Is it a Rhinoceros or an Elephant in the Room?: Reflections on Truth

by Mark Wallace

A point that interests me greatly is the status of the concept of truth in contemporary intellectual thought. Insofar as postmodern and poststructuralist modes of thought remain hegemonic in intellectual culture, truth has very little currency. Similarly with our pluralistic and multicultural politics, which privilege a very relativistic approach to issues, rather than an insistence of a particular truth. Terry Eagleton writes, “No idea is more unpopular with contemporary cultural theory than that of absolute truth” (After Theory, Verso, 2004, p. 103). Rather than offer a devastating and unanswerable critique of this position in this blog post, I can only begin by noting that this idea has never been acceptable to me. I cannot do without the notion of truth.

The absurdities of a position entirely dispensing with the notion are well illustrated by the famous anecdote about Wittgenstein and the Rhinoceros in the Room. On one of Wittgenstein’s first meetings with Bertrand Russell, he challenged Russell’s empirical epistemology and the argument somehow arrived at the point where Russell was prodding Wittgenstein to admit that there was no rhinoceros in the room they were occupying, but Wittgenstein insisted that he couldn’t be sure of that on an empirical basis and would not conclusively say there was no such animal in the room. So the matter remained unresolved. Perhaps by finding where people’s opinions lie in this matter, we can find out a lot about their general philosophical stance. I am certainly a Russellian on this point. But I wonder how he approached the argument: I suppose he tried to prove that there was no rhinoceros in the room, and failed as far as Wittgenstein was concerned. But did he confront Wittgenstein: did he say, “it is not provable that there is no rhinoceros in this room, not in the absolute theoretical sense you desire, but I do not believe that there is one, nor have I any reason to. And you, do you actually believe that there is one?”  Surely Wittgenstein would not be able to say he did, would have to admit that he didn’t really think there was one, at which the Russellian might say, “Then why argue? We neither of us think there is a rhinoceros here. If we did, we would be acting very differently, and feeling considerable fear, no doubt. Therefore let us not argue over what we both consider false, and what, so far as we know, no one has ever considered true. That is proof enough.” This is perhaps naïve, but constitutes somewhat of an appeal to honesty, and an appeal to argue over genuine points of difference, not over things that are simply unprovable at a very abstract level of rhetoric – and everything is unprovable at a certain level.

So there is a simple and direct truth about certain matters that we should be able to agree about, such as the non-presence of a rhinoceros in any given room (one can imagine exceptions, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, i.e., almost certainly never). These truths will only take us so far, of course, but they should be kept in mind. Hence I am wary of Žižek’s attempts to rehabilitate truth in a new form. Žižek, unlike most contemporary thinkers, writes about truth a lot. In one of his most accessible books, How to Read Lacan from the Norton How to Read… series (New York, 2007), Žižek gives his own version of truth, related to the Lacanian dictum Les non-dupes errant, which he translates as “Those in the know are in error”. His gloss on this dictum is as follows:

What is missed by the cynic who believes only his eyes is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our reality. A corrupt priest who preaches about virtue may be a hypocrite, but if people endow his words with the authority of the Church, it may prompt them to do good deeds. (33-34)

This is not a particularly impressive passage, and Žižek has probably made this point more convincingly elsewhere, but taking this as representative of his position, we can note a few things: firstly, he equates empiricism with cynicism, and he essentially contrasts it with hypocrisy, preferring the latter. In the old argument, then, between conservative-Burkean “beautiful illusions” and liberal “inconvenient truths”, Žižek is a conservative. Secondly, his example doesn’t make his point. The notion of fiction structuring our reality sounds impressive, but the religious example of “good deeds” tells us nothing about the structure of our reality, but only of individual deeds. (I’m only taking into account this passage here. I’m sure I’ll come across other passages where Žižek makes the point about structure more satisfactorily.) So the example brings the rhetoric down to earth with a bump, and invites numerous questions. Or course, such a priest as Žižek describes may cause good deeds to be performed, but don’t we need to take into account all the consequences of his corruption and his whole being, rather than dismissing it all with the possibility of some good deeds?

Žižek is not wrong to suggest that good deeds as a result of social fictions need to be taken into account in any cultural analysis, he’s only wrong to introduce it not alongside, but at the expense of other criteria. Here again I put forward the approach of Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend suggested that in the evaluation of any theory, both the logical force and the material effect need to be taken into account (Against Method). The Žižek of the above passage only wants the latter – and he gives no way of knowing how the latter can even be measured. Given his anti-empiricism, it would not be easy to do!

So if Žižek’s rehabilitation of the concept of truth is really the rehabilitation only of the name, to cover a quite different concept (material effect, in Feyerabend’s term, although it doesn’t even cover that very well), then we’re worse off than when we started. We can’t even agree on basic truths, as we always have to give way before material effect. As unfortunately often with Žižek, in the guise of making a basic philosophical statement, he’s muddying the waters and redefining terms in arbitrary ways. The real truth is, that we’re in agreement about the truth of many things in our everyday life; it is only in theory that there is a massive stumbling block. We can’t wholly solve our problems by appealing to the definitively and unproblematically true, but we certainly can’t solve them by discounting this factor altogether. That is the worst possible starting-point. So, though we like to argue about truth, let’s admit that practically, we do agree what truth is in many basic situations. Let’s admit that there is, in fact, no rhinoceros in the room. That this fact is, indeed, the elephant in the room!*



*”There’s no rhinoceros in the room” = rhetorical way of saying, some really basic empirical truths are worth accepting and not arguing over. “That’s the elephant in the room!” = figure of speech meaning the truth everyone knows but no one says. So the import of my final sentences is simply that we all having working definitions of truth, so let’s admit it, and not pretend we don’t, a la Wittgenstein and various post-modernists.