Fly on the Wall—History: A Quiver of Arrows

Each with their Own Certainties

Debating with others can be fun or infuriating or a bit of both; the important thing, academically, is to keep our minds open to new evidence and ideas.  There are few, if any, theories not worth investigating if we’re worth our academic salt.  Discourse Theory applies when we consider the rightness and wrongness of various events in our lives and in history: every narrative has things it tends to ignore or discount, and this is the basis of disagreements.  Stacks of facts may not matter as much as is generally assumed.  The assumption that a finality of truth will be achieved is thus as dubious as the belief that we one day will have learned that vague and vulgar of all terms: everything.  Discourse Theory states that the enclosure of each given discourse leads to the unmerited belief that with enough facts everyone will understand each other.

Therefore, with a flourish, we might recall that a sense of humour can be the single tie that binds together interlocutors of all strips.  Witness here Karl Marx denouncing, with a big ‘ol horsewink, the anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhun: “High-sounding speculative jargon, purporting to be German-philosophical, appears regularly on the scene when his Gallic astuteness fails him.  A noisy, self-glorifying, boastful tone and especially the twaddle about “science” and sham display of it, which are always so unedifying, are continually jarring on one’s ears.  Instead of the genuine warmth which permeates his first work, he here systematically works himself up into a sudden flush of rhetoric in certain passages.  There is in addition the clumsy repugnant show of erudition of the self-taught, whose natural pride in his original reasoning has already been broken and who now, as a parvenu of science, feels it necessary to give himself airs with what he neither is nor has.” (1865).

History shows how what can seem normal or acceptable in one era can seem very different in the next; nowadays Marx’s reference to Gallicness might seem a bit off-putting or even racist.  Yet, present day theorist Ulrich Beck (famous for asserting that we live in an age obsessed with risk such that all discourses tend to revolve around perceived, imagined, or possible calamities) notes that in our media climate there is an awful lot external, and thus ignored, to facts as they are presented.  “This is a fatal situation, when you realize that complete reality zones are excluded from the self-reflection of the media—and this is not even acknowledged as a problem, because one is referring to definitions and theories that allow for quite an arbitrary interpretation” (2007).  Just as Marx’s personal attacks were a product of his era’s discourse, being able to ignore that which doesn’t fit a narrative seems particularly part and parcel with our times.  It’s as though political rhetoric has become the nature of all reporting; on the other hand, this may have always been the nature of discourses and only now are we so attuned to differences between worldviews.

Universal truths may exist—many of us in our finer moments hope they do—but we have no way of being certain outside of recourse to discourses available to us in the present.  The scourge of residential schools, for instance, privileged certain Eurocentric values and lifestyles and forced them onto Indigenous people.  At the time people thought they were helping.  In a tiny parallel anyone who’s had their workspace organized by a well-intentioned visitor can relate to the tricky nature of helping others.  H.G. Hegel (2006) suggested that to find common ground between discourses we must not preclude dialogue.  “Since the man of common sense makes his appeal to feeling, to an oracle within his breast, he is finished and done with anyone who does not agree; he only has to explain that he has nothing more to say to anyone who does not find and feel the same in himself.  In other words, he tramples underfoot the roots of humanity.  For it is in the nature of humanity to press onward to agreement with others; human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds” [59].  Hegel had high hopes for such an achievement which is why Marx began his philosophy where Hegel left off.  Yet, all too often we become set in our ways such that (for instance) we don’t even seek to understand the motivations of others whose help we find abhorrent.  While understandable in hindsight, moving forward we can see how if only society had sought dialogue horrible events might have been averted.

With history nipping at our heels, we might remind ourselves that our sense of accountability to our studies may be misunderstood by others.  If we’re willing to open ourselves to constructive dialogue our studious self might yield hitherto unknown benefits.  So, next time someone suggests we take a study break, maybe we should take them seriously! To begin with, we might remind ourselves that it strains credulity that people claiming to help are acting with bad intentions.  Therapist’s offices are bulging with people who believe they’ve been slighted by those who refused to adopt or respect their points of view (sometimes known as boundaries, a reminder that discursive terrain can be very personal).

Conspiring Against Certainty

Nevertheless, some people are so wedded to their beliefs that they can’t seem to help but propagate their certainties at each and every social occasion.  Day at the beach?  Vaccines cause heart attacks!  Cirrus clouds rolling in on a sunny day?  Those clouds were seeded to steal rural property under the auspices of climate change!  Feeling ill after too many discount hamburgers?  Big Pharma is secretly funding the fast-food industry!  No conspiracy theorist will part with her chosen facts, but we can certainly question her egoism.  Wanting to be right is a powerful intoxicant, up there with the desire to propitiate others from whom we seek to receive favours—not to mention those for whom we seek to cultivate a glowing reputation.

Beneath the righteous certainty within any discourse lies, all too often, the deepest of myths: that the truth, to recall The X Files, is truly out there waiting to be discovered.  In fact, discourse theory reveals a panoply of truths to fit countless people, places, and situations.  Some may have more facts, but, in the end, we believe what we want to believe.  Just consider how we can be certain that our senses tell us the truth; such certainty requires belief that our eyes don’t lie.  And to be sure that we’re making good life choices by studying so relentlessly we have only our intuition that a better future awaits us as AU graduates!  Being accountable to our sense of self worth is a privilege we receive not from authority, but from within our personal discourse—the one that matters most.

Beck.  U.  (2007) ‘Living in the Risk Society: An Interview With Ulrich Beck.’ Retrieved from
Hegel, H.G.  in Rinard, S.  (2006/2011).  ‘Reasoning Our Way Out of Skepticism’.  Stanford University.  Retrieved from
Marx, K.  (1865).  ‘On Proudhun’.  Retrieved from