Postmodernism 101, Part 2: Objectivity is Dead

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks,  Professor of Philosophy, at Rockford College.  His excellent book goes into great detail, exploring postmodernism and its origins.

Previous posts include:

Recap

Reason, truth, and knowledge are meaningless, argue the postmodernists, they are only political oppression.  In Marxist tradition, postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism and its progeny – truth, reason, knowledge, science, individualism, free markets, and liberal democracy.

The Age of Enlightenment’s modern philosophy overthrew the Medieval philosophy of faith.  Modernism replaced faith with reason.  Individuals could use perception and reason to know reality.  Reason produced individualism and science.  Individualism produced liberal democracy and free markets.  Science produced technology and medicine.

Counter-Enlightenment Strikes Back
immanuel-kantImmanuel Kant

Postmodernism’s seeds were sown during the Age of Enlightenment.  There was a Counter-Enlightenment, a reaction to modernism – both to defend faith and to criticize modernism’s logical flaws.  The Counter-Enlightenment planted the seeds of postmodernism.

Enlightenment thought helped make England into a powerhouse.  Continental Europe took notice.  The French followed, for a time.  Many Germans were troubled. The Enlightenment threatened politics, religion, community, and morality.

Enlightenment reason and individualism threatened to replace religion with a godless, soulless, amoral machine.

  • Gone was a personal God, replaced by a distant, disconnected abstraction.
  • Gone were faith, religious answers, and the human spirit, replaced by logic, causation and mechanical necessity.
  • Gone was morality and community, replaced by the selfish pursuit of happiness.

The German Counter-Enlightenment gathered its forces.  Its progeny would include existentialism, nihilism, Marxism, Nazism, communism, and postmodernism.

Objectivity is Dead

German philosopher Immanuel Kant was a defender of the faith.  He attacked Enlightenment reason in order to defend religion.  “I here therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith,” Kant wrote.  In defense of faith, he struck reason a crippling blow.

Reason is clueless about objective reality, Kant argued.  Our reason is limited by our subjective perceptions and understanding. Our perceptions are subjective.  Our understanding is subjective.  Therefore, we cannot know objective reality.

Our perceptions are subjective, said Kant.  Our sense perceptions are not reality.  They are only internal representations of reality.  Our sense organs veil reality.

Our understandings are subjective, Kant contended.  Our understandings are even further removed from reality than our perceptions.  We construct our understandings from artificial concepts.  “We always remain involved in conditions” that make our experiences, he said.

Kant rejected knowledge to protect faith.  We cannot know objective reality, he concluded.  Reason and science are cut off from reality.  Truth exists only inside our brains.  Thus, science cannot disprove God.

Anti-Reason

Kant struck a blow against reason, in a major break from Enlightenment thought.  The results might be:

  • Reality.  We know objective subjective reality because reason and perception are subjective.  Our organs of consciousness are obstacles to consciousness.
  • Human Nature.  We have the autonomous limited capacity or the illusion of capacity to form our own character.
  • Values. The individual is might be the unit of value.  Universal principles are subjective.

Kant made powerful, logical arguments against reason.  He separated object from subject, and reason from reality. Modern ideas about reason, truth, and knowledge are called into question.

Commentary

Kant turned reason (logic) against itself.  Objectivity had stood on shaky legs.  Kant took logic’s razor and cut objectivity’s legs from under it.  The fight left reason wobbling – and blind in one eye.  Science could see only part of the truth.

Next

The German Counter-Enlightenment launches a counter-revolution.  Next: Part 3, Hegel’s Dialectic.

Postmodernism 101, Part 1: Truth is Dead

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  Prof. Jordan B. Peterson sees postmodernism as an existential threat.  Prof. John Vervaeke suggests that the plague of postmodernism has brought a zombie apocalypse upon us.

What is postmodernism?  The following is the first in a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks,  Professor of Philosophy, at Rockford College.  His excellent book goes into great detail, exploring postmodernism and its origins.

Previous posts:

Intro: The Trouble with Zombies

Truth is Dead
jacques-derridaJacques Derrida

Reason, truth, and knowledge are meaningless, argued French philosopher Michel Foucault.  Reason, he claimed, is the ultimate language of madness.

Postmodernism offers no truth or knowledge, said American philosopher Richard Rorty, because there is no truth.  Postmodernism cannot claim to be “right” or correspond with reality, he said, because there are no such things.  The postmodernist has no obligation to be “right”, agreed American legal scholar Stanley Fish, only to be “interesting”.

Reason, truth, and reality are just power and oppression, wrote French philosopher Francois Lyotard, the same as prisons and prohibitions. Postmodernism is a strategy against reason, power, and oppression.

andrea-dworkinAndrea Dworkin

Reason oppresses women, argued feminist legal critics Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.  Sex between man and woman is a predatory “act of invasion and ownership”, argued Dworkin, “He owns you inside and out”.  Pornography is not free speech, MacKinnon and Dworkin agreed, but political oppression.

karl-marxKarl Marx

The West disguises political oppression, claimed Foucault.  Oppression is naked only in its prisons, he said, “brutal tyranny”, in the guise of “serene domination of Good over Evil, of order over disorder”.

Postmodernism is Marxist, admitted French postmodernist Jacques Derrida.  It is a tool for “radicalization … within the tradition of a certain Marxism in a certain spirit of Marxism,” he said.

Postmodern Philosophy

Postmodernism is a philosophy that denies being one.  Philosophies rest on assumptions:

  • Reality.  How do we define reality?  What is knowledge?
  • Human nature.  What is it to be human?
  • Values.  What are our values (ethics)?

Postmodernism rests on philosophical assumptions:

  • Reality.  We cannot use reason to know objective reality.  Reality is subjective (artificial).  Society uses language to “construct” reality.  Knowledge is meaningless because we lack truth and reality.
  • Human nature.  Society uses language to construct our group identities (gender, ethnicity, class).  Society is conflict.  Society’s powerful (oppressors) use force against the weak (oppressed).
  • Values.  We value fighting against oppressors on behalf of the oppressed.

Postmodern philosophy rejects modern philosophy.

Modernism

Modernism arose during the Age of Enlightenment (the Age of Reason).  It gave birth to liberal government, capitalism, science, technology, and modern medicine.

Before this, Medieval Europe was dominated by the philosophy of faith:

  • Reality.  We know reality based on tradition, faith, and mysticism.
  • Human nature.  We are defined by original sin and are subjects of God’s will.
  • Values.  Individuals are subordinate to divinely ordained political, social, and religious hierarchies. We value altruistic service to others.

Modernism replaced the philosophy of faith, which had been succumbing to Renaissance and Reform thought.  Modern philosophy arose:

  • Reality.  We know objective reality by using reason and perception of nature.
  • Human nature.  Individuals are a unit of reality.  Our minds are sovereign.  We have the autonomous capacity to form our own character (free will).
  • Values.  The individual is the unit of value.
isaac-newtonIsaac Newton

Modernism emphasized reason.  John Locke made reason the key to individualism – individual ethics, individual rights, political equality, and justice.  Enlightenment thinkers, like Isaac Newton, made reason the key to science.  Science produced technology and medicine.

Modernism emphasized individualism.  Individualism in politics produced liberal democracy and ultimately led to the demise of slavery.  Individualism in economics produced free markets and capitalism.

Modernism’s views grew and dominated: nature, reason, science, individualism, and liberalism.  People became more free, lived longer, and suffered less.

Death to Modernism

Postmodernism attacks the philosophical foundations of modern Western society, and all that flows from it.  It attacks the foundation of truth, reason, and knowledge.  It attacks the edifices of individualism, science, markets, and liberal politics.

richard-rortyRichard Rorty

Postmodernism seeks to throw down Western society and replace it.  The question for postmodernists is how to proceed, now that “The Age of Faith and the Enlightenment seem beyond recovery,” Rorty stated.

Postmodernist philosophy had little influence in philosophy.  It has had greater influence in education.

  • Literary criticism.  Literary texts have no objective meaning.  They have subjective meaning to the reader.  We can deconstruct them to reveal the author’s biases – racism, misogyny, patriarchy.
  • Legal theory.  Legal Pragmatists argue against universal theories of law or legal principles are illusory.  Critical Legal Theorists reject objective or neutral readings of laws or precedent as fraudulent.  The law, they argue, is a weapon of coercion that serves white males.
  • Education.  The purpose of education is not to develop cognitive reasoning ability.  Its purpose is to mold social identities that are sensitive on issues of race, gender, and class; and to overthrow the powerful and the privileged.

Postmodernism attacks Western culture.  Some complaints have seeds of truth.  Others seem absurd, even comical, but are no laughing matter.

  • The US is not based on liberty, equality, and opportunity, but on sexism, racism, and class oppression.
  • We should not be judged by the content of our character, but affirmed based on our race or gender.
  • The West is not leading the world to freedom, but to oppression and exploitation.
  • Science does not work to make us better off.  Instead, it is elitist and sexist, and represents rape culture (full of phallic symbols, conquering and penetrating nature).  It privileges the speed of light over other speeds.
Totalitarian Power

Postmodernism’s Marxist assault on the modern West has been ongoing for decades.  Postmodernism pervades education and the humanities.  It claims no reason, no truth, no morality.  It is unprincipled, uncompromising, and promotes unthinking hate and division.  Postmodernism seeks one thing: totalitarian power.

Commentary

Postmodernism underlies Prof. Vervaeke’s zombie apocalypse metaphor.  Zombie mythology resonates with us, he says, because it expresses a collective unconscious idea that something has gone very wrong.  Zombies have lost thought and meaning, identity and community.  They wander aimlessly, attacking and destroying meaning.  This zombie apocalypse looks quite postmodern.

Postmodernism is also central to Ted Kaczynski’s Unabomber Manifesto.  Kaczynski attacked Industrial Society as a threat to man and nature.  He more harshly attacked postmodern Leftism.  They oppose science and technology only until they gain power, he warned.  Then, these become tools for totalitarianism.  Otherwise, postmodernism resembles Kaczynski’s strategy for toppling Industrial Society.

Next

How did this come about?  Next: Part 2, Objectivity is Dead

The Unabomber Manifesto, Part 7: Revolution and Leftism

Industrial Society and its Future, Cont’d

The following continues a condensed summary of the Unabomber Manifesto: Industrial Society and its Future.  The ideas, below, are Kaczynski’s.  The headings and numbers are his.   This is no endorsement of violence or anarchy. The document is presented in parts.  Previous parts include:

Strategy
  1. Technology is recklessly driving us into the unknown. Many understand this, but think it’s inevitable.  It can be stopped, says Kaczynski.
  2. Our two tasks, he says, are to heighten social stress and to propagate an ideology opposed to industrial society.  This will further destabilize a distressed system, he argues, making revolution possible.  This follows the same pattern as the French and Russian Revolutions, he says.
  3. The French and Russian Revolutions failed at their utopian goals, but succeeded at destroying the old societies.  The idea of creating an ideal society, Kaczynski says, is an illusion.
  4. Human psychology requires that our ideology have a positive goal, Kaczynski says.  Our goal, he proposes, should be Nature – Earth and mankind in its natural state, free from organized society.  Opposing technology (a negative goal) is less motivating.
  5. Nature is the opposite of technology.  Nature is beautiful.  It requires no utopian ideal.  We came from it.  We can coexist with it.  Industrial society attacks nature.  If industrial society fails, nature’s scars can heal.  Then, we will live with nature and close to nature.
  6. We will suffer negative consequences, but everything comes at a price, says Kaczynski.
  7. We must develop ideology on two levels, he says, because most people hate psychological conflict.
  8. Ideology should have one level that is rational, intelligent, and thoughtful.  This attracts an influential, capable, and intelligent core of people who fully understand the ambiguities and the costs.  We must be truthful.  Deception will undermine and destroy the ideology.
  9. Ideology should have a second level that is simpler.  This attracts the majority who see things in unambiguous terms.  We must be careful of irrational, incendiary language because mob tactics might alienate the rational core.  Mob tactics, he says, help only when the end is near.
  10. History is made by active, determined minorities, not the majority.  Revolutionaries win with a small, deeply committed core, not shallow majority support.  Revolutionaries shouldn’t ignore the majority.  They shouldn’t seek majority support at the expense of the seriously committed core.
  11. The general strategy should avoid blaming the public.  The strategy should blame the powerful elite (oppressor).  The public are victims (oppressed).
  12. The general strategy should target the powerful elite (oppressor).  Other social conflicts distract from the main conflict (powerful versus weak, technology versus nature).  Other conflicts (ethnic, ideological, regional) undermine the main conflict.  The system only responds with more technology.
  13. Ethnic conflicts are unimportant, Kaczynski argues.  Minorities may be disadvantaged, he says, but the real enemy is the industrial-technological system.
  14. This revolution focuses on technology and economics, not politics, he says.  This is not necessarily violence or an armed uprising.
  15. The goal is not political power.  Political power is self-defeating.  The majority of voters would force elected officials to betray the cause or be voted out of office.  This revolution must come from outside.
  16. This revolution must be international, worldwide, and simultaneous.  An attempt to overthrow the system may end in dictatorship.  That risk is worth taking, Kaczynski argues.  Dictator-controlled systems are prone to break down.
  17. One strategy, he says, is to support international trade agreements that bind the world economy in interdependence.  This makes the world economy more susceptible to breakdown.  The breakdown of one industrialized nation may spread contagion that destroys others.
  18. Our problem is not that modern man enjoys too much power and control over nature.  The problem is that industrial society is too powerful and controlling.  Our personal power is slight.
  19. The collective power of industrial society is the problem.  The collective power of primitive society was negligible .
  20. Our goal isn’t to make modern man powerless, argues Kaczynski, we must break the power of the industrial system and return power to individuals and small groups.
  21. Our only goal, he argues, is to destroy the industrial system. Other goals are costly and dangerous distractions.  They tempt us to use technology and fall back into the technological trap.
  22. “Social justice” only reinforces the system.  To achieve its goals, it depends upon the technological system.
  23. Revolution is hopeless without some modern technology. It should be used only to attack the technological system, he says, because technology is too tempting.
  24. The human race is tempted by technology like an alcoholic is tempted by a barrel of wine.
  25. Revolutionaries should have many children, he suggests.  Science indicates that social attitudes are partly inherited.  Social attitudes tend to correlate with personality traits.  Personality traits are partly inherited.  In addition, children tend to share their parents’ social attitudes.
  26. Unfortunately, revolutionaries are less likely to have children because they are more concerned about population.  This works against them.
  27. Our single overriding goal must be to eliminate modern technology, says Kaczynski, with no competing goals.  Revolutionaries must be empirical, he says, find what works, and do only that.
Two Kinds of Technology
  1. It can’t be argued that the proposed revolution is bound to fail based on the claim that technology has never regressed.
  2. Technology has regressed in the past.  There are two kinds of technology.  Small-scale technology can be used independently by small communities.  Organization-dependent technology depends upon larger social organization.  Small-scale technology has never significantly regressed.  Organization-dependent technology has regressed, when social organization broke down.  When the Roman Empire fell, small-scale technology survived (e.g., water wheels).  Organization-dependent technology regressed (aqueducts, road construction, urban sanitation).
  3. Technology seems to have never regressed because most pre-industrial technology was small-scale.  Today, most technology is organization-dependent.  Simple items like refrigerators depend on large scale industrial organization: factories, power generation, power transmission, parts and service that depend on more industrial organization.
  4. Organization-dependent technology regresses when social organization breaks down.  Once lost, industrial society might take centuries to rebuild.
  5. Industrial society might not rebuild, at all.  Maybe it only develops under special conditions.  It developed rapidly only in Europe, not other civilizations (Islam, India, Asia).  Historians speculate why.
  6. Might industrial society be reborn?  Maybe, Kaczynski concludes, but it is not our worry.
The Danger of Leftism
  1. Leftists transform non-leftist movements into leftist movements.  Movements attract leftists because leftists need to rebel or identify with mass movements.  Large numbers of leftists, then, replace the original goals with leftist goals.
  2. A movement that exalts nature and opposes technology must oppose leftism.  It must not collaborate with leftists.  Leftism seeks only power – to control industrial society in the name of the collective.  It is the enemy of human freedom and nature.
  3. The anarchist seeks power, also – only for individuals and small groups to control their own lives.  The anarchist opposes technology because it forces dependence on large organizations.
  4. History shows that leftists might oppose technology, only until they gain power.  Once in control, they’d use technology for oppression.  The Bolsheviks opposed censorship and secret police, until they gained power.  Once in control, they imposed tighter censorship and more ruthless secret police.  University leftists supported academic freedom, until they gained power.  Once in control, they stifled others’ academic freedom.
  5. History shows that non-leftist revolutionaries are fools if they collaborate with leftists.  History shows that leftists betray their collaborators, and seize power.  Robespierre, the Bolsheviks, Spanish communists, and Castro all betrayed their revolutionary compatriots.
  6. Leftism is a kind of secular religion.  It is empty of spirituality, but is irrational and based on faith, not reason or facts.  It seeks to impose a morality on others.  It meets a deep human need for religion.  Leftism, refers to a spectrum of beliefs, aligned with the old left – feminism, gay rights, political correctness, etc.
  7. Leftism is totalitarian.  When leftists gain power, they forcibly invade every corner of life and seek to mold every thought.  In the leftist religion, all else is sin.  More importantly, they have a never ending drive for power, that is insatiable.  When they meet one goal, they must move on to another cause, and so on.
  8. Leftism is not motivated by distress at society’s ills.  It is motivated by the drive for power, to impose their solutions on society.
  9. For the oversocialized left, the struggle to impose their morality on everyone is their only means to pursue power.
  10. Oversocialized leftists are True Believers, single-mindedly devoted to their cause.  True Believers may be necessary for revolution, but also threaten to undermine it, if also committed to other ideals.
  11. This generally describes leftist movements.  This may not describe particular individuals or even a majority of leftists, who might be more tolerant or less totalitarian.
  12. Power hungry leftists rise to power in leftist movements.  They strive hardest for power because they are power hungry.  They hold onto power because the faithful don’t oppose them.  They crush any opposition because they are ruthless and organized.
  13. This is the historical pattern.  Western leftists excused the evils of the Soviet Union and communist countries.  They blamed the West, and excused communist aggression.  They excused the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but blamed the US in Vietnam.  Their leftist faith stopped them from opposing communist evil.  In universities today, they excuse suppression of academic freedom.
  14. Leftism has totalitarian tendencies, however mild and tolerant individuals might be.
  15. Still, the word “leftist” remains poorly defined.  There is a whole spectrum of activist movements.  Some are leftist, some partly so.  We must use our own judgment.
  16. We can list some criteria to identify leftism.  It isn’t clear cut.
  17. Leftists favor collectivism.  They emphasize our duty to serve society, and society’s duty to care for us. They frown on individualism.  They moralize.  They support gun control, sex education, social planning,  affirmative action, and multiculturalism.  They identify with victims.  They oppose competition and violence (but excuse leftist violence).  They spout phrases, like “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” “capitalism,” “imperialism,” “neocolonialism,” “genocide,” “social change,” “social justice,” “social responsibility.”  They support feminism, gay rights, ethnic rights, disability rights, animal rights, political correctness.  Strong support of all of this is almost certainly leftist.
  18. Power-hungry leftists are often arrogant and dogmatic.  The most dangerous are passive-aggressive “crypto-leftists”.  They mask their leftism and quietly work to promote collectivist values in education and to foster dependency.  Crypto-leftists don’t seem radical, but are highly motivated True Believers, driven by deep psychological needs.
Final Note
  1. These arguments are a crude approximation of the truth.  Many are imprecise and qualified.  Some may be wrong.  We can only generalize, based on imperfect information and intuition.
  2. These general outlines seem roughly correct.  Perhaps, leftism is not peculiar to modern times nor the result of power process disruption.  The oversocialized and power driven have long imposed their morality on others.  Their motivation still seems to be feelings of inferiority, low self-esteem, and powerlessness.  Modern leftism seems peculiar in its low self-esteem and identification with victims.  This is different from early Christian and early leftist sympathy for victims.  The truth of that question is left to historians.