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Democracy and Truth: A Short History

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"Fake news," wild conspiracy theories, misleading claims, doctored photos, lies peddled as facts, facts dismissed as lies--citizens of democracies increasingly inhabit a public sphere teeming with competing claims and counterclaims, with no institution or person possessing the authority to settle basic disputes in a definitive way. The problem may be novel in some of its de "Fake news," wild conspiracy theories, misleading claims, doctored photos, lies peddled as facts, facts dismissed as lies--citizens of democracies increasingly inhabit a public sphere teeming with competing claims and counterclaims, with no institution or person possessing the authority to settle basic disputes in a definitive way. The problem may be novel in some of its details--including the role of today's political leaders, along with broadcast and digital media, in intensifying the epistemic anarchy--but the challenge of determining truth in a democratic world has a backstory. In this lively and illuminating book, historian Sophia Rosenfeld explores a longstanding and largely unspoken tension at the heart of democracy between the supposed wisdom of the crowd and the need for information to be vetted and evaluated by a learned elite made up of trusted experts. What we are witnessing now is the unraveling of the d�tente between these competing aspects of democratic culture. In four bracing chapters, Rosenfeld substantiates her claim by tracing the history of the vexed relationship between democracy and truth. She begins with an examination of the period prior to the eighteenth-century Age of Revolutions, where she uncovers the political and epistemological foundations of our democratic world. Subsequent chapters move from the Enlightenment to the rise of both populist and technocratic notions of democracy between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the troubling trends--including the collapse of social trust--that have led to the rise of our "post-truth" public life. Rosenfeld concludes by offering suggestions for how to defend the idea of truth against the forces that would undermine it.


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"Fake news," wild conspiracy theories, misleading claims, doctored photos, lies peddled as facts, facts dismissed as lies--citizens of democracies increasingly inhabit a public sphere teeming with competing claims and counterclaims, with no institution or person possessing the authority to settle basic disputes in a definitive way. The problem may be novel in some of its de "Fake news," wild conspiracy theories, misleading claims, doctored photos, lies peddled as facts, facts dismissed as lies--citizens of democracies increasingly inhabit a public sphere teeming with competing claims and counterclaims, with no institution or person possessing the authority to settle basic disputes in a definitive way. The problem may be novel in some of its details--including the role of today's political leaders, along with broadcast and digital media, in intensifying the epistemic anarchy--but the challenge of determining truth in a democratic world has a backstory. In this lively and illuminating book, historian Sophia Rosenfeld explores a longstanding and largely unspoken tension at the heart of democracy between the supposed wisdom of the crowd and the need for information to be vetted and evaluated by a learned elite made up of trusted experts. What we are witnessing now is the unraveling of the d�tente between these competing aspects of democratic culture. In four bracing chapters, Rosenfeld substantiates her claim by tracing the history of the vexed relationship between democracy and truth. She begins with an examination of the period prior to the eighteenth-century Age of Revolutions, where she uncovers the political and epistemological foundations of our democratic world. Subsequent chapters move from the Enlightenment to the rise of both populist and technocratic notions of democracy between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the troubling trends--including the collapse of social trust--that have led to the rise of our "post-truth" public life. Rosenfeld concludes by offering suggestions for how to defend the idea of truth against the forces that would undermine it.

30 review for Democracy and Truth: A Short History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Julicke

    A very clear and succinct introduction into the precarious relationship between democracy and truth in the Western world. A must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the polarization, extremism, anti-intellectualism and other such trends in contemporary politics.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jorg

    Required reading: both a fascinating analysis of our current "post-truth" environment and a synthesis of the history of democratic governance and epistemology--both in the philosophical and a normative/political sense. Cautiously optimistic at the end. Required reading: both a fascinating analysis of our current "post-truth" environment and a synthesis of the history of democratic governance and epistemology--both in the philosophical and a normative/political sense. Cautiously optimistic at the end.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Dylan Groves

    negative value over long-form

  4. 4 out of 5

    Canaan

    "Post-truth is, at heart, a struggle over people as holders of epistemic authority and over their different methods of inquiry and proof in an intensely partisan era," (p. 17). In other words, the current post-truth crisis fundamentally has to do with epistemology (rather than ontology or morality), that is, the question of how one knows what one knows. Noting that epistemology may seem far removed from lived politics or concerns with democracy, Rosenfeld points out that (1) questions about how "Post-truth is, at heart, a struggle over people as holders of epistemic authority and over their different methods of inquiry and proof in an intensely partisan era," (p. 17). In other words, the current post-truth crisis fundamentally has to do with epistemology (rather than ontology or morality), that is, the question of how one knows what one knows. Noting that epistemology may seem far removed from lived politics or concerns with democracy, Rosenfeld points out that (1) questions about how best to capture reality get answered differently at different junctures in history (Foucault's idea that different societies are governed by distinct regimes of truth), and, relatedly, that (2) truth and its opposites are always implicated in questions of power. So it is unsurprising that modern democracy has a distinctive relationship to "truth, knowledge, and its ostensible bearers." Rosenfeld frames the relationship between democracy and truth and its history as the contest between experts (technocracy) and "the people" (populism) and these groups' different epistemologies. Against the aspirations to collective truth of the "democratic imaginary," which "depended [since its inception in the 18th century]... on a vision of active debate but also cooperation across wealth, educational, religious, and ideological divides, fueled by a commitment to plain speech, free speech, and a variety of mediating and educational institutions, starting with the press and now including public schools, political parties, research institutes, and more" (p. 71), technocracy and populism alike pose threats, and for similar reasons: both reject mediating bodies, procedural legitimacy, and the very idea that fierce competition among ideas is necessary for arriving at political truth (p. 73). A key takeaway is the extent to which our post-truth moment is continuous with longstanding tensions in democracy's historical relation to truth, and in what ways our moment may represent a rupture with that history (Trump). There is much of interest along the way; I liked the chapter on experts most, I think.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Dick Heimbold

    Short book, but really surprisingly objective and worth reading. I expected something very anti-Trump because of the time we are in. But it presented the evolution of democracy and the sources of truth citizens draw upon to vote and conduct government business. Our times are not unique. The questioning of whether educated elites should run the democratic government is not unique to the USA or to our times. Think of the French Revolution and consider also the formation of juries to harvest the wi Short book, but really surprisingly objective and worth reading. I expected something very anti-Trump because of the time we are in. But it presented the evolution of democracy and the sources of truth citizens draw upon to vote and conduct government business. Our times are not unique. The questioning of whether educated elites should run the democratic government is not unique to the USA or to our times. Think of the French Revolution and consider also the formation of juries to harvest the wisdom of common citizens rather than educated judges. Other forces have risen against Democracy like fascism and populism. Anti-science and anti-intellectual forces are present in American culture. Information and the truth of it have always played a big role in the success or failure of governments to survive under such stress. The author ends with a plea for Truth in information.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Steven Volk

    Excellent overview of the relationship between truth and democracy, with a focus on (1) the rise of an "expert" class since the rise of the Enlightenment - a class which, through its grip over knowledge (power) can overwhelm what is often called the "common sense" (or daily lived experience) of the masses, and (2) the rise of populism, in which expertise is dumped and all that is left is experience or, when in the hands of an autocrat, that person's claim to truth - which is essentially a claim Excellent overview of the relationship between truth and democracy, with a focus on (1) the rise of an "expert" class since the rise of the Enlightenment - a class which, through its grip over knowledge (power) can overwhelm what is often called the "common sense" (or daily lived experience) of the masses, and (2) the rise of populism, in which expertise is dumped and all that is left is experience or, when in the hands of an autocrat, that person's claim to truth - which is essentially a claim to power. Rosenfeld raises some important questions and challenges for how we strengthen democracy by, in a way, squaring that circle. But, at the end of the day, her main point is that this will be impossible if income inequality continues to divide any possibility of a common ground or shared understandings. A short and valuable book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Leif

    A mostly middle of the road passage through the relationship between democracy, truth, and its alternatives - with more of a focus on democracy than on anything else, if we're honest. However, Rosenfeld accurately diagnoses that the core of the relationship boils down to versions of epistemic authority and the reasons they are accepted or rejected, with consequences. There isn't too much of a movement here away from some core investments in liberal equability, but the coverage of the ideas is co A mostly middle of the road passage through the relationship between democracy, truth, and its alternatives - with more of a focus on democracy than on anything else, if we're honest. However, Rosenfeld accurately diagnoses that the core of the relationship boils down to versions of epistemic authority and the reasons they are accepted or rejected, with consequences. There isn't too much of a movement here away from some core investments in liberal equability, but the coverage of the ideas is consistently good and stretches to include various critiques of democracy.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Peggy

    The book description here may sound a bit offputting with its big words but epistemically does happen to one of the most used words in this book and for good reason. This book is short, may make you sometimes think she’s belaboring the obvious, but just because it feels obvious doesn’t mean you understand it. Enlightening and challenging. I don’t find her solutions realistic but I think she’s trying hard to be optimistic. That’s hard to do these days so I salute her. Definitely worth your while.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jop De

    Very timely and relevant, even more in corona time: about the constant balancing act of healthy democracies, not only trying to resist populism but as much the other extreme: technocracy. Rosenfeld shows convincingly that these two trigger and feed each other while at the same time being a lot more alike than populists and technocrats are willing to admit.

  10. 4 out of 5

    James

    This book puts our current “post-truth” moment in historical and philosophical perspective. Reading it didn’t make me any more sanguine about #Trumpocalypse, but it helps me understand it better. It’s very short (176 pp) and engaging, despite the author’s sometimes rather forbidding erudition (and I am still trying to understand what “imaginary” means when used as a noun). Highly recommended.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Donn Carstens

    The importance of truth. As the author points out, democracy without truth fails as a democracy. During the Trump years, truth has been shelved, threatening our democracy. Our fate depends on our ability to recover the truth.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Fran Caparrelli

    A very readable way to understand what is going on these past years.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Beth Turello

    Read for class

  14. 5 out of 5

    Tyler

  15. 4 out of 5

    Erin L

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ralf Karsten

  17. 4 out of 5

    Vilma

  18. 4 out of 5

    Erik

  19. 5 out of 5

    Eilev Hegstad

  20. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ian Greener

  22. 5 out of 5

    barb howe

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kenneth

  24. 5 out of 5

    Juraj Majcin

  25. 4 out of 5

    Carl

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jerry Wall

    As we go through a time when lies come through the news loudly and frequently, we need a way to consider them and h0w we should approach keeping ourselves and our family and our place safe. "Truth" has become personal, a matter of subjective feeling and taste and not much different from an opinion (think "my truth". p. 9 . . . post-truth . . . an "epidemic of dishonesty," * * * truth and politics have, after all, never been on very good terms. . . p. 12 kinds of truths . . . normative moral truths As we go through a time when lies come through the news loudly and frequently, we need a way to consider them and h0w we should approach keeping ourselves and our family and our place safe. "Truth" has become personal, a matter of subjective feeling and taste and not much different from an opinion (think "my truth". p. 9 . . . post-truth . . . an "epidemic of dishonesty," * * * truth and politics have, after all, never been on very good terms. . . p. 12 kinds of truths . . . normative moral truths ("lying is wrong"), where it is very hard to determine the foundatries among truth, belief and opinion . . . . standards of validation and proof. p. 15 The Catholic Church got branded an especial source of phony truths and misleading teachings . . . p. 22 Locke . . . words necessarily mediated between people and ideas, but that truth must be allowed to speak for itself with as little interference on their part as possible. p. 32 . . . helping the people hold government officials accountable by checking their misstatements and fabrications, revealing their characters, and exposing what really happened. . . p. 35 . . . tension between the rule of expert truth, on the one hand, and the rule of majority instincts, on the other. p. 38 [it has been said ] the people . . . should have as little to do as may be about the government. p. 51 [goal is} une aristocratie des meilleurs, meaning one chamber in a bicameral system of government that explicitly placed power in the hands of "the most enlightened, most virtuous, and most courageous" members of society. p. 60 Emmanuel Macron . . . 4/2018 : "I believe that against ignorance, we have education. Against inequalities, development. Against cynicism, trust and good faith. Against fanaticism, culture. Against disease and epidemics, medicine. Against the threats on the planet, science. p. 82 . . . anti-expert ethos has now resulted in an assault on truth in two senses: as a form of factuality rooted in specific institutions, methods and training and as an ethical position. p. 91 . . . a backlash against the idea of an elite that holds a monopoly on truth. p. 92 . . . begins with a (self-congratulatory) exaltation of the real people, the unjustifiably powerless. p. 99 opponents of the republican revolution from both sides, albeit for different reasons came back to the idea that only common sense, intuition, and "experience" -- the latter understood not as book learning or erudition, but as what Burke also called "practical wisdom"-- and their progenitors could be the proper source for legitimate truth. p. 1`12 . . . Elias Smith . . . all of themm must be "wholly free to examine for ourselves what is truth, without being bound to a catechism, creed, confession of faith, discipline or any rule excepting the scriptures." p. 113 letter to newspaper . . . "college learned persons give themselves great airs, are proud, and the fewer of them we have amongst us the better." p. 114 How did we end up not in the age of total knowledge but in a new age of lies? p. 139 Because we consumers have cheap access in the age of the Internet to such an overwhelming number of competing narratives, rife with so many competing facts and opinions, and stemming from so many sources, we still typically end up, if only to cope retreating into insular, homogenous intellectual communities within its confines. p. 154 !!!!! The point is not only that the information world is now, more than ever, dominated by globally powerful businesses like Google and WeChat or that in the United States big money has poured into shaping the political landscape, cementing "the unholy alliance of corrupt business and corrupt politics" Theo Roosevelt p. 157 Rosanvallon . . . What matters is that people from all walks of life possess a shared language of politics, a common platform for starting a wide-ranging conversation. p. 171 [we need] progress away from lies and propaganda and toward a truer view of reality, however elusive. . . to rectify the gaps between theory and practice, between democratic ideals and the world we actually live and operate now. p. 175 !!!!!! In the end, truth, like democracy, isn't something that simply exists in the world. It is, rather, something that we must always consciously and collectively forge. p. 176

  27. 4 out of 5

    Chris Lemery

  28. 5 out of 5

    Alex

  29. 5 out of 5

    Bobbie Lucas

  30. 4 out of 5

    Alexander Kauffman

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