English, Department of


Date of this Version

Winter 1993


Published in JOURNAL OF ADVANCED COMPOSITION 13:1 (Winter 1993), pp. 111-134. Copyright 1993 Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition.


Jasper Neel and Barbara Herrnstein Smith do not find truth in writing because they do not regard truth as integral with human experience. As I have proposed, three rational assumptions deny the relationship. Ideological historicism rejects the malleability of the future and denies the possibility of human agency that both embraces and overcomes the past. Hence, truth which has not yet been found is seen as unattainable in human experience and, thus, in writing. Essentialist objectivity makes of truth an exchangeable, displaceable, replaceable object; it encourages the belief that observable and discrete differences in individuals' values deny the possibility of a truth held in common. Such a view of truth limits human discourse to continuous position-taking, where belief in something now presupposes the replacement of a former belief ad infinitum, with no replacement ever having a claim to truth and no hope of a truth encompassing all human activity. Fundamental temporalism denies the possibility that human activity is evolutionary, developmental, and progressive. It interprets the pattern of exchange of value for truth as perpetual and purposeless, unable to move in a direction. If human activity is directionless, then seeking the truth through writing is essentially purposeless and merely substitutes change for progress, as one discourse continually replaces another through besting an other. The hope of bettering all through learning from the past and shaping the future is absent in a world where progress has no meaning. To transcend the theoretical limits of the relativist philosophy of truth represented in the arguments of these scholars, we must recognize truth as integral with human experience and hence potentially expressed through all human concourse, and, thus, writing.

If we resist relativism in the process of producing and evaluating written discourse, we can restore the possibility of seeking truth through writing. Resistance to relativism involves rejecting strong discourse, that method of resolving difference through conflict and conquering. This is not an easy task, as the rhetorical tradition of agonism underlies the way we teach writing and the way we have conceived of truth being found. (Indeed, it is so insidious that, at present, discourse in writing often is not heard except through that convention!) It is not possible to outline here a complete program for coming to truth through writing without agonism. But I shall explore briefly some possibilities that are open to us if we resist relativism and its champion agonistic rhetoric.