Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Postmodernism on reason and mysticism

This post summarizes my notes on two secondary sources on postmodernism -- reviewed here and here.[1] I am not documenting every statement. Consult the sources I have cited. In a much later post I will summarize my notes on Richard Rorty (1931-2007), perhaps including his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, as an example primary source.

WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM?. Postmodernism is an anti-worldview worldview. Postmodernists reject systematization in both philosophy and religion (specifically theology), but the pieces of their implicit worldview can be assembled into an explicit worldview.[2] It is neither a philosophy (distinguished by at least a claim to use reason in developing it) nor a religion (distinguished by reliance on mysticism). It is, I think, best described as a creed of radical skepticism, the claim that we can know nothing.

Postmodernism's advocates started to appear as the worldwide socialist movement began to falter, and evidence for socialism's inevitable failure began to accumulate in the USSR, China, and elsewhere. The "leading strategists" of the postmodernist movement -- the social movement advocating postmodernism and applying it to contemporary culture -- were Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty. (Hicks, p. 1) Other postmodernists have specialized in particular fields such as architecture or psychology. For example, "[t]he architectural theorist Charles Jencks [b. 1939] has done more than anyone else to popularize postmodernism as a theoretical concept, particularly in a series of editions of his best-known book The Language of Post-modern Architecture (1st ed., 1977)." (Sim, 3rd ed., p. viii)

POMO TARGETS. One way to characterize postmodernism is by identifying its targets. Postmodernism is anti-modernism, where "modernism" means a collection of the most objective ideas of the Enlightenment period (c. 1700-1800) and their positive effects on 19th and 20th Century culture (especially in law, business, technology, and science). In philosophically hierarchical order, postmodernism's fundamental targets are:

- In metaphysics, naturalism (the idea that everything has a definite nature).

- In epistemology, reason (the faculty of understanding the nature of things, through observation and logical thought) and products of reason such as particular, integrated systems of thought, which postmodernists call "meta-narratives"). (Sim, pp. 272-273)

- In theory of man, the individual is born tabula rasa.

- In ethics, individualism.

- In politics, capitalism.

POMO PRINCIPLES. In direct opposition to its targets, postmodernism supports these ideas:

- In metaphysics, anti-naturalism, that is, the belief that we should not expect everything to have a definite, identifiable nature.

- In epistemology, linguistic social subjectivism, the idea that the language each of us learns from the society around us determines our view of reality.

- In theory of man, social determinism, the idea that individuals are constructed by their society.

- In ethics, collectivism, the belief that the individual is foremost a unit of a collective.

- In politics, socialism. (Hicks, pp. 5-15, for targets and principles)

These fundamental principles lead to particular themes advocated by specialized postmodernists. One example is an academic position such as "deconstruction," a form of literary criticism in which the postmodernist reader claims to discover multiple meanings in a particular text, meanings that the author may not have intended. (Sim, pp. 245-246). A second example is a cultural (ultimately political) theme such as denigration of Christopher Columbus. (Hicks, pp. 18)

WHAT ARE ITS HISTORICAL ORIGINS? The fundamental elements of the culture of the Enlightenment (c. 1700-1800, in Western Europe) -- its naturalism, devotion to reason, and individualism -- were a seedbed. From that seedbed, modernism grew, particularly in Anglo-American culture. Enlightenment values and incipient modernist values provoked an anti-Enlightenment reaction among mystics, particularly in Germany. (French culture was mixed.) That reaction eventually fueled postmodernism. (Hicks, pp. 21-22 and 24-29)

The two main roots of the Counter-Enlightenment were Rousseau (1712-1778) and Kant (1724-1804). Rousseau contributed a collectivist social philosophy. (Hicks, pp. 99, 100, 106, 108, and 109) Kant undermined reason. (Hicks, pp. 27-42)

The anti-Enlightenment road ran from Kant (and to a lesser extent, Hume, 1711-1776) through Hegel (1770-1831), Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Marx (1818-1883), Nietzsche (1844-1900), Heidegger (1889-1976), and Wittgenstein (1889-1951) to primary postmodernists -- Lyotard (1924-1998), Foucault (1926-1984), Derrida (1930-2004), and Rorty (1931-2007) -- and then to secondary postmodernists in our time. (Hicks, pp. 21-22, plus Chs. 2 and 3)

WHAT IS THE POSTMODERNIST VIEW OF REASON?. Reason is the faculty of perceiving things in reality and conceptualizing their nature. At its most fundamental level, the postmodernist rejection of reason is metaphysical: Postmodernists reject the idea that things have a nature. (Hicks, p. 2, citing Foucault and Rorty) This position immediately undercuts reason.

For some postmodernists, the justification for rejecting reason is political. Western Civilization -- defined philosophically as a complex of cultural elements, such as science and objective law, that grow from a foundation of reason -- oppresses women, homosexuals, the poor, and nonwhites, the postmodernists say. Therefore, to oppose oppression, postmodernists oppose its foundation in reason. (Hicks, p. 3)

Other postmodernist attacks on reason appear in different forms. One is polylogism, though postmodernists apparently do not use that term. Postmodernists hold one's class, race, wealth, or sex to be a guiding factor in interpreting the world and in deciding what actions -- especially political ones -- to take. (Hicks, pp.15-16)

Still other postmodernists purportedly do not completely reject reason or its applications, such as the scientific method, but propose "alternatives," which means mysticism in some form. (Hicks, p. 17)

WHAT IS THE POSTMODERNIST VIEW OF MYSTICISM?. Postmodernists are not usually outspoken champions of mysticism in its various forms (faith, revelation, intuition, and so forth). Rather, they support mysticism indirectly. For some postmodernist writers, their style of writing is their statement of support for mysticism. Their styles are generally not comprehensible; reason can learn nothing in reading nonsense. (Try "reading" Derrida, Of Grammatology.)

Other postmodernists seemingly do write clearly, but they supplant reason with some other persuasive value such as "attractiveness," as when Richard Rorty says:

Conforming to my own [postmodernist] precepts, I am not going to offer arguments against the [modernist] vocabulary I want to replace. Instead, I am going to try to make the vocabulary I favor look attractive by showing how it may be used to describe a variety of topics. (Quoted by Hicks, p. 177)

Some religious mystics, particularly those who are members of the emerging Christian Radical Orthodoxy movement, have embraced postmodernism "as a critique of a particular secular framework, that of universal reason." (Pamela Sue Anderson in Sim, p. 80) The distintegration of thought brought by postmodernist skepticism creates a vacuum that religious "meta-narratives" (worldviews) fill with conventional forms of mysticism (revelation, faith, traditionalism, and reliance on holy scripture).

CONCLUSION. The general payoff of postmodernism is disintegration of reason and all the values that grow from it; mysticism rushes in where reason dies. There is also a particular payoff of postmodernist attempts to supplant reason with mysticism. In Stephen Hicks's words, postmodernists can use their rejection of reason "to justify the personal leap of faith necessary to continue believing in socialism" despite the accumulating historical evidence of socialism's failure. (Hicks, pp. 179 and181)

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at http://www.reasonversusmysticism.com

[1] In addition to Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 2nd ed., and Stuart Sim, The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, 3rd ed., another general, introductory resource is: Gayl Aylesworth, "Postmodernism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2010 edition, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/.

[2] Hicks, EP:SSRF, shows the assembled result, particularly in Ch. 1. For other, but lightly critical discussions by postmodernists about postmodernists' views of religion: Pamela Sue Anderson, "Postmodernism and Religion," in RCP, Ch. 7. For their views on philosophy: Stuart Sim, "Postmodernism and Philosophy," in Sim, editor, RCP, Ch. 1.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

BkRev: Explaining Postmodernism

Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 2nd ("Expanded") ed., China, Ockham's Razor Publishing, 2011, 276 pages.

INTRODUCTION. Stephen Hicks, the author of Explaining Postmodernism says the thesis of his book is this:

The failure of [Enlightenment] epistemology made postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary. (p. i)

That thesis statement captures the essential characteristics of the book, which is both historical and philosophical. Historically the author traces the roots of postmodernism back to the collectivism of Rousseau (1712-1778) and the anti-reason epistemology of Kant (1724-1804). Philosophically Hicks shows the causal nature of fundamental ideas, that is, particularly ideas about the nature of reality (metaphysics), how man can or cannot know reality (epistemology), the nature of man (theory of man), and what man should do (ethics and politics).

CONTENT. The Table of Contents shows the structure of the book:

Ch. 1: What Postmodernism Is.

Ch. 2: The Counter-Enlightenment Attack on Reason.

Ch. 3: The Twentieth-Century Collapse of Reason.

Ch. 4: The Climate of Collectivism.

Ch. 5: The Crisis of Socialism.

Ch. 6: Postmodern Strategy.

After identifying the essential characteristics of postmodernism in Ch. 1, Hicks proceeds in historical order. He shows that each fundamental position held -- for example, by Rousseau or Kant -- has led to later developments. For Hicks, ideas matter; they are the cause of history through a chain of ideas and a chain of events.

STYLE. Hicks's writing is direct and clear. His style overall is schematic, that is, he provides the minimum required and no more. (The main text, for the broad subject covered in the six chapters, is only about 200 pages long.) He presents the skeleton of an argument, with all of the bones connected, but with only a sketch of the flesh those bones will carry if the reader follows the footnotes to further reading in the writings of the postmodernists themselves. To give that skeleton a clear identity, Hicks briefly quotes postmodernists about each topic. Throughout, Hick summarizes the positions of the postmodernists, as he does here for the role of "deconstruction" in their writings:

If there is no world or self to understand and get right on their terms, then what is the purpose of thought or action? Having deconstructed reason, truth, and the idea of correspondence of thought to reality, and then set them aside -- 'reason', writes Foucault, 'is the ultimate language of madness' -- there is nothing to guide or constrain our thoughts and feelings. So we can do or say whatever we feel like. Deconstruction, Stanley Fish confesses happily, 'relieves me of the obligation to be right ... and demands only that I be interesting'. (p. 2)

In this book, Hicks is not primarily an academic writer, that is, he does not weigh before the readers' eyes the evidence pro and con for each issue of historical or philosophical detection. Rather he presents his conclusions and the reasons for them. His book is therefore a starting point. Readers can follow his citations to original sources and decide for themselves.

Adding to the clarity of his style, which is the style of a well organized lecturer, Hicks uses subheadings to show the "joints" in his argument. He also uses summaries for review, both in paragraph form and in the form of occasional charts and lists.

CAUTIONS. Working from the book alone, a careful reader can infer that Hicks is a classical liberal (a "liberal individualist," p. 232), that is, an advocate of naturalism, reason, individualism, and capitalism. He has been influenced by the philosophy of Objectivism, though perhaps indirectly through former Objectivist philosopher David Kelly, "a colleague and friend" (p. 223).

Hicks reveals the influence of Objectivism in his presentation of ideas in philosophically hierarchical order: metaphysics, epistemology, theory of man, ethics, and politics. However, the reader needs to be cautious in particular about the two essays Hicks added to the original edition. The first essay, "Free Speech and Postmodernism," provides a case study, an examination of postmodernists' arguments for censorship, particularly in academia. Hicks rejects their arguments, but his rejection seems, on first reading (which is all that I am willing to invest) to be a mixture of utilitarianism and an objective theory of rights. Reader beware.

Similar problems arise in the second essay, "From Modern to Postmodern Art: Why Art Became Ugly." This appended essay, like the first, provides a lot of useful leads for further research as well as a readable and sweeping overview of the postmodernist positions. However, in its final paragraph the second essay rejects postmodernist art not because of its nihilism but because, Hicks says:

The world of postmodern art is a run-down hall of mirrors reflecting tiredly some innovations introduced a century ago. It is time to move on.

It is indeed time to move on, beyond postmodernism in art, not merely because postmodernist art is "tired" but because it is evil.

CONCLUSION. For any serious student of contemporary culture, Explaining Postmodernism provides both a clear overview of the subject (its nature and origins) and leads to further sources, especially primary sources, the writings of the postmodernists themselves.

For a more detailed overview, a second step in reading might be Stuart Sim's Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, reviewed here. This anthology allows the reader to move from postmodernism in general to individual essays on each cultural area infected by postmodernism, such as architecture, music, politics, cinema, and many others. This longer volume also provides a very useful dictionary of postmodernist terms such as "deconstruction."

Related: "The Tragedy of Reason (Bk. Rev.) ," Sept. 27, 2009, The Main Event.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at www.reasonversusmysticism.com

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

BkRev: The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism

Stuart Sim, editor, The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, 3rd ed., New York, Routledge, 2011, 328 pages.

SUBJECT MATTER. Studying postmodernism is difficult for two major reasons. First, postmodernism is an ideology that rejects ideology and other large-scale integrations; students of the subject therefore have trouble "connecting the dots." Second, some of postmodernism's most influential leaders write in a style based on the assumption that words, concepts, and reality do not connect.

Stuart Sim's The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism largely overcomes those difficulties. The book offers articles about postmodernism's positions on philosophy, "critical theory," politics, feminism, gender, lifestyles, religion, postcolonial culture, science, technology, organizations, architecture, the arts, popular culture, and "dissent." For Part I of the book, twenty authors have contributed nineteen chapters on specialized subjects. An example is Ch. 16, "Postmodernism and music." In eleven pages it has twelve subsections such as "'Art for Art's Sake' Challenged" and "Death of the Composer as Originating Genius."

Part II of the book is a 75-page, two-column lexicon of "Critical Terms" that frequently arise in the writings of postmodernists. Example terms are "deconstruction," "binary oppositions," and "double-coding."

THE AUTHORS' GOALS. Sim and the authors he has enlisted aim to show the meaning of this "diffuse cultural movement" (p. xii). The authors are not merely observers; they are advocates as well. They intend to demonstrate "why so many thinkers and creative artists consider [postmodernism] to be worth defending" (p. xii).

The authors answer three broad questions. What are postmodernism's roots intellectually and historically? What are its essential characteristics? What are its cultural consequences?

Generally, the authors are successful in achieving their goals. From this introductory work, a patient reader gains an understanding of the basic nature of postmodernism, notes the elements of postmodernism that even these advocates acknowledge are doubtful, and sees the footprints that postmodernists continue to leave on Western culture today. Though readers will not find in-depth philosophical detection here, they will see enough evidence to enable them to construct their own tentative theory and evaluation of postmodernism.[1]

STYLE. Most of the authors, especially in Part II, "Critical Terms, A-Z," write as clearly as readers could expect from advocates of a movement that values disintegration, pervasive irony, and neologisms. An example of one of the many straightforward identifications of characteristics of postmodernism is the following statement by Angélique du Toit, author of Ch. 10, "Postmodernism and Organizations."

[P]ostmodernism rejects the modernist perspective of a reality perceived through conventional scientific methods and focuses instead on the role of language in constituting reality. (p. 110)

Most of the assembled authors define their terms and offer examples as illustrations. Occasionally readers will encounter puzzling statements such as this one:

The assertedly obsolete body of a performer [in a theatrical production], referenced by Deleuze, above, yet performed for its other -- not wholly unlike the widely distributed self in multi-authored electronic arts where that distributed self is a vehicle for a differently modulated knowledge practice -- does nothing, in the event (taken literally) to erase the drive, in a spectator-other, to identify and to recuperate self from that dispersion and from that performed obsolesence. (p. 199)

On the other hand, the book has additional virtues. Three are: endnotes and bibliography that offer researchers an opportunity to go deeper into primary sources; frequent mentions of criticisms of postmodernism by modernists (which here generally means those who support Enlightenment values such as progress, reason, and universal logic); and cross-referencing, for example, by placing in boldface the postmodernist terms defined in the lexicon at the end of the book.

(A later post will describe postmodernists' views of reason and mysticism, using Sim's book as an initial resource.)

CONCLUSION. Reading The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism gives general readers an overview of the postmodernist movement; and it provides more specialized students of history a starting point for deeper studies.

Related, the postmodernist attack on Plato as the father of philosophy: "The Tragedy of Reason (Bk. Rev.)," Sept. 27, 2009, The Main Event.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at www.reasonversusmysticism.com

[1] For a clear historical and philosophical detection of postmodernism, I recommend Stephen R. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, expanded (2nd) edition, China, Ockham's Razor Publishing, 2011, 276 pages. I have not yet read the two essays (on free speech and art) added to the end of the second edition. I may review this book later. The author appears to be influenced -- perhaps only indirectly and partly -- by the philosophy of Objectivism. The influence may have come through David Kelley, an ex-Objectivist.