Philosophy, recent

Postmodern Philosophy is a Debating Strategy

In a recent article, Matt McManus drew a valuable distinction between postmodern culture and postmodern philosophy. Postmodern culture, he argued, was first theorized by neo-Marxists to refer to what they saw as a new phase of capitalism, characterized by heightened skepticism and a preoccupation with subjectivity. However, one need not adopt Marxist social theory in order to agree with the basic point that the social conditions which characterize twenty-first century liberal democracies make it difficult to take our beliefs for granted. The unprecedented degree of cultural and religious pluralism on offer in developed nations today undoubtedly has an impact on what we can take to be certain.

Charles Taylor in his masterpiece A Secular Age called this process “fragilization,” the basic idea of which is that it is more difficult to believe in something wholeheartedly when that belief is not shared by the people one is surrounded by (indeed, we might call this sociology of knowledge 101). So, there is a real sense in which we do in fact live in a post- (or what I would prefer to call “late”) modern culture, whereby our awareness of the existence of “other options”—made especially acute as a result of recent digital technologies—fragilizes our beliefs, leaving us without firm epistemic anchors. This illuminates a significant but seldom acknowledged reason why postmodern philosophy finds traction today.

So what characterizes postmodern thought? In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean Lyotard defines postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” According to Lyotard, postmodernism is a critical response to the presumption of ultimate truth embodied in modernist doctrines as wide ranging as Enlightenment liberalism, Marxist Socialism, and Religious Fundamentalism. Postmodernists follow Friedrich Nietzsche in endorsing a radical epistemological skepticism embodied in what is often called a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” 

While I think postmodern philosophy is interesting and even sometimes instructive, I am convinced that in practice it is often incoherent, not to mention politically self-refuting. But this raises the question: why, if postmodern philosophy has been shown to be so intellectually and politically confused (by observers on both the Left and Right), does it remain so popular?

“I Have No Worldview”

In the summer of 2017 I attended a conference on Science and Religion at Oxford University. In a session on the concept of the “secular,” I listened to a speaker give a paper that, in fine postmodern fashion, went about deconstructing all existing definitions of the “secular” within the academic literature. This speaker applied a hermeneutics of suspicion with great skill to these discourses, identifying how they were not only socially constructed, but also how they served the nefarious ends of their various proponents.

It was a well-argued paper that left me impressed but also puzzled. The speaker had deconstructed all of these accounts but supplied no alternative account. After the session ended I approached him to inquire about this. But he just stared at me blankly, as if I had just asked him how to tie my own shoelaces. This was not his job, he told me. He seemed to believe an alternative account to be unnecessary. I wanted to know what underlying values and beliefs were motivating his critique so I asked him to describe his worldview. He responded, “I have no worldview.”

At the time, this response shocked me, but I generously took it to mean something like: the way I see the world does not fit neatly into your constructed categories, or, I won’t let myself be boxed in. However, having since read scores of books informed by postmodern philosophy and debated the topic with countless disciples of Foucault, I have come to think this speaker’s statement meant something quite different.

Postmodern Philosophy as Debating Strategy

It seems to me that postmodernism is popular—especially among academics—not merely because of the social and cultural conditions of late modernity, but because it is immensely powerful as a tool or strategy of argument. For how can you possibly refute a person’s position when they deny even having one? In turn, arguing with someone who subscribes to postmodern thought is like fighting someone who has nothing to lose. There is no winning.

I have experienced this repeatedly in graduate seminars and at conferences. I will make a substantive judgment about history or some event, and some postmodern junkie will reply that I am merely reproducing a socially constructed discourse. In these moments, it’s hard to know what to do. I usually end up keeping quiet, but then I can’t help thinking the person who just deconstructed my truth claim doesn’t actually believe what they’re peddling. Because how could you possibly live a human life really believing that there is no ultimate truth?

Postmodern philosophy affords a position of power within the academy because it arms the scholar with tools to pick apart everyone else’s work, without leaving itself open to objections or refutations. By feigning a position of critical neutrality, the postmodern critic can stand back and deconstruct everyone else’s discourses, as if they occupy an archimedean point.

But the postmodern critic has entered into a Faustian bargain: they have traded in their humanity—rooted in the need for meaning and coherence—in order to win arguments. I realize this sounds a bit over the top, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. Postmodern philosophy gives you the power to crush any intellectual opponent because it allows you to make the case that everything they believe is socially constructed, corrupt, oppressive, or all of the above.

As a result, a commitment to postmodern thought is likely to breed one of two things: severe existential angst and disenchantment or hypocrisy. Based on my observations I have seen both of these play out in the lives of fellow grad students. Some take postmodern epistemology seriously and this leads to a life of ironic distancing (nothing matters, but whatever) or in some instances serious mental illness like crippling anxiety and depression. Whereas others only use it rhetorically, all the while living life like everyone else—as if truth does exist and also matters. Indeed, I think the most famous postmodern thinkers fall squarely in this second category and thereby produce what I want to call vigilante scholarship.

Vigilante Scholarship

The vigilante scholar, in their quest for “justice” is a solitary figure; a byproduct of their perceived epistemic superiority. They need not reveal how they came to hold the views they do, nor justify them, for they know what is just. Their gift is their ability to see what no one else can, and their courage to speak “truth to power.”

We can see an example of this in Foucault (or at least the version of him which has been popularized). The Foucauldian method, invoking a hermeneutic of suspicion, works by unveiling or demystifying the relations of power that constitute claims to truth. For Foucault, the modern school system is not a public service designed to increase the autonomy of individuals, but a bureaucratic surveillance system that disciplines individuals into accepting the oppressive conditions of modernity. And the discipline of psychology is not a field of knowledge that teaches us about the human condition but rather a regime of truth that normalizes certain forms of subjectivity thereby pathologizing what does not fit.

The key here is that Foucault was offering an evaluation of modernity. But we might ask: how can one evaluate something without having some positive standard with which to compare it? Good question. My argument is that Foucault does have a standard, it’s just that he doesn’t admit it. This is also true of the speaker I met at Oxford. These postmodern thinkers therefore execute a very sly sleight of hand: in one breath they tell us all claims to truth are mere claims to power and therefore we ought to give up the quest for truth itself, while in another they claim to have some enlightened view of reality which allows them to critique what they see as unjust or oppressive.

We see this over and over again in postmodern works. The scholar begins by deconstructing existing discourses, as if from a position of mere skepticism. However, he is simultaneously making the case that these are corrupt or oppressive in some sense, thereby endorsing some (implicit) normative standard. But you can’t have it both ways. Either you endorse a position and critique others from there, or you commit fully to your epistemic skepticism. I have no problem with those who disrupt our historical narratives in order to supply better ones. But I find it frustrating when criticism and deconstruction become their own ends, as if human life—both individual and collective—can survive without shared frameworks of meaning and truth.

Although there do remain some diehard postmodernists out there, my guess is that very few people are actually postmodern in anything like a pure or consistent sense. That is, while we all might be postmodern in the cultural sense—that is, susceptible to the process of fragilization, which I outlined above—almost no one is wholly postmodern in the philosophical sense. Therefore much of what we see being advanced under the banner of “postmodernism” is simply hypocrisy in disguise.

 

Galen Watts is a PhD Candidate based at Queen’s University in Canada, but is currently a visiting student at Cambridge University in the UK. You can find his website at: www.galenwatts.com 

148 Comments

  1. Something along these lines was actually employed at an actual high school debate some years ago. The podcast RadioLab covered it in detail. Here’s a summary, and here’s an excerpt of the relevant detail:

    “…he and his teammates approached competitive debates against other universities in an unorthodox fashion: they always ignored the pre-declared debate topic… Once the game begins, Louisville-style debaters always focus all their competitive-debate energy on directly attacking the entire concept of competitive debate, condemning it as a racist and exclusionary practice that favors economically privileged students who can afford the time and expense required to hone their topical expertise with tools like research assistants and professional coaches.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Well, that is much easier on them. After all, no need to prepare for any debate, just the one they have regardless of the debate topic.

      • So, as I judge, I would immediately warn them to stay on topic or alternatively, immediately accept their thesis and end the contest. Of course, I’m sure that by their logic these actions would be racist (!?) by not allowing them a platform to express their views.

        • peanut gallery says

          It’s at this point I’d have to start considering if violence is not the answer. Violence is the question. “Yes” is the answer.

        • Angela says

          They have to change the rules for a judge to be able to do that though apparently.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Interesting how the Trmp-like behaviour of the black debaters is accepted by the soft penises of the debating establishment.
      I have seen this so much in all areas of life. If a person just ignores everybody ele’s point of view and makes the conversation all about the one thing they want, soon enough the average person will give in. I have seen daft old ladies use this trick, as well as children and Presidents. Leftists are very good at it. But when Trump out maneuvres them by using their favourite rhetorical weapon, they do get their knickers in such a knot.

  2. “… some postmodern junkie will reply that I am merely reproducing a socially constructed discourse.”

    The natural retort being, “Whether or not you actually believe that I’m obliged to ignore you.”

    • Ray Andrews says

      @dai davies

      I’m slowly loosing my formal logic — what’s the name of that fallacy? We brilliantly expose that which was never hidden and thus presume to have done some work, and we astonish our audience with our powers when we haven’t really done anything but restate the obvious.

      All social concepts are socially constructed, what else might we suppose they could be? Postmodernism is socially constructed. Victimhood is socially constructed. White Privilege and the Patriarchy and Systems of Oppression are socially constructed. Bicycle races are socially constructed as are quilting bees and meetings of the Senate. Apart from entities in physics (and even here some might disagree) what in human society is not a social construction?

      • Maxwell Yorkshire, PhD says

        Agreed.
        It might be added that iIt is an oxymoron to call a philosophy “postmodern”, because a philosophy makes claims for itself which postmodernism will not permit. Postmodernism does not claim to be a system of knowledge or a system for gaining knowledge. Postmodernism is a method of questioning the meaning of words, the premises of conventional wisdom, and philosophic claims.
        Postmodernism simply challenges claims and methods of knowledge; it asserts that the claimed knowledge may be untrue. Postmodernism does not purport to offer other values in place of that which it scrutinizes.

        • Peter from Oz says

          ”Postmodernism simply challenges claims and methods of knowledge; it asserts that the claimed knowledge may be untrue.”
          The post modernism is a meaningless concept, because that is what scholars have been doing for hundreds of years.
          Post modernism is more than skepticism. Skepticism is healthy and necessary. Post modernism is a deep seated hatred of everything that leads to severe oikophobia on the part of its practitioners. The irony is too that no post modernist has ever actually succeeded in anything other than to be a total bore.

    • Jay Baldwin says

      Or perhaps more simply, “I know you are, but what am I?”

  3. Great article. I especially like the part about the existential angst and disenchantment – and how it can manifest severe anxiety and depression. I found that very insightful. I’ve seen that effect happen to people. And yet they won’t give up their radical deconstructionism, it offers too impenetrable a high ground in argumentation. Very Faustian. Also a great reference. Thanks for the article!

    Cheers!

    • Lightning Rose says

      “Because how could you possibly live a human life really believing there is no ultimate truth?”

      Haaahahahaha . . . that is the Zen masters of old laughing on their mountaintop.

      Even in sub-atomic physics, it’s well known that the very existence or non-existence of a particle is subject to the position of its observer. There is ALWAYS a perspective that is inseparable from the observer; it is the sum of all their live experiences and learning to date. Non-escapable.

      “I have no worldview.”

      Right now there are as many “worldviews” as there are people, and especially “groups.” Everyone is SEARCHING for a “worldview,” as the ones which were handed down, the 19th-century “isms” and the traditional religions, no longer serve the social conditions of our time. In pre-scientific agrarian societies, even into early industrial times, they held society together. They also brough us the horrors of the Great War, the Gulags, the Holocaust, you get the picture.

      I would posit that the “worldview” which will gain traction and cohesion as the 21st century marches on will be whichever one works out in the real world to be the most practical. If a “worldview” makes it impossible to keep warm, keep the lights on, make a decent living and pass on your genes, it’s going to crash and burn. On that basis, many current “worldviews” are ludicrous and will therefore have a short shelf life. Start with those in denial of immutable human nature . . .

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Lightning Rose

        “Haaahahahaha . . . that is the Zen masters of old laughing on their mountaintop.”

        You don’t need to be a master to do some of their experiments. Try this: take some word to which you attach some abstract significance. Sit in a dark, quite room and start chanting that word. In some period of time that word will melt away into meaninglessness and the neurons associated with that word become exhausted. The point being that meaning is merely the firing of neurons. But, as every master knows, that’s all fine until you need to pee, at which point you get up, and get real again.

      • David Morley says

        Perhaps a better question to ask would have been “what position are you arguing from?” Now he might have answered that he had no position, but that would scarcely have stood up. If he was deconstructing structures of male power, for example, then he would have been doing so from a feminist position, and would have been assuming to be true a feminist view of society, of history etc etc.

        To claim otherwise, and say that the world just presented itself to his gaze as it actually is, that he wasn’t interpreting, put simply pointing out the objective truth about how the world works – is about as un Pomo as you can get.

        Though in practice that is what most of them do think. That all hitherto have been deceived, but they have lifted the veil and see the world as it really is. I would describe that as a naive position.

      • david of Kirkland says

        I don’t care that others hold different worldviews, whatever that is. So long as they don’t impose theirs on me.

  4. I wonder why postmodernists never talk about ethics. If moral standards are socially constructed, then murder, rape or nazism are not inherently wrong. We just agreed to it and we can always reconsider. As Feyerabend says, “Anything goes”

    • david of Kirkland says

      Indeed, would murdering Hitler as a baby have been moral or not? Is it really more moral to sacrifice one innocent life to save two? Who said? For me, my life is more important to me anybody else’s even while I enjoy living in a world primarily constructed by billions of others who came before me.

    • Peter from Oz says

      ASA

      Well said. Nobody seems to ask the obvious question you asked. If the postmodernist view is that everything is relative, then that must include postmodernist theory itself. If tradition is bunk, then antinomianism must also be bunk.
      Post modernism is thus all bunk. It is the blusterer’s meas of gaining power over the toiling masses.

  5. Artie says

    As that great philosopher Spock once said “In point of fact, it has always been easier to destroy than to create”.

    The difficult task is not to criticize, but defending against criticism..

    • david of Kirkland says

      Yes, just as it’s easier to criticize than do. Everyone thinks the hard work (and sometimes luck) of others can be discounted. Yelp, Twitter, Facebook are all proof that talk is cheap and easy compared to doing it.

  6. A coherent sensible article though the author’s conclusions about the inevitable meaningless of skepticism have been expressed long ago by Nietzsche, Heidegger and others.

    “They have traded their humanity – rooted in the need for meaning and coherence – in order to win an argument.”

    The author is correct that postmodern skepticism is used as a debating technique which can always devitalize any opponent, but I believe its appeal and ubiquity signifies much more than that. Postmodern skepticism reflects a hyper awareness of ourselves as subjective powers which Heidegger himself observes arises from the modern objectification of reality – the more reality is objectified the more we experience ourselves as subjective powers, i.e., the more reality appears ambiguous with no inherent meaning.

    To live, to exist is to take some form – this is true for galaxy, an amoeba or a human being. We human beings have the unique ability of being aware of able to articulate the nature of our forms, the nature of the relationships and correspondences which structure how we exist. The articulation of this form might be called a religion or a philosophy.

    Postmodern philosophers, just like all other human beings, exist in some form, they live by all kinds of judgments and discriminations. Yet they refuse or are incapable of articulating the nature of the form their lives take. Indeed, they take this refusal as a form of high intelligence.

    The author suggests that postmodernists actually have a philosophy and by not expressing it they embody a kind of “hypocrisy”. I think the author is being far too generous. When someone manifests no awareness of the nature of who they are and how they see the world working, I think a more appropriate word than hypocrisy would simply be idiocy.

    • Excellent additional thoughts, especially your last paragraph.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
      There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya, ’bout the raising of the wrist…

    • Craig WIllms says

      Self declared post modernists must be a joy to live with. And that’s the real measure of what people actually believe, how do they live and how do they treat those that are close to them. Some people – and I know a few – will shoot down everything I say at the basest level and if clever enough they can make me feel like the worst kind of self-deluded liar. They probably don’t even believe what they are saying…

      However, I know them and they live with a recognizable set of ‘normal’ beliefs and values that tell me they are actually decent human beings, they are just hopelessly contrarian. These are the people I think of when I try to understand post modernist thought.

  7. Funny that this writer this author starts this piece by quoting Jean Lyotard and his book that sees postmodernism as a critical response to the presumption of ultimate truth embodied in modernist doctrines like ‘Religious Fundamentalism.’ While religious fundamentalism is certainly marked by absolutism (largely around various bags of rituals, taboos and f&b obsessions), there is scarcely anything modernist about it as it is racket that has being going on for over 3000 years now, and via oldest of impulses involving nation grabbing, ethnic cleansing, inquisitions, witch burning, censorship and what have you.

    • david of Kirkland says

      All of human culture is both natural and artificial (when artificial means created by humans; or natural means that humans being inside nature must only do what’s natural). To reject humanity because humans created it by existing makes no sense.

  8. Stephen L. Hood says

    What the author is calling “postmodern philosophy” is simply deconstruction, which is indeed merely a method of reading and debating; there is no platform, no set of beliefs. Actual postmodern philosophy is something different, well articulated by Lyotard and Derrida, the latter most clearly in Limited Inc., where he explicitly states there is indeed Truth. The presenter of the secular at the conference is just another tiresome deconstructionist who has erroneously conflated the method with philosophy itself. Thankfully we’re moving on from the rubbish spewed forth by self-described ‘postmodernists’ (most of whom are incapable of reading and understanding Hegel and Nietzsche, so the only ‘post’ they understand is breakfast cereal and the fitful theorizing that comes after giving up trying to read such difficult texts) and we’ve entered the age of ‘authenticity.’ Someone like Peter Sloterdijk is more atuned to this transition. As an aside, let me add that postmodern culture is decidedly NOT neo-Marxist (Marxism is about as modern as it gets); culturally, postmodernism came out of the art, architecture, and design world, and eventually infected literature and poetry.

    • Lightning Rose says

      The only “truth” I see anywhere is the laws of Nature. If you throw a rock up, it will fall down. You can’t walk on water. Oxygen is required for consciousness. Time as we perceive it is linear. Egg and sperm must come together for reproduction. The resulting human has to eat, drink, and die.

      All else is the subjective belief and spin we choose to put on it all in each successive age. I would posit that such “spin” exists to serve the practical enablement of life to continue. At the moment the “gyroscope” is a little confused.

      • david of Kirkland says

        Ah, but you made it too easy to argue. Which direction is up on a round planet? What if you throw that rock while in outer space? I can walk on ice, which is indeed water. Many people perceive time as erratic or even repeating (deja vu). There’s non-sexual reproduction right here on Earth. The resulting human doesn’t have to eat or drink and will still die as they will if they also eat and drink; plus, if you eat/drink poison…

        • Peter from Oz says

          But all those things you meantion are facts, themselves arising from the law of nature. So Lightning Rose’s point stands.

        • Kes Sparhawk says

          And right there is the problem with pomo (and some theorists); while all these are arguable, there is also a tacit understanding of the norm, and intention. I wrote a paper in Rhetoric and Philosophy which argued that the sun would never rise tomorrow, because it doesn’t — the earth turns. But while it pleased people like my prof, most people would view it as picking holes in something everyone knows anyway — like implicature, where you screw with someone… er, flout… by taking what they say literally: “Is there any salt?” “yes,” said without moving to get it…

    • Peter from Oz says

      Wasn’t critical theory the invention of the Frankfurt School, that hot bed of marxist thinkers?

      • Kes Sparhawk says

        Yes and no, but POMO is a subsubbranch of one piece of critical theory, which requires the acceptance of poststructuralism (which requires rewriting Marx, a structuralist) just to begin with. And it draws far more on French deconstructionist thought than Germans trying to figure out why the Nazis flourished. Those of us with marxist leanings (which was coded as “critical theory” when I was in grad school) noticed that pomo quickly fled from a) causality; and b) analyses of power, because it didn’t fit well with its assumptions concerning deconstruction.

      • Tersitus says

        Which raises the question of the difference (spare me la differance) between “deconstruction” and Adorno’s “negative dialectics.”

    • Tersitus says

      Thanks for some important distinctions and clarifying observations, SLH.

  9. Saw file says

    Nice succinct and concise article.
    Bravo, exposing a whole lot of BS so clearly.

    …”in one breath they tell us all claims to truth are mere claims to power and therefore we ought to give up the quest for truth itself, while in another they claim to have some enlightened view of reality which allows them to critique what they see as unjust or oppressive.”

    Perfect!

    TY

  10. Stephen L. Hood says

    Also, there are postmodern ethicists and moral philosophers, Edith Wyschogrod being one of the most influential and rigorous. I’m talking about philosophers who take postmodern moral philosophy to be the struggle to articulate morality and ethics after Auschwitz, they recognize the problem, that the structures of modernity gave us Auschwitz — a real dilemma. I’m not talking about weak-minded ‘deconstructionists’ who call themselves ‘postmodernists.’

    • Ghatanathoah says

      @Stephen L. Hood

      I don’t see the dilemma. Anyone with cursory knowledge of history knows there have been Auschwitz-like massacres since ancient times. If they were smaller that’s only because there were less people in the past to kill than there were in 1944. Modernity didn’t “give” us Auschwitz. Auschwitz has been with us since the Stone Age.

      Modernity couldn’t stop Auschwitz, but it couldn’t stop a lot of human problems. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it has stopped, reduced, or mitigated a lot of other problems. Modernity has been pretty awesome at fighting disease and hunger, for instance.

      • Stephen L. Hood says

        @Ghatanathoah
        The dilemma is how historical progress, as a fundament of modernity, took the West to Auschwitz. Of course there have been other mass death events in the West, particularly in the modern era — Armenians, Native Americans, Irish, et cetera — but the Holocaust is unique because it was an attempt to obliterate Judaism and all Jews from Europe, and Judaism is understood in the cultural memory (mnemohistory) of the West as the originator of Western monotheism and monotheistic morality. To use the structures of modernity — railroads, radio, telecommunications, modern administrative bureaucracy, engineered chemicals — to destroy one of the progenitors of Western civilization when this civilization believed with certitude that it was progressing, steadily improving, is the dilemma. Also, I would disagree with point that there have been other “Auschwitz-like massacres”. Within the cubic meters of Crematorium No. 2 at Auschwitz, the Nazis murdered some 500,000 people in 36 months — no other place on earth holds such a macabre distinction — It’s utterly unique.

        • Jay Raskin says

          Technological progress is simply technological progress. If the people who take political control wish to use it to make human lives better, they will. If they wish to use it to destroy the human race or some portion thereof they will.
          When people seeking power say “X” is the true evil in the world and “X” must be destroyed, we should start to worry.

        • Sherman says

          “Within the cubic meters of Crematorium No. 2 at Auschwitz, the Nazis murdered some 500,000 people in 36 months — no other place on earth holds such a macabre distinction — It’s utterly unique.:”

          Not actually true. The Mongols routinely killed massive numbers of people in far less time than that.

          A routine practice for them when capturing a city, with, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people, was to “divide the population.” The population was bound, marched outside the city, and distributed among their perhaps 50,000 man army. On the signal, everybody chopped heads, which were then used to build a pyramid.

          So in the Mongol massacres, hundreds of thousands of people died in minutes, certainly sometimes less than an hour, in a very small area.

          The actual numbers involved are what’s in question. Reported numbers from the time are probably hyperbolic. For instance, modern scholars peg the massacre of Baghdad in 1278 at 200,000 to 800,000. Arab historians of the time took the number to over 2,000,000. The problem is of course that it’s doubtful Baghdad had a population of 2,000,000.

          But it;s absolutely certain that this fate befell dozens or hundreds of cities in China, Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere. Central Asia and Mesopotamia had been among the most vibrant centers of civilization for millennia. They have still not fully recovered from the Mongols.

          You don’t need railroads or other technology to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a very short time. You just needs a few tens of thousands of willing killers and sharpened steel.

          The Nazis had an army over 10M, and it took them 36 months to kill 500,000 people? The Mongols would have considered them wimps.

          • Stephen L. Hood says

            @Sherman
            Re: Mongols, neither Western nor modern. Re: Holocaust, it’s a question of methodology, not numbers. Also, in terms of historiography (which is what we’re debating here), the Nazis left us meticulous records, they literally cataloged every murder; we don’t have such records for most other genocides, not even of the Armenians in 1916, the Bosnians in 1995, or the raft of other genocides since then.

    • It is not at all obvious that modernity gave us Auschwitz. There have been massacres based on ethnicity and religion throughout history and pre-history some on a very large scale. Industrialisation and technology gives the ability to perform actions on a wider scale and more efficiently but otherwise Auschwitz does not seem especially modern.

      I am reminded of slavery. The newly capitalist countries on the verge of the industrial resolution captured and relocated slaves on a vast scale but the trade itself had existed for millenia and the same western countries for the first time banned slavery across large areas of the world. The net effect of western capitislist/liberla countries on slavery has therfore been a massive reduction in the extent of slavery.

      I have no data to back it up but I suspect that the modern era is if anything characterised by a reduction in the number of massacres and genocides.

      • Bill Haywood says

        The Final Solution was rationalized with Social Darwinism and race science. Eugenics was a big part of it — they gassed the disabled. This was cutting-edge philosophy of science in that day. The Nazis were reading American race science pontificators like Madison Grant. Fascism is an ideology of nations — which are quite modern, only a few hundred years old, and it spread partly through electronic means. Add to that the industrial organization and trendy methods of killing and you have a phenomenon that was thoroughly modern. What about the Holocaust was NOT modern? Was the banal bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann your Mongol mutilator?

  11. A related trick is the use in normal conversation of phrases like “that’s your opinion” or “its more complicated than that”.

    These sound sensible and intelligent if you are not careful, but on their own they are vacuous. The latter in particular is an accurate assessment of almost any statement about almost anything. It is trivially true and hence meaningless, unless you then go into the details and correct the alleged oversimplifications.

    Any statement about anything is a simplification (including that one), so if you want to say something meaningfully critical about it you’ve got to point out the key oversimplifications and try to correct them, not just complain that simplifications have been made.

    These phrases often get used as a way for the speaker to make themselves look clever and perceptive, unlike the crassly overconfident person they are responding to.

    The postmodernists (or deconstructionists) seem to be pulling the next-level version of this trick by pointing out that people make simplifications, which is obviously true, and that these often relate to power structures in society, which is also obviously true, but if they are not offering any improvements then so what?

    (Yes, its more complicated than this, obviously).

    • Saw file says

      @TJR
      Yes, I understand that method.
      I am a bit old school ( Socratic Method).
      I just simply ask Q’s.
      Then more advanced Q’s.
      I am always willing to expand my knowledge, but I have found this method generally either: irritates; enrages;confuses; ends the conversation.
      Somewhat frustrating, I must admit.

      • Morgan Foster says

        @Saw file

        The Socratic method is poorly understood, I find.

        It seems to work best in printed form where the author is recounting a Socratic session that the reader has not personally witnessed, leaving the writer free to edit, change and flat-out lie about what his (invariably moronic) opponent said during his part of the alleged conversation.

        In actual conversation it seldom works very well.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Morgan Foster

          But nothing works out very well in actual conversation. That one might edit a Socratic dialogue to improve it for others to read says nothing that isn’t obvious. And one might even steel-man one’s opponent rather than make of him a moron — tho of course that is too often done.

        • Stellina GP says

          Indeed the Socratic method is poorly understood. By some. The Socratic method that “works best in printed form” applies only to those who do not speak ancient Greek well or at all, and unfortunately rely on translations and interpretations (something Plato would find hilarious), a means which inherently is restrictive and often misleading. It is not a coincidence Arab scholars, back in the day, were the ones (except the Greeks themselves) that truly understood the ancient Greek texts they saved and translated: they were well aware of the “Greek context,” by means of trade, cultural exchange, appreciation, common histories and geographical proximity. The nuances of ancient Greek (like for example the significant tactic by Plato, to use two different words to refer to Zeus in the second person [“Zenos” and “Dios”: same word referring to the same thing, with two different meanings] are only one example of how he (Plato) used a word to give specific meaning or avoid a misunderstanding of his intent) cannot be captured in their entirety by any translation or interpretation. But words, in the Platonic context in particular, are concrete, strategically placed to function as the carrier of a particular meaning. A meaning which, even as a fluent speaker of ancient Greek is not enough, unless one also comprehends the cultural and “philosophical” context in which these words were written. One of the reasons postmodernists are among the weakest to teach, discuss or analyse “the Greeks.”

      • david of Kirkland says

        That’s a sad set of “eithers” since they are all negative. Is there ever a positive outcome? I’d guess fewer than we’d hope because so few are prepared to discuss anything to details they’ve never thought about themselves.
        I’m always amazed at how easily people will believe something told to them when it conforms to their pre-conceived notions, and nearly impossible to believe otherwise.

    • somewoman says

      Agree. I’ve also seen postmodernists resort to a sort of deflection from the point of necessary obfuscation. What I mean is what postmodernists say something that sounds convoluted yet seems to be making some kind of general direction of an argument. Then the person who wants to argue against the point tries to frame the postmodernist analysis in more concrete language. Then the postmodernist insists that such is not his position and restates his position again in convoluted language. It’s as if the postmodernist position can never be distilled into a clear argument because the position requires being stated in some bizarre obfuscating format.

      This makes postmodernist claims difficult to argue with- you can’t argue with a point that is never really articulated and is only vaguely hinted at. But then it’s questionable if the postmodernist point really has any meaning. Can a set of bizarre and unfalsifiable statements illuminate any kind of truth? Can they even form a kind of criticsm to a claim to truth?

  12. It sounds like Taylor is suggesting ignorance is or was bliss. Yet the more a belief is shared the greater danger it will be hollowed-out by people subscribing outwardly to it but inwardly doubting it. Peer pressure can masquerade as consensus and solidarity,

  13. Heike says

    I believe at heart they are utopians who want us to live in a perfect society. Since we don’t live in a perfect society (and never will, Utopia literally means “no place”) they find this incredibly frustrating. They see the rest of us living in the society that is blocking their perfect world from being born, and they do what they see needs to be done: begin demolishing our messy society to make way for their ideal. It is very satisfying for intellectuals to point out everything that is wrong, and be freed of the responsibility to provide solutions. The perfect society can’t exist until we get rid of the present one. To this goal are postmodernists dedicated.

    • David Morley says

      Yes, and that captures the basic naivety behind the whole project.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @David Morley

        David! Welcome to Quillette, you’ll find it hugely better than TC I dare say.

    • Agreed. Adding that the whole idea of this Utopian dystopia is based on social constructionism, premised on the negation of any kind of (a) human nature and the unshakable belief in the ultimate and endless malleability of human’s behavior.

      The fact that the only way they see a universal human nature as narrow and one-dimensional, instead of a vast, complex, varied and variable in its universality is mind-boggling.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Indeed, they even mock realists as if we accept the status quo rather than reject tyranny to achieve their preferences.

  14. Gus Bovona says

    Please give up your privilege of being able to criticize postmodernism and admit that this article is nothing more than yet another attempt to retain the power you didn’t earn.

    /s

    • Saw file says

      @Gus B.
      Please understand that ‘privilege’ is just a social construct.
      BTW…the power we have earned, is the power we have actually earned.
      Oh….that’s a double double and one w/ 2 cream. K?
      And give the table another wipe, sweets.
      It’s kinda iky.
      :p

      • Stellina GP says

        What makes you think, poorly demonstrated sarcasm can be used interchangeably with a plausible counterargument?

    • @Gus Bovona congratulations, for providing a perfect example of what the author was describing. From the article “Postmodern philosophy gives you the power to crush any intellectual opponent because it allows you to make the case that everything they believe is socially constructed, corrupt, oppressive, or all of the above.” Your comment seems tailor-made to fit that description. Nice job!

      • @Patrick M O’Keefe
        @Saw file

        It seemed to me his(Gus’) comment was sarcastic or the ‘/s’ means nothing.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Ex

          Or to belabor the obvious, the ‘/s’ means what it means and the fact that that meaning is socially constructed is trivially obvious and doesn’t tell us anything. The wise philosopher tells the child that wetness is merely what happens when an object is brought into contact with water. The child wonders why this is considered profound.

          • david of Kirkland says

            @Ray, the child will understand better if you give him a bowl of cereal that’s dry. Or bake his bread with dry flour. Or eat food without drinking. Or raise a plant with dry soil.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @david of Kirkland

            Yes. The child is designed to find relationship and meaning in the world and does so. This is called learning and it is most strange that some folks want to try to undermine it.

      • Gus Bovona says

        You’re welcome! I think that move qualifies as being unfalsifiable.

    • So sorry, Gus. Your /s was deconstructed and put in the asystemic empty place of provisionally but always already priviledged in the ideologically enabled struggle of the /s and the non-/s.
      You’re welcome.

  15. Fickle Pickle says

    It all boils down to the inherent limitations of everyone’s point of view. Which is the product of their own personal life history, especially the first 2 or 3 years of their life.

    And their cultural conditioning too. Our cultural conditioning is the “invisible sea” in which we unconsciously “live”.
    Both are very powerful forces pattern and control every aspect of ones body-mind-complex. Neither of these two powerful formative patterns can be undone by any kind of contrary philosophical word games, however seemingly sophisticated.

    Here is another interesting perspective on our situation.

    During the period of the European Renaissance, there was a profound struggle to come to terms with the notion that the nature of the universe was not as it had previously been presumed to be.
    The old view had the Earth at the center of everything. In the period of the European Renaissance, people had to come to terms with the notion, based on physical perceptual observation, that the Earth, along with the other planets of our solar system revolves around the Sun.
    The old view did not rightly represent the Truth of our situation, but neither does the new view. In either case, whether old or new, if the point of view were shifted so much as a hair’s breadth to the left or right, the universe so described would no longer exist.

    Is anyone familiar with the unique understanding of the nature of Reality communicated by Franklin Merrel-Wolff. He is seldom, if ever, mentioned or referred to in any of the usual philosophical chit-chat.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Which is why the enlightenment attempt to suggest that government should be limited and that individuals should be as free as society can bear and treat everyone equally under a clear set of laws that regulate behavior so we can plan for the future.
      When your answer/preference becomes coerced on others, problems arise.

    • mitchellporter says

      I did not recognize Merrell-Wolff’s name. But I have looked him up and he is not completely sui generis. He is yet another western thinker with intuitions of monism, metaphysical idealism (consciousness as ontologically primary), and nondualism, who has found something in common with eastern philosophy (Hinduism, Buddhism).

      I would say that the clash of philosophies we have – scientific materialism, postmodernism, spirituality – is not really new. I would think that every literate civilization has sophists, skeptics, and relativists. Western science may have produced some extraordinary and genuinely novel facts and perspectives, but the basic antagonism between philosophies which focus on the body and the senses as what’s real, versus philosophies which talk about something else or something more, has occurred many times before.

      And Merrell-Wolff, from what I can see, does not have what it would take, to displace scientific materialism and atomism as the ruling metaphysics of the everyday world. Against the powers of calculus, quantum mechanics, the computer, molecular biology, neuroscience, what does he offer? Aphorisms. The assertion that, beyond the world of appearances arrayed in space and time, lies Being itself, and that Being is timeless consciousness. A typology of some altered states of consciousness.

      As I said, there are many thinkers who offer similar fare, which may speak to the experience of being alive and being aware of it, and to that part of our intellectual culture aware that there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. But none of them has a coherent system of thought which can absorb and subsume the concrete results of the natural sciences.

      These philosophies that revolve around consciousness exist as a counterpoint to the naturalistic narrative. You can live a daily life governed by economics and made possible by applied electromagnetic theory, and then use the knowledge of yourself as a self separate from all that, as the basis of an alternative worldview in which everything is consciousness, and the material world of money and electricity is just a low-level manifestation… But no-one has a non-materialistic system of explanation with a rigor and success comparable to the sciences. You may find e.g. the house physicists of Transcendental Meditation claiming that the specific terms in their unified theory equations correspond to aspects of consciousness, but for now all such things are speculation at best and pseudoscience at worst.

  16. Jeffrey S says

    How is postmodern philosophy, then, different from Nihilism?

    • David Morley says

      In a phrase: nihilism is sincere.

      The postmodernist only points the withering gaze of scepticism at those things opposed to her own implicit beliefs. Nihilism results from also pointing that gaze inward and undermining ones own beliefs. One is left with nothing.

      • Alistair says

        Not a bad observation. I’d class Nietzsche and Heidegger as (mostly) nihilist and sincere.

        Foucault, Derrida, and the rest of the PoMo crowd….well, not so much. You always got the impression that they were looking at the audience with a smirk and knowing wink whilst expounding their doctrines. There’s an insufferable degree of bad faith at the heart of most deconstructionist philosophers.

          • Correct. And the misunderstanding that they are nihilists is what characterizes postmodern thinking (if I may use this oxymoron).

          • David Morley says

            I think you’d have to say that Nietzsche was close to nihilism, which is why he struggled so hard against it. He recognised it in himself. He also recognised that any interpretation was itself capable of a fresh interpretation which would relativise it. Thus any deconstruction would itself be capable of being deconstructed and relativised.

            And neither Nietzsche nor Heidegger were naive enough to believe that after all the dirty work of deconstruction was done, what would remain intact would be a quasi Christian world view fit for the mind of a not very bright Sunday school teacher!

            What in fact many post modernists seem to believe in in practice is the existence of a meta narrative (their own) which is beyond radical critique. So, for example, the physical sciences might be revealed as an element of patriarchy – but patriarchy theory itself is beyond critique. It just is!

      • Ray Andrews says

        @David Morley

        Yes, just so. The nihilist takes nihilism to it’s conclusion and ends with simply saying ‘good night’. The deconstructionist should not even open her mouth, since the first word that might come out of it is already a social construction that comes from an oppressive power structure called language. The deconstructionist merely repeats one of the old logic problems: “This statement is false.” The right thing to do is ask them to be quiet.

        • Nihilists, and sarcasts, are deep down always idealists, abhorred by the aberations (even if small) they experience in real life and society.
          Schopenhauer was a good example.

      • Tersitus says

        Would I be correct in concluding that in a world of postmodernists, everyone is a poser? I’ll take an existentialist any day.

  17. David Morley says

    Great article.

    The question left open though is whether this is a consciously adopted cynical strategy. I actually don’t think it is. Rather I think we are seeing a manifestation of something more naive – the belief that while scepticism applies to the beliefs of others – it does not apply to the beliefs that I implicitly hold. It’s a bit like the adolescent game of psychoanalysing the motives and behaviours of others, while leaving ones own psyche untouched.

    This naivety sometimes seems to go further, towards a belief that once the job of deconstruction is over what will remain are – the views I implicitly hold.

    There may be some exceptions, but hidden behind most post modernists is someone who dogmatically believes in their own rightness.

    • David Morley – I believe you are correct that Nietzsche “struggled with nihilism” but I also think it accurate to say, as he does of himself, that he left it behind him.

      Nihilism for Nietzsche is simultaneously an historical force and a state of mind which generally manifests itself in the inability to see or accept what he called “reality as it is”. Nietzsche saw the nihilism in Christianity being transformed and fulfilled in the modern world Postmodernism, despite it claiming Nietzsche as a kind of intellectual godfather, is the fulfillment of nihilism.

      The postmodernist cannot see or accept that we live in a paradoxical world of order/disorder, growth/decay etc. The postmodernist “resents” all form, hence this fixation on the ideal (or what Nietzsche would call “idol”) of equality.

  18. D.B. Cooper says

    [The postmodernist] is simultaneously making the case that these are corrupt or oppressive in some sense, thereby endorsing some (implicit) normative standard.

    I think the author’s (Watts) argument is actually stronger than what he lets on. I would’ve like to have seen him expand on the passage (above) a bit more than he did. To Watts’ point, it simply is the case that in order to make a value judgment one must presuppose the validity of a logical comparator. That is, how could the postmodernist believe that a given discourse was “corrupt or oppressive” without also believing in the existence of a lesser or non-corrupt/non-oppressive discourse? Obviously, they couldn’t, since a thing can only be good or bad relative to a state that is better or worse. Put differently, a person or thing cannot be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ unless you also believe there is a person or thing that is (or that can be) ‘better’ or ‘worse’, up to and including being the ‘best’ or the ‘worst’. With that in mind, I would actually go further than Watts by saying that a value judgement not only implies the endorsement of a normative standard, a value judgment actually requires the endorsement of a normative standard. But, honestly, that’s just the start of the problem.

    [The postmodern thinkers] tell us all claims to truth are mere claims to power and therefore we ought to give up the quest for truth…

    The most salient question would be, why aren’t their truth claims also mere claims to power? I mean, if it is the case that ‘all claims to truth are mere claims to power and therefore we ought to give up the quest for truth’, then it would follow that the claim “all claims to truth are mere claims to power” is itself a mere claim to power; and therefore, they also “ought to give up [their] quest for truth.” They may claim that theirs is an “enlighten view,” but as enlightened as it may be, it is still a… wait for it… mere claim to power.

    Moreover, if we take seriously the idea that there’s no objective truth, then we should ask ourselves how can the claim that “all claims to truth are mere claims to power” be itself true? It’s not clear that it can, at least not according to them. One would think that by taking such an absolutist position, the postmodernist would’ve noticed they’re effectively sawing off the very branch they’re sitting on. In other words, either it is the case that “all claims are mere claims to power,” or it is the case that not “all claims are mere claims to power.” But it cannot be the case that both claims are true, at least not simultaneously. Thus, to subscribe to the postmodernist view is to be caught on the horns of a dilemma.

    The more intransigent postmodernist might be inclined to appeal to special pleading, and while I’m sympathetic to the idea of believing in the validity of your own propositions, it must be said that it is nothing short of mad work to want to unburden a confounding argument from the constraints of logic by exempting it from its own reckoning. So, let’s be blunt about what’s going on here: claiming exemption by way of enlightenment is hostage taking of the first order. A little self-reflection would go a long way for these guys.

    • Alistair says

      That’s a pretty good summation of the main problems with the deconstructionists. Someone has their philosophy hat on today. +1

      But really, do you think the average deconstructionist just lacks self-reflection? Well, maybe. I always felt that it was bad faith all the way to bottom with these guys.

      • D.B. Cooper says

        @Alistair

        You’re too kind, really! But as much as I’d like to take credit for that +1 you so generously awarded to me, the truth is, I read Philosophy For Dummies last summer on vacation and it’s been paying dividends ever since.

        As to the question of do I think the average deconstructionist just lacks self-reflection. Well, no, I guess, I don’t. I suspect, as you do, that bad faith charlatans can found among their ranks; which isn’t particularly surprising given they’re involved with a philosophy whose governing tenet is the idea that there’s no difference between shit and Shiva. Having said that, I still maintain there’s benefit in a healthy dose of self-reflection.

        • Constantin says

          @D.B. Cooper
          I’ll jump into the conversation a bit late, but the problem of positing all snakes as poisonous for the sake of safety confuses expediency with utility. Negotiating reality and nature is a horrendous task in the best of times and the most expedient way to obtain a somewhat desirable behavior (in this case a healthy mistrust of snakes) has only an infinitesimal chance to be also the correct approach to a problem. In this case, for example, it could easily invite violence and worse towards the non-venomous kind, and so forth. The “higher utility” you speak about would only be a valid concept if problems could be tackled in absolute isolation with no concern about of undesired consequences. Where you hit is not always where it cracks, and utility cannot be measured in isolation from all related consequences.

          • D.B. Cooper says

            @Constantin

            Come on in, Sir. Objections are always welcomed. I see you’ve read Mill’s Utilitarianism. Good man. In any case, for reasons which follow, I must disagree with your assertion that “positing all snakes as poisonous for the sake of safety confuses expediency with utility.

            In my original post on the utility of false statements vis-à-vis all snakes are poisonous, the term “utility” is taken – and should be understood – to mean a particular condition or quality of usefulness or effectiveness. Another way to understand my usage of the term would be to ask: What is more likely to produce a desired outcome; which in this case would be the well-being of a child? Which claim would be more useful or effective or profitable? I argue that in this case, all else being equal, a lie (falsehood) would have greater benefit, would be more profitable, more useful than the truth.

            The term “expediency” on the other hand, describes the practicality of a thing, or the convenience of it. It may be the case that the most expedient or convenient choice also has a higher utility, but the most expedient choice doesn’t necessarily have a higher utility. In other words, if the outcome that I’m hoping to produce is the child’s well-being, then the deference in expediency between the truth (not all snakes) and a lie (all snakes) is of no concern to me. Moreover, what you seem to be describing is something closer to a heuristic; which while both useful and expedient, is nonetheless inherently flawed. Therefore, a heuristic does me no good, because as I said, the kid has to bat a thousand. In short, the expediency of a choice is of no importance. The only thing that matters is its usefulness. Which choice will be more effective at producing the result I want?

            Having hopefully made clear the distinction between an expedient choice and a useful choice, I do want to address the following claim:

            The “higher utility” you speak about would only be a valid concept if problems could be tackled in absolute isolation with no concern about of undesired consequences.

            I grant you, given the option between two choices, the “higher utility” choice doesn’t occur in isolation and, yes, there are consequences to be concerned about. But, then again, so too would the “lower utility” choice. Surely, you’re not suggesting there are no consequences for, in this case, the truth (not all snakes). We’re talking about a 10-year-old, remember, and if he one mistake, he very likely could die. That seems like an undesired consequence to me. It’s hard to know how one judges such things, but I would think the death of a child would qualify as an undesired consequence. With respect to the snake itself, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t tell the lie (all snakes) on the grounds that he/she would kill every snake he encountered. Is there some reason we couldn’t also tell the child not to kill snakes at all? And if so, it’s not obvious why.

            The point is, no choice happens within a vacuum. If “absolute isolation” is the standard, then what grounds would you have for making any choice, utility be damned? In many instances, this one included, not making a choice is still a choice, and more importantly, a choice that is likely to be accompanied by undesired consequences. Every choice has unintended consequences and many times at least some of those are undesirable. Is having less than perfect information a nonstarter now, when making life choices? This seems an unreasonable standard.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @ D.B. Cooper

      Good day D.B.:

      ” all claims to truth are mere claims to power”

      Further, there is the unexamined premise that the above identity statement is a problem (it is implicit in the choice of words that this exposé uncovers a deep evil). I would counter that truth always gives power and that that is the metric of something being true: it gives me predictive agency over the subject of the truth-claim. It is true that shit flows down hill in pipes, and knowing that truth, I now have ‘power’ (control, agency) over my plumbing so as to obtain a desired result as to what the plumbing is for. If power is the ability to exert agency over objects, then truth being power is not only obvious, it is desirable.

      Now, the one who has truth must therefore have power, but it might be the case that that power is used in an evil way, but it does not follow. The pomos also presume without demonstration that all power is used in evil ways (ignoring for the moment your above observation that even this presumes we know what evil is). But we observe that power is often used in beneficient ways. The building of the Brooklyn Bridge was an exercise in power, but was it evil?

      • D.B. Cooper says

        @Ray Andrews

        I would counter that truth always gives power and that that is the metric of something being true: it gives me predictive agency over the subject of the truth-claim.

        Greetings, Sir! So, I want to ask you a question regarding the passage above. If it is the case that truth gives you predictive agency over the subject of a truth-claim, could it ever be the case that an untruth gives you greater predictive agency over the subject? In other words, can a lie or falsehood ever have more utility than a valid or truthful statement?

        • Ray Andrews says

          @D.B. Cooper

          “In other words, can a lie or falsehood ever have more utility than a valid or truthful statement?”

          Yikes … we’d hope not. If someone engineers a bridge with math that says that 2+2=5, at the risk of being nasty, I’d hope his bridge falls down and I expect his bridge to fall down anyway. Mind, with people, who do not respond correctly to truth (as would inanimate nature), we see lies having huge utility. Hitler was perhaps the most famously effective liar, with Trump trying hard, but finishing second — quantity is no substitute for quality.

          • D.B. Cooper says

            @Ray

            …people who do not respond correctly to truth… we see lies having huge utility.

            This is my point exactly! Consider that when viewed from a point of pragmatism, it may be the case that an objective truth (a fact) has far less – or none, strictly speaking – utility than a useful fiction (falsehood/lie).

            To understand what I mean by a useful fiction, take for example, a parent who tells their 10-year-old child that all snakes are poisonous, rather than the actual truth, i.e., not all snakes are poisonous. Assuming the child believes the parent – or at least behaves as though he/she believes the parent – it seems apparent, at least as it pertains to the child’s well-being, that the parent’s falsehood (lie) has, or would potentially have, a higher utility than the actual truth.

            Of course, you might object that the falsehood would only have a higher utility if we assume the child were able to perfectly discern poisonous from non-poisonous snakes; to which, I would reply, “How many 10-year-olds do you know who could perfectly discriminate between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes… every… single… time?” Because in this game, the kid is going to have to bat a thousand. Are you rolling that dice, because I’m not?

            In any case, I’ve discussed this issue before, and while it does nothing to accommodate my moral predilections, I will admit, I find it practically interesting.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @D.B. Cooper

            Yes, as usual simple formulas fail. Then there is the ‘necessary lie’ to muddy the water even further. I’m trying to like muddy water.

  19. J.G.W says

    You’ve deconstructed postmodernism by characterising it as a socially constructed oppressive debating tool used by elite thinkers to leverage power against the intellectually inferior…. a very postmodernist argument, no?

    If one of your main points of criticism is that postmodernist thinkers misrepresent themselves as “feigning a position of critical neutrality” in order to win academic power struggles whilst offering no “alternative accounts”, perhaps it would be prudent to make sure you provide one.

    Without such an account, your argument is just more nihilistic “hypocrisy in disguise”.

    • J.G.W.

      I think you are correct that the author offers no “alternative account” though that is not the intent of the article. The article merely demonstrates that postmodern logic ends in a kind of meaningless nothingness which has no relation to how humans actually exist.

      The author appears to be applying skepticism to skepticism which, as you suggest, involves a kind of new assertion of power. The question is what is the nature of this power? What is the author affirming – if only implicitly? Moreover, just as the author has applied skepticism to postmodern skepticism, you’ve applied skepticism to the author’s skepticism . . . where does this end?

      This is, I believe, precisely the issue which concerned Nietzsche which he called “the problem with Socrates”. Nobody – postmodernists, the author, you, me – lives by skepticism. Skepticism tells us what we don’t believe, but nothing about how we actually live and structure our lives.

  20. codadmin says

    Do postmodernists ever ‘deconstruct’ the non-western world?

    If anyone has an example of a postmodern critique of non-western societies, or non-western people, I would love to hear it.

  21. David Morse says

    Philosophy has been mucking around in dry definitional haggling and umpteen varieties of pointing out that functional discourse coalesces around power for decades now. These questions have been sliced and diced ad infinitum and mainly serve the reproduction and expansion of humanities and social sciences departments.

    There is a place for word-wrangling as a way to sharpen intellects and to introduce doubt to the mindlessly morally confident, but it’s slow seepage into mainstream culture and politics is just making it impossible to talk and agree on common goals.

    We need to throw away the idea of capital ‘T’ God-platonic truth because we’re never going to touch bottom. I like Rorty’s prescription that we through out foundationalism, adopt some humility and irony, and piecemeal make incremental, material improvements in people’s lives qua people not identity groups.

    The argument should take a back seat to the attitude. Culture precedes language.

  22. ClearBlue says

    Then one might ask the postmodernist “How can you be speaking truth to power if there is no truth?”

  23. Postmodernism considered as an academic variant of trolling?
    Or – since postmodernism predates the internet – trolling as postmodernism for the masses?

  24. C Young says

    This is what Nicholas Shackel calls the ‘No-Position Position’.

    “Firstly the meta-philosophical claim is made that philosophy cannot properly be done except negatively: that to occupy a position is already to be mistaken. I am going to refer to this position as the No-Position Position. Secondly, alogosia is asserted: true normative theories of objective rationality are not available; whatever we take to be the canons of rationality are constructed, so could have been constructed differently, and that although there may be some ways in which they could not be constructed, among those ways in which they can be constructed there are no better or worse ways of constructing them. The upshot of this pair, the foxybit, is that the postmodernist can use normative notions of rationality whilst evading accountability to rational standards.”
    https://philpapers.org/archive/SHATVO-2.pdf

    Postmodernists play the games without accepting it rules – a brilliantly winning strategy at the scale of a single interaction, but an utterly losing strategy when scaled to a life philosophy. Its nihilism, rebranded.

  25. Farris says

    Postmodernism is an intellectual dead end. It eschews truth. But why?

    “Truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”
    Solzhenitsyn

    Postmodernism is deconstruction for the sake of deconstruction. Deconstruction in and of itself is not bad, it is an effective debate strategy. However when deconstruction drifts into nihilism it becomes juvenile and puerile.

    • Lightning Rose says

      . . . and its primary tenet is, “The Rules don’t apply to ME!”

  26. Jovany says

    ” But I find it frustrating when criticism and deconstruction become their own ends, as if human life—both individual and collective—can survive without shared frameworks of meaning and truth. ”

    Nietzsche, and later Foucault knew very well the only true binary question ( if it isn’t answered in a Biblical way you become a creator of values and contradictions are fine as long as you are creating and demolishing the piece of clay that life is), that true questions is: will you bow your knee to Jesus as Lord or reject Him as a society and individuals?

    If you reject this proposition, “shared frameworks” in order to make life bearable( something Freud sought after the death of god) can simply be a competition of which Supreme Fiction can carry us for another few years, until a better one is created.

  27. thatsmysecretcap says

    Deconstructionist arguments always left me scratching my head why the speaker wasn’t curled into a ball on the floor wasting away. They seem to find the truth between a full and empty belly often enough.

    I’m glad that I read this article because it finally showed me why I have always been unable to grok post modern concepts. I’m an engineer and one of the first things we are taught is all the ways that our methods are inaccurate and then why we use them anyway. It never occurred to me that a concept should be discarded because it does not represent perfect truth. It also never occurred to me to spend time on a concept that isn’t useful. A retort to the deconstructionist is easy, “you’re right that this isn’t perfect, but its the best thing I’ve got and unless you have something better, I’m going to go ahead and use it.” Easier said in the empirical world, but then, maybe sticking to things we can actually show to be useful wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

  28. david of Kirkland says

    Funny how “socially constructed” is used to suggest something as not being real.
    Sadly, what’s socially constructed: 1) politics; 2) law; 3) language; 4) music and all arts; 5) technology and engineering; 5) religion; *) all culture.

  29. somewoman says

    Hermeuetics is an interesting term here. Postmodernist arguments to deconstruct the current world are a distant and tangential outgrowth of medieval efforts to reconcile seeming contradictions in the Bible or contradictions between how different scholars interpreted the Bible. Back then there was a sort of practice of discourse, re-reading and critical readings on how to make the same Bible say different things to different kings and theologians.

    It has also been said that the current purpose of academic humanities is to act as a set of scholars whose lives are not closely interwoven into the rest of the economic system so that those scholars can provide a criticism of society that is difficult to see by the actors that operate within it. In a sense, the scholars are not supposed to be beholden to the mores and biases of the common man.

    Whether postmoderninsts are aware of it or not, they do seem to carry on with a lot of disdain for the common man of the western world. Whether or not they state it, they seem to carry a bias that this common man is a self important racist who believes in and works to uphold his unearned power.

    I might even call it harmless for some coterie of academics to talk in postmodern discourse circles at each other, but the problem arises in the fact that they do hold power. About a quarter of Americans graduate college these days, meaning that their minds are left to be molded by these people during their formative years. And then those molded minds go out into the real world where they must pursue some real actions. A person with a policy job cannot just sit and revel in overcomplicated musings that make no final point. The policy administrator must do something, and then postmodern analysis starts to take the form of concrete meaning, and those are often the actionable form of the disdain held for the common man held by those academics.

    And then we end up with policies such as disparate impact guidelines, which hold that different rates of loan approvals or suspensions between races must be evidence of structural racism. Such policies are rooted in the idea that society can be deconstructed and reconstructed through the dynamics of power. There is no real nature that power and language cannot supercede. Now, you’d hardly find a postmodernist academic who would bluntly state that disparate impact means structural racism- instead they would state something to that effect in a 5 line sentence with a lot of jargon, but such policies are how postmodernism impacts actual life.

  30. @J.G.W. — I don’t see why the author’s argument has to be seen as itself “postmodern.” He’s basically making the ancient accusation of “sophistry.”

  31. Kenneth Sørensen says

    Good article – thank you. The funny thing about pomo is that it in itself is a grand narrative proposing a ultimative truth about reality, that all is a social construct and have relative value. The pomo activist also show the same type of sentiment as the hardcore Evangelist – so sure that they have the winning narrative. Seeing through that helps to deconstruct their aperspectival madness.

  32. Daniel says

    Postmodernism, or as some describe it, Critical Theory, is actually incredibly useful. The idea that thoughts are 1) socially constructed (as opposed to “discovered” or “revealed”) and 2) are used as veiled power grabs is an important idea. I submit that this idea is the only possible way of understanding Postmodernism itself; Critical Theory is really only properly applied to Critical Theory.
    Let’s look at the two features of Postmodernism listed above:
    1) Socially constructed: This is a way of understanding the world that is not rooted in evidence, empiricism, or successful living; rather it is rooted in a bunch of grumpy, excessively wealthy hacks who got together and constructed a system of criticizing that was of no benefit to anyone, but was so vague as to be hard to disprove.
    2) Veiled power grabs: Those grumpy hacks claimed that others’ insights on history/science/economics/ meaning/everything are all mere attempts at seizing power. This claim is itself an attempt to seize power. To dismiss the other person’s point as greedy and grasping is to elevate your own point. And of course that attempt is itself greedy and grasping.

    Postmodernists are not put on the defensive enough. Any postmodern critique should be immediately, stridently hoisted with its own petard.
    For instance (although you’ll probably agree I’m not very good at this yet:)
    -This viewpoint is socially constructed? Well, who told you that? What group got together and decided that it is socially constructed?
    -This statement is a power grab? The only reason you’d say that is to gain power. Who are you trying to impress by saying this?
    -This is racist? What an appallingly bigoted thing to say. How dare you?

  33. rickoxo says

    From the article:
    “I can’t help thinking the person who just deconstructed my truth claim doesn’t actually believe what they’re peddling. Because how could you possibly live a human life really believing that there is no ultimate truth?”

    I think this last sentence is the key to understanding why most people don’t get post modernism. If you believe that truth always has an ultimate foundation, that God or many gods or some spiritual force exists that grounds truth and morality in some ultimate frame of reference, than post-modernism seems like cynical deconstructionism.

    But if you don’t believe in God, gods, it’s just the nature of reality that there’s no external, ultimate definition of truth. It isn’t only that evil people got sick of the church, tradition and decency and came up with some wacko ideas just to be contrarian. I personally no longer believe there is an ultimate foundation for truth. I still get up every morning, I’m mostly kind to my daughter, to my dog, I’m a high school teacher, so occasionally I’m kind to my students as well. I’m an urban farmer, I bake bread, I play tennis and I hope I’ll be around tomorrow for more of the same. It is the dumbest part of non post-modernists that they think humans are utterly lost if God, gods, etc. isn’t the foundation for all truth and provide the ultimate meaning and purpose for life.

    If we live in a world where there is no ultimate foundation for truth, than there’s a lot of deconstructing to do. Some of it is done horribly, with ill intent and that is a problem. But if we live in a world where there is no ultimate foundation for truth, i.e. God, gods, etc. aren’t real, the process of deconstructing all of the social structures, beliefs, traditions, etc. connected to those false realities will be a difficult and likely painful process.

  34. Jim South says

    Postmodernists reject the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth. If that is so, they should also reject their own theory, given that it cannot (according to their theory) be objectively true.

    • A postmodernist is someone who believes the only objective truth is that there is no objective truth.

  35. Constantin says

    Bringing the fight on post-modern culture and philosophy is long overdue and we owe a debt of gratitude to those like Jordan Peterson and the author of this excellent essay for unmasking and denouncing it. My own interpretation of it is far less charitable. I believe that a desire for power should not be confused with a desire to destroy. These people have been indoctrinated since a very young age to hate the free-market and free thought liberal democracies, and while it may and usually is very true that they are vague or not even concerned with replacing it with a coherent worldview, they are strongly united in a desire to destroy liberalism. If the capacity to reason, communicate and resolve disputes in a manner most favorable to people’s inherent dignity and freedom is also ruined in the process, they will be happy to do so. I was actually told by one of these monsters that she does not care what may fill the resulting vacuum because, in her view, nothing could be worse than the system of generalized “oppression” we have now. Needless to say, that makes them either conscious or willfully blind allies of the extreme left, and there is no practical utility in trying to discern who is who. Marxists and post-modernists are at the very least symbiotes united by a desire to overpower and destroy the world we inhabit and cherish. For utility purposes, they are both “the enemy”.

  36. Bill Haywood says

    I never drew the conclusion from pomo theory that since truth is constructed, therefore we should stop making truth claims. Paraphrasing Foucault, he’s making a claim of what truth is (contingent), not that there is no truth. I think Post Modernism leads in a circle back to writing narrative histories. From Foucault and company we learn how treacherous and ideologically dependent are claims that a narrative is truth. But narratives — organized data — are the only way to engage with other human beings. So after reading Foucault we recommence to write narratives, but with a greater sense of humility about the tenuousness of our claims. Voila, we return to normal social engagement. I share the frustration with pomo mechanics who only want to tear down narratives, never replace them.

    • I think you’re right. I don’t think PoMo in general says we should stop making truth claims, but that we should see them for what they are. I also think the theory gets abused by people who say, “anything goes, there is no truth.” I don’t think that’s where PoMo has to lead. It’s just a convenient and easy as hell stance.

      • Bill Haywood says

        “a convenient and easy as hell stance.” Amen. Yards of verbiage here attest.

  37. Good piece. The author is entirely right. Postmodernism’s radical relativism means there is no truth, so how can they judge others’ statements, … to be wrong. Self-contradictory, and as the author states, hypocritical.

    • rickoxo says

      This is a perfect example of misunderstanding post modernism and attacking some made up straw man that feels more comfortable to argue against.

      Just like between any humans there are arguments and debates about taste in music, food, attraction, etc. at it’s most basic level, post modernism looks at the world, especially human social relationships, with fewer shared assumptions about what is true and agreed upon. I get that’s uncomfortable for many folks, but it’s not always post modernism’s fault. It’s pretty easy to look back historically and see examples of deeply held beliefs that were treated as Truth that turned out to not be so true.

      Of course there’s truth in post modernism, there’s informational accuracy, there’s mathematical logicalness, and for scientific rationalists, there’s tons of scientific truth that gets a Capital T with the caveat that at any point in time we might discover something beyond what we know now that changes the picture.

      And for those who think that’s not enough, I think most of that stems from the false sense of uniformity of opinion on what constitutes Truth in the absolute Truth camp. Think for a moment how little agreement there is even among proponents of absolute truth on a variety of current moral topics: is the death penalty ok? what kinds of war are ok? is it ok to kill people with drones? how about citizen enemy combatants? are all types of relationships ok? is marriage only between a man and a woman? is it for life or is divorce ok? etc.

      If believers in absolute Truth disagree deeply (and have for hundreds of years) about what things are absolutely True, that leaves proponents of absolute Truth with no clear absolute Truth to believe in. You get left picking and choosing the truths you think make sense, that seem most appropriate and that haven’t been disproven yet. How is that any different that post modernism?

      And if you want to argue that absolute Truth is clear, please enlighten us. Write the post telling us what is absolutely True that we all should know and hold to. I’ll settle for you writing one perfectly clear and undeniable Truth that everyone should be able to see and understand as true.

  38. Pingback: Postmodern Philosophy is a Debating Strategy - McGillespie

  39. This very good essay and many of the comments below have left me as puzzled as ever about postmodernism. But I have wondered this for a while — have we simply got, some of us, too strict a version of “truth”? Truth in a Cartesian?Platonic?Religious sense might be out the window — well, it is out the window — but what about Hume & Kant? There is I think a direct line between them and post-modernism: Hume in his assertion that we never REALLY know, and Kant in his assertion that all we know if filtered through our cognition, which id very probably imperfect; at least, all we can see is the phenomenal world, and seeing the noumenal world behind it — he assumes there is one — is simply impossible.
    But Hume insists we still consider evidence, and that most of our inferences can be trusted most of the time, and unless you have a good reason to change your mind about whether snow is cold, you may as well carry on believing — knowing — that it is. So while he would agree that there are no meta-narratives, he would disagree that there is nothing reasonably reliable from an epistemic point of view — his skepticism is always mitigated. Sometimes I think post-modernism should stop at asserting anything beyond that philosophically, and that we should see it culturally…we live in a time in which many meta-narratives have slipped from view and even become unacceptable (in a number of ways –ethically, epistemologically, even metaphysically) we are still confronted with meta-narratives vying for our acceptance — globalism, nationalism, etc..
    It’s also a product of Nietzsche, who also offered very little that was positive, but did a pretty decent job of diagnosing what was going wrong in the Europe of his day.
    As an undergrad I used to run into the odd person who claimed to be a nihilist — it was a fashionable pose. No one can really be a nihilist, but they seemed to think that if you smoked heavily, drank heavily and said “Dostoevsky” enough, you were a nihilist. The same is sometimes true of the PoMo crowd. HOWEVER: it’s not bad as a description of how many of us in the secular west live today, and it is good at probing the many, many social constructions we live inside of. I don’t know that we really need another meta-narrative, even though there’s a good chance one will finally take hold, because people seem to feel better with them. However, I think that Hume’s mitigated skepticism identifies many of the same problems as post-modernism, but at least it offers something of a solution in a practical sense: don’t fall apart. Snow is still cold.
    Like the author, I also did Grad. studies at Queen’s.

  40. The problem with nihilism isn’t that it is a denial of Truth. The problem is that it is a denial of reality.

    Postmodern thinking is indeed nihilism, but unfortunately it doesn’t end there. What we see today are the political implications of nihilism.

    Nihilism is the affirmation of Nothing, which means a denial of the necessity of form, hierarchy, order etc.- in other words the denial of experiential reality, or more precisely, the resentment of experiential reality.

    If experiential reality is merely an “agreed upon illusion” or a projection of power then the highest possible insight is to understand all claims to Truth are false – behind all claims to Truth is Nothing – Only Nothing is True.

    If no claim to Truth can be validated then all claims to Truth require equal recognition. Behind the veil of discriminations and hierarchies that we call reality we are all Equal.

    And if all ideas are equal, then the idea that All Ideas are Equal must be the most Equal of all .

    And so the world must be set right . . .

  41. rickoxo says

    There is so much bad info and critiquing here, it feels hard to take seriously. I get there are some ridiculous post modernists who have said some pretty stupid things. Are there no ridiculous religious people who’ve said stupid things? Ridiculous absolutists? Arguing against absurd straw men is what happens on every other bad web forum that makes the conversations pointless. I really hope for better on Quillette.

    Instead of arguing against the worst caricature of some liberal sociology professor saying everything is relative, try out arguing against a scientific rationalist perspective that doesn’t believe in anything outside of scientifically observable phenomenon (i.e. no Gog, gods, spiritual forces, etc.) and that is looking to make the best possible sense out of the world it can.

    Given this scientific rationalist perspective, of course there will be a ton of “deconstructing” going on. From the scientific rationalist perspective, there’s tons to deconstruct–just like at point after point in human history when new discoveries radically transformed how we understood the world.

    Think of an author like Stephen Pinker in The Blank Slate (or How the Mind Works). Maybe some folks here see his writings as examples of Nihilism, no truth, no meaning and purpose in life and everything bad with modern thinking. But I would argue that it’s a horrible misreading of his work to characterize it as the writings of some angry liberal who can’t get published and comes up with some hyperbolic garbage just to get attention. Much of his work addresses questions of truth, meaning, purpose and how we can think about them given what we know.

    The main problem from the absolutist side (that ironically goes mostly undiscussed in the article and comments) is that all people pick and choose what to believe and what they decide is absolute Truth. There is no direct revelation from a divine source giving out clear and unambiguous Truth that can be scientifically verified. If anyone would like to point to such a source, I’m sure there are many folks here who would love to know about it 🙂

    For many post modernists (myself included), you get to a point where picking and choosing what I believe is absolute Truth doesn’t make sense any longer and the faith component of believing in absolute Truth is more of a leap than a best interpretation of the existing data. So I stopped jumping and now try to do the best I can with what I have. Sadly that doesn’t include a whole lot of absolute Truth, and things like the speed of light (which I think gets close to absolute Truth) don’t help a whole lot when I’m deciding how to be a dad to my teenage daughter, or be a teacher to my urban 9th graders.

    There’s a lot of “stuff” out there to deconstruct, but if you think that post modernists don’t care about what gets constructed in its place, you are completely unaware.

    • Bill Haywood says

      Attention rapid scrollers: rickoxo’s post above nails it.

  42. Jim South says

    Rickoxo, you seem to be analysing post-modernism from a modernist (Enlightment) perspective. Whenever post-modernism to subjected to intense scrutiny, it seems to morph into something that is so vague or indescribable that it can’t be rationally examined. You imply that post-modernism does not entail the belief than truth is always merely a social construct. I suspect that many, but not all, post-modernists would disagree with you on that point.

    • rickoxo says

      I think you’re on to something important, but maybe mistaken about what it means. I obviously can’t speak for all of post modernism nor all post modernists, just as no one can speak for all of absolutist thinking. But noticing that it’s hard to pin down post modernism can lead to a few different conclusions.

      Yes there are examples of postmodernism being used as a weapon and debate strategy with no goal or commitment on the other end to stand for anything. I’m not denying that in the slightest. And no I’m not talking about post-modernism as the artistic style or soley in regard to literary criticism.

      Imagine for a second we all discovered that the Matrix (i.e. the movie) was real, or we discovered something along the lines of this great science fiction series I just read (Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu) where more advanced species have the ability to alter how the physical laws of the universe operate in specific areas, and they do so to keep technologically primitive species from developing. Imagine for a second that we discovered this was going on.

      The one and only important dialogue would be about how to deconstruct all of our theories of how the world works and to try to begin to gather enough information and data to construct new theories–knowing that we’re in a horrible place to be building anything solid and long lasting.

      For most of human history, the majority of humans have believed that supernatural forces ruled the universe and influenced our lives. Most of the social and cultural traditions we have as humans are based in varying ways on those premises.

      Given now that a growing percentage of the population no longer believes in the existence of supernatural forces, how can you imagine that deconstruction wouldn’t be on the agenda?

      Also, it’s not like post modernists just switched from religion a to religion b and swapped sets of absolute beliefs. Completely letting go of absolute beliefs and learning to swim without any footing is a crazy endeavor. There’s no real road map along with lots of confusion and disagreement. Of course there aren’t any clear and stable narratives or coherent positions that make sense of the world. It took humans thousands of years to get us to this point and many of the narratives and absolute Truths humans hold to are clearly bogus, self-serving and illusory.

      Post modernists have been at it for a little while now, granted, and again, I’m not in any way defending everything that’s been done in the name of post modernism. But at the most basic level, if the key, foundational old stories aren’t true, deconstruction and floundering will be par for the course for quite a while.

  43. Benjamin says

    Well, why would you even talk to someone who’s only capable of deconstruction? I think it’s time to call it what it is: Deconstruction is a euphemism for destruction. What we really need is people who are able to construct something.

    That’s what I would reply to those hypocrites.

  44. Kes Sparhawk says

    A really nice discussion of the problem with pomo, starting out with acknowledgment of its critical roots and its “no narratives” flaws. I’d add in its defense that pomo developed in the humanities as a tool to convey flashes of insight and to offer a model of what the loss of metanarratives might look like, and do. The incoherence of pomo essays comes from that (possibly legitimate) goal, but it makes pomo appropriate more as a fictional critique than something materially useful to change. At its base, the new postmodernists have no knowledge of communication and related research which concludes that human beings, in order to process vast amounts of information, must arrange it by categories — something Foucault actually discusses in the Order of Things. It doesn’t really matter how arbitrary — or at least, how culturally-bound — those categories are; it helps human beings acquire new knowledge and file it. Pomo could do well exploring the most idiosyncratic categories and pointing out their disconnect from reality. Instead, it celebrates them, as if no organizing principles were desirable. That’s the point where pomo ceases to become critical, and itself becomes an academic performance.

  45. Any of us who claims “there is no hierarchy” has just established a hierarchy. This is a performative contradiction. Same applies to “there is no Truth.” This non-Truth is epitomizes what a postmodernist would claim as truth. I’m reminded that hierarchy, in all of its contexts, exists as a metaphorical ladder on which development (in all its forms) anchors itself.

  46. harrison wintergreen says

    Mr. Watts has reached a conclusion very similar to that of American philosophy professor in his 2004 book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.

    Hicks’s position: “The failure of epistemology made postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary.” Postmodernism is a set of rhetorical strategies; postmodernists are without exception on the far left of the political spectrum, which tends to support the arguments that postmodernism is political first and philosophical second.

  47. Jim South says

    Post-modernism is difficult to analyse because there is no widely accepted understanding of what it means. It is possible to agree with some claims of post-modernism while rejecting some of its other claims. For example, Rickoxo (in the above post) impliedly agrees with the post-modernism claim that many of our beliefs are not scientifically verifiable and arose from power relationships within society. I too agree with that claim, but I reject many of the other claims of post-modernism.

    • rickoxo says

      I think this is right on the money, and before people argue this is some problem unique to post modernism, do all Christians agree on what Christianity means? Do all conservatives agree on what conservatism is? Do all the adherents of any absolute truth all agree without any disagreement, confusion or segmentation?

      Post modernism might have an especially wide range of thoughts and beliefs it encompasses, but I think that is mainly because I see post modernism more as a state of being than a set of beliefs.

      It’s a state of being where the old stories, the old absolute Truths no longer are accepted and folks are trying to figure out what to do. Of course there’s no coherence and organized, systematic framework for everything post modernists believe. It’s not really about a set of beliefs.

  48. I think you may be giving postmodernists too much credit. I don’t believe the vast majority of pomos are actually so not due to scholarship or academics, but rather through laziness. i doubt most practicing postmodernists have even read lyotard or foucault but rather have learned it through osmosis — learning from others the sleight of hand of “that’s a social construct” — which they perceive as a completely valid method of argument and debate. And they perceive it as such because most people don’t know how to defend against it.

    Without the epistemic anchors as you mention, it seems that people pick and choose what ethical and moral framework they desire, based completely because “I don’t wanna,” or whatever suits their desires of the moment, or worse — what they’re being told by political affiliation. Without these anchors, everyone can choose ethics based on whatever they feel like or are told to any time they want whenever they want. No one needs to read any essays written by haughty French authors to live their lives this way. It’s a mere natural extension of narcissism.

    • rickoxo says

      I have never read any of the authors you mention nor do I plan to. The concept of a social construct is a basic idea that any 9th grader can understand and roughly see how to use as a helpful tool and how to use as a fraudulent weapon. The idea of a social construct is not that different than any important social concept, like racism for example. The idea of racism is fairly basic, reasonably easy to explain. It can be used as a tool to analyze interactions, systems, media, whatever. If it’s used well it can be a helpful tool that makes some things clear that might not be otherwise. It can also be used poorly in ways that are much more about power and control. But again, that is no different than any social construct, including things like faithfulness, obedience, humility and many of the other important social constructs the church used for hundreds of years to keep the poor under control.

      In terms of accusing post modernists of picking and choosing what they believe, every human does that. Are you a Christian? What do you believe are the absolute truths of Christianity? Every word of the Bible? As it’s translated into English? The “true intent” of each passage? As interpreted by whom?

      No one has direct access to an unambigous source of absolute Truth. The Catholics probably have the closest thing to a system of beliefs where the beliefs go way back and the picking and choosing is done by leaders in a semi-controlled fashion such that one could say they trust the process. But outside of that, there’s no religion or system of absolute beliefs that doesn’t have 20 versions and 30 alternate versions each with subtly or radically different absolute Truths.

      If you don’t think you’re picking and choosing your absolute Truths or anchors as you called them, I think you haven’t really looked at where most of your beliefs come from.

      • > The concept of a social construct is a basic idea that any 9th grader can understand and roughly see how to use as a helpful tool and how to use as a fraudulent weapon.

        No it isn’t. That’s the problem. You’re the problem.

  49. The content of this article is utterly disconnected from any reality in which most people live. I’m not referring to the opinion or the conclusion, but rather the subject matter. Most philosophy is an irrelevant, pointless veneer overlaid upon reason and logical thought. The rest just states the obvious.

  50. How about this – if everyone just agrees to view PoMo “philosophizing” (or “debating”) as rhetorical entertainment…kinda like a poetry slam (although I suppose that’s insulting to poets)…and not something to be taken seriously, then problem solved!

    One can hope…

  51. James E Mitchell says

    I think this’s grossly unfair to Foucault, who was studying how power operates in society and reporting his findings. Foucault wasn’t producing alternatives, not because he felt there were none, but simply because that wasn’t his project. Foucault is NOT the Derrida of power.

  52. Simonas Jakelis says

    You often mention in this article meaning and truth, but do not comment on what those are. Postmodernist quite accurately point out, that modern western world doesn’t work on “meaning” or “truth”. The absurdity of modern politics points this out very well.
    The west is operating under politics of greed, we value stockbrokers much higher than doctors, cheating, not paying taxes, is a mark of a great businessman, who is the pillar of modern society, profits over everything else are the values west operates on. And when people deny that and say that this modern society is based on some “true meaning” of capitalism, or that it is the only “truth”, postmodernists reject that.
    It is true, that on answers we have to work on. But to think, that postmodernism is just some mental mistake in universities all over the world for 40 years, would be a big mistake.

  53. Tersitus says

    Maybe Quillette’s all time best “article and comments” collection.

  54. Tyler Watkins says

    While agree with the Author’s analysis of the psychology of modern voters, his rationalization that it’s a function of an atomized personalized social media sphere is a bit too simplistic that denies the material failures of the US political system. We were fed the lie that electoral politics can solve problems and that our government is responsive to us, but as we’ve seen through years of empirical data and personal experience, we’ve come to realize that the dogma was a lie. We’re more demanding of politicians because we know what their game is. The Grift was a never mentioned by Foucault and that’s exactly what this system is, a Grift.

  55. Clay Ryder says

    The tactic you are speaking of was analysed some time by the philosopher who invented the Motte and Bailey doctrine in the paper the Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodolgy. http://philpapers.org/rec/SHATVO-2. See the section called the postmodernist foxtrot:

    “The Postmodernist Fox-trot goes like this: Firstly the meta-philosophical claim is made that philosophy cannot properly be done except negatively: that to occupy a position is already to be mistaken. I am going to refer to this position as the No-Position Position. Secondly, alogosia is asserted: true normative theories of objective rationality are not available; whatever we take to be the canons of rationality are constructed, so could have been constructed differently, and that although there may be some ways in which they could not be constructed, among those ways in which they can be constructed there are no better or worse ways of constructing them. The upshot of this pair, the foxy bit, is that the postmodernist can use normative notions of rationality whilst evading accountability to rational standards. By the substitution of vague terminology in place of standard rational terminology, for example, the use of “valid” instead of “true”, by the widespread use of scare quotes whenever rational terminology is used, he exploits a contradiction which the official position, the No-Position Position, allows him to keep hidden.”

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