Truth is a contested concept, yet the current contest takes place within an idealistic framework: a philosophical picture (Wittgenstein) that accords all conceptions of truth three features: truth is singular, atemporal and independent. However, precisely these features trouble any attempt to account for the political significance of truth. Either truth is too strong for politics, turning it into a threatening tyrant to be expelled (Arendt), or truth is too weak for politics because we cannot count on truth to overcome our reasonable disagreements—leading again to truth being expelled from politics (Rawls). And these are not merely theoretical problems: in public debates, scientific truths are either idealised against their denial (the new positivists writing against an alleged “post-truth era”) or denigrated to tolerate authoritarianism (truth-abstaining liberalism). Neither conceptualises truth’s political significance adequately.
Instead of fiddling with the details, I argue that we must change the underlying philosophical picture in which we conceptualise truth. Only a materialist picture that can account for the contextuality, historicity and plurality of truth will allow us to grasp truth’s political significance. Thinking of truth as a force that emerges from social practices but is not reducible to them, that is weak in comparison to other forces (like affects or social power), that exclusively targets subjectivities and that has a “ratchet effect” on these subjectivities helps us to paint the materialist picture we need.