I just sent the older of my two sons off to college. Some other parents in that same position have asked me about postmodernism, which they have heard is running rampant through our institutions of higher learning. They want to know what it is and what I think of it. The brutally brief answers are: “That’s hard to say” and “Not much.” But in trying to explain a bit more fully what postmodernism is and why I take such a dim view of it, it occurred to me that my answers and my reasons for them might be fairly typical of “analytic” philosophers, and so my explanations might also be of some use to those who wonder just what philosophers of my type have against postmodernism, and what it is that we think we’re reacting against. It’s largely in that hope that I post this.
I considered changing the title of this post. I intended “take a dim view of” to indicate that I don’t hold postmodernism in high regard. It occurred to me that it might also suggest that my view is dim in the sense that I don’t understand my subject matter very well. But I’ve decided that, since I really don’t understand the subject matter all that well, it’s fine if that suggestion is made.
In section 9, I’ll also have a little something to say about whether, where and to what extent postmodernism really is running rampant through colleges and universities – though on this matter, what I’ll mostly be doing is linking to an excellent post by somebody else on just that question. Actually, throughout this post I’ll be linking to on-line material that I’ve found helpful, and those links may well prove to be the most valuable aspect of this exercise.
Below the Fold:
1. The Postmodern Team
2. Characterizing Postmodernism
3. Fashionable Nonsense and French Heroes of Postmodernism
4. My Experiences with American Postmodernism
5. The Claims of Postmodernists – Wild or Tame?: The Case of Prof. Fish and a Brief look at Prof. Robbins
6. Some Positions – Both Tame and Wild – That Might Be Attractive to Some with Postmodern Sensibilities
7. Forewarned is Forearmed
8. A Suggestion for Teachers of Introductory Philosophy Classes
9. Where and to What Extent is Postmodernism Prevalent in Our Colleges and Universities?
10. “This Postmodern World of Ours”
1. The Postmodern Team
The webpost that I will be sending you to on the question of whether and to what extent postmodernism (pomo) really has taken over our institutions of higher learning is Brian Leiter’s “The Myth of the Postmodern University,” which begins as follows:
Misperceptions in the public culture about universities are legion. . . but one of the most peculiar is the perception of universities as hotbeds of “postmodernism,” i.e., generalized skepticism about truth, meaning, and knowledge.
What’s relevant to our discussion right now is Leiter’s “i.e.” account of what “postmodernism” is. To be fair, his post is focused on how prevalent pomo is in universities, and the above is just a very quick stab at saying what pomo is. Still, if one were to try to give an account of what pomo is in terms of the views that postmodernist thinkers hold, Leiter’s above account may be about as good as one could do, at least while being so brief.
But I’m convinced that no such account – even more expansive and nuanced accounts – can succeed in getting all the cases of thinkers correctly divided into pomo and non-pomo camps. A problem with Leiter’s account is that there are crystal-clear cases of non-pomo philosophers who fit Leiter’s characterization of postemodernism to a greater extent than do many clear cases of genuine postmodernists. For instance, Peter Unger’s great book, Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism (Oxford UP, 1975) espouses a very radical and alarmingly general skepticism about knowledge – as well as some fairly alarming and quite general skeptical thoughts about truth and meaning. But – rightly – I would never think to classify Unger circa 1975 (or at any time during his career, for that matter) as a postmodernist philosopher. Meanwhile, there are genuine postmodernists who are just not that obsessed with “generalized skepticism about truth, meaning, and knowledge.”
If asked why Unger was such a clear case of a non-pomo philosopher, despite his views, I’m tempted to appeal to philosophical style: Unger expresses and argues for his views much too clearly, carefully, and powerfully to be placed in the postmodernist camp. And indeed, matters of style – writing style as well as one’s basic way of approaching issues – may provide as good a way to characterize postmodernist thought as does citing views characteristic of the camp. (And I will have something to say about these matters of style below.) But I don’t think appealing to style will in the end be any better at giving an account that divides postmodernist from non-pomo thought in the right places.
Compare. Suppose you were asked this about American politics: What’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican? You might naturally begin by stating some differences in the basic views those in the two parties tend to take on various matters of policy. But it’s very possible that someone could then cite clear cases of a genuine Republican and a genuine Democrat such that the Republican’s positions are closer to your characterization of Democratic positions, and the Democrat’s views are closer to what you said Republicans tend to believe. Now, you could try to fix up your “theory” by giving a more nuanced account of Democratic vs. Republican positions, perhaps in part by relativizing your account to geographic regions: “A Republican in the Northeast tends to take these positions…”
But while this may well illuminate important differences between the parties, it seems hopeless for the purpose of getting all the cases right. Because, look, one is pretty much free to join either party, whatever one’s views are. Now, most people join the party which takes positions closer to their own, at least on the issues most important to them. But some will join, or stick with, a party for other reasons: personal, family, or regional loyalty to one or the other party, for instance. So no matter how carefully you devise your account of what positions those in the two parties tend to take, there can always be some counter-example to your account – someone who for whatever reason joins the “wrong” party, so far as their views go. Now, we are sometimes tempted to say of such a misfit: “She’s not a real Republican,” for instance. But if the misfit is a member in good standing of the Republican party, then, no matter how much more closely her views match up with the characteristic Democratic views, what we say won’t be literally true. To speak the literal truth, she is a real Republican, despite her views. That’s just how political parties work.
Being a postmodernist seems to be at least somewhat like being a member of a particular political party in this way. Various facts about a thinker, like who that thinker reads, cites, takes seriously, goes to conferences with, and identifies with, can constitute that thinker being a member of the postmodernist “party” – or, to switch the metaphor, the postmodernist “team.” In fact, a big part of being on this team might be a simple matter of identifying oneself that way. And though thinkers with certain views and styles will be more likely to be members of the postmodernist team than others, team membership is at least partly constituted by factors like the ones I just mentioned, and not wholly by one’s views or style. If so, then it is hopeless for any account of the pomo/non-pomo difference that attempts to mark it wholly by reference to a thinker’s views, or even her views plus her intellectual style, to get all the possible cases right.
Now, there are a lot of details that would have to be worked out here if I were seeking a proper analysis (“S is a postmodernist if and only if: 1. ….” – you know, the kind of thing we analytic philosophers can get obsessed with). But that’s not my aim here. I just want to suggest that something like the above rough account is right. And that’s important because, if anything even remotely like this suggestion is correct, we shouldn’t expect any elaboration of the views and styles characteristic of postmodernism to give us an account that divides all the possible cases correctly.
Still, one seeking to understand the Democratic party may be very interested in learning about the policy positions typical of Democrats. In fact, that may be some of the most important information one could give such a “seeker.” Realizing that it’s not (just) a matter of what one’s views are that makes one count as a Democrat frees us from having to worry about all the possible counter-examples to our characterization of Democratic views. If you have a good account of the positions Democrats tend to take, you shouldn’t be scared off of that account by the fact that some weird Democrat from Georgia holds quite different views. Now, if there are enough cases that go against your account, that may be a sign that a more nuanced (and perhaps a geographically relativized) account may be called for. But it’s important to realize no account of what positions Democrats hold will get all possible cases correctly classified into the Democrat and non-Democrat camps.
Likewise, for postmodernism. We are now free to characterize, as best we can, the views and styles of postmodernists, without being obsessed by possible counter-examples to our account.
2. Characterizing Postmodernism
So, realizing that not all postmodernists hold them, we can ask: What views are typically associated with postmodernism? Going beyond the very brief characterization we’ve already looked at, here’s a more detailed account that I’ve found helpful. It’s from the “General Postmodernist Themes” section of Elizabeth Anderson’s entry on “Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It goes beyond the views associated with the movement, also speaking of the inspirations of the movement and some matters of style. Since it’s a better account – and an account more sympathetic to postmodernism – than anything I’d come up with, I’ll simply let Anderson do the work here and quote her at (very considerable) length. (If you like it, and are interested, you may want to follow the above link and read all of Anderson’s article. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great resource, free and open to everyone with internet access.) So, without any further ado, here’s Anderson:
Postmodernism as a North American intellectual movement draws inspiration from a variety of French poststructuralist and postmodernist theorists, including Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Lyotard, and Irigaray. It embodies a skeptical sensibility that questions attempts to transcend our situatedness by appeal to such ideas as universality, necessity, objectivity, rationality, essence, unity, totality, foundations, and ultimate Truth and Reality. It stresses the locality, partiality, contingency, instability, uncertainty, ambiguity and essential contestability of any particular account of the world, the self, and the good. Politically, the postmodernist emphasis on revealing the situatedness and contestability of any particular claim or system of thought is supposed to serve both critical and liberatory functions. It delegitimizes ideas that dominate and exclude by undermining their claims to transcendent justification. And it opens up space for imagining alternative possibilities that were obscured by those claims.
Although postmodernist themes are often expressed in an obscure jargon, they can be cast in terms more familiar to analytic philosophers. Postmodernists begin with ideas about language and systems of thought. They claim that (what we think of as) reality is “discursively constructed.” This is the linguistic version of the now inescapable (!) Kantian thought that our minds grasp things not as they are “in themselves” but only through concepts, signified by words. “The linguistic sign acts reflexively, not referentially” in a “discursive field.” This is a version of radical meaning holism: signs get their meaning not from their reference to external things but from their relations to all of the other signs in a system of discourse. Meaning holism entails that the introduction of new signs (or elimination of old ones) will change the meanings of the signs that were already in use. Signs therefore do not have a fixed meaning over time. This is a Heraclitean version of historicism: we cannot step into the same stream of thought twice. Together, these ideas support the “rejection of totalizing metanarratives.” There can be no complete, unified theory of the world that captures the whole truth about it. Any such theory will contain a definite set of terms. This entails that it cannot express all conceptual possibilities. For a discourse that contained different terms would contain meanings not available in the discursive field of the theory that claims completeness. Thus, the selection of any particular theory or narrative is an exercise of “power” — to exclude certain possibilities from thought and to authorize others.
Postmodernism extends these ideas about language to social practices more generally. The key idea underwriting this extension is that actions and practices are linguistic signs. Like words, they signify things beyond themselves by means of linguistic devices such as metaphor and metonymy. For example, the elevation of the judge’s bench metaphorically signifies his superior authority over everyone else in the courtroom. This permits an analysis of social practices and behaviors as exhibiting the same structure and dynamics as language itself. Just as words get their meaning from their relations to other words rather than from their relation to some external reality, so do actions get their meaning from their relations to other actions, rather than from their relation to some pre-linguistic realm of human nature or natural law. Thus, the superior authority of the judge consists in the conventions of deference others manifest in their actions toward him. It is not underwritten by a supposed natural tendency of humans to obey authority, or by an underlying normatively objective authority. The latter thoughts express essentialist and objectivist power plays, attempts to foreclose contests over practices by fixing them in a supposedly extra-linguistic reality. Such attempts are not only objectionable but futile, because the meanings of actions are constantly being subverted by other actions that, in changing the context of the former actions, changes their meanings. This is why postmodernists celebrate ironic, parodic, and campy renditions of conventional behaviors as politically liberating (Butler 1993). If Marx lamented that history repeats itself twice — first as tragedy, second as farce — postmodernists revel in the same process.
Postmodernists view the self as likewise constituted by signs that have meaning only in relation to other signs. There is no unified self that underlies the play of a stream of signifiers. This is a linguistic version of Hume’s fragmented stream-of-consciousness account of the self, but with a social twist. Signs, unlike Hume’s simple ideas, form language, which is socially constructed. Thus, although subjectivity is constituted through the production of signs, the self is not free to make of these whatever it wants, but finds itself entangled in a web of meanings not of its own creation. Our identities are socially imposed, not autonomously created. However, this does not foreclose the possibility of agency, because we occupy multiple social identities (e.g., a woman might be a worker, a mother, lesbian, Mexican, and so forth). The tensions among these conflicting identities open up spaces for disrupting the discursive systems that construct us.
Because, in its philosophy of language, words refer to concepts rather than things in the world, postmodernism reproduces in linguistic terms some of the same epistemological conundrums posed in the history of modern philosophy by the veil of ideas. This generates a tendency toward idealism in both traditions. However, given the constant flux of meanings generated by holism, these tendencies cannot secure the certainty or stability that empiricists thought they could attain by resorting to idealism. The more careful practitioners of postmodernism resist wholesale idealism. Claims that bodies, matter, or the objects investigated by the natural sciences are “discursively constructed” or “socially constructed” do not assert that the external world would disappear if people stopped talking about it. Rather, they assert a kind of nominalism: that the world does not dictate the categories we use to describe it, that innumerable incompatible ways of classifying the world are available to us, and therefore that the selection of any one theory is a choice that cannot be justified by appeal to “objective” truth or reality. Even the ways we draw our distinctions between mind and body, ideas and objects, discourse and reality, are contestable.
(In the last paragraph of the above passage, Anderson raises the issue of just how wild a thesis is being expressed when postmodernists make such claims as that things like physical objects are “discursively constructed” or “socially constructed.” Anderson seems to interpret these claims, at least when they’re coming from “the more careful practitioners of postmodernism,” as being quite tame indeed. We will discuss this matter a bit below, in sections 5-6.)
3. Fashionable Nonsense and French Heroes of Postmodernism
In the above, before going on to characterize views typically taken by Postmodern thinkers, Anderson begins by mentioning the “French poststructuralist and postmodernist theorists” from whom North American Postmodernists draw inspiration. This is a good idea. You can tell a lot about an intellectual movement from whom they take as their heroes.
As it happens, there’s a book that contains lots of quotations – some of them quite long – from several of these French thinkers, including some that Anderson mentions in her short list: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (Picador, 1998), by the physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. This is an English edition of Sokal and Bricmont’s Impostures Intellectuelles, which came out a year earlier in French. Here is a link to the amazon.com page for the book, for those who might be interested in getting it. And here are links to two reviews of the book that I recommend: “The Sleep of Reason,” by the philosopher Thomas Nagel; and “Postmodernism Disrobed,” by the biologist Richard Dawkins. These reviews give you a good idea of what the book is like, and might also provide enough of a taste of the writings of the French thinkers in question for those who have a hard time stomaching even as much of their writing as makes it into the reviews. As one might guess from the book’s title, Sokal and Bricmont are not great fans of these French writers. Neither are Nagel or Dawkins.
As a bonus, Fashionable Nonsense contains the article by Sokal (which you can also read by following the below link), the publication of which constituted the (in)famous “Sokal hoax” that everyone interested in our topic should know about. Nagel describes the incident as follows:
You will remember that in 1996 a physicist at New York University named Alan Sokal brought off a delicious hoax that displayed the fraudulence of certain leading figures in cultural studies. He submitted to the journal Social Text an article entitled “Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity“, espousing the fashionable doctrine that scientific objectivity is a myth, and combining heavy technical references to contemporary physics and mathematics with patently ridiculous claims about their broader philosophical, cultural and political significance, supported by quotations in similar vein from prominent figures like Lacan and Lyotard, and references to many more. The nonsense made of the science was so extreme that only a scientific ignoramus could have missed the joke.
Sokal’s article expressed deep admiration for the views of two editors of Social Text, Stanley Aronowitz and Andrew Ross, quoting at length from Aronowitz’s crack-brained social interpretations of quantum theory. The article was published in a special issue of Social Text devoted to science studies, Sokal revealed the hoax, and nothing has been quite the same since.
In Fashionable Nonsense, Sokal and Bricmont focus on places where the French writers in question make use of scientific and mathematical ideas, quoting the writers extensively, and then explaining how they are misusing the ideas in question. As Nagel writes: “Nearly half the book consists of extensive quotations of scientific gibberish from name-brand French intellectuals, together with eerily patient explanations of why it is gibberish. This is amusing at first, but becomes gradually sickening.” I definitely concur with Nagel’s characterization; I’d only add as a warning that many might find that this becomes sickening very quickly. I felt a strange duty to read the whole book, but others wiser than me might make do with some selections – perhaps limiting themselves to the parts that make the reviews I link to above. Nagel – who for my money has about as good a claim as anyone to being the world’s leading living philosopher – summarizes his impressions of these thinkers memorably:
The writers arraigned by Sokal and Bricmont use technical terms without knowing what they mean, refer to theories and formulas that they do not understand in the slightest, and invoke modern physics and mathematics in support of psychological, sociological, political, and philosophical claims to which they have no relevance. It is not always easy to tell how much is due to invincible stupidity and how much to the desire to cow the audience with fraudulent displays of theoretical sophistication. Lacan and Baudrillard come across as complete charlatans, Irigaray as an idiot, Kristeva and Deleuze as a mixture of the two. But these are delicate judgments.
It’s hard for me to imagine someone coming away from reading Fashionable Nonsense without drawing some sort of similarly negative conclusion. But my imagination is apparently very limited. These are much-admired French thinkers.
Recall that Anderson remarks about the “obscure jargon” characteristic of postmodern writings. Dawkins begins his review with an hypothesis as to why these writers might be avoiding clarity, together with a couple of brief examples of the kind of writing in question:
Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:
We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.
This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, one of many fashionable French ‘intellectuals’ outed by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their splendid book Intellectual Impostures, previously published in French and now released in a completely rewritten and revised English edition. Guattari goes on indefinitely in this vein and offers, in the opinion of Sokal and Bricmont, “the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered.” Guattari’s close collaborator, the late Gilles Deleuze, had a similar talent for writing:
In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather ‘metastable’, endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed… In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.
(A bit more on style: Leiter has been reminding us at his blog of Karl Kraus’s aphorism, “No ideas and the ability to express them – that’s a journalist.” If Dawkins’s above complaint about lack of content is just, one might be tempted to apply this aphorism to postmodernism – perhaps with an added little twist – to get a characterization that, though very concise, makes reference to both the content of postmodernists’ thought (or at least the lack thereof) and their style: “No ideas and the ability to express them flamboyantly – that’s a postmodernist.” An amusing little “how-to” piece on the speaking and writing style involved, “How to Speak and Write Postmodern” by the sociologist, Stephen Katz, who is actually at least sympathetic to postmodernism, is posted here. In his review, Dawkins suggests readers visit the Postmodernism Generator, explaining: “It is a literally infinite source of randomly generated, syntactically correct nonsense, distinguishable from the real thing only in being more fun to read. You could generate thousands of papers per day, each one unique and ready for publication, complete with numbered endnotes. Manuscripts should be submitted to the ‘Editorial Collective’ of Social Text, double-spaced and in triplicate.”)
I should quickly admit that I haven’t read anything by most of these French writers except for what made it into Fashionable Nonsense — and that, of course, in English translation. And I don’t plan to, if I can manage to avoid reading any more. That’s really quite enough. And Sokal and Bricmont focused only on passages where the writers involved misused scientific and mathematical ideas, leaving open the possibility that they are less sickening when they’re working with other kinds of thoughts. And no doubt Sokal and Bricmont chose those passages that made the writers look the most ridiculous.
But still! Some of the quoted passages are very extensive, and seem to me thoroughly awful. I have to worry about any writer who will carry on like that for that long. (If one is worried about these writers being quoted “out of context,” I’d have to say that some of these passages are such as to compel the thought that there is no possible context they could occur in that would make them anything better than dreadful.) And I don’t hold out much hope for the possibility that these thinkers are more sensible when dealing with other ideas. Here my sentiments are very much in line with those of Nagel, who, in response to Sokal’s and Bricmont’s contention that they are qualified only to address the French writers’ abuse of science and math, writes this (from which I drew the use of “fogbank” in the title to this post):
Sokal and Bricmont are playing it close to the vest here. They could no doubt find passages in these same works having nothing to do with science that are nonsensical, irresponsible, and indifferent to the meanings of words. Yet there is no direct way to refute a fogbank, and so they have adopted the safer strategy of focusing on the occasions when these writers rashly try to invoke the authority of science and mathematics by using a vocabulary that does have a clear meaning, and which could not serve their purposes, literal or metaphorical, unless it were being used more or less correctly. That also allows them to explain why the scientific material introduced, even if it were not completely garbled, would be irrelevant to the literary, psychological, or social topics being discussed.
And Dawkins is moved to write this in response to a particularly looney passage from Lacan (some of the content of which is revealed in what Dawkins has to say about it):
We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the author of this stuff is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.
Life is short, and I’ve wasted too much time on this stuff already. But perhaps the material in this book can help fans of these French writers and people like me have something of a meeting of the minds. I would want to ask: Do you agree that the material quoted in this book is truly awful, or at least very, very bad, but you just think it is quite atypical, and there is other stuff by these writers that is very valuable? Or do you think the material quoted in the book is really quite fine? Maybe that could be a starting point.
4. My Experiences with American Postmodernism
My duties on humanities divisional committees have involved me in reading quite a bit of material by (what I at least take to be) postmodern writers. I would have to classify a lot of the material I’ve had to read as philosophy, but it is written by people who teach in various different humanities departments other than philosophy departments at various schools. And I generally find it to be dreadful.
Quite a bit of my own philosophical work has been on the topic of skepticism, and though I am not myself a skeptic, I often learn much from defenses of skepticism. Indeed, some of my very favorite philosophical writings – and some of the writings that have done the most to inform my own work – are expressions of skepticism. What’s more, much of my own work has been in defense of “contextualism” in epistemology, a position according to which the meaning of some key terms important to epistemology – especially “knows” – vary with context. And I’ve argued that just this variation – or as postmodernists would be more likely to put it, this “instability” – in meaning is responsible for generating various philosophical problems. So, since a skeptical sensibility and a stress on the instability of meaning and language are main characteristics of postmodern thought, one might expect that, among analytic philosophers, I am peculiarly well-positioned to benefit from reading postmodernist writings. But despite my areas of philosophical interest, I don’t believe I have ever found a helpful idea in any of what I have taken to be the postmodernist material I have read. In a similar vein, it’s worth noting that Nagel often displays a quite pronounced “skeptical sensibility” in his own writings. One of the best examples of this is the portion of his book The View from Nowhere that is included as one of the pro-skepticism selections in the Skepticism anthology that I co-edited with Fritz Warfield a few years back. Yet, as we’ve seen, Nagel does not seem to be much of a fan of postmodern philosophy, either.
(For those who are familiar with postmodern philosophy, but are curious to see some samples of how “analytic” philosophers pursue some of the philosophical themes characteristic of postmodernism, most of my favorite recent treatments of skepticism, at least as of 1999, are in the above-linked anthology. Some of the main approaches to the problem of skepticism are described in my editor’s introduction to the anthology, “Responding to Skepticism,” which is available on-line here. Some excellent new material on the topic has come out since 1999, when the anthology came out, one example of which is the “Scepticism” chapter of Timothy Williamson’s wonderful 2000 book, Knowledge and Its Limits. For those who might want to take a comparative – and perhaps critical – look at some of the relevant work I’ve done, a fairly recent example of my defense of epistemic “contextualism” is my “Assertion, Knowledge and Context,” which is available both in pdf and in word format here.)
One can get a good snapshot both of the kind of “English-department-philosophy” in question, together with a fairly typical philosophy-department-philosopher’s reaction to it from a recent post, entitled “You can’t make this stuff up (again)” (May 9, 2005), to Leiter’s weblog. Leiter, the philosophy-department-philosopher, writes this (the material in bold is what Leiter is quoting):
This abstract [Leiter here links to the abstract] is by a professor of English at a major university; it is for “A Prolegomenon to Cognitive Aesthetics.” It will not, I fear, enhance the opinion of philosophers about what goes on in some English Departments:
In this essay I begin with the proposition that AI [Artificial Intelligence] programs attempt to construct poems to blow our heads off. Beginning with this proposition opens up at least two pathways. The first pathway leads to the investigation of the nature of theories of mind, logic, and language. This is the domain of cognitive science and philosophy. I will say something about this pathway, but my concerns involve the construction of a second pathway, a path characterized by the transformation of the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ into the question ‘can one construct a philosophy of mind from literary aesthetics?’. Both questions should be understood as ways (failed ways) of trying to figure what is real as what is meaningful, what I understand as the paradigmatic goal of theology. Consequently, the mind understood in this way is both a theological and aesthetic problem, as much as a scientific question. Accomplishing the transformation of these two questions will delineate a domain of inquiry in which the relation between what counts as the mind and what counts as ways of meaning can be sensibly questioned.
These questions are partly motivated by the conflicting claims a string of related words have on me, or anyone, words through which I emerge as a human being to myself within language: ‘psyche’, ‘animate’, ‘inanimate’, ‘soul’, ‘mind’, ‘inhabit’, ‘meaning’, understand’, ‘description’, ‘justify’, ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘mine’, ‘our’, ‘world, ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘then’, ‘now’, ‘soon’, ‘change’, and ‘time’. I organize this collection around four superordinate words: ‘meaning’, ‘self-reflection’, ‘mind’ and ‘animation’. These four words mark the primary areas of contention between the disciplines of literature, analytic philosophy, and cognitive science (or AI). I call these words and the area of contention they delimit cognitive aesthetics.
Reading this brings to mind John Searle’s famous remark about Derrida: “this is the kind of stuff that gives bullshit a bad name.”
Yes, I know. Finding one bad abstract by a professor of English at a major university proves nothing. (I should add that this appears to be by someone at the rank of Assistant Professor. The university s/he teaches at is a very prestigious one. Nothing more than that seems to be called for by way of identification.) Abstracts often don’t give a good indication of the quality of the papers they’re abstracts of, and even if this paper is as bad as the abstract leads me to fear, one bad paper does not a whole movement condemn.
But I’m not out to prove anything here. My grounds for the dim view I take of a lot of the philosophy coming out of English departments consists of a lot of reading I’ve had to do, and I can’t reproduce those grounds here for someone who hasn’t done the same reading. I’m trying to explain why I take the view I do, realizing that I won’t here be able to justify taking that view to one inclined to resist it. And I’m bearish on such philosophy because I’ve seen a lot of it, coming from English-department-(and-other-non-philosophy-humanities-departments)-philosophers, some of whom appear to be genuine academic “stars”: highly sought-after full professors at very prestigious universities. And a lot of it has been about as bad as the above abstract would indicate its paper is. It is serving as an example of the kind of material I react so negatively to.
I worry about my colleagues in other humanities departments at Yale, some of whom have a very high tolerance for this kind of stuff. Indeed, some of them think that some of it that strikes me as dreadful is truly terrific. They would love Yale to hire some of the producers of it, while I really can’t see myself even giving it a decent grade if some student were to produce it in an introductory class. That’s a discrepancy that worries me. How can students who might take classes from these colleagues and also from me negotiate this great chasm between what their teachers think is good work? This great discrepancy also makes it very unpleasant to serve on humanities divisional committees when the committee must reach various judgments about the quality of the kind of work in question. Where to even begin deliberations when faced with such an enormous gap in standards of evaluation?
5. The Claims of Postmodernists – Wild or Tame?: The Case of Prof. Fish and a Brief look at Prof. Robbins
(I’ve been told that this section is a bit more difficult than the others. Some readers may want to skip it.)
When asked to think of a thesis characteristic of postmodernist philosophy, most people will come up with some pretty wild claims, like that “there is no objective truth,” or that what we think of as “reality” is really just a “social construction,” etc. But be careful! There are those who will tell you that’s just a myth, and nobody in any serious academic position believes any such thing. So, for example, here is the eminent Stanley Fish, responding to Sokal’s hoax in the New York Times (“Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke,” May 21, 1996):
When the editors of Social Text accepted an essay purporting to link developments in quantum mechanics with the formulations of postmodern thought, they could not have anticipated that on the day of its publication the author, Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, would be announcing in the pages of another journal, Lingua Franca, that the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax.
He had made it all up, he said, and gloated that his “prank” proved that sociologists and humanists who spoke of science as a “social construction” didn’t know what they were talking about. Acknowledging the ethical issues raised by his deception, Professor Sokal declared it justified by the importance of the truths he was defending from postmodernist attack: “There is a world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise?”
Exactly! Professor Sokal’s question should alert us to the improbability of the scenario he conjures up: Scholars with impeccable credentials making statements no sane person could credit. The truth is that none of his targets would ever make such statements.
What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed — fashioned by human beings — which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing.
I think that the best way to be charitable to Fish here is to read him as engaging in a bit of hyperbole. “None of [Sokal’s] targets would ever make such statements”?! Let’s just let that pass and understand Fish to be making the not-so-blazingly-obviously false claim that such statements are quite rare – at least among “scholars with impeccable credentials.”
Let’s note what the people in question are saying, according to Fish. First: “What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observation….” Stop the quotation right there for a brief comment!: I must admit to being more than a bit skeptical already. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I’ve heard or read from postmodern sociologists of science – even when you remove the “of course.” That the percentage of sociologists of science who would be so “bold” as to make such a statement (especially with the “of course” included!) is so high as to justify Fish’s blanket generic statement about what, not just “some” or “many” or even “most sociologists of science” say, but simply “What sociologists of science say” strikes me as incredible. Especially with the “of course” in it, that’s the type of statement that, when made by others, will make at least many of the folks in question roll their eyes in a “Where did this Neanderthal come from?” kind of way. But let that pass. If these folks are agreeing with common sense on this point, just what are they saying when they say such things as that this or that is “socially constructed.” Turns out, at least according to Fish, at least right here, what they’re saying is extremely tame indeed. In fact, all they’re saying is something so boring it might count as just another piece of common sense. We continue the above-interrupted quotation: “…but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed – fashioned by human beings – which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing.”
But who would deny that “accounts of the world are produced by observers” or that our vocabularies are socially constructed? Do the wild-sounding claims about social construction really just amount to boring, sensible claims that almost nobody denies?
In his response to Fish (sent to the New York Times, but apparently the Times refused to publish it), Sokal responds:
Fish’s discourse on the “social construction” of science and baseball is amusing, but the situation can be stated much more simply. The laws of nature are not social constructions; the universe existed long before we did. Our theories about the laws of nature are social constructions. The goal of science is for the latter to approximate as closely as possible the former. Fish seems to agree.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the trendy field of “cultural studies of science” agrees. In a lecture at the New York Academy of Sciences (February 7, 1996), Social Text co-editor Andrew Ross said: “I won’t deny that there is a law of gravity. I would nevertheless argue that there are no laws in nature, there are only laws in society. Laws are things that men and women make, and that they can change.” [verbatim quote in my notes]
What could Ross possibly mean? That the law of gravity is a social law that men and women can change? Anyone who believes that is invited to try changing the laws of gravity from the windows of my apartment:
I live on the twenty-first floor.
Now, perhaps all Ross means is that our understanding of the laws of physics changes over time; but if that’s what he meant, why didn’t he say so, and what’s the big deal?
While Sokal has hit on just the right question to press (is it the laws themselves, or only our understanding of them?), some of his response here may be based on a misunderstanding of Fish. In particular, when Sokal writes that “Fish seems to agree” that “the laws of nature are not social constructions,” I think he may be misreading Fish – or focusing too much on the tame Fish of the beginning of Fish’s essay, ignoring the perhaps wilder Fish who may emerge right after his baseball analogy. But you should read Fish’s piece for yourself (following the above link), because I admit that I feel quite lost. He uses his baseball example to show – correctly, so far as I understand his use of “socially constructed” – that some things can be both “socially constructed” and also real. He then imagines someone objecting as follows:
Sure the facts of baseball, a human institution that didn’t exist until the 19th century, are socially constructed. But scientists are concerned with facts that were there before anyone looked through a microscope. And besides, even if scientific accounts of facts can change, they don’t change by majority vote.
Given Fish’s above seeming acceptance that the world is real and independent of our observation, and that it’s our accounts of it that are human constructions, one might expect Fish to respond tamely by keeping in mind that crucial distinction between the world that science studies and our accounts of it. We would then expect him to simply agree with the second sentence of the objection, and perhaps even to claim (incredibly) that no serious academic would ever dream of disagreeing with it. Something like: “Of course! Exactly! Much of what science studies is not socially constructed at all. Not in the slightest! No scholar with impeccable credentials has ever dreamt of saying otherwise. It’s just our theories of the things that science studies that are socially constructed.” He would then, we’d expect, note the objector’s slide from the facts science studies to scientific accounts of those facts. Something like: “Our objector notes that scientific accounts can change, and she’s absolutely right about that. But remember: That our accounts of those facts change doesn’t mean the facts themselves change. There is still a sharp distinction between baseball and the facts science studies: Baseball is socially constructed; most of what science studies is not. Not at all. It’s just our accounts of those things that are socially constructed.”
But at this point in his essay, the seemingly less tame Fish is not feeling so agreeable. Instead of agreeing in anything like the way we expected, he responds as follows (this is what immediately follows the imagined objection, quoted above):
This appears to make sense, but the distinction between baseball and science is not finally so firm. On the baseball side, the social construction of the game assumes and depends on a set of established scientific facts. That is why the pitcher’s mound is not 400 feet from the plate. Both the shape in which we have the game and the shapes in which we couldn’t have it are strongly related to the world’s properties.
On the science side, although scientists don’t take formal votes to decide what facts will be considered credible, neither do they present their competing accounts to nature and receive from her an immediate and legible verdict. Rather they hazard hypotheses that are then tested by other workers in the field in the context of evidentiary rules, which may themselves be altered in the process. Verdicts are then given by publications and research centers whose judgments and monies will determine the way the game goes for a while.
Both science and baseball then are mixtures of adventuresome inventiveness and reliance on established norms and mechanisms of validation, and the facts yielded by both will be social constructions and be real.
Once we have distinguished what science studies (e.g., the laws of nature) from our theories about or accounts of those things – a key distinction the blurring of which Fish seems to find resistible only for very brief periods – is Fish now saying that the laws themselves (and not just our theories about them) are social constructions and can be changed by us, or not? Or perhaps that they are social constructions and changeable by us to some significant degree, even if not to the degree that the rules of baseball are? Hard for me to tell. Forced to guess how Fish would answer if pressed by someone who wouldn’t allow him to escape by blurring the crucial distinction, I speculate that he would not admit that he holds the laws themselves to be social constructions, but might try to reject as somehow problematic any talk of the laws themselves, as opposed to our theories about them. But that’s just speculation. Does that leave him saying merely that it’s just our theories that are social constructions and subject to change by us? I really can’t even speculate how he’d answer that. He’s in a bind. He can’t seem to sustain the (really quite boring) conviction that all that’s being claimed are such bland truisms that we make and can change our own theories. (Who would fund someone to come up with such claims?) But in this letter he doesn’t want the claims he defends to be outlandishly wild, either. And he doesn’t seem able to clearly articulate anything between those two. So we get this strange straddling: “the facts yielded by” science are both social constructions and real. But I thought the tame Fish from just a few paragraphs before was agreeing that the facts themselves are real and quite independent of our thought, and so are not social constructions at all, but that our theories, which attempt to get these facts right (and perhaps sometimes even succeed?), are made by us. This speaking of “the facts yielded by” science seems to provide a great device to blur the key distinction needed here (is it the facts themselves, or just our theories about them; is it the facts, or the facts-as-viewed by science?), and to thereby allow Fish to say something that can both sound kinda bold and interesting, to the extent that one’s inclined to hear him as talking about the facts themselves, yet leave open the retreat when confronted: “Oh, no! Nobody credible ever dreamt of saying those facts themselves are human constructions. We’re all quite sane, I can assure you. It’s just our theories, including our scientific theories, about those facts that we’re saying are made by us.”
Or am I just misreading him, and he’s just tame, sensible shoes throughout this whole piece? But then why didn’t he just agree with the objector, as one would have expected him to having read the very sensible, tame opening of his piece?
My real problem with Fish, and many thinkers he defends, is that, to my thinking, at least, they’re just not clear enough at exactly the points where clarity is most needed. At just the key points, where, for instance, a clear distinction needs to be drawn and kept firmly in mind, we get instead a rhetorical flourish, a raising of dust, and an aggressive retreat into a fogbank.
Here, to take just one more example, is the closing paragraph of a piece by another of the Social Text editors hoaxed by Sokal, Bruce Robbins, writing about that incident in the Yale Journal of Criticism (“Just Doing Your Job: Some Lessons of the Sokal Affair,” vol. 10 (1997): 467-474; available on-line here [restricted access link, but if you don’t have full access, you will still be given the first few paragraphs of the piece]):
For what it’s worth, I’ll make one more brief effort to explain what I take to be a reasonable position on truth for the left – a left which, I repeat, has no good reason to allow itself to be defined by any one epistemology. What I believe is 1) that, at least in situations of social and political controversy, there is no such thing as “Truth” with a capital T, an absolute that is good in all possible times and places, from all possible perspectives. Hence there are only claims to truth. And from this perspective, those who claim to be beyond mere claims, to lay their hands on the truth itself, will seem to be behaving with a familiar sort of fundamentalist arrogance. But I also believe 2) that there is all the difference in the world between better claims to truth and worse claims to truth. It would certainly help if we could get people to see how many of their fears of relativism that difference allays. And perhaps also to see that the real legacy of the Enlightenment lies in carefully specifying the limits and conditions of what we know: protecting the value of what we do know by being modest enough to admit what we don’t.
Is this a denial of “objective truth”? What exactly is the force of what Robbins is saying? It seems quite strong – perhaps wildly strong: “only claims to truth.” That would seem to indicate (but who can be sure?) no truth at all – with or without a capital T (whatever that means). Isn’t truth itself what is being excluded when Robbins says there are “only truth claims” in the region? (Or is truth with a lower-case t perhaps still in the cards?) And just what is the region in question – what is the scope of Robbins’s claim? Does “situations of social and political controversy” include anything that a sufficient number of people decide to dispute? Does it include scientific matters, if they’re also matters of “social and political controversy” – as some of them very prominently are nowadays? I won’t bother trying to dissect this. There are important distinctions to keep clear about if one is going to try to evaluate any thoughts like this. But it seems best to leave Robbins behind here, because he is of no help at all. (The above is the close of Robbins’s essay, so no further explanation was given.)
6. Some Positions – Both Tame and Wild – That Might Be Attractive to Some with Postmodern Sensibilities
It seems a frustrating and worthless task to try to discern what various thinkers are really claiming when they make statements like the above. Better, it seems to me, for analytic philosophers to leave them behind, and just say that various denials of objective truth and various claims about what we take to be aspects of “reality” being only social constructions have been associated with many recent and current thinkers, and then just discuss the various tolerably clear claims of this sort that could be made, and what can be said for or against them, without trying to discern which actual thinkers, if any, hold to any of them.
For those looking for such discussions at a fairly introductory level, I have a couple of suggestions. (Perhaps others have additional suggestions.) Those who might take the suggestion I’ll make in section 8, below, and teach a brief unit on postmodern philosophy in introductory philosophy classes might want to use for this purpose the “Objectivity” chapter (Chapter 5) of Peter van Inwagen’s Metaphysics (Westview Press, second ed.) since that book as a whole is a very good one to use in introductory philosophy classes, anyway. And for something everyone can access free on-line, Oxford University Press has made the first chapter (“Epistemology and Postmodern Resistance”) of Alvin Goldman’s Knowledge in a Social World (1999) available here (pdf document; note that there are a couple of blank pages at the beginning of the document). Of course, there is material in both of these that I disagree with. (In fact, part of what makes Metaphysics such a fun introductory textbook is that it is unusually opinionated for such a book, and there is consequently much for me to disagree with in there. I think that can be an aid to teaching, when used properly.) But they both serve as good displays of discussions of the issue that are clear enough to be very valuable – in a way that analytic philosophers (and hopefully not only analytic philosophers) appreciate.
Beyond making the above reading suggestions, I will quickly here give my impression of the lay of the land, explaining the basics of some possible types of positions – both tame and wild – that might be attractive to some with postmodern sensibilities, leaving open the often very vexed question of whether and which postmodern writers actually hold to any of these.
One relatively tame option is to just opt for some form of epistemological skepticism, not denying that the world itself is real and independent of our thought about it, but just claiming that our grasp of what that world is like is somehow not as secure as one might hope. There is a very wide variety of such skeptical positions to choose from. A skeptical thesis is typically a claim that a certain range of beliefs lack a certain status. In addition, then, to varying in their scope – which specifies the range of beliefs or potential beliefs being targeted – skeptical theses also differ in their force – which specifies precisely what lack the skeptic alleges befalls the targeted beliefs. Some skeptics may claim that the beliefs in the targeted range aren’t justified, or that they’re possibly false, or that we don’t know those things that we believe, or that we don’t know them with absolute certainty, etc. (One can also deny that the beliefs in the targeted range are true, and such a denial seems correctly called an instance of “skepticism,” but then one is moving beyond epistemological skepticism.) There is also a wide variety of possible scopes for one’s skepticism to choose among. A universal skeptic targets all of our beliefs. So, for instance, a universal skeptic who denies knowledge will say that we know absolutely nothing. But, of course, there are a variety of skepticisms available which target only certain limited ranges of our beliefs. And, of course, one can have a complicated skepticism which involves making a claim of one force about one range of beliefs, while also casting a different skeptical shadow on some other range of our beliefs. While skeptical positions can of course get quite strong (and to my thinking, quite implausibly strong) when they are of a wide scope and an aggressive force, even these skeptical positions are relatively (relative to the wild views to come) tame, in that they don’t involve questioning whether there are objective truths about the world; they only involve questioning the security of our grasp of these objective truths.
Another tame type of position that might be appealing to some postmoderns, and that can be held instead of or in addition to some form of epistemological skepticism, is one that points out, and draws our attention to some of the implications of, the nearly undeniable fact that the concepts and vocabulary we use to think about and describe the world could have been different, and represent only one of a multitude of possible ways of viewing the world. While this fact by itself seems quite uncontroversial, perhaps one way of exhibiting a postmodern outlook is to keep this fact always in the front of one’s mind, and to be always on the look-out for the possibility that others are using (slightly or significantly) different concepts in their thought about the world. Also, one needn’t stop at the fairly uncontroversial truism, but can add to it stronger claims, including very strong (perhaps even implausibly strong) claims about the amount of diversity there is among various peoples’ “conceptual schemes.” But even when such claims get very strong, I’m still counting them as relatively tame, given that one is still so far allowing that there are objective truths about the world – and even that some of our actual thoughts and claims might express some of these objective truths: That there could be thoughts and claims that have very different contents from our actual thoughts and claims doesn’t mean that our actual thoughts and claims don’t express objective truths about the world. It just means that there are possible thoughts and claims with different contents that might also express objective truths (albeit different ones) about the world.
While some of the positions of the relatively tame types we’ve looked at so far might be strong enough to satisfy some people of postmodern sensibilities, I suspect that they won’t go far enough for some others. For positions of the type we’ve looked at so far do not seem to make sense of the talk about the “social construction” of reality that seems so dear to some postmoderns. Here I must tread somewhat lightly, for I don’t feel I have a firm grasp on what exactly is being meant by such talk. But, somewhat tentatively, I do assume that what’s meant by such claims is supposed to go beyond the boring truisms I’m about to present in the ways I’m about to explain. First, I take it that it’s supposed to be a truism that some of reality – like the rules of baseball – is “socially constructed.” This does depend on just what’s meant by “socially constructed,” but I take it that whatever exactly is meant is supposed to be such as to make this a truism. And postmodernists want to be expressing something that goes beyond this truism. Their point, I take it, is that other things – things that not everybody would recognize as “social constructions,” like perhaps the laws of nature or other things that science studies – actually are “socially constructed” as well. Second, I take it that the meaning of “socially constructed” is supposed to be such as to make it a truism that our theories about, claims about, thoughts about, and accounts of even these other things are all “socially constructed.” And, despite some of what Prof. Fish writes in some moods, I take it that, at least for many postmoderns, what’s at least often meant by the claims about various things being “social constructions” is not supposed to be the so-tame-as-to-be-completely-boring claim that our accounts of (claims about, etc.) the world are “social constructions.” (If I’m getting any postmoderns wrong here, and all you ever meant to be saying were the so-tame-as-to-be-completely-boring things, just say so, and I’ll stop attributing wilder claims to you. But in return, I’ll ask you to please stop saying these things in such a way as to lead me and many others to think you’re saying something at all interesting, if you are one who does sometimes say these things in such a way.)
One crosses over from the relatively tame (I keep emphasizing the “relatively” because some of this territory is so wild to my own thinking as to be completely unbelievable) to the wild territory, it seems to me, when one says that, not just our accounts of, say, the laws of nature, but the laws of nature themselves, are “socially constructed.” One thing that might induce one to cross over into this wild territory is what Anderson calls “the now inescapable (!) Kantian thought that our minds grasp things not as they are ‘in themselves’ but only through concepts, signified by words.” Now, even this much can be agreed to in a relatively tame way. One could understand “grasp” in such a strong way as to involve something like knowing with complete certainty, and could mean by the “inescapable Kantian thought” only that one can know with complete certainty not how the things are “in themselves,” but at most how they appear to us, given our concepts and the meanings of our terms. Such a thought is consistent with many of our thoughts being about the things “in themselves,” and even with our thoughts sometimes being true and justified about how the things are “in themselves”; all that would be claimed is that one has left complete certainty behind when one starts having thoughts about and making claims about the things as they are “in themselves”: Even when one gets things right when making such “ambitious” claims, one doesn’t know with complete certainty the truth of what one thereby claims/thinks.
But one can also accept “the now inescapable Kantian thought” when understanding “grasp” in some very much weaker way, and that can start to move one into truly wild territory. For instance, one can start to think that we have no significant cognitive contact at all with any things “in themselves,” but only with things as they appear to us after being filtered through our words and concepts, and can’t even refer in our speech and thought to the former, but only to the latter. One can start to think that when we think or talk about historical events, or laws of nature, or rocks, for that matter, or anything at all, we can’t even be talking or thinking about any things “in themselves,” but only about things-as-they-are-conceptualized-by-us. The things themselves, then, are not the things “in themselves”; the things themselves (as opposed to just our accounts of them), the things we’re referring to when we talk about this or that, are things-as-conceptualized-by-us rather than things “in themselves.” That key move takes all the variability that some of the tamer positions say characterizes our grasp of the things and transmits it to the things. And now one can start to have not-so-obvious-as-to-be-boring thoughts to the effect that, say, the laws of nature, and not just our accounts of them, are “socially constructed.” For one now can think that when we think and talk about “laws of nature,” all we are, and all we can be, thinking and talking about are such “socially constructed” things as the laws-of-nature-as-they-are-conceptualized-by-us. So, now it’s not only our accounts of the laws of nature, but the laws, that are “social constructions,” since the laws, in the only way we can possibly think about them, are the way they are partly in virtue of what our concepts are like. And, to the extent that we change our concepts, we change the laws themselves (though not laws “in themselves” – we’ve given such things as the laws “in themselves” as things that, if they exist at all, are so completely beyond our grasp that we can’t even think about them), and not just our accounts of them.
So, now one has non-boring thoughts to the effect that various things in the world, and not just our accounts of these things, are “socially constructed.” But one has achieved that at the cost (if you consider it a cost) of accepting a position that is so far from being obviously true as to be at the other extreme. Your position is now insane – at least in estimation of many, including, apparently, Prof. Fish – at least in his tamer moods. You are now making claims that, according to many, “no sane person could credit.”
Of course, one can attempt to work out intermediate positions. As we’ve noted, it’s a truism that some things are socially constructed. It seems that there could be well worked-out positions on which the range of things that are socially constructed reaches out a bit further than one might think, without reaching out so far as to encompass everything. Some of these positions could perhaps be interesting – and perhaps even well-defended.
7. Forewarned is Forearmed
I should repeat the caveat I issued toward the end of section 4, above. Nothing in this post really shows that one should take a dim view of postmodern thought. Even if one agrees with my evaluations of the few examples of writing we’ve looked at here (and the examples produced in the Dawkins and Nagel reviews, to which I’ve linked), a few examples prove nothing.
What’s more, I even admit that it’s a serious possibility in my own mind that there is some philosophy out there that is genuinely postmodern and also genuinely very valuable, even though I do not judge that searching for such material is a good use of my time.
And another disclaimer, while I’m at it. I don’t know if a lot of the material I think of as “postmodern” is correctly classified as such. I would be only mildly surprised if the authors of some of the material in question were to insist that while they don’t do philosophy in a way I approve of, they are not postmodernists. And maybe they’d be right in their insistence. (If I’m right that being a postmodernist is largely a matter of self-identification, such a claim not to be a postmodernist would be to some extent self-validating.) Perhaps some of the feedback I get on this piece, beside the inevitable “You’re full of it” and the like, will be potentially helpful complaints that I am casting my net too widely, with suggestions for how to be more discriminating.
Why then am I bothering with this? Well, first, as I’ve said, I want to explain why I take the view I do, and citing these few cases as indicative of a whole lot of material I’ve read will explain the process by which I’ve reached my conclusion, even if it can’t convince someone skeptical of it.
But, second, I hope it may help others who might encounter such material to know that there are quite a few philosophers who, like me, think it is of little to no value. Forewarned is forearmed. Perhaps some who would be inclined to draw a negative conclusion about it similar to my own will be helped to draw that conclusion sooner, and may thereby save themselves a lot of time and aggravation.
8. A Suggestion for Teachers of Introductory Philosophy Classes
This leads me to a suggestion for philosophers who teach introductory philosophy courses. Why not forewarn our students? Do a unit – perhaps just a class meeting or two – on postmodern philosophy.
Many who share my dim view of the material will no doubt think there is far more valuable philosophy on which to spend the precious time of one’s class. But, depending on what school you’re at, a lot of your students likely will be encountering such material during their undergraduate careers, anyway – perhaps in an English or history or American studies class. It would be good for them to know that there are philosophers who take a very dim view of such stuff. Maybe they might be more ready to draw such a conclusion themselves. At any rate, I think it’s good for them to know that there is a controversy over the value of a lot of such material, to have at least heard about the Sokal hoax, to have encountered some of the material in Fashionable Nonsense, and to have been made aware that there are philosophers who take it to be ridiculous, etc.
You may not feel qualified to teach this material. But consider the possibility that your students may be better served by your admitting that lack of expertise, admitting that they’ll be getting just one side of a two-sided story, but presenting the issue as best you can anyway, than by your ignoring it.
That you might instead be spending that meeting or two on more valuable philosophy doesn’t show that you’d be then making a better use of the time. Given the presence of this kind of philosophy in many schools, and the resulting likelihood that your students will encounter it, and given how likely they are to encounter it outside of school even if not within school, this may be a very valuable exercise for them.
9. Where and to What Extent is Postmodernism Prevalent in Our Colleges and Universities?
As I indicated, the main thing I’ll be doing on this issue is just link to Leiter’s “The Myth of the Postmodern University.”
I’ll add that I don’t know much about the place of postmodern thought in many of the disciplines Leiter includes, but where I do know something, what impressions I have do line up quite well with what Leiter reports.
Of course, the field I know best is my own: philosophy. About that, Leiter’s report seems at least close to accurate:
Philosophy: postmodernism has had no impact in the mainstream, some influence at the margins.
If by “mainstream,” one means something like the philosophy departments at the most prestigious U.S. universities, then perhaps “no impact” should be changed to “very little impact.” But maybe something else is meant. (Perhaps the few postmodernist philosophers in philosophy departments at prestigious universities don’t count as “mainstream” because they are largely ignored by the vast majority of faculty teaching in philosophy departments at the top U.S. universities.) At any rate, this seems to me at least close to the truth.
And it’s a truth I think my discipline can be proud of. In another post here at Certain Doubts, my co-blogger Jon Kvanvig noted that when Donald Kagan, the Yale historian, presented the 34th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (sponsored by NEH), he spent much of his time bashing postmodernism, but also defending the preeminence of history in the Academy – the “Queen of the Humanities”! Kagan writes:
Although historians in universities have given far too much ground to such mindlessness promoted by contemporary political partisanship, as historians they are better situated than their colleagues in the other humanities to recover their senses. They know that the current fad of skepticism and relativism is as old as the Sophists of ancient Greece and had a great revival with the Pyrrhonism of the 16th century. On both occasions their paradoxical and self-contradictory glamour yielded in time to common sense and the massive evidence that some searches are more objective, some things truer than others, however elusive perfect objectivity and truth may be.
Kvanvig insightfully responds:
I applaud the denigration of postmodern tendencies, and thankfully inhabit a discipline that has well-entrenched opposition to such nonsense. But Kagan thinks history is best suited for “recovering our senses.” Such garbage!
First, let me introduce Kagan to a discipline that hasn’t succumbed and so doesn’t need to recover its senses. Second, the intellectual heritage of the view, as Kagan rightly notes, is philosophical and those whose senses need restoration will need a restoration of philosophical sensibility, not (just) historical perspective. Moreover, without resorting to philosophical argumentation to restore such sensibility, all the historian has to offer is the insipid idea that such viewpoints will “yield in time” to better viewpoints. A much better strategy is to give an argument that the view is implausible and has theoretically untenable consequences–but then, of course, one would be doing philosophy, not history.
As someone who’s been at Yale for a few years now, I can add to what Kvanvig says that it’s not just in general, but at Kagan’s own university, that philosophy does a much better job of resisting the mindlessness in question. I think it’s clear that while Kagan’s own department is far from being the worst of the humanities departments at Yale in this respect, it does give far more ground to such mindlessness than my department (Yale philosophy) does. Will Kagan’s and my colleagues, in various humanities departments at Yale, and also at other colleges and universities, recover their senses? I hope so. But it can be a frustrating wait, and there’s just no telling at this point. (For a current example of goings-on in humanities-land at Yale, see this [pdf document].) Meanwhile, some of these colleagues at Yale have been heard wondering aloud why the philosophy department there, and American philosophy departments generally, have been so slow to catch the postmodern wave.
10. “This Postmodern World of Ours”
So far, I have been addressing postmodernism as an intellectual movement. I am also suspicious when people talk of postmodern times as a major period of history that we are now entering or have recently entered into. People ask about how we should approach such-and-such an issue “in our postmodern world,” Christian ministers discuss how to reach out to “postmodern” youth, etc.
Times change. Generations differ from their predecessors. I usually try to take the above kind of talk to be a mostly harmless way of referring to our current cultural situation, which, no doubt, is in some ways significantly different from what it was just a few years ago – just as the cultural situation of that time differed from that of a few more years earlier.
But there does seem to be an assumption built into (or at least hinted at by) a lot of such talk that an unusually major change has taken place some time in the fairly recent past – the transition from the modern to the postmodern period. A book I happen to have looked at recently is explicit about what I take to be implicit in a lot of such talk: A New Kind of Christian, a novel by the fairly popular “emergent” Christian writer, Brian McLaren. In the second chapter, one character (the to my thinking annoyingly know-it-all character, “Neo”) lays out a division of all of human history (and pre-history: the first period in question is the pre-historical) into five great periods, and explains that at about the year 2000, we made the transition between 4 and 5. Well, that makes the transition we’ve just undergone an immensely huge deal, I suppose.
I’d just like to here display my own skeptical sensibility by registering skepticism about our having recently gone through any such an immensely momentous transition. And if we happen to be entering such a transition period, I suspect that will be due to major technological advances, and the transition will have nothing to do with the “postmodern” thought that is to be found in our colleges and universities today. I think there is a tendency among many to overestimate the magnitude of significant differences between their own times and the times that immediately preceded them, and I suspect that any thought that we’ve just gone through such a major transition is an instance of this general tendency in action. (Then again, even when major transitions really are underway, there probably are foolish skeptics who deny that anything of the sort is transpiring, and I’m taking a risk of being one of those.)
As for postmodernism as an intellectual movement, my fond hope is that it will soon prove to have been just an embarrassing little blip in intellectual history – perhaps something that can be looked back upon in much the same way that we look back on the mood ring craze.