With the presidential campaigns underway, disputes over who is telling the truth – and of what “the truth” even means – are ever-present. Lida Maxwell, Associate Professor of Political Science at Trinity College, was awarded a Mellon Mid-Career Research Fellowship at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center for 2016-2017 to write about this topic in her book project, Truth in Public. The book raises normative questions about how citizens make collective judgments about truth in the public realm. In particular, Maxwell is interested in asking why some speakers (usually white, male, heterosexual) are viewed as more credible than others.
Maxwell, a political theorist, said she was inspired to work on this project by a first-year seminar she taught at Trinity in fall of 2011 called “Truth, Lies, Politics.” In that class, Maxwell and her students read texts on truth and lying by thinkers such as Plato, Augustine, Michel Foucault, and Hannah Arendt. Maxwell’s engagement with students helped to shape the main questions she would explore in her book. “I love having my thinking unsettled,” she said about students asking questions in the classroom.
Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of a lack of truth in politics, Maxwell takes an alternate route in discussing truth in politics. In contrast to our contemporary view that truth is out of place in politics, she illustrates the importance of political truth-telling as a practice of freedom in late 19th and early 20th century political thought. Her research asks questions like, “Who counts as a proper truth-teller?” and “What roles ‘qualify’ individuals to tell the truth?” She notes that most “truth” comes from powerful white men, and citizens are less prone to trust those who do not fall into this category. Instead of aiming her critical gaze at politicians, Maxwell focuses on “how we, as citizens, make judgements about politicians, politically act on behalf or against them, or spark and engage in movements that challenge the political terms through which elections are conducted.”
Despite the belief that truth is something acquired through individual contemplation or research, Maxwell’s goal is to provide a counterargument that suggests that truth can be acquired in politics through different resources. The project explores the ways that citizens struggle with, validate, or even declaim truths, and how the person preaching the truth affects how it is received. Maxwell said, “The connection between these two parts of the project is that I think our collective ability to grapple with truth is deeply linked to how we make judgments about who counts as a proper truth-teller.”
Maxwell joins a list of more than a dozen professors who have received prestigious grants this academic year. For more information on professors who have received funding, click here.
Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center promotes research and scholarly exchange across fields and is especially committed to supporting the activities of faculty and students whose work transcends departmental boundaries. The Mellon program provides funding to allow exceptional scholars to pursue research programs in the humanities and related fields and enter into intellectual exchanges with faculty, fellows, and other visitors to the Whitney Humanities Center.
Written by Liz A. Boyhan ’18