A brief history of philosophy, part 14: the rise and fall of postmodernism

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Posted Aug 16 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
foucault Michel Foucault

By the 1980s, a new way of thinking began to be applied to academic philosophy with almost a religious fervour that caused quite a bit of acrimony within academia, but which has now faded. As mentioned previously, its roots can be discerned in Kant’s phenomenal world and the Romantics’ criticisms of the notion of scientific progress. These were reiterated in the 1947 book by Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) and Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), The Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which the authors pointed out that during the Scientific Revolution, Francis Bacon was explicit that the main application of science would be to develop technology to conquer and dominate nature (which inevitably meant dominating people too). Then in the 1960s Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) introduced the concept of structuralism within his discipline, anthropology.

Structuralism is a difficult concept to explain, but it was based on the idea that there is no hidden ‘reality’ behind ‘appearances’. Language was key to this idea – we can only describe appearances using words, and that’s it. There is no hidden reality waiting to be discovered, just words and appearances. Roland Barthes (1915-1980) claimed that the ‘meaning’ injected into a book by the author had no more validity than the meaning extracted from it by any reader. So truth or reality is not something that exists independently, it is invented by the society, or ‘structure’ that you find yourself in.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was arguably the first to take apart (to deconstruct) those structures. He was the first to use the word ‘text’, so beloved of postmodernists, in this context, and within texts were always opposing binary terms like male and female (for example), and one of those terms was always dominant over the other, for reasons determined by society. So, there is no reason for ‘male’ to be dominant over ‘female’ and yet throughout history it has been, because men were dominant in society. He said similar things about ‘sane’ and ‘mad’. Deconstructionism involves breaking down ‘narratives’ into their constituent parts, and each part is examined with a view to understanding the psychological motives behind it. Sexism, racism, homophobia and other evils are often found lurking there, which is bound to raise the ire of conservatives and socialists alike.

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Claude Levi-Strauss

In the 1970s, post-structuralists were telling us that concepts such as ‘meaning’ or ‘reality’ didn’t even exist within systems – everything was a construct, and even the search for meaning or reality was a construct. So now it became difficult even to think about thinking about meaning, and the foundations of everything started to feel somewhat shaky.

Postmodernism developed from this. In some ways it was a reaction to both the certainties and the failures of Marxism, and the atrocities committed in its name in the 20th century. This was intensified by the popularity of the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), describing the horrors of the gulag. Philosophers became wary of big, overarching ideas; and it was also a reaction against the modernism and scientific rationalism that had wrought so much damage to ecology and to communities.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) claimed that there is ‘no truly universal truth’, but his focus was on the way that what the public considers ‘truth’ has always been manipulated by those with real power. It’s easy to see how those with the most wealth and power can influence (through funding) what is researched, or (through its ownership of the media) what the public believes – for example that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9-11, or that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or that ‘democratic’ structures prevent power from being bought.

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Roland Barthes

Postmodern thinking has come in for much criticism – from the right because of its critique of power and its tendency to find sexism, homophobia and racism lurking in the most innocuous places, and from the left, for some because of its rejection of Marxism, and for others who see it as discrediting the left by bringing it into intellectual disrepute.

The simplest criticisms involve asking questions like: ‘is my belief that I can’t fly relative, or a social construct?’. There are plenty of buildings to jump off for people who believe that it’s just a construct, but objective reality will hit them hard. Its labelling of science as just one way of looking at the world, alongside many other, equal ways, has come in for plenty of criticism too. It has been pointed out that science has in-built ways to prove its conclusions wrong if possible, and no bias towards any particular conclusion. Science is vulnerable to attack by sceptics, and in fact welcomes attacks with open arms. It moves forward by having its main precepts disproven, modified, built upon. What other worldview can say that?

However, it’s difficult to find a postmodern philosopher who subscribes to absolute relativism in this way, and often, it seems as though postmodernism is attacked (e.g. by Jordan Peterson and others on the right) as a way of re-introducing a discredited Marxism by the back door. This is very wrong, as postmodernism contradicts Marxian historicism and goal-orientation. Postmodernism is very much not goal-oriented, which breeds scepticism and apathy towards organising to achieve specific aims in society, and is a reason that it’s attacked from the left. This is a much more valid criticism.

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Jacques Derrida

One scientist in particular, attacked postmodernism in a very creative way. Physicist Alan Sokal (1955- ) submitted an article to the postmodern journal Social Text, which regularly ran articles claiming that scientific theories were merely social constructs rather than investigations into objective reality. His article suggested that quantum gravity was a social contruct – but it was a hoax, built around deliberately nonsensical ideas and sprinkled with trendy postmodern phrases. It survived editorial review and was published. On the same day, Sokal explained what he had done in an article in an influential magazine. It unleashed an academic furore, but Sokal insisted that he hadn’t intended to highlight the shortcomings of postmodernism when it came to understanding science (science really didn’t care), but to ‘defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself’).

However, I understand postmodernist frustrations in the way that power is able to label as ‘unenlightened’ any opposition to notions of ‘progress’ that might just involve the destruction of nature and the domination of people. But for me, the problem lies more with the power structure than with rationalism or the scientific method. Also, there is a way that postmodernists can be shown to be right in the final reckoning, and that’s if our universe turns out to be virtual. There are serious scientists who claim that it almost definitely is. It may even be a virtual reality built from within another virtual reality. Where does the buck stop? Who knows? Not humans, that’s for sure.

Next: the future.