On May 1, 1960, the CIA pilot Captain Francis Gary Powers flew a U-2 spy plane over the USSR, taking photographs of Soviet military installations, including sites capable of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles. Spotting the aircraft on radar, the Soviets deployed long-range surface-to-air defenses, bringing the U-2 down and capturing Powers. At the direction of President Eisenhower, the United States—unaware that the Soviets had recovered the wreckage or that Powers was alive in prison—claimed to have lost an aircraft engaged in weather research. The government disseminated a report that the pilot of one such weather mission reported trouble with his oxygen supply and presented media outlets with a photograph of a U-2 plane repainted with NASA markings. This is the kind of behavior the author Ralph Keyes had in mind when he claimed that ours is a “post-truth era.”
The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now, however, takes issue with the very phrase “post-truth,” arguing that it is just a fashionable contradiction in terms, a “new cliché” that “editorialists should retire.” Because we have the means to identify falsehoods, Pinker claims, we cannot be genuinely post-truth. Indeed, he contends, “[m]endacity, truth-shading, conspiracy theories, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds are as old as our species,” such that truth is—and likely will remain—a crucial value. Pinker points to online standard-bearers like Wikipedia and PolitiFact as tools for combatting political dissembling, thereby appealing to empirical science as ultimate guardian against official lies (a repeated theme of Enlightenment Now).
Pinker’s optimistic account, in which figuring out the truth is a straightforward but labor-intensive matter of checking whether statements correspond with reality, proceeds as though decades of pertinent discourse on linguistic meaning never happened. Headstrong in its posture of scientific detachment, Pinker’s view assumes that the first and foremost step in the process of assessing truth—figuring out what a statement means—happens more or less smoothly and automatically, like a computer generating output. This choice implies that Pinker’s view is, at best, out of touch with reality.
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The South African philosopher John McDowell’s 1994 book Mind and World mounts a two-pronged attack on the Enlightenment conceptions of language on which Pinker’s argument relies. On one hand, McDowell argues that a commitment to naïve empiricism (which he calls “bald naturalism”) will make it seem impossible that words carry meaning. Strictly speaking, McDowell points out, the only account of meaningful language available in this framework is causal. The only way of saying why President Trump utters certain word-sounds is to say what causes the muscle fibers of his lips to move etc., which isn’t the right kind of explanation. Hence naïve empiricism, a view dependent on and articulated in language, results in a picture of language as just sound-making or hand-scribbling or air-gesturing, devoid of content.
On the other hand, the opposite view, naïve rationalism (which McDowell calls “rampant Platonism”), wherein innate language categories are applied to “sense data” (or some similar base element) is equally faulty. This view succumbs to the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars’ famous argument against the Myth of the Given. Sellars showed that sense data (or whatever) either already have linguistically structured content, in which case they are not truly “epistemically independent,” or they cannot do the job of justifying a statement, precisely because they have no linguistically structured content. Pinker’s appeal to the Enlightenment finds itself skewered between these two points.
But how should we understand language? McDowell suggests that we need to look at social life—what he calls our “second nature,” for Ludwig Wittgenstein it was our “form of life”—to make sense of language making sense. He observes that we arrive at authoritative meanings through cultural consensus, with conceptual (indirectly social) activity involved in perception. On this view, empirical science is a social practice—special because of its rigorous methods and external orientation, but not free from cultural assumptions.
This “meaning is social” perspective—also espoused by Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell, and Saul Kripke—provides a compelling description of how symbols acquire meaning. It highlights the social character of symbolism without devolving into postmodernism, which treats reality itself as a social construction. But adopting this perspective marks only the beginning-point in examining the communicative potential of human language. If we are dependent on society for meaning, how do our bodies first recognize language? Before we learn a language, how do we know that parts of a social performance are encoded in it, that “language-behavior” is happening? What is the connection between our language and our “second nature?” What is language?
One promising solution to these difficult questions can be found in an unusual place: In 1965, another Harvard psychologist, acid-addled madman Timothy Leary, wrote an article entitled “Languages: Energy Systems Sent and Received” for ETC: A Review of General Semantics. Leary contends that the concept of reality, a physical universe with structure, presupposes the idea of a physical substrate, i.e., matter-energy. Leary theorizes that, within reality, certain patterns of vibration in matter-energy constitute language. “Energy is structure times the speed of light squared,” he writes. “Energy is trapped momentarily in structures which vary in complexity, duration and mass. All structures—atomic, molecular, cellular—are transient energy packages, energy transformers… Communication is energy sent or received by a structure, by a temporary energy package. Language is the pattern of energy sent or received by a temporary energy package.” In this way, Leary shows that the essence of language is chemical.
A major consequence of Leary’s argument is that these vibrational energy-patterns are capable of transmitting much more than just dictionary meaning. They interact with the sensory interfaces of our bodies in predictable ways—mediated by a developmental process Leary calls “imprinting”—causing a range of emotional responses. This explains our ability to recognize that a wordless piece of music “sounds melancholy,” for instance, with our different imprints accounting for differences in how the music affects us. Leary thus reintroduces a causal component into the process of meaning-making, which explains how language connects with the human life-form—itself a complex pattern in matter-energy whose DNA must have an internal language (in Leary’s sense).
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Recognition of something as language, then, depends on the recognition of a sender and receiver. This fact was also recognized by the literary critics Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels in their anti-postmodernist essay “Against Theory” (1982). “Meaning is just another name for expressed intention,” they conclude.
A “post-truth era” is a point in space-time in which those who hold power often intend to subvert the truth, freely abusing symbols (which have socially agreed-upon meanings) for that purpose. They might, for example, prey on media ignorance by repainting a CIA plane with a NASA logo. Keyes’ original nomenclature captures the disquieting frequency of attempts to conceal reality that has characterized American government since the Cold War. Perhaps Pinker is only quibbling over Keyes’ usage and would rather we call it the “liars’ age?” Or perhaps projecting? Appealing to unworkable Enlightenment theories of meaning as a way of plugging his preferred brand of political discourse, pedantic internet-aided fact-checking? Making the public play “spot the lies” while excusing official wrongdoing? The truth is out there.