Something really weird is happening in our culture. Two seemingly contradictory trends are taking place side by side, and no one seems to have noticed.
We live in an age of authenticity. We are obsessed with being true to ourselves, being authentic and avoiding fakery. We tell our children to follow their dreams and pursue their passions, for we think it oppressive to force someone to work a job at odds with their true self. We desperately seek sincerity in both ourselves and in our leaders—such that we can think of nothing more despicable than a person who isn’t genuine, someone who betrays their feelings in order to save face. Moreover, we have trouble understanding ritual as anything more than stale, monotonous actions, which keep us chained to the past. We value romantic love because it arises from spontaneous, unmanipulated feeling. It is authentic insofar as it is unmediated. To say I love you when one doesn’t actually feel it is to commit a modern sin—failing to be emotionally transparent. Authenticity is the new cultural currency.
And yet, despite this obsession with authenticity, we are losing our grip on truth. We live in postmodern times, in which the meta-narratives of old seem parochial and unconvincing. Criticism of our public institutions continually mounts, while levels of social trust shrink. Conspiracy theories abound, as do alternative forms of medicine, schooling and journalism—sometimes referred to in academic parlance as other ways of knowing. This pertains to all areas of accumulated knowledge. Science is scrutinized alongside religion. The foundations of both are under attack. Doubt and epistemic uncertainty haunt every question we pose, leaving us on ever shifting sands. All of this characterizes the era of post-truth we presently inhabit.
Thus, a preoccupation with sincerity and authenticity co-exists alongside the corrosion of all forms of collective authority—be they religious or scientific. How can we make sense of this?
These trends are in fact two sides of the same coin, and the sociology of knowledge can explain why.
The Sociology of Knowledge: A Brief Explainer
The sociology of knowledge concerns itself with the following question: what are the social conditions of knowing? It begins from the premise that we come to hold the beliefs we do largely due to our social environment, and investigates how certain environments make it more or less likely that we will believe certain things. The sociology of knowledge does not make claims about truth itself. Rather, it is concerned with what we might call claims to knowledge.
Here’s an example: if you were born and raised in a fundamentalist Christian community and never exposed to any competing conceptions of religious or scientific truth, the sociology of knowledge would contend that you are far less likely to doubt the teachings of your fundamentalist parents. Because—in the terms made famous by the late Peter Berger—a fundamentalist Christian environment has strong plausibility structures. What this means is that, if everything you encounter in your social environment—your family, friends, neighbors, school curriculum, holidays, and so forth—reinforces and supports your espoused framework of knowledge (in this case, a Christian fundamentalist one) then you will have much less reason to question its plausibility. Our social environments can either reinforce or challenge the beliefs we hold, making it more or less likely that we will doubt them. (This is why Christian fundamentalists worry so much about what gets taught in public schools; they understand a core maxim of the sociology of knowledge).
The sociology of knowledge does not assume that all claims to knowledge are correct. Just because someone believes with absolute certainty that, say, the theory of evolution is false does not make it so. Instead, the sociologist of knowledge is interested in understanding the social processes that allow such a person to exist. To put it another way, the sociology of knowledge makes a distinction between truth as it actually exists and how people form beliefs about what is true. This distinction is crucial to understanding the contemporary cultural moment.
Subjectivism and the Shift to Modernity
The sociology of knowledge—like sociology itself—emerged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, as a means of grappling with the consequences wrought by the shift to modernity. Anthropologists and sociologists theorized premodern societies as characterized by, among other things, strong plausibility structures. People living in relatively homogeneous societies where long distance travel was both rare and difficult were far less likely to encounter people or ideas that could fundamentally disturb their conceptions of the world. As Berger writes in his classics The Homeless Mind and The Heretical Imperative, the traditional or premodern person lived a life of fate where, as a result of social conditions (not cognitive deficiency), it was much harder to question the taken-for-grantedness of everyday life. However with the shift to modernity—with its technological developments, increased mobility and striking pluralism—this changed. According to Berger, the process of modernization weakens plausibility structures because it exposes us to a plurality of moral, political, and religious options.
If my neighbors worship a different god than me I am far more likely to question my own; if I fall in love with someone with a different political ideology from mine this will probably encourage me to reflect upon the basis of my own commitments; and if I see other people flourishing, who organize their lives in ways completely at odds with my convictions, I may start to wonder what they know that I don’t. These are all consequences of modernization.
Of course, Berger, writing in the late 1970s, could not have foreseen how globalization and the invention of the internet would intensify the processes of modernization. Globalization increases the flow of people and cultural goods across the globe, while the internet increases our awareness of the vast diversity of human life, both of which seriously weaken plausibility structures. Both therefore erode external sources of authority, making certainty that much more elusive.
Nevertheless, individuals require a degree of epistemic confidence in order to lead their lives. We cannot be hesitant skeptics all the time. Thus Berger theorizes that, as modernization progresses, individuals will naturally seek new sources of epistemological authority.
Berger argues that, in an environment where plausibility structures are weak, individuals are likely to go within for certainty. That is, they will ground their claims to knowledge in personal experience. I may be unsure about what I read in the paper, or about what my pastor tells me, or about the reliability of a video I saw online, but what I can be sure about is my own experience. I know what I’ve been through and what I feel, and no one can take that away from me. Berger therefore argues that “modernization and subjectivization are cognate processes.”
As the shared frameworks of meaning and truth that have organized our society until recently become open to critical doubt, individuals seek elsewhere for epistemological authority. In turn, personal experience becomes the be-all and end-all of truth.
It is no surprise then that we are so preoccupied with authenticity today. If personal experience is the basis of truth, then one must be true to one’s self and one’s experiences, otherwise one is living a lie. I may disagree with you substantively, but so long as you are being authentic to your experience then there’s little I can say. The worst thing I can tell you is that you are being disingenuous or insincere, or that you would do better to be more authentic to who you really are.
The Problems with Authenticity
Of course, while this logic may reflect today’s cultural commonsense—given our social conditions—this does not make it true. Our subjective feelings may, in some instances, be useful guides to action but they often lead us astray. There is no guarantee that my feelings and personal experiences will align with empirical reality. I may have a certain feeling about the nature of climate change, but scientific peer-reviewed studies are far more likely to ascertain what’s really going on. Additionally, simply because a person is authentic does not mean they are right. There are lots of people in this world who remain true to themselves but are nevertheless stupid and selfish. Finally, sincerity is only a virtue if one’s inner feelings are justified—speaking from the heart is a serious vice if you are an asshole.
So this is our predicament: late modernity is characterized by weak plausibility structures such that our shared frameworks of meaning and truth—religious and scientific in nature—have become ever more open to doubt. This encourages us to go within for epistemic certainty, but this only increases the distance between us, thereby leaving us without the shared frameworks that could provide much needed correctives to our subjective feelings.
The Way Forward
How do we overcome this? Much of it seems somewhat inevitable and inescapable unless we turn back the clock (which seems highly unlikely and—for a host of reasons—quite undesirable). What is required more than ever is a concerted, collective attempt to resuscitate those institutions and traditions that serve as bulwarks against subjectivism in late modernity. In other words, while we may never achieve the degree of certainty that people in premodern societies experienced (which is not necessarily a bad thing), we can certainly make sure some knowledge claims are given more weight than others.
This is primarily the job of the university. Academic institutions need to be at the forefront of identifying and sanctioning good knowledge and distinguishing good from bad, truth from conspiracy. The same goes for the media and journalists. Methodological rigor and shared standards of evaluation are the bases upon which strong modern plausibility structures must be built. Accordingly, those who seek to spread lies and rumors should be condemned, and those who advance knowledge claims without evidence should be challenged.
But public institutions can only do so much. It is up to us as individuals to question our subjective feelings in the light of available evidence. Of course, personal experience can be a useful source of knowledge. But we need to learn to distinguish cases in which personal experience is authoritative from those in which it is not.
The conditions of late modernity are such that we will naturally feel inclined to rely on our subjective feelings to provide answers to our questions. We therefore have to be willing to seek out more reliable sources of knowledge—scientific and moral—by which to evaluate our impulses and intuitions. This is why dialogue with others (especially those different from us) is so important. In our age of authenticity, people who have the same subjective feelings as us are likely to judge what is authentic—and therefore what is right—just as we do. This is why our societies are rife with tribalism. Ultimately, being authentic to ourselves can make us feel good but it may not, in the end, serve our—or society’s—best interests. Authenticity is not a suitable replacement for truth. This is why we need frameworks external to us by which to live.