Why I am not a postmodernist

Well, I’ve finally struggled through Michel Foucault’s The Order of things, much in the manner of someone destroying his health trying to cross the Sahara on foot, but too stubborn to give up. The enterprise started well – his preface laid out the bones of a thesis that there have been fundamental changes in the very patterns of thought, especially scientific thought, of which he proposes three since the sixteenth century. These changes are far deeper than the changing science itself, and he describes them as being at an “archaeological” level, and the result of rather mysterious forces rather than any new discoveries or increase in rationality.

That seems to mesh with similar themes explored here, from Michael Polanyi’s contention that “personal knowledge” is brought to bear on all science (an idea that prefigures the work of Kuhn on paradigm shifts, and related concepts) to Arthur Lovejoy’s exploration of the developlent and decline of one major concept, the Great Chain of Being and Owen Barfield’s much grander thesis about the history of “participation” in thought from prehistory to today. And I’ve mentioned more, including the whole matter of John Walton’s (and others’) uncovering of the very different (but not inferior) understanding of reality of the biblical authors from that of modern science.

The first of these authors brings his ideas as a physical scientist, the second as a historian of ideas, the third as a philosopher and the fourth as a theologian. So getting a sociologist on the case seemed a good idea. But reading through the 400 pages or so of the book I found I ended up understanding very little of it. Part of this was owing to its very dense style, littered with references to fairly obscure writers (whose ideas one was expected to know) and metaphors that seemed to make things more, rather than less, obscure.

The net result was to give me the impression that the total amount of meat on the thesis was rather scanty, and that the obscurity seemed to be hiding rather less-than-convincing arguments: the preface seemed to say almost as much as the rest. For example, the examplar sciences he tracks through the centuries are biology, economics and grammar; but it gradually becomes clear that these are presented not as cogent examples, but as the fundamental sciences on which all others are founded. Can that really be so? Can it be true that the core sciences of humanity in the modern era are psychoanalysis and, of all disciplines, ethnology? And can it really be true that one of the pivotal philosophical figures inaugurating the modern age is the Marquis de Sade? I found it hard to avoid the impression, to use a less than erudite English idiom, that “‘E’s ‘aving a laugh, isn’t ‘e?” That vied with the more worrying thought that the problem was actually my lack of intelligence.

Then, reading another, far more engaging book, I came upon an extract from the amusing postmodern nonsense essays generated by the algorithm on this website. It read:

“If one examines capitalist discourse, one is faced with a choice: either reject nihilism or conclude that the goal of the writer is social comment, given that the premise of Foucaultist power relations is valid.”

Not only did this meaningless sentence mention Foucault – it was identical with his style. A bit of research turned up an essay citing anti-deconstructionist philosopher John Searle:

Searle begins by reciting Paul Grice’s four Maxims of Manner: be clear, be brief, be orderly, and avoid obscurity of expression. These are systematically violated in France, Searle says, partly due to the influence of German philosophy. Searle translates Foucault’s admission to him this way: “In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.”

As one Amazon reviewer says, if you don’t understand something in Foucault, he probably doesn’t intend you to. The essay goes on:

Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago suggests that the abstruseness is calculated to inspire admiration:

Some precincts of the continental philosophical tradition, though surely not all of them, have an unfortunate tendency to regard the philosopher as a star who fascinates, and frequently by obscurity, rather than as an arguer among equals. When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma.

Well, that’s no more than an extension of Foucault’s own admission. If, in fact, it were merely a national stylistic matter it would help explain the eclipsed influence of French (and German) philosophy, but there’s more than that. The Postmodernists’ broad agenda (including Foucault’s own in later books) is to deny the very possibility of finding truthful meaning in written sources. But that would hardly be surprising if one is used to injecting meaningless obscurity even into ones own works.

Oddly enough Foucault (whom John Searle for some reason rates highly) criticises this very thing in others:

John Searle: With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking in French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying. That’s the obscurantism part. And then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.”

That term obscurantisme terroriste is actually quite useful. Haven’t you had the experience in internet discussions, with certain people, that whatever conclusion you draw from their words, they always accuse you of misunderstanding or misrepresenting them? After a while, given ones ability to understand and respond to everybody else quite satisfactorily, you begin to realise that you’re not the one with the problem.

Now Foucault, at least in his book, may be obscure, but he doesn’t throw out accusations of stupidity to all and sundry. But maybe he employs a more subtle way of avoiding critical evaluation. Since he owns up to introduucing 10% deliberate obscurity, what does that say about someone who finds him 30 or 40% obscure, or more? The reader is, by implication, missing the point of mountains of stuff that, according to Foucault, wasn’t obscure. Opponents are still quietly damned as stupid.

I found it quite interesting trawling the Amazon reviews of The Order of Things, which I did, I confess, in order to find someone who could give me a key to unlocking the thesis of the book. One or two said they were bears of little brain and could not understand it. Some said they’ve just begun to see the light after the third reading, some just said that as it is a standard text so explaining it would be superfluous. Some said it was life-changing and some that they’d seen through it and it was complete tosh. But nobody actually summarised his argument beyond what I’d got from the preface. So the impression that Postmodernism has a lot to do with emperors and suits of clothes remains strong.

That said, the human origin of knowledge, and its consequent mutability over time, seems to me established in many ways regardless of the Deconstructionists. For whatever reasons, the latter seem to treat this (as Eddie Robinson commented on a recent thread) as a denial that true knowledge can exist, and that all truth claims are entirely subjective and evanescent. But this is to turn a prudent humility into a nihilistic despair.

One ought to be cautious about promoting any knowledge, including philosophy and the latest fads in theology as well as the findings of empirical science, into eternal truths. One ought likewise to be very aware of the fact that all practical knowledge finally comes to us through senses that, it seems, bear a fairly loose and arbitrary relationship to “what is out there”. To me, what that says is that materialism forms a basis for epistemology no stronger, and in some ways weaker, than other sources of truth.

At the same time, it’s significant that our senses form the strongest basis we have for some kind of universality of knowledge. We may see the world very differently from a Babylonian sage, but we could still have a drink with him. We might see a dead aurochs as a species of ungulate, whilst its Aurignacian hunter sees it as his totem, but we could still help him cook it.

So gaining cognizance of the relativity of knowledge does not destroy truth, as the Postmodernists would have us believe. But if we are to go beyond mere sensory experience of the world and claim knowledge of deeper things, it does teach us that faith is a necessary basis for truth ater all.

Stephen C Allen puts it like this:

[P]ostmodernism, as others have attempted to define it, is literally impossible. It is the worldview of self-contradiction. It rejects becoming and replaces it with simply being. Who can have no point of reference and still manage to get anyplace? The goal of postmodernism is to not have a goal. The strongest conviction of postmodernism is not to have a strong conviction about anything. It is open to anything except dogmatism. It is only consistent in being inconsistent.

The one who prides himself on having no prejudice to his thoughts, words, and deeds, is at the same time equally guilty of the deliberate selectivity of his prejudice – he has created an even more malicious and bracketed epistemology in an attempt to arrive at a true one. In a more clear manner, we all have a faith presupposition. This is why deconstruction exists. We all operate from our faith presupposition, even when deconstructionists attempt to bracket it.

His conclusion is one I agree with:

We are all still spiritual beings who require a faith presupposition in something bigger than ourselves, and lying outside of ourselves, in order to function and have meaning. We have created an epistemological agnosticism, however, because we’re too proud to admit the previous.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Philosophy, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Why I am not a postmodernist

  1. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    You’ve got more stamina than I do, Jon, to get through a whole book by Foucault. I once read some excerpts by Foucault, and I couldn’t make any sense of them at all. So to read a whole book of such stuff would be a form of self-torture.

    When I was younger, I would make an effort. I once read two books by Heidegger, all the way through. Of course, Heidegger is in many ways the granddaddy of all these Foucaults and Derridas — almost all Continental thought was influenced by him. Heidegger’s writing alternated between academic lucidity (after all, he originally trained as an expositor of scholastic theology) and complete obscurity. In one of his books there was one essay that was particularly abstract. I read the whole thing, very slowly and deliberately, trying to force myself not to go on to a new paragraph until I had understood the previous one (though that isn’t too good a strategy with Heidegger, whose paragraphs can be two pages long). I was able to follow the *grammatical* structure of every sentence, but without gaining any clue what he was talking about. The whole essay seemed to consciously avoid using any common nouns (as opposed to abstract nouns). It read to me as if he had written something like: “Although it is true that our modern understanding of frumblgumpf has been modified by gnarstopol, and granting that those who have not understood the ever-present Moment for what it is, i.e., a self-involuting process of self-realization, yet even still, in our very rebellion against the vorshishek of the smarbledowns, we can perceive the self-illuminating character of the eternity-denying historicity of our odjiwadjis.” To this day, I could not tell you anything about that essay, to save my life; I could not even give a one-sentence summary of its main thesis, or even its main subject. And that is true of very few writings. I almost always remember *something*, even years later, of everything I’ve read. I found Kant’s *Critique of Pure Reason* immensely difficult, and much of it was over my head at the time, but I could still discuss some of its main arguments, 30 years later. It is not so with 90% of the prose of Heidegger.

    If you can get hold of it, you might enjoy an essay (I can’t remember where it was originally published — in an anthology, I think) called “Reconstruction” by Ian Robinson of the University of Swansea. It is a great critique of Derrida and “deconstruction.”

    It’s really amusing to listen to two academics debating incomprehensibly about Derrida. After a time, one of them will arrogantly say to the other, “You don’t understand Derrida.” But then, when pressed to explain Derrida himself, in language a normal person could understand, the academic can’t do it. One has the strong sense that the whole academic world revolving around such writers is a world of complete bluff. And the taxpayers are footing the bill. It’s really sad.

    There are philosophy departments where there are, say, a dozen professors, and there is not nearly enough coverage of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Spinoza, Mill, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Wittgenstein, Whitehead, Bergson, etc., while there are four or five professors doing nothing but Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, Levinas, etc. Yet in the end, the only students who would ever naturally be drawn to read those recent philosophers are students who are thinking of doing a Ph.D. in Philosophy or Literary Theory. The average undergraduate in Philosophy wants to spend time reading the traditional great books and thinking about the great questions of life, not to be trained to decode obscure graduate-level texts in a field in which it is impossible for any human being (other than a professor) to even make a living.

    What our philosophy profs fail to understand is that before Heidegger was Heidegger, he studied Greek and Medieval philosophy etc. The best way to prepare an undergraduate student to critically receive Heidegger and Derrida and Foucault etc. is not to teach those authors to undergrads; it is to teach the tradition that those modern writers built on. Then, toward the very end of undergraduate, one could introduce these modern obscure writers, so that those interested could get a taste of what graduate school in Continental philosophy would be like. (But by that time, having studied for years the work of good philosophical writers such as Plato, Hobbes, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Feuerbach, most students would probably be very critical of the deliberate obscurity and vagueness in Derrida, Foucault, etc. And that would be a very good result of an undergraduate education in philosophy, to be able to spot poor writing and muddy argument, and call it for what it is.)

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Another good tactic in Foucault takes your pastiche a little further, thus: “… in our very rebellion against the vorshishek of the smarbledowns, or if not rebellion, then tacit consent.” Give with one hand, take away with the other.

      In the Amazon reviews, I noticed a codeword kept reappearing: “erudite”. There’s a subtle difference, in common parlance, between a description like “well-read” (meaning “he’s read all I have, and then some”) and “erudite” (meaning “Who swallowed the library, then?”).

      I wish I could remember the scientist who said that if a theory can’t be represented as a strip cartoon, it’s probably false!

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    There is a great deal of obscurity in the writings of post-modernists, and I find texts that I have spent some time trying to read, seem dedicated to a version of “the contradiction”. However, I also see in these few writings, the genesis of the relativism, especially regarding the broad area of morality (the question of good and evil), and the destructive forces unleashed in the Western world (resited by extremists in the developing world with equally destructive forces). These brief remarks serve as a preface an interesting essay by Tomas Halík, “The Unknown Yet Too Close”, http://halik.cz/en/tvorba/clanky-eseje/clanek/160/.

    I provide a brief quote from Halík which I think articulates the modern dilemma:

    “During the period since Nietzsche’s death on the very threshold of the 20th century many “new gods” have made their appearance and there have been many attempts to present a “new man” or superman. One might even say that the century in which atheism and religious apathy – in a large part of Europe, at least – spread as never before, was also a period when “new gods” and various versions of a “new man” were mass-produced. I don’t think Nietzsche would have said to any of them in a joyful spirit in the words of his compatriot Goethe “Verweile doch, du bist so schön”. I wonder whether, even at this time of flourishing religion and the “return of God” to the great home of our civilization, which is the subject of so much discussion, whether it is not the return of the old destructive gods or cheap imitations of religion.”

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Nice piece by Halík, GD. It actually articulates something I left out of the OP’s conclusion (which said less even than I meant it to say).

      I had wanted to convey some idea that the common currency of knowledge is still the universal shared experience of the sensory – even the existentialist philosopher or the reductive materialist spends most of his life in the “ordinary”, taking the kids to school, enjoying the world “as seen” and so on. So much confusion arises from varied attempts to “get behind” what our senses tell us to some deeper truth, which always seems to end up as a stylized and attenuated explanation of the sensory.

      But as Halík says, beyond the commonplace sensory experience there’s also, in fact, a universal human experience of God, heavily papered over in our age by layers of existential angst, fashionable secularism, false “pick ‘n’ mix” deities (especially those produced by superceded academic movements) and the exaggerated pretence that there are too many gods to believe in any of them.

      That pervasive , but perverted, sense of the divine in most people was my experience over a whole career in hands-on medicine, and hasn’t been diminished, since retirement, now my conversations are online and international.

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