How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained

Postmodernism presents a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself. That may sound like a bold or even hyperbolic claim, but the reality is that the cluster of ideas and values at the root of postmodernism have broken the bounds of academia and gained great cultural power in western society. The irrational and identitarian “symptoms” of postmodernism are easily recognizable and much criticized, but the ethos underlying them is not well understood. This is partly because postmodernists rarely explain themselves clearly and partly because of the inherent contradictions and inconsistencies of a way of thought which denies a stable reality or reliable knowledge to exist. However, there are consistent ideas at the root of postmodernism and understanding them is essential if we intend to counter them. They underlie the problems we see today in Social Justice Activism, undermine the credibility of the Left and threaten to return us to an irrational and tribal “pre-modern” culture.

Postmodernism, most simply, is an artistic and philosophical movement which began in France in the 1960s and produced bewildering art and even more bewildering  “theory.” It drew on avant-garde and surrealist art and earlier philosophical ideas, particularly those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, for its anti-realism and rejection of the concept of the unified and coherent individual. It reacted against the liberal humanism of the modernist artistic and intellectual movements, which its proponents saw as naïvely universalizing a western, middle-class and male experience.

It rejected philosophy which valued ethics, reason and clarity with the same accusation. Structuralism, a movement which (often over-confidently) attempted to analyze human culture and psychology according to consistent structures of relationships, came under attack. Marxism, with its understanding of society through class and economic structures was regarded as equally rigid and simplistic. Above all, postmodernists attacked science and its goal of attaining objective knowledge about a reality which exists independently of human perceptions which they saw as merely another form of constructed ideology dominated by bourgeois, western assumptions. Decidedly left-wing, postmodernism had both a nihilistic and a revolutionary ethos which resonated with a post-war, post-empire zeitgeist in the West. As postmodernism continued to develop and diversify, its initially stronger nihilistic deconstructive phase became secondary (but still fundamental) to its revolutionary “identity politics” phase.

It has been a matter of contention whether postmodernism is a reaction against modernity. The modern era is the period of history which saw Renaissance Humanism, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and the development of liberal values and human rights; the period when Western societies gradually came to value reason and science over faith and superstition as routes to knowledge, and developed a concept of the person as an individual member of the human race deserving of rights and freedoms rather than as part of various collectives subject to rigid hierarchical roles in society.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica says postmodernism “is largely a reaction against the philosophical assumptions and values of the modern period of Western (specifically European) history” whilst the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy denies this and says “Rather, its differences lie within modernity itself, and postmodernism is a continuation of modern thinking in another mode.” I’d suggest the difference lies in whether we see modernity in terms of what was produced or what was destroyed. If we see the essence of modernity as the development of science and reason as well as humanism and universal liberalism, postmodernists are opposed to it. If we see modernity as the tearing down of structures of power including feudalism, the Church, patriarchy, and Empire, postmodernists are attempting to continue it, but their targets are now science, reason, humanism and liberalism. Consequently, the roots of postmodernism are inherently political and revolutionary, albeit in a destructive or, as they would term it, deconstructive way.

The term “postmodern” was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition. He defined the postmodern condition as “an incredulity towards metanarratives.” A metanarrative is a wide-ranging and cohesive explanation for large phenomena. Religions and other totalizing ideologies are metanarratives in their attempts to explain the meaning of life or all of society’s ills. Lyotard advocated replacing these with “mininarratives” to get at smaller and more personal “truths.” He addressed Christianity and Marxism in this way but also science.

In his view, “there is a strict interlinkage between the kind of language called science and the kind called ethics and politics” (p8). By tying science and the knowledge it produces to government and power he rejects its claim to objectivity. Lyotard describes this incredulous postmodern condition as a general one, and argues that from the end of the 19th century, “an internal erosion of the legitimacy principle of knowledge” began to cause a change in the status of knowledge (p39). By the 1960s, the resulting “doubt” and “demoralization” of scientists had made “an impact on the central problem of legitimization” (p8). No number of scientists telling him they are not demoralized nor any more doubtful than befits the practitioners of a method whose results are always provisional and whose hypotheses are never “proven” could sway him from this.

We see in Lyotard an explicit epistemic relativity (belief in personal or culturally specific truths or facts) and the advocacy of privileging  “lived experience” over empirical evidence. We see too the promotion of a version of pluralism which privileges the views of minority groups over the general consensus of scientists or liberal democratic ethics which are presented as authoritarian and dogmatic. This is consistent in postmodern thought.

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Jean-François Lyotard

Michel Foucault’s work is also centered on language and relativism although he applied this to history and culture. He called this approach “archeology” because he saw himself as “uncovering” aspects of historical culture through recorded discourses (speech which promotes or assumes a particular view). For Foucault, discourses control what can be “known” and in different periods and places, different systems of institutional power control discourses. Therefore, knowledge is a direct product of power. “In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one ‘episteme’ that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in theory or silently invested in a practice.”[1]

Furthermore, people themselves were culturally constructed. “The individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces.”[2]  He leaves almost no room for individual agency or autonomy. As Christopher Butler says, Foucault “relies on beliefs about the inherent evil of the individual’s class position, or professional position, seen as ‘discourse’, regardless of the morality of his or her individual conduct.”[3] He presents medieval feudalism and modern liberal democracy as equally oppressive, and advocates criticizing and attacking institutions to unmask the “political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them.” [4]

We see in Foucault the most extreme expression of cultural relativity read through structures of power in which shared humanity and individuality are almost entirely absent. Instead, people are constructed by their position in relation to dominant cultural ideas either as oppressors or oppressed. Judith Butler drew on Foucault for her foundational role in queer theory focusing on the culturally constructed nature of gender, as did Edward Said in his similar role in post-colonialism and “Orientalism” and Kimberlé Crenshaw in her development of “intersectionality” and advocacy of identity politics. We see too the equation of language with violence and coercion and the equation of reason and universal liberalism with oppression.

It was Jacques Derrida who introduced the concept of “deconstruction,” and he too argued for cultural constructivism and cultural and personal relativity. He focused even more explicitly on language. Derrida’s best-known pronouncement “There is no outside-text” relates to his rejection of the idea that words refer to anything straightforwardly. Rather, “there are only contexts without any center of absolute anchoring.” [5]

Therefore the author of a text is not the authority on its meaning. The reader or listener makes their own equally valid meaning and every text “engenders infinitely new contexts in an absolutely nonsaturable fashion.” Derrida coined the term différance which he derived from the verb “differer” which means both “to defer” and “to differ.” This was to indicate that not only is meaning never final but it is constructed by differences, specifically by oppositions. The word “young” only makes sense in its relationship with the word “old” and he argued, following Saussure, that meaning is constructed by the conflict of these elemental oppositions which, to him, always form a positive and negative. “Man” is positive and “woman” negative. “Occident” is positive and “Orient” negative. He insisted that “We are not dealing with the peaceful co-existence of a vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.”[6] Deconstruction, therefore, involves inverting these perceived hierarchies, making “woman” and “Orient” positive and “man” and “Occident” negative. This is to be done ironically to reveal the culturally constructed and arbitrary nature of these perceived oppositions in unequal conflict.

We see in Derrida further relativity, both cultural and epistemic, and further justification for identity politics. There is an explicit denial that differences can be other than oppositional and therefore a rejection of Enlightenment liberalism’s values of overcoming differences and focusing on universal human rights and individual freedom and empowerment. We see here the basis of “ironic misandry” and the mantra “reverse racism isn’t real” and the idea that identity dictates what can be understood. We see too a rejection of the need for clarity in speech and argument and to understand the other’s point of view and avoid minterpretation. The intention of the speaker is irrelevant. What matters is the impact of speech. This, along with Foucauldian ideas, underlies the current belief in the deeply damaging nature of “microaggressions” and misuse of terminology related to gender, race or sexuality.

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Jacques Derrida

Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida are just three of the “founding fathers” of postmodernism but their ideas share common themes with other influential “theorists” and were taken up by later postmodernists who applied them to an increasingly diverse range of disciplines within the social sciences and humanities. We’ve seen that this includes an intense sensitivity to language on the level of the word and a feeling that what the speaker means is less important than how it is received, no matter how radical the interpretation. Shared humanity and individuality are essentially illusions and people are propagators or victims of discourses depending on their social position; a position which is dependent on identity far more than their individual engagement with society. Morality is culturally relative, as is reality itself. Empirical evidence is suspect and so are any culturally dominant ideas including science, reason, and universal liberalism. These are Enlightenment values which are naïve, totalizing and oppressive, and there is a moral necessity to smash them. Far more important is the lived experience, narratives and beliefs of “marginalized” groups all of which are equally “true” but must now be privileged over Enlightenment values to reverse an oppressive, unjust and entirely arbitrary social construction of reality, morality and knowledge.

The desire to “smash” the status quo, challenge widely held values and institutions and champion the marginalized is absolutely liberal in ethos. Opposing it is resolutely conservative. This is the historical reality, but we are at a unique point in history where the status quo is fairly consistently liberal, with a liberalism that upholds the values of freedom, equal rights and opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, race and sexuality. The result is confusion in which life-long liberals wishing to conserve this kind of liberal status quo find themselves considered conservative and those wishing to avoid conservatism at all costs find themselves defending irrationalism and illiberalism. Whilst the first postmodernists mostly challenged discourse with discourse, the activists motivated by their ideas are becoming more authoritarian and following those ideas to their logical conclusion. Freedom of speech is under threat because speech is now dangerous. So dangerous that people considering themselves liberal can now justify responding to it with violence. The need to argue a case persuasively using reasoned argument is now often replaced with references to identity and pure rage.

Despite all the evidence that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia are at an all-time low in Western societies, Leftist academics and SocJus activists display a fatalistic pessimism, enabled by postmodern interpretative “reading” practices which valorize confirmation bias. The authoritarian power of the postmodern academics and activists seems to be invisible to them whilst being apparent to everyone else. As Andrew Sullivan says of intersectionality:

“It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. … Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse.” [7]

Postmodernism has become a Lyotardian metanarrative, a Foucauldian system of discursive power, and a Derridean oppressive hierarchy.

The logical problem of self-referentiality has been pointed out to postmodernists by philosophers fairly constantly but it is one they have yet to address convincingly. As Christopher Butler points out, “the plausibility of Lyotard’s claim for the decline of metanarratives in the late 20th century ultimately depends upon an appeal to the cultural condition of an intellectual minority.” In other words, Lyotard’s claim comes directly from the discourses surrounding him in his bourgeois academic bubble and is, in fact, a metanarrative towards which he is not remotely incredulous. Equally, Foucault’s argument that knowledge is historically contingent must itself be historically contingent, and one wonders why Derrida bothered to explain the infinite malleability of texts at such length if I could read his entire body of work and claim it to be a story about bunny rabbits with the same degree of authority.

This is, of course, not the only criticism commonly made of postmodernism. The most glaring problem of epistemic cultural relativity has been addressed by philosophers and scientists. The philosopher, David Detmer, in Challenging Postmodernism, says

“Consider this example, provided by Erazim Kohak, ‘When I try, unsuccessfully, to squeeze a tennis ball into a wine bottle, I need not try several wine bottles and several tennis balls before, using Mill’s canons of induction, I arrive inductively at the hypothesis that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles’… We are now in a position to turn the tables on [postmodernist claims of cultural relativity] and ask, ‘If I judge that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles, can you show precisely how it is that my gender, historical and spatial location, class, ethnicity, etc., undermine the objectivity of this judgement?” [8]

However, he has not found postmodernists committed to explaining their reasoning and describes a bewildering conversation with postmodern philosopher, Laurie Calhoun,

“When I had occasion to ask her whether or not it was a fact that giraffes are taller than ants, she replied that it was not a fact, but rather an article of religious faith in our culture.”

Physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont address the same problem from the perspective of science in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science:

“Who could now seriously deny the ‘grand narrative’ of evolution, except someone in the grip of a far less plausible master narrative such as Creationism? And who would wish to deny the truth of basic physics? The answer was, ‘some postmodernists.’”

and

“There is something very odd indeed in the belief that in looking, say, for causal laws or a unified theory, or in asking whether atoms really do obey the laws of quantum mechanics, the activities of scientists are somehow inherently ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Eurocentric’ or ‘masculinist’, or even ‘militarist.'”

How much of a threat is postmodernism to science? There are certainly some external attacks. In the recent protests against a talk given by Charles Murray at Middlebury, the protesters chanted, as one,

“Science has always been used to legitimize racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state. In this world today, there is little that is true ‘fact.'”[9]

When the organizers of the March for Science tweeted:

“colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex-phobia, & econ justice are scientific issues,”[10] many scientists immediately criticized this politicization of science and derailment of the focus on preservation of science to intersectional ideology. In South Africa, the #ScienceMustFall and #DecolonizeScience progressive student movement announced that science was only one way of knowing that people had been taught to accept. They suggested witchcraft as one alternative. [11]

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Photo by Drew Hayes

Despite this, science as a methodology is not going anywhere. It cannot be “adapted” to include epistemic relativity and “alternative ways of knowing.” It can, however, lose public confidence and thereby, state funding, and this is a threat not to be underestimated. Also, at a time in which world rulers doubt climate change, parents believe false claims that vaccines cause autism and people turn to homeopaths and naturopaths for solutions to serious medical conditions, it is dangerous to the degree of an existential threat to further damage people’s confidence in the empirical sciences.

The social sciences and humanities, however, are in danger of changing out of all recognition. Some disciplines within the social sciences already have. Cultural anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and gender studies, for example, have succumbed almost entirely not only to moral relativity but epistemic relativity. English (literature) too, in my experience, is teaching a thoroughly postmodern orthodoxy. Philosophy, as we have seen, is divided. So is history.

Empirical historians are often criticized by the postmodernists among us for claiming to know what really happened in the past. Christopher Butler recalls Diane Purkiss’ accusation that Keith Thomas was enabling a myth that grounded men’s historical identity in “the powerlessness and speechlessness of women” when he provided evidence that accused witches were usually powerless beggar women. Presumably, he should have claimed, against the evidence, that they were wealthy women or better still, men. As Butler says,

“It seems as though Thomas’s empirical claims here have simply run foul of Purkiss’s rival organizing principle for historical narrative – that it should be used to support contemporary notions of female empowerment” (p36)

I encountered the same problem when trying to write about race and gender at the turn of the seventeenth century. I’d argued that Shakespeare’s audience’s would not have found Desdemona’s attraction to Black Othello, who was Christian and a soldier for Venice, so difficult to understand because prejudice against skin color did not become prevalent until a little later in the seventeenth century when the Atlantic Slave Trade gained steam, and that religious and national differences were far more profound before that. I was told this was problematic by an eminent professor and asked how Black communities in contemporary America would feel about my claim. If today’s African Americans felt badly about it, it was implied, it either could not have been true in the seventeenth century or it is morally wrong to mention it. As Christopher Butler says,

“Postmodernist thought sees the culture as containing a number of perpetually competing stories, whose effectiveness depends not so much on an appeal to an independent standard of judgement, as upon their appeal to the communities in which they circulate.”

I fear for the future of the humanities.

The dangers of postmodernism are not limited to pockets of society which center around academia and Social Justice, however. Relativist ideas, sensitivity to language and focus on identity over humanity or individuality have gained dominance in wider society. It is much easier to say what you feel than rigorously examine the evidence. The freedom to “interpret” reality according to one’s own values feeds into the very human tendency towards confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

It has become commonplace to note that the far-Right is now using identity politics and epistemic relativism in a very similar way to the postmodern-Left. Of course, elements of the far-Right have always been divisive on the grounds of race, gender and sexuality and prone to irrational and anti-science views but postmodernism has produced a culture more widely receptive to this. Kenan Malik describes this shift,

“When I suggested earlier that the idea of ‘alternative facts’ draws upon ‘a set of concepts that in recent decades have been used by radicals’, I was not suggesting that Kellyanne Conway, or Steve Bannon, still less Donald Trump, have been reading up on Foucault or Baudrillard… It is rather that sections of academia and of the left have in recent decades helped create a culture in which relativized views of facts and knowledge seem untroubling, and hence made it easier for the reactionary right not just to re-appropriate but also to promote reactionary ideas.”[12]

This “set of concepts” threaten to take us back to a time before the Enlightenment, when “reason” was regarded as not only inferior to faith but as a sin. James K. A. Smith, Reformed theologian and professor of philosophy, has been quick to see the advantages for Christianity and regards postmodernism as “a fresh wind of the Spirit sent to revitalize the dry bones of the church” (p18). In Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, he says,

“A thoughtful engagement with postmodernism will encourage us to look backward. We will see that much that goes under the banner of postmodern philosophy has one eye on ancient and medieval sources and constitutes a significant recovery of premodern ways of knowing, being, and doing.” (p25)

and

“Postmodernism can be a catalyst for the church to reclaim its faith not as a system of truth dictated by a neutral reason but rather as a story that requires ‘eyes to see and ears to hear.” (p125)

We on the Left should be very afraid of what “our side” has produced. Of course, not every problem in society today is the fault of postmodern thinking, and it is not helpful to suggest that it is. The rise of populism and nationalism in the US and across Europe are also due to a strong existing far-Right and the fear of Islamism produced by the refugee crisis. Taking a rigidly “anti-SJW” stance and blaming everything on this element of the Left is itself rife with motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. The Left is not responsible for the far-Right or the religious-Right or secular nationalism, but it is responsible for not engaging with reasonable concerns reasonably and thereby making itself harder for reasonable people to support. It is responsible for its own fragmentation, purity demands and divisiveness which make even the far-Right appear comparatively coherent and cohesive.

In order to regain credibility, the Left needs to recover a strong, coherent and reasonable liberalism. To do this, we need to out-discourse the postmodern-Left. We need to meet their oppositions, divisions and hierarchies with universal principles of freedom, equality and justice. There must be a consistency of liberal principles in opposition to all attempts to evaluate or limit people by race, gender or sexuality. We must address concerns about immigration, globalism and authoritarian identity politics currently empowering the far- Right rather than calling people who express them “racist,” “sexist” or “homophobic” and accusing them of wanting to commit verbal violence. We can do this whilst continuing to oppose authoritarian factions of the Right who genuinely are racist, sexist and homophobic, but can now hide behind a façade of reasonable opposition to the postmodern-Left.

Our current crisis is not one of Left versus Right but of consistency, reason, humility and universal liberalism versus inconsistency, irrationalism, zealous certainty and tribal authoritarianism. The future of freedom, equality and justice looks equally bleak whether the postmodern Left or the post-truth Right wins this current war. Those of us who value liberal democracy and the fruits of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution and modernity itself must provide a better option.

Notes

[1] The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (2011) Routledge. p183

[2] ‘About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two Lectures at Dartmouth.’ Political Theory, 21, 198-227

[3] Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. (2002) Oxford University Press. p49

[4] The Chomsky – Foucault Debate: On Human Nature (2006) The New Press. P41

[5] http://hydra.humanities.uci.edu/derrida/sec.html

[6] Positions. (1981) University of Chicago Press p41

[7] http://hotair.com/archives/2017/03/10/is-intersectionality-a-religion/

[8] Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Politics of Truth (2003) Prometheus Press. p 26.

[9] In Sullivan http://hotair.com/archives/2017/03/10/is-intersectionality-a-religion/

[10]  http://dailycaller.com/2017/01/30/anti-trump-march-for-science-maintains-that-racism-ableism-and-native-rights-are-scientific-issues/#ixzz4bPD4TA1o

[11] http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/10/science-must-fall-time-decolonise-science/

[12] https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/not-post-truth-as-too-many-truths/

Helen Pluckrose

Helen Pluckrose is a researcher in the humanities who focuses on late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities.
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Helen Pluckrose

Helen Pluckrose is a researcher in the humanities who focuses on late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities.

342 thoughts on “How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained

  1. @Bradley Robinson
    “Kare, words like transcendent and spiritual muddy the waters and are superfluous if you believe that this existence here on earth has real, ontological meaning.”

    “Your post reveals you really are coming at this from a religious mindset and as I said before, I don’t believe this is remotely a way forward for humanity.”

    It seems to me that Kare is claiming that there is a transcendant / spritual dimension to life which provides meaning via the ‘sacred’. There is no doubt that humans and human tribes, societies etc have a capacity for a connection to the sacred, which may be conceived in many forms – many kinds of ‘religions’ that sacralise the Christian God, Liverpool football club, nature, or even the ‘state’ (Maoists etc). Some of us just sacralise the love that exists between us and (say) our children or other close family.

    The problem for many of those who see ‘religion’ as an odious backward weight on the shoulders of humanity is that we forget that we have a need for the sacred of some kind. Jonathon Haidt’s book ‘The Righteous Mind’ is not a bad lightweight excursion into this subject area where he recapitulates some of Durkheim and others who recognised this important trait.

  2. I just read this review of a new book about how the built environment literally and physically shapes us. The author, who once taught at Harvard’s GSD notes how she couldn’t teach this within the academy because of the prevalence of Poststructuralism. In essence, she couldn’t talk about our actual, real connection to the wider world. I’m happy to see this out there and the ideas of “embodied cognition” put to such important use. We shape the world that shapes us. Understanding this is the only hope for the future.

    https://www.citylab.com/design/2017/07/this-is-your-brain-on-architecture/531810/

  3. Kare,
    After re-reading your post, I may have overstated your personal view on religion. But I still think the religious language is superfluous and needs to be overcome. I think we who believe in a holism that includes all aspects of human experience must reclaim the naturalness of feeling, intuition, etc. without referring back to our religious past.

  4. Kare,
    Your post reveals you really are coming at this from a religious mindset and as I said before, I don’t believe this is remotely a way forward for humanity. According to your post, the beautiful, good, and true things actually do NOT work. Otherwise, why would we need some “force” to suppress the more effective evil? I would refer you to Steven Pinker’s Better Angels book which shows by no means is evil triumphing. Consider Robert Wrights point of our continuing growth in cooperation that has led us from hunter-gathers to the United Nations (complexity).

    You have revealed the flaw of religion: It does harm to this reality and separates you from it. The solution? According to you some force from outside of this reality.

    Part of the blame lies with the binary choice we have often been given. 1)The pure rationality of a scientific mind or 2)Religious faith. I don’t think those are all of our options. Part of the problem is that science has been operating in a Cartesian mindset that nature is a machine. Noah Brender has stated it thusly: . . .”we cannot understand how knowledge arises within nature unless we abandon the Cartesian view of nature as a machine
    composed of mutually external and indifferent parts.
    If nature is a mechanism then it has no intrinsic meaning or unity.
    Thus nature could only be meaningful for a constituting consciousness
    that imposes a meaning on it by synthesizing its disconnected
    parts into an ideal whole. However, this amounts to denying
    that we can know nature at all.”

    But we are not outside of nature. Mr. Brender goes on to say “The problem is for consciousness to reflect on its own emergence
    within nature, without projecting the results of this reflection
    back into its conditions. There must be something for us to
    know, some nascent intelligibility in nature that is not placed there
    by us—otherwise, knowing would be impossible. But this natural
    meaning must not yet be an idea for a consciousness—otherwise,
    knowing would already have taken place. For knowledge to be
    possible at all, then, nature must have its own endogenous meaning
    which is prior to thought.”

    Access to this meaning is not merely by rational thought but by feeling. I think we must acquire an updated view of perception. But perception and intuition are not magic. I don’t think we know the full extent of our connection to the wider universe yet. It’s a mystery but we don’t need to make the leap to magic or spirit.

    I think a viewpoint that seems new-agey at the moment may gain some traction and that is proto-panpsychism as discussed by David Chalmers etc. I think there are some language problems at the moment in communicating it effectively. I don’t think everything is conscious but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that everything has a sensitivity to everything else. Oil and water don’t mix because water molecules are more attracted to themselves than to oil. There is some information monitoring that is taking place. Anyway, this kind of structure has the potential for explaining mysterious events without the attending problems that religion has. Too much to say here.

  5. I agree that humans require meaning, and that meaning is created. But meaning is not necessarily created by each individual. Many persons do not invent a meaning by themselves, but take on a meaning presented to them by others.
    To many people, the most obvious possibility to acquire meaning is to import it from some religion. Others take it form e.g. a marxist or ultraliberal ideology or conservative ideology.
    An obvious aspect of meaning is that you have to believe that the good forces will prevail in the end, and that evil forces will lose. If you believe that the evil forces will prevail in the end, you could as well commit suicide to be spared from witnessing that. So you must have a belief that even though things look dark right now, it is worthwhile to fight for the good, whatever that is.
    There is much to indicate that evilness should win. If egoistic cynical people usually win, and altruistic considerate people lose, then over the generations, hell should come closer and closer. For instance, we know that psychopathy is to a considerable extent heritable, and that male psychopaths tend to become the biological father of relatively many children. So the frequency of psychopaths should rise for each generation (which may probably be true, actually).
    So to preserve `meaning´, you have to believe that there is some force keeping evilness down, and helping goodness to prevail. Some people see this force in some kind of spirituality. Spirituality may change people´s minds and make them take decisions different from what they took before. Spirituality may be conceived as some kind of thinking or perceiving that may be transferred from one person to another, or may be common to some assembly of people. It may be conceived as something natural, of this world – like if people cooperate in a good spirit, or if a sports team has a high morale. This spirit may arise somehow within a group of people, during their interactions or intuitive mutual understanding. It seems that we humans are in our brains disposed to be receptive to such a way of feeling/thinking. But a spirit may also come from some wider surroundings, and maybe even go generations back.
    Now, many people are also genetically disposed to be religious. If there are widespread genes for religiosity, then religiosity must have been beneficial to some extent during human evolution. And for those with this disposition, it is natural to import meaning or a good spirit from some religious context.
    Now, some people might say: If we via our genetics are equipped with brains that have dispositions for being receptive to some kind of spirituality, wouldn´t that imply that spirituality is something real? We have ears that function because sound waves are real, and eyes that function because light is real – so if we also have some brain structure allowing us to perceive some kind of spirit or transcendent force or whatever it could be, would we have those structures if these phenomena are not real? The answer to this depends on, what precisely you think of when you use words like spirit or transendent force.
    Peterson says in one of the videos, that he will not discard the existence of magical phenomena, because he has experienced them himself. He says for instance that he has experienced strange synchrony of events that goes beyond rational understanding. Well, such phenomena are not necessarily against physical laws, if you consider the quantum mechanical concept of entanglement. And how came that physicists discovered entanglement in the first instance? Because Niels Bohr was led in his research by some strange metaphysical principle that told him that Einstein could not be right in his rational understanding of the world as one large set of causes and effects. It turned out that Bohr´s intuition was right, and some strange kind of metaphysicism in his mind prevailed in the end over Einstein´s rationality.
    I could also mention the Danish scientist Eske Willeslev, well known for his many studies of ancient DNA and the human pedigree, who claims that he has experienced magical phenomena – like it has paid off for him in some mystical/magical way to pay due regard to primitive tribes people in arctic areas. It was an experience that somehow there is a spiritual principle that may cause that if you help something good prevail over your own egoistic and “rational” impulses,it turns out in the end to have been the right thing, without your ability to understand how came that things turned out that way.
    So Willerslev´s experience is close to a common human condition – we are prone to believe that good will prevail, if we cooperate on the good, altruistic side, even though altruism apparently does not pay off from a rational view point. Our tendency to think in that way – and that tendency may be conditioned on our willingness to accept that there exists some kind of spiritual force – our tendency to think in that way may be just that which in the end has made it possible for humans to build surviving societies and reach the remarkable results that we have reached.
    I think it is to commit hubris to believe that there is only simple rationality. We should be humble and open to the possibility that there are fundamental principles in the world that we do not yet understand – like the phenomenon of entanglement, which was at first found due to some kind of spiritual thinking, but is now being utilized in building new kinds of computers.
    The ultimate test of what is real, will not come in each persons own lifetime. Entanglement was demonstrated only after Bohr´s death. Therefore, some humility will be in its place.
    But we can see a lot of ways of thinking that obviously go against reality on a shorter time scale, within our own lifetime. Postmodernism, in most of its aspects, is one such way of thinking.

  6. Kare, words like transcendent and spiritual muddy the waters and are superfluous if you believe that this existence here on earth has real, ontological meaning. And I don’t mean a grand meta narrative (except perhaps along the broad lines of complexity). I’ll concede some of Lyotard’s critiques of that.
    I do however believe that meaning is created. My difference with some Postmodernists is that that creation is not ex nihilo. It’s rooted in our interactions with our environment, which include other people of course. And while I do think the creation of various meanings are nearly limitles in the individual , I don’t believe that all meanings are similarly efficacious nor move humanity to greater complexity . . . Like the belief that I can fly and overcome gravity without assistance. As soon as you posit another source for meaning other that this natural existence, you have done irreparable harm to it.

  7. I have now seen the video with Peterson discussing the problem of atheism. He says that according to Dostoevsky, without a god, humans are free to do everything. He obviously thinks that humans are NOT free to do everything. So in some sense, there has to be a god, or something similar like, as he says, some transcendent morality. In another video he is asked to answer whether God exists. His answer is that he does not know, but he feels that he has to act as if God exists.
    So, God, or some transcendent morality, limits the number of interpretations that you are allowed to make.
    As I see it, God could also be a symbol or representation of that principle in nature that limits the number of interpretations that we are allowed to make. He discusses psychopathy, which in some sense is extremely rational – it is a mentality that says all benefits for myself, irrespectively of the others. But in the long term, nobody can live in that way, because you are dependent on the others. That dependence is a simplified example of the principle that you are not allowed to make any interpretation that you may choose. The physical world, and nature, and reality, and maybe also some spiritual principles that we do not understand well, set strong limitations on the number of attitudes that we can be allowed to make.
    As I see it, and I guess as Peterson also sees it, postmodernism is wrong because it goes beyond the few interpretations that we are allowed to make.

    As an example, Foucault (whom I see as one of the fathers sparking the rise of postmodernism), came up with the contention that knowledge is always tied up with power. So if scientists have made a study and concluded something about how things are, then they can stop any discussion by saying that in reality, the facts are so and so. Thereby they exert power, forcing their opponents to accept their contention. So, if there is some power that Foucault´s followers do not like, they will oppose the science that lies behind it. For instance, if they oppose the idea that men and women are mentally different because of some biological effect, they will deny the science that demonstrates that men and women are mentally different because of some biological effect. With this approach, you are free to make any interpretation of any set of evidence, by disregarding that which you do not like, and throwing away the criterion that your contentions have to agree with reality. You can do that, for instance, by claiming that there is no objective reality. You can define your own concept of reality, and claim that everybody not agreeing with it are evil persons that should be fought, even though this morality does not function well in the long term in reality.
    It is like you decided from now on, everybody should have the right to fly around freely, and that the concept of gravity is an oldfashioned patriarchal concept that should be discarded, because it holds people back. So people will throw themselves out in the air from rocks or high buildings believing that they can fly. They will fail miserably, and die. Nobody believes that, of course, because the reality of gravity cannot be overlooked. But many people have similar conceptions regarding certain kinds of morality or principles of organising society, in which the believe that they can make their type of society “fly” without falling down and crashing. They disregard the more subtle causes of limitations, which have been tried out and tested constantly during our evolutionary past, and which have thereby become ingrained in us biologically.

    When we are discussing these more subtle limitations, we are entering very difficult fields of discussion, and Peterson certainly does not conceal that these are very difficult subjects, also for himself.
    So, as you see, I do not see any contradiction between his various conceptions; they fit together, but in ways that you do not see because your way of thinking is obviously very, very different from his ways of thinking.

  8. Kare,
    Saying this life has meaning because of something outside, above, transcendent, etc is equivalent to saying this life has no meaning and that meaning is foreign to nature and needs to be applied to an otherwise meaningless existence.

    Meaning exists. Meaning is natural. Because it’s natural it is rooted in physicality. Because it’s physical, is has constraints.

    But the constraints are due to our current physical orientation. It’s not static. Matt Crawford ‘s latest book “the world outside your head” ends with a picture of humans finding seeming “inexhaustible ways of fit.” I like that. It’s open ended like existence yet there is a constraint there.

  9. Kare,
    I watched the video of Dr. Peterson and a couple of others. He seems to have an inconsistency, saying on the one hand, there are not an unlimited number of interpretations as we are constricted by our biology and yet in a video about The Problems of Atheism, he reaffirms Dostoevsky’s claim that without God, we can do anything. You can’t believe both. In the end he is affirming what many Postmodernists are saying–without God, this life is essentially meaningless (that is, you can create ANY meaning, it doesn’t matter what it is). What must be understood is that we created our “transcendent” values. We did that precisely because we are constrained by a structural reality if we want to gain complexity. This is explored by Robert Wright in his book Nonzero (higher and higher levels of cooperation leads to complexity). An understanding of Complexity and Dynamic Systems Theory could mitigate the need to react to the Postmodernists with Religion. I was really dismayed by his Judeo-Christian inclusion. 🙁
    It is NOT the way forward.

  10. To Tyelko:

    It seems that we disagree about absolutely everything.
    That is no surprise to me.

  11. “Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson considers postmodernism as a threat to western civilisation. In the talk in this video, he discusses how one can best remove postmodernism from the universities. He claims (and I tend to agree) that the following disciplines are `corrupt´, i e. permeated by a lack of proper scientific approach:

    women´s studies
    ethnic studies
    racial studies
    sociology
    anthropology
    English literature”

    And of course, defamation is proper scientific method….

    “If you think that Peterson is excessively sharp and implacable, I will not agree with you. His attitude is a very understandable reaction to the extremely rude treatment that he is given by students and others with postmodernist / SJW attitudes. ”

    Right, because using the expression “SJW attitudes” is not a case of muddying the waters.

    He and you are hypocrites and frauds projecting your own willingness to toss scientific methodology the moment it becomes inconvenient onto others.

    “Peterson, however, is angry in a very civilized way, defending freedom of speech, including freedom of speech for himself. ”

    He’s doing no such thing at all, but thanks for underscoring my point about fraud, This has nothing at all to do with freedom of speech and is a dishonest and abusive use of the concept to something it does not apply it. It is particularly egregious given that there to make such a post right after the death of Liu Xiaobo. Neither you nor he are defending free speech. Neither you nor he is under any threat of incarceration or fine for any of the nauseating bullshit you spew, no matter how much you trivialize and belittle actual oppression with your “Help, help, I’m being suppressed!” whining. Free speech implies no right to applause and no right to be left undisputed. There is nothing civilized about trivializing atrocities and oppression. Least of all is there a defense of free speech in your railing against people daring to voice their opinion.

    Anyone using “free speech” in this context has demonstrated that they are either completely and utterly illiterate and unqualified to discuss any philosophical topic or plain and simply liars and propagandists with an agenda.

    Given your repeated dishonest use of the concept of scientific method as nothing but a deadbeat argument you refuse to abide by yourself, I tend to assume the latter.

  12. Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson considers postmodernism as a threat to western civilisation. In the talk in this video, he discusses how one can best remove postmodernism from the universities. He claims (and I tend to agree) that the following disciplines are `corrupt´, i e. permeated by a lack of proper scientific approach:
    women´s studies
    ethnic studies
    racial studies
    sociology
    anthropology
    English literature

    If you think that Peterson is excessively sharp and implacable, I will not agree with you. His attitude is a very understandable reaction to the extremely rude treatment that he is given by students and others with postmodernist / SJW attitudes. If you have to perform your lectures while students shout that you are a piece of shit all through your talk, and try to disturb the talk in all possible ways, then most people would become very angry. Peterson, however, is angry in a very civilized way, defending freedom of speech, including freedom of speech for himself.

  13. Kare,
    I realize I am using the word objective in an unusual way. If I said “subjectively objective” it probably would make much more sense to many. I’m more interested in the truth about “objects,” “existence” and “realness.” The self-created life is distinct and real. Sex exists. It’s real. It needs no language. Everything in the universe is a construct of information. I admit to ignorance of Foucault’s work so perhaps I’m misunderstanding.

  14. Kare,
    It seems to me that Foucault was treating social constructs as something less than natural. Social constructs are information. And information exists objectively. Just because it’s not static and changes does not make it less objective. It puts it in the same category of everything else in the universe. Everything that is or ever will be is natural. What other choice is there?

  15. I still contend that lumping Foucault together with people like Derrida ultimately gives a false impression of what his life and work, which he saw as a one and the same–that philosophy *was* a way of life–were about. His earliest works were more rooted in what you mention, but he evolved quite far away from The Order of Things (which he basically disowned much later on) by the end of his life. I think Foucault would be repulsed by much of what is lumped in under the term “postmodernism” in 2017. Foucault’s interest in a neo-dandyism, in the remaking of the the self, is not something that one hears much about in the American academic circles that created a character called Michel Foucault that today might be unrecognizable even to Foucault. It is heresy amongst academics to say so, but Foucault was more of a mystic than a postmodernist. So while you might include Foucault in that group of thinkers that get lumped under the postmodernist banner, I would do so with a giant asterisk at the very least.

  16. It is wrong to say that Foucault should not be lumped with other postmodernists.
    First, Foucault certainly was focused on the importance of language. After all, he wrote a book with the title “Les mots et les choses”. Also, he coined the expression “mise en discours”, which is an element of the idea that by formulating something in words, you produce what you talk about.
    Concerning his concept of power, he said that science cannot be separated from power. Thus, there is no objective science. If you can say on the basis of scientific evidence that things are in a certain way, then you can win a discussion and force others to accept your point of view. That is, science may be used as a weapon to force others to accept your point of view.
    In his book on the history of sexuality, he is very much against the idea that sex is something natural that exists by itself. To him, sex arises only in connection with social influence. Sexuality is an example of “mettre en discours” – it is produced by talking about it. Thus, it is a social construct.
    So, some of the central tenets of postmodernism – social construction, and the lack of an objective truth – are also important points in Foucault. Actually, Foucault is used as a main reference or source for many people today that adhere to a postmodernist and social constructionist thinking.
    I think Foucault is the most important of all thinkers that form the basis of modern postmodernism. Everybody refers to him. So to exclude Foucault from the postmodernists is to bring confusion. You may possibly say that he was not a full blood postmodernist himself; but then at least he was a forerunner who created that particular way of thinking that by his followers was developed into postmodernism.

  17. Foucault doesn’t really belong thrown in with some of the other names as a “postmodernist.” Foucault was misinterpreted either intentionally or otherwise by clueless American academics. His ideas on Dionysian transgression, for instance, are certainly not centered on “language” alone. But squeamish American academics didn’t like to think about implications of actual transgression. Also, Pierre Hadot, who wrote “Philosophy as a Way of Life,” influenced Foucault’s thinking greatly. For Foucault, a philosophy that one only talked about and was based only in language, but didn’t apply in one’s own life, was useless. This idea became central to his later work: a type of neo-dandyism in which one’s life was the raw material for self (re) creation, remaking the self as a work of art. We know that in his own life, Foucault *practiced* Dionysian transgression and didn’t just talk about it. One first had to transgress given given social boundaries, and then through an act of will come through that experience to become a new person, to refashion one’s life in the style of an artist. This notion is explored in Foucault’s later work in refreshingly clear, simple language. But if you don’t really study Foucault and accept the American party line about Foucault, language, postmodernism, etc., and thus and lump him in with people like Derrida, what mattered most to Foucault in his later life and work is lost.

  18. Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Guy Debord, Fredric Jameson are not inventors of postmodernism but its diagnosticians. Jameson identified it famously as “the cultural logic of late capitalism.”

  19. Teed Rockwell, one last comment: I think Rorty and others ultimately have a bad ontological view of the universe. If Truth exists for Rorty, it’s in a “fixed and final form,” and we are subjects being acted upon by objective truth. But instead we are instead emergent coalescences both acting on and being acted on by every other emergent coalescence in the universe. To what end is the question? But if we pay attention to what works, what is beneficial and beautiful etc it really might reveal structures in the universe that we are organically and integrally a part of. And again, I’m talking truth that is actually relative to us.

  20. Teed Rockwell, One clarification: as I’ve thought about the Pragmatist’s critical evaluative language (it works, it’s beneficial, etc) it led me to ask the ontological question of “Why?” If we accept that how we currently see the world makes up our objective reality and structures our actual sensitivities (or lack Thereof) then things “work” because of our reality meshing with the world in some way. As long as we understand that our senstivities will change and develop and therefore new things will “work.”

  21. Teed Rockwell, I started developing my ideas in response to Rorty’s quip that we are not undermining some essential aspect of humanity when we torture. The quote was in an article about the problematic foundations for human rights. I set out to try to give ontological heft to human action and my former comment is a brief window into that approach. I’ve been wrestling recently with trying to reclaim the idea of correspondence and capital T truth based on my understanding of relativism through my lens of “radical objectivity.”

    But imagine a man with diplopia (double vision). He processes the world and the data he intakes exists and corresponds to his physical reality. As that “truth” travels from his personal objectivity (though his description of reality) out to say, his family, it will either be corraborated or challenged. (Corraborated if his entire family has the same genetic disposition.) But at some point it will be challenged and break correspondance. Replace the physical ailment with a psychological filter and add the same directionality, out from the person, to the family, tribe, nation, world, universe.

    Based on that idea, I came up with this thought of capitial T Truth today:
    A capital T Truth is one that, as it enlarges from person to family to tribe to world it gains objectivity. It also gains robustness via its growing network of relations. If it makes it through the process and does not undermine further complex development, It thus corresponds with the world given our current structure in existence.

    I understand the problematic nature of the terms and am merely poking around at the idea.

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