Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Mendacity or use of public lie by Martin Jay - Part IV

Martin Jay is known for his famous account of the Frankfurt School as a 'hotel at the abyss'. He is well known as traveler between the French and German thought and thus capable of mediating where others fail to enter a constructive dialogue with the other. Habermas and Derrida may be cited even thought some positive effort was made in that direction by both philosophers, but generally speaking there seems no moral lesson to be drawn out of this failure of intellectual discourse, a term very much coined by Michel Foucault. In a much stricter sense Martin Jay qualifies as intellectual historian for this definition. He draws many interesting conclusions out of how discourses went even when an apparent failure as described by Aronson between Sartre and Camus. The crucial point of Martin Jay would be missed if it would not include the humanist perspective. Intellectual thought is afterall a discursive thought with a self seeking to understand the world. When he joined Chomksy and the others at the conference in Iraklion, he illustrated his ability to compare intellectual discourses by drawing conclusions out of the positions of Th.W. Adorno, Hannah Arendt and Strauss as European philosophers who taught American thinkers to love the public lie or 'mendacity'. It is interesting to see these three philosophers to be brought together if only to be contrasted by their respective positions. Especially Adorno who would say 'a German cannot lie but must convince himself of saying the truth', and which would lead automatically to 'Überzeugungstäter' (one who over convinces himself to end up doing the wrong things since done out of conviction but in violation of any ethical principle) can be looked at again with critical eyes after reading this account by Martin Jay. Mendacity, or the use of the public lie, begins already with the simple justification given very often by philosophers that people do not wish to know the full truth.


The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics


by Martin Jay

Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley, USA


The conventional wisdom that lying, identified with Machiavellian elitism, is a danger to a democratic political culture, has always been especially powerful in America. This paper will explore an alternative understanding of its function. Drawing on the work of three theorists in particular, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss and Theodor W. Adorno, it will discuss the ways in which nuanced defenses of the inevitability and even positive effects of mendacity in the political arena challenge that received wisdom. It will look at the differences between the Big Lie of totalitarianism and the countervailing little lies of a pluralist political culture. It will examine the importance of rhetoric, opinion, narrative, and theatricality in the democratic public sphere, in addition to the uses of hypocrisy in coalition-building. Against the fetish of sincerity or authenticity in modern life, it will explore older links between courtly politeness and politics.

Arguing against the over moralization of the political realm, as well as its reduction to a sphere of pseudo-scientific administration or juridical procedures, it will make a case for the role mendacity plays in preserving the ability to imagine an alternative future.



Truthfulness is not easy to come by. Such a statement relates to what Adorno had identified as a huge problem in terms of self reflection and being free to think, for there cannot be, so his conclusion, a truthful life if remaining in false structures. The emphasis is upon structures. Klaus Heinrich witnessed when Adorno attempted to lay free his own subjective reflection and had to admit he was limited by structures. It meant he was not really free to perceive himself in terms which would satisfy this criterion of 'truthfulness'.

It should be said subjective thinking is not a compound of person, individuality, self and sense of reality, but within the realms of the psyche a lawfulness which links human compassion and ethical vision by means of a creativity. It constitutes the experience of what it means to become creative since the self is unfolding not alone but in this knowledge to be moving through the realms of reality in an intelligent way. Sartre called this being in dialogue with intelligible reality. Out of that can be deduced the word 'literacy' or the able to read the signs of reality in such a way that they can be 'interpreted'. For Adorno it meant 'deuten', that is through an intuitive guess unlock the meaning within that realm of reality and be able to respond in such a way that human consciousness would touch upon the 'unconsciousness' that this lawfulness would reveal itself as self founded evidence. The evidence of self and being was then constituted in this sense of being "I" as human being.

Now the significance of that has still to be explored. This is because in the past philosophers like Fichte would tend to identify the 'I' with the 'I', and despite being a projected tautology within the realms of German Idealism, become something like an identity which is identical with the state, and therefore, absolute in terms of real power allowing for the assertion of this absolute 'I'. The latter can be read and be understood further with the help of Hegel, insofar as it leads directly to the wrong conclusion about what a state apparently needs, namely a force to impose laws, or in a much more stringent way, "die Durchsetzungsgewalt des Staates" (the state has the force - violence - to push through the law and to enforce it), as if this is per definition both ethical and practical. It is not. There is a difference between individual and state, and when it comes to the use of 'force', then the added attribute of 'violence' alters the entire dictum of deliberations within political philosophy.

So to come back to this crucial aspect of 'truthfulness', governments can make major mistakes, if they rely on information which has been manipulated or even worse has been obtained in a way that contradicts all human aspirations for an ethical inspirational life. That includes as one of the mildest forms information from an informer paid for providing evidence. He will produce facts and use lies, in order to give a false justification for still further moves which might be in his interests but not that of the government which risks as a result to be entangled in a wrong use of force. This was the case with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

But to make things worse, when Powell lied to the Security Council of the United Nations, that the United States was in possession of proof that Saddam Hussein was in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, he did not merely lie, but upended the entire process of truthful inquiries seeking facts and not fictions as preferred by spin doctors.

It would certainly be important what Martin Jay could say to this case when all truthfulness is upended, and therefore both government and public no longer know what to believe? The lack of knowing an independent reality is thereby an outcome of having no longer such institutions, including universities, which would take utmost care in establishing the truth of any 'political theory' being upheld by a government, in order to act. Needless to say, it is interesting that Martin Jay interpreted the influence of Adorno, Arendt and Strauss as teaching basically 'Americans' to love the lie.

Yet how this stands in accordance with what Adorno said about Germans in 'Minima Moralia', insofar as he generalized to the point of stating 'a German cannot lie, but must convince himself to say the truth', would be equally of interest to know. Adorno's criticism of Germans after Second World War reflects a a much deeper crisis, morally speaking, than what can be assessed, philosophically speaking. For it entails a far more serious term, namely 'Überzeugungstäter': perpetrator out of conviction insofar as he is able to convince himself of doing the right thing.

Hatto Fischer

Athens 26.8.2013

^ Top

« Abstracts | Ethics and Politics - Part I »