Scott and postmodernism
A few days ago, Scott offered a sort of layperson’s guide to postmodernism, Postmodernism For Rationalists (my attempt). I thought it was a good write-up, but enough didn’t that Scott felt compelled to write a follow-up essay to defend himself.
Part of the problem is that Scott is trying to make concrete something that is frustratingly, if not intentionally, vague. There is a lot of subtlety and nuance (such as the differences between a physicalist, a realist, a materialist, and a positivist) and it involves reading a lot of texts about stuff that has scant applicability to everyday life or practical use; this goes for all philosophy, not just postmodernism. Because most people have neither the time nor the inclination to read volumes of work, it’s helpful to have people try to summarize some of the major themes. But a lot is lost in the translation, and one can argue that many of these summaries, often taken from YouTube videos and Wikipedia articles, at best demonstrate a superficial understanding and at worst betray any sort of intellectual integrity.
The always cynical bad philosophy folks linked to it. I know I can be arrogant sometimes but these people take it to another level. I don’t understand where the animosity lies, since we (as rationalists) should find some ‘shared narrative’ overlap with the bad philosophy folks. Yeah, Scott’s post is not a PHD dissertation (but I don’t see you guys writing dissertation-level quality either), but that was not the purpose; rather it is to cover basic postmodernism concepts to a broad audience. We hate sensationalism and ‘badness’ just as much as you guys do. Like yourself, we think that majoritarianism–whether it’s politics, the mainstream media, or public schools–tends to pander to the lower common denominator, perpetuate reductionist good vs. evil narratives at the cost of deeper understanding, and neglects individual differences. For example, many public schools lump talented students with the less intelligent in order to promote ‘equality’. The whole idea behind shared narratives and intellectualism culture is that smart people of varying ideological orientations, or even diametrically opposed views, can forge some sort of common ground and mutual respect through dialogue and reason.
One of these people writes:
I don’t know the context of Rorty’s statement but I’d warn, just in general, to not read too much into left/right references to interpretations of philosophers as political. Maybe there’s some sense between conservative versus liberal interpretations but that’s quite different than political position, i.e. right/left Hegelians, right/left Sellarsians.
We (as rationalists, reactionaries, etc.) also agree with you. The point of Scott’s post was to try to disentangle postmodernism from the baggage and invidiousness associated with partisan politics.
He also says, “Being wrong is, indeed, a costly investment without benefit.” Well, that’s why there is a site called Less Wrong.
The mistake people make with postmodernism is using it as sort of blanket term when simpler, more specific terminology exists.
Individual ethical (consequentialism, deontology, existentialism, etc.) and value (internal vs. external) systems, as well as epistemology (rationalism vs empiricism) and ontology (such as creationism vs. evolution), are probably more telling and specific to the individual than broad, far-reaching philosophies such as postmodernism. Someone who rejects positivism and scientism probably would be more of an idealist than a materialist and a theist rather than an atheist. That is a common theme of Dr. Peterson’s lectures, by focusing less on epistemology and ontology and more on ethics, personality/psychoanalysis, and values. But when he talks about postmodernism, things become more tedious due to the inherent difficulty of defining it, and also the politicization of the term.
Here are some simple scenarios can be mapped to an underlying ethical framework.
For example, consequentialism and moral nihilism:
“The 10 Commandments says ‘thou shalt not steal,’ but Walmart makes enough money as it is, no one will notice if I take something, and evil capitalistic society is keeping me down”
“In order to ‘become who I am’ I need to rob this bank.” Liberty, in the existentialist sense, means to ‘fulfill one’s personhood’, whatever or however that means. “The existential philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) said that authenticity is choosing the nature of one’s existence and identity.” [The Limits of Authenticity]
“If I kill this person, who is so unlikable that no one will care, and steal their money I can make my own life and those around me better.” Premise of Crime and Punishment (ends justifying the means)
But Kantian imperatives can also be used to justify evil:
“I was just following orders”
“The Koran says to kill the infidels”
“The Manifesto says landowners/capitalists should be killed to bring about revolution”
Again with the broader theme of philosophy not being pigeonholed to to left-right politics, these these are applicable to booth sides; for the ‘right’, it’s ‘religious extremism’ (ISIS, Wahhabi Islam, Oklahoma City bombing, 911, etc.); for the ‘left’, it’s destruction of private property, crime, and spree killings.
Saying that postmodernists (assuming they even exist, as many 60’s French philosophers seem to reject the term) reject facts or ‘objective reality’ is sort of a straw-man. No one denies facts and some universals (such as 1+1=2 (in a strictly axiomatic sense)) or that the sun is bigger than all the other planets. Rather, some hold many facts are being equal or correct depending on the individual’s frame of reference (subjectivity), related to moral and ontological relativism. So regarding the astronomer/scientist’s ‘reference frame’, the sun is bigger, but someone could rationalize a frame where it isn’t, yet acknowledge the validity or existence of both. A creationist may be fully aware of the scientist’s argument for evolution and fully understand it, but still believe creationism is the correct ‘frame’ that fills the gaps of the scientist’s understanding. A person who visually looks disabled, isn’t disabled if he believes/rationalizes he isn’t. As shown here, the left are as guilty as right-wing creationists in rejecting a purely materialistic worldview. In the doctor’s frame, the person is disabled, because the scientific tests show so. But most people, liberals and conservatives alike, rationalize things that may not be empirically so, not just ‘postmodernists’.
From Everyone is a Realist:
Everyone believes they are ‘correct‘–some base this correctness with a bias towards science and materialism; others, religion and the metaphysical. In that sense, because everyone believes their beliefs are grounded in ‘reality’ and ‘data’ that is independent of the mind, everyone is a realist and a positivist; no one conceives an idea that they knowingly believe to be wrong , nor to people conceive ideas in a sensory and information vacuum: there is always some admixture of the empirical and rational, of the idealistic and the materialistic.
After mulling over it awhile, it occurred to me that it’s not that postmodernism denies truths or facts, but rather that a ‘terminal’ knowledge that explains everything once and for all can ever be obtained. An atheist may say the answer is in ‘science and reason’; a theist may say it’s in god and scriptures; the postmodernist may say it’s impossible to know for sure; what constitutes priori and posteriori knowledge are just approximations, which goes back to Kant and the impossibly of ever knowing the thing in itself. This is related to nominalism and idealism, and I think postmodernism is more sympathetic to the religious argument than the scientific one, which is why one should not be so quick to lump postmodernism with liberalism. But interestingly, it’s also sympathetic to theoretical physics and abstract math, where there is also a large degree of unknowingness and how each problem leads to new ones, without there ever being a resolution. But it’s critical of reductionist theories of science and economics. IMHO, I think it’s good to be somewhat skeptical of the predictive and explanatory powers of science, but such skpeticism can be overdone. As a basic example, if I say “I know how the stock market and economy works,” this flies in the face of postmodernism. I think this explains the post-2013 decline of new atheism, which faltered not because of increased religiosity, but because people are becoming more tolerant of religion, seeing how science cannot answer everything and how the ‘evangelists’ of new atheism have turned science into just another form of dogma. Postmodernism is not anti-science, anti-facts, or anti-religion–rather it denies those are the pathways to ‘truth’.
In his famous debate with Sam Harris, Dr. Peterson sorta came across as a postmodernist, with his wish-washy pragmatist definition of truth, compared to the hard-line materialism of Sam Harris. Dr. Peterson insisted that biblical stories are ‘truth’ because they are practical guides to living.
Topic: What is True?
“Events as they factually occurred are true.”
“Events as they occurred are only factual but both necessarily true. True is a judgment call and is therefor open to interpretation. The claim of ‘somethings’ validity can only be made when one can see ‘the bigger picture’ — the wellbeing of humanity (or ‘life’) itself. Only then can we know if something is true rather than just factual or ‘materialistically true’.”
“That definition of ‘true’ is needlessly complicated. ‘Factual representation of events’ and something being ‘true’ are objectively identical. ‘Right’ or ‘just’ are more fitting words for Petersons’ definition of true. If we can’t tell what’s true unless we determine wether it is objectively beneficial to our species we smother debate by making arguments needlessly complicated and inflated. This in turn will paralyze progress and movement in any direction.”
“But it is exactly this complexity which is required to take the conversation to the next level — without trying to understand this complexity we end up going in circles, treading on existing ideas and agreeing only at a superficial level about the concepts of good and evil.”
Rick Roderick likens deconstruction to housework, meaning that the work is never done, unlike an architect who builds a home and can walk away because his work is finished. Sam Harris and Dawkins are analogous to architects of ‘houses of science of reason’. Of course, the counterargument is that science is changing and is hardly immutable or terminal. New theories replace old ones. It’s like that Louis CK bit where his daughter keeps asking ‘why’, but this is applicable to rationalists and critical theorists as well. They are never content with believing that ‘this is how things are’ or ‘this is how it is or should be,’ but rather are always skeptical and questioning, such as finding the possible ulterior motives behind such declarative statements or finding the possible holes or counterexamples. It does not reject science but such incredulousness can sometimes lead to arguments going in circles. The reason why science makes progress is because at some point everyone suspends disbelief and ignores the loose ends and moves to the next step. This is not unique to postmodernism, but is characteristic of idealism and rationalism in general, in rejecting the manifestly obvious world of materialism and empiricism where something is ‘true’ merely because it appears so prima facie.
Postmodernists, like the critical theorists, tend to reject historical materialism and other deterministic narratives. The distinction is that postmodernists acquire understanding through deconstruction, whereas critical theorists see knowledge as constructive. The critical critical theorist and postmodernist, although similar ideologically, the former does not believe in subjectivity of knowledge. From Critical Theory and Constructivism:
In their embrace of a normative perspective, Critical theorists make no claims that their analyses are “objective” in the sense usually meant by logical positivists. In fact, critical theorists argue that the subjective/objective dualism masks the ways in which both positions are limited by the social forces that inform all human action and analysis. Critical qualitative research acknowledges subjectivism in the sense that learnings and interpretations cannot be based on logic and scientific analysis only. While it affirms that knowledge can never be separated completely from the researcher’s own experience, it rejects the notion that all analyses are relative. It asserts that rational analysis is fundamental to human emancipation, and hence embraces what Morrow (1994) calls critical realism
Postmodernism is also individualistic (although not in the Randian/objectivist sense). The experience of the individual cannot be generalized to the whole. GDP and other economic metrics ignore the perspectives and experiences unique to each individual, by using science to map the totality of human existence to a single number. Again, postmodernism doesn’t deny science such as biology or that men and women physically appear different, but that normative ethics can be derived from science (is-ought problem), that science can solve social problems, that science leads to ‘truth’, or that biological differences reflect differences in intrinsic individual worth or value.
A common mistake is equating deconstruction with modern, far-left liberalism. Nietzsche alludes to it (although he doesn’t call it that). It’s a way of understanding the reasoning and motives behind a text, than taking it literally or at face value. Pretty much every student who has ever written a book report (at the college level at least) has engaged in deconstruction in one form or another. For example, in Scott’s second post, he begins with the sentence “SSC’s review of postmodernism got very mixed reviews.” It’s YOUR review. You wrote it. But saying ‘SSC’s’ instead of ‘my’, one can read between the lines that maybe he doesn’t feel proud of his work and is trying to personally distance himself from it. Straussian reading, attributed to the 20th century philosopher Leo Strauss, is another form of deconstruction, in which a text has two messages: one intended for an average reader and a second for a select few that reflects the author’s actual intent and beliefs, and the reader tries to decipher the author’s intentional message. This is done to possibly evade censorship. Derrida and other philosophers also reject the straw-man notion that deconstruction implies all interpretations/readings are equal…it’s often mistakenly assumed that the disbelief in universal truths also precludes all forms of objectivity.
Postmodernism is related to existential nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless and that individuals have no power to change the course of the universe. However, the latter runs afoul of postmodernism’s rejection of historical determinism, and a grand narrative would seem to imply humans have little or no free will. One possibility is that human life has no intrinsic purpose or value, that humans are subjected to deterministic forces (economic, societal, religious, historical, etc.) or currents outside of their control, but that humans are endowed with some free will (within certain constraints) in order to maximize’s one’s own ‘personhood’ (alluding to authenticity and existentialism, and shows hows how nihilism and existentialism can be linked). Second, that not all postmodern philosophy rejects grand narratives, but rather reject that humans at the individual level are powerless against them or should submit to them. Or, third, that by ‘rejecting narratives’ (such as Whig History and The Enlightenment), one rejects that such narratives are ‘good’, not their very existence. The term “late capitalism,” used by neo-Marxists to refer to capitalism from about 1945 onwards, which describes a perversion of capitalism that favors multinationals and consumerism, could technically be considered a narrative. Such currents, I suppose, can be benevolent, but they are often framed as malevolent or dystopian. This can be used to justify moral nihilism, or even criminality, because if life is meaningless and human action is powerless to change the course of the universe from these currents, and if there are no delineated/preferred morals, ethics, or values beyond the purview of one’s immediate and close surroundings–anything is justified. Criminality, hedonism, and debauchery can be justified in the name of fighting or emancipating oneself from such currents. Determinism means individuals cannot be held accountable for their actions by any sort authority or higher power (such as God). However, some Christians and Muslims may use such rationale, such as the promise of salvation or the inevitability of rapture (millenarianism), to justify behavior that many would deem morally reprehensible, or that morals are irrelevant if such salvation and or rapture is predetermined. This is a dangerous worldview. Like before, existentialism is not just a concept for left-wing radicals; for example, the US Army’s slogan “Be All You Can Be” alludes to existentialism, and the passage below pertaining to Gilles Deleuze is relevant:
Deleuze claims that standards of value are internal or immanent: to live well is to fully express one’s power, to go to the limits of one’s potential, rather than to judge what exists by non-empirical, transcendent standards. Modern society still suppresses difference and alienates persons from what they can do. To affirm reality, which is a flux of change and difference, we must overturn established identities and so become all that we can become—though we cannot know what that is in advance. The pinnacle of Deleuzean practice, then, is creativity. “Herein, perhaps, lies the secret: to bring into existence and not to judge. If it is so disgusting to judge, it is not because everything is of equal value, but on the contrary because what has value can be made or distinguished only by defying judgment. What expert judgment, in art, could ever bear on the work to come?”
However, few people self-identify as ‘postmodernists’ or ‘critical theorists’ in the strict physiological sense, but rather are left-liberals, mainstream liberals, or left-of center-liberals. The late Richard Rorty in a book discusses how the ‘left’ abandoned the ‘working class’, and is an example of how the abstractions of philosophy can be reduced to common issues, or how philosophy is secondary to policy in the pragmatic sense. Same for Foucault and Gramsci and comments on American power and hegemony, which is fundamentally a far-left position echoed by Chomsky. And then there is the ‘horseshoe’ that unites the far-left and far-right against certain aspects of Enlightenment and modernity, but this not necessarily postmodernism. The point is, we should stop even using labels such as ‘postmodernist’ to describe anyone, especially regarding politics, because: the term is too vague to be of much use and more specific and useful terminology exists (such as moral relativism, idealism, rationalism, or nominalism, or just ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, or ‘centrist’); and second, if the term is meant to refer exclusively to left-wing ideological, ontological, epistemological, and ethical beliefs, this fails as shown by how elements of postmodernism can also characterize the ‘right’, too (such as Dr. Peterson’s vague definition of ‘truth’).
Related resource: Approaches to Po-Mo, by Martin Irvine