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As his premiership has persisted, many of Tony Blair's statements have ceased to be grounded in ordinary, practical, testable fact. It is as if he has departed on an epistemological adventure of his own; as if truth for the Prime Minister boils down to little more than what he believes or says at a particular moment. On the eve of the Iraq war he told Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, 'I may be wrong about this but it's what I believe.' The appeal here was ultimately not to evidence, or fact, or to documentation and empirical proof. It was a simple statement of strength of conviction and purity of motive. The Prime Minister produced an even more remarkable comment 12 months later when attempting to explain the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: 'I only know what I believe.'
The same special attitude to truth is to be found in the United States. In the summer of 2002 the New York Times writer, Ron Suskind, met a senior adviser at the Bush White House. He was surprised to find that the aide dismissed his remarks:
The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community', which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality'. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works any more," he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.
Hostility to a 'reality-based' analysis of events can be traced back to postmodernism, which has become a fashionable orthodoxy among teachers of philosophy, and indeed other academic disciplines. Postmodernism is one modern manifestation of extreme philosophical scepticism, a tradition which can be traced right back to the beginnings of thought and the ancient Greek school of Pyrrho. This school despaired of the notion that truth was accessible and deduced that no ultimately stable distinction could be drawn between truth and falsehood.
Postmodernism denies that the truth can ever be known. It holds that words like falsehood, accuracy and deception, at any rate as used in ordinary speech, have no validity. That is because it concerns itself with the competing claims of rival truths. The idea of verifiable reality, so important to the Anglo-American school of empirical philosophy, is dismissed as an absurdity.
Postmodern thinking grew up in the astonishingly influential school of French philosophy which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s and is perhaps associated in particular with the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault and the philosopher Jacques Derrida. Truth was, for …