Coming events

I’ve got quite a few events coming up in the next ten days. I’ll be in Adelaide for the Writers Week (program here), appearing at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, King William Road on Wednesday 4 March at 2pm in conversation with Jane Goodall, on the theme the Common Good. I’ll be signing copies of Economics in Two Lessons.

I’ve fitted in two earlier events on Tuesday 3 March. At 12 noon, I’ll be talking about the economic cost of the bushfire disaster, at the University of Adelaide (Level 6, Faculty of the Professions Building, Pulteney Street). Then at 5:30, I’ll be talking about Economics in Two Lessons to the Economics Society of Australia, Marjoribanks 126 SANTOS Lecture Theatre, Level 1, Nexus Building 10 Pulteney Street, Adelaide, SA 5000

On Monday 9 March, I’ll be back in Brisbane at the Customs House for the launch of The Brisbane Dialogues, an attempt to promote civil discussion across political divides. I’ll be debating North American philosopher Stephen Hicks on the topic (suggested by me) “Postmodernism is a rightwing philosophy”. As long-time readers will recall I was making this point long before Kellyanne Conway brought it to wider attention with the idea of “alternative facts“.

26 thoughts on “Coming events

  1. To the extent that postmodernism is a nihilistic worldview or polemical style (I hesitate to call it a philosophy), doesn’t it blow up the ancient and useful left-right distinction along with everything else?

  2. I can promise you that in the late 80s, when I was a lad at Sydney University, postmodernism was the darling of the left. Those crusty old academics who did not embrace it were labelled reactionary

  3. @Andrew, I was lad well before the 1980s, and your memory is correct (at least as regards the Arts Faculty). But as the linked posts point out, the rejection of postmodernism by the left and its embrace by the right took place in the 1990s, starting with climate change and the attempt to promote “creation science”. And, going back before the 1980s, the forerunners of postmodernism were all on the right, starting with Nietzsche and including actual Nazis like Heidegger, de Man and (slightly more distantly related) Schmitt. French left intellectuals embraced these ideas in the wake of the collapse of Marxism, and this made its way to sections of academia (notably English lit and “Continental”philosophy) that regarded themselves as leftwing, though their role in actual politics was negligible. Then these ideas became appealing to science deniers on the right, and by 2017 you have Kellyanne Conway and “alternative facts:.

    By contrast, postmodernism had no discernible impact on leftwing academics in economics, such as the Sydney Political Economy Group (or on me, and people who I talked to) and I think the same is largely true of politics and social science.

  4. You have to carefully define your postmodernism to say that though, Prof Q.

    I suggest that it’s in the rejection of a single reality, and almost only that one thing, that the far right have accepted postmodernism. On almost every other front, and even on the topic of sacred facts, they continue to reject the whole “shades of grey” basis of postmodernism. But the sacred facts are so important that I don’t think you could even say they’re doing more than slapping a layer of postmodernism onto the existing rigid structure. IMO it’s more like the “only joking” defense – they started out saying “but you don’t believe in the idea of authoritative truth, so you can’t reject what I’ve said on the basis that it’s not true. It’s not *your* truth, but it is mine”… hahaha, polemical judo! I win!! Over time that has evolved into “I lie, get over it”.

  5. If dualism had just been invented as a metaphysical stance it would be recognized and derided as a post-modernist position. Think about the dualist position for a moment. “As well as the detectable material there is the undetectable immaterial. We can’t detect it but it’s there just the same. We believe it’s there, therefore it is there. The immaterial (mind, spirit) can affect the material via conscious free will (mind over body). We can’t say how the immaterial impels the material but it just does, okay!”

    This is as opposed to the Occam’s razor of monism (especially priority monism) which position is fully supported by all that science has discovered to date. The simplest a priori assumption and the one most consistent with science is that there is just one detectable overall system (the cosmos) and all phenomena interact within that system. The successful relational theories of physics and the other hard sciences give support to the idea that relational theory ought to be extended into metaphysics: a “near-empirical” metaphysics that is across and just beyond the known and thence able to generate more testable hypotheses in the spirit of Pierce.

    “The best that can be done is to supply a hypothesis, not devoid of all likelihood, in the general line of growth of scientific ideas, and capable of being verified or refuted by future observers.” – C. S. Peirce.

    Priority monism as a unification of ontology fits that bill. Of course, the West is late to a serious consideration of monism. The East has long held important monist philosophical traditions.

    “Neither existence monism nor priority monism is accorded much respect in contemporary (Western) metaphysics, nor are they always properly distinguished. Indeed, the tradition associated with these doctrines has long been dismissed as being somewhere between obscure and ridiculous. But there are serious arguments for monism. Priority monism may especially deserve serious reconsideration, of a kind that it is only now beginning to receive.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Revised 2014.)

  6. “I’ll be talking about Economics in Two Lessons … SANTOS Lecture Theatre”

    Since you will be speaking in the Santos theatre, I hope you’ll have lots of examples taken from the fossil fuel industry.

  7. Iko: The dispute between dualists and monists is an argument between fuddy-duddies like us who agree that facts and logic provide independent benchmarks for thinking. What has it got to do with relativist postmodernism?

  8. @Moz All true, but also true to a significant extent of left postmodernists. For example, I read somewhere that Feyerabend’s “anything goes” philosophy of science did not arise from fundamental thinking about epistemology, but was motivated by a desire to defend alternative medicine. And a lot of the popularity of postmodernism in literature departments was motivated by a kind of identity politics, seeking to take the scientists down a peg or two.

  9. James Wimberley,

    I guess only in the sense that I meant neither “pre-truthism” nor “post-truthism” provide any pragmatic or objective guidance (guidance informed by empirical feedback). To assert an absolute truth without empirical foundation and to assert no truths are two kinds of false compasses. Neither absolutism nor absolute relativism provide dependable guidance. The oxymoron “absolute relativism” is intentional. This is the precise criticism which in my view shatters strong form post-modernism. Many things and processes in relational systems are relative but the relativities are still law-bound. That is to say relativities do not exist without complex, ordered relations. Otherwise, instead of interacting complex systems with time-persistent yet time-mutable structures there would be complete chaos.

  10. To some extent. But at the same time, postmodernism works as a way to cope with the weirdness of quantum mechanics and relativity, things that drove a lot of pre-atomic physicists slightly nuts. Einstein’s “god does not play dice” quote arose from that frustration, and that knowledge in some ways drove postmodernist philosophy (or at least the two developments followed each other very neatly in time). Heisenberg is in a sense a postmodern physicist (the notorious uncertainty principle, which is often used outside of physics to justify all sorts of woo).

    The gap between second and third wave feminists echos this split – rather than there being one sort of feminist (the wealthy white ones) now there are a whole forest of different physical variations as well as philosophical variations and they are all valid. This was also an extension of the “white male view of history” critique back into feminism, but it’s led to a very broad conception of what feminism is.

    Part of what I seen in postmodernism is an acknowledgement of the flaw of averages. The more independent axes you categorise something on the less likely you are to be able to find a representative/average example. Which means you also don’t have a universal viewpoint or a privileged frame of reference (in the physics/relativity sense, as well as the dismissive right wing sense).

    A big chunk of right wing effort goes into rejecting that sort of postmodernism in favour of asserting that there is one truth, that a particular class of people possess that truth, and it follows that anyone asserting otherwise or denying that truth is wrong. The parallels with monotheism are obvious…

  11. If postmodernists say there is no one truth, and we take them at their word, why should we believe them?

  12. The claim that there is not one truth is a negative claim and as such not easy to disprove.

    The other thing is that the statement has been proved to a high level, for example Heisenberg above. There’s not a lot of philosophy with mathematical proofs.

    More generally, the shades of grey argument against dichotomies is almost universally true of humans, whether that be blunt things like height or fuzzy things like sexuality, let alone complex things like “which political system is best” . Counterpoints from the right about nonsensical ideas like “pure aryan ancestry” (or perhaps slightly less controversially “capitalism works”) typically fall apart on multiple axes under the slightest scrutiny.

    So perhaps a better question is: can you give an example of a philosophical question that provably has only a single true answer? Viz, something that is both a counter-example to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems *and* includes a statement with a single truth value? From there you could proceed to finding one that’s true of humans rather than spherical cows.

  13. I did lots of this at La trobe university around the turn of the century and loved it. At the time it was powerful and running through many faculties , there was almost nothing it did not touch .I am not sure what to add to the discussion so far except to say that 1) – postmodern theorists were clear that saying there can be many (or even infinite) personal truths does not mean that anything can be true for you if you like. There are still things that cannot be true. And 2) Postmodernists did not say there is not an absolute truth or reality , just that we cannot know if we have found it. Jacques Derrida was clear about those as he got asked about it alot, he was a very mischievous and unnecessarily complex writer though so its no wonder people needed to ask.

    Postmodernism is not a nihilistic world view but can be pretty easily used that way. I remember people didnt like it when I said it was a good fit for a shut up and shop kind of consumer society where there doesnt seem much left to believe in but your own feelings. Consumer capitalism is good at incorporating threats in a palatable way. Most of common everyday feminism is just about the right to maximise consumption ,the hippy movement became the right to consume what you like, and rock and roll music became a mega industry.

    Logic is part of philosophy (since the ancient Greeks at least ) and mathematics is merely a subset of logic. ——– I felt like I needed to try and score a point for philosophy !

  14. “mathematics is merely a subset of logic”

    This is false and has been known to be false since Bertrand Russell’s letter to Gottlob Frege in 1902.

  15. “You have to carefully define your postmodernism to say that though, Prof Q.”

    Carefully defining postmodernism would be a very welcome change from the almost universal practice of using it as a boo word for whatever one’s dislike du jour happens to be.

  16. Smith9 – I am a bit rusty on this and arent going to research it now but i think the argument goes that you need very, very little to define the axioms from which all maths can be derived . Pertty basic logic which has been with us for a very long time is bigger than that.

  17. in my experience, postmodernists adopted a “Two-step of terrific triviality” aka “motte and bailey” strategy in relation to absolute truth; talking as if there was no such thing as truth and (to quote Feyerabend) “anything goes”, until they were challenged, then retreating to something trivial like “not saying there is not an absolute truth or reality , just that we cannot know if we have found it. ” That’s why “carefully definining postmodernism” is such a problem.

  18. It might be helpful to distinguish post modernism from post structuralism. Post structuralism being the narrow technical basis on which postmodernism relies. Post structuralism concerns semiotics ,linguistics , philosophy of language , etc . Language (very very broadly defined – everything ?) as signs, sign systems and the limits thereof. Derrida famously said ‘there is nothing outside the text’ .Post modernism is the massive cultural movement flowing from that .Embracing uncertainty – traditionally something leftists like but rightists dont , in practice that can be a disadvantage for the left. I think much of the discussion on this thread is post structural. Its good to be testing my memory .

    (JQ above – that doesnt seem like a trivial statement to me )

  19. “‘there is nothing outside the text” This illustrates my problem. An obvious reading is that there is no objective reality to which the text refers, which is backed up by the frequent use of words like intertextuality, suggesting that texts refer only to other texts. That’s a statement that is strong, interesting and wrong. Go online and you discover lots of Derrida fans saying that it’s a hostile mistranslation, and that the correct translation is “there is no outside-text”, which is not very helpful since “outside-text” is not an English word, and hors-texte isn’t a French word AFAICT (one source says it’s “an unnumbered page in a printed book”, but that makes the statement silly. Then you get back to something uncontroversial like “we should embrace/accept uncertainty”.

  20. I take that to be Derrida being provocative to make a point (it worked), not a mistranslation. He wrote 100’s of thousands of words. The analysis of signs is rigorous .

    If you accept the theory about the limitations of sign systems (knowledge , intuition ,feelings ,language ,sensory information , whatever) ,then politically the highest priority becomes including everyones position in negotiations. So leftists tend to value the process above the outcome. Rightists normally just think they are correct and others are wrong so they value the outcome more than the process and are prepared to break rules to get it – that is their psychology .Practically speaking you cant act like there is no objective reality ,you cant even not act ,you just assume your sign system is a good enough guide and go on. Its not that anyone can say there is no reality ,just that the internal logic of language tells us that we are limited in what we can know about what might be outside ,or sometimes even what might be inside another language. Its a wicked problem but to many it is liberating. To me these arent trivial or uncontroversial statements ,and to rightists they are earth shattering ones. I think if anything rightists are just using a vague post modernism to get a result.

    My understanding is that Derrida wasnt saying there is no reality to which text refers ,or tries to refer, ,that would be a strong claim like saying ‘this text describes reality’ .Both claims fall outside the limits of language – we know that from within the limits of language (text if you are Derrida ,discourse if you are Foucault ,signs if you are Sassure etc) .

  21. Said the Prime Minister today

    “everybody should exercise common sense and rely on official information sources, not internet rumours and speculation.

    I can understand the anxiety out there in the community. That is why it is important to get information from the trusted official sources,”

    I couldn’t agree more, and it’s advice that could be extended to many subjects. Having breached the wall, as it were, he might go on to say that people should not believe the post modern fiction they get from Sky News, 2GB and the News Ltd newspapers.

    But he won’t.

  22. The problem is that people forget, or have never learned, that the condition of true or false is an attribute of human statements in relation to the objects of those statements.

    “That truth is the correspondence of a representation to its object is, as Kant says, merely the nominal definition of it. Truth belongs exclusively to propositions. A proposition has a subject (or set of subjects) and a predicate. The subject is a sign; the predicate is a sign; and the proposition is a sign that the predicate is a sign of that which the subject is a sign. If it be so, it is true. But what does this correspondence or reference of the sign, to its object, consist in?” – Charles Sanders Peirce.

    People seem to want to think that “Truth” for humans or truths for humans exist independently of human statements. They do not. What exists are simply existents (things and processes in themselves) which DO exist independently of humans. That last, “which DO exist independently of humans” is an a priori but it gains a strong truth warrant from empirical science and none of the major strands of the major philosophical traditions of materialism or idealism, monism or dualism, have ever tried to deny that justification, to my knowledge. Even Berkeleyean Idealism posited Absolute spirit as existing before humans spirits.

    Footnote: I am a fan of George Berkeley’s strict logical consistency once he has adopted his a priori justification. I am not a fan of his a priori justification of Absolute Spirit, lifted straight from Christian dogma as it is. The consistency of his entire monistic system would be perfect if one accepted his a priori justification.

    I find the argument between materialism and idealism vanishes as a false controversy once one adopts thorough-going monism. If all of existence operates in one system (the cosmos), then it ultimately makes no sense to call this monist system “physical” as the materialists do or “non-physical” as the idealists do. The term “physical” loses meaning when there is nothing which can be termed “non-physical” and vice versa. What remains for ordered philosophical investigation, for pragmatic scientific investigation and as a guide to practical everyday actions are the dependable laws of relation between existents within the system, meaning between system elements, or “things” and “processes”, which themselves are sub-systems of the whole system. Thus, I adopt a position of neither materialism nor idealism but simply “existentism” and its “laws of relation” where these can be reliably discovered empirically, then theorized and systematized.

  23. Moz of Yarramulla – great article re the flaw of averages…

    ‘Which means you also don’t have a universal viewpoint or a privileged frame of reference (in the physics/relativity sense, as well as the dismissive right wing sense).”

  24. I’m new to deconstruction.

    sunshine says at 7:31 pm
    …”My understanding is that Derrida wasn’t saying there is no reality to which text refers ,or tries to refer, ,that would be a strong claim like saying ‘this text describes reality’ .Both claims fall outside the limits of language – we know that from within the limits of language (text if you are Derrida ,discourse if you are Foucault ,signs if you are Sassure etc) .”

    ^1. “In the Letter to a Japanese Friend Derrida states that deconstruction is not a demolition, nor is it an analysis or a critique. It is not dismantling and destruction. In “itself” deconstruction is nothing in the sense that all attempts to predicate deconstruction are doomed to failure. That is why it needs to be understood as that which takes place “where there is something” (Derrida 1988a, p. 4). Taking into the account Derrida’s contention that “there is nothing outside the text”, deconstruction can be conceived of as textual labour in the form of a double reading. The first reading is a faitful attempt to follow the dominant interpretation of the text, its assumptions, concepts and arguments. The second reading consists in tracing its excluded, repressed and inferior interpretation that forms an undercurrent in the text.”

    Q: would a dog whistle be in the first reading or second? Or dependent on reader and context? Or media/medium and signs presented? Only those who are educated re a dog whistle vs I know that and am damn right? 

    Communication and understanding are very tricky. What seems dangerous to me is that Morrison et al do this unconciously, never doubting their centre, as in the overton window is outside now, to the right by the bbq – not near the house/ centre. 

    smith9 says: “But he won’t.” If Leigh Sales effort last night is an indication he will NEVER admit “people should not believe the post modern fiction they get from Sky News, 2GB and the News Ltd newspapers.”. His centre would disappear, entirely. And so would he.

    Sunshine; “If you accept the theory about the limitations of sign systems”…
    ^1. ” 2. To illustrate this thesis Lacan uses the famous example of toilet doors. The ladies’ and the gentlemen’s toilets in themselves are signifieds treated as an external reality. In this sense they do not differ. Two doors exactly the same lead to exactly the same rooms. The difference in meaning is only produced by the signifying element – the signs on the doors.”

    You sign stimulus -Labor, Coalition – I sign “with assurances that the rhetorical switch from last week’s key word “modest” to this week’s “measured” reflects a bigger package than previously planned.”( Crikey). As Moz of Yarramulla says “Over time that has evolved into “I lie, get over it”.

    ^1. Citation: Rasiński, L. (2011). The idea of discourse in poststructuralism: Derrida, Lacan and Foucault. Teraźniejszość – Człowiek – Edukacja, 1: A quarterly of social and educational ideas, 7O22.

    If like me, anyone reading this thread needs a lesson in “The idea of discourse in poststructuralism: Derrida, Lacan and Foucault”, read above. As Derrida says -deconstruction- but be careful with the signified (by you) word “deconstruction”. I’ll need one open minded read to to get it, another read to get what it doesn’t say, ( and then untangle what that means to me), and a long fermentation to integrate into your epistemological and ontological thinking and discourse. And still the centres – real, imagined, physical – will change. (Learned philosophers, please correct this if interpreted incorrectly please.)

    Stephe Hicks motte & bailey? ” the far-left of the political spectrum developed in reaction to the failure of socialism and communism.[2]”

    JQ, what is the opportunity cost of you debating Stephen Hicks and what is you reason please. Trying to understand labels / signs – “postmodernism” “structuralism” – seems to play to / may be used as a motte & bailey “we triggered the left”. What would the opportunity cost look like if NO signs, just a debate about causes and cures?

    Ikon said: “I find the argument between materialism and idealism vanishes as a false controversy once one adopts thorough-going monism”. I like this paragraph Ikon, but JQ, as Ikon’s para indicates, wouldn’t all this rhetoric disappear if a specific problem was chosen and no jargon / tags / signs applied – just cause > cure?

    I’ll have to think about monism Ikon.
    Thanks as always.

  25. KT2 – Personally I liked to focus on the nuts and bolts of the basic ideas about sign systems and their limitations .Where you go from there is up to you . You can forget about it or it might influence your style of thought . To me it seems a good idea to try to always at least be aware of the nature of the tools you are using. Derrida seemed to be spending alot of time trying to make Deconstruction into some kind of fortress noone can ignore or weaken, all encompassing and nothing at all simultaneously. He often sounded poetic and elusive .To me he is a good example of an academic it is better to read about than to actually read. Certainly there have since been some very playful applications of these ideas which can easily look stupid to the unsympathetic eye.

    My favorite relevant quote is from L Wittgenstein – ” meaning is language idling ” .

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