutual dispute as later generations challenged the findings of earlier ones. Nothing was ever settled, nothing indisputably true. What began as a critical endeavor ended as a cynical one as theorists challenged first the commonality of experience and then of reasoning about it. By the beginning of the twentieth century, only empirical science remained a convincing source of truth and then only for very limited fields of study. Its descriptive power notwithstanding, it seemed entirely impotent to address any issues of quality or morality (see “The Limits of Empirical Science“). This limitation was crippling and led to a second threat to modernism: the perpetual promise of authority’s return. After all, issues of qualitative and moral goodness were its metier, and as a bonus authority offered a certainty that modernism’s tentativeness could never replace. It would take an extremely long historical view to see its failures, and life is short and memory shorter. It continues to offer an alternative to modernist axioms, despite its difficulties in any but a univocal cultural climate. I hope it is clear that no compromise is possible. We have no Solomon to divide agency.
The history of the last three centuries is comparable to a crazy car contested by two implacable drivers (see “The Victorian Rift”). The twentieth century added a third. Each thoughtful challenge to some political, economic, or epistemological theory might also be taken as an implicit questioning of the tenets of modernism itself. Granted, the lion’s share of criticism accurately charged that modernism was failing to live up to its own demands for rational and moral consistency, and so hypocrisy became the great sin of the age. Particularly during the nineteenth century’s pathological struggle with remnant authority, the great inconsistencies of modernist pretensions were laid bare. Were the crimes of Western culture to be its testimonial to universal reasoning and closely examined experience: its imperialism, colonialism, racism, exploitations, and environmental destruction? Modernism had been born in the crisis of authority. It faced its own crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century (see “Modernism and Its Discontents“).
After World War I’s lunacy, a sustained effort began to do more than critique modernism’s axioms. Though it was not consistently formulated until the 1970’s, postmodernism finally offered its replacement axioms. It privileged environment as the maker of reasoning and identity and therefore challenged the two foundations of modernism. It detected hypocrisy everywhere: the continued thrust of authority, an irrationality that could in part be explained by the new human sciences of psychology and Marxian economics. But then reality itself seemed irrational as Einstein demonstrated in 1916’s theory of general relativity. The new axiom was the plasticity of reason as formed by experience, paying due deference to the constructive powers of the unconscious, gender, race, nationality, or class. But, of course, without common experience or reasoning capacity, how should persons resolve their discord? The answer sought to strip the pretty from experience: only power determines conflict resolution. And so our culture is obsessed with relationships of power divorced from morality. And that is hardly comforting (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“). It also gets us no closer to equitable settlement of discord (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements“). Given its failures, it is little wonder that persons willingly forfeit their agency to authority despite its struggles in a diverse climate resistant to its axioms (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”)
To add to the fun of having three mutually exclusive axioms for all of our claims for truth, goodness, and beauty, we also operate in such an environment of thoughtless haste and disconnection that we allow ourselves to slip from one source of warrant to another through the course of our days, here elevating empirical science and there private experience and beyond that religious beliefs with little attention to their congruence or integration. This is handy for finding pragmatic answers and self-esteem in the melee of experience, but less so for developing knowledge of and respect for the truth.