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 relativism (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 relativism 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 relativism. 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 relativism, 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 relativism 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 relativism] 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 relativism 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 relativism but epistemic relativism. 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/

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438 comments

  1. The article presented here is reminiscent of Karl Popper and his upholding of various attempts to undermine objectivity and other important supporting tenets of universalism. This is all very good and fine, except that society itself is not as open to tinkering (“social engineering”) as nature, and the tempation to decorate oneself with the prestige of natural science by pretending to be a rational thinker who is able to tinker with society on the basis of individual reasoning itself tends to be preposterous and must be resisted. Which is how we get back to more respect for the evolution of collective intelligence such as found in Common Law or Christianity and advocated by “conservative” thinkers like Edmund Burke.

    1. A cute comment, given that modern sciences is pretty much based on Popper,,a probabilistic discipline that can rule out, but for positive claims only makes statements based on clearly quantified tolerable probabilities of being wrong – to simplify it a bit.

      1. Btw my wording “upholding” may have been misleading. Popper strove to uphold objectivity against various attempts … , and in fact very convincingly so. So convincingly that a lot of people decorate themselves with Popper and this kind of thinking and try to claim it for their school of thought that is usually more presumptuous than Popper. This fits well with the presumptuous claim of representing some kind of rationalism of modernity against the medieval times.

      2. “Btw my wording “upholding” may have been misleading. Popper strove to uphold objectivity against various attempts … , and in fact very convincingly so.”

        Except that is a distortion of Popper. While he acknowledges a “truth” exists, he fully well acknowledges it is not positively discernible to us, since it is only approximable by ruling out what is clearly wrong.

        Cf. also Albert’s take on “proof”, i.e. the Münchhausen-Trilemma.

        Which leads back to:

        “Maybe this is the reason why the “Left” with its narratives can actually be deconstructed from the side of a factual “Right”.”

        The factual right? That would be the climate change denying right, the evolution-denying right, the right for which science itself is a big leftist conspiracy? The Right which always complained that those who have learned to research a subject and meticulously separate fact from fiction somehow all have a left “bias”?

  2. The idea that the awakening of reason by “englightenement” brought individualism and modernity as a higher state of being which must be defended by some progressive “Left” is in itself presumptuous, self-congratulatory and simply not in line with facts of historic development. M. Stanton Evans paints a more realistic picture which shows how all developments up to the US Constitution are fruits of Christianity, feudalism, Common Law and British development, rather than of Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau or whatever “rational thinkers” reworded them in terms of philosophical systems of their own, which, being idiosyncratic, had no real relevance anyway, compared to the overwhelming relevance of the Christian culture. Maybe this is the reason why the “Left” with its narratives can actually be deconstructed from the side of a factual “Right”.

  3. If the excesses of Modernism as a thesis provoked Postmodernism as a reactive antithesis (and to similar excess), we now face the challenge of forming a synthesis that reconciles and transcends them both — perhaps preserving and combining their best aspects while discarding their worst, or at least putting all their respective tools on our bench and choosing the one(s) most suitable for each purpose we undertake. Gödel could have told us we would never find any one universal tool that is right for every job, neither any of the metanarratives of Modernism nor the counter-metanarrative that Postmodernism has become in some circles.

    It may be time we embrace model-agnosticism at long last. The models themselves may be relative and arbitrary, having no absolute and objective validity in isolation unto themselves, yet they still have validity relative to their origins and applications; some models are more useful, or predictive, or beautiful, or humorous, etc. depending on what we’re applying them to and towards what purpose. The tools at our disposal may cover all the bases we need, even if no one of them alone can ever cover all bases. One may notice I’ve applied an array of Modernist and Postmodernist concepts in this comment, which illustrates my point.

    1. I think working this field even to create a synthesis within the area you’ve laid out is impossible and pointless. Post-modernism leads, as naturally as the sun shining in the sky, to post-rationalism. It is what punk music was to music in the late seventies. It’s aim is destruction of the Western intellectual system. What we can do is put together shards and understand why the great “NO” came about. We can then follow some other strands present in the 60s which is to explore human consciousness both in general and personally. It’s become increasingly clear to me that only those who have experienced some expansion of consciousness beyond the stridently narrow parameters of Western thought that began in the early 20th century. Science and, in particular, social and neuro-science has provided us with dramatically different ways of looking at the world yet we cling to the narrow frames of reference that post-modernists tried to expand but instead narrowed. We are afraid of the Big Questions and of looking, now that we have almost the entire available opus of world-civilization at our fingertips because it may force us to move into feelings like love and ecstasy.

      1. Sentence, verb ?
        ”It’s become increasingly clear to me that only those who have experienced some expansion of consciousness beyond the stridently narrow parameters of Western thought that began in the early 20th century.”

  4. While the author raises some important points, she also conflates many concepts and ultimately provides an overly simplistic critique of postmodern theory. For example, postmodernists do not ‘privilege lived experience.’ The notion of lived experience has evolved from phenomenology and existentialism, not French post-structuralism. The author even implicitly acknowledges this when she concedes that subjectivity itself is called into question by Foucault and Derrida. Furthermore, can we please stop conflating these very different thinkers? From Lyotard to Foucault to Derrida to Baudrillard there are VAST differences. Postmodernism is telling us to pay attention to differences! To specificities instead of relying on abstract universal theorems. Why do no critics acknowledge the pragmatic implications of post-structuralism? Too busy rendering postmodernists into caricatures via bad journalism?

  5. It’s… kind of a confused piece, in a way. Are the post-moderns sapping the Left’s energy and purpose at a crucial time of confrontation with nativist authoritarianism, or are they mordantly obsessed with downplaying progress and projecting doom and gloom on everything (both arguments turn up at different points and they don’t seem compatible to me)?

    I also think it misreads some of the thinkers being summarized and *vastly* overstates their influence, along with engaging in what feels suspiciously like cherry-picking examples to support this supposed academic left culture that no longer believes in facts and is untroubled by unsubstantiated hooey (whose postulated existence has always seemed overblown to me, notwithstanding some of the kooks, name-droppers and blowhards I encountered while studying EngLit). By all means take a stand against hooey and bafflegab, there can surely be less of it; and looking back at them now guys like Foucault and Derrida strike me mostly as having used obscurantism to gussy up philosophical ideas that weren’t as ground-breaking as they pretended.

    But if you’re taking that stand, don’t in the same breath tell me that the only possible objection to the flatly ludicrous notion that 16th-century England hadn’t come up with the notion of race prejudice yet is people’s “feelings.” If you seriously expect me to believe that nobody told you that idea was just flatly ahistorical, that the only problem anyone could think of was “feelings,” I just flat out do not believe you.

    1. ” Are the post-moderns sapping the Left’s energy and purpose at a crucial time of confrontation with nativist authoritarianism, or are they mordantly obsessed with downplaying progress and projecting doom and gloom on everything (both arguments turn up at different points and they don’t seem compatible to me)?”

      Neither of those are my claim. My claim is that the Left has become inconsistently liberal making them harder for reasonable people to vote for.

      I’ve responded to charges of reductionism above acknowledging some justice to them and saying that it would have been better to have a paragraph saying that I am not summarising all the three theorists’ work but looking at a small range of ideas to do with the cultural constructivism, sensitivity to language and identity politics that I have criticised in other pieces. This is essentially a background piece to those. So, yes, I am cherry picking relevant ideas. Ask me about, eg Foucault’s Panopticon, and you’ll find me much more complimentary.

      I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone that no-one had come up with race prejudice before the 17th century! Instead, I looked at research around race from that period including anachronistic assumptions that it was as dominant a category as it is now and critcisms of this, (particularly that of Michael Neill in ‘”Mulattos,” “Blacks,” and “Indian Moors”: Othello and Early Modern Constructions of Human Difference.’ in the Shakespeare Quarterly) which point out a certain ‘ethnographic objectivity’ in which religion & cultural differences were more significant at this time. Then I take the work of Jonathan Haidt and Pietraszewski et al in cognitive and evolutionary psychology which show that humans, whilst tribal, are not innately inclined to notice race specifically and racial difference can be easily overcome by shared aims, which is exactly what happens in Othello.

      I quoted Haidt “There’s nothing special about race. You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependencies” (2012.p276.) add it was this that was objected to on the grounds that he wondered how black communities in America would feel about it!

  6. Your attempt to deconstruct postmodernism has one flaw – it does not take into account that your concept of reality is not omnipotent. This leads to a cognitive bias, for which you cannot delegitimize postmodernism, as it embraces this dissonance in its founding pillars

    1. Of course the concept of reality is not omnipotent. It does not include such things as dreams, mirages and humanistic speculations with no evidence to back them up.

    2. Some of those steeped in post-modernist thinking take it far beyond any possible remit to interpret dreams, feelings or impressions, and make absurd claims about conceptual frameworks (e.g. science) that are rooted in reality, and for which ontological descriptions can and do exist. Such descriptions are language-independent. Post-modernism has nothing useful to say about science, or even proper journalism or world affairs in my view, indeed it just compromises people’s ability to understand properly constructed discourse with its identity politics and moral relativism.

  7. I find it difficult to see Postmodernism as an actively pushed agenda. To my understanding it merely describes a process that is happening, and in fact, has happend before. Already Nietzsche describes it in the 1880s, when he talks about the two conflicting poles – master-mentality and slave-mentality – that govern our social reality. We see it today, when Trump creats values by actually having no ideals and principles himself. He is just opposing the system and by this manifests his will to power (which is very attractive for many). I haven’t read Lyotard, Derrida etc. (I will do that though) to be honest here, but I don’t think Postmodernism is something we can just brush aside, just some mainstream Zeitgeist that can be overcome. At least it is not helping to shoot the messenger either. I think it is an aspect of human nature we should be aware of.

    1. “I think it is an aspect of human nature we should be aware of.” .No, postmodernism does not reflect human nature. Postmodernists are also social constructionists and typically claim that all kinds of phenomena, including personal characteristics and roles, are social constructs. To my knowledge, there has never been brought forward any evidence that this is indeed so. There is no sound evidence for social constructionism. There is, on the other hand, considerable evidence that many features of human lives are under the influence of biology – genes, hormones etc. – in a complicated interplay with social living conditions. This is totally and deliberately neglected by most people in the humanities, and therefore what is said and studied and taught in the humanities conflicts with human nature. Human nature is simply not like postmodernists, social constructionists, or whatever you call them, say. Of course, such people (postmodernists etc.) have to claim that there is no objective truth – otherwise they would not be able to make a living based on claims that are against objective truth.
      In my view, people earning their living from propagating nonsense are parasites on society.

      1. Kare Fog you state as your position that “many features of human lives are under the influence of biology – genes, hormones etc. – in a complicated interplay with social living conditions.” this fact is not “totally neglected” by the postmodernists, as you claim. On the contrary,the postmodernists, and the people who inspire them, use this fact as the basis for almost all of their arguments, and they often cite in great detail the scientific evidence that supports that fact. They argue, with some justification, that this complicated interplay makes it impossible to directly interact with reality in the way described by the correspondence theory of truth. I believe that the mistake they made was to make an illegitimate inference from this fact. This inference rests on confusing three importantly different terms. 1) RELATIVE: everything we know really is known only in relation to the complicated interplay you described above. The scientific evidence and philosophical arguments for this fact are impossible to ignore, despite the fact that it scares many people who think of themselves as scientific realists. From this, many postmodernists make the illegitimate inference that all of reality is 2) SUBJECTIVE. if reality really were subjective, I could ignore this complicated interplay and choose a reality that works only for me. We can’t do this, and Heidegger was very aware of that. He argued that we have important choices to make that are in each case mine, but those choices are shaped by our relations to other people, to society, and to the historical moment into which we are thrown. Consequently, it is a mistake to believe that our choices, and the world in which we make them, are 3) ARBITRARY i.e. that it makes no difference what choices we make, and therefore reality can be created at whim by the most powerful political and military forces. That is the mistake that is made by the postmodernists described in this article. But it is an equally important mistake to try to refute them by retreating into a naïve realism, by arguing against the claim that our knowledge is relative. The postmodernist are right about that. They are only mistaken in the inferences they make from this fact.

      2. There is no sound evidence for social constructionism? What about gender? Race? Are you saying these things are purely and solely biological? Postmodernists are saying that our knowledge of these things is already interlaced with cultural meaning. And not that social constructivism and science are irreconcilable. They are not mutually exclusive domains!

      3. @Teed Rockwell. Sure, there are some phenomena that can only be understood as being relative to complex social environments. But I think most sane peoples’ objections to post-modernism are against the universalisation of such relativism. To take a simple example: it’s a common post-modernist claim that ‘human rights’ can’t possibly be universal and are instead a construct of privileged Western ex-colonial powers etc. But this is clearly nonsense – the first few articles in the UNDHR (as flawed as it is) are about freedom from torture, slavery etc, and it’s quite clear that there are no individuals in any culture who want those things for themselves (why: because these statements are ultimately grounded in the real phenomena of human pain).

        Similarly, post-modernists excel in creating political factions and groups that don’t or barely exist in reality. In that mindset, if you happen to be gay, black or a woman, that’s what you must identify as, rather than say, an architect who lives in Seattle with her two cats and loves water-skiing. Postmodernism has a lot to answer for…

      4. In reply to Teed Rockwell:
        No, as far as I know, postmodernists neglect or reject biology.
        For instance, take Foucaults book on the history of sexuality, volume 1. Here, he has a very informative and interesting account of how the concept of personal sexual preferences became gradually more prominent up to the time around 1900. So far, so good. But then he suddenly changes his type of argumentation and claims that sexuality should not be conceived as something naturally given, which was subdued by society and then again came to the surface. No, in his view, sexuality is the result of the historic evolution that he described, He even turns against sex considered as being elementary bodily functions, and argues with much emphasis that sex is something determined by words and categories. Up to this point in his book, he has presented many references to his cliams; but form this point onward, he suddenly presents no evidence whatsoever. He just declares that sexual preferences have nothin to do with biology, without any evidence at all for this claim. So he does NOT base himself on a basis that includes biology. He rejects biology as having anything to do with sexuality.
        LIke Foucault, other thinkers who have inspired to or laid the basis for postmodernism also disregard biology totally. I have seen NO postmodernist scientist/thinker who includes the effects of inborn biology. As far as I know, all postmodernists more or less clearly subscribe to the idea of human behaviour and characteristics as a social construct. Especially when it comes to feminist shcolars, I have seen many texts that explicitly disregard biology.

      5. In reply to pmturn.
        “There is no sound evidence for social constructionism? What about gender? Race? Are you saying these things are purely and solely biological? ”
        First: I do NOT say that these things are purely and solely biological. Read my text again.
        Second: Do I really mean that there is no sound evidence for social constructionism? Yes, that is what I mean. I have read many of the crucial works leading up to the formulation of social constructionism, and I have read many articles by people who assume without further notice that human behaviour is just a social construct, e.g. literature on child education, and after having read thousands of pages I have not found a single sentence anywhere presenting evidence that human behaviour, personality, concepts etc. are social constructs.
        For instance, I have read what social constructionists claim about the natural sciences as social constructs. I had expected at least some evidence that how scinetists think, what ideas they come up with, etc. etc., are formed by contemporary society. It was a great disappointment – I found not a single piece of evidence for this. And all other atemtps to find such evidence also failed. “Everybody” say that a lot of phenomena are social constructs, but to my knowledge, nobody has ever presented a single piece of evidence that this is indeed so.
        Social constructionism, and all disciplines that presuppose social constructionism, are a vast field of studies which altogether is based on no evidence at all. The whole thing is just a mirage. There is no sound basis.

    2. “his is totally and deliberately neglected by most people in the humanities, and therefore what is said and studied and taught in the humanities conflicts with human nature. ”

      Evidence for your assertion? None. So it’s little more than libel.

      “Of course, such people (postmodernists etc.) have to claim that there is no objective truth – otherwise they would not be able to make a living based on claims that are against objective truth.”

      Whether there is an objective truth and whether it is discernible or merely approximable for us are two very distinct things, and anyone who is peddling knowledge of “objective truths” is peddling an overinflated ego and scientific illiteracy.

      “In my view, people earning their living from propagating nonsense are parasites on society.”

      Then why do you do it? Your “arguments” are the equivalent of religious fanaticism, screaming “Heretic!” and peddling “objective” truths where no one with a real grasp of modern scientific epistemology would touch that “truth” word with a ten foot pole unless it was understood there was a chain of qualifiers on that that reaches from here to the moon.

      1. The term ‘objective truth’ coming from any intelligent person (as the commenter above clearly is) is usually shorthand for ‘discernable, and closely enough approximated to mind-independent reality for all practical purposes’. Clearly there is a continuum of ‘approximation’ with at one end, hard science theories that work so well we can build rockets to Mars; at the other end lies rough sketches of more difficult phenomena such as organisational theory and social economics.

        Post-modernists seem to pretend that only the ‘rough sketch’ end of the continuum exists, which enables them to claim the existence of pseudo-phenomena primarily coming from their own academic or political needs, while denying other readily observable phenomena.

      2. tyelko: Please do not say that I have an overinflated ego just because I disagree very much with what you said.
        If you think your opinion does not merit contradiction, then maybe the overinflated ego is on your side.

      3. To tyelko, concerning objective truth:
        It is an objective truth that the moon exists. Anyone denying that is a person with whom I cannot communicate meaningfully.
        It is an objective truth that giraffes exist, and that they are larger than ants. Anyone who wants to discuss that fact is a person with whom I cannot communicate meaningfully.
        It is an objective truth that some persones are homosexual, and others are not. I am willing to discuss that claim, but I still consider this an objective truth.
        In all these cases, the objective truth is discernible.
        I agree that there are other cases where we can only approximate the objective truth. If we have a journalist reporting from the Gaza Strip on the conflicts between palestinians and israelis, then the objective truth should remain an ideal that we strive for, even if we know that it can never fully be reached. If we knew that the journalist did not try to find the objective truth, then we would not listen to him/her, and there would be no reason for the journalist to go to that part of the world and report from there, because we would not trust the reports.
        So even in those cases where the objective truth can only be approximated, it is important that we keep objective truth as our ideal.

      4. wolandscat

        “The term ‘objective truth’ coming from any intelligent person (as the commenter above clearly is) is usually shorthand for ‘discernable, and closely enough approximated to mind-independent reality for all practical purposes’.”

        Not when discussing epistemology. Then distinguishing objective truth from intersubjectivity is one of the most critical points in 20th century developments in epistemology.

        “Clearly there is a continuum of ‘approximation’ with at one end, hard science theories that work so well we can build rockets to Mars;”

        Those theories allow us to build rockets to Mars, yes – but within a certain set of limits. Newtonian mechanics work quite well – as long as the entities observed don’t get too small or too fast. Knowing these limits is crucial, and usually, when we make a new discovery, we don’t know them (What do you think Newton would have said to the suggestion that the flow of time is not necessarily constant?) – and that’s precisely why we have to be very careful staking out “truths”.

        Kåre Fog

        “Please do not say that I have an overinflated ego just because I disagree very much with what you said.”

        I never suggested such a thing. I specified specific arguments of yours that suggest an overinflated ego – not the mere fact that you disagree with me.

        “If you think your opinion does not merit contradiction, then maybe the overinflated ego is on your side.”

        And if you have to resort to dishonesty to “make your case”, then you probably don’t have much of a case.

        “It is an objective truth that giraffes exist, and that they are larger than ants. Anyone who wants to discuss that fact is a person with whom I cannot communicate meaningfully.”

        I’m afraid the fact that you cannot communicate meaningfully when modern scientific standards are involved says more about you than others. Your statements demonstrate both cherrypicking and a fundamental lack of understanding of how modern science works. Do you even see a physician when you’re ill? Because by your standards, what he’s doing is pure and unadulterated quackery.

        What we can say is that fully developed current members of the genus Giraffa have been so reliably found to be taller than fully developed current members of the formicidae family that the null hypothesis that there is no difference can be solidly considered rejected based on currently available data. We may also be able to make some statements about (pre)historical members of those groups. But that’s it.

  8. Logical positivism did not die because post-modernists killed it. It proved unsustainable. A lot of effort was taken in the fields of ‘analytical’ philosophy of language and science to rescue the concepts of meaning, truth and facts from much decried “relativism” with meagre result. But the simple notion of a transparent word in which theories and propositions map neatly on a locically structured reality has been dismissed also by thinkers like Wittgenstein and Quine. On the contrary it is an incredible falsehood to trademark a Derrida as relativist. For sure Derrida believed his stance to be true and he was a Peircian pragmatist. I have read this sort of lament too often. It smells like nostalgia and wishful thinking and it seldom comes with sound arguments.

  9. I’m tempted to think that postmodernism is a straw man created by republicans to make cutting education easier. But it’s believed with all the fervor of Scientologists.

  10. Postmodernism in a nutshell:
    (1) There is no objective truth or reality
    therefore => (2)
    (2) reality is constructed
    therefore => (3)
    (3) all comprehensible world views are oppressive
    therefore => (4)
    (4) such world views should be deconstructed
    therefore => (5)
    (5) Deconstructionism is the progressive pulverization of reality
    therefore => (1)
    (1) ! !

    1. Omar KN, I think that’s a pretty good mapping of the PM argument. Except that they start from 2) then procede to 1). Nagarjuna’s response to the Nihilist position is that 1) does not follow from 2).

  11. Servus,

    i have to excuse myself for my english, since i am not a native speaker and i didn’t read or write in english for a while.
    But anway i have to reply on this.

    you wrote:
    “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 discours, the metanarritive or whatever you want to call it may claims that, esp. for western societies. But if you look on a worldwide scale? And even if we would accept that there are “equal rights and opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, race and sexuality” – but not for origin, which takes all the wounderfull rights and opportunities ad absurdum.

  12. Funny how post-modernism itself takes on the garment a meta-narrative while is proposes “an incredulity towards meta-narratives.” My experience of post-modern discourse is that it cannot free itself of an inherent modernity while expressing a critique of modernity and its trappings.

  13. I have been in academia on-and-off for the last 30 years and am currently working on my 5th academic degree (MSN/FNP) in the United States, where I moved in the mid-90s. I was born and raised in East Germany and witnessed the collapse of Soviet-style communism. Like a select few of my contemporaries in the East German Geisteswissenschaften, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, I was punch-drunk from postmodernist philosophy. I read everything I could get my hands on – Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Lacan, Feyerabend – you name it. Postmodernism (PM) provided great ammunition for blowhards like me in literature, philosophy, and art history seminars; since everything was rhetoric, you just had to argue a little louder. When anything goes – NOTHING really matters!

    The humanities in the U.S. were a bit more pragmatic, at least on the surface. After 7 years, in a rhetoric/literacy PhD program, I woke up and realized how deeply PM had penetrated American pragmatism. There were rhetoricians of science (seriously: an entire branch of American rhetoric studies!), who analyzed decision-making in medicine, physics, biology, etc., with no command of scientifically coded knowledge.

    I drifted toward analytical philosophy – Quine, Davidson, Strawson – which promised different access to the sciences, through applied mathematics and logic. Even Quine, however, when pushed to the limit, saw the ultimate roots of reference (including those of scientific encoding) in relativism.

    To prove that Quine and Derrida have no bearings outside the humanities, ask your doctor at your next visit if he has ever heard of them. If you are an academic or a student in the humanities, ask scientists, professors, and students in the sciences, and you will get the same answer. Remember the Sokal hoax! No researchers in the humanities would be able to publish pure gibberish in a peer-reviewed, academically respected journal in the sciences.

    I switched to the sciences about 10 years ago and became an emergency nurse. I am about to graduate from a nurse practitioner program.

    The common resentment toward the sciences is understandable, since the results of scientific discovery are often politicized and used as weapons (literally) against the uneducated, vulnerable, and otherwise disenfranchised.

    The postmodernists did not say anything that shrewd and vile politicians since Plato have not known instinctively: ignorance is power, as long as it can be marketed as fact to those who can’t or don’t want to learn.

    1. I actually got a chance to make your test recently. I was in the hospital for heart surgery and just before the operation started the doctor said to me.” I see you are a philosophy professor. Tell me, should I tell my patients when they going to die?”. I then gave a short lecture on Heidegger’s thoughts on authentic being towards death – while lying on the operating table, wearing a hospital gallon open at the back, surrounded by doctors and nurses wearing blue scrubs and face masks. They were genuinely interested in what I said in response to their question, because their medical training did not give them the skills to deal with these sorts of questions. I was gratified that I was able to give something back to these dedicated men and women who ended up saving my life.

      1. Omarkin, I told them that Heidegger and I both believe that one can only live authentically if one is aware of death as a permanent possibility that defines life, and that consequently giving their patients an opportunity to experience this possibility is a great service to them. At that point the head doctor said “well in that case, I should probably tell you that there is a very remote possibility you could die from this operation.” I almost pissed myself when she said that, even though I already knew that was the case. So yes, knowing about and experiencing that possibility are two very different things.

    2. “you just had to argue a little louder. When anything goes – NOTHING really matters!”

      +1

      Exactly the point I’m trying to make with the author – which for some reasons doesn’t get through –

      I’m not sure why europeans coming from non-libertarian or non-classical liberal countries really understand the process of making a relatively innocuous ideology into a weapon of mass destruction. In France, the first collateral casualty was pragmatism. Or in other words ‘Let’s test this stuff and get our hands dirty’ was forever forgotten. If it didn’t work that was always because you did it wrong, or didn’t have enough of it.

      Dear American or British friends, you can debate about the merits of PM until the end of times, like the Byzantines argued about the gender of Angels, or tackle what makes PM so powerful.

      IMO, postmodernism has an impeccable logistics. This is what makes it such a powerful ideology.

  14. To those who disagree with this criticism of postmodernism I would offer a criticism of my own: the cognitive bias postmodernismts have is the idea that epistemology is dualistic. That there is either certainty or uncertainty, and that is all. Kierkegaard actually presciently addressed this when he said “the opposite of sin is not virtual, but faith.” In terms of epistemology then, the opposite of certainty is not uncertainty, but faith. But what is faith? It is a nonrational subjective appeal to certainty and objectivity. But this certainty and objectivity is not obtained or held within the experience of a person. It’ is, in fact, not possible for a person to contain within themselves the fullness of such certainty, but rather, one can only experience it, Faith is the incarnational answer to the problem posed by postmodernism, without the cannibalizing philosophical tail eating created by it. Instead of being self-destructive, as postmodernism inevitably is, the very concept of faith is self constructive. Philosophically, postmodernism of necessity will end in the dung heap since it is an intellectual virus that destroys its host. Human life is characterized by the search for personal or meta meaning. If anyone doubts this, just ask Viktor Frankl. Ironically, it is his very personal experience that proves the impersonal nature of his philosophical metanarrative.

  15. I was originally trained as a continental philosopher, but became a naturalized analytic philosopher. I agree with many of your objections to what continental philosophy has become, but I don’t think you can deal with this problem by retreating back into enlightenment rationalism. Most of what continental philosophy got right was first said by the pragmatists, especially John Dewey. We can return to his level of sanity, we don’t have to go all the way back to Descartes, or even the logical positivists.

  16. The problem with arguments against postmodernism is that, ultimately, meaning (and ‘truth’ and ‘reality) is relative and conventional and constructed. Even scientific truths, robust as they appear to be, are ultimately conventional. All ideologies and narratives of meaning present themselves as transparently ‘true’ and postmodernism merely exposes their constructed nature. It doesn’t present a ‘threat’ to liberal ideology. Calling it ‘nihilistic’ requires an argument that demonstrates what is absolutely and independently ‘true’ and can be established with certainty. Ultimately we exist in an interdependent whole which we have separated and artificially classified with labels. Fine. But don’t shoot the messenger. All postmodernism is saying, is that, ultimately, the emperor has no clothes.

    1. Taking the conventionality and constructedness of scientific truth into account, how would we approach Detmer’s question of giraffes being taller than ants? To what degree is this matter determined by cultural and historic narrative?

      1. The answer to that is we conventionally agree on that which is labelled ‘giraffe’ and that which is labelled ‘ant’ and that the former is relatively taller than the latter according to a concept and convention of height. But if we ask the question whether ‘ants’ or ‘giraffes’ exist independently or concretely as ‘things’ in time and space from their own side, the answer has to be ‘no’. They exist interdependently as an indivisible and fluid, and constantly changing ‘whole’. Ultimately, as opposed to conventionally, they no more exist from their own side than ‘good’ or ‘evil’ or a ‘self’ does. We use language and labels and ideological narratives to (importantly) organise, classify and make sense of our universe. But labels are not ‘the thing itself’ which, ultimately, can’t be ‘got at’. It can only be conceptualised. Conventional truths are always relative and that is the ‘truth’ of postmodernism.

      2. to Niallcc

        Your answer concering ants and giraffes is awful.
        Of course, ants as well as giraffes existed before any humans had evolved from apes. They existed and exist independently of us. To postulate that they exist only because we give them names, is a sick form og egocentrism, where things are only of any importance if we can see them.
        The sun and the moon would exist also if there were no humans.
        That type of people who claim that things only exist when we give them names, are the type of people that I can have nothing to do with. Any meaningful discussion with such persons is futile. therefore, allow me here to express my sincere contempt for any opinions expressed by people thinking like that.

      3. Kare Fog. I don’t permit you to express your ‘sincere contempt’ of me. You clearly haven’t understood my post. I am not denying the existence of anything in conventional terms. Clearly ants and giraffes and suns and moons ‘exist’. However, from the perspective of an interdependent whole which is fluid and constantly changing and impermanent – what I am saying is that ‘things’ don’t exist concretely from their own side. You might want to consider (very postmodern) Buddhist teachings on emptiness, impermanence and dependent origination as well as ‘conventional truth’ as opposed to ‘ultimate truth’.

      4. Niallcc, I think you are correct that the Buddhist concept of conventional reality accurately expresses what the postmoderns got right. I also think that this same concept accurately expresses what they got wrong when it is fully developed. Nagarjuna’s concept of the middle way recognizes that conventional reality cannot be ignored, nor treated as a set of arbitrary posits. this is what the postmodernists do, if I understand them correctly. Nagarjuna called this position nihilism’ (very different from the way Westerners use the word. Nagarjuna’s nihilism is a nihilism of facts not values ) The other extreme position that Nagarjuna rejects he calls eternalnism, and it is pretty much the position expressed by Kare Fog below i.e. the belief that reality is what it is independent of any of our thoughts about it.

        Nagarjuna’s middle way rejects both of these extremes and says that conventional reality has its own kind of being, which must be dealt with on its own terms, even though it is not mind independent. Check out the paper linked below for a brief introduction to this great spiritual tradition. In many ways, Nagarjuna’s position is similar to American pragmatism. https://www.academia.edu/752851/Minds_Intrinsic_Properties_and_Madhyamaka_Buddhism

      5. Thank you Teed Rockwell for your thought provoking article.

        I particularly enjoyed:

        ‘Both of these positions assume that there is a line between the “real” intrinsic properties and the causal relations that trigger those so- called intrinsic properties—a metaphysical claim that both Nagarjuna and I reject. This distinction between intrinsic and relational is pragmatically necessary, but there is no single way of deciding where it should always be drawn. Nothing is intrinsically intrinsic, as it were. Intrinsicality is itself a relational property.’

        That brought to mind the Heart Sutra:

        ‘Shariputra,
        form does not differ from emptiness,
        emptiness does not differ from form.
        That which is form is emptiness,
        that which is emptiness form.’

        Even emptiness then is dependently originated.

        I have also just finished reading The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose which ultimately led to the Penrose Hameroff theory of consciousness as perhaps being intrinsic to the universe rather than simply an emergent, computable, property of the brain.

        I not sure that the postmodernists ignore the ‘value’ of subjective constructed meaning or conventional reality – in a nihilistic way – simply because it is necessarily relative. Particularly when, at a political, dialectical level between individuals ‘conventional’, but conditional, and not arbitrary, meaning is created. And it has to be so to ‘make sense’ of the world at the individual and wider societal level. Nagarjuna’s Middle Way, a shifting border of conventional meaning, produced by dialectical tension, always at risk of being undermined.

  17. Interesting how this critique is based on a conditioned, normative perspective. This is typical for self-proclaimed Enlightenment thought, yet there is no objective grounding. It’s all wishful thinking and based on some notion of teleological progress.

    As a human, I root for humanity, but I am also aware of the delusion that metaphysical humanist argumentation is steeped in. In arguing against the ‘negative’ position of postmodernism or deconstructionism, the burden is on the one positing the existence of some inherent meaning or belief system to demonstrate meaning—objective meaning. One can’t just will into existence how things ought to be, as Helen attempts to do here. This is akin to a theist complaining, “Why can’t everybody just agree that there is a god? It would be so much nicer.” But this cannot will a god, a goddess, or a higher power into existence. Thinking does not make it so.

    1. Well the critique is of the post-modernist departure from (let’s say) scientific realism, i.e. a world in which meaningful discourse and text generally contain provable references to entities in reality, and in which debates between competing narratives (e.g. creationism and evolution) can be judged by not just what is in the text, but the relationships between their referents. There’s far too long a history of successful theory-formation in science to be arguing seriously for jettisoning the whole approach. Getting back to this manner of working is what the article is asking for – thinking based in reality rather than academic political positions or just straight out nonsense (as per Sokal’s Hoax). Removing this obscuring fog doesn’t require any magic, just common sense.

  18. Largely agree with your analysis of post-modernism but I think suggesting that “the Left needs to recover a strong, coherent and reasonable liberalism” is not going far enough. Your article reminded me a bit of Pankaj Mishra’s recent book ‘Age of Anger’ where he posits an antagonism between Rousseau and Voltaire; that Enlightenment tried to suppress the tribalism, ‘Sturm und Drang’, the non- or even pre-verbal parts of being human. Perhaps ‘communities of meaning’ come from these roots and cannot be ignored. Secondly, from a philosophical point of view, rather than simply resorting to jokes at the expense of post-modernists, the work of people like Quentin Meiillassoux and Maurizio Ferraris, amongst others, posits a ‘New Realism’ and a possible exit from the ‘Ouroboros of Post-Modernity’.
    🙂

  19. Some on both the left and the right exploit post-modernist anti-rationality, but not libertarians–The Enlightenment’s political heirs. But in politics arguments are not won by reason alone, and libertarians’ lack of emotional intelligence (watch moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s lecture at Cato) is their downfall.

    1. “but not libertarians–The Enlightenment’s political heirs. ”

      You’re kidding, right? Libertarians are the antithesis of Enlightenment. They talk about freedom, but the only freedom they will give is the “freedom” to agree with them, and the freedom of the one with the biggest stick to exercise his own freedom at the expense of others.

      “But in politics arguments are not won by reason alone, and libertarians’ lack of emotional intelligence (watch moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s lecture at Cato) is their downfall.”

      Their downfall is that their position lacks any foundation whatsoever. It is not based on any understanding of epistemology nor economy, as evidenced by their love for Ayn Rand…

      1. Some Libertarians may love Rand, but Ayn Rand had little patience for Libertarians, especially those of the Rothbard persuasion. Libertarianism has problems, but you haven’t identified them.

      2. @Anonymous

        Or, more likely, you haven’t actually read my post, in which I pointed out more issues that also apply to “the Rothbard persuasion”.

    2. No to resort to ‘I know you are, but what am I’, but isn’t true that the exploitation is engaged by the ‘rationalists’, who make claims and establish relative social moral standards in an attempt to normalise and control (as revealed in Foucault’s work)? Post-modernists of most stripes merely point out that the emperor wears no clothes and the foundation is built upon shifting sands.

    3. Not to quibble too much about words, but it seems you refer to classical liberalism instead of libertarianism. For all practical purposes, people who describe themselves as libertarians tend to see what used to be the classically liberal empirical proposition (that all else equal, free choice tends to yield better outcomes) and turned it into a dogma. That’s the exact antithesis of enlightenment. The Cato Institute tends to lose arguments because they tend to be very bad at thinking and very good at propagating dogma – at least based on the sample I have interacted with.

      If you define libertarianism the way I define classical liberalism, then we have no beef on substance, but you would seem to be in disagreement with most libertarians.

      1. Classical Liberalism doesn’t advocate liberty because it would have “better outcomes”. It’s a moral position, not a pragmatic one. Perhaps slavery would give “better outcomes”, but it’s still immoral.

        Progressives only care about ‘better outcomes’, which is why they endorse any and all state power that promises it. Libertarians believe there are moral lines that can’t be crossed by anybody, even those who claim they’re “fighting for the poor” or call themselves the government.

      2. “Libertarians believe there are moral lines that can’t be crossed by anybody, even those who claim they’re “fighting for the poor” or call themselves the government.”

        And non-libertarians believe that Libertarians are crossing a line when they believe that they, and they alone, define what such lines are. Which is why Libertarianism is an inherently corrupt system, existing through doing the precise opposite of what it claims it’s doing…

      3. Most libertarians’ working definition of libertarianism would be just the NAP (Non-Agression Principle). Some would give some form of the opening line of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” This continues The Enlightenment tendency to limit power (in the Hohfeldian sense).

        I was a longtime Cato sponsor, and despite the frustration of my personal interactions with them (in the early days of the Free State Project), I don’t have the sense that their batting average is less that of other think tanks. Promoting libertarian policies is certainly not an easy task, even if you possess emotional intelligence, which most libertarians do not.

      1. In the first few minutes, such a straw man argument. Yet another in a long list of pathetic critiques. You will only preach to the choir with such arguments, but perhaps that is what you intended to do.

        1. Brian if all you have watched are the first few minutes, you have only seen my comments on anarchist libertarianism. I do not attribute those positions to libertarianism as a whole. It may seem like anarchist libertarianism is a straw person, but surprisingly there are people who believe it. Ayn Rand has written some criticisms of them, and I’ve encountered several in email correspondence. From there I go on to distinguish between the positions of Rand and Nozick, and give separate criticisms of them.

      2. @Brian J Gladish

        I’m afraid the only thing that’s pathetic here is your “rebuttal”. Maybe try bringing actual arguments?

    4. It isn’t emotional intelligence that is the failing of libertarians. It is a myopic scope in their choice of concentrations of power to resist. They are opposed to concentrations of government power. When what they should oppose is concentrations of power in general. Government power is sometimes the only thing that can constrain large concentrations of individual or corporate power. While it would be better to have neither, reality sometimes constrains us to choose one or the other. In that situation a wise liberal prefers the more constrained elected concentration of power over the less constrained unelected one.
      – A Recovering Libertarian.

  20. So much empty talk about the failings of science by postmos and they still fall to see the elephant in the room. SCIENCE WORKS. It’s effective. That’s why they are writing here their criticism and not using tam tam drums. Science is epistemological different. Until they address this obvious fact all their theory is empty babble.

  21. Booring. There is no such “french intellectuals”. There are some readers who did not do their homework in the philosophy of science and thinking, but that’s all.

    Isn’t it strange that everybody holds a PhD and always knows better? Natural born stupidity. to stronghold authority? U guys better go and learn to what “postmodernism” reacted. It‘ confusing I know, but that’s the price of “entropy”. So go, learn mathematics before you start interpreting Derrida…

  22. “Cultural anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and gender studies, for example, have succumbed almost entirely not only to moral relativity but epistemic relativity.” This sweeping generalisation is stated with no kind of supporting evidence. As to gender studies, I have no doubt that it is roughly correct. But is it true for anthropology, sociology and cultural studies? I am debating this article with a Danish sociologist, and he claims that very little of sociology has that character. He says that to put forward such a claim, one should trawl thorugh leading international sociological journals and count what proportion of all articles are actually postmodernistic in their attitude or approach. Has this been done?

  23. I appreciate that you see the validity in some of the criticisms that have been posted here.

    I agree that these authors influenced identity politics movements–as long as one accepts the caveat that these French authors did not see identity as a stable substance (as others have commented).

    But just because very general ideas that circulate in the writings you point to bear a passing resemblance to political rhetoric does not mean that these French intellectuals are the source of those political ideas, nor that the authors you complain about can be held responsible. That’s like blaming Jesus for the Crusades.

  24. Hegel’s Spirit didn’t fall into time, he was pushed by the romantics. And ever since they are busy with sinking boats, burning ropes and perforating lifesaver. Those, into the care of which language was recommended, have screwd it up. Good article – utterly pointless debate…

  25. Hello, all. Thanks for your comments. People criticising this piece for being right-wing, Eurocentric or Francophobic are simply wrong. People criticising it for not respecting religion will just have to accept I think they’re wrong.

    People criticising it for being simplistic & reductionist in its depictions of the three theorists make a valid point, though. It would have been a good idea to have had an extra paragraph at the beginning stressing that this is not a summary of their thought and political positions – that would certainly be to strawman them – but working backwards from the problems of identity politics and cultural moral and epistemic relativity we see now on the Left to their intellectual source. Its a follow on from two other essays of mine in which I discuss this shift in feminism and anti-racism. I acknowledge that there is a lot more to Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida than these ideas. I like Lyotard’s reconception of Language Games and Foucault’s Panopticon and much of Derrida’s work on linguistics. However, I stand by my claim that they, among other early postmodernists, were incredibly influential on the identity-politics and relativity found in post-colonialism, queer theory and intersectionality as stated explicitly by the leading theorists of those schools of thought. Humanity has a tendency to identity-politics and double standards – we’re a tribal species. These have a longer history in conservativism than in liberalism. However, the early post-modernists with their advocacy of mini-narratives, cultural constructivism and intense focus on language and discourse and claims of its hierarchical and oppressive nature did pave the way for anti-realism, identity politics as subversion and moral and epistemic relativity.

    1. The actual problem isn’t that the piece is simplistic and reductionist in its adressing these philosophers. The problem is that it is simplistic and reducionist, period, and its description of sciences and epistemology in general are horribly out of date and neither reflect modern science nor what has been happening in epistemology in the last 60-70 years. And that’s where it fails. It is so blinkered in its “what must not be cannot be” attitude that it fails to recognize some of the subpoints that actually have merits – and thus ignores the positivism dispute and the development of what some call postpositivism, just as one example.

      Your position thus unfortunately is no more tenable than those simplistic and reductionist caricatures you rail against.

    2. “…will just have to accept I think they’re wrong.”

      Sounds a tad too much ‘I apologise to beg your pardon…” 😉

      Q: Why is it that so few people have such an enormous influence on a country? Isn’t that the real problem?

      PS: I agree with your analysis on postmodernism, and I love your pined tweet. So don’t shoot.

      1. “Well, the alternative is not accepting I think they’re wrong and forcing me to pretend I think they’re right. That is known as theocracy. You can think I’m wrong too.”

        False dichotomy much?

    3. “Well, the alternative is not accepting I think they’re wrong and forcing me to pretend I think they’re right”.

      No one is forcing you to do anything. There are truths to postmodernism, even if we don’t like it. The problem is that it was promoted (not necessarily by their authors) as an all encompassing theory, and *weaponised* in to civil society as a way to eliminate a political opponents.

      Point is: France never had to cope with the consequence of postmodernism in feminism, art, science, and beyond well identified social sciences university departments. It severely affected the family structure – the locus of all bad narratives and mental illnesses -, the work place – where all narratives must conflate, that is the battle field – and had a light-touched influence in immigration policies. That’s all (and that’s a lot too).

      What I’m trying to tell you, is that the scope of its influence in Anglo-Saxon countries today is far, far more reaching. It’s become a metaphysic, with a will of its own. In my humble opinion, it is a matter of logistics, that is spreading ideas and making sure they stick.

      You can choose to ignore it, but in 10 years from now, you’ll write the same column with no one to read it. You’ll still right by the way, just like you are now, but you’ll be absolutely powerless and alone.

      On an other note, do you have a link to share about Bilal’s diary?

  26. This gross oversimplification is inaccurate and turns everything it purports to describe into nonsense.

    The nonsense is in the describing, not what’s being described.

    Only a few examples can be listed.

    (1) Lyotard is not describing Foucault and Derrida when he writes about the postmodern condition. Nor is this (2) Lyotard’s main critical statement (which is arguably JUST GAMING). And (3) he’s not talking about “relativity” nor relativism.

    These are gross mistakes which no careful college freshman would make.

    Nor (4) can Foucault and Derrida be synthesized together into one framework.

    (5) Neither Derrida nor Foucault ‘reject’ ethics. Both have careful things to say about ethics. So how can that be a ‘rejection’?

    It’s easy to reject anything–if you oversimplify it enough.

    This essays is that night in which all cows are black.

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