It might seem unusual to review a book that was originally published in 2004. But Explaining Postmodernism has enjoyed a recent resurgence of popularity. Jordan Peterson has praised the book, and Hicks himself has become a well-known commentator on postmodernism, although he has more than his fair share of zealous critics.
I’ve been writing and reading a lot on the topic of postmodernity—particularly what I call postmodern conservatism—of late. While I admire some of the postmodern authors discussed by Hicks, I have generally been critical of postmodernism as a whole. Moreover, while I am personally affiliated with the Left and disagree with Hicks’ objectivist political outlook, I agree that postmodernism and its various activist offshoots wield too much cultural influence, especially in academia. I fall into a category I have elsewhere called the post-postmodern Left. So I read Hicks’ book to see if he offered any especially useful intellectual weapons with which to push back against the pomo dragon.
Unfortunately, Explaining Postmodernism is full of misreadings, suppositions, rhetorical hyperbole and even flat out factual errors. Moreover, these problems aren’t limited to Hicks’ interpretation of postmodern authors, who are really only the focus of the beginning and end of the book. It extends across much of the modern Western canon, and includes very crude characterizations of seminal thinkers such as Hume, Kant, Hegel, Popper, Wittgenstein and many others. For Hicks, virtually the entire post-Descartes philosophical canon is apparently committed to irrationalist collectivism.
The Enlightenment and Its Discontents
The book’s problems begin on the very first page, with Hicks’ list of seminal postmodern authors. He includes obvious picks such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jean-Francois Lyotard, three of Hicks’ four horsemen of postmodernity. But others—Richard Rorty and Jacques Lacan—have a debatable association with postmodernity and some of those included were even outright critics of postmodernism, such as the feminist legal scholar Catherine Mackinnon, author of “Points Against Postmodernism,” and Luce Irigaray, whose work is a frequent target of postmodern feminists due to its alleged essentialism.
These problems persist throughout the book. Hicks completely misinterprets Lyotard’s quotation about Saddam Hussein in his 1997 book Postmodern Fables. Lyotard claims that, “Saddam Hussein is a product of Western departments of state and big companies,” which Hicks interprets to mean that Hussein is a “victim and spokesman for victims of American imperialism the world over.” In fact, Lyotard’s essay discusses the early support Hussein received from the American government during his prolonged war against Iran in the 1980s. These interpretive problems immediately make one suspicious that this book may be less about explaining postmodernism in a liberal and charitable way and more about lumping together and dismissing all forms of left-wing criticism that may owe an intellectual debt to continental European thought.
Hicks claims that postmodernism is defined by four features. First, it is a metaphysically anti-realist position, which holds that it is “impossible to speak meaningfully about an independent reality.” Second, postmodernism is epistemologically skeptical of the possibility of acquiring objective knowledge about the world. Third, it is methodologically collectivist, regarding human nature as primarily defined by group affiliations. And, fourth, postmodernism is politically committed to protecting those groups which postmodernists regard as victims. This is an admirably clear account of postmodernism, but it is also problematic. While one might be able to link any given postmodern author with one or more of Hicks’ features, not all—or even most authors—fit neatly into these categories. Hicks talks about postmodernism as a whole, but seems uninterested in the thinking of individual authors, who might problematize his tidy narrative generalizations. For instance, you might call Michel Foucault a metaphysical anti-realist and an epistemological skeptic. But he was notably individualistic in his moral and aesthetic outlook, celebrating counterculture and anti-state movements, and had a mixed history of supporting political movements oriented around group identity.
Sadly, Hicks’ tendency to fudge philosophical traditions and history isn’t limited to postmodern authors. Hicks also badly misrepresents Medieval and Enlightenment thinkers who don’t ascribe to his own philosophical and political preferences. Hicks’ caricature of Medieval thinkers as “super naturalist, mystical, collectivist, and feudalistic” is extremely questionable. Virtually any scholastic thinker of note, from Anselm to Avicenna, had complex thoughts on the relationship between reason and faith, the individual and society, and so on. Thomas Aquinas would have found it odd to discover that he was a “collectivist,” given that so much of his work dealt with individual human happiness, and that his natural law theory contained early arguments for placing limitations on the state.
Things get even worse when Hicks discusses the Enlightenment, which ironically seems to be the only period of Western philosophy for which he has any fondness. Hicks argues that the characteristics of the Enlightenment include: metaphysical realism, epistemological concern with reason and experience, understanding the human being as a tabula rasa, ethical individualism, support for liberal capitalism, and so on. But this reads less like a list of characteristics shared by all Enlightenment thinkers, and more like a narrow summary of John Locke’s greatest hits. Of course John Locke is a seminal Enlightenment thinker, who argued that a human being was a tabula rasa and learned from experience, and who supported private property and individual rights. But Locke himself argued extensively against another Enlightenment author, Thomas Hobbes, who supported an absolute sovereign’s entitlement to trample individual and property rights if necessary. Similar problems emerge when you try to jam any other major Enlightenment thinker into Hicks’ list of characteristics. Descartes, whom Hicks praises, certainly did not believe that reason was largely drawn from experience. Indeed, Descartes’ entire skeptical argument was about how all experience of the external world might be illusory. Spinoza was not especially individualistic either: his Ethics is a manual on how to stoically accept that we are all a part of, and determined by, God. Even Adam Smith, the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, would have rejected the arguments that human beings are blank slates, and that it is an unquestionably good thing for all people to be individualistically self-interested.
Perhaps the single weakest part of Hicks’ book is his account of the so-called Counter-Enlightenment. Hicks claims that Counter-Enlightenment thinkers attacked the foundations of reason, therefore laying the intellectual foundations of postmodernism. But his reading of many of these thinkers is very shoddy.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his treatment of Immanuel Kant, whom Hicks argues is somehow a Counter-Enlightenment thinker. This is all the more ironic, given Kant’s argument in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals that, “man—and in general every rational being—exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its discretion.” Hicks makes the baffling argument that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a skeptical epistemological attack on empirical realism and the possibility of true knowledge of the real world, designed to shore up Kant’s religious faith against the attacks of Enlightenment science. This is simply not true. Kant’s entire project was to show that empirical reason was an essential part of how human beings develop a comprehensive understanding of the world. As P. F. Strawson has argued, the Kantian project is about demonstrating the productive “bounds of sense” through which we interpret the empirical world, i.e. to demonstrate that, although we never have access to “things in themselves,” independently of our cognitive processes, the fact that these processes are common to all human beings gives form to a world that looks the same to everyone a posteriori. This makes science possible—and, indeed, necessary. Moreover, Kant’s first Critique culminates in an account of the antinomies of reason, an argument which frustrated centuries of theological attempts to prove Christian dogma. As for Hicks’ later comments that Kant devalued individualism in favor of dutiful sacrifice for others, or that Kant believed war was a necessary feature of human life: these are astonishing accusations to level against the author of “Perpetual Peace,” who claimed that each individual’s autonomy granted him an absolute dignity, putting him “beyond price.”
These interpretive issues speak to a deeper problem in the book. When Hicks argues that “any thinker who claims that reason cannot know reality is not fundamentally an advocate of reason,” he is taking an exceptionally narrow view of the history of Western philosophy. Essentially, any thinker who is not an empirical realist like Hicks is apparently “not an advocate of reason.” So, when Kant praises reason but claims it has limits, in Hicks’ eyes he becomes a Counter-Enlightenment thinker and a precursor to postmodernism. For Hicks, Hegel—who claimed that fragmentary subjective opinion must gradually give way to “absolute knowing”—argues that “reality is an entirely subjective creation.” Heidegger, who argues that metaphysics must end and be replaced by “thinking,” is summarized by Hicks as believing that “the ultimate revelation [of existence] is of the truth of Judeo-Christian and Hegelian metaphysics.” Hicks even argues that logical positivists and philosophers of mathematics, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, paved the way for Karl Popper, W. V. O. Quine and Thomas Kuhn, who, according to Hicks, argue that “we are stuck inside a subjective system with no direct access to reality.”
Socialism and Postmodernism
In Chapters Four and Five, Hicks’ focus shifts from epistemology and philosophy to politics. He begins with an interpretation of Rousseau: the second arch-villain of the book, alongside Kant. Hicks claims that, while Kant established the metaphysical and epistemological conditions for postmodernity, Rousseau laid the seeds of its methodological collectivism and political emphasis on victimization. These chapters are less contentious, but still riddled with generalizations and errors. According to Hicks, Rousseau argues that “passions are an appropriate foundation for society,” which creates the conditions for an authoritarian society. This is a misrepresentation of The Social Contract, in which Rousseau argues that the state must be the creation of free individuals, who will only consent to laws they have given themselves. As some liberal political theorists—notably Isaiah Berlin in “Two Concepts of Liberty”—have noted, Rousseau qualifies these liberal positions by espousing the idea of a totalizing “general will,” which comes to subordinate individual wills. But Hicks’ portrayal is still overly simplistic.
Hicks then turns his attention to the modern era, claiming that the Frankfurt School was committed to “encouraging irrationalisms” in order to bring down capitalism. However, much of their writings argue that society is still insufficiently rationalized and it is this that leads to the persistence of violence and social conflict. Most egregiously of all, Hicks claims that Hitler stated that “basically National Socialism and Marxism are the same.” This quotation is often misattributed to Hitler. It actually stems from Richard Pipes’ Property and Freedom, which Hicks includes in his references, without acknowledging the author in the main text of the book itself.
Finally, in Chapter Six, Hicks turns to postmodernism, to which he dedicates only twenty-six scant pages. He argues that the scientific aspirations of earlier methodological collectivists, committed to a politics of emancipating victims, collapsed when it became apparent that liberal capitalism was both here to stay and was delivering a superior quality of life. As a result, postmodern thinkers looked to the skeptical metaphysics and epistemology developed by Kant and Heidegger, in order to defend their political positions without having to appeal to reason.
According to Hicks, this resulted in the strange internal contradictions of postmodern strategy and rhetoric, embodied in such claims as all truth is relative but postmodernism tells it like it really is and values are subjective—but sexism and racism are really evil. There is some truth in this. Activists and militants do deploy such contradictions in support of their political positions. Moreover, these activists often appeal to postmodern authors to justify their ideas. But the point isn’t whether this is characteristic of the activists who interpret postmodern authors, but whether these contradictions are latent in the writings of the authors whom Hicks claims are exemplars of the tradition: authors like Rorty, Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault.
Here he is on very shaky ground. There are very few citations in the chapter—and, of the few there are, many reference nineteenth-century authors like Nietzsche; modern authors who do not fit into the postmodern tradition, such as the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin; and critics such as Thomas Sokal. None of these figures is representative of postmodernism. Hicks’ most substantial engagement with postmodern occurs at the end of the book, where he argues that Foucault and Derrida wanted to bring about the “end of man,” citing The Order of Things, in which Foucault claims that man will be “erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea,” and citing a passage from Derrida which talks about bringing about “the terrifying form of a monstrosity.” But neither of these two quotations are interpreted correctly. In The Order of Things, Foucault argues that the concept of universal man is a relatively new way of conceptualizing human beings, and will eventually give way to a new conceptualization. In Writing and Différance, Derrida argues that recognizing difference, including differences between individuals, is frightening, but we must develop an ethos which allows us to accept it. The caliber of Hicks’ engagement with these two authors here is representative of the general lack of intellectual charity and careful scholarship he demonstrates towards his ideological opponents.
There are many important criticisms one could make of postmodern authors. Moreover, there is a good book to be written about the association of postmodern thinking with identity politics, growing skepticism about free speech and other social trends. Outlets like Areo have made important contributions to this effort. Unfortunately Hicks’ book isn’t up to the task. He raises some valuable criticisms of left-wing activism and its strategic appeals to postmodern rhetoric. But, as an intellectual guide to the development of postmodernism, or a primer on contemporary left-wing thought, it falls short of what is required.