We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express. A J Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, 1936.
The English language is a lumber-room of odd artefacts from the past. Indo-Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, the Romance languages; all these are jumbled together to produce the language of Shakespeare, Johnson and Orwell. And this of course means the presence of Latin. We still use Latin phrases whole. We defend or attack the status quo, speak of ongoing court cases as sub judice, negotiate with quid pro quo, shorten a list with et caetera. Now, however, we should dust off a lesser-known Latin term; ex cathedra.
The phrase originated with 19th-century Pope Pius IX, after he codified the supremacy of the Pontiff by ecumenical council to end a debate that had raged for centuries in the Catholic Church, and relates to Papal pronouncements. It looks as though it means ‘from the cathedral’, but the word ‘cathedral’ itself comes from cathedra, meaning ‘chair’ and referring to the Pope’s throne. The defining quality of ex cathedra statements was that they were indemnified by Papal infallibility, which meant that they could not be doubted. They were true in and of themselves because of their divine provenance and had no need to be debated or examined intellectually. In fact, to do so would be dangerous to the enquirer. If the Pope decreed the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, then that was the number, no more and no less. If the Pontiff announced that Christ did not own his own clothes, then that became, as we say now, ‘gospel truth’.
This infallibility sets a very dangerous precedent. Post-Enlightenment, Western thought has reason as its core processor, as it were; the arrival at a feasible conclusion by inductive means from the available evidence or argument. Nothing is true until and unless proven to be so. A statement should be analyzed as to its relationship with truth. Pronouncements made ex cathedra from propositions formed ex nihilo — or, “from nothing” — were quite dangerous for those who questioned them; indeed, they were in danger of being burnt at the stake. But the ex cathedra pronouncement is making a return, and the infallibility may not be Papal, and heretics may not face the flames — at least, not yet — but they do face excommunication.
It has been noted many times that ‘woke’ culture, incorporating as its central gospels Critical Race Theory (CRT), transgenderism, the promotion of homosexuality, miscegenation and other deviations from nature, has analogues in religion. ‘Woke’, and CRT in particular, has its high priests, its heretics, its Inquisition, its scriptures, its own version of High Latin, or a privileged, elitist, non-vulgate language, and so on. It also has its ex cathedra pronouncements, every bit as binding as those uttered by any Pope. Let’s take a famous example:
Only white people can be racist because only they have power.
Non-white people, by this premise, cannot be racist because they lack power (this is, in itself, a de facto absurdity). What has happened is the co-opting of the original meaning of ‘racialism’ to be the definition of ‘racism’, which used to be a straightforward recognition that racial difference exists. This is the equivalent of giving the answer to a mathematics question without giving the workings and without being marked down if the answer is wrong. It has no substantial premise, no historical validity, and is nothing but its own utterance. It is, in effect, ex cathedra. The new Papacy hath spoken.
The Left’s newly imposed lexicon works in exactly the same way as the traditional magic spell of the magician or occultist. Words of power are uttered. What the words are or mean literally is not important; what matters is their power. ‘Systemic racism’, ‘white privilege’, ‘climate change denier’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘unconscious bias’, ‘black lives matter’; these jingles and others like them are now divested of meaning but invested with the power to bind. None of the phrases above has any referent in the real world. Epistemologically, they are not tethered to anything that exists. They are invented abstractions trying to be real things. But Leftist epistemology is such that language does not have to conform to familiar, tried-and-trusted rules, but to politicized regulations structured according to the need for power. And language is the delivery system for power.
There is great power in empty language. It is worth quoting Plato, from the Theaetetus, at length. He is talking of the Sophists, the travelling teachers of rhetorical argument often hired by richer Athenians. We recognize today the profile Plato draws:
If you ask any of them a question, he will produce, as from a quiver, sayings brief and dark, and shoot them at you; and if you inquire the reason of what he has said, you will be hit by some other new-fangled word, and will make no way with any of them, nor they with one another; their great care is not to allow of any settled principle either in their arguments or in their minds, conceiving, as I imagine, that any such principle would be stationary; for they are at war with the stationary, and do what they can to drive it out everywhere.
They are at war with the stationary. Plato has predicted cultural relativism almost two-and-a-half millennia before Lyotard and Foucault began unravelling truth and meaning. Once true meaning ceases to be a fixed point and becomes just a shifting relativity maintained by an engineered and meaningless vocabulary then, epistemologically speaking, all bets are off. Is truth fixed and objective or is it relative and subjective? We must listen again to Pontius Pilate’s question; What is truth?
Truth is the guiding, if not always attainable, principle of all intellectual endeavor. The problem is that it can be mistaken for one standard calibration rather than an operative concept with quite separate functions. When those disparate functions are conflated into a yardstick, like the meter-long lines you can still see on walls in Paris, and against which sellers of linen would measure their wares, there is a problem. As an example of this epistemological multi-tasking, here are four truths concerning the number four:
- 2 + 2 = 4.
- Japan is composed of four islands.
- There are four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
- The Chinese word for ‘four’ sounds almost exactly the same as the Chinese word for ‘death’, and is therefore considered unlucky.
All of these statements are true, but I am sure you can see that they are not true in the same way. (Incidentally, Chinese apartment blocks are unlikely to have a number 4, just as there is rarely a number 13 in Western blocks).
The difference between statement 1 and the other three is that 1 is necessarily true, the others contingently true. Put simplistically, you don’t have to check statement 1, but you might feel the need to check the other three if you were a ruthless empiricist. Two and two made four when Plato was alive, and will still be true if or when the earth finally spirals into the sun. Two and two make four whether you are in Manhattan or Iceland. Of course, two plus two having the sum of four doesn’t get you very far, it’s just an unpacking of the simple concept of whole numbers. This is what worried Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica, as well as Poincaré, the French mathematician—that mathematics might just be some endless and pointless extrapolation of the simple function of the copula. The mathematical formula is true prima facie, but the utter integrity of its truth function cannot be replicated in the real world outside of mathematics and logic. Spinoza tried and failed, magnificently, in Ethics.
I am not a mathematician, and my point is not a mathematical one. Rather, there is a dangerous attempt by the ‘woke’ hegemony and their sponsors to impose the order of mathematical truth not just on things the truth of which ought to be debatable, but on things which are patently absurd and untrue. If the enemy takes your castle, you can-retake it. But if the enemy takes not just your truth, but truth itself by way of your language, then the fight will be a good deal harder. And it is your truth we need to consider next.
If you are familiar with the history of Western philosophy, and were asked to pick a key moment in the analysis of truth, you might choose Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum argument, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and each would be justified. But there has recently been such a moment from a rather different cultural source, and it may be far more incendiary than the texts mentioned.
In 2021, Oprah Winfrey interviewed the British royal Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and his wife, Meghan Markle. A half-caste, Markle’s charge is that Buckingham Palace has been a hotbed of racism since she joined the Royal Family. A famous English chat-show host, Piers Morgan, called her a liar and lost his job over the remarks. Winfrey is noted for her encouragement of interviewees to ‘speak your truth’, with the emphasis on ‘your’, and this is precisely what she urged Markle to do, with an immediate and compliant response. Markle told her truth, that the British Royal Family was inherently racist, and that became the truth, and this due to the requirements of the media rather than those of epistemology. Due to the fascination with the Royal couple, ratings were huge and the Right-of-center media caught hold of Winfrey’s bombshell.
Speak your truth and that will stand as true. This is epistemological anarchy, the equivalent of talking to people who are on hallucinogenics. Rather than transact with the reality of what is or what happened, we stake our belief in what your perception of the truth is. So, instead of having a world on which most of us can agree most of the time, we have millions of morally defective monads in Brownian motion, each with their own truth. Given that each generation in the West is successively less well-educated — largely due to the ‘woke’ distaste for classical education — then the prospect of letting truth off the leash just at the moment doesn’t inspire confidence in civilization’s staggering on much farther.
Truth cannot be expressed without meaning and meaning must be communal. They are two sides of the same coin and you cannot have a one-sided coin. Wittgenstein’s famous language game cannot be solitaire. Truth can’t be solipsistic or the serial killer is on the same moral plane as the charity worker because they are both speaking their truth. Meaning and truth have an analogous relationship with currency — that is, what economists call M1, or basically notes and coin — and the financial reserve. The former is the practical, transactive category of the latter, while the latter is a guarantor of validity, of tender, for the former. This makes the re-definition of meaning, the genetic modification of semantics and etymology, the epistemological equivalent of printing money.
If this seems like semantic hair-splitting then, firstly, welcome to philosophy. Secondly, don’t be so sure of its triviality. The re-engineering of the relationship between language and truth is central to possibly the most over-referenced — although not over-rated — book of the last decade, Orwell’s 1984, which has taken on a Koranic role for the dissident Right, as it should. When O’Brien holds up four fingers and asks Winston how many he sees, he does not wish for a compliant reply, a self-serving acquiescent falsehood. He doesn’t want Winston to lie and say he sees five fingers to save his own skin. He wants Winston actually to see five fingers. This is the most important observation Orwell made; truth itself is being modified not just within language, in some removed, Derridean way, but in the real world.
If you lose your liberty, you can fight to take it back. But if you lose the ability to assess what is true and what is not — aka meaning — not through insanity but because of what is effectively state-engineered intervention — because ‘woke’ is not an organic phenomenon — then the best of luck. The most dangerous thing happening to the indigenous white West is not that history is being re-written, it is that dictionaries are.