Next week, as I’ve mentioned, I’ll take part in a debate/dialogue with Stephen Hicks, a North American philosopher, who has criticised postmodernism from a right/libertarian perspective. He’s on a tour of Australia, and was invited to Brisbane by Murray Hancock who’s setting up The Brisbane Dialogue which has the ambitious objective of promoting civil discussion across political divides. I ended up being dobbed in (is this an Australianism?) to present the other side, and chose the topic “Postmodernism is a rightwing philosophy”. Longterm readers of my blogging won’t be surprised: I was making this claim as far back as 2003. Thanks to Kellyanne Conway and “alternative facts”, I’ll have plenty of material to work with.
I plan to argue that in the absence of any objective correspondence to reality, it’s the truths favored by the rich and powerful that will win out, not those of the oppressed. Trumpism is the obvious illustration of this, but rightwing postmodernism on issues like climate change and creationism long predates his rise.
Still, I have a couple of problems. First, I’m not a philosopher, so I’m working with a pretty simple interpretation of postmodernism, roughly stated as “there are multiple truths, and no one is better than another” More precisely, as I encountered it, postmodernism involved a Two-Step of Terrific Triviality, putting forward statements that encouraged the simplistic interpretation most of the time, but, when challenged, retreating to into total obscurity, or else into something more nuanced and not very interesting like “there may be an actual truth of the matter, but we can never know it for sure” . But is there a better interpretation of postmodernism, one that is both interesting and comprehensible?
My second problem is whether constructive dialogue on a topic like this will prove to be possible. I think we’ll agree at least on not liking postmodernism, and probably on some of the intellectual history. I have no idea, though, what Hicks thinks about Trump and Trumpism, or for that matter about climate change and science in general. I’ll see how it plays out.
47 thoughts on “Debating postmodernism”
He is not uncritical of Trump: https://www.stephenhicks.org/2019/12/02/trumpian-trade-wars-argentina-and-brazil-edition/ (all his other content seemed to be videos which I can’t be bothered watching)
There are a couple of interesting and overlapping topics that seem to me to be related to post-modernism – hypernormalisation, Agnotology and intersubjectivity in terms of a lack commonly accepted facts or reality.
“The word hypernormalization was coined by Alexei Yurchak, a professor of anthropology who was born in Leningrad and later went to teach in the United States. He introduced the word in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (2006), which describes paradoxes of Soviet life during the 1970s and 1980s. He says that everyone in the Soviet Union knew the system was failing, but no one could imagine an alternative to the status quo, and politicians and citizens alike were resigned to maintaining the pretense of a functioning society. Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the fakeness was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed hypernormalisation.”
A determined refusal to grapple with reality seems to be core to our current political debate.
It’s also interesting to remember this from (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2007/01/dick-cheney-vs-reality/):
Ignoring reality has long been the hallmark of an administration that believes it can manufacture its own. As a Bush aide once boasted to Ron Suskind: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
I am no philosopher either, but I thought post-modernism’s main claim is that in practice “accepted truths” are really power plays, not that there are no truths at all. So in fact, per your thesis, accepted truths are those that serve the interests of the powerful.
Climate change is interesting. A post-modernist might argue that the priority given to addressing climate change over other developmental goals are harmful to the interest of low-income countries. It doesn’t have to be this way if wealthy countries commit to providing financial help for low income countries to develop in a sustainable manner. But in practice, rich countries do far too little on financial assistance.
I always liked Jean-Francois Lyotard’s take (who I think was the first to define the term in the philosophical sense, rather than in regards to art/design/architecture etc.) in “The Postmodern Condition” (1979): roughly, that post-modernism is skepticism towards ‘grand narratives’ (‘meta-narratives’ is another term that gets thrown around).
By ‘grand narratives’ he is referring to the explicit (and implicit) normative claims made by totalising ‘modern’ political/economic/social theories, such as Marxism or liberalism for example, in the service of supporting a particular ontological view of how the world ‘is’ – the secular mythology of ‘modernism’, if you will.
But generalising about postmodernism is difficult because it covers an extremely broad range of different philosophical positions, because philosophy. My own hot take is that postmodernism does not necessarily entail radical subjectivism about truth i.e. ‘trivialism’ (‘all statements are true’), but what it does challenge is open-ended (and dogmatic?) claims of epistemic privilege made by traditional sources of knowledge.
The question then arises as to how we are to determine which claims of epistemic privilege are justified and which are not, and when is skepticism warranted and when is it not? (It seems to me that this is the actual discussion that you and Stephen will be having?)
(With regards to science as a modernist project, legitimate questions can be raised about the epistemic claims made by science as a body of knowledge. The sole legitimate point, in my opinion, that climate ‘skeptics’ accidently make (along with creationists, anti-vaxxers, and all their other fellow travellers) is that science is a value-laden enterprise, and that scientific consensus is not necessarily equivalent to ‘truth’ in the strong metaphysical sense (see ‘correspondence theory of truth’).
The ‘traditional’ model of science assumes that science, as a practice and as a source of knowledge, is an objective, ‘view-from-nowhere’, value-free source of capital ‘T’ truths about the universe. But this ‘value-free ideal’ is is not really sustainable. Scientific practice is full of epistemic and non-epistemic values which themselves cannot be determined scientifically (e.g. model selection, appropriate p-values for significance testing, which journal to publish in etc.), and our two most well tested and successful fundamental physical theories are mutually incompatible (GR and QM).
Without disappearing down the rabbit-hole of ‘scientific realism versus scientific anti-realism and all-points-between’-type arguments or arguments about ‘truth-values’ and ‘truth-bearers’, what this means practically is that scientific knowledge is provisional rather than ‘true’. For someone like me who leans towards pragmatism, perhaps you could say that scientific research is converging towards ‘truth’.
Of course, none of this discounts that science has been extraordinarily successful (compared to the alternatives) in describing and predicting natural phenomena, and in the applied sense by providing the theoretical foundations for all our modern technologies.
And I think (perhaps naively) that most working research scientists actually understand this distinction very well. Whether the general public understands this is a separate question…)
Enjoyed Ben’s comments, and that made me think: there’s at least two levels of postmodern skepticism about science.
Firstly there’s the essential scientific axiom (or perhaps aphorism) that there is no scientific truth, only currently accepted theory. PoMo adds that there’s no “neutral scientific viewpoint”, and asks questions about what gets studied, by whom, and when. Brutally you have stuff like landing a man on the moon instead of curing malaria, but at the more trivial end you wonder why so few women get the Nobel prize in economics. Which means that the scientific truths we know are merely a subset of those currently available, depending on the vagaries of who gets funded to research what*. You don’t have to be Rumsfeld to wonder whether we’d make different decisions if we knew different things.
But secondly there’s the epistemological question of how do we know that science is even a useful way to understand the world. Pointing at the anthropocene as evidence *for* the proposition is a marginal proposition (ooh look, we caused a population explosion and most of us are going to die in a puddle of our own … waste). That second question comes up a lot in the more imaginative professions, especially the non-experimental ones like economics. The current debate about the low branches on the “tree of life” is perhaps easier to understand. Loosely, we’re not sure where multicellular life fits in the very early days, and we’re not sure how to find out. There’s a similar issue in astrophysics with the “big bang” being obviously impossible given our current understanding, yet it persists 🙂
Which means “all science is either physics or stamp collecting” is looking a bit shaky… it’s stamp collecting all the way down.
* I wonder whether the current obviousness of that statement is a consequence of PoMo FOMO or whether Aristotle would empathise? Beethoven surely would.
According to the Macquarie Dictionary, ‘dob’ is an English expression, although it’s not clear whether this derived expression meaning ‘nominated in absentia’ is also English in origins.
“the end of history”
“truth is what you believe”
“it’s all in your mind”
i just tell anyone on that self-referencing line of boring certainty to
“go kick a rock”
i spose it was inevitable ….. a crotch grabbing, serial bankrupt liar sets the tone.
don’t be one.
Best to keep things simple .“there are multiple truths, and no one is better than another” – this is now ,as never before anywhere in human history, a very commonly held sentiment .(Now statements it generates can just seem uninteresting and trivial). Postmodernism is a general cultural movement built on that first premise and was a reaction to “there is one truth ,and I have it” .It is not a rhetorical strategy of intellectuals and academics on the far-left of the political spectrum developed in reaction to the failure of socialism and communism as Hicks claims. His thesis is so full of holes – dont get sucked down that sewer ,just avoid fighting on that ground. He will probably just want to talk about his book all day. Whether he likes it or not he is part of the ‘up is down ,right is wrong ‘ fascist playbook – he cant put stuff like that out there and then act dumb when told they use it.
Hicks sounds like one of those conspiracy theorists who think the left took over the education system after being forced out of politics because of failure there. If they took anything over it is simply because they are correct more often and truth matters more than wealth and power in academia. I think that particular conspiracy is called cultural marxism ?
Look at what postmodernism is to the contemporary left or right. Arguably it is more use to the right now that everyone already thinks they are free and live in a democracy .In theory everyone can now have their say ,vote ,buy what they like, be whoever they want .We are already free individuals- each of us the ultimate authority in our own world .
How is postmodern style useful to the contemporary right ? 1) destabilisation of truth, only loyalty remains ,2) suspicion of elites ,3) loss of faith in collective action ,4) consumerism and the naturalisation of selfishness , 5) erosion of public unity, 6) propaganda and conspiracy theory ,6) unreality ,7) victimhood 8) apathy . Some of those are standard features of fascist politics ,and postmodern style could help establish all . Other standard features sit in direct opposition to a postmodern style, but when you have 90% of wealth and power on your side consistency doesnt matter so much.
I think it is important to acknowledge and confront the link between post modernism/post structuralism and the discourse around identity politics today, including nativism. The (academic) left has been strongly complicit in this. Also the anti-science rhetoric of the 80s and 90s (science as totalising) has fed into the current policies of climate change.
These are all historical rivers of thought that are ignored if one just takes the current progressive vs conservative battle as “natural” positions.
Also, I think it is misleading to characterise Nietzsche as “right wing”. He wasbeen appropriated by the right by was truly beyond any political position
Just the simple fact that he was not just not an anti-Semite and anti-German nationalism, but virulently anti-anti-Semite and a European (cosmopolitan) puts that to rest given he lived through Bismarck and the kulturkampf. But he was yes suspicious of epistemic overreach and this an anti-socialist as well – in a way he anticipated the socialist calculation debate
As @sunshine quoted, there are multiple truths.
But truths aren’t facts, there are no alternative facts, despite Kellyanne Conway’s newspeak.
Facts can be observed and measured and proven to be true.
Truths can be honoured, avowed, discussed and broken.
I am a philosopher, but that’s no help. Postmodernism had almost no effect on effect on academic philosophy, as practiced in philosophy departments. I don’t think many philosophers cared enough to even try to analyse it.
Your explanation of postmodernism seems somewhat simplistic – I’d incline towards Ben’s explanation and Moz’s, perhaps with expansion on feminist standpoint theory. However I think it became distorted in the service of ‘high’ or ‘late’ capitalism, where the brand becomes the value rather than the thing being branded or sold (Trump is a prime example of this).
I mean – ‘the word is not the thing’ is an important insight and means there is a limit to what you can say is a fact or truth (because when we communicate we are always describing and thus it is always subjective), but that genuine insight can be twisted in the service of ‘the word (brand) is what has value, and the thing is unimportant’
“Is this an Australianism?”
“The story of ‘dob’ ”
Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms
The trouble is many people rate their beliefs higher than any demonstrated objective or scientific knowledge and hold religious “Truth” to be above all practical, empirical or scientific truths. This was all occurring well before postmodernism. The scientific, humanist and democratic revolutions rolled back theological and theocratic thinking a bit. To put it bluntly, all the religions were and are entirely “pre-truth”. Capitalist and patriarchal ideologies are far more extensively “post-truth” than much of postmodernism. Capitalist and patriarchal ideologies are also very much “pre-truth” because they strongly appeal to the fundamentalisms, religious and ideological, either in place before the scientific, humanist and democratic revolutions or put back in place as reactions to those revolutions.
As far as I can tell from my milieu, Post-modernists claim to value truthfulness above all else, but also hold that truthfulness about truth means “seeing through” truth. They then continue – the more reflective among them – that (somehow, and in a way I’ve never found clearly articulated) giving up on truth leaves truthfulness (and its value) untouched.
Witters, I think the conclusion is more that truth can be relative. Trivially this is “what’s the best colour” which has a correct answer (magenta), but also many people who have their own personal truth which is obviously wrong but seems correct to them (you might substitute “best god” if you want a clearer example of absolutely correct but contradictory truths).
When it comes to proven facts, it pays to remember that these include not just Newton’s Laws of motion, but the superiority of the white race and that fiat currency necessarily leads to hyperinflation and collapse (etc etc). So the PoMo view that truth is arguable and depends not just on what facts you know but on which facts you have looked for and whether you care about answers to whatever questions you might have asked… it’s not wrong.
For anyone who’s interested, this is an example of the rigor of Hicks’ analyis:
To say that this is approaching ‘not-even-wrong’ territory would not be an understatement.
(To be fair, I have not actually read the full text, but if this table is an accurate depiction of Hicks’ understanding of the intellectual history behind these terms, then I am not sure how he is a professor of philosophy at a university)
Well, if it really is only “true-for-ism,” that is a disappointment. “X is true for Person A, but not for Person B” is at best a remark a belief(s).
Then there are those that seek the truth and find faith, then remain true to that faith, until facts present themselves, or they get too old, or their rocket crashes.
Ben: but it’s his truth, it can’t be wrong. I’m just sad that it leaves out the hard sciences entirely other than to claim that science, business and technology are strictly modernist. Also, there’s no “where” there.
Prof Q will have to be careful not get caught using his definitions, but also not get bogged down in the detail of exactly why the above is wrong. Might be useful to start by asking where modern, illiberal capitalism fits in (“all the human rights you can buy” is explicitly not liberal, for example).
I love the idea of socialism being the political and economic preference of PoMo types because socialist countries like Norway and Denmark seem far better than capitalist ones like the USA to so many people (we’re all PoMo?). But I suspect that from the US perspective socialism often means communism and is a bogeyman word rather than an intellectual description. Perhaps worth leading him into the usual US-far-right harsh language about that topic given that it is likely to be received badly by an Australian audience? “ban socialised medicine, remove the harsh gun laws, kill criminals”.
So It is True that it is Not Wrong. OK.
KT2 Thanks for that. As a Boy Scout (or maybe Cub) in the 1960s, I was always struck by the incantation “We’ll DOB, DOB, DOB”, an acronym for “Do Our Best”.
ContraPoints is wrong about
“Peterson’s primary criticism of postmodernism is that, as he alleges, its proponents often jump from the notion that “there’s a near-infinite number of ways to interpret” reality to overlooking that “there [is] a finite number of credible interpretations” of reality (4:00-5:15) (emphasis mine). He argues then that the 1970s French postmodernists partially preserved the Marxist “oppressor-vs-oppressed” narrative while reconstructing it to substitute class with identity groups such as race and gender and maintained alliances with Marxism in other respects, which he called “intellectually reprehensible” and more so “morally repugnant” (7:00). Wynn argues that identity politics and post-modernism are incompatible, but toward the end of her video, she highlight’s the postmodern critique of the West as an oppressive construct, which is ironically one of the central points of Jordan Peterson’s criticism. Going back to his podcast with Joe Rogan, Peterson is clear that he sees postmodernism as threatening the “metaphysical substrate” of Western civilization and “everything that’s been established since the Enlightenment – rationality, empiricism, science… clarity of mind, dialogue, the idea of the individual…” as communism was to capitalism.” (39:40-40:30)
I’ll be careful with reddit links from now on.
I did not realise it would link and post whole article.
Here is contrapoints on Peterson. She is worth watching even tho her fluidity bursts forth.
Glad Peterson rebutted.
28mins referenced above.
Jordan Peterson | ContraPoints
It would be nice if something worthwhile came out of this, but surely that’s highly unlikely? I hope you’ll let us know, either way.
‘The word is not the thing’ makes me think of a book called The Tyranny Of Words which (I think) has had a lot of influence me on since first reading it in my youth, and in which that point was emphasised, but what I took from that book and the way it emphasised that point was not that words have value and things are unimportant but that things are important and words valueless whenever they can’t be connected with things.
I just happened to read a paper by the social psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky (who is part time at UWA, as well as Bristol), which has some nice quotes as well as substance on the topic of right-wing postmodernism. Quotes:
Katie Hopkins (do Australians know who she is? Sort of a tabloid Alan Jones, I guess):
There is no truth, only the truth of the interpretation of the truth that you see.”
“Fact is an antiquated expression. All reporting is biased and subjective. There is no such thing as fact anymore.”
Rudy Giuliani: “Facts are in the eye of the beholder.”
On substance, Lewandowsky cites evidence that people who espouse conspiracy theories also tend to regard facts as ideological weapons. While not all conspiracy theorists are on the right (by any means), Lewandowsky’s own data shows that conspiratorial ideation on certain topics is strongly correlated with being right-wing.
“Lewandowsky’s own data shows that conspiratorial ideation on certain topics is strongly correlated with being right-wing.”
This would be paranoid projection. Right wing people frequently conspire among themselves against others. Hence they imagine others are conspiring against them.
Postmodernism is a tar-baby.
“Br’er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and dresses it with some clothes. When Br’er Rabbit comes along, he addresses the tar “baby” amiably, but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as the tar baby’s lack of manners, punches it and, in doing so, becomes stuck. The more Br’er Rabbit punches and kicks the tar baby out of rage, the worse he gets stuck.” – Wikipedia.
Postmodernism of the extreme kind is something constructed to entangle and entrap you. You might wish to engage with it and defeat it (for disrespecting your criteria for truth) but enacting this very wish is what traps you.
It’s best to avoid punching the tar-baby directly but rather to seek common ground external to yourself and to the tar-baby. Begin by discussing theories of truth. In this respect, the correspondence theory of truth is your friend, so bone up on it. I would insist that the correspondence theory of truth is the only valid theory of truth, both philosophically and empirically/scientifically. I would argue exclusively for this proposition and if the tar-baby won’t agree then take the position that without a consistent theory of truth agreed upon by both parties then further argument is pointless. I would wind up “My opponent is not interested in truth or even seeking it. Further discussion is pointless. I’m due back in the real world where objective truths and facts do exist, quite apart from subjective beliefs, and they do matter.”
It might be important at some point to agree that subjective beliefs do exist but that the issue of determining truth does not belong in the arena of belief. There is no way to determine if a non-testable belief is true or not.
I suppose maybe everything old is new again.
There must have once been a time when nobody had ever before come up with statements like these, and then they were (if nothing else) fresh and novel and imaginative, and I suppose they may still sometimes be rediscovered independently by people for whom they are new inspirations and seem fresh and novel and imaginative. The trick which demonstrates their valuelessness must also once have been fresh and novel and imaginative, and I suppose it too may sometimes be rediscovered independently by people for whom it is fresh and novel and imaginative, but once you know it … well, once you know it, you know it, and the exercise becomes routine, as follows (for anybody who may still be unfamiliar):
‘There is no truth, only the truth of the interpretation that you see.’
Interlocutor: ‘Is that a truth?’
‘Fact is an antiquated expression.’
Interlocutor: ‘Is that a fact?’
‘There is no such thing as fact any more.’
Interlocutor: ‘Is that a fact?’
‘Facts are in the eye of the beholder.’
Interlocutor: ‘Is that a fact?’
(‘All reporting is biased and subjective’ is left as a practice exercise for the reader.)
There’s no good response to the interlocutor. It may be objected that the interlocutor is merely playing smart-alecky games with words, having no serious practical significance, but the point is that the people the interlocutor is responding to are merely playing smart-alecky games with words, having no serious practical significance.
What about conspiratorial ideation on certain other topics?
Here are three statements which refer to conspiracy:
(1) when John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam from the Prime Ministership, he was acting as an agent of a conspiracy which included officers of the CIA;
(2) John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated by agents of a conspiracy and Lee Harvey Oswald was either not involved or else one of the agents of that conspiracy;
(3) the attribution of the authorship of plays to William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon was the work of a conspiracy which was concealing the true authorship of those plays.
In each case, it would be interesting (to me) to know whether people who believe in the truth of the statement, as a group, exhibit different political attitudes from people who do not believe in the truth of the statement (to a significant degree) and, if so, what the differences are.
(1) Certain CIA authorities long ago admitted as much. Clearly no conspiracy ideation as such exits, rather there was such a conspiracy in actual fact. Will the current high court in relation to determining if access be allowed to the top secret archive of Kerr’s Queen and Queeny’s Kerr correspondence be a post hoc agent of it? And are yet more potential knighthoods at stake should the conspiracy be further exposed?
Ha ha, no wonder the CIA is so paranoid about Russia, given their record of interfering in other countries’ affairs.
On truth, Dr Devra Davis was a guest speaker at Melbourne Uni and started her presentation with
“There isn’t one truth, truth is a relative term..”
and so on, using the flat earth theory as an example.
So we have truth being conflated with facts, much as Trump does all the time.
Whoops, forgot the link.
That’s not an answer to the question I asked. Why are you changing the subject?
Why are you changing the subject? Did you in fact ask a question, or pose a fashionable nonsense? However, here in regard to your (1) above you now at least are asking a more sensible question.
Earlier you asked “What about conspiratorial ideation on certain other topics? … (1)”
There’s no what about it. That is all.
You did not ask whether for example (1) was a conspiracy ideation, the answer to that being no, instead you asked for correction of an absurd rendering of known historical (and contemporary) facts as imaginings.
There was (re Queeny ongoing there has been and still is) a conspiracy. It was/is not an ideation, an idea of something in the mind, a mental image, an imagining. It was/is in reality, ie., not limited to mere conception only, a fact as concrete as they come.
Three questions, one of which was:
Do people who believe in the truth of the statement ‘when John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam from the Prime Ministership, he was acting as an agent of a conspiracy which included officers of the CIA’, as a group, exhibit different political attitudes from people who do not believe in the truth of the statement (to a significant degree) and, if so, what are the differences.
Your comments contain nothing relevant to answering this question; you’re trying to change the subject. Why?
Except that is not the question you asked. That question, if indeed it is, was framed by the preceding: “What about conspiratorial ideation on certain other topics? …”
In altering the framing you have changed the subject. Why?
Also does the question about “conspiratorial ideation” still pertain to your “truth” propositions (2) and (3)? If so, why those and not (1)?
Please take side disputes to sandpits and keep discussion civil.
“What about conspiratorial ideation on certain other topics?”
Simplifying a bit, conspiratorial ideation (which here means accepting conspiracy theories that are contrary to the expert consensus – so thinking the Watergate break in was the result of conspiracy doesn’t count) is correlated with certain personality traits, like a disposition to believe that big events must have big causes (the proportionality bias) and a disposition to see agency at work everywhere. These traits are common but variable in the general population. It is also correlated with being a victim: being low SES, being marginalized, having low self-esteem, being unemployed ….perhaps because being marginalized makes people more vigilant. Lewandowsky finds that while this is true across the board, for certain conspiracies being right-wing is an independent predictor of belief. So you can believe that global warming is a Chinese hoax without having the other markers of conspiratorial ideation.
As requested, I’m responding in the Sandpit.
Too late to help with tonight’s talk, but here’s a plausible case that Hicks needn’t be taken too seriously, either as an expositor or as a critic of postmodernism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHtvTGaPzF4
John, if I might reply to comments made in my direction in this thread on Crooked Timber; it appears you just now closed it before I hit save on the comment I’d typed.