File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1998/bhaskar.9803, message 21

Date: Mon, 23 Mar 1998 17:10:21 +1000
Subject: BHA: The Truth and Objectivity Problems 1 of 3

Hi all,

I have been engaged over on the film-philosophy list in a 'life and death
struggle' with a Carl R. Plantinga - an American film studies academic.  I
reviewd his book on Nonfiction film.    He comes from the Noel Carrol-David
Bordwell school of thought.  It is hard to get a handle on their ideas.  I
do wish Roy Bhaskar could be persuaded to read their stuff and give us one
of his famous paragraph long dismissals that Colin hates so much and which
I absolutely love.

They seem to be from what I can make out New Realists.  Certainly I think
that major influences are  Cavell and  Wittgenstein.  They have polemicised
against postmodern 'Theory' but not from a Depth Realist perspective.

In my review of Plantinga I concentrated mainly on his philosophy but I did
refer to his "naive liberalism."  That did it.  He wrote back a snotty
reply and I have just fired off another rejoinder.

I would like however to post the philosophical bits on this list because I
am attempting to use a Critical Realist Perspective in the area of film
studies.  My first post i.e. the initial review deals primarily with
Plantinga's lack of a depth ontology and an adequate model of the truth.

I believe actually that Bhaskar's notion of Alethia solves the notoriously
difficult problem of the truth status of nonfiction film.

Planntinga's reply to my review - the second post ignored this aspect of my
review and concentrated mainly on my political comments.  He did however
lay down a serious of challenges around the 'objectivity problem.'  Again
another very difficult area in Cultural studies.  

I replied in a third post giving him another whack for being a dumb liberal
but I also took up the question of objectivity and a la Bhaskar I claimed
to have solved it.  May god forgive me.


This review begins with an outline of Plantinga's proposed definition of
the nonfiction film and then gives a critical account of his formal
analyses of the 'voices' of the nonfiction film. In the second section of
my review I draw upon Roy Bhaskar's Critical Realism in an attempt to
address what I argue is a serious weakness in Plantinga's text namely the
absence of an adequate model of the truth and a clear notion of ontological

2. Definitions and voices

Plantinga begins with an attempt to define the nonfiction film. This is a
brave move and it does have the benefit for the reader/reviewer that
Plantinga has run up the flag and taken a definite stance.  We can all then
take a pot-shot, hopefully with the acknowledgment that Plantinga has done
us a service by attempting to produce a rigorous definition of that most
slippery of concepts the nonfiction film.

His first step is to reject John Grierson's definition of documentary as
the "creative treatment of actuality" as too broad. After all fiction films
do much the same thing with actuality. Predictably having characterised
Grierson as "too broad" he digs around for a definition which is too
narrow.  He finds this in Raymond Spottiswoode's definition of documentary
as "a dramatised presentation of man's relation to his institutional
life..." (: 13)

This is obviously over prescriptive and would exclude a number of
documentaries such as Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1966).  On the way to
dismissing Spottiswoode, Plantinga has a sideswipe at Bill Nichols'
definition of documentary as a "film that makes an argument rather than
entertains or diverts".(: 13)

Plantinga's solution to the definitional problem is to accept that he is
producing an "open" definition, where membership of a particular concept
depends on a network of family resemblances.  This results in "fuzzy sets"
but nevertheless sets up criteria, which enable us to say how far a
particular film departs from the central concept.

Plantinga's own definition draws upon Nicholas Wolterstorff's speech act
theory of >projected worlds=.  Briefly this links the worlds projected by
speech to a variety of stances.  In the case of the documentary film a
world is projected and the stance declares that the state of affairs
presented in the film occurred (Ed) in the actual world. (: 18)

I intend to take up this definition with regard to its claims about the
truth status of documentary film but I first wish to point out that in my
opinion Plantinga complicates matters by trying to wed Wolterstorff's
projected worlds to Noel Carroll's theory of 'indexing.' The latter notion
states that a nonfiction film is a film which writers, distributors,
exhibitors publicly identify as nonfiction. (: 16) This if it has any
currency must surely be closely to the consensual model of truth where what
is true is defined as what people say is true.  The simple but effective
refutation of consensual models is provided by the saying that "Yes, 10,000
French men can be wrong."  So just as consensus cannot guarantee the truth
neither can it guarantee the correct indexing of a particular film.

More importantly for my purposes however is that this foray into consensus
distracts Plantinga from a proper investigation of the truth claims of
nonfiction films.  Thus he says

"The distinction between fiction and nonfiction should not be based on a
presumed correspondence to reality (nonfiction) versus mediated
representation (fiction), but according to the stance taken toward the
projected world of the text and the text's indexing." (: 33)

Plantinga's most original contribution in this book is to propose a
heuristic device for analysing nonfiction films.  He sets up a duality
around the amount of "narrational authority" that the film assumes.  The
film can employ a formal or an open voice. There is a third alternative in
that its concerns can be primarily aesthetic and in this case the voice is
described as "poetic".

"The formal voice attempts to "explain some portion of the world.  It tends
to be "classical in form and style". Questions are posed and they are
answered". (: 107)

By contrast the open voice is "epistemically hesitant" in that it "observes
or explores rather than explains". (: 108)

The third alternative, the poetic voice, is concerned not so much with
explanation or observation as with the nonfiction films as "art and/or as a
means of exploring representations itself." (: 109) There is a remark here
about "epistemic aestheticism" but this is little more than a throwaway
line.  Plantinga does not take up the question of the truth status of the
poetic voice.  To do so would have entailed examining the Adornoian notion
of "truth content" and generally Plantinga, apart from a reference to
Habermas, seems enviably unaware of the world of Critical Theory.

This then is Plantinga's original schema: -

"The discourse of all three voices equally asserts that the states of
affairs presented occur in the actual world.  The differences between the
formal, open, and poetic voice lie not in the assertive stance taken toward
the world projected, but in the discursive voice of epistemic authority,
hesitancy, or aestheticism." (: 109)

Plantinga's preference would seem to be for the open voice with its
epistemic hesitancy marked by "humility" and the tendency to allow the
spectator to come to "her own conclusions".

2. Objections and alternatives

At the heart of my objections to Plantinga's way of proceeding is a strong
belief that the problem of the truth status of nonfiction films cannot
simply be solved by a rhetorical definition.  The definition of a
nonfiction film as a film that takes the assertive stance of saying that
the state of affairs it projects occurred in the actual world, surely asks
us to say something about the film's truth claims.

Similarly Plantinga has a good deal to say on the equally vexed question of
objectivity. But again this must be regarded as one of the less successful
aspects of his argument. The reason for this is that we cannot ground a
notion of objectivity if we do not make the fundamental distinction between
epistemology and ontology or in Bhaskarian terms between the transitive
(knowledge) and intransitive (reality) dimensions. Objectivity has to be
thought of as primarily ontological.  In other words a film is objective
when it uncovers the truth.

Plantinga, by contrast, seems to belong to the school of thought that
defines objectivity as primarily an epistemological matter. From this there
is an almost inevitable slide to emphasising methodology with a consequent
demand for 'value neutrality'. Thus the whole problem field of objectivity
is set up.

To solve these problems I maintain we need urgently a model of the truth,
which will not only recognises the centrality of the truth claims of
documentary films but also enables us to situate these truth claims.
Equally important, in my opinion, to any theoretical clarity about the
status of nonfiction films, especially around the concept of objectivity,
is a philosophy based on a depth ontology.

I should acknowledge here that at times Plantinga comes close to
recognising the need for ontological depth. Thus he distinguishes between
"various levels of states of affairs, the "first-level" (or low-level) and
the "second-level" (or high level)" (: 111) Within this schema
"explanation" becomes the assertion of second -level propositions about the
world. But this is simply insufficiently deep.  

The whole process of explanation itself has to be analysed. Because reality
is stratified as soon as we achieve a successful explanation then this
particular explanation becomes in its own turn that which must be
explained.  A further approach to a depth ontology occurs when Plantinga
confesses his hesitancy over whether the structures that the film creates
are conventional or whether the world is naturally structured in this way
too.  Plantinga only suspects the latter. (: 125) 

Jay Raskin in his interesting and thought provoking review of Carl R.
Plantinga's book sets it, in the context of the struggle between
"postmodernist and cognitive (or 'post-theory') movie theory, on the side
of the "Aristotelian modernist/rationalist camp". (Raskin, 17 Sept 1997)
Hardly a surprising stance given that the book was originally Plantinga's
Phd thesis and the supervisor was David Bordwell - a key figure in the
Cognitive Theory movement.

Raskin however notes a slippage between the two camps and concludes that
"as one often finds, there is much that postmodernist and cognitivist
theory actually agree upon".

The absence of depth ontology inevitable leads to an illicit secretion of
some ontology.  In the case of Plantinga this is never made explicit.  He
does though as we have seen quote Lukes with regards to levels but this is
as close as the gets to the notion of ontological depth.  He is still
trapped within the problematic of regarding Reality in the Humean sense as
consisting of the constant conjunction of events.

What is most important to understand is that the postmodernists secrete
illicitly in their case the same ontology as that of the New Realists. It
is this sharing of a common ontology that is the source of the convergence
between the postmodernists and the cognitivists that Raskin correctly

If the absence of a depth ontology is the key to understanding the impasse
between the cognitivists and the postmodernists then the absence of an
adequate theory of truth is equally debilitating. Roy Bhaskar has provided
such a model in his development of Dialectical Critical Realism.  He argues
that there are four components to truth

a. "Truth as *normative-fiduciary*, truth in the 'trust me - act on it

Truth here has a communicative dimension.  This aspect of truth is
analogous to Plantinga's use of the concept 'stance', where nonfiction
films assert that the "state of affairs they present occur (Ed) in the real
world." (: 18)  However we should note that the vagueness inherent in the
phrase "state of affairs" does not guide Plantinga or us in the direction
of ontological depth. 

Nevertheless a partial definition of the documentary film would be a film
that explicitly achieves level one of Bhaskar=s model.  I would stress
explicitly here because fiction films also make truth claims but implicitly.

b. "Truth as *adequating*, as 'warrantedly assertable', as epistemological,
as relative in the transitive dimension".  

The transitive dimension refers to the domain of knowledge as opposed to
that of reality or ontology.

c. "Truth as *referential-expressive*, as a bipolar ontic-epistemic dual,
and in this sense as absolute;"

Truth here is still tied to language use but it does refer to reality.  It
identifies that which is real and not simply epistemic.

d. "Truth as *alethic*, as the truth of or reason for *things* and
phenomena, *not propositions*, as genuinely ontological, and in this sense
as objective in the intransitive dimension". (Original emphasis) (Bhaskar,
1994: 217)

The intransitive dimension is the realm of the "real things and structures,
mechanisms and processes, events and possibilities of the world and for the
most part they are quite independent of us." (Bhaskar, 1978: 22).

Crucial to the concept of alethia or alethic truth is the argument that
when we have established why something is true then it is grounded. This
demand for the grounding of truth and the recognition of the possibility of
such a grounding distinguishes Bhaskar's model of truth.  It also does away
with the need for the fetishization of what Plantinga terms "epistemic
hesitation".  Science has established truths. We do know something of
reality, even if we do not know how much we know.

I would argue here that we should use the position of a nonfiction film
with regard to Alethic truth as both a means of defining and as a critical
standard.  Does the film attempt to unearth the reason for things? How does
it do so? 

In advocating alethia as the goal for nonfiction films I may seem to be
endorsing those films which adopt what Plantinga terms the formal voice.
However I feel that this is a case where the distinction that Plantinga is
making between formal and open is not very helpful. I say this because the
attempt to achieve alethia is not at all a feature of most of the films
that Plantinga labels as using the formal voice.  These films are marked I
would argue by the avoidance of explanation and the refusal to seek the truth.

It is the absence of a critical-realist philosophy of science, that
handicaps Plantinga in his attempt to refute the cognitive triumphalism of
what he terms the formal voice.  Likewise his attack on the postmodernist
scepticism which lies behind the open voice is weakened because he does not
have a theory which will locate the proper place for epistemic relativism
or what he terms "epistemic hesitation".

It is this that is behind his mistaken contrast between explanation and
exploration.  Plantinga does not see if we recognise that the world is
stratified then all explanation *is* like exploration.  Epistemic
relativism is not an optional extra.  It is guaranteed by the fact that
"all beliefs are socially produced, so that all knowledge is transient, and
neither truth-values nor criteria for rationality exist outside historical
time." (Bhaskar, 1979: 73)  Epistemic relativism then is the very essence
of our epistemological endeavours.

It is however most important to understand that epistemic relativism does
not preclude ontological realism. Reality exists and is stratified. Neither
should we abandon the notion of judgemental rationality.  We do have good
reasons for preferring one explanation to another.

I would like to say a further word about "epistemic hesitation".  I think
we should link this up with Paul Arthur's notion of the "aesthetics of
failure" and see it primarily as a psychological and sociological
phenomenon. (Arthur, 1993: 16-34) At one level it is true that this
hesitation, doubt or uncertainty about the epistemological project is
caused by the collapse of the certainties of positivism. 

There is though a social/political moment as well. I locate this in the
failure of the Left of 1966-72 to bring about substantial social change.
This failure has seen in turn the continued triumph of the dominant elites.
Now it seems we are at a stage where the only alternative source of
opposition is to fetishize indeterminacy and so undermine the categories
that underpin the status quo. In other words the function of "epistemic
hesitation" is to negate all epistemic certainty.  

However this is at best a holding operation and it is interesting to note
that as Plantinga points out there is a revival of documentaries, which
have a 'formal voice' in that they attempt to explain reality.

It is my contention that we should reject epistemic hesitation as an end in
itself firstly on the grounds that it confuses the notion of epistemic
relativism and also denies the possibility of achieving alethia or the
reason for things. Genuine scientific and philosophical inquiry assumes
that the stratification of the world is in principle unbounded.  Thus it is
always necessary for the scientist/philosopher to assume that there may be
reasons located at a deeper level for the phenomena, which he has
identified. (Bhaskar, 1978: 170-1)

My second reason for rejecting "epistemic hesitation" is that explanation
is essential to emancipation.  We must understand the world before we can
change it.  Moreover, indeterminacy does not suffice to advance freedom.
For that something must be negated.  


5. Conclusions

Plantinga's book is very well written. Raskin is correct when he describes
it as "thought-provoking and fun reading". (Raskin, 17 Sept 1997)  It
performs in addition an extremely valuable task in attempting to define
what a nonfiction film is and in setting up parameters for analysis.
However as an attempt to solve the truth problem associated with nonfiction
films this text is in my opinion less successful.  The central absences
here are those of a depth ontology and a truth model which will allow one
to go beyond the shadow boxing between the cognitivists and the

I have also made some very harsh remarks about Plantinga's politics.  In
part this is motivated by my exasperation at the American Cognitivists'
continued refusal to address what are ever more pressing problems. There is
as well in Plantinga=s book an absence of ethical concerns, which may not
be surprising in a text that is about rhetoric and which is also so
resolutely apolitical.  Nevertheless no consideration of the truth question
is complete without at least considering the ethics of making and viewing
the nonfiction film.


Arthur, P., Jargons of Authenticity (Three American Moments) in Renov, M.
(Ed) Theorising Documentary, Routledge: London, 1993: 108-34
Bhaskar, R., A Realist Theory of Science: 2nd Edition, Harvester Press:
Brighton, 1978
___________, The Possibility of Naturalism, Harvester Press: London, 1979
___________, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, Verso: London, 1994
O=Connor, J. E., The Moving Image As Historical Document: Analysing Edward
R. Murrow=s Report On Senator McCarthy, in O=Regan, T. & Shoesmith, B.,
(eds) History on/and/in/ Film, Perth: History & Film Association of
Australia, 1987, 5.16
Raskin, J., The Friction Over the Fiction of Nonfiction Movies,
Film-Philosophy Electronic Salon, 17 Sept 1997

Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Michael Hoover for supplying me with the
time-line associated with the Ed Murrow broadcast on McCarthy. Carrol Cox
also pointed out that McCarthy was but a small part of a wider onslaught,
which had been initiated by President Truman. Shane Mage questioned
Murrow=s courage and Lou Proyect pointed me in the direction of the
O=Connor article.  Michael, Carroll, Lou and Shane are all to be
encountered on the mailing list:- 

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