Philosophy, recent

Has the Postmodern Revolution Come Full Circle?

While discussions about the philosophical foundations of judgements of right and wrong are often framed in terms of rational versus irrational perspectives—those based on the enlightened values of science and reason versus those based on authority or faith—this is not altogether an accurate view of where the real centre of moral debate currently lies. The game-changer has been the hegemony postmodern ideology has established over most debate about public policy and morality. This assertion may come as a surprise to many who are aware of the existence of a philosophical perspective called “postmodernism” but do not see it as having much to do with how they frame their moral judgements or how society around them is ordered. They would, I suggest, probably be wrong to believe so.

It is important to recognise that postmodernism arose not as a logical corollary of the efforts in the Enlightenment period to establish a rational foundation for addressing moral dilemmas and resisting the tyranny of religious and traditionalist worldviews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but as a rejection of that project. While Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach vied with one another to provide a theoretical foundation for moral discourse, ultimately none was able to prevail.

The counter-Enlightenment’s most perceptive thinker was probably Friedrich Nietzsche. His portrayal of a madman running around with a lantern proclaiming that God was dead parodied the Enlightenment philosophers who looked to replace traditional values with a new value system which pared away the superstition and retained the essence; but that there was no such essence. Freed from the constraints of the prior expectations of our peers, we are free to steer whichever course we choose.

Postmodernism builds on this insight, asking us to consider that there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only differences of perspective. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Reality, knowledge, and value are constructed by discourses; hence they can vary with them. This means that the discourse of modern science, when considered apart from the evidential standards internal to it, has no greater purchase on the truth than do alternative perspectives, including (for example) astrology and witchcraft. Postmodernists sometimes characterize the evidential standards of science, including the use of reason and logic, as “Enlightenment rationality.”

This point of view is often portrayed as moral relativism, but this misses an important feature of the postmodernist position: although it holds that there is no single correct point of view on questions of right and wrong, all points of view are not necessarily equal in validity. Indeed, echoing Orwell’s critique of communist society in Animal Farm, some points of view are in practice “more equal than others.” For, as stated above, values are thought to arise in practice in “discourses” taking place in different social groups or communities. And some groups have greater power or “hegemony” to impose their view on other relatively disempowered groups. Without taking a position on whose views are more correct between the relatively more or less powerful group, postmodernists argue that it behoves us to take the side of the relatively disempowered group so as to help redress the intrinsic injustice of the situation.

So the conversation moves from one about being right to one about having rights. While a traditional perspective on human rights would be to argue that all human beings possess rights equally, the postmodernist position is that greater rights have to accrue to the relatively disempowered and so greater emphasis should be given to defending their values. From here springs the concept of group rights: women’s rights, gay rights, transgender rights, black rights, Muslim rights, and so on. It is one of the great achievements of the postmodernist agenda that, without any need for moral discourse, it has become possible to dismiss almost any moral position portrayed as disrespectful to any of those group rights, particularly if that moral position can also be portrayed as promoting the interests of some relatively more powerful group.

Not surprisingly, this approach leads quite quickly to inconsistency and even incoherence. For example, it is often argued in the corporate environment that “diversity” policies are necessary to ensure that the best people are chosen, by which is meant a sufficient number from relatively disempowered groups. But if that is one’s position, one needs to argue that members of different groups bring different talents and perspectives to the table by virtue of their belonging to those different groups, so there is a fundamental inequality between groups that demands to be recognised. This it would appear is acceptable if one were to suggest, say, that women bring a greater degree of empathy into leadership than men and should, on that basis, be favoured more than at present. But if one were to suggest that men by virtue of being men are more likely to have some quality or qualities that qualify them for leadership, there would be outrage and claims of sexism or misogyny. Whether or not any of the supporting claims has a basis in truth is entirely irrelevant. The morality of the issue is determined by whose interests are served by taking a claim seriously.

This has led to the rise of a new irrationalism, in which matters of fact and evidence can be swept aside in favour of a politics of identity elevated as the determining principle in disputes between competing moral perspectives. Just as within nineteenth century European society, as Nietzsche argued, Christianity exercised hegemony on the basis of authoritarian structures enforcing a morality which society internalised as the natural order of things, postmodernism has achieved a similar hegemony by virtue of backing up its strictures with laws and regulations which carry stringent penalties, and ensuring that its point of view is taught in educational institutions, often even to the exclusion of parental rights to assert an alternative position.

Its power derives from an enforcing authority backed up with persistent indoctrination, it has effectively managed to marginalise dissenting opinions and severely curtail moral debate in the public space. This new orthodoxy arrogates to itself divine authority to make truth claims on the basis of consistency with its asserted principles, and these are held to be immune to disproof or falsification by reason or evidence. Indeed, those who forward evidence that contradict its claims are routinely vilified and marginalised. Thus, have we come full circle in recreating the very conditions that the Enlightenment set out—but, on its own terms, failed—to address.

Happily, the inconsistency and incoherence of the postmodernist perspective is increasingly being challenged by a new generation of thinkers from across the political spectrum. For example, in his essay “Trump and a Post-Truth World,” Ken Wilber notes how postmodernism has played itself out and, by attempting to create a new basis for determining truth, has ultimately undermined it.

And thus postmodernism as a widespread leading-edge viewpoint slid into its extreme forms (e.g., not just that all knowledge is context-bound, but that all knowledge is nothing but shifting contexts; or not just that all knowledge is co-created with the knower and various intrinsic, subsisting features of the known, but that all knowledge is nothing but a fabricated social construction driven only by power). When it becomes not just that all individuals have the right to choose their own values (as long as they don’t harm others), but that hence there is nothing universal in (or held-in-common by) any values at all, this leads straight to axiological nihilism: there are no believable, real values anywhere. And when all truth is a cultural fiction, then there simply is no truth at all—epistemic and ontic nihilism. And when there are no binding moral norms anywhere, there’s only normative nihilism. Nihilism upon nihilism upon nihilism—“there was no depth anywhere, only surface, surface, surface.” And finally, when there are no binding guidelines for individual behavior, the individual has only his or her own self-promoting wants and desires to answer to—in short, narcissism. And that is why the most influential postmodern elites ended up embracing, explicitly or implicitly, that tag team from postmodern hell: nihilism and narcissism—in short, aperspectival madness. The culture of post-truth.

Wilber looks forward to an evolution beyond postmodernism; to a developmental model which is more “integrated” or “systemic.” He argues that when a system is broken, as ours currently is, it reverts back to the last point at which it functioned effectively. Let’s hope he is right. Such ideas are a welcome breath of fresh air in a political culture in which the discourse revolves less and less around facts and evidence and consists more and more of ad hominem attacks on detractors and dissident voices launched from within the relative security of group identity silos. Voices of those who, like Wilber, are critical of the failings of postmodernism and emphasise the need for new ideas are increasingly being heard. This is particularly noticeable on social media, where many of the new currents in popular thought are increasingly finding receptive audiences. It will be interesting to watch how all this plays out.


Colin Turfus has a Ph.D in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and works as a quantitative analyst in financial risk management. He is co-founder of the website


  1. B Nelson says

    Well, Locke almost prevailed; and his ideas formed the basis of our founding doucments…

    • One basis. There were many influences.

      It turns out, if you reject the Judeo-Christian culture our heritage is built on, there’s no logical way to keep the ideas that give our nation its legitimacy: natural law becomes arbitrary preference, equality becomes the self-evident truth that some men are enlightened and some are deplorable, and human rights become whatever the current government feels like giving you at any particular moment.

      Postmodernism, of course, rejects more than that: it states as an absolute truth that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and then uses that to go on to determine what is and is not an absolute truth.

  2. lloydr56 says

    Leo Strauss asked in the 1940s and 50s: what happened to a belief in natural right or justice? Part of his answer was that “science”–a careful, disciplined study of nature–had been replaced by “history.” Even “science” threatened “natural justice” between human beings; scientists might claim our actions can be explained by the movement of atoms, so “common sense” judgments of right and wrong are fictions. A “modern” solution is to combine teleological social science with non-teleological natural science. “History” seems to offer a “higher” solution: there is a reason in events, or at least in major “historical” events, that might be beyond the understanding of any individual except Hegel. If events seem crazy or evil, don’t worry, History will sort things out in a rational way. Again human judgments about justice might turn out to be fictions. There might be no truth that is discernible to human beings–possibly the truth is only to be revealed in some future time, that might never arrive. There might be a truth discerned by Hegel that modern Europe is at some kind of pinnacle. There might be a truth that the victory of (clever) white male peasants over old-fashioned white male aristocrats and priests was good, but further victories by women and people of colour will be even better. It is always tempting to go back to the judgment of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: rule of some people over others is always unjust; the best we can do is enlighten the ruled about this, and hope that they will get a turn at being the (unjust) rulers. Or maybe the teachers, who advise all sides, probably for a price, can get close to power, if not actually ruling. Taking turns being unjust, as opposed to actually achieving justice. But then: why not simply let one unjust bunch rule forever? Because they are bad scientists? Who is to say that is the most important consideration?

    • David of Kirkland says

      Nature is brutal and uncaring. The idea it produced rights or morals is absurd, just like the new construct of rights meaning others must provide rather than others cannot deny.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        How are you suggesting that morals emerged that is somehow outside the scope of nature? Do you mean supernature?

        • Turd Ferguson says

          Moral intuitions evolved under natural selection. The reason we can’t find a single solution is because the entire system of moral thinking is a hodgepodge of solutions to the complexities of living as social cooperative animals while still abiding by the rule of survival of the fittest. Sometimes our moral thinking follows utilitarian logic, sometimes libertarian logic, sometimes no logic at all. So it is in fact true that while nature is uncaring it’s not so uncaring that under the blind process of evolution by natural selection morals systems developed to enhance our survival as a species.

          • Joel says

            No evidence for that claim – it’s entirely speculative, but it’s all you have if you reject the divine, so you’re stuck believing the unsupportable.

            Evidence for my claim? To establish the natural selection thesis as regards morals, you need to show a linear development of improvement over time that accords with passing on your genes. that requires some sort of consistent moral history of progression, and it is plain from the word today that much of the world is no more morally advanced than millennia ago. Moral codes restrict procreation in general terms and limit it to in group preferences, irrespective of whether or not they improve the gene pool and add strength. Moral codes restrict animal behaviour and impulses – they don’t support their expression. Further, the cornerstone of Wstn thinking is the inherent dignity of the individual, and this cannot be arrived at via natural selection – it is a religious proposition.

            Moral codes do develop, and have come and gone, often in a circle, but that doesn’t support natural selection, as some persist that retard progression, yet show no sign of tiring.

            Finally, nature is amoral and not sentient, so it cannot care at all about anything – ever. It just is. This means ‘caring’ cannot come from nature broadly speaking. It may be inherent in human nature but that’s different usage of the term, and moral codes in general did not extend caring to those outside your group, do not require it and in fact many are antithetical to it.

  3. Chad Chen says

    After you read this article, consider this. Until 1970, the United States was a country claiming to be a multiracial democracy, but its cultural icons were almost exclusively drawn from a handful of nationalities.

    With rare exceptions cultural artifacts like movies and television commercials featured only phenotypically “white” people. The winners of beauty contests were always “white” women, and The Most Beautiful Woman in the World was always a white actress from western Europe or the United Srates. In fact, the “greatest” writers, painters, musicians, etc. were all selected from elite communities of “white” people in the United States and western Europe. I could go on, but you get the point.

    We are less than 50 years removed from the narrow standards that preceded postmodernism.

    • yara says

      @chad chen:

      even granting you the “point”, i’m not sure that you have shown a causal link between the changing standards and the rise of postmodernism. there’s a logical fallacy in there somewhere.

    • scribblerg says

      Chad – And what pct of that population was white? Oh, 88%…We were not “diverse” racially. Rather we had a large minority population of blacks who remained after slavery. But Americans and America was seen as overwhelmingly white and of European descent. If you looked up American in a 19th century, it would have said that being of Indian or European descent was most common. Note that Indians preferred to stay in their own nations, they are not part of the American nation, even though we share geography.

      So, your premise is wrong, and lazily so. And of course, the majority in a culture will see their arts and entertainment based on their people. Why this seems like a big conspiracy to you is odd. We only recently became a “muiti-racial and multi-cultural” nation. We were never a democracy and still are not. We are a constitutional Republic with a representative democratically elected legislature and representatives electing POTUS based on state support.

      Tell me, where did you get all these false ideas about what America is and isn’t? Oh, it’s the recent years. And how is that multicultural, multiracial experiment going? Hint: We would have been well advised to keep our borders as tight as we did from the ’20s to ’65 and have focused on integrating blacks and Indians into our nation over the past 50 years. That would have been a moral and just project for that nation.

      But instead, after the ’65 immigration act and subsequent policies we flung the doors open to the world and gave preference to non-Europeans. Fyi, the bills that were passed to make that happen were advertised as the opposite. Ted Kennedy gave an impassioned speech in the senate in ’65, stating emphatically that the legislation wouldn’t change he ethnic and racial composition of America.

      Get this. We are a self-governing nation. The current immigration mess adn multicultural idiocy were imposed on us supra-legally and illegally. We never decided as a people to do this. Just as multikulti madness was foisted on Europeans without their consent. This globalist Progressive project is seen as a way of overwhelming traditional culture, so people who hold the truly maniacal ideas this author lays out could impose their enlightened ideas on the rest of us boorish morons.

      I’m curious – do you even know any of this? Where did you get the idea that America was set up to be a “multi-racial democracy”?

      • Chad Chen says

        After the Civil War, America ceased to be a “white” nation. After the Communist Revolution, Nazism and the Holocaust, the United States officially embraced a melting pot ideology which was based on the idea that all races and ethnicities would be contributing to American culture, not just trying to copy a European model.

        • Paul Reidinger says

          No offense, but you seem to be deeply confused. Can it be that you’re relatively young and have spent time recently in one of America’s fine colleges and universities? The “melting pot” you claim the USA has “officially” embraced (“officially”? how so?) was the chief image for the long-time American practice of assimilation. We made Americans out of immigrants and integrated them into American society. They melted in with everybody else. But over the past 50 years we have rejected assimilation in favor of “multiculturalism,” with pretty calamitous results. “Assimilation” has become a bad word. Only bad people want it, et cetera. You say that “after the Civil War, America ceased to be a ‘white’ nation.” What does this mean? What is the evidence for it? The Civil War did not change American demography. The Immigration Act of 1965 did that.

          • Chad Chen says

            You are the one who is confused.

            The melting pot was to create a distinctive American culture, not a faithful copy of European culture. The melting pot idea was abandoned by US elites, but never quite replaced by “multiculturalism”.

            In Canada, for example , a mosaic of distinctive languages and cultures receives more official encouragement and financial support from the national government than has ever been seen in the United States. Canada is an example of multiculturalism.

        • y81 says

          Huh? The “melting pot” is an idea from the beginning of the twentieth century, long antedating Nazism and the Holocaust, and the idea that there is one true and uniform alloy into which all races and cultures will meld is absolutely not post-modern.

    • Kessler says

      I don’t understand the point being made. So, it was like that… and?

    • Nancy says

      50 years on? Giving postmodernism credit where none is due.

      Identity Politics does not continue the work of the civil rights movements

      You overlook the fact the country was settled by a mass influx of Europeans who themselves had in the past been colonized by the likes of the Romans, Gauls, Saxons, Vikings, Normands etc.
      You overlook the fact that the Europeans have continually been at war with themselves over the last thousand years. Much like the Tribal people of North and South America.
      You overlook the class structures that existed as little as 100 years ago, which favored some white Europeans over other groups of white Europeans. You overlook the fact the colonies had a war with Britain (white on white) to declare its’ independence, that it drafted a constitution that guaranteed equal rights, fought a civil war with itself, (white on white.) Freed the slaves. Women fought for the right to vote, the majority were white, In the 1960’s civil rights came to the forefront with Martin Luther King and many of his supporters were white. All this took place prior to 50 years ago.

      Then came the Hare Krishna’s with their cymbals and drums to be found on many mainstreet city corners. Where have they all gone?

      Postmodernism is a cult and many of the indoctrinated are middle class white kids. This too shall pass.

    • Andrew Miller says

      And if that situation was challenged and to a large degree changed, on what basis? It wasn’t post modernism was it. It was by people challenging the status quo using the idea of universal values, and fundamental rights but pointing out that by denying certain people those rights the values weren’t being lived up to. This has always been the case, from Toussaint L’overture & Mary Wollstonecraft to King, Mandela and the gay rights movement. The notion of rights and universal values have been picked up through out history and the moral universe expanded to get them closer to a universal truth.
      Post modernism simply throws that away as it completely rejects what social movements have done throughout history. Somewhat ironically they end up closer to those regressive voices who’d argue that the values are simply western no because of ‘discourses’ but because other groups are essentially barbarians.

  4. Morgan Foster says

    @Chad Chen

    “Until 1970, the United States was a country claiming to be a multiracial democracy …”

    Up until that time the US claimed to be a racially tolerant democracy, but a multiracial one? No.

    That kind of language, and thinking, wasn’t in common usage prior to that time.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Can you be racially tolerate without multiple races?

      • Morgan Foster says

        @David of Kirkland

        You can have a majority race which dominates politics, religion and popular culture and yet allows non-dominant races to live a quiet existence off in the corners. The US from the 1860s to the 1970s, or Egypt today. Thus, racially tolerant of their existence; i.e., not driving them away or exterminating them. (Barely tolerant, in Egypt’s case.)

        The term multiracial – as most people would use it today, I think – would mean that no one race dominates to the disadvantage of the other races.

  5. Bob Johnson says

    “It is important to recognise that postmodernism arose not as a logical corollary of the efforts in the Enlightenment period to establish a rational foundation for addressing moral dilemmas and resisting the tyranny of religious and traditionalist worldviews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but as a rejection of that project. ”

    Anyone should stop reading right there. The Catholic hegemony over Europe produced free universities, free hospitals, the criminalization of infanticide, the criminalization of polygamy, the birth of modern science, etc.

    Nowadays, in our antinomian world saturated with porn, rampant divorce, and elites who want to abandon their nations and just help themselves, we can do with a return to a Christian teaching about the poor, sick, and weak and Christian sexual morality.

    The enlightenment gave us the idea that races are essentially different, mass democracy, totalitarianism, the idea that life is just atoms and morality does not exist, etc. Nothing good came from it. Anathema to both modernism and postmodernism

    • There are people who honestly believe every good thing came from the Enlightenment, and the entire history of Christendom from Jesus to the Enlightenment never produced a single good thing (at least not of any significance).

      This is the power of the stories we tell (especially in schools): people are oblivious to even the possibility of confirmation bias. Which is what one ought to expect when it is deemed ‘irrational’ to believe in anything noble, high, or ideal: reality becomes whatever the elite says it is, presented as self-evident. (And as long as you go along with the right thinkers, that means you’re smarter than everyone else.)

    • Andrew Miller says

      It also allowed you to spout ignorant nonsense with out fear you’d be persecuted by religious or indeed secular authorities, so go figure.

      • Andrew Miller says

        Yes, let’s return to women regularly dying from abortions, unable to leave violent thugs who made their lives hell, men and women living lies and driven to suicide by virtue of who they loved, children beaten in the name of their wellbeing, sexually abused by the same sadists. Ah, the glory years of Christian ‘morality’.

  6. yara says

    isn’t there a bit of a contradiction between “no objective standards of right and wrong” and “the intrinsic injustice of the situation”. Emphasis on intrinsic

    • David of Kirkland says

      Life always dies. Sometimes it dies right after fertilization, sometimes during gestation, sometimes at birth, sometimes while young, sometimes while older. Intrinsic justice is absurd and is better thought of as “commonly understood.”

      • Tom says

        Indeed, the whole deal’s a crapshoot. but what’s really disturbing to me about the insanity of millennial transectionality, etc. (though they go on and on about saving the planet from themselves in ways they would never survive), is its complete lack of awareness of human nature as part of Nature itself. They crave security (e.g., ‘socialism’) that is simply not on offer in this life.

        I think it comes from growing up in the safety of one’s bedroom,(while growing either obese or skeletal), communing with devices, rather than playing and having adventures outside with others – as children used to do. The cuts, scrapes, breaks and concussions that go with normal childhood teach us that there is no safety or safe space in this cosmos. We must make our own safety, and enjoy our lives by taking risks.

        Ultimately, there is only the beauty of this world to enjoy while we’re briefly in it; the care and love (and pain and disappointment) we give to one another while we can, with the always uncertain certainty of death – which all appears to be a matter of chance. The fear of this central reality of life obviously comes from parents who were reared with it themselves – with no self-assurance because of their psychological dependence on human systems that come and go.

        That way lies thanatos, anarchy, and the death of civilizations. The Universe is indifferent.

  7. Sean Leith says

    The fundamental flaws of philosophical theories is that: they use the society as the experimental laboratory. You can go crazy with your theories, it is fine as long as it is in the scale of exploring. But you don’t apply it to the real thing before you are sure. That’s something everyone scientific researcher know, unfortunately philosophers don’t know this. They killed millions people in Soviet and China, they still don’t learn.

  8. This has led to the rise of a new irrationalism, in which matters of fact and evidence can be swept aside in favour of a politics of identity elevated as the determining principle in disputes between competing moral perspectives.

    The problem would be bad enough if it was simply disputes between competing moral perspectives but in fact identity politics is being used to supress and override well established science. The ‘blank slate’ idea of gender is the obvious example of this.

    • Absolutely nobody thinks gender is a blank slate. Ridiculous. Saying that gender and sexuality are socially constructed does not deny the existence of the body nor does it mean that gender is a blank slate. That term “blank slate” comes from Enlightenment theories that “postmodernists” reject. To think otherwise is just some BS that Pinker made up without citing any actual sources, unless you count an uncited quotation of a 70s-feminist paraphrasing Freud in a historical context, which just invites a bigger question: how does a Harvard professor get a way with such sloppy and bad-faith criticism?

    • Fickle Pickle says

      But what could be more irrational than believing that you are “saved” by the death and presumed “resurrection” of Jesus.
      And of course conservative Christians are the consummate masters at playing the game of identity politics, whilst all the time pretending otherwise.
      They just happen to be members of the largest and most powerful world dominant “religious” tribe or group identity on the planet.

      And what could be more irrational than the collective psychosis that is dramatized at the various Presidential election rallies in the USA

  9. Ron S says

    “Postmodernists argue that it behooves is to take the side of the relatively disempowered group so as to help redress the intrinsic injustice of the situation.”

    If there is no standard for what is true or right, how can one judge that there is injustice in one group having a hegemony of power?

    “… although it holds that that there is no single correct point of view on matters of right and wrong, all points of view are not necessarily equal in validity.”

    If this is, in fact, the position of postmodernism, isn’t it blindingly obvious that a privileged standard of right and wrong has been smuggled in? What’s the standard? Is it simply an emotional prefefernce for the underdog?

    If so, say so – anyone who disagrees can express their emotional preference for the powerful (or an even more undisempowered underdog). Given no other standard than emotional preference, the only ultimate determinant can be force. Back to the “law of the jungle.”

    • David of Kirkland says

      We set the standard via law. Since the law changes over time, so does our understanding of justice (right vs. wrong).

      • But Ron is correct: if there is no universal truth capable of revealing true morality, then “we set the standard via law” is just another way of saying “the people who are most powerful get to impose their standards on the rest of us”.

        Appeals to legitimacy are just manipulations: there is no legitimacy, and there is no illegitimacy either. There is only power, and one form of power is encouraging people to delude themselves into cooperating voluntarily.

        • Fickle Pickle says

          Freely chosen voluntary cooperation is the only form of Real Politics.
          It does of course require uncommon intelligence on the part of all who participate in such an undertaking for it to work. And some Wise Elders too.
          On the larger scale it is the only protection from the always arbitrary power of the State.
          Everything else is only a dramatization of the always bad news.

          • Freely chosen voluntary cooperation requiring uncommon intelligence.

            And what for everyone else? Isn’t that what gulags were invented for?

          • Jean Levant says

            Yes, Isaac Asimov wrote some readable stuff about these Wise Elders, although through another name. I never trusted this sort of elitocracy (scientific or not). I’d rather stick with the usual lying and corrupt but democratic politician, including your dear Donald (not to say he’s a liar or thief).

    • jakesbrain says

      Given no other standard than emotional preference, the only ultimate determinant can be force.

      That’s the idea. Postmodernism, as currently applied, is a thin philosophical veneer over a seething cauldron of ressentiment; its underlying motivation can be summed up in five words: Because Fuck You, That’s Why.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        ‘Given no other standard than emotional preference, the only ultimate determinant can be force.’

        There is something about force that seems ultimate , isn’t there? Especially in its fatal form. But before we make judgements according to a given standard we first have to choose between competing standards – and there are many. Is this not plainly so? Even where we do judge by a given standard we still have to judge. I believe we judge according to nothing more or less than our own lights – both individual and collective. We always have. That’s how our standards have evolved. To believe that emotion might be the primary engine at work here need not imply that reason is not a major player in our tortuous attempt to navigate the tangled web of morality and ethics. But it might make the search for some absolute standard seem futile and unnecessary. Chaos might be best accommodated for surely it will be neither denied nor tamed.

  10. Farris says

    Postmodernism is a retreat from the ideal of individual sovereignty, favoring group or tribal sovereignty in its place. Individual sovereignty maintained that if the rights of each were upheld all would naturally benefit. Individual sovereignty works best when dealing with the relationship between the the governed and the government by restricting the power and influence of the latter. It works less well with how people choose to interact with one another socially and economically. Social and economic transactions are based upon trust. People are naturally more trusting of those from their own tribe. The difficulty comes in uniting the tribes. As an earlier article pointed out tribes tend to unite in times of calamity or greater threats to security.
    Once people become secure in their individual sovereignty or security, they return to their tribalist loyalties. Limiting the influence of government and having government adhere to that ideal remains the best way to protect the populous in general by assuring that individuals have an impartial arbiter to redress grievances. However not all grievances are created equal. A grievance to be redressed by government must not merely benefit the individual but ensure protection of the society as a whole. So if one person or tribe is able to demonstrate that the ruling class disfavors that tribe or individual because of tribal memberships, addressing that injustice protects all tribes and individuals from similar types of discrimination. The hard pill to swallow is that under representation alone is not necessarily evidence of discrimination. When the government attempts to address under representation which is not the product of malfeasance, it strays from its duty to protect individual rights. A system of competing individuals properly enforced is more just than a system of competing tribes as it elevates the many over the few. Additionally when that government is representative it allows tribes to select participants to represent their points of view. Tribal battles are best fought within the halls of government and government is better suited to protect individual infringements of rights. If this harmony is achieved freedom in best ensured. Government is power and people will naturally attempt to use power to benefit themselves or their tribe. For this reason it is most prudent to limit the use of the power rather than to attempt to use the power benevolently, as the the benevolence is the first thing to fade.

  11. Royce Cooliage says

    Good article. I wish to focus on the corporate D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) aspect for a moment as this is the aspect of the larger debate that affects me most in my daily life. I will start by quoting an excerpt and then pointing out what I feel the author got wrong:

    “Not surprisingly, this approach leads quite quickly to inconsistency and even incoherence. For example, it is often argued in the corporate environment that “diversity” policies are necessary to ensure that the best people are chosen, by which is meant a sufficient number from relatively disempowered groups. But if that is one’s position, one needs to argue that members of different groups bring different talents and perspectives to the table by virtue of their belonging to those different groups, so there is a fundamental inequality between groups that demands to be recognised. ”

    I’m not sure that advocates for D&I actually argue that D&I results in the “best” people being hired. Neither am I sure that they argue that “different groups bring different talents and perspectives.” I think what they argue is that it’s “racist” or “sexist” if there aren’t enough of one group or another.
    I’ve never heard anyone argue that Google doesn’t have the best people or that Google is short on the talents and perspectives of women. What I have heard is that Google isn’t “diverse enough”, which is a social just dog whistle which essentially means “Google is sexist and racist.”

    D&I advocates like to talk about specific identity groups being “underrepresented” at company X or company Y. This implies that employees are somehow “representatives” or their respective identity groups. This is a falsehood that needs to be debunked. I’ll use Google again for the sake of offering a tangible example. A Google employee works for the interests of Google. He or she does come to work every day to further the interests of the black community, or of women, or of gays, or of any other identity group. In other words, employees work for their employer, not their identity group. Between the hours of 9-5 Monday to Friday, corporate employees are NOT ambassadors to or advocates for any particular identity group. If an individual disagrees with this, they are in the wrong line of work. They should quit their corporate job and go work for a non-profit.

    • Owntown Dart Scene says

      “I’m not sure that advocates for D&I actually argue that D&I results in the “best” people being hired. Neither am I sure that they argue that “different groups bring different talents and perspectives.” I think what they argue is that it’s “racist” or “sexist” if there aren’t enough of one group or another.”

      Indeed, Royce. The ultimate argument seems to be that the entire purpose of work, including that of privately owned enterprises, is to EMPOWER those favored with the access to perform it. That “diversity” contributes to the quality of the product is at best a half-hearted sop to ward off those who point out the skewed nature of this view.

      Obviously, the corollary is that the work (and “science”) will magically proceed with no problems, regardless of the qualifications of those involved. That’s why advocates are happy to blithely dismantle “barriers to entry”, ie. standards.

  12. Fred says

    Yet another Quillette article pushing the false dichotomy of scientism and postmodernism, not to mention the lazy, tendentious account of faith and tradition. Has this become a Gnu Atheist publication?

    • We are now at the point where most discussions about these things tends to be a debate about definitions, and people who are not themselves religious do not even know much about faith and tradition (other than narratives about heroically standing up in opposition to such things).

    • Defenstrator says

      I love intellectual lightweights like you who come in and smear but don’t have half the wit required to say why they object to the article.

    • Alexander Allan says

      Leave the Wildebeest alone, they are innocent.

  13. I believe the author is correct that postmodernism generally rejects Enlightenment attempts to “establish a rational foundation for addressing moral dilemmas”. And the author is correct that Nietzsche is accepted as the virtual intellectual godfather of postmodern skepticism and relativism.

    The author further correctly points out that the radical skepticism of postmodern thinking in its attempts to deconstruct all forms ends, not in liberation and self awareness, but in servitude and idiocy; in a new kind of Orwellian tyranny – If all ideas are equal then the idea that All Ideas are Equal is the Most Equal of All.

    What the author misses is that postmodernism itself represents an egregious misreading of Nietzsche. And while Nietzsche did have criticisms of the limits of science and reason, he never portrayed himself as anti-Enlightenment nor as a champion of pure irrationalism. Clement Greenburg’s defined “kitsch” as “academized simulacra”- postmodern Nietzsche is “kitsch” Nietzsche.

    As the author correctly points out, postmodern thinking is the culmination of the historical force Nietzsche calls nihilism. But Nietzsche is not, as is commonly thought, the Avatar of Nihilism. What Nietzsche is all about is the overcoming of nihilism which he sees as “a pathological transitional phase”. Postmodernism is an extreme if not final stage of nihilism

    Nietzsche provocatively claimed the emergence of modern nihilism to be “a two hundred year drama”. And the author is again correct that we seem to be at least at the beginning of the end of nihilism. We now beginning to realize that postmodern skepticism is not the cure for what ails us, but, as Nietzsche observed, it the “disease” itself.

    But nihilism is overcome, Nietzsche suggests, not simply by better ideas or better theories. Indeed the very notion that our social reality is a theoretical problem wholly determined by human ideas (ideologies) is itself a major symptom of nihilism. Nihilism is not simply the affirmation of nothing, but nihilism is manifest in our fetishization of ideas and abstractions which have little or no contact with reality.

    Nihilism is overcome as we realize that we never get something from nothing – “ex nihilo nihil fit” “Nothing comes from nothing”. Nihilism is only overcome in the fires of experience.

    • I would certainly agree with the sentiment that Nietzche is often misrepresented. For that reason, I avoided setting out an interpretation of my own and sought only to show how I believe he has influenced the development of postmodernist ideas. Of course, to say he influenced postmodernists is not to say they have correctly understood his philosophy.

      • Colin Turfus

        I didn’t mean to be critical of your intelligent article. I do think it interesting to note that some of the most profound critiques of so-called postmodernism can be found in the very writings of its putative godfather.

        I do appreciate you connecting the philosophy to the politics – “ye shall know them by their fruits.” As you point out, the most vulgar aspects of progressivism resemble the most vulgar aspects of Christianity.

        One way I look at this (inspired by Nietzsche) is that postmodernists – and modern man in general – confuses skepticism with knowledge. Being “woke” is considered a hyperstate of critical thinking – yet as it manifests itself it is indistinquishible from pure idiocy.

        • neoteny says

          postmodernists […] confuses skepticism with knowledge

          ‘Institutionalized’ skepticism is a tool of the scientific method; to that extent, it is indispensable in order to gain anything even approaching knowledge. But radical scepticism of the postmodern variety — denial of the kind which is immune to logic & rationality — is destructive of the possibility of knowledge.

          • S. Cheung says

            well said. Skepticism is a vital tool but not immune to misuse.

  14. Hub says

    Be careful what you wish for. The shotgun marriage of postmodernism and Marxism shows that postmodernism was for some simply a more effective tool for dismantling a liberal democratic culture than honest, straighforward critique. Once it’s work is complete, we shall see the return of some form of “socialist realism” as the new foundation for a morality in service to totalitarian rule..

    • Fickle Pickle says

      But then again you could very well end up with the kind of “social realism” or collective essentially psychotic trance-state promoted by the post-truth, narcissistic nihilist, “reality” TV show President.

      Who thereby signals that Western culture is truly at a dead end.

  15. cacambo says

    Wow. An entire essay on the evils of “postmodernism” without a single quote from an evil postmodernist. As a general rule, when you are sticking it to the “bad guys,” it’s a good idea to provide specific examples of what you are objecting to. Quoting an encyclopedia article doesn’t cut it.

  16. Morality and the Enlightenment:

    Hobbes-imposed by the Leviathan.

    Locke-derived from the consensus of educated English men of property.

    Bentham-what would a pig do?

    Hume-the intellect is the slave of the passions

    Kant-Reason reveals that everything we learned in Prussian Sunday School was right.

    Hegel-see Hobbes, add opaque and counter-intuitive jargon.

    Feuerbach-Jez, how much German philosophy do you actually want to read.

    And what happened to Karl Marx?

    As far as the “counter-enlightenment”, Nietzsche is the only interesting figure? What about Herder and Hamann? De Maistre is brilliant (and similar to Rousseau, who didn’t make the Enlightenment either). Vico? Spengler? Burke?

  17. What if there was a certain kind of institutional and ideological structure that creates social and cultural power, which operated something like the Catholic Church? Further, what if the structure primarily served to increase the power of the institutional and ideological structure, at the expense of everything else?

    What if the Catholic Church got too greedy, and the society changed due to economic changes, and the Church lost most of its power, but was replaced by a different institutional and ideological structure which like the Church attempted to be hegemonic but on closer examination was completely self serving?

    What if any and all forms of hegemonic cultural power would end up resembling the Catholic Church, as that is a decent institutional platform for generating and obtaining cultural power?

    Perhaps inquisitions and purges in the cultural institutional domain are similar to STD’s in the sexual domain, e.g. unavoidable and inevitable consequences?

  18. The Ulcer says

    There are two groups driving the post-modern machine: academics whose perspectve of the real world is inversely-proportional to their vicinity to it, i.e., atop an ivory tower; and young people who are under the mistaken belief that they “know” something about the world based on the information they glean from the refracted angles of social media. The first group enables the second. Young people are supposed to question everything and riff on the predominant values of their era, so they get a pass when they are short-sighted or just plain wrong-headed. The academics who drive this madness are more culpable because they should have a better grip on reality than the youngsters who consume their work. But if one live’s their life in an academic bubble, they won’t be equipped to comment on anything outside their bubble. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to stop anyone from doing exactly that.

  19. Jim Gorman says

    Here is my perspective on what postmodernism has driven this country to. AOC as a brown female whining that old white male supremacist (like me) has held her back from achieving greatness. Black Muslim females complaining that white supremacists and yellow supremacists have kept her from achieving greatness. This tribe or that tribe has been discriminated against by some other group. We are being divided into smaller and smaller pieces so that everyone can say they have been reduced to nothing by some tribe or combination of tribes. And by God, they are going to get what they want by having the government reduce the offenders to ashes.

    What hogwash! The U.S. was built and defended based upon everyone, regardless of tribe, pulling or pushing the wagon to get it up the hill. Some were at the back, in the deep mud and some were at the front, riding the horses and out of the mud. But in the end everyone did their share to get the wagon where it needed to go. Where you were was simply determined by happenstance and could change with the next wagon.

    As an old white guy that managed people all over the states, I never even met some of them. I could have cared less about what color or religion or sex they were. My day was spent analyzing production data to determine who was doing well and who wasn’t. I suspect that most Americans are exactly the same and trying to define them badly is just wrong. We need more leaders who ascribe to teamwork and trying to bring people together toward a common goal. Whining about your position in life being someone’s fault is just narcissism.

    • Barbara parker says

      And seeing the world only through up your experience is self serving and lazy.

    • It would be interesting to hear an integral thinker like Wilbers in dialogue with Peterson. Notably, despite their name, integral thinkers/spokespersons seem to have a habit of talking about other thinkers rather than talking to them.

      • Markus says

        Such a conversation would be awesome.

        I think you are right about integralists having a tendency to talk about rather than to people. But with Wilber/integral getting more well known I think there is a good chance of more such conversations happening.

        In case you don’t know and would be interested, there are some integral groups on FB. Integral Global, Earpies integral Saloon and a bunch of others.

  20. S. Cheung says

    We emerged from a time before fact, science, evidence, and reason; but have since fallen into times where fact and evidence are rejected once again, only now in favor of, as Jordan Peterson describes, a Marxist ideology rooted in power dynamics within an intersectional and tribal framework. I hope the author is correct, and we can back this train up before it goes too far off the rails.

  21. Farris says

    There have a few articles of late questioning if the Left is beginning to eat itself. I do not know if the culprit is nihilism or reductionism. Over time groups typically form cliques. The cliques begin questioning the authenticity or dedication of non-clique members. Are conservative blacks authentic? Are Persians and Indians representative of the Asian experience? Radical feminists v. TERFs v. Women who voted against Hillary are just a few examples. Uniting these groups against straight white males has a shelf life as one clique believes its grievances are superior to other in group cliques. Even if the cliques splinter eventually off over time cliques form within the subgroups. Herein lies the problems with group rights. After unifying and establishing group grievances and rights members within the group naturally begin to believe they are more entitled than other members. For the above reasons ideals typically produce longer lasting unity than grievances, especially if those ideals have a resonance of truth.

  22. Alastair says

    It would be interesting, for a change, to read an article critical of postmodernism by someone who appears to know something about it. Opponents of contemporary social justice politics like to dismiss their target as ‘postmodern’, but they should instead recognise it for what it is: a misinterpretation and misunderstanding of what post-modernism (or, put more accurately, post-structuralism, which is the academic form of the more general literary and artistic project of postmodernism). The post-structuralists were never prescriptive, and their theory never normative. It is derived from phenomenology, which attempted to describe reality as it is experienced rather than direct us towards correct ways of understanding it.

    When social justice activists, and their representatives in academia, portray society in terms of empowered vs. disempowered groups, they fall back into the very illusions that postmodernism attempted to describe, namely that of binary oppositions and knowledge by categorisation. When poststructuralists ask us to pay attention to what’s not being said, they don’t just mean disempowered groups. They mean something far more literal: what could be said but isn’t, or what could be consdiered meaningful but isn’t. In our current society, this could refer to accounts by recognised minority groups of their experiences, but it could also refer to the very idea of minority/majority in the first place.

    The worst thing that we are doing, right now, is simplifying complex political and philosophical issues into chewable chunks that barely resemble the animal from which they were cut. We deliberately misrepresent the diversity of political opinions in (e.g.) working class people (and even my use of that term is a simplification), or we try to claim that ‘feminism’ is one easy thing that is all-encompassing, a panacea for the similarly simplified ‘toxic masculinity’ that is said to be the cause of all of our problems. This article has simplified postmodernism (not least by not recognising it as a response to structuralism’s neglect of the human experience of life, and an attempt to rescue phenomenology by re-interpreting it in along Nietzschean lines).

    Post-modernism exists because Enlightenment thought, and its 20th Century offspring such as Logical Positivism, failed to fully capture the human experience of life. It is the only philosophical approach which acknowledges the complexity of experience, along with the limited role conscious thought has to play in it.

    Put simply (though you shouldn’t trust this either!): anyone who seems to be using postmodernism to tell people how they should behave either hasn’t understood it, or else has deliberately corrupted it.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      To what extent do social justice activists actually identify with and propound postmodernism? It seems the case that it is their critics who are more fixated on identifying them with it.
      I have no clear grasp on postmodernism but I sense it is one more genie that will not be returning to anyone’s bottle. Logical positivism, on the other hand, survives only as a cautionary tale from which many of us stubbornly refuse to learn.

  23. Struwwel Peter says

    Ken Wilber is by far the most unique, interesting and neglected philosopher and cultural theorist of the past forty years.
    His book The Religion of Tomorrow A Vision of the Great Tradition : More Inclusive; More Comprehensive; More Complex provides a brilliant theoretical model for the emergence of a truly Integral Civilization. A model which includes all the possible levels of human development.

    Unlike almost all of the writers featured on Quillette, and even more so most of the folks that post
    comments Wilber’s model and his writings altogether go far beyond the hide bound Western “religious” and cultural provincialism that Quillette seems to cater for.

    The Religion of Tomorrow includes many non Western sources re the nature of what we are as human beings and our latent evolutionary potential too. This is even signalled by his usage of the words The Great Tradition in the title of his book

    • Agreed. Ken Wilber can add so much needed perspective to the dizzying culture wars. The current frameworks offered as explanations, for instance, by the IDW, can’t seem to coordinate methodological approaches towards the psychological, biological, sociological and interpretative (although the IDW comes the closest). And the levels of development within Integral, would make clear the cultural terrain so quickly. Hopefully it will be only a matter of time before he is discovered.

  24. Fickle Pickle says

    Never mind that the most vulgar and supposedly “conservative” proponents of Christianity in the USA and the best organized too are hugely supportive of Donald Trump.

    Such was of course prophesized by Chris Hedges in his book American Fascists, and Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Come, and Kevin Phillips in American Theocracy.

  25. I always found the following Bible verse fascinating:

    You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. (Leviticus 19:15)

    In other words, it proposes a view of justice that doesn’t take sides. Of course it’s more likely that the “great” will seek to manipulate the system on their own behalf, but as we sometimes see now those supposedly favoring the poor will seek to do the opposite. (The poor seldom benefit from either option.)

  26. D Shane Petersen says

    Maybe it’s not such a good idea to write an article about postmodernism if you don’t know what it is. Save the strawman arguments for your blog please.

  27. Almansur says

    Should a PhD, or anybody else for that matter, write an article about a philosophical concept he clearly knows little about? Can an article about a complex philosophical idea use Encyclopaedia Britannica as a primary source? Is it possible to write an article about postmodernism without quoting a single postmodern author? That is all so postmodern!!!

    By the way, the ideas of Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach had a profound impact in the world. Some of these ideas still hold an enormous relevance in contemporary epistemology, ethics or politics.

    • A critique of what an author didn’t say and an ad hominem dismissal? What a very postmodern critique!

  28. David Morley says

    “Without taking a position on whose views are more correct between the relatively more or less powerful group, postmodernists argue that it behoves us to take the side of the relatively disempowered group so as to help redress the intrinsic injustice of the situation.”

    This, of course, is the crucial point – when postmodernism produces a morality that dare not speak its name. Without this it would make absolutely no sense to talk about “intrinsic injustice” at all. In reality, of course, the people drawing on post modernism to support their positions far more resemble old fashioned moralisers than they do nihilists. They are frighteningly certain of their own moral rightness.

    • David Morley says

      Just to add an ironic twist, this new morality is emerging as the morality not of the poor, but of the most privileged members of society. Wherever the children of the very rich congregate, there will you find it. Not to mention it becoming the morality of modern corporate capitalism!

  29. X. Citoyen says

    I’m glad you explored this point because it really gets to the truth beneath the pretense:

    Without taking a position on whose views are more correct between the relatively more or less powerful group, postmodernists argue that it behoves us to take the side of the relatively disempowered group so as to help redress the intrinsic injustice of the situation.

    Postmodernists feign conventionalism when “deconstructing” others. Yet all mysteriously come to progressive conclusions. What a coincidence! No, I don’t think so. This is the main reason people call postmodernism cultural Marxism. It is old wine in new bottles.

  30. Greg McKnight says

    Modernity can reflect upon traditionalism and see its flaws because it is operating from a more complex order of cognition— but it represses all aspects of traditionalism rather than including the essential parts. Lack of deeper meaning results in nihilism which one cannot reason their way out of.

    Postmodernism can reflect upon modernity and see its flaws because it is operating from an even more complex order of cognition— but it represses all aspects of modernism rather than including the essential parts. It seeks to relieve the nihilism by blaming all problems on power and oppression. This quickly leads to a breakdown of truth and reason. Now narcissism is the only source of meaning.

    The article is pointing out that traditionalism, modernity and postmodernism are sequential stages of personal and cultural development. If you are at one of these stages (which 95% of the world are), you will see your stage as the highest and all others as prior to yours (Pre/Trans Fallacy).

    SJWs are not postmodern, they are pre-traditional. They hijacked postmodernism and have forced our culture to move to the next sequential level. This level will integrate the meaning from traditionalism, the reason from modernity and the ability to differentiate and reflect upon both from postmodernism.

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