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

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