Explaining Postmodernism

It is a profoundly enlightening experience, to read a clearly written, knowledgeable book that takes some of the points you have been groping towards and puts them in a much more complete context.

Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault is such an enlightening book.  So enlightening that, having finished it, I proceeded to re-read it.

It is worth reading just for its excellent, thorough and very clear rendition of the history of Western philosophy since John Locke.  It would make a fine teaching text for any survey course on such.  Not merely because it is very clearly written – Hicks is happy to include tables and flow charts – but because it shows a solid grasp of the historical context of ideas.  (Something philosophers – even great philosophers – are not always good at.) Chapter Four, The Climate of Collectivism, is, for example, a fine rendition of the intellectual history "Right" and "Left" forms of collectivism up to the collapse of Right collectivism with the defeat of Nazism and Fascism.

Hicks puts his central thesis at the beginning of the table of contents: The failure of epistemology made postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary (p.i).

The first chapter sets out What Postmodernism Is relying, as Hicks does throughout the book, on frequent use of quotations from the cited thinkers.  In one of his useful tables, he summarises post-modernism as anti-realism in metaphysics, social subjectivism in epistemology, a social construction view of human nature, collective egalitarianism in ethics, socialism in politics and economics, occurring in humanities and related professions in the late C20th (p.15).

The second chapter deals with the Counter-Enlightenment Attack on Reason where he locates Immanuel Kant’s epistemological subjectivism (the belief that we do not know reality, just our sense-perceptions thereof) as the key break from Enlightenment thought from which a stream of thought – HegelNietzscheHeidegger – then follows.  A central motive for Kant was to rescue religion (specifically Christianity) from the corrosive effects of Enlightenment scepticism.  If we only know phenomena—and not reality as such—then God could do be doing anything out there in the “real” world and the realm of faith is thereby safe.

As Hicks points out in the last chapter (Chapter Six, Postmodern Strategies) given the failure of socialism (the subject of the preceding chapter, The Crisis of Socialism), folk on the Left had a need to safeguard a realm of faith since brute reality was being so unhelpful.  So Kant’s move became their move.  The realm of fact may be unhelpful, so we will just discount it—it’s all just language games—in order to protect our realm of feeling and commitment (i.e. faith).

Helped along by the failure of epistemology to come up with a convincing answer to the problems of empiricism and rationalism (Chapter Three, The Twentieth Century Collapse of Reason).

As Hicks notes, Postmodernism is a philosophical doctrine of the Left (typically the very far Left).  This is strange in a movement in philosophy, which usually have adherents of a range of political views.

Hicks notes the similar biographies of the key figures of Postmodernism (Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty).   All were born between 1926 and 1931 and had strong Left (typically far Left) credentials.  So they were all coming of age as the 1950s showed the failures of the Soviet model while international and economic resurgence showed the vigour of liberal capitalism as a social system.

The facts were being inconvenient so the Left – which had been very modernist (committed to universal values, science, economic development) – became increasingly postmodernist.  They took the Kantian out of retreating into subjectivism.

Of course, if Enlightenment/modernist epistemology had been fine and healthy, that would have been harder.  But it was not, having collapsed into various dead-ends (e.g. Logical Positivism).  The rescue of Enlightenment project by an effective epistemology Hicks states (in his last paragraph [p.201]) is the necessary task to really get on top of post-modernism.

I found the book both clear and enlightening.  I was not entirely convinced by his analysis of motives, though.  I am not querying Hicks’s looking at the emotional basis of postmodernist beliefs: not least because he has the evidence to back it up.  But his emotional analysis works quite well for older cohorts, less well regarding the emotional appeal for younger ones.  There it strikes me that the effectiveness of such beliefs as status markers is worth considering.  After all, if it is all ultimately about the strength of your feelings, the worthiness of your intentions, then that is not only an easy status marker, but it leads directly to the ad hominen style of rhetoric which, as he points out, is so much the postmodernist style (p.20).  For your good attitudes display your (positive) status only if different attitudes display (negative) status.  Hence the juxtaposition of cultural relativism with virulent moral absolutism: part of a wider pattern of (as critics frequently point out) blatant contradictions (p.184).

The great strength of the book is its clear outline of the history of Western philosophy over the last three centuries.  It is that clear setting out of the philosophical history, and putting it in wider context, which makes the critical analysis of postmodernism so effective.

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