XXXII, 2, 2022: The Forms of Pseudos. Edited by Venanzio Raspa
1. How many forms are there of pseudos? In Truth and Falsehood in a Nonmoral Sense, Nietzsche lists several of them: «deception, flattering, lying, deluding, talking behind the back, putting up a false front, living in borrowed splendor, wearing a mask, hiding behind convention, playing a role for others and for oneself—in short, a continuous fluttering around the solitary flame of vanity». To fiction, lies and illusion we can add hallucination, error, semblance, dream, simulation. Of course, falsehood. But what is it that we say to be false? A statement can be false. Can things also be said to be false? We say that a proposition is false, or a banknote, or a painting, but they are false in different ways. A false proposition is nevertheless a proposition; a false banknote, if recognized as such, has no purchasing power; a false painting is nevertheless a painting, like the proposition, but deceives us about its origin, like the banknote. Why has philosophy from its origins focused so heavily on the forms of pseudos and why does it continue to do so? Because, as we examine them, we are led to revise and refine our conceptions about the world, and because they are part of our world.
I speak of forms and not simply of pseudos, because understanding means making appropriate distinctions. Aristotle, who is fond of distinguishing between the various senses of terms, in chapter 29 of that philosophical dictionary that is the fifth book of his Metaphysics speaks precisely of different meanings of pseudos. In this he was preceded by Plato, who in the Hippias Minor refers to a voluntary and an involuntary pseudos (Hipp. min. 370e). Aristotle takes up Plato’s distinction – he even cites the Hippias minor – and completes it. ‘False’ is said of a thing in the first place; however, considering the examples he gives – it is false that the diagonal is commensurable or that you are sitting –, Aristotle apparently refers to those pragmata we now call states of affairs; some, like the former, are always false, others, like the latter, sometimes are. These things are non-entities (ouk onta). Another type of false things are those entities that appear different from how they are, such as skiagraphia and dreams. Secondly, false is discourse concerning things that do not exist. Finally, falsehood applies to human beings: someone who deliberately makes false claims is false. The liar says something which is not, a false pragma, a non-entity, and that is why their words are false. But if lying has or can have effects, then it is part of our world, and so is that component of it which is the false pragma, the non-entity, the object of lying discourse.
To distinguish between the various meanings of a term such as pseudos is to distinguish between related, not disparate meanings. Falsehood, fiction, deception, lies are forms of pseudos, they are not synonyms, but they are akin, they refer to each other. They are different ways of saying the untrue, which – if truth is a limit – admits of gradations. As Aristotle writes, someone who thinks that four is five and someone who thinks that it is a thousand are not wrong in the same way (Metaph. IV 4, 1008b 34-35). A hypothesis, as such, has not yet been tested, but is more or less plausible or probable. A false scientific theory (such as the phlogiston theory) does not lie but misleads those who believe it to be true. A lie tells a falsehood and expresses a fiction, but not every fiction is a lie; a joke or a fable, for example, is not. Research on these topics is so extensive that some points can be taken as established and belonging to the traditional discourse on pseudos.
We say, for example, that without intention there is no deception; that lying is different from error, since the former implies an intention to deceive and, in certain cases, even to harm, which error lacks; that lying presupposes we are aware of doing so and therefore we know the truth (even if not the whole truth), but also that liars identify with the people they want to deceive, so that lying requires the presence of at least another person.
Lying has long been spoken of as an adaptive capacity, peculiar to humans as well as other animals. Some scholars include among the forms of lying – which is no mere declarative statement, but an act – putting on make-up, dressing up so as to improve one’s appearance, and wearing high-heeled shoes. If this is so, we are incorrigibly lying animals. On the other hand, it is not kind to always tell the truth, it is not necessary, and it can even be harmful. As Vladimir Jankélévitch observes, lying helps to smooth out incompatibilities between ourselves and others, and makes us feel more comfortable in society. Transparency makes life uninteresting, because there would be nothing to discover.
2. In 1943, Alexandre Koyré wrote that «never has there been so much lying as in our day». Why does he say this? Not because he is unaware that «lying is as old as the world itself», or because he simply believes that lying is pervasive in society; he explicitly states that we are immersed in deception, in falsehood, in lying. This is indeed – as Aristotle says – the result of individual choice, yet individuals are not isolated, they live within a society imbued with a certain culture which has been transmitted to them through education and propaganda. Propaganda. For what Koyré is mainly interested in is evaluating recent history and showing how lying is the essence of totalitarianisms, the essence of Hitlerism. Lying is pervasive in societies ruled by totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian anthropology – Koyré argues – regards human beings not as rational animals, but as credulous animals, which will believe everything they are told, as long as it is insistently repeated; they will believe it regardless of whether it is implausible or inconsistent. The leaders of totalitarian regimes despise both the masses and the followers who believe in them; they can do this because they are successful in their own countries and with their own peoples. Things would be different in democratic countries: these «have remained stubbornly incredulous, and shown themselves refractory to totalitarian propaganda», and their citizens have proven to be thinking beings. Can we subscribe to these latter statements today?
Indeed, the initial theses of Koyré’s essay recur in numerous texts on lying, although no explicit reference to him is made. But today, several decades later, it has to be said that ours too is a society of pseudos, that falsehood has become pervasive, as widespread talk of post-truth and fake news now shows. These grow on favourable soil, otherwise they do not take root, but dry up. Telling falsehoods is not an extraordinary act but has become part of habitual discursive practice. When using social media, young people not only have no qualms about lying, which they do not consider to be inappropriate, but expect others to do the same.
We have said that lies are traditionally distinguished from falsehood and error by the intention to deceive, and that already in Plato we find the distinction between voluntary and involuntary lies. But an involuntary lie is not really a lie, for it precisely lacks the intention to deceive (that «double heart», in Augustine’s words); in general, it is due to ignorance. Ignorance, however, is not always innocent: anyone who is responsible for their own ignorance, so that they can only tell falsehoods, is responsible for the falsehoods they utter. They probably do not intend to deceive – and no one can know with certainty someone else’s intentions –, but they do not take care to speak truthful words. And this traps us all, or almost all of us: we all believe things we take for granted, because that is what we have been taught – textbooks are mostly to blame for that – and life never led us to put those beliefs to the test.
3. Consider how national identities are defined. We customarily refer to language, ethnicity, religion, territory or historical memory as ‘objective criteria’ for identifying a nation. Eric J. Hobsbawm has shown that none of these criteria stands up to careful historical analysis; they are often stories (‘invented traditions’) that we tell and believe, because – as J. M. Coetzee suggests – they allow us to have a good opinion of ourselves. Rather than collective memory, we are dealing with collective self-deception. Even when, say, a certain colonial society may be obsessed with its slave past, the fact that the members of that society live well and do not care to trample on territory violently taken from others means that those stories of the past still serve as comfort, since they allow them to think of themselves as different from their predecessors. Collective self-deception is also discernible in our understanding of recent history. After the Second World War, the guilt of the Germans was so great that other European peoples were exempt from confronting the fact that they had collaborated with the Nazis, and this is because we identify more willingly with the victims than with the executioners. And then the Resistance made it possible for us to identify with the good part of our people. But – it was said – even when one believes something in good faith, one is responsible for one’s own false belief, if one has not checked it or found reasons for it, especially when it is not confined to individual ethics, but concerns the history and fate of peoples.
Bernard Williams speaks of genealogies as narratives designed to explain a certain phenomenon, consisting partly of real history and partly of imaginary evolutionary history. Their purpose is to explain how a concept, an institution came into being; in doing so, they use models that are largely just stories. And yet these stories help us. The stories produced by political science to explain the origin of the state starting from the fiction that is the state of nature, for example, are fact-defective, in the sense that we know that the facts did not unfold as the story tells them, but they are not law-defective; therefore, they are possible and, insofar as they are possible, they are also useful, «because they show that a process is possible». Moreover, they bring out as functional to explanation a phenomenon, a concept, that was previously not seen as such, and preserve us from considering what is a fiction as actual history.
Similarly, a counterfactual story, which tells what would have happened if a certain event had not occurred or had unfolded differently from how it actually did (e.g., if Hitler had won the Second World War), tells falsehoods, but enriches the real history with meaning. The description of how events would have unfolded if things had turned out differently from how they did is mere fiction, but it makes us realise the relevance of what actually happened. Conversely, in fearing the consequences of a certain situation we want to encourage people to change it. Such stories do not let us know our world as it is, but they do let us know the consequences implicit in our beliefs about the world.
4. A thought experiment constructs a story, a fiction, investigates the consequences of a non-actual situation, a situation that in some cases can even be thought of as contravening logical laws or the laws of physics. Not a few scientists, philosophers, and logicians make profitable use of thought experiments. Excluding certain laws that are valid in the context of phenomena and investigating what happens if one disregards them allows one to know more clearly to what extent the laws that have been excluded influence the course of phenomena. Of course, thought experiments are not always reliable and they can obviously also fail, but they do allow us to test and evaluate the non-empirical virtues of a theory, such as consistency and explanatory power.
Elsewhere, I have argued that literature – obviously not any literary text – is a hypothesis about the way things are, it expresses interpretations about the world that have a certain degree of probability. If «thought experiment means testing hypotheses in the mind – logically rather than physically», if a thought experiment tells a story, then literature too can be (and has been) understood as a thought experiment, a simulation of a possible situation. On the one hand, literature thus comes to occupy a relevant role in the process of knowledge. On the other hand, it comes to occupy a relevant role in the realm of pseudos, which can, however, also be instructive, as Plato declares in the Republic: though criticising epic and tragedy insofar as they provide unseemly and inappropriate images of gods and heroes, he does not expel them from the city, considering the stories necessary for education. And Aristotle reiterates this, in another form and even more forcefully, in the Poetics (ch. 9): while narrating not what is, but what is possible according to probability or necessity, poetry is regarded by him as having a strong cognitive value, allowing us to know us human beings, how we are made, how we feel and how we act, and enabling us to do so in a universal form.
5. How many forms are there of pseudos? Certainly more than those mentioned above, especially if we broaden the semantic spectrum of the term and make distinctions within each genre. Just think of the various more or less classical classifications of lies from Augustine to Jankélévitch. As they say, on these topics the literature is endless. And if, therefore, when we talk about these matters we cannot avoid repetition, since they have been dealt with for so long and by so many minds, nevertheless the topicality that characterises them means that something new is always added in the repetition. Besides, not only is the literature on pseudos endless, but the subject matter – the knowable, to quote Aristotle again – is also endless. If it is true that ours is a culture of commentary, as Michel Foucault argues, then commentary implies repetition, if only of the commented upon. If, however, it is a true commentary, it does not merely and simply repeat, but extracts from the commented text something that was concealed in it, not yet made explicit, something that remained secret. And so the hope is that something new emerges from the discourses presented here that was hidden in the folds of the texts of the authors treated.
(click on the titles to view the abstracts)
Venanzio Raspa, Introduzione
Roberta Ioli, Strategie narrative ed epica antica: inganno, falso, simile al vero
Francesco Fronterotta, “Vero” e “falso” fra ontologia e logica in Platone (e Aristotele)
Luigi Trovato, Il falso e la predicazione impossibile nel De Principiis di Damascio
Alessio Lembo, Pseudo-filosofia e scrittura reticente in Spinoza. A partire da un saggio straussiano
Alice Ragni, The Golden Mountain. Remarks on the Principle of Conceivability in the Early-Modern Age (Clauberg, Tschirnhaus, Hume)
Venanzio Raspa, Quando mentire equivale a dire il vero
Giulia Zerbinati, Quando l’arte si fa merce. L’idea adorniana di industria culturale come pseudos
Bernardo Paci, Dalla menzogna politica al mito politico: per una genealogia coloniale della menzogna moderna a partire da Arendt e Derrida
Wolfgang Huemer, Daniele Molinari, Valentina Petrolini, The Trade between Fiction and Reality. Smuggling across Imagination and the World
Martino Manca, Esistono libri che non esistono. Pseudobiblia: una definizione e uno studio degli effetti
Francesco Asante, Ta pseudé: prolifération du faux et émergence de la post-vérité
Lamberto Colombo, Il veleno dell’informazione: itinerari pre-digitali di verità e menzogna