Although we have published several articles highly critical of postmodernism as a mode of thought, we remain committed to publishing well-written counterviews and found this submission to be thoughtful and interesting — Helen Pluckrose and Malhar Mali.
The west has succumbed to fake news, cultural and value relativism, and alternative facts, and it’s all Foucault’s fault, or Derrida’s, or some other pretentious French philosophe who has had the label “postmodern” embossed on their now dubious legacy for quite a few of those in the sphere of contemporary public intellectualism.
The attacks on postmodern thinking have increased notably as the more ludicrous fringe of the Social Justice Warrior set continue to make fools of themselves on university campuses and debate halls (if debates are even permitted to occur by the self-appointed gatekeepers of “correct” thinking) across the Occident. Jordan Peterson is but the latest lightning rod through whom anything approximating Frankish obscurantism must travel. And Peterson is not wrong in a lot of what he says about twenty-first century normative ideology, especially regarding the nonsensical law he explicitly opposed compelling compliance on the use of gender neutral pronouns. But the attack on postmodernism is misguided. Perhaps, as with the term “liberalism,” it means something different in North America than it does in Europe. Regardless, the assault on postmodernism misses the mark and actually hampers the fight against nonsense.
To be sure, there is an overdue backlash against the excesses of identity politics and the continued efforts to censor “controversial” speakers and intellectuals who transgress the dogmas of the radical left. For example, nothing gets the SJWs in a lather more readily than the anodyne and intellectually obvious assertion that Islam as a belief system might have compatibility problems with the norms of the twenty-first century. To say this, hint it, or post it, is to invite slurs from so called liberals that would not look out of place in McCarthyist America. Any stand against this kind of pseudo liberal thought policing is to be welcomed, and here I’m with Peterson. But postmodernism has been condemned by Peterson and others without much of a due process and, one suspects, without much of an understanding of its core ideas.
It is argued that postmodernism is anti-science, anti-fact, anti-reality, culturally relativist, value relativist, etc. There are two problems with these accusations. First, the charges are based on superficial and studiously unfair interpretations of postmodern scholarship and select quotes from particular writers most directly associated with this intellectual trend of the late 1960s. Peterson himself asserts that postmodernists contend that there are “an infinite number of interpretations” and none of these can be canonical. He’s just wrong. That is not a core contention of postmodern thought. The thinkers loosely categorized as “postmodern” undertook critical attacks on dominant interpretations of social reality and the perceived inevitability and naturalness of the hierarchies that emerge from these. Second, these criticisms are applied across the board, without any nuance or discriminating caveats with respect to particular thinkers and little attempt to delineate where these thinkers disagree with one another, which they frequently did. “Postmodernism” as a concept is a bit like “The Enlightenment.” It’s a term applied retrospectively (and simplistically) to an unconsciously evolving trend, as opposed to a conscious project. It’s not like Foucault et al sat around a French café and plotted the destruction of Western Civilization through philosophical contortions. Most of the thinkers lumped together into this category would probably not be comfortable with the term. This is to say nothing of the significant differences between them.
There are, of course, elements of postmodernist thought that run aground. Their writings are difficult, and they are not innocent of deliberate opacity. But it’s useful to invoke a fairness test. Name a single prominent intellectual, or socio-political theory, whose oeuvre contains nothing that scholars or public intellectuals would disagree on. The linchpins of Enlightenment: Descartes, Kant, Rousseau, Locke? Everything they said was beyond challenge? Their thought and writing embodied no problematic elements? We didn’t ignore any of their statements or positions on the basis that this or that scholar had overstated or overreached at some point in the exposition of their thoughts? Would we dismiss Descartes’ contribution, or Kant’s, on the basis that they constructed arguments or assertions that did not stand the test of time? Rousseau’s contribution to republican thought should be dismissed on the basis that his idea of the “general will” was quasi tyrannical? Those scholars and intellectuals that some public commentators have problematically roped together into the category (or perhaps “identity”) of “postmodern” have undoubtedly overreached in some aspects of their thought. On that basis, their insights are to be dismissed?
The frequent contrast with postmodern thinking is that of scientific thinking. Let us park, for the moment, the flaw in this dichotomous thinking. Scientific thinking is seen as rational and correct, inherited from the Enlightenment rejection of superstition. Postmodern thinking is seen as muddled, contradictory and obscurantist. Talk about a binary relationship. Science is unquestionably the only route to knowledge of the natural world, but in the social world of autonomous and emotional humans it is not alone. The human sciences also undertake analysis through interpretive methodology, which is influenced by the strand of thinking found in what we call continental philosophy and specifically the linguistic (sometimes “language”) turn in social theory. It is interesting to look at the practical side of this. Yes, the Sokal paper was retracted. But retracted academic papers are not the preserve of the human sciences. The peer review process is the best system we have at the moment, but it is also problematic, and some deeply flawed papers do get through. This is to say nothing of the replication crisis evident in scientific research in several disciplines, including Professor Peterson’s own discipline of psychology.
Does scientific thinking always lead to the betterment of human society? It might be the best route to knowledge of the natural world, but is it the only route to knowledge of the human world, our social existence? Let’s set aside (but still mention) the development of nuclear weapons, the development of chemical and biological weapons, the orchestration of the final solution. Read the accounts of the Eichmann trial, read the Wansee Protocol and remain convinced that scientific and “rational” thinking inevitably lead to a better world. Look at the composition of ISIS fighters during the brief but brutal existence of the self-styled Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Over a third of these people were educated in STEM subjects, including qualified doctors (the current head of Al Qaida is a qualified doctor). The pesky moral relativists of the social sciences and humanities? They account for a minuscule point percentage of ISIS fighters.
STEM education does not turn scientifically minded young adults into throat cutting psychopaths. But education in STEM subjects does not seem to guarantee the immunization of the mind against extremism and violence. Let’s drop the pretense that postmodernism is a reason for our current topsy turvy political landscape. Postmodern philosophy is not the reason for the inexplicable migration of seemingly normal members of society to join a death cult in the Middle East with a penchant for brutal violence. Let’s park the bewildering upsets of Trump, Farage, Brexit and the Italian Five Star movement. And beyond the west there is Duterte. Or Modi. Beyond the mere convenient appropriation of tropes and fragments of postmodernist writing by arguably the most privileged demographic on the planet, western college educated twenty-somethings, there is no clear evidence of a causal link between postmodern thought and the current configuration of socio-political polarities or the anti-intellectualism at their roots. Peterson has made the assertion that the writings of obscure European social theorists bear primary responsibility for authoritarian identity politics and cultural or value relativism. He’s wrong. Identity politics is not the logical outcome of postmodern thinking, because postmodern thinking precludes the very certainty exhibited by the cultural chauvinists of identity politics (whether of the radical left or the nativist right). Remember, the recent emergence of European and American nativist politics exemplifies a form of identity politics too. A good postmodern thinker would have a field day deconstructing the certainties and preconceptions of UKIP, Marine le Pen, Orban or Trump’s America First followers.
This conflation of postmodern thought and identity politics is a strange charge, but perhaps a little understandable given the appropriation of some postmodern insights into normative social and political theory. If we want to explore the philosophical roots of identity politics, however, it’s not postmodernism we should focus on, but rather communitarian thinkers like Tully, McIntyre, Walzer and others who emerged in response to Rawls’s 1971 opus A Theory of Justice. This is the intellectual root of identity politics, the politics of recognition and multiculturalism. It’s not postmodernism, as Peterson contends. We need to make a distinction also between the insights themselves and how they’ve been applied. This is not hair-splitting. It’s actually quite important if we’re to get the critique right. The identification of particular categories of people who are victims of direct or structural discrimination in advanced societies has been useful — to a point. But when these categories are reified into “communities” and when these pseudo primordial narratives are indulged and entrenched through identity politics the seeds of division in plural societies have been sown. Peterson is right there. But if we stand any chance of undermining the cultural chauvinism of “groupism” our best hope lies not in marginalizing postmodern thinking, but in promoting it properly as a critical strategy.
Another conflation, one made by Peterson himself quite frequently, is that of postmodern thought and what’s rather sweepingly referred to as neo-Marxism. Again, this is a curious combination. Foucault’s location is ambiguous at best. Habermas referred to him as a “young conservative.” The US Central Intelligence Agency, mindful of intellectual currents in Western Europe during the Cold War, saw Foucault and other thinkers as part of the intellectual counterweight to the influence of Soviet ideology (Foucault left the Communist Party after a brief membership). In spite of these differences, distinctions and oppositions, postmodernism, identity politics and neo-Marxist thinking have been lumped together erroneously.
Yet there is an even deeper reason to push back against this lack of intellectual nuance. Our postmodern philosophes were a remarkably Eurocentric bunch: they did not apply their critical gaze to anything other than their own societies. The postmodernists embodied cultural humility to a fault. Foucault, in his famous debate with Chomsky, was very clear to pull back from advocating solutions to the problems of other societies that are made to conform to a Eurocentric mindset. He worried — quite correctly — about making mistakes when trying to improve the world around us because we brought our cultural baggage where it was least helpful. Postmodern research focused on challenging and undermining the orthodoxies of modernity as it evolved in the European context. If modernity was a challenge to superstition, medievalism and the ancien regime, post-modernity was positioned to challenge the inevitable dogmas born of the age of Enlightenment and scientific rationalism as applied to our understanding of human social problems. As the Enlightenment was a western phenomenon so the target of postmodern thinkers was the neo-dogmas of the rational Occident.
But consider, for a moment, if this high powered perceptual instrument turned its attention to other societies and civilizations. How resilient would Islamic theocratic government, or Sharia law, or pan Arabism, or Hindu nationalism, or Sino-Chauvinism or re-emergent European nativism be under the searing glare of the postmodern mindset? How long would their regimes of truth remain masked and concealed by the normalization of “common sense?” How long would these seemingly natural binary oppositions and hierarchies of meaning last in the face of deconstruction or genealogy? For the detractors and critics who accuse postmodern thought of undermining western certainties, a fair rejoinder would be: why stop there? Why not apply postmodern thought to the certainties and hubris of other cultural constructions. To be sure, they certainly are overdue some serious critical engagement by the people who live in non-western contexts. The western episteme might have been the first to squirm under postmodernism’s critical gaze, but none of the conceptual or methodological insights we’ve gleaned from these thinkers is beyond transferability to other cultural contexts. Doing so would be anathema to the SJW set bent on the destruction of the neo-imperialist west, but that would be conceding too much to them. Why leave these critical strategies only in their hands? Why not slay other sacred cows with them? It would be allowing the insights of postmodern thinking to be hijacked by a self-serving subset of ideologues. There is no intellectual justification for such a narrow application of postmodern thought. The core of the postmodernist movement (if we can call it that) is not an ideology, it’s an analytical strategy. Foucault himself referred to his methods as a toolbox.
What Peterson is right to criticize is a strand of leftism that Steven Pinker referred to as the “left pole.” This is a brand of radical leftism that will happily celebrate the demise of what they see as the patriarchal, irredeemably xenophobic and imperialist Occident from which no good ever came. They will frequently contrast that caricature with another; that of the pristine, authentic and sacred orient. But I submit, quite apart from being patently and factually incorrect about the romantic “authenticity” of non-western societies, these activists are simply not postmodernists. If they were, such flawed essentialism and pseudo-intellectualism could never take root. They are anti-western anarchists who have latched onto a trend in postmodernism’s initial foray into western culture and have not seen beyond the Eurocentric horizon of the sages of avante garde Frankish thought. No one said it had to remain confined to that enterprise. The postmodernist’s chipping away (or tearing down, depending on your level of moral panic) of western certainties is no bad thing. The dramatic expansion of rights throughout the later twentieth century is testimony to the critical engagement and consciousness raising of many leftist activists. But the west is not the only cultural or civilizational entity with misplaced certainty.
What makes postmodernism profoundly useful — and dangerous — is its treatment of the idea of “common sense.” Common sense serves to provide us with a functionally useful mutual understanding about how the world works and how social roles and goods are assigned. It relieves the average individual of much intellectual work in navigating the complexities of modern human society. Yet, common sense is also a strait jacket. When it embodies ideas and practices that are sustained by dint of tradition or authority, rather than functionality, it needs to be questioned. How that shift takes place is never through reason and deliberation alone. It is through ruptures and transformative pressures born of social mobilization and sporadic activism, which emanate from inequality and lack of autonomy. Humans can be reasonable. But, contra Rousseau, we are not essentially reasonable. We are also emotional and intuitive. We constantly make consequential judgements on the basis of partial or incomplete information and act as though we have the whole truth. Invariably we get things wrong. PoMo’s task is to point out that risk. For if the scientists have taught us anything in the intervening generations since the postulation of natural selection, it is that we are still essentially welded to very animal bodies and minds. Human history in the interim has confirmed this tragic truth.
Common sense is useful until it is not, or until it is manifestly not true. Geo-centrism was common sense, until it wasn’t. The genesis myth was common sense, until it wasn’t. A creator god was common sense, until it wasn’t. The static universe was common sense, until it wasn’t. Segregation made sense to many, until it didn’t. Mixed race marriages were anathema, until they weren’t. A women’s “proper” place in society seemed natural, until it wasn’t. Classifying homosexuality as a disorder seemed like common sense, until it’s not. How many social and even scientific and medical practices were commonly accepted, even in the recent past (phrenology, lobotomies, heroine laced cough syrups, mercury cures, female hysteria cures), that are now considered not only obsolete, but illegal. As with watching a 1950s movie from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we can see the foibles, stumbles and cringe-worthy groping of our antecedents. State-of-the-art is a relative term. So is common sense; and it is contingent on the temporal, as much as the logical.
If we accept this aspect of human flourishing, then we must accept the converse and ask an equivalent question about our own time. What are we doing now, which most of us agree is normal and acceptable, but will in time come to be seen as ridiculous or dangerous? Postmodernism as a mindset does not wait for history to give us an answer. It provides us with a strategy to interrogate the invisible cage of our present. The task of questioning the present should begin in the present. Is the carving up of Britain’s school going children into faith-based segments really wise? Is the perpetuation of a two-party cartel in US politics helping or hindering the citizens of that nation to be truly represented? Are the nominationes dei of the US Pledge of Allegiance and on US currency a primordial expression of American identity? Or are they a Cold War amendment to America’s cultural symbols? When you trace it back and discover the actual origins of things, their contingency, their contextual logic, you’re doing genealogy; you’re “doing Foucault.” Is neo-liberal consumer capitalism and mass culture the only game in town, the end of history? One doesn’t need to be a committed Marxist-Leninist to wonder at the excesses of the one percent and the poverty of the billions in the global south to ask that question. Postmodernism, as a mindset, as an attitude, as a strategy, is about holding our common-sense notions up to the light and checking for cracks, prising those fissures open and upsetting our certainties and our perceived inevitabilities. The PoMo mindset will not always get it right, it may not even get it right very much. But it is important to let it try. Where detractors fall awry is in assuming that challenging common sense means rejecting everything. Foucault gave an unequivocal answer to that: it’s not that everything is bad, but everything is dangerous.
It is the postmodern mindset, the radical criticism of the uber skeptic, which will shake the comfortable sense out of our inherited common sense, our customs and traditions. Hierarchy is inevitable in human societies, even modern ones. The utopian idealism of horizontal citizenship or the crypto-solution of a Chomsky-esque anarcho-syndicalism will not hold. Yet the configuration of hierarchies in any specific form need not be inevitable, especially if it marginalizes or oppresses particular categories of people. No more than the divine right of kings, the tyranny of neo-liberalism need not be conceded. Neither should the inevitability of “globalization,” at least when it leads to profound economic inequality, Bangladeshi death factories, the American rust belt or Chinese worker despair. Postmodernism is the oil to the water of common sense. It is difficult and infuriating precisely because it is counter-intuitive, unnatural and radical. Postmodernism, in its broader generality, is about “de-naturalizing” what seems natural and testing it against the light of evolving normative standards. Now more than ever we need some people at least to undertake that task.
When deployed, postmodern insights will assail an accepted social norm, institution, convention or tradition and push the envelope, crow-barring certainty from precedent. It will explore the strategic deployment of language, it’s use of discourse and the structures of articulated ideas in textual or symbolic form. Social institutions are sustained by the words people use, whether in the media, in politics, or in academia. Language is not merely descriptive of social reality, it can shape it too. People can be manipulated to think in particular ways through the use of language. You’d think this postmodern insight would win it some friends. It seems not. But Foucault was right about this: language is for cutting. Postmodernism will not always prevail. Social facts are, as Peterson points out, often still useful and will remain resilient. There has to be something, some system in which we live. And thinkers like Foucault would agree. There is, as Foucault well knew, no escape from power. However, that is not a defeat for postmodernism; it is a victory for those institutions and norms that have built up over time and proved both resilient and useful — for now. But their resilience should not be assumed automatically or accepted uncritically. Peterson likes certainty and hierarchy. And that’s fine when you’re in a privileged place in society. However, for others change cannot come soon enough. Claims of universality and timeless human essences should be viewed with suspicion because they entrench the status quo. Over time, or perhaps with the help of some postmodern critical engagement, some previously accepted conventions and traditions no longer hold the persuasive power that they once did. An illustrative example of this is the dramatic sea change in attitudes towards same sex marriage across the west. Another, more local example, is the slow burning debate over the discrepancy between the electoral college vote and the popular vote in US elections. For generations, this quirk of US democratic praxis went unnoticed and was tacitly accepted by US voters. It first came to recent prominence as problematic after the Bush-Gore run off in 2000. But in 2016, in Trump v Clinton, the electoral college system came in for harsh scrutiny. Why did the US system have this feature where others did not? Clinton wins the popular vote but loses the election. Why? What are its origins? Are the reasons for its creation still relevant and justifiable now? Can it be reformed? Can it be different, or better? Again, to ask these questions about a specific feature of the US electoral process is to embody the postmodern mindset. Or what about the “common sense” of the Hutu-Tutsi distinction in Rwanda? A natural division among races in a corner of sub-Saharan Africa? Or an over-emphasized and reified division of indigenous people based on unsustainable pseudo-science promoted by European colonial administrators? The results of the former are no doubt infuriating for voters in the US, but the results of the latter example of “common sense” were tragic and terrifying in the extreme.
These questions examine the genealogy of a particular institution or accepted ways of doing things. If the origins of the electoral college are a contingency of its time, then we are not bound by it. If the binary of Hutu and Tutsi is not based on anything beyond a fragile cultural construction of insensitive external influence, then it is meaningless. That is the value of postmodern thinking. It opens the door to new possibilities and it offers us a chance to undermine the premises of unfounded and consequential logic. It splits open the inevitability of “the way things have always been done” and the “way things are.” When postmodern insights are applied to non-western contexts it can be profoundly unsettling. Witness the plight of the young atheist in Egypt when he shares a TV platform with a prominent imam and an obviously incredulous TV moderator. The young atheist is perhaps not conscientiously a postmodernist, but his very existence, his implicit challenge to the common sense of religion’s hegemonic position in Egyptian society results in him being labeled as someone psychiatrically disturbed in the “common sense” of Egypt’s prevailing popular mood. In some ways this Egyptian example represents the future reality of non-western contexts in microcosm. It shows the plight of traditional societies that will, sooner or later, have to wrestle with the insights of postmodern thinking. The consequences for these societies could be marked. Long accepted norms, institutions, hierarchies and — yes, Jordan — power relationships could come crashing down. Glasnost and Perestroika succeeded in part in this regard only a few short decades ago.
The ultimate reason for the rapid depletion of trust in political institutions in the west is not the obscure scholarship of leftish continental scholars like Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida. It is the failure of those institutions and our political culture generally to deliver for ordinary people over a protracted period of time. It is also the result of fragmenting trust in an academy that is now beholden to corporate interests, whether in how universities are run or indeed how scientific research is published and disseminated. At a time when there is not only wealth inequality and parallel systems of justice, but also a visibly parallel and unequal system, then is it any wonder that people turned to the charlatan outsider that is Trump? Is it any wonder that the people voted against their own interests in the UK and left the one institution that is holding the line on the best quality of life for ordinary people in any world region by voting for Brexit? Is it any wonder that people have “had enough of experts?” It is the classic case of the boy who cried wolf too many times.
The road to this near dystopia of public apathy and cynicism is not littered with the specialized scholarship and writing of late twentieth century continental thinkers. It is littered with the debris of cynical political manipulation and deception, obscene concentrations of wealth, tax evasion by the wealthy, fictional WMDs, unpunished bankers, intrusive tech companies and a docile or even complicit media class and the steady stagnation of life quality for increasing numbers of citizens. Why should anyone believe the mainstream now, whether political, media or corporate? The deliberate fracturing of society into “cultures,” the culture wars of identity politics has pitted all against all. It’s not failed neo-liberal ideology. It’s migrants. It’s not domestic political cowardice and lack of conviction on tough policy choices. It’s Brussels. It’s not capture by lobby groups. It’s because the system is “rigged.” The polarization of western society into Alt Right and Antifa left is a consequence of these facets of our age, not the ruminations of Foucault, Derrida et al. To go down the Jordan Peterson route of ill-informed confirmation bias with regard to the caricatured bogeyman of “postmodernism” is to perpetuate the distraction that continues to serve the interests of what C Wright Mills called the “power elite.” Postmodernism is the problem? Not so fast. A little more nuance, Professor.
Helen Pluckrose’s rebuttal to the points and positions espoused in this article is now available here.