Hi. This is not an important blog post. It’s really more of a “I’m writing a paper and I think I’ll post notes here for public comment” post. You can skip it if you aren’t interested in philosophical criticism of a ten year old library science article.
You see, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on an article related to some things I wrote back in December on post-truth and librarianship, specifically as the concept of truth relates to information literacy. My basic argument is along the lines that the concept of truth has been increasingly devalued or marginalized in our information literacy initiatives, which in turn has lead to problems understanding and articulating the value of libraries in combating so-called “post-truth.”
Put another way: if librarianship is going to take a stand against “post-truth,” then librarianship needs to take a stand on truth.
Anyway, I’m reading what few articles there are on the role of truth in librarianship and I thought I’d quickly address one of the more prominent articles: “The Philosophical Problem of Truth in Librarianship” by Robert Labaree and Ross Scimeca. (JSTOR). Let me briefly try to address their argument and where it goes wrong. Again, this is really just me annotating an article and copy-pasting from Word. It’s fleshed out a bit more than a simple outline, because that’s just how I write. But it seemed bloggable enough.
The Core Claim
Librarianship requires the suspension of truth because “the suspension of truth is necessary for the growth of knowledge.”(p. 63).
Labaree and Scimeca argue that if librarians adopt a specific theory of truth (like correspondence theory, coherence theory, or pragmatism), then librarians will either intentionally or inadvertently reject information sources that fail to be “true” under their preferred theory of truth.1 They point to historical instances “where educated individuals, such as Bishop Diego de Landa and the Mayan codices, used their supposed objectivity of truth to eliminate or eradicate anything that did not fall into their intellectual or cultural perspectives” (p. 59). Not that it’s hard to come up with other examples where people have rejected or even destroyed information that they judged not to be “true.” I’m sure librarians have rejected information for not being “true” and, as the argument goes, that is especially problematic for at least two reasons: (1) “librarianship has an ethical obligation to challenge attempts to destroy or censor information, regardless of the truth value of that information” (p. 59) and (2) when information is destroyed, it interrupts the natural progression of knowledge.
For the claim that librarians have an ethical obligation to preserve information, that seems fairly uncontroversial. The second claim is wrapped up in a common Kuhnian view of intellectual progress. Kuhn is pretty widely known, so no real need to rehash about paradigm shifts and incommensurability. The work that Kuhn is doing in this article is to bring up the idea that our understanding of major intellectual revolutions (they mention Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and Freud as exemplars) is conditioned on our access to the information we have about both sides of the “paradigm.” For example, our understanding of the significance of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is entirely dependent on the evidence we have from both before, during, and after the paradigm shift.2 But, if librarians are committed to collecting all and only “truth” then we get problems: prior to accepting the “truth” of Darwinism, should librarians have rejected Darwinian texts? After Darwinism was accepted as “truth” should librarians have weeded the pre-Darwinian texts? These are interesting questions and Labaree and Scimeca are correct that if librarians adopt the view that library collections and services must correspond to prevailing beliefs about the truth, then not only is the historical record in danger, but the advancement of knowledge is in danger as well.
For their proposal, Labaree and Scimeca suggest that we suspend our conceptions of truth and adopt a “historicist” conception3 under which all propositions have to be understood as “historically conditioned” (p. 63). This means that instead of worrying about whether information is “true” librarians should instead ask how that information “became a part of…the social theory of reality” (p. 63). The central claim is that
without [the] suspension of truth in librarianship, the accumulation of past and present knowledge could be compromised. This compromise can take various forms, such as eliminating whole collections or suppressing information that does not share the present majority view, be that view scientific, religious, or political (63).
And, more succinctly, “librarians must suspend the truth value of singular items and artifacts in the historical record in order that the whole truth of any given period of history be accurately analyzed and understood” (p. 66). Accepting Labaree and Scimeca’s argument means accepting the following (modus tollens) argument:
- If a librarian adopts a specific theory of truth, then that librarian is likely to reject/eliminate information sources that do not fit the librarian’s conception of “truth.”
- Librarians should not reject/eliminate information sources on the basis of truth.
- Therefore, librarians should not adopt a specific theory of truth.
Okay, so why shouldn’t we agree?
Labaree and Scimeca are committing some pretty basic philosophical errors and I’m a little surprised that the errors in their argument even made it through peer-review.4
First, the entire argument rests on a really dodgy hidden premise, namely, that librarians who adopt a theory of truth are committed to the belief that library collections must correspond to the prevailing “truth.” In other words, if you think it is okay for librarians to distinguish between fact and fiction, then you are committing yourself to eliminating (what you believe to be) false information from the social transcript. But, this is a non sequitur. It runs afoul of the fact/value (or, maybe, is/ought) distinction. From the fact that truth is objective, we cannot jump to the conclusion that truth is all that matters when evaluating information or library collections. Labaree and Scimeca have provided no necessary connection between our attitudes towards how we ought to manage library collections and our attitudes towards truth. For example, I believe something very close to a correspondence theory of truth, but I routinely order books that contain facts or theories that I think are false. There are loads of reasons to collect things we think are false: pedagogical value, popularity, aesthetic beauty, and so on. A simple counterexample: libraries collect the sacred texts of multiple religions, knowing full well that they can’t each be true. Sure, some librarian in some podunk library somewhere might be weeding the Qur’an because “only Jesus is truth!” But that’s not wrong because the librarian believes in truth; it’s wrong because the librarian is a bigoted asshole. For the rest of us, contrary to what Labaree and Scimeca’s argument requires, we can believe in truth without deifying it as the only criteria that matters.
Second, Labaree and Scimeca are only addressing truth insofar as it applies to first-order, subject-predicate, descriptive propositions like “the Earth is round” or “the Earth is flat.” They fail to take into account that theories of truth also apply to second-order propositions about propositions. For example, a realist about truth will say that even though the proposition “the Earth is flat” is not true, the second-order proposition “some humans believe the Earth is flat” is absolutely true. So a book purporting to prove the Earth is flat may contain false propositions about the Earth, but the propositions we can derive from the book (i.e., that this is what people believe) can be true without any difficulty. In a sense, the value of our collections is not merely to be found in the truths therein contained, but also in the truths we can learn.
Third, this historicist approach doesn’t actually ask that we suspend judgment about the truth at all. Labaree and Scimeca fail to realize that on their historicist model, they have not suspended the truth, they have merely pushed truth considerations to the second-order. Consider an example they provide: the proposition expressed in the sentence “Dr. Faust and Don Juan are two archetypes that exemplify the aesthetic level of human existence” is unanalyzable under standard theories of truth. They are fictional characters and, moreover, this claim is tied specifically to Kierkegaard. How could we assess it’s truth? Oh dear! So, they replace it with the sentence “In Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Faust and Don Juan are two archetypes within the aesthetic level of human existence.” How does this suspend the truth? Now we’re asking if it’s true that Kierkegaard said that Faust and Don Juan were archetypes. No truth has been suspended, we simply clarified things. All Labaree and Scimeca are really saying is that sometimes we need historical context to evaluate the truth of a claim. But no theory of truth denies that. What do they think? That all of us who adopt the correspondence theory are going to see a book that says “unicorns have one horn” and say “unicorns don’t exist, DESTROY THIS BOOK.” Probably a bit extreme, but the straw man these authors are building isn’t much more substantial.
Finally, there are the technical issues. Their basic modus tollens argument commits a modal scope fallacy. Their invocation of “mankind’s intellectual development” (p. 66) points to a stadial teleology inherited from Herder and really out-of-touch with contemporary social theory. They give a lit review on theories of “reality” in LIS but then adopt a neo-Pragmatic, ultimately Peircean “social theory of reality” without any justification other than convenience for their historicism. This leads to repeated question-begging as they use a social theory of reality to justify historicism and vice-versa.
Are we done yet?
Long story short: there aren’t many extended treatments of truth in the library literature and one of the few that’s out there is, quite frankly, unconvincing. Labaree and Scimeca argue that librarianship should suspend conceptions of truth, but their argument (1) does not establish that adopting a conception of truth is problematic and (2) does not actually suspend any conception of the truth.
For the purposes of what I’m writing (and presenting on at LOEX 2017, if you’re interested), this article fails to prove what it wants to prove and thus leaves the door wide open to reinforce the value of truth in librarianship.
 I’m skipping over their discussions of various theories of truth because (1) they ultimately reject them all and (2) their treatment of coherence theory is such a straw man it hurts.
 I’m not a Kuhnian. I also can’t figure out how Labaree and Scimeca can reconcile their historicist teleology with an essentially non-teleological model like Kuhn’s. I also think that documentation provides a strong antidote to the whole idea of incommensurability that lies at the heart of Kuhnian thought.
 Labaree and Scimeca cite Johannes Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind as the origin of the historicism they advocate. I don’t want to go down the rabbit-hole of German Idealism (actually I do), but let’s just say that Herder is an odd choice to cite. Also, it does a disservice to readers to introduce historicism without acknowledging (1) that there are competing interpretations of historicism, (2) that Hegelianism is probably the more widely accepted version, and (3) that there are numerous objections to historicism (Marx and Popper come to mind). Labaree and Scimeca briefly mention Popper’s objections to historicism, but they don’t describe the objections, nor do they respond to them in any meaningful way. (“Popper sees in Plato’s essentialist analysis of the state and in Hegel’s dialectical theory of history the two foundations of twentieth-century totalitarianism [76, vol. 1, p. 24; vol. 2, p. 193.]. Totalitarianism is the opposite of what Herder intended in his philosophical reflections on the history of mankind” (p. 66). That’s the extent of it and, sorry, but “that wasn’t the intent” is the weakest defense.)
 I’ll grant that I’m not a very good philosopher, so I may be way off base here.