Postmodernism Taken Too Far, Not Taken Far Enough

A little while back I was having a conversation with a fellow student with whom I share a goodly number of perspectives.  Our conversation began on the topic of the absence of free will (of the kind that most take it for granted that we have) and the worry about the justice of punishment in light of that fact (if it is a fact)[1], but then it drifted into a general conversation about the ideological state of the West generally.  Interestingly, we both agreed that postmodernism (I doubt that I shall need to explain this idea to my readership) has proven a significant failure.  [2]  Now, we agreed that postmodernism had some useful perspectives on many issues – indeed, postmodern thought has definitely influenced my ways of thinking about things and I would be remiss in not saying so – but its over-application, or its being taken to extremes, has proven disastrous.

Take, for example, the doctrine that maintains that all beliefs are really ideologies of power, that all beliefs serve the political purposes of particular actors.  I think that there is some valuable insight here – particularly that beliefs and ideologies are used for power-politicking, and that the social and political order is always justified (at least in part) on the basis of claims about how the world ‘really’ is.  Also of importance is the insight that there is no uncontroversially objective access to reality, that the things we believe will invariably reflect our desires and needs.  These are some very important things to acknowledge, but when they are over-applied to the world, they result in obviously stupid notions.  For example, that the whole of modern science is just another ideology of power [3], so that any and all purported sex-based neurological distinctions are fabrications intended to promote patriarchal norms (Newton’s Principia ought to be renamed Newton’s Rape Manual).

The same analysis applies to ethics (and particularly to cross-cultural ethics).  Since ethical systems are based in the particularities of different cultures and their power structures, there actually is no way to judge between them, since any judgements we may make about another culture’s practices (e.g. slavery, female circumcision, burkas) will be done on the basis of our own beliefs.  As such, we cannot judge their moral validity without either making a category mistake [4] or doing violence on that culture: nonsense or imperialism.  This, too, should strike us as obviously wrong – though it may be true that I will be imposing my values on another culture should I argue that slavery or the burka are bad, it shouldn’t follow that what I am saying is without meaningful content or that it should not be said.  [5]

I have this suspicion, however, that these stances are the result of a failure to take postmodern ways of thought seriously enough.  If we accept that our beliefs are grounded in the social fabric, that our epistemology is tainted, this makes the giving of reasons even more important.  We can no longer trust that authorities [6] are right, so the justifications of their arguments are crucial.  Though we have to maintain a rigorously skeptical epistemology, we nevertheless can acknowledge that there are better and worse justifications for claims, justifications that are good enough to confirm belief and to act upon.  Similarly for cultural practices – their very groundlessness is what allows for their proliferation and creative variety.  We do not necessarily do wrong by promoting our way of life, since there is no one way of life that makes a fit for all human beings everywhere and throughout history – if we appreciate our way of life, that is enough to justify our partisanship, and if we don’t, that is justification enough to strive for reform.

Or am I missing something?  Maybe what I am suggesting is totally incompatible with postmodernism, rightly considered.  In that case, transcendence is required.  How to do it?


[1] This was the upshot of a class we both took on the topic of free will.

[2] I wonder whether this is evidence of an impending generational shift in ideas.  I sincerely hope so, since I am not a great fan of PM in the way it has influenced politics and much of academe.

[3] Not that this doesn’t mean politics doesn’t enter into scientific research – it certainly does, just not in the way that postmodernists claim.  From what I can tell, politics’ greatest impact on scientific institutions and inquiry is by influencing what the research questions will be.

[4] Since our values are incommensurable, judging a practice as ‘bad’ would be like judging a song for being inadequately red.

[5] Besides which, it is unclear to me how the giving of reasons can be considered ‘imperialism’.  Isn’t imperialism ultimately backed up by the application of force?  Aren’t reason-givings attempts to persuade without relying on force?

[6] Authorities of any sort, that is, not just the typical authorities pointed to by most postmodern theorists.