Skepticism is Necessary in our Post-Truth Age. Postmodernism is Not

We at Areo recently published a passionate defense of postmodernism by Kenneth Houston, Professor of International Relations at Webster. We did so, despite having published several essays strongly critical of the mode of thought, because the essay was nuanced, thoughtful, straightforward and sincere. It is difficult to find postmodernism addressed in such a way. The argument for the benefit of postmodern deconstructive thinking on countries dominated by Islamic metanarratives is an original one but many of the other arguments have been made to me before by defenders of postmodernism both online and in public debate but without such clarity or political impartiality. Houston, like so many of us at Areo, fits neatly into no ideological camp, annoying leftist outlets with his strident atheism which includes criticism of Islam and rightist ones with his liberal leftism and defense of postmodernism. He sees the problem with the far-left identitarians and the far-right identitarians, and as such, is a natural ally to those of us alarmed by the increasing polarization spurred on by these extremist fringes. I very much hope that he will write again for Areo in the future. Nevertheless, I ultimately disagree with Houston’s argument on this occasion and this response explains why.

In “The Necessity of Postmodernism in a Post-Truth Age,” Dr Kenneth Houston acknowledges the need to address the problem of “the more ludicrous fringe of the Social Justice Warrior set” with their ideological zealotry, censoriousness and cultural relativism and tendency towards McCarthyism. However, he does not agree that postmodernism is responsible for this and thus feels the attack on it is misguided.

When Houston complains that charges against postmodernism are “superficial and studiously unfair,” he makes an accurate observation that critics are using the term to focus on a few very specific ideas and neglecting the differences between postmodern thinkers and the huge scope of postmodern thought. I have addressed this criticism before and given an explanation for it which can be summarized as “We focus on the ideas which are currently causing widescale social problems.”

Houston goes on to say that “postmodernism has been condemned by [Jordan] Peterson and others without much of a due process and, one suspects, without much of an understanding of its core ideas” and identifies the accusations that are made against postmodernism; that it is “anti-science, anti-fact, anti-reality, culturally relativist, value relativist.” There is certainly some truth in the accusation that many criticisms are based on “superficial and studiously unfair interpretations of postmodern scholarship” although this is probably partly because it is so complicated and contradictory. I, myself, frequently disagree with Jordan Peterson and feel that he does address postmodernism superficially.

However, when Houston says that “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,” I have to disagree with Houston and reluctantly agree with Peterson. It seems likely that the latter is referring to Derrida here who did indeed say that there is nothing outside the text – a text being anything that can be read – there are only contexts without any center of absolute anchoring and that every text “engenders infinitely new contexts in an absolutely nonsaturable fashion.” This does sound a lot like saying there are an infinite number of interpretations and none are canonical and that is, in fact, largely how Derrida has been read ever since. Houston is absolutely right to say that postmodernism is not defined by any one theorist and that they disagreed with each other strongly, but this makes little difference to what has survived and evolved and Derrida’s views about subjective interpretation have certainly survived.

I agree too, when Houston says “Postmodernism” as a concept is a bit like “The Enlightenment” but whilst he finds this reductive, I think it is reasonable to focus on and compare the core beliefs and values of these modes of thinking and decide which we want to continue. Also, in both cases the ideas, which are really more attitudes towards knowledge, modernity, liberalism and progress, have evolved. Supporters of the Enlightenment do not want to go back and take on those original thinkers’ views wholesale – they are dated and often, downright sexist and racist. Of course, they appear naïve and ignorant compared to the knowledge we have now, but it is important to acknowledge that we have that knowledge now because of the ethos of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment project is an ongoing and progressive one which re-evaluates and discards unworthy bits of itself. Similarly, no-one is trying to bring original postmodern ideas in their entirety and in a static state forwards, and it is right to say that we shouldn’t judge the thinkers as if in a vacuum, but we don’t need to. Their thought has evolved too, and we can look at what it has become and how it manifests in scholarship and society right now. I think it is clear that it manifests in identity politics and also in the denial of science and the objectivity of truth generally. Unsurprisingly, it is on these two points that Houston and I disagree most strongly.

Houston finds the conflation of postmodern thought and identity politics a strange one although he acknowledges the “appropriation” of some postmodern insights into normative social and political theory. I would go much further than this and, in fact, I have, arguing that a direct line can be traced from the original postmodernists through the next wave of critical theory which includes postcolonialism, intersectionality, critical race theory and queer theory. All of these draw directly on postmodern thinkers and nowhere is this more clearly expressed than by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the founder of intersectionality, undoubtedly the greatest influence and overarching structure of leftist identity politics, when she said in her foundational essay “I consider intersectionality to be a provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory.” Crenshaw explicitly argues for identity politics — foregrounding identity categories — as a form of empowerment and against universal liberalism — seeking to remove prejudice and discrimination by making identity irrelevant,

“The embrace of identity politics, however, has been in tension with dominant conceptions of social justice. Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination-that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance. Yet implicit in certain strands of feminist and racial liberation movements, for example, is the view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of political empowerment and social reconstruction.”

Crenshaw does diverge from postmodernism in her politicisation of identity and Houston might think that this is to do postmodernism wrongly. He argues that we need to make a distinction between the insights themselves and how they have been applied. We can certainly do so, and it is an interesting academic exercise but I would argue that the reality of how they are being applied and the effects of this on the world right now are more important. In the same way, finely nuanced readings of Islamic texts which position Islam as a religion of peace and beacon of gender equality have been made and argued. They do not negate the reality of fundamentalist, politicized versions of Islam affecting the world right now. We can certainly acknowledge some worth in some postmodern thought for seeking to question dubious metanarratives that are being uncritically accepted. Even in its evolved form, within intersectionality, Crenshaw’s original insights into legally undefinable discrimination were valuable. It goes too far to say that this is not also responsible for identity politics.

I fully agree with Houston when he condemns the

“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 must take issue with the claim that these activists are simply not postmodernists. They simply are. These ideas are drawn directly from postcolonial theory, pioneered by Edward Said who was a Foucauldian and taken up in a more explicitly postmodern way by Homi Bhabha who seconded Foucault only to Derrida and Lacan, and Gayatri Spivak who gained prominence with her translation of Derrida and her mentorship by Paul de Man. This is as postmodern as it is possible to get.

The other major disagreement I have with Houston is with his representation of science. He points out that a stark dichotomy between postmodern thinking and scientific thinking is often made and argues that science is “unquestionably the only route to knowledge about the natural world but in the social world of autonomous and emotional humans, it is not alone” before going on to talk about the human sciences and their use of interpretive methodology influenced by postmodernism. He points out that they have been able to be hoaxed and admits that some deeply flawed papers do get through. He offsets this with a replication crisis in other fields including psychology (which is also a social science) but this does not speak to the relative worths of scientific and postmodern epistemologies.

When Houston asks “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?” one wonders if anyone has ever claimed it does and is. Science is a method for obtaining knowledge which can be used for good or for ill. He points out that devastating weapons have been produced by science and that ISIS fighters are much more likely to be STEM graduates than postmodernists but the dichotomy between science and postmodernism is not an ethical one. It is an epistemological one. Science and postmodernism are antithetical in their attitudes towards the possibility of obtaining objective knowledge and establishing what is true. There is also a divide going on ethically, but this is between identity politics and universal liberalism/humanism. Science, I feel, is largely better off in the hands of the latter.

Houston raises the idea of “common sense” in terms of metanarratives intuitively accepted as true and the postmodern tendency — particularly by Lyotard but also in terms of discourses of power by Foucault — has been to include science among these. Houston does not go this far but he does seem to assume that only postmodernism can address unwarranted beliefs and assumptions. He says,

“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.”

This is very true and yet it can be demonstrated that we’ve done rather well at combatting this during the modern period which saw the end of feudalism, theocracy, patriarchy, slavery and colonialism.

He goes on to list a number of “common sense” beliefs including geo-centrism, young earth creationism, static universe, segregation, homosexuality as a disorder, phrenology, and lobotomies. It is undoubtedly true that these beliefs were standard but overturned due to challenge. It is less clear, in fact it is wrong, to claim that postmodernism had anything to do with this. As admirably pointed out by Robert Darby in the comments, erroneous assumptions about the universe and the brain have been corrected by science. Moral progress in the form of gender equality, racial equality and LGBT equality which began gradually in the 19th century, then moved incredibly fast during the 60s and 70s before postmodernism had made any significant impact on society. This was done in the name of universal liberalism which had been developing throughout the modern period and which is strongly criticized by postmodernists.

When Houston says,

“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.”

I must disagree. The reason the PoMo mindset does not get it right very often is embedded in its epistemology. One cannot get things right (or wrong) unless one accepts that there is an objective truth and a way to get closer to it. It cannot provide ethical critique intended to spur moral progress if it is culturally relative.

Houston says, “Where detractors fall awry is in assuming that challenging common sense means rejecting everything.” Well, PoMo certainly doesn’t reject its own metanarrative and the self-referentiality problem this raises is frequently critiqued by philosophers. I would argue that it rejects any well-established structures and institutions of modernity seemingly indiscriminately. The problem with postmodernism is that it critiques things on the grounds that they are metanarratives — large overarching explanations of big and varied phenomena — rather than on the grounds of whether or not there is any reason to think they are true. In The Postmodern Conditon, where Jean Francois Lyotard argued this condition to be understood as a “skepticism towards metanarratives,” his three targets were Christianity, Marxism, and Science. These do all seek to explain large and complicated phenomena, but this is all they have in common. For postmodernists, intent on deconstructing systems, that seems to be enough. For those of us who think that objective truth exists, that we should endeavor to find it and that there are better and worse ways of doing so, it is not.

It should be clear that if Christianity were true, the fact that it is a large and overarching ultimate explanation of everything would not matter at all. It would be a bonus to have so much figured out at once. Similarly, if the Marxist explanation of economic inequality were accurate, it would be helpful rather than problematic that it explained so much. Science is a method rather than a metanarrative but theories — frameworks of explanations for facts and observations — within it can be described this way. Evolution by natural selection is one such overarching explanation for a huge number of biological facts. Does it therefore need to be deconstructed as a common-sense assumption simply because it is widely accepted as true? No, it needs to be continually re-evaluated and tested and changed when warranted. This is already built into the epistemology and premises of science. Postmodernism’s lack of a coherent epistemology and premises by which to evaluate metanarratives makes it ultimately indiscriminately destructive.

Consequently, when Houston asserts that “(t)he postmodernist’s chipping away (or tearing down, depending on your level of moral panic) of western certainties is no bad thing,” I have to disagree until it comes up with a coherent evidence-based rationale for doing so.

Ultimately, a problem arises when postmodernism is conflated with skeptical criticism and when science is conflated with ideological metanarratives that are accepted uncritically. In reality, both postmodernism and science are driven by skepticism, but they have very different epistemologies and that matters. Houston asserts that “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” but I would suggest this is largely worthless because radical skepticism is ultimately indiscriminate. The physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont usefully address this issue in relation to criticism of science:

“Specific skepticism should not be confused with radical skepticism. It is important to distinguish carefully between two different types of critiques of the sciences: those that are opposed to a particular theory and are based on specific arguments, and those that repeat in one form or another the traditional arguments of radical skepticism. The former critiques can be interesting but can also be refuted, while the latter are irrefutable but uninteresting (because of their universality)…. If one wants to contribute to science, be it natural or social, one must abandon radical doubts concerning the viability of logic or the possibility of knowing the world through observation and/or experiment. Of course, one can always have doubts about a specific theory. But general skeptical arguments put forward to support those doubts are irrelevant, precisely because of their generality.”

Houston raises the issue of how beneficial postmodernism could be in other countries currently dominated by Islamic metanarratives, but would this be postmodernism? As he acknowledges, postmodernism challenges Western modernity. Islamic theocracy and cultural norms and institutions are very different to those of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies and can be challenged by many ways of thinking. I don’t think we should assume that it is postmodern deconstructive ideas that would be of most use. In fact, the example Houston provides does not support this. He says,

“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.”

However, when we watch the video, we do not find Mohammad Hashem deconstructing religious metanarratives of creation because they are common sense certainties which need inspecting for fissures. Instead, we find him claiming that there is no scientific evidence for God and attempting to explain the Big Bang in response to being asked how the universe came. “Not conscientiously a postmodernist?” Mr Hashem is not a postmodernist at all. He has not rejected Islamic beliefs because they are a common-sense metanarrative. He has rejected them because they don’t appear to be true. Science deserves the credit for motivating his challenge.

It is hard, at this point to escape the suspicion that Houston is using “postmodernism” as a place-holder for “skeptical & critical analysis of overconfident and flawed belief systems.” But this is simply not what critics of it are criticizing. We are criticizing the radical skepticism which negates the possibility of objective truth and pointing out the problems with the cultural relativism which makes consistent liberal ethics impossible to maintain. We are criticizing the intense sensitivity to language (discourses) with an onus on interpretation being more significant than intended meaning which underlies so much of the minefield of what is often referred to as “political correctness.”  Above all, perhaps, we are criticizing the understanding of humans as positioned within structures of power by their identity and the associated loss of regard for or even belief in shared humanity and individuality.

Nevertheless, there are areas where I can agree wholeheartedly with Houston. He refers to the bizarre conflation of postmodernism and “neo-Marxism” and points out that Foucault was often regarded as a conservative and that he opposed Soviet ideology. As we have seen, one of Lyotard’s first targets was Marxism because of its belief in objective truth and its certainty about having established it in economic terms. Derrida is frequently claimed to have identified as a Marxist but an examination of his Spectres of Marxism (in which he stated “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist”) reveals that he removed the epistemology and the economics from it entirely and argued for his own deconstructive approach which was antithetical to it. Common criticisms of postmodernists and their successors by Marxists are that they show very little interest in or knowledge of economics and even that they are bourgeois elitists who removed the focus of the academic left from the working class. The epistemologies of Marxism and postmodernism are radically different. I have often described it as the difference between being wrong and holding an intellectual commitment to there being no right or wrong. We cannot address postmodernism without understanding its epistemology. Houston does, and I am grateful to him for pointing this out.

Houston also makes another valid criticism of critics of postmodernism which is that there is a tendency to blame it entirely for our current post-truth problem. When he argues,

“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.”

I find it hard to disagree. Matthew d’Ancona in his book Post-Truth: The New War on truth and How to Fight Back argues that the failures of various institutions and, in particular, the scandalous revelations of dishonesty including MP’s expenses scandals, the banking crisis and sexual assault at the BBC have left the general public distinctly skeptical of powerful institutions, authority and expertise. In addition to this, social media has made it much easier to spread fake news and to pick and choose what news we see and which people we talk to, leading to increased ideological polarization around satisfying narratives. However, this does not absolve postmodernism and its impact on culturally dominant forms of epistemology from blame. As I argued at the Battle of Ideas, motivations for distrust of experts and their truth claims and tools for enabling the spread of fake news and ideologically satisfying interpretations of events can not be the whole story. Postmodernism’s identity politics and denial of objective truth have had some impact on our current problem with identity politics and denial of objective truth.

I am now willing to concede too, which I have not always done, that “postmodernism” could be too broad and too confusing a term for the problems we are seeing even though this is where their roots lie. In response to criticisms of my criticisms of “postmodernism” as reductionist and to genuine confusion about which aspects of postmodernism I am criticizing, I have recently begun to refer to “the postmodern epistemic shift” to indicate that I am referring very specifically to beliefs that knowledge is culturally constructed by dominant discourses which position individuals by their identity groups. However, this is still not easily graspable. A. Jay Adler in a recent piece for Areo called it “New Logocentrism” by which he meant that language itself has become the source of knowledge and truth. He went on to show how this underlies so many of the problems we criticize as part of the same issue within the identitarian left. He did this in postmodern language for strategic and artistic effect so, unfortunately, even fewer people were able to follow this argument (although the impact of this was wonderful for those who could). I am currently giving much thought to how to meet the need for clarity and a graspable distinguishing term for what those of us who criticize postmodern epistemology are actually criticizing. It is not everything encompassed by that vast intellectual terrain but it is not any skeptical criticism of dominant metanarratives either. Houston concluded by recommending to Peterson “A little more nuance, professor?” Perhaps we could all do with more of that.

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10 comments

  1. I’m not a professional philosopher, but this reminds me of a certain debate people might have in regards to whether Nietzsche’s works should be blamed for the rise of Nazism. On the one hand, perhaps a plausible case can be made that certain parts of Nietzsche’s ideas may have inspired certain justifications of the worldview that drove the National Socialists. On the other hand, even aside from strict questions of moral responsibility, it would seem obviously reductive to simply ascribe the rise of a political movement like the rise of Nazi Germany to Nietzsche’s works as opposed to the work of a movement driven by historical circumstances to use any ideological material as a justification. In a similar fashion it would be insightful to speculate on what really motivates these identity politics proponents. It seems obvious these are largely people driven by nearly unfathomable levels of resentment to gain social and legal revenge over classes of people they wish to supplant. Postmodernism may have been the easiest tool available, but clearly this is simply a tool for them, and they would grasp at others if they could, if postmodernism wasn’t invented.

  2. A bit late saying this, but your take on his article is almost identical to mine.

    All the good things he attributes to postmodernism look to me just like bog-standard critical thinking, that we would expect anybody, academics and scientists especially, to practice by default.

  3. Thanks to Helen for a comprehensive reply to Kenneth Houston’s defence of post-modernism – more balanced and fair minded than my rather-too-sharp critique in the comments. As she says, he does make some good points, including the need to guard against intellectual complacency and for a perpetual questioning of common sense assumptions. Whether a post-modern attitude is necessary for this outlook is a different matter, as it seems to me that this sort of scepticism has been the hallmark of intellectuals since the days of Spinoza and Pierre Bayle (whose critical dictionary did much to erode the authority of scripture and the church).

    Perhaps the acid test for post-modernism as a new and fruitful epistemology (way of discovering knowledge) must lie in the quality of the research studies actually carried out by its adherents. Ken does not give any examples, perhaps not surprisingly, as Foucault’s own efforts have not been highly regarded by other experts in the field. His history of madness was panned by Andrew Scull as a basically evidence-free zone (TLS, 21 March 2007), and his essays on the history of sexuality (still pretentiously published in three slim volumes) have not fared much better. I found nothing in them of value for my own study of nineteenth century sexuality and sexual medicine, and Foucault’s account of sexual mores and practice in Ancient Greece has been rejected as a laughable travesty by experts in Greek history, such as James Davidson – whose Greeks and Greek Love (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2007) contains a lengthy critical digression on post-modernism and social constructivism that is well worth reading.

    It further seems to me that as an ideological project the main function of post-modernism is to generate new heresies. In this endeavour post-modern intellectuals are reminiscent of the scholars who staffed the new universities in the 12th and 13th centuries, especially the Sorbonne (what is it about Paris?) and the theology faculty at Salamanca. Helen will know more about this than me, but it is apparent that until that time Christian religious belief and practice had been rather fluid, with room for a fair degree of variation from one place to another and some degree of freedom for local custom. The function of these intellectuals in the new universities was to codify and regularise Christian belief, and in doing so they of course simultaneously divided what was orthodox and correct from what was unorthodox and thus heretical. It is no accident that persecutions for heresy and heretical opinions greatly increased once the eager scholars of theological faculties had defined orthodoxy, and thus the boundaries of what was permissible. Many of today’s po-mo-inspired intellectuals seem to take a similarly grim pleasure in inventing new heresies with which to condemn both ordinary people and rival intellectuals, of which islamophobia, transphobia, white privilege and toxic masculinity are merely the most recent. They would appear to be the heresy-sniffing theologians of the contemporary age.

  4. Your policy of charging per month for content is completely lame. Do you think you are THAT important? So profound that you are worth this investment?
    I enjoyed some of your articles but will not pay per month for content. Let me know if you ever have a one-time charge for access. That i would gladly pay. Membership charges are like being in a country club. Is that your goal? a country club for effete quasi intellectuals?

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    1. Dude, Areo is free. You can CHOOSE to support them a few dollars a month and then you’ll be able to read some content a few days before free publication. Delete your stupid comment.

    2. You must decide if my work is worth paying for. If you feel it is not, don’t. This is how writers earn a living. By writing things that people are willing to pay to read. I spend a lot of money on books and access to journals, magazines and newspapers but this is my choice. You don’t have to. However, suggesting that there’s something suspicious or elitist about writers wanting to be paid for their work is very odd. Like everyone else, we have families to feed and rent to pay.

    3. I hadn’t noticed the Patreon option before but thanks for highlighting it. I’ve just signed up because content this good deserves some reward for the creators. Meanwhile you can go back to doing whatever you do for free.

  5. The by-products of postmodernism? The evolved epistemology of PoMo? I don’t know. Sometimes it seems to me that people are just missing the point on purpose. You’ve been very clear from the beginning: PoMo had valuable and interesting things to say, but what people have turned it into is something else entirely and very damaging to society.

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