“My point, and the point of the post-modern philosophers, was to demonstrate that even a simple word like apple can beget numerous interpretations, let alone words like justice, equality and so on.”
Post-modernism is among the most contentious labels of our time, especially for many on the political right. Many associate it with relativism, identity politics, a renewed Marxism, and a host of other dangerous tendencies. In an earlier article for Merion West, I focused primarily on debunking the last association: that post-modernism is just academic Marxism with a new coat of paint.
More than ever, it is important to push against this narrative, as we gradually see the intellectual influence of post-modernism wane and concern about social and economic inequalities retake center stage. With the ascendency of post-modern conservatism’s reaction to traditional neoliberal policies, from its protectionism to its ugly identity politics and dismissal of all sources of rationality, many progressives have been forced into rethinking their tactics and outlook. Some have even started drawing insights from critics like Jordan Peterson.
In my next two articles, I want to shift gears and spend a bit more time analyzing post-modernism head on, rather than simply contrasting it to another socio-cultural tradition or discussing how it has been realized in the form of various political movements. I will build upon the distinction I made in the earlier article by characterizing post-modernism in two interrelated ways: as a skeptical philosophical position and as an epoch or culture within developed countries. It is interesting to note that as the intellectual influence of post-modern philosophy fades, its epochal or cultural currency has been amplified many fold. This demonstrates the possibility that we may be witnessing the zenith of post-modern culture’s reach, which like all waves must ultimately crest and retreat.
Post-modernism, as the label suggests, emerged in the aftermath of the modernist cultural movement, which flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like all cultural movements, modernism is difficult to define because it is often marked by tensions and even internal contradictions. The developed world at that time was often characterized by an optimistic belief in the progress of human rationality and the sciences. Writers such as Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer held to relatively progressive visions of history, where ultimately less rational and efficient forms of social organization would give way to superior ones. Sociologists like Emile Durkheim and August Comte believed that it was possible to develop a science of society that was as objective as the sciences of nature.
They received support in this appraisal from the work of scientists and psychologists such as Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, who seemed to offer new ways to probe the origins of human life and the psychological determinants of individual human behavior. Even in seemingly more removed scientific disciplines such as chemistry and physics, theoretical developments pioneered by luminaries like Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell prompted the development of new inventions suggesting a brighter world was ahead of us.
However, the modernist authors who wrote during this period often approached it with a cynical eye. This undermines the claim that Western civilization’s alleged loss of confidence is an entirely contemporary phenomenon, and that post-modernism is either the symptom or cause of this decline. At the height of colonial Europe’s alleged success, authors in the vein of Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoyevsky claimed that the “death of God” was ushering in a new and dangerous epoch in the history of Western civilization. Poets like W.B. Yeats warned that “things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”
Even modernist icons like Sigmund Freud recognized that their work undermined the premise that we were in any way fully rational beings, much like Darwin’s theory undermined the idea that we were a uniquely divine species. In physics, developments in quantum theory challenged the old Galilean-Newtonian vision of a well-ordered, fully-determined universe while relativity theory disrupted our traditional understanding of time. And even mathematics, the science of certainty itself since at least the time of Pythagoras and Plato, was increasingly beset by fundamental problems in meta-mathematics and logic, which gave rise to Russell’s famous paradoxes and Godel’s incompleteness theorems.
These immense intellectual tensions were radicalized in the aftermath of the Depression and the First and Second World Wars. These disasters left much of the world devastated, many colonies rightly pointing out the hypocrisy of Western states fighting for freedom, democracy, and human rights, while denying them to others. It left us wrestling with the legacy of what Hannah Arendt deemed the total moral collapse associated with evils of Nazism—and I would add, Stalinism. These historical tendencies, far more than collapsing faith in Marxism—which remains widely respected in many academic circles, especially in its Western Marxist variants—provided the intellectual and cultural atmosphere from which post-modernism which emerged.
What I characterize as post-modernism as a philosophical position is defined by a few different theoretical claims. Before I discuss these, it is important to note two key caveats. Firstly, the claims of alarmists that post-modern philosophy is a betrayal of the Western commitment to rationality and universalism need to be taken with a considerable grain of salt.
As we have seen in the above discussion of Modernism, Western philosophy and science, even in its most rigorous fields, were already facing considerable challenges to any quest to put knowledge on a firm foundation. Moreover, attacks on the certainty of knowledge are hardly new in Western thinking. Plato debated the rhetoricians and sophists who claimed that there was an intrinsic connection between power and what was taken as knowledge. During the Greek and Roman periods, there were a considerable number of philosophical skeptics, from the Greek skeptikos, who challenged established certainties. And even in the modern period, Enlightenment superstars such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant developed devastating arguments against the possibility of obtaining certainty in science, mathematics, and morality, so much so that Mendelssohn referred to Kant as the “all destroyer.”
Secondly, I want to note that my characterization glosses over a large number of important philosophical distinctions between many of the thinkers I will mention here.
The primary theoretical position that unites many post-modern thinkers is skepticism towards the claim that we can achieve absolute certainty in our scientific, philosophical, and moral reasoning. Many of them were inspired by what is sometimes referred to as the “linguistic turn” in both analytical and continental philosophy, which, not coincidentally, led to the emergence of non-post-modern variants of skepticism and pragmatism in the work of figures like Ludwig Wittgenstein and W.V.O Quine.
Post-modern thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, Helene Cixous and Gayatri Spivak reacted against the belief that language was simply a neutral tool for describing the world, or put simply, that words simply point to or “picture” the world of our senses. They noted that many of us use language, either in speech or writing, without ever really reflecting on the often mysterious nature of the words we use. We often want to believe that the words we use have a clear meaning, without recognizing that many of them are open to a surfeit of interpretations.
Take the word apple. One might think the word apple simply points to or pictures a fruit. But is it really that simple? When I say “apple” am I referring to a red fruit? Fruit that could be red, green, or yellow? Is it on the tree or at a supermarket? In empty space? Might I be referring to the apple metaphorically, ala “like Eve eating the apple, we’ve deliberately plunged ourselves into a new era of uncertainty.” Or referring to a company that produces iPods and computers? Are all the meanings valid?
My point, and the point of the post-modern philosophers, was to demonstrate that even a simple word like apple can beget numerous interpretations, let alone words like justice, equality and so on. Post-modern philosophers were also keen to analyze why we end up favoring certain interpretations over others—and whether these favored interpretations always point us in the direction of a deeper truth.
For Michel Foucault, power is what determines why intellectuals and the public favor certain interpretations of words and associated phenomena over others. This has important consequences in the public social sphere. This position has often been misunderstood, perhaps deliberately, as Foucault making the crude argument that all power is simply a bad and oppressive thing. This was not at all his point. Foucault’s observation is that any favored interpretation is usually backed up by various forms of social and institutional pressure to accept it wholesale. On occasion, that can be useful in displacing old and ineffective dogmas with newer and more useful ideas. But this tendency can also produce conformity, especially when certain interpretations are used to support systems of oppression and marginalization.
Consider the pseudo-scientific claim that people of certain ethnicities were less evolved, which then links to a related moral discourse that the less evolved status of these people entitles others to use them as slaves or cheap labor. Foucault’s analyses are a paradigmatic instance of post-modern philosophy encouraging us to think of settled dogmas—in this case, about language, knowledge, and power—in a new way. He, by no means, thought that this meant we should abandon truth. Indeed, in earlier books like The Order of Things, he felt that history was the key field of study to get at truth, before later turning to a kind of critical Kantian position.
The same is true of Jacques Derrida, who is sometimes caricatured as saying there is an infinite number of equally valid interpretations of any subject—and that the central interpretations held as more valid than others should be dismissed. This seemingly relativistic conclusion was expressly rejected by Derrida. He tirelessly pointed out that all our inquiries depend upon there being certain central interpretations, and that was a necessary function for us to have any kind of inquiries at all, as he put it in his seminal talk “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”
“The function of this center was not only to orient; balance, and organize the structure—one cannot, in fact, conceive of an unorganized structure—but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the freeplay of the structure. No doubt that by orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the freeplay of its elements inside the total form. And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself.”
Derrida’s point, as with Foucault, was to make us think more critically about the stability of those central interpretations. Take the claim that death is simply the absence of life, and of no real concern to us in our everyday lives. Following Heidegger, Derrida points out that thinking about death and the departure of our loved ones actually plays a central role in framing our lives and sense of self. Many of our actions, from fastening a seatbelt to going to the doctor, implicitly recognize that death hangs over us and that it is prudent to spend at least a part of our time avoiding it. So, the simple binary between life and death, where the former is given absolute priority over the latter, actually becomes a lot more complicated when deconstructed and analyzed more closely.
These examples of post-modern philosophy being both less radical and more insightful than its critics accept could be multiplied ad infinitum. I have here focused on Derrida and Foucault because they are often pointed to as the boogeymen in chief by opponents of post-modernism. In each case, these figures would often qualify their skeptical positions by pointing out that their primary intellectual purpose was to get us to think more carefully old dogmas that had falsely taken on the appearance of natural truths (Socrates and Socratic skepticism were not so different).
At times, this often had a political purpose. Foucault was keen to combat settled dogmas he felt led to the mistreatment of prisoners, the “mad,” sexual minorities and so on. At times, it was disengaged from the world. Derrida was famously less political and more interested in deconstructing language to help us better understand ourselves.
My personal evaluation of all this is that post-modern philosophy is useful for checking our presuppositions more closely. But I also think it has had its day and that we should move past it if we are not to risk it becoming something of a dogma. Fortunately, there are thinkers and trends which point the way forward. I will discuss these more thoroughly in my second essay, which will analyze post-modernism as an epoch or culture.
Matt McManus recently completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.