Characterizing a Fogbank: What Is Postmodernism, and Why Do I Take Such a Dim View of it?

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 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.


Characterizing a Fogbank: What Is Postmodernism, and Why Do I Take Such a Dim View of it? — 122 Comments

  1. Keith,
    What a wonderful post. Very helpful indeed, especially the analogy with political parties.

    One thing that has always puzzled me is that those who identify themselves with postmodernist thought also often give the impression (to me at least) that there is some leftist political dimension to the view that is somehow only available to someone who adopts that view. I have been particularly distressed to find that many colleagues in other disciplines who claim to be some version of postmodernist also view analytical philosophy (and rigor in general) as somehow essentially right wing, that if you’re an analytical philosopher, you’re *phallogocentric”, and so on. There seems to be no ground for this that I can find, and I’m puzzled why anyone would find that plausible. (These self-same colleagues are often surprised when I tell them that most of the original logical positivists were leftists (no surprise they were run out of prewar Germany), and that some of the biggest names in contemporary analytical philosophy are as left as you can get.) Have you any thoughts on this peculiar dimension of the view? I suspect the anxieties of many parents sending kids to college about pomo are rooted in anxieties about left wing political indoctrination of some sort.

  2. That most pomo philosophy is nonsense is extraordinarily old news. I think you’ll have to dig that horse out of the ground if you’re absolutely intent on beating on it some more.

    I think a more interesting topic for discussion would be the continued philosophical fixation on debunking an outdated intellectual fad that no one of any importance takes seriously anymore. My best guess is that this indicates philosophy’s profound and deserved insecurity in the academic world, its envy for the status and admiration enjoyed by the real sciences, and it’s recognition that the discipline of philosophy as a whole is relative ineffectual, unimportant, and soon to be a horse every bit as dead as its more overtly moronic offspring, postmodernism.

  3. Robert: I think much of the cause of the error is that not only are almost all pomos on the left, but many of them insist on tying those things together. Sokal often cited freeing the left from pomo nonsense as his goal.

    I don’t know how much of the post Thomas read: Since it’s so long, it’s certainly understandable if readers don’t make it to the end. But in calling pomo an outdated intellectual fad that no one of any importance takes seriously anymore, he is in effect saying that the “fond hope” I express at the very end of the post is already realized. Would that it were so! I’m agreed with Leiter (see the post I link to in section 9, above) that the influence of postmodernism is often exaggerated. But one shouldn’t respond to such exaggerations by embracing an equally silly view on the opposite extreme.

    I usually find it difficult to discern the hidden motivations of individuals. So Thomas takes us completely out of the area where I have anything useful to say when he starts to psychoanalyze the field of philosophy. So even if he is right about what an interesting discussion that would make, it will have to be an interesting discussion that takes place without my participation. All I can do is read on in wonder.

  4. Keith, excellent post here. I’ve been attending to McLaren’s ideas a bit of late too, since they seem to have a growing popularity. He claims in various places that pomo is the standard assumption of contemporary philosophy, but his academic background seems to be limited to a BA and MA in English from Maryland. I’ve often wondered why so many people in English departments seem to think they know the landscape in philosophy… most of us have the modicum of sensibility needed to refrain from making pronouncements about other disciplines.

  5. I think you’re doing the “boring” horn something of an injustice. Claims that “our theories are socially constructed” can be interesting when they’re coupled with substantive accounts of how so. Typically in pomo those will involve reference to power relations: our mistakes are not innocent mistakes.

    Of course the temptation for the pomoist is then to slide from “our theories have sociological explanations” to “our theories have complete sociological explanations” so there’s no need to posit an outside world and anyone who does must be engaged in a power play. And that’s, you know, insane.

  6. I suspect postmodernism of one sort or another is alive in the social sciences, a lingering fashion among those inclined to fawn over all-things-French. Indeed, its emergence might be traced back to a generation of young French academics (post-structuralists, etc) eager to distance themselves from Sartre. In any case, Nicholas Rescher’s Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason (1997) is a concise, fair, and lucid analysis of what is wrong with abandoning talk of objectivity or having a constitutional aversion to anything under the rubric of reason. Alas, those who need to read such things don’t. That said, there are writers in the canon of postmodernists who still deserve to be read (e.g. Foucault), and there are a few contemporary philosophers who seem to avail themselves of what little truth can be gleaned from the canon (e.g., Todd May or Theodore Schatzki).

  7. I suspect postmodernism of one sort or another is alive in the social sciences, a lingering fashion among those inclined to fawn over all-things-French. Indeed, its emergence might be traced back to a generation of young French academics (post-structuralists, etc) eager to distance themselves from Sartre. In any case, Nicholas Rescher’s Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason (1997) is a concise, fair, and lucid analysis of what is wrong with abandoning talk of objectivity or having a constitutional aversion to anything under the rubric of reason. Alas, those who need to read such things don’t. That said, there are writers in the canon of postmodernists who still deserve to be read (e.g. Foucault), and there are a few contemporary philosophers who seem to avail themselves of what little truth can be gleaned from the canon (e.g., Todd May or Theodore Schatzki).

  8. I suspect postmodernism of one sort or another is alive in the social sciences, a lingering fashion among those inclined to fawn over all-things-French. Indeed, its emergence might be traced back to a generation of young French academics (post-structuralists, etc) eager to distance themselves from Sartre. In any case, Nicholas Rescher’s Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason (1997) is a concise, fair, and lucid analysis of what is wrong with abandoning talk of objectivity or having a constitutional aversion to anything under the rubric of reason. Alas, those who need to read such things don’t. That said, there are writers in the canon of postmodernists who still deserve to be read (e.g. Foucault), and there are a few contemporary philosophers who seem to avail themselves of what little truth can be gleaned from the canon (e.g., Todd May or Theodore Schatzki).

  9. I suspect postmodernism of one sort or another is alive in the social sciences, a lingering fashion among those inclined to fawn over all-things-French. Indeed, its emergence might be traced back to a generation of young French academics (post-structuralists, etc) eager to distance themselves from Sartre. In any case, Nicholas Rescher’s Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason (1997) is a concise, fair, and lucid analysis of what is wrong with abandoning talk of objectivity or having a constitutional aversion to anything under the rubric of reason. Alas, those who need to read such things don’t. That said, there are writers in the canon of postmodernists who still deserve to be read (e.g. Foucault), and there are a few contemporary philosophers who seem to avail themselves of what little truth can be gleaned from the canon (e.g., Todd May or Theodore Schatzki).

  10. By the way, I’ve found it extraordinarily difficult to teach anything about pomo. The best I can do without laughing is to recite various dark aphorisms with a faux French accent. It would be nice if one could innoculate students in Intro, but it is hard to do that when one takes such a dim view of this stuff. Astrology and new age mysticism one can debunk, but that’s partly because you can snigger and have some fun. Not so with pomo. Students are (pace Thomas) very likely indeed to immediately come into contact with it in some other class, deployed with great seriousness. That is quite a lot of cognitive dissonance to overcome I suspect. I suppose it is our job (whose else?) to call bullshit where and when we see it. But I myself have found that my own attitudes get in the way of a requisite sober assessment.

  11. Thanks for the careful and very meaty post. I admire your attempts to distinguish among the boring, controversial, and insane claims that postmodernists do (or might) make. But at the same time, I worry that you may be giving them too much credit. My own encounters with postmodernism have not been with its leading lights, but with undergraduates, graduates, and non-philosophers who are self-identified post-modernists, and based on those experiences, I think they (literally) do not what they mean or believe in many cases. I.e., they themselves don’t know what they are committed to under slogans like “reality is a social construction,” etc. And to my eyes, this reveals one of the most suspect features of postmodernist thought: not an obscurity or imprecision of expression, but worse still, a fundamental obscurity or imprecision of thought.

    Also: I think an interesting way to characterize the analytic/continental divide is to say that when analytic philosophers look outside philosophy for insight, they look to the sciences, whereas when continental or postmodern philosophers look outside their discipline, they look to literature (or perhaps politics and history). Perhaps this points to an explanation of the murky postmodernist thinking about science? I’m under the impression that in France and other places where postmoderism has been influential, academics specialize early and humanists need not study science past the equivalent of junior high in the U.S. So to those familiar with higher ed in those places: Is that true?

  12. On the last question — can’t say about France, doubt this about Germany — but isn’t it true that in the US that one can get a BA in the arts or the humanities without studying science or math past the equivalent of a junior high in the US?

    I’d be surprised to learn that most universities even *require* their students to take a basic calculus class. (There’s usually a maths general education requirement, but in order to satsify that requirement one needs to take a certain number of classes, not be at a certain level. Ditto for the sciences.)

  13. It is very interesting to see where pomo still holds sway. I have recently been looking at the ongoing debate in Archaeology about its core methods. I really had no idea how far the pomos had dug into that field. Their standard argument essentially seems to be that since positivistic confirmation theory is (allegendly) a total wash out, then the only thing left is to endorse radically subjectivive hermenuetical approaches as a methodology for that field. It was startling to me how little actual philosophy of science these archaeologists and achaeologically minded philosophers knew.

  14. Marvellous post Keith

    I’m interested, however, in the question of why philosophers seem so keen on attack and refutation of a position with such limited philosophical influence. I think the real issue here is the influence felt via media and the relativism which destroys genuinely critical debate and understanding in the public sphere: For example, contested assertions of leaders or Creationists get a (relatively) free ride because journalists, who by and large have done English Lit or something similar, have been instilled with a suspicion against universalist truth claims in general and science in particular.

    After all, Philosophers have never cared to tolerate widespread idiocy, much less so when it has such malign affects for our culture and democracy.

  15. Re: comment 4 above. Jon: I believe McLaren has been a preacher/author for a while now, and it’s been years since he’s been in an English dept. I think that most people who are in English departments are aware of the strong resistance to pomo phil. in many phil. depts (& in all the phil. depts of leading US universities).

    Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some from English depts, despite this awareness, to speak of pomo as the standard assumption of contemporary philosophy: They may think that they do know the landscape of contemporary philosophy perfectly well, holding that the standard contemporary philosophy is what goes on in the “important” departments — English, Comp. Lit., etc. — and that many Philosophy departments, ironically, just aren’t hip to standard contemporary philosophy. (I personally know some individuals who would make just such a claim.)

  16. Wonderful post!

    Now a PhD student in philosophy, I was initially drawn to philosophy as an English major trying to make sense of what was being taught in the theory courses and seminars in the English and Comparative Literature departments. It was a distressing time when I thought my inability to make sense of folks like Derrida and Lacan was due to my own intellectual inadequacies.

    I’d like to speak to that phenomenon in English and Comparative Lit. departments (at least the one I was in). I began taking graduate theory seminars very early on in my undergraduate career, and what I noticed was that philosophical material was expected to be read very quickly and the graduate students weren’t so much taught what it meant as had its jargon thrown at them in seminar, giving them a sense that they ought to start using the jargon themselves . This put enormous pressure on the grad students. I remember that in these seminars professors would assign things like Kant’s third critique–to be read in a week (!)–and the students would, naturally, run panicked to sources like _Kant in 90 Minutes_ or _Kant for Beginners_ so they wouldn’t seem ignorant in front of their professors. This was an almost universal phenomenon. Now, while it might be reasonable in a seminar surveying 18th century British literature to expect that students could read a fairly long novel like _Pamela_ in order to get a basic sense for it in order to be given some guidance regarding its place in the 18th century canon, the same approach to philosophical works seemed to me to be utterly mad. Yet, this was the approach taken, and in many cases the professors seemed to have taken such an approach to reading these same philosophical texts.

    One last comment on the state of literary studies. As my education progressed and I found myself more and more involved in the philosophy department, yet still with aspirations to becoming a literary crritic, many of the graduate students in my department and some of the non-theory-obsessed professors told me that the ‘age of theory’ was over. According to them and literary scholars I’ve talked to since, there are no longer jobs in good literature departments for theory specialists, and that the rise of the so-called ‘New Historicism’–which really just means good old fashioned literary history with a social and political set of concerns–represents a desire to put post-structuralism’s excesses behind the discipline while retaining its alliegance to a concern with politics, power, social justice, and the significance of marginal voices and identities. The slow demise of Comparative Literature–a respectable discipline insofar as it aims to study literature and culture across different linguistic and national traditions–as a discipline has been blamed on the predominance of postmodern theory in it. I was told–something that made me hopeful as I began to switch over to studying mostly analytic philosophy, yet while still aspiring to be a literary critic–that there will likely be a growth in interest among literary critics in analytic philosophy, . In fact, my interest in analytic philosophy was largely the fruit of getting drawn, in my freshman year in college, into a reading group among the English grad students and some undergrads in which we spent a year reading slowly through Charles Taylor’s _Sources of the Self_ and reading some of the primary texts alongside it.

    It seems to me there are good prospects that this could happen more and more often. I certainly hope so. Literary criticism has made some strides forward–even in the height of the ‘age of theory’. The shape of the discipline has changed to encompass previously neglected genres: the 18th and 19th century Gothic novel, speculative literature, linear art, lhe literature of the colonial and post-colonial world, etc. It has put important political concerns at the forefront in the study of literature and culture: something which must have seemed like a breath of fresh air after the insular and detached formalism of New Criticism. These same impulses, latched together with common sense and rigorous argumentation could result in something of real intellectual value, even something that has real potential for producing politically liberating understandings of ourselves and our historical and cultural situations. The chic and the aspirations to intellectual avant-gardism just need to be dumped.

  17. Thanks, Keith. Sorry they are still like that; glad you are speaking out about it.

    Still, I think you give a patently unfair and unsympathetic assessment of the cultural significance of mood rings.

  18. Tad: You’re probably right about my treatment of mood rings. My reaction there is no doubt due to my profound and deserved insecurity about my varying moods and my envy for the status and admiration enjoyed by those like the real scientists, who seem always to be in better control of their moods.

  19. Insightful comments prompted by an insightful, perhaps cathartic, post. I’m a librarian, so I spend part of my day classifying works in one fashion or another. I’ve also read a good deal of this stuff–from Fish to Kristeva to Derrida to de Man–over the past 25 years or so. Some of it is delightful, some of it tedious and overwrought.

    Prof. DeRose, when you write, “I don’t know if a lot of the material I think of as ‘postmodern’ is correctly classified as such,” I get nervous with the adverb, especially in light of your careful wariness about the word in the first section. Having dispensed with the need to classify rigorously (itself a favored, overused adver–like “precisely” among practitioners of what one could, for the sake of expedience, denominate postmodernism), you exercise an ambition to do so anyway. As you suggest, this is perhaps a function of your professional training. But the term “postmodern” is ambiguous, in a way not entirely like “Republican” or “Democrat,” as you have analogized, because it is also a-historical, inasmuch as it can also refer to works that emerged well before, say, 1968. (Maybe I mean “transhistorical.”)

    You admirably avoided referring to deconstruction, at one time the paradigm of postmodernism. Recall that these folks read “texts,” often poems by Wordsworth, Shelley, and Stevens, or novels by Proust, Hardy, and so forth, and their readings strove to reveal how these works exhibited “ruptures” or “aporia” or some other variety of discontinuity, thereby exposing the texts’ purported postmodern aspect. In this realm, notions of objectivity and truth are either complicated or irrelevant, for obvious reasons. Sokal’s sweeping, bad faith indictment of some of these folks’ occasional misuse of science, I think, is therefore too emphatic.

    More to the point: however politically charged a self-identifying postmodern faction in the academy may be, this situation should not detract from the genuinely good work that has been done examining, for example, the rhetorical boundaries between literary and philosophical texts, feats that understandably disturb some residents of either side of the divide. If texts do what de Man, Hillis Miller, and their ilk have shown them to be doing, then our continued attention to such work is worthwhile. Which is not to say that we will, should, or can ever finally avoid the urge to pin down and classify the precise value of a word, concept, or text.

  20. Yeah, there’s nothing like the status and admiration enjoyed by people who wash test-tubes and guillotine frogs all day to make my mood ring go all chartreuse with envy.

    About time for a chorus of the immortal Root Boy Slim, singing “You Broke My Mood Ring!”

  21. I should have cited the work of Ian Hacking in my comments above: first, his successful attempt to make sense of the variegated notions of ‘social constructivism’ in The Social Construction of What? (1999) and, second, his Historical Ontology (2002), a book with a post-modernist sensibility in the best sense yet with the requisite philosophical luminosity and creativity one has come to expect from him. Hacking has an uncanny ability to stake out positions that transcend the science wars, leaving a trail of gems in the history and philosophy of science.

  22. I should have cited the work of Ian Hacking in my comments above: first, his successful attempt to make sense of the variegated notions of ‘social constructivism’ in The Social Construction of What? (1999) and, second, his Historical Ontology (2002), a book with a post-modernist sensibility in the best sense yet with the requisite philosophical luminosity and creativity one has come to expect from him. Hacking has an uncanny ability to stake out positions that transcend the science wars, leaving a trail of gems in the history and philosophy of science.

  23. I should have cited the work of Ian Hacking in my comments above: first, his successful attempt to make sense of the variegated notions of ‘social constructivism’ in The Social Construction of What? (1999) and, second, his Historical Ontology (2002), a book with a post-modernist sensibility in the best sense yet with the requisite philosophical luminosity and creativity one has come to expect from him. Hacking has an uncanny ability to stake out positions that transcend the science wars, leaving a trail of gems in the history and philosophy of science.

  24. I should have cited the work of Ian Hacking in my comments above: first, his successful attempt to make sense of the variegated notions of ‘social constructivism’ in The Social Construction of What? (1999) and, second, his Historical Ontology (2002), a book with a post-modernist sensibility in the best sense yet with the requisite philosophical luminosity and creativity one has come to expect from him. Hacking has an uncanny ability to stake out positions that transcend the science wars, leaving a trail of gems in the history and philosophy of science.

  25. Kris,

    Requirements obviously vary from institution to instutition. One could get a Bachelor’s in art at an art school in the U.S. without taking anything much besides art. But my guess that anyone whose undergraduate degree is in philosophy would likely have attended a college or university with fairly broad distribution requirements, including courses in math and science. At my university, e.g., graduating students have to have passed a course in trigonometry and one in calculus or analytic geometry; one each in the physical sciences and in the life sciences (with at least one of these having a lab component); and an upper division science synthesis course that integrates material from multiple sciences. My sense is that’s very typical at U.S. universities, but much more than would be demanded from humanities students at universities in France or elsewhere in Europe.

  26. It seems to me that the stakes involved for analytic philosophers considering postmodernism are increased considerably if, instead of postmodernism in general (a product of leftist debates on morality and politics), we consider post-phenomenology (that sector of postmodernism dedicated to following up on Heidegger’s repudiation of his earlier work). The reason for this is, unlike the easily pigeonholed social constructivism that attracts or repulses in the philosophy of science, phenomenology serves as a major external delimiter for most areas of analytic philosophy and the question of whether or not its categories can be transcended bulks much larger for issues of contemporary importance in the discipline. Perhaps classes in existentialism may be safely considered a slightly dated sop to popular reading tastes, but *Being and Time* is still taught at major universities as a revolutionary book, the revolution being conducted against debates concerning intentionality, itself imported from phenomenology by Roderick Chisholm: so what could be done with a body of literature attempting to do away with a phenomenological view of the mind? Maybe quite a bit, huh? If a broader perspective is taken it seems unclear whether or not currently fashionable anti-Cartesian views in analytic philosophy would not count as “postmodern” for the same reason Derrida’s critique of presence does: a lack of concern for the solitary mind as the province of reason, and corresponding attention to external factors and the texture of the categories themselves as clues to the nature of thought. Surely political concerns account for most of the impulse to ignore this confluence of perspectives, but perhaps myopia regarding the history of philosophy and its role in the construction of contemporary arguments concerning mind and knowledge plays a part as well.

  27. Although it’s true that humanities students in Europe do not have to take science courses at university, don’t forget that they will have taken International Baccalaureate science courses at high school. These are roughly equivalent to lower division courses at American universities.

    I think part of the difficulty analytic philosophers have in understanding postmodernism lies in assuming that postmodernists are interested in the same questions they are. If one reads postmdernists in the terms of debates about skepticism and anti-realism (as you do above), they are inevitably going to look as if they have confused answers; they are asking different questions. The same is true if you read David Lewis as if he were writing about the relation between the possible and the virtual; what he writes is going to seem inconclusive if not downright slippery.

  28. This is the umpteenth time I’ve seen the “hoax” used to make an argument against post-modernism. This reminds me too much of a recent boy scout who got a number of people to sign his petition to prevent “di-hydrogen monoxide” poisoning of local lakes and streams. He knew that di-hydrogen monoxide was only water, but they trusted his instincts. Then he used it to mock them, implying that environmental sensibilities were of the same hoax–as though they were crazy with liberalism because he now deemed them his fools.

    Somewhere in the pomo hoax is the Trojan horse analogy, and the point that the enemy could not be conquered by conventional means. This, combined with a bizarre, fundamentalist, right-wing trend to blame his own victim, as if the hoaxer admits that it is a game. It is obvious that this essay sets up too many strawmen and leaves the pomo’s undefined and unbeaten at their own game. As if philosophy knows what to do with literature or science.

  29. Respecting the Sokal hoax, the Trojan horse analogy is apt. But badger’s first sentence simply begs one of the questions this thread is addressing, namely, what exactly is this postmodernism against which the hoax is leveled as an argument? Is it, like philosophy, literature, or science, an academic discipline or a cultural phenomenon (pace Snow)? Or is it just another flavor-of-the-month (or half-century) in a world in which a notion like “flavor-of-the-month”–signifying fickle consumerism and marketing hype–can coherently be predicated of an academic constituency?

  30. I haven’t read much pomo but I think that I have a sense of the sort of mind that finds it attractive. Although I tend to think that life is too short to spend time demonstrating that pomo is crap — I have no living doubts about pomo’s crappiness — I appreciate Keith and Brian’s efforts. One question: Why hasn’t the bullshit in “practical” fields (e.g. computer science, business) received the same sort of attention?


  31. I write from within an English department….

    I think the assumption that one dosen’t need to read much “postmodernism” to know it’s bad is just inexcusible–I could dismiss a dense paragraph from Nozick or somebody, because I can’t understand the technical meaning of terms, and take them as misuses of lay meanings. In your 3rd section, you cite Hawkins, mocking Lacan and in so doing revealing that he thinks the “phallus” refers to the piece of flesh between men’s legs. An undergraduate course on Freud would be sufficient to prevent this error. The passage isn’t “particularly looney”: Hawkins–and you, it would seem–simply don’t understand it!

    British empiricism and its intellectual protocols are not the only tradition of legitimate intellectual inquiry–and to this extent, Anglo-American academic philosophy is provincial, insofar as it attempts to dismiss as “postmodern” many different thinkers whose relations with one another are enormously complex. I mean, come on! reading one book by someone totally opposed to “postmodernism” as your “duty” to postmodernism itself!? –(and protesting that some may not want to do so much work….) Allowing an admitted adversary to provide the entire intellectual context in which you then, unsurprsingly, find quoted passages terrible?

    I recommend to you all a collection entitled _Just Being Difficult_, which addresses right-wing attacks on “obscure” academic writing. There’s an essay by Jonathan Culler which discusses Judith Butler’s obscurity, very thoughtfully. What strikes me as depressing is that many of you folks, who seem like smart people, essentially reiterate the criticisms leveled by the right-wing mass media. They’d be attacking what you were doing, if it had become sufficiently visible; but because literature departments are expected to defend the timeless greatness of Shakespeare (in other words, to keep out of politics), English departments were associated with “postmodernism” in the media–nobody was blaming architects, even though the concept/term is just as important in that discipline.

    An academic discipline that’s engaged with the production of literacy, of literate national subjects, (the English department) is going to be messy and politicized. To conclude with a reference to your introduction, “postmodernism running rampant” means that we’re left-wing, that we bite the hand that feeds us–it “meant” deconstruction in the 80s, it “meant” cultural studies in the 90s, today it probably means disability studies, postcolonial theory, who knows what else–but what it really means is that we’re not teaching the eternal verities and keeping our mouths shut: we’re not doing what the right wants us to do. Is there plenty of sloppy thinking in English departments? Of course there is–but that’s not why we’re blamed for “postmodernism”…

  32. Nick writes,
    “British empiricism and its intellectual protocols are not the only tradition of legitimate intellectual inquiry–and to this extent, Anglo-American academic philosophy is provincial, insofar as it attempts to dismiss as “postmodern” many different thinkers whose relations with one another are enormously complex.”

    Sometimes it is best not to characterize disciplines other than one’s own, and this is a case in point. It is simply false in the extreme that Anglo-American philosophy is accurately characterized in terms of “British empiricism and its intellectual protocols.”

  33. Dear Nick
    I suggest that you read « Prodiges et vertiges de l’analogie. De l’abus des belles lettres dans la pensée » (unfortunately I do not know if there is an english translation) a 1999 book by Jacques Bouveresse, an analytically minded French philosopher who defends the Sokal line of thought, despite his very good knowledge of contemporary French philosophy.
    Generally speaking I think in the small but growing European analytical philosophers community, where knowledge of continental philosophy at an acceptable (and sometimes excellent) level is not rare, the opinions about post-modernism are in line with those expressed in this forum.
    This shows that although a lot of work is necessary to appreciate Lacan, it is by no way sufficient.
    To be honest, I must add I think I am not going to read “Being Difficult”. I take it to be a very basic deontological, and even moral commitment trying not to be difficult, as far as I can (no more and not less). I think left-wingers, like you and me, would have better respect this commitment, if they think what they say is worth listening.

  34. Some might get the wrong idea about the nature of philosophy’s dim view of postmodern and more recent writers. That there are ‘technical’ terms in play in these writers is no help to their cause. The sciences are chock full of technical terms that outsiders can hardly understand, at least without a great deal of help from a popularizer. The same is of course true of philosophy in the analytic tradition, and, I dare say, almost any area of research in the academy. Because of this, it is possible to pull a Sokal-style hoax in any area (as was recently done by MIT students for a physics conference). This is all entirely beside the point. The problem is that every effort at translating and explaining the technical terms of these writers leads one to nonsense, something hopelessly puerile, or perhaps to some mundane truism. On the ‘hopelessly puerile’ scale, Derrida’s discussion of Rousseau, Levi-Strauss and masturbation in Grammatology has to rank up there at the very top. Good comedy, perhaps, but some mistake it for serious intellectual work.

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  36. Prof. DeRose aptly cites a variety of dubious, perhaps risible, claims by prominent “postmodern” theorists (quotation marks to acknowledge that bickering over who is or isn’t truly postmodern constitutes a tedious cottage industry — not to dispute that he fairly categorizes them as such), but his lucid exposition still omits one ingredient that would make the whole argument more convincing to me: a respectful account of why a moderately intelligent person would believe the claims that DeRose rebuts.

    After all, one need not be as brilliant as Prof. DeRose to suggest that one’s philosophical adversaries are deluded, or that they’re frauds, or that they ought to have digested the same reading list that I regard as authoritative. We have some objective data that suggests that some intelligent people take postmodern theory seriously; the interesting question, I think, is why?

    Perhaps I’m asking too much, but I have a hard time imagining that Prof. DeRose would accept “throwing up one’s hands in bafflement” as the satisfactory end of a line of inquiry in most areas of his scholarship. If one comes to a dead end in trying to figure out why apparently intelligent people take postmodern thought seriously (and I don’t claim that Prof. DeRose has reached such a dead end), might one defensibly adopt, as a last resort, the hypothesis that there may be more to it than one has understood? Especially for those who haven’t read anything by the writers in question except that which is excerpted in an explicitly hostile antithetical piece?

  37. Badger, in post #22, sounds simply exasperated by the Sokal hoax–s/he has simply heard of it too many times. However, I wonder if anyone with no real training in analytical philosophy would ever be able to publish a paper in a respected philosophy journal simply by piecing together jargon. My guess is: No Way. This helps us to see something about the difference between analytical philosophy and pomo: Analytical philosophy has real standards of rigor and careful argumentation; pomo has no real standards at all, so much so that supposedly qualified reviewers cannot identify hoaxes.
    Perhpas Badger tires of hearing about this hoax because there is no good reply to it. It has shown pomo for what it is: intelectually bereft of real ideas, and not worth our time.

  38. Speaking as someone who has only really read analytic philosophy myself and who in general has been strongly skeptical about all things “postmodern,” I have to wonder: professor DeRose, how do you account for the fact that apparently intelligent people seem to succumb to the appeal of the works that on your account are so inane? If they really are intelligent, what makes it possible for them to fall for these things? Are you aware of any other area where truly intelligent people invest large parts of their lives in fundamentally meaningless nonsense or pure conceptual banalities? Does this require you to assume that people who fall for this are unintelligent? If not, what other kind of plausible explanation is available? Could it be that the works are not as asinine as you make them out to be, and that some other difficulty in understanding between conceptual, academic and linguistic communities is behind your total blockage about these works?

  39. Oops, should have read A K M Adams’s post before writing mine. No matter: the question is there. It does seem to demand an answer, and the fact that the way the article frames the issue seems to make providing an answer consistent with the belief that people who accept “postmodern” thought as interesting and worthwhile are intelligent more or less impossible, it’s actually pretty pressing for the credibility of the whole story.

  40. Nick- it might indeed be rash to condemn a field based upon cherry-picked examples of bad essays or crooked research, since indeed no field is without bad or even dishoneest work. But a presumption shared by many readers of this forum is that intellectual inquiry, however it is conducted, should be understandable and open to criticism. Otherwise, it is reasonable to ignore such things, unless they are a menace to society.

    Many of us are very curious about ideas and are interested in finding good arguments for those ideas. We tend to not care, in this context, about who thought up the idea or clever argument. (I’d be perfectly happy if these things grew on trees, rather than in the minds of people. But, alas…)

    It is misplaced, then, to view blasts from my colleagues about obscure writing (or obscure thinking) to be a form of right-wing attack.

    Robert- I was unaware of the physics conference hoax by MIT physicss students, but I am aware of a hoax by MIT computer science students who submitted a fake, randomly generated paper to a computer science conference. However, it is very important to point out that the conference they targeted was a large, “pay-for-publication” operation with near certain acceptance rates. Such conferences charge fairly high registration fees and are in the grey area between functioning as businesses for the organizers and genuine academic conferences. The MIT computer science students had a randomly generated paper accepted for publication at one of these dodgy conferences last spring with an aim to call attention to this practice. (The acceptance of the paper was revoked when word got around.) I would be interested to learn the details of the physics conference you mention, particularly the type of conference involved.

  41. First, please change the background of this website. It is black, and I can’t read the writing without going to great lengths.
    Second, I am not for or against postmodernism. Not becasue I am apathetic, but becasue I think it is a silly thing to discuss. By doing so , one falls into the pomo mode. Is this a text? Do I have any function as an author anyway?
    It ultimately defers meaning to the point where those who are so insistent on pointing out the shades of grey have forgotten about black and white.

  42. I mean, come on! reading one book by someone totally opposed to “postmodernism”… (from comment 25, above)

    Just a point of clarification: I admitted that what made it into Fashionable Nonsense is about all I’ve read of most of the French writers who are addressed in that book. But, alas, my experience with philosophy-that-I-at-least-take-to-be-postmodern by those in non-philosophy departments in America is very substantial indeed. I’m tempted to describe it as “vast” — but maybe it only seems that way.

  43. Wheeler, sorry, your right, it was the computer science conference, not physics. The main point was just that you can pull the wool over the eyes of academics in one area with jargon from another, or can find low standards in virtually any area. But the technical terms and the seemingly obscure statements in legitimate inquiry can ultimately be cashed out and explained in terms that highlight its intellectual significance or interest to the nonspecialist. That is missing in the pomo stuff. You come up empty-handed. And I have actually put a lot of effort into it, I might add, more than I should have.

  44. Nick, you say

    What strikes me as depressing is that many of you folks, who seem like smart people, essentially reiterate the criticisms leveled by the right-wing mass media

    If Ann Coulter critized someone for delighting in contradictions, I’d be in agreement with her when I did likewise. So? The question isn’t whether people on the right make similar criticisms. The question is whether the criticism has merit.

    Your remark points up a deeper problem with the pomos. They didn’t stop at “The personal is political.” They continued on to “The epistemological is political”, and even “The logical is political.” You’ve polticized everything, to the point where simply objecting to the pomos’ ridiculously garnished banalities and contradictions prompts an irrelevant comparison to the right-wing media, as if insisting on rules and the authority of intellectual standards were like the oppressor’s invocation of bogus rules and authority. But Russell and Chomsky have long established that the best hope for the political left rests in clarity and logic.

    You also say,

    They’d be attacking what you were doing, if it had become sufficiently visible; but because literature departments are expected to defend the timeless greatness of Shakespeare…

    Umm … how about the timeless greatness of Aristotle and Descartes and Kant (none of them British empiricists)? You can find analytic philosophers who worship these guys while not mindlessly defending them … while, in fact, subjecting their views to rigorous criticism. Respecting and engaging past geniuses isn’t a matter of defending some dominant ideology. It’s a matter of trying really to understand its elements (or element of rival views) and then challenging and trying to improve upon them.

    Finally, someone said it’s possible to pull a Sokal hoax in any discipline. I doubt it, as long as the journal isn’t one of the more obscure ones. I don’t think Social Text is obscure in its field. One of its main problems was that the editors didn’t use blind review.

  45. Why is there no separation recognized, among critics of postmodernism, between those postmodernists who critique science and those who critique social reality? For example — Foucault is often mentioned as a guiding light of postmodernism. This distresses me, because I love Foucault’s work on the institutions and structures of society, while I absolutely hate the sort of stupidity that Sokal et al point out. I don’t recall Foucault having ever rejected the objective truth (or at least fair claim to truth) of gravity, for heaven’s sakes. The best postmodernism seems to me to be an extension of the insights of Levinas, Beauvoir, etc. as applied to social and communicative relationships between human beings, not as applied to relationships between a human being and a rock.

    Making that distinction might help separate the non-insane claims of social construction (of human relationships) from the insane claims of social construction (of natural relationships) without a fall into boredom.

  46. Robert- Thanks for the clarification. There is quite a bit of money sloshing around in computer science at the moment, which creates an added dimension of good old fashioned opportunism. But, as was pointed out in ln. 41, these shenanigans occur at the edges of the field, not in the pages of Artificial Intelligence or at ACM meetings. Remember that the CS conference hoax was launched by CS people against a dodgy for-profit CS conference rather than launched by an outsider against the heart of (some branch of) computer science.

    On technical language: sometimes it is necessary to introduce some technical machinery (new terms, a bit of mathematics, or both) to get to grips on some issue or other. The problem is that this can, and sometimes is, abused. (Pomo has no corner on the market for obfuscation: we, in philosophy, have a problem with “phony formalism”, for instance, but there is no sense sparking that debate here when all of our wagons are so nicely parked in a circle.)

    Anyway, back to the point: I entirely agree that a field should try to be accessible to non-specialists. However, it is important to point out a few things. First, it is a skill to distill a complicated subject in lay terms, and one that is distinct from the skills typically required to carry out important work in one’s field. Second, not all issues or problems can be spelled out in non-technical terms: you might be able to motivate the problem in lay terms, but still miss the meat of the issue. (Otherwise, we wouldn’t bother with all this machinery: it is often a pain to learn, and some of us are lazy!) Third, since there are legitimate and illegitimate uses of technical machinery, it is very important for a field to self-regulate itself. The Sokal hoax was so damaging precisely because it went to the heart of a field and showed that it did not have the ability to do this, did not have the ability to self-regulate itself. Exposing this failure is what shattered Cultural Studies in the eyes of the rest of the academy.

  47. Hi Robert, thanks for the link! It appears the brothers aren’t hoaxes, but cranks. According to this article, the brothers’ work was submitted in good faith, is of questionable merit, but slipped through the referee system at a theoretical physics journal. Still, while not a hoax, the publication of their work is nevertheless worrisome.

  48. Agreed, it wasn’t a hoax. that’s because these guys apparently have deluded themselves into thinking what they’re doing has intellectual merit. To be a hoax, they’d have to have been trying pull something off. But it does prove that a Sokal-style hoax is possible. In any case, I think everything you say is consistent with my own view of this, viz., that the possibility of pulling off a stunt like this is not really the issue. It’s the fact that you can’t then go on to say what the ‘genuine’ stuff is (while you can in physics, etc.).

  49. Keith can correct me if I’m mistaken.

    My understanding is that Keith serves on high level committees at Yale considering, among other things, senior appointments to the Yale faculty. Candidates under serious enough consideration to warrant review at this level of committee will be candidates who are either quite strongly supported by Yale senior faculty in the main discipline in question, or candidates who have emerged via external inquiries or (most likely I suspect, Both). Keith is therefore seeing a relevantly skewed sample of work in this aptly named area of “what-non-philosophers-call-philosophy”. Keith’s sample is skewed towards his seeing what those doing this sort of thing would think of as the best work of its kind! We’re talking senior appointments at Yale here, not emergency adjunct appointments at a 5th rate school. In serving on these committees, Keith is well positioned to enter into discussions attempting to clarify the work in question and what some think is good about it. And his interlocutors will be well a non-random group – they’ll be other Senior Yale faculty after all. I suspect Keith is a quite responsible University citizen on these committees. That he reaches his quite negative conclusions about this sort of stuff helps those of us who have reached simmilar conclusions with less evidence than Keith has feel better about our own conclusions. So thanks Keith,

    PS – aren’t you glad you started this discussion?

  50. Nick wrote – “British empiricism and its intellectual protocols are not the only tradition of legitimate intellectual inquiry–and to this extent, Anglo-American academic philosophy is provincial, insofar as it attempts to dismiss as “postmodern” many different thinkers whose relations with one another are enormously complex. I mean, come on! reading one book by someone totally opposed to “postmodernism” as your “duty” to postmodernism itself!?”

    I think it’s a bit of a stretch to be too emphatic on British lineage. American philosophy is very far from simply being a product of “British empiricism and its intellectual protocols”.

  51. A semi-popular defense of postmodernism and its brethren that has come up in this discussion, and I’m wondering if any of the people who made the following style of defense could comment. The defense runs something like:

    You say that X is nonsense, but many smart people believe X. Might it not be the case that it’s simply that you don’t properly understand X/that there’s something more to X than meets the eye?

    Every time I’ve seen such a defense, the defender mysteriously neglects to include the an explanation of that aspect of X, or the clarification of X, that might enlighten us woefully confused, “right-wing”, cherry-picking critics of X. I’ll admit that I’ve skimmed most of the comments here, so maybe someone has offered up just such an explanation under my radar — at any rate, I’d like to see it if it exists.

  52. Keith,

    Very interesting post. I think you make your point quite well.

    That said, there’s a more interesting conversation to be had about some other philosophical thought that, in terms of content though not style, might fairly be called “postmodern.” This philosophy is in the analytic tradition and puts forward claims that resonate with (and may help make some sense of) social-construction of reality talk and Fish’s baseball-science equivocations. I’d love to see you seriously engage this stream of thought.

    Specifically, I would encourage you to read a couple of essays in “Rorty and His Critics” (ed. Brandom, published by Blackwell, 2000). The two essays I’d encourage you to read are clear, precise and thoughtful. They are: Robert Brandom’s “Vocabularies of Pragmatism” and Bjorn Ramberg’s “Post-ontological Philosophy of Mind: Rorty versus Davidson.” Rorty’s responses to each are also part of the necessary reading. (Teaser: Rorty’s response to Bramberg is analagous to his response to Wolterstorff in the JRE…) I think you’ll find both essays to be serious philosophical pieces by serious philosophers. Along with these, you should read Rorty’s “Pragmatism, Davidson and truth” in his “Objectivity, Relativism and Truth” (that’s the title of his Philosophical Papers vol 1, Cambridge UP, 1991). Perhaps you’ve already read all or some of these, but if so I can’t really imagine why you wouldn’t have dealt with such thought in the post.

    I look forward to hearing what you think.

  53. A friend passed on this link and since I was mentioned in the original posting and then in a reply or two, I thought I’d briefly respond, partly in a rather embarrassing act of unvarnished defensiveness, and partly in modest hopes to add constructively to the conversation.

    First, I am indeed an aging English major and not a philosopher, so I am always eager to learn all I can from professional philosophers. I thought the original post was helpful and interesting (and well-written too) and I learned from it, and from many of the replies.

    No doubt, a lot of stupid things are said by all of us, and people writing or speaking under the banner of postmodernism may well have said more stupid things than people writing or speaking under the banner of analytical philosophy. Even Jacques Derrida seemed to be sensitive to this, as he himself used to say, “I can’t be held responsible for what people do with the word postmodern.” At any rate, the people writing or saying the stupid things, whether postmodern or analytical philosophers (or preachers like myself) are often the last to know, especially if we’re unwilling to listen to our counterparts.

    Second, I’d make a distinction between postmodernism as a philosophical movement and postmodernity as a cultural phenomenon. I assume Keith is right or largely right in his diagnoses of the weakness of much postmodern philosophical thought in today’s academy, although he may miss the small baby in the large bath. It seems to me the discipline of philosophy is about statement, counterstatement, and ongoing conversation, in the pursuit of understanding – I wouldn’t expect postmodernism (however the fog bank is defined) to get the last word. The aspirations of its best promoters would be more modest, I imagine – to somehow make a contribution to the ongoing conversation by raising important insights or even questions. Probably they have done that to some degree. And probably in the process, they’ve created a lot of bathwater, dust, fog, and distractions too. Very few of us seem able to contribute all wheat and no chaff.

    As several others have already said, some writers associated with the word postmodern appear to be raising issues with some staying power, while the work of others seems to be less weighty. This range of significance would be true with any school of philosophy, I’d imagine, especially a new one that hasn’t had time to sift out the chaff yet.

    For example, as has been insightfully noted, there’s a difference between talking about the social construction of reality (rocks, stars, trees, gravity, etc.) and the social construction of society, language, and even academic disciplines. It’s the latter that will prove to be more useful than the former, I think. (For example, Wendell Berry – who would probably not have much interest in the term postmodern – does some interesting “deconstruction” of the discipline of science in his books “Life is a Miracle” and “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” – in my nonprofessional opinion.)

    Third, Keith said, “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 probably would disagree with the absolute statement that the transition will have “nothing” to do with postmodern thought, but that depends on how we’re defining the term.

    Even so, I agree with Keith that the major technological advances of these times will likely be more significant factors in epochal transition (if there really is such a thing) than epistemological arguments among sophomores in philosophy classes (among whom I may well be included) – especially if we consider the long-range combined impacts of nuclear weapons, biological and chemical weapons, the internet, e-commerce, neuropharmacology, improvised explosive devices, and biomedical engineering.

    Fourth, a small point – Keith called my book a novel. As a former English major, I tried hard to lower people’s expectations for that book and its sequels by calling it “creative nonfiction,” not a novel. As Keith said, its characters are disappointing as literary creations. For all their weaknesses, I hope the fictional dialogue made my material more accessible for popular (i.e. nonacademic) readers, who were my primary audience.

    Finally, my book must have given Keith and at least one of the others who posted here the impression that I was making pronouncements on matters outside my expertise, and that I was claiming to know more about how significant recent cultural changes are than anyone can possibly know. For example, someone said, “I’ve often wondered why so many people in English departments seem to think they know the landscape in philosophy” … most of us have the modicum of sensibility needed to refrain from making pronouncements about other disciplines.”

    We English majors, as Garrison Keillor often points out, are a rather sorry lot, and lacking any marketable skill, we find ourselves making pronouncements on all sorts of things simply because we like to read a lot, and as a result think we know something. I hope that people will not read any of my books as pronouncements on any academic discipline. Instead, they’re feeble attempts to make sense of what some of my friends and I are dealing with as Christian ministers.

    Some (not all) Christian ministers like me do have reason to believe that something significant is afoot. Consider the decline in church attendance and active Christian practice in Europe, for example (well documented by Philip Jenkins in “The Next Christendom”), or the growth of the Religious Right in America, along with quite significant dropout rates in church attendance among young adults.

    In a world of rising fundamentalism of various sorts, with the attending dangers associated with religious violence, combined with the flattening of life that seems to go along with consumerism and at least some forms of secularism, we’re trying to see what’s not working in the religious world and to figure out what to do about it – in the interest of truth, but also of justice and peace. Literary or philosophical deconstruction is a minor thing compared to nuclear deconstruction … but the former (how we use words and ideas), it seems to me, can lead to the latter.

    So, a lot is at stake in these considerations, and I hope my posting here will not be a distraction.

  54. I have to get to bed, and don’t have time for much of a response. But I do first want to express my appreciation for the graciousness of Brian’s above comment. It’s startling to see that virtue on display to such a degree in a forum like this.

  55. A typical response to a thoughtful critique of postmodernism is to summarily dismiss the argument on the grounds that it is the work of a right-winger. This sort of reply was made to Sokal, Boghossian, and now DeRose (by Nick). I find this sort of response incredibly exasperating. First of all, much as I hate to admit it, even right-wingers on occasion make good points with cogent arguments. So dismissing the argument on the grounds that it is the work of a right-winger is a blatant ad hominem. But what really gets my goat is the move from “S offers a critique of postmodernism” to “S is a right-winger”. What could justify such an inference? Sure, lots of right-wingers criticize postmodernism. But you can’t conclude that if one criticizes postmodernism, one is a right-winger. I certainly hope the thought is not that a “real” leftist must be a postmodernist, and that so-called leftists who criticize postmodernism are unwitting right-wingers. And, although all or most postmodernists are leftists, it certainly doesn’t follow that those who criticize postmodernists are right-wingers. Postmodernists are not being criticized for their politics, but for their obscurity, methodology, and relativism. Imagine criticizing a right-winger for abusing animals. Would that make you a leftist? Obviously not. Similarly, criticizing leftist postmodernists for their methodology and obscurity does not make you a right-winger. I’m sorry to belabor these obvious points. It is their very obviousness that should tip us off to something more sinister going on: I can’t believe that a reply of this sort could be made in good faith by an intelligent person (which postmodernists in English departments and the like undeniably are). This leads me to think that such replies are made in bad faith: as a way to shup up your opponent, without addressing the substance of his argument.

  56. I find it quite amusing that a weblog called “Certain Doubts” is so critical of those that doubt certainty.

  57. Ana: As I tried to articulate in the post, (esp. the second paragraph of section 4), my complaint here is not with skepticism, but with skepticism sloppily expressed and poorly defended.

    I’m on record elsewhere as saying that the defense of very radical skepticism that I mention toward the start of section 1 of this post (Peter Unger’s Ignorance) is the best book in epistemology from the last 30 years. When I teach Hume’s skeptical argument from section 4 of his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, I always tell my students that if they don’t find that argument interesting, then, while they may still do well in philosophy classes, they’re probably not going to like any philosophy.

    But you’re right that I am critical of skeptics: After presenting and motivating Hume’s argument, I always proceed to say what I think are its weak points, and much of my own career can be viewed as starting with an attempt to say where Unger’s arguments go wrong. But this is being critical in a way that true skeptics, of all people, would approve of.

    True irony would be a skeptic — or a blog named Certain Doubts — advocating the uncritical acceptance of anything — including skepticism itself.

  58. Re #50: I may be missing a point here, but in what sense might it be incumbent on me to defend postmodernism when I ask Prof. DeRose if he can advance an explanation for why apparently intelligent people seem so impressed with arguments that he finds so unconvincing? If I were mounting an counter-argument here, I might indeed owe a much richer exposition for my postmodern apologia; but Prof. DeRose is the one who’s making a case. That case would seem much stronger if it included an explanation other than, perhaps, “because they aren’t as intelligent as I am.”

    By the way, I like your use of “semi-popular” — all the opprobrium of demagogic superficiality, without even attaining to full popularity.

  59. The discrepancies I write of at the end of section 4 of the post are so frustrating in part because I know full well that they are often discrepancies between myself and genuinely intelligent people — some of them brilliant.

    I think it wisest to resist AKMA’s suggestion to speculate about why the “other side” thinks as it does. I don’t agree that such an hypothesis would likely strengthen any case I might be making. Such speculation about the other side’s motives & reasons is at least almost always self-serving and ineffective, in my judgment. Best for each side to explain its own thinking & resist the temptation to speak for the other.

  60. Keith,

    I would like to thank you for your thoughtful post. I wanted to second your estimation of the “wild” things that postmodern theorists say. Indeed, they seem to be saying more than that the language we use is socially constructed. As a PhD student in philosophy–mainly Continental philosophy and ancient and medieval philosophy–I have had the unfortunate experience of taking a couple English classes under the title “cultural and critical theory” at my University. I had the naive assumption that contemporary european philosophy done in a philosophy deparment would be all that differently done in and English department. To say the least I was mistaken. While I respect my professors as persons, I hate to say that for the most part nothing they say is coherent. In fact, most of the time I am amazed that anyone could actually think or believe what they are saying. And yet, I have some very intelligent friends who somehow get it, and that find postmodern theory to be a viable option for thought. My problem is that it doesn’t seem to correspond to anything that I or most poeple think is true. For example, I can’t count how many time s a professor has openly denied the principle of non-contradiction, both intentionally and non-intentionally. I find that absolutely crazey. Furthermore, I have found that literary theorists are mainly just literature people who desires some theoretical backing for the claims the make. While this can be good a thing, I am not convinced that postmodern theory is the best avenue to take for such backing. Moreover, since most postmodern theorists in the English departments are literature people, they tend to read philosophical texts like they are novels. I actually was told once to read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in a couple of days, and not to get bogged down by the argument Hegel is trying to make. The same thing happened when I we were asked to read Plato’s Phaedrus. Anyways, thanks for the post, it was helpful in clarifying my own problems with postmodernism.

  61. I share very much the point of Kvanvig, who is cited by Keith de Rose (“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”).

    As someone doing a Ph.D. in Literature (currently being a visiting student in the U.S.), I would definitely say that Literature studies do need more people who have been trained in logic and (analytic) philosophy!! There are these people, though I don’t know, if you can find them in the United States.

    Let me briefly comment on the situation in literary studies in GERMANY. Although what has there been called “Analytische Literaturwissenschaft” (Analytic literary studies) is still a fringe movement, it is quite alive. It encompasses faculty as e.g. Simone Winko (University of Goettingen) who has been trained in literature and analytic philosophy or Michael Titzmann (University of Passau) who has been a student of Stegmueller in the Munich philosophy of science program in the 1970s. Others are Fritz Vollhardt (University of Munich), who has done his M.A. in math as well as in literature or Lutz Danneberg (University of Berlin), who is also a philosopher of science.

    These people try to clarify their terminology, establish standards for good interpretation and so on.

    What is very frustrating to me is, that the books by these faculty members, which I consider to be some of the best people we have in literature studies in Germany, are not translated into English nor are these people invited as guest faculty members to the U.S.. German studies programs in the U.S. seem to invite, as far as I can see, not the best faculty from Germany but rather mediocre (postmodernist) people. This is very unfortunate!

  62. Those wanting to follow the full discussion should note comment #54, which was just posted. It got eaten by spam controls, though I’m not sure quite why…

  63. Having done a fair bit of graduate work in Continental philosophy before bailing out, I must agree with most of what Prof. DeRose writes. Re: #56, let me add a brief note on a difficult choice that some academics trained in that tradition must face. Spare a thought for the young professor of Continental philosophy (perhaps newly married, with a kid or two) who comes to realize that a good deal of what she has put considerable effort into for a decade or more is a gigantic fraud. She once thought the texts were difficult and deep. Now she realizes that they are often difficult and banal. Obviously, she has the option of denouncing it all publicly to her students and her peers — people N.B. who also have paid tuition for quite some time so as to get to the bottom of the same texts. If she does this, she can expect to lose her job and most of her friends. She may not be fired, but she can certainly expect not to have her tenure review go well. Admittedly, she can also retool. But it’s extraordinarily difficulty to restart one’s intellectual career from scratch in one’s late thirties or early forties. Universities are better off hiring younger philosophers who never had to switch tracks in the first place. Obviously, facing these likely outcomes, she is well advised to keep her mouth shut and perhaps to mitigate some of the wilder claims of the Continentals so as to maintain her dignity (if not her self-respect).

    And so more bright, tuition-paying students are sucked in year after year. And some become junior faculty. (I’m not kidding — I’ve seen it up close.)

    Having painted this rather grim picture, let me add only that some analytic M&E types seem, in some respects, in a similar boat. Perhaps that’s why they can be so vicious in calling attention to the Continentals’ failings and so resistant to being told that philosophy is becoming marginalized within the academy?

    Consider another case. This time, one of a young analytic — perhaps one also trained in computer science and linguistics — who comes to perceive a greater and greater disanalogy between her philosophical and her scientific work. In her linguistic research, she is confident that her syntactic judgements, and those of her informants, tell her about bona fide facts. And if they don’t, normal science takes its course. Similarly, her programs either work or they don’t. But in much of her philosophical work all she has to go on are intuitions about what is and what is not conceivable and on hunches about the meanings of our words: Is so-and-so the same person after teleporting? Do X and Y have the same concept of Z? Can P really refer to H? She writes about possible worlds, Twin Earths, Swampmen, reference, propositional attitudes and such. But imagine that over time philosophical intuitions come to ring hollow. How is she to face her colleagues who persist in analyzing whatever they can in terms of fashionable constructs on the evidence of what they can or cannot imagine that day? Again, probably best not to argue.

  64. In response to Mark, I have to say I find this an overly cynical view of both traditions, despite their definite faults. With respect to Continental philosophy, I take it that not just my own reading but a growing Anglo-American scholarly consensus would agree that such Continentals as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger, at least, might be difficult and even sometimes incoherent, but are anything but banal. (I might even be willing to wager on historical induction about some of their inheritors.) With respect to analytic philosophy, the reliance on unexamined assumptions about methodology is undeniably an issue, but it’s an issue that the best recent work recognizes as a problem and seeks to address. In either case, following the most fruitful path of inquiry might involve a significant disruption in one’s plans for research–but isn’t that exactly what the best academic life demands?

  65. I thought we were talking about a contemporary phenomenon, namely post-modernism. I don’t think you can characterize even Heidegger as a post-modernist, although most post-modernists like him. After all Hume was not a logical positivist, was he?
    I agree however that in order to answer the question”why so many smart people believe that stuff if it is so bad?” we should avoid to postulate bad faith, as far as possible. I think actually there is a possible answer in De Rose original post, section 1., an answer that goes as far as we need: It is like belonging to a political party, or supporting a football team. Most of us (maybe all of us) have beliefs that originate from belonging to some group. I believe such-and-such a player to be the best goal-keeper in the history of soccer. If I think about it, I haven’t even seen most great goal-keepers in the history of soccer playing. So what? I haven’t changed my mind; he is the best. Maybe we can develop those analogies with another one; it’s like having a religion. All religions (including atheism, for simplicity) include some belief that seem absurd to most people who do not share that faith. Suppose I give a very good argument against the existence of an immortal soul. Am I to answer the question “why so many smart people believe that stuff if it is so bad?”. Not at all. Those things are to explained (surprise!) on sociological, anthropological, maybe psychological grounds. My arguing against post-modernism can be explained on similar grounds, for sure. Those explanations however do not tell anything for or against my arguments, just like explaining post-modernists beliefs in detail would not add anything against theirs.

  66. “I should quickly admit that I haven’t read anything by most of these French writers”

    I have to promise myself to stop reading when the author admits a total ignorance of the topic under discussion. My mistake was to continue reading.

    But what is to stop me from following Mr. DeRose’s own procedure? Here is a good example of the pseudo-rigorous nonsense produced by analytic departments. It’s hard to believe this is a contribution to the sum total of human knowledge.

    “Here are two kinds of relations that may hold between, for example, moral properties and natural
    ones. They are, respectively, Weak Supervenience (WS) and Strong Supervenience (SS).6 Suppose
    A and B are families of properties closed under Boolean operations. That is, if P and Q are
    properties in a family, then so are the properties of being both P and Q, being either P or Q, not
    being P, and so forth.
    WS: B(” F in A)(“x) [Fx ® ($ G in B)(Gx & (“y)(Gy ® Fy))]
    SS: B(” F in A)(“x) [Fx ® ($ G in B)(Gx & B(“y)(Gy ® Fy))]”

  67. could not have picked a worse example of ‘pseudo-rigorous nonsense’. That’s a pretty standard account of supervenience (Kim’s, I think), two different ways of sharpening the idea that, for instance, there can be no moral difference between two cases without some difference in the non-moral facts of the case.

    BTW, it’s not all that hard to explain why otherwise smart people might believe things they shouldn’t. People believe all sorts of things like that (sad to say):

  68. Robert has already replied to brig, but I’ll add one thing. Criticisms are certainly acceptable on this blog, but doing so either anonymously or without identifying yourself is not acceptable. If you fear reprisal too much to identify yourself, then don’t comment.

  69. brig’s use of quotation is about as bad as it gets. You can’t just cut off the original writer’s sentence in such a way as to change its truth-value! I guess it could get a bit worse. Suppose someone had written “It’s just not true that Chamberlain is the best basketball player ever.” If brig had cut off the “It’s just not true that” part, and quoted the writer as saying “Chamberlain is the best basketball player ever,” that would be even worse than what he did. But what he did is about as bad. If someone writes “nothing, except for…” and you quote them as saying simply “nothing,” that’s a textbook example of a misuse of quotation. My actual sentence continues with an “except for…” clause, which brig simply cut, thereby changing my true sentence to a false one. And all in the service of making a point made much better already in the thread up at comment #25.

    As I said in the post, and repeated in comment #39, (but I guess we’re back again…), I have read huge amounts of the material in question, and I am reporting my reactions. What I haven’t read is material by several of the authors treated in Fashionable Nonsense besides what made it into that book. To rehash what I said at the very end of section 3 of the post, what I — and no doubt others who have already been subjected to way too much of the material in question — would like to know before we’d consider working on our French and then reading more by the writers in question in the original langauge is whether that’s being suggested to us because what’s in the book is very atypical. Because if your position is that even the material in the book is quite good, we’re less likely to bother.

    But in any case, please don’t post comments that just repeat points already made in the comments without adding anything of value. And please don’t resort to dirty tricks like mis-quotation.

  70. John,

    While I am enjoying your blog and this post, I just wanted to second what another poster said – on my browser (Internet Explorer), the posts show up with a black background and in dark blue writing. It is very difficult to read! The comments, on the other hand, have a white background and are easy to read. I don’t know if you can do anything about this – it discourages me from reading your otherwise enjoyable blog. Maybe this just means I should get a new or updated browser, but if other people are having this problem perhaps you could consider changing this…


  71. I’ve got a couple of ideas on this topic, which I take myself to be sort of moderate about. Whether you carve the issue in terms of continental/analytic or postmodern/modern, I generally find myself thinking like Dean Rowan: “Some of it is delightful, some of it tedious and overwrought.” This, of course, for both sides.

    Richard Dawkins puzzles me in a way that might shed light on the different attitudes or styles or poses that people can take here. He opens _The Selfish Gene_ with his approval of G. G. Simpson’s claim that “all attempts to answer [the question ‘What is man?’] before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.” 1859, of course, marks the birth of Darwin’s theory of evolution: what Dawkins simply calls “the truth”.

    Now this is obviously a rhetorical pose and, I would think, a kind of joke or ironic provocation. Strangely, however, he amplifies it in his 1989 endnote, making it quite clear that, “gauche” as is may seem, it’s sincerely what he means.

    So we might think he explicitly or implicitly qualifies the question. “What is man?” might be taken in stricly biological terms, for example. But again, no, Dawkins is keen to point out that his question is the ageold one, the same question that religions and superstitions and philosophers have been struggling with until “the truth finally dawned on [Darwin]”.

    Since the attempts that are thereby “best ignored” (because “worthless” and “just plain wrong”) are those of Kierkegaard, Kant, Pascal, Erasmus, Cervantes and, of course, Shakespeare, this is very hard to take seriously.

    I wonder if the word “worthless” is used here with the same seriousness that the word “nonsense” is used in the post above and its sources. That would certainly give us some indication of how to take it.

    When wondering “Why are there people?” (including “What are people for?” as Dawkins points out). We are here being told that we are best served ignoring, say, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 4, where the question “What is a man?” is taken up explicitly. Shakespeare, after all, was ignorant of the truth.

    E. O. Wilson has a version of this, if I recall, in _Sociobiology_ (can’t find my copy at present), where he describes Kant’s critiques as a failed attempt to figure out how the brain works.

    Like I say, I assume that this is a more or less harmless pose, and I actually enjoy Dawkins when he thinking about how traits evolve. (I don’t enjoy Wilson when he is reading Nabokov, however.) I think the corresponding poses on the other side of the divide are just as harmless. Seeing beyond them is worth the effort in all cases I have tried. Besides those mentioned here, long struggles with Davidson, Fuller, Brandom, Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault are beginning to pay off.

    What I worry about is that students come to take too seriously pronouncements like “we’d be better off ignoring them” and “if I can manage to avoid reading any more of this stuff, I will,” (not quite a quote from the post). Since Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault, to name a few, will not easily shake the label “postmodernist” any time soon, any argument that claims we can safely ignore work being done under that label (or, worse, that something out to be done to prevent such work) concerns me.

    Just as it would concern me if evolutionary genetics supplanted Shakespeare in our attempt to understand our humanity.

  72. Regarding the funky displays: [lns. 69; 38]: A quick fix can be found on the lower right side of the CD main page, under the heading ‘Themes’. Try ‘dark maple’ or ‘journalized sand’ to see if either of those display options are easier to read. I suspect that each of you may be using an older version of Explorer, one that is not completely supported by WordPress. I have an old copy of Explorer 5.2 for Mac that I got to behave the way each of you describes. A better (user end) fix would be to update your browser to the latest version. Cheers, -Greg

  73. Ah, I should know never to write a long post late at night…..I don’t, upon reflection, mean to attempt to dismiss Keith’s critique simply by associating it with ill-informed right-wing media voices; I mean, rather, to suggest that insofar as Keith takes on second-hand opinions of postmodernism—-insofar as one takes on these opinions, one is accepting the validity of the mass media version of postmodernism, as opposed to seriously engaging with a various group of thinkers. There’s a whole line of Marxist attacks on certain aspects of postmodernism, which is obviously a left-wing _opposition_ to these ideas….I don’t think Keith is a reactionary.

    As for the Sokal affair, people here seem to be taking it as a quarrel between scientists and pomo (in the specific form of English depts/cultural studies); but there’s a whole field of science studies with a very complex set of claims about the social contruction of scientific knowledge going back to the 70s; none of these people claim “gravity isn’t real”, etc….are all claims about social construction postmodern? are all such claims self-evidently useless? Ian Hacking’s study is very helpful here…the “Sokol affair” involved at least three different disciplines. I do think responses to the Sokol affair reflects a crisis in literary studies, and won’t defend Fish’s response, but that’s another story….

    My claim about Anglo-American empiricism was sloppy. But it seems overwhelmingly obvious to me that there are conflicting protocols of argumentation existing here. Take the law of the excluded middle, which I believe an earlier poster gestured towards; isn’t there a lot of discussion with respect to quantum mechanics about the validity of just such laws?

    _Just Being Difficult_, for the person who asked, is a collection of essays from various perspectives; the focus is on why different people demand allegedly value-neutral standards of transparency and simplicity in writing, and how such standards are not necessarily universally valid. (The person who offered the discussion of supervenience as nonsensical was being ironic, by the way; my point, which I still feel has merit, is that if Lacan’s vocabulary is equally technical, and if his concepts require study, then how can Hawkins’s claims about his difficulty express anything more than distaste or laziness, which, similarily, I would be expressing if I dismissed that example of formal logic?)

  74. PS–By the way, analytic philosophers are experts at argumentation, no? Upon rereading my first post, I notice that I never accused you guys, or analytic philosophers in general, of being right-wing….so re. #54: I don’t feel my reply was in bad faith.

  75. Nick,
    I may have misunderstood your post and attributed in #54 an argument to you that you weren’t making. What made me think that you were making the “someone is criticizing postmodernism and is therefore a right-winger” argument is your last paragraph, where you seem to be claiming that attacks on postmodernism (or on earlier movements, or the same movement with different names)are really just attempts by the right to get the English department to stay away from politics and stick to teaching Shakespeare. But perhaps you were talking about specific sorts of attacks from specific quarters, and not lumping thoughtful critiques by Sokal, Boghossian, DeRose, and others in with the more knee-jerk, traditionalist criticisms. If so, my apologies. This sort of anti-anti-postmodernist argument is often made, however. And those who make it do so in bad faith.

  76. I just found my copy of Wilson’s _Consilience_ (not _Sociobiology_ as I had said in my comment #70). At the beginning of Chapter 6 (“The Mind”), he says, “Much of the history of modern philosophy, from Descartes and Kant forward, consists of failed models of the brain.” He then says, “The fundamental explanation of mind is an empirical rather than a philosophical or religious quest. It requires a journey into the brain’s interior darkness with preconceptions left behind. The ships that brought us here,” by which, I take it, he means philosophical and religious (unwitting) attempts to “model the brain”, “are to be left scuttled and burning at the shore.”

    It is especially this last sentiment that I urge us not to take too seriously, and which corresponds on the “modern team” to (what is sometimes called) the “turgidity” of postmodern writing. Another tellingly “modern” sentiment, which postmodernists (characteristically) eschew, can be detected in the image of a journey into “interior darkness with preconceptions left behind”. Such a journey, on the postmodern conceit, is simply not plausible. It is a modern conceit that it is.

  77. From one Keith to another, well done. What I always say in response to the “you’re dismissing everything to fast” argument is that I’ve already demonstrated that the author in question is turgid and confused. If there’s anything good in there, let (e.g.) Lacan be your “inspiration” and state the “good stuff” in clear language.

    As for the “science studies” end of this, many philosophers of science find what many sociologists, rhetoricians, etc. of science say to be almost or as bad as the pomos discussed in this thread say. (heck, some sociologists of science agree with them too: Stephen Cole, for example.)

    Finally, I think it is vital to realize that this debate has very important real world consequences. Meera Nanda has written about this, and one need only remember Heidegger and his sitauation for a case where obscurantism and vile political ideeology were connected. Being clear and adopting standards of inquiry makes one less vulnerable to totalitarianism, etc.

  78. At his suggestion, I have now taken “a comparative — and perhaps critical — look” at Keith’s “Assertion, Knowledge and Context,” with which I am largely in agreement. That is, as far as I can tell, I am a contextualist.

    But the important point of comparison was not supposed to agreement or disagreement, but a question of style. So let’s use Dean’s useful catagories (comment #16).

    A. Delightful.

    Keith makes a number of crisp, clean determinations of epistemological positions. This goes both for those of his opponents and for his own. I’ll offer examples of the latter (in paraphrase bordering on quotation):

    (1) What one is in a position to assert is what one knows.

    (2) The truth-conditions of sentences of the form “S knows that P” are contingent on the context in which they are uttered.

    (3) While such sentences are never true unless S believes that P, and P is true, contexts may specify different epistemic positions for S with respect to P.

    (4) The standards for when one is in a position to warrantedly assert that P vary with context.

    (5) The standards for when one is in a position to warrantedly assert that P are the same as those that comprise a truth-condition for “I know that P”.

    (6) The standards for that comprise a truth condition for “I know that P” vary with context.

    B. Tedious

    I’ve always been impatient with the habit of indexing discussions to particular philosophers and the senses in which they use their words. So I could have done without the references to Williamson, Moore, Lewis, Unger.

    And I found the constant need to position my reading in a dispute between “contexualists” and “anti-contextualist” (aka “invariantists”) to be a hinderance more than a help. This especially because it leaves the reader feeling that he must wait for the implicated parties to respond before he can offer his own opinion. What *would* the Invariantist say here? we wonder.

    Obviosuly, there is an “in crowd” who would find all this useful, but I found myself toughing it ought in pursuit of the delightful bits already mentioned.

    C. Overwrought

    Analytic philosophy, and this paper is playing par for the course in this respect, is overburdened with a kind of jocular, sometimes “muscular” prose style, which often just becomes precious once we notice it. Here are a few examples:

    But wait!

    Getting it right

    That’s no problem for the contextualist.

    The contextualist should have been quite worried.

    The case has been powerfully made elsewhere.

    An impressive answer to our question has emerged

    I ultimately want to reject the move. Can
    it really be such a loser of a maneuver?

    But if the calls are close, they won’t be clear.

    (I don’t think it appears in this paper, but my favourite example is “Let’s see how the argument would go (or run).”

    This “let’s hash it out like men” sort of language is finally just quaint given the issues at hand. I think “overwrought” is the right word for it.

    But let me add that I often find that style to be pleasant company. It’s just that it gets in the way of the delightful point that Keith is defending, i.e., contextualism.

    So go back to the delights for a moment (A). There are six propositions.

    We could probably add a few more clauses to the characterisation of contextualism and its connection to warranted assertability, but it’s roughly this sort of account that is being defended in the paper.

    (Suppose you were given two more sentences, or five, to express the defended position. How would those go? That’s not a rhetorical question.)

    That is, the paper argues that after the professional (tedious) disagreements between analytic philosophers have been sorted out (in an ideal future that we of course will never reach, to no one’s shame) what will be left standing is the insight expressed in those six statements.

    The bulk of the paper is a report on a standing dispute (a virtual debate) which is of interest to the parties to that dispute and those who have an important stake in the viability of the six propositions in the summary.

    If the paper holds up under scrutiny, what we would have learned from its existence is those six propositions, give or take. (We would also have learned of the relationship of those six propositions to the views of the holders of the discredited competing views. But that is of primarily biographical interest, I take it.)

    I wonder if it would have been worth it, just, you know, out of its context? I mean, this was a fun exercise, and I may not have read the paper otherwise. I’m not sorry I did, in this context. But if I was trying to figure out what knowledge is, or, what I know, or how best to assert myself as so knowing, I’m not sure this paper is prose like a window pane on my situation.

    Compare Foucault:

    “Behind all knowledge, behind all attainment of knowledge, what is involved is a struggle for power. Political power is not absent from knowledge, it is woven together with it.”

    But Foucault says much more about *how* this weaving happens than Keith says about how context conditions knowledge claims.

    Thanks for posting these ideas.

  79. Thanks for the feedback. It is interesting (and I am sincere here) to read how my work seems to someone who comes at it from a different angle from its usual consumers.

    I don’t remember ever being compared with Foucault before.

  80. Quite literally, Keith: you were asking for it. (The comparison to Foucault.)

    I’d love to hear your assessment of my reading.

    (As I’m sure you gather, I’m not a wholly unusual consumer of your prose. I started out in analytic philosophy. I go back there. It’s delightful at times.)

  81. I’m a philosopher, currently specializing in Foucault and Deleuze, after 15 years of work on Heidegger and Derrida. I’m now working in a French Studies department, and there’s a long story to be told about that split between my professional affiliation and my academic employment, but let’s just say that I hope no one is surprised when I say that I completely agree with Keith DeRose’s negative assessment of “postmodernism.” All I would ask is that we not identify postmodernism with the whole of “continental” philosophy, the study of the history of which, and the current practice of which, can and should be held to the highest standards of conceptual rigor. And when it is held to that standard, after patient work in establishing the context of certain claims, after reading the major part of the work of the philosopher in question, and after careful tracking of the technical terms, then I think some of that work passes the test. (For example, understanding Manuel DeLanda’s work in his Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy on the notion of singularity in Deleuze would go a long way to deciphering the Deleuze passage cited above.)

    If you’ll forgive me this bit of self-promotion, the Edinburgh Dictionary of Continental Philosophy which I edited, and which should appear in the UK within the week, should offer a good demonstration of this claim.

    As to the impossibility of even defining “continental” philosophy, let alone identifying it with “postmodernism,” let me repeat what I say in the Preface to the EDCP:

    “Continental philosophy” has always been an exceedingly difficult term to define. In fact, it may even be impossible to define. After all, Nietzsche tells us in On the Genealogy of Morals that “only that which is without history can be defined,” and not only does continental philosophy have a history, but most-although perhaps not all-of its practitioners would agree with Nietzsche that a historical treatment (or what he would call a “genealogy”) of philosophical texts is vitally important. Thus, in lieu of a definition, the Introduction will offer, and our editorial decisions will be guided by, a (synchronic) operational treatment and a (diachronic) genealogy of “continental philosophy.”

    By an “operational” treatment, we mean that we shall treat as “continental” those thinkers who are now or who have been at some time in the past so labeled by a reasonable portion of the philosophical or general intellectual community, whether or not that labeling constitutes a set whose essence can be defined by a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that demarcates it from other types of philosophy. Indeed we will not even bind ourselves to what Wittgenstein would call a “family resemblance,”since the fact that philosophers as diverse in aim, method, and style as Hegel and Nietzsche, Deleuze and Levinas, Heidegger and Habermas, Irigaray and Gadamer, have all been called “continental philosophers” would seem to strain even that generous way of treating groups.

    By a genealogy of “continental philosophy” we mean to trace not only the history of the term, but also the various movements whose convergence and divergence have made up the shifting field of “continental philosophy” over the years.

    First, what is the genealogy of the term “continental philosophy”? As Simon Glendinning points out in his Introduction to the EECP, it was first used as a term of opprobrium by the Oxbridge philosophers of the 1950s for those “not like us,” those over there on “the Continent.” Over the years “continental philosophy” has come to lose its geographical sense, however, due to the strong interest in such a philosophy in the Anglophone world — it makes little sense to call someone working with Deleuzian concepts in North America, Australia (or indeed the United Kingdom or Ireland), a “continental philosopher” if that term is intended geographically! It has also lost some but not all of its polemical sting when used in “analytic” circles, and in fact it has come to be adopted as a positive self-designation by many, as evidenced by the shift of the title of the influential journal Man and World to its current Continental Philosophy Review.

    Second, the genealogy of the various convergent and divergent movements of “continental philosophy” is often begun by citing a certain appropriation of Kant and has come to include the philosophical and intellectual movements of German Idealism, Marxism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism, Frankfurt School Critical Theory, that branch of feminism sometimes called “French feminism,” structuralism and post-structuralism, the French “philosophy of difference” of the 1960s, philosophies based on or influenced by Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and the multitude of subfields produced by the intersections and mutual influences these movements have exerted on each other.

    Indeed the best reason for offering an operational and genealogical treatment of continental philosophy rather than a definition of it lies in precisely the sort of “combinatorial explosion” that results when these movements are put into relation with one another. The resulting field provides an ever-shifting profusion of positions, theses, methodologies, and so forth, no one of which can be said to unify the field. Among the factors in the field of “continental philosophy” are: 1) a reaction to the transcendental turn of Kant; 2) a materialist “overturning” of Hegel; 3) the “overcoming of Platonism”; 4) a focus on corporeality or embodiment, often combined with a focus on gender; 5) a type of “linguistic turn” via Saussure; 6) the disbelief in “grand narratives”; 7) the structuralist or post-structuralist “death of the subject”; 8) the philosophical implications of the “new sciences” variously called catastrophe theory, chaos theory, or complexity theory; and many other themes, almost all of which can be combined with each other. Only a genealogy considering multiple factors can offer ways to consider such a field; a definition seeking to isolate an essence could only be arbitrary and produce artificial distinctions. To twist Deleuze’s famous quotation of Spinoza: “we don’t know what the body [of continental philosophy] can do.” An essential definition pretends to tell you what a body can do; a genealogy only tells you what a body has done (although it may draw some lines showing what it might do in the [near] future).


    I hope you’ll forgive me the length of this post, but somethings are complicated and need to be patiently untangled.

  82. John wrote:

    “All I would ask is that we not identify postmodernism with the whole of “continental” philosophy, the study of the history of which, and the current practice of which, can and should be held to the highest standards of conceptual rigor.”

    I’m curious about what you mean by “the highest standards of conceptual rigor” since even within analytic philosophy there seems to be a range. Are you thinking of the sort of conceptual rigor that one might expect to find at a meeting of the Society for Exact Philosophy? You might be interested in the SEP page at

    Who knows, Thomas might compare SEP member Henry Kyburg to Foucault. It is interesting to read the different views expressed in this thread.

  83. If you’ll forgive me this bit of self-promotion, the Edinburgh Dictionary of Continental Philosophy which I edited, and which should appear in the UK within the week, should offer a good demonstration of this claim.

    Will this be available in the US?

  84. Hi Jeff, I’m not sure what the “exact philosophy” movement tries to do, but by “highest standards of conceptual rigor” I meant that if you work at it, some of continental philosophy makes good sense. What do I mean by “work at it”? Just follow simple scholarly practices, ones that all readers use. It’s just that as you advance in any one field, these interpretive requirements become somewhat transparent from repeated use, and you forget how strange a discourse that for you is familiar can sound to the un-initiated. Hence the bewilderment above that someone couldn’t easily see the point of the supervenience argument cited (wrongly) above in #65 as an example of “nonsense.” It’s not nonsense, but it’s not easy to see that for someone who hasn’t been trained in that field.

    Here are some of the interpretive practices the absence of which make it very difficult to see the point of an isolated passage. First, you have to know the technical terms an author uses and where they come from. Second, you have to know the context in any one work of the passage you’re discussing. Third, you have to know the context of the work in both the author’s total output and in the contemporary scholarly discussion in which he or she is participating. Fourth, you have to know the historical dimensions of the terms, works, and discussions. Fifth, you have to know the original language of the work and be able to spot any translation problems.

    For an example of only the first point, about technical vocabulary, some of the mystery of the Deleuze passage cited above would dissipate if one knew that he gets his use of the term “singularity” from the French mathematician Albert Lautman, whom Deleuze cites in Difference and Repetition. There’s no space here for a proper demonstration, but I invite the curious to have a look at DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (NY and London: Continuum, 2002) for an informed discussion of Deleuze’s use of mathematical terms and its relation to contemporary uses of non-linear dynamics in a host of scientific fields. (My co-author and I do the same thing at a much less technical level in the Introduction to Deleuze and Geophilosophy [Edinburgh UP, 2004].)

    So, again, I’m not sure it is what the exact philosophy people do, but DeLanda’s work makes sense and it helps you to understand how Deleuze makes sense. I admit Deleuze doesn’t make sense if you read a passage out of context and with no prep, but it only seems to that you can read passages out of context and with no prep when you’ve forgotten that you already implicitly know the context out of long and now transparent preparation.


    Hi Chris, the Edinburgh Dictionary will be out in the US in February or so, but most likely under a different name. We’re negotiating with a major US university press, but until we get final approval (supposedly pro forma at this point) I’m not at liberty to say which one. (Now’s the time for the hoary old joke, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”)

  85. Professor DeRose, your point about speculations on the motives behind ideas that conflict with your own is well-taken. But it seems there is an extraordinary reason here to pose such a question. After all, it seems quite clear that your account of the ideas you critique is formulated in such a way that accepting it would mean believing that anyone’s acceptance of those ideas shows that they are a total idiot or “insane.” Thus you are apparently confronted with a serious question: are those people in fact idiots or insane, is your account mistaken in some way, or is there another option, and if so, what is it?

  86. As I already tried to point out (64) adherents of all religions believe things that adherents of all other religions find absurd and insane, without necessarily finding insane all the people who hold those beliefs. On the contrary, if you are not a fundamentalist you will surely admit that, e.g., there are many catholics who have great intellectual capacities, even if you believe that dogmas like the virginity of Mary, the existence of saints, the infallibility of the Pope, and so on are straighforward absurdities. Do you think a theologist who gives good arguments against those dogmas should also explain why so many people believe them?
    By the way
    “Behind all knowledge, behind all attainment of knowledge, what is involved is a struggle for power. Political power is not absent from knowledge, it is woven together with it”. This is a straightforward absurdity, and a politically dangerous one; I think we should avoid an irenic ecumenism. The academy is probably big enough for all of us; however this should not conceil the fact that there are two paradigms at work here, and they are in competition. I have read Deleuze and Foucault at lenght; for no reason anyway I would suggest a student to read them. The huge amount of effort needed is not worth the intellectual gain, which is often near to zero. I

  87. I teach a course in which we read Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge and Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions in great detail and try to apply them in the description of contemporary management studies (i.e. the “paradigms” and “discourses” that form today’s business schools). Reading these two books is a good idea. In fact, they are enormously useful in getting students to stop making handwaving gestures at “competeting paradigms” and “discursive instability” and start, instead, to actually describe their epistemic conditions. While I won’t claim that this is a perfectly harmless activity, I think “absurd” and “dangerous” is a bit over the top.

  88. As for the obvious absurdity of the two sentences about knowledge and power, I don’t see it. I take it Daniele’s reading collapses under the weight of the meanings she wants the words “knowledge” and “power” to carry.

    Does she believe that:

    Behind all knowledge, behind all attainment of knowledge, there can be no struggle for power on pain of contradiction.

    Or that:

    Political power is absent from knowledge as point of logic.


  89. Daniele wrote: “I have read Deleuze and Foucault at lenght; for no reason anyway I would suggest a student to read them. The huge amount of effort needed is not worth the intellectual gain, which is often near to zero.” As global judgments just aren’t very helpful in helping us talk with each other, can I ask which books you read, with which secondary literature as guides, and in what context, i.e., which questions were you trying to answer? Were you reading them for their ontology, their epistemology, their politics, their aesthetics? On what specific points do you find them wanting, in comparison to which other thinkers you find superior?

  90. Badger said:

    They’d be attacking what you were doing, if it had become sufficiently visible; but because literature departments are expected to defend the timeless greatness of Shakespeare (in other words, to keep out of politics), English departments were associated with “postmodernism” in the media…

    Defending the timeless greatness of Shakespeare, or looking for current good writers. The English Dept. used to do the former only; now it does neither. Faulkner’s novels were out of print during decades of his own life. If 40 English professors had been trying to teach one or two of his novels to classes during that time, he could have have stayed in print.

    A few decades ago, when I was young, I took a course at Columbia U. which introduced me to the Deconstructionists. The professor never had a nice thing to say about any novelists, e.g. Cervantes, but occaasionally ridiculed their literary skills, and continually praised critics. The Deconstructionist readings showed no love of literature. It came to me that they were simply using literature for some other purpose, what, I wasn’t sure. Some sort of two-step. They didn’t care about literature, and they didn’t want to pursue political studies in the appropriate departments. So they could impress lit types who had never studied government, history, sociology, philosophy, etc., and they could impress political and related types who knew little of literature. A two-step evasion of standards. I eventually dropped that course. I argued at the time with an English Dept. grad student about all this. The grad student in another context mentioned that I should read a novel by “what’s his name” who wrote At Swim-Two-Birds — that would be Flann O’Brien, and I had already read everything by O’Brien including first American editions which I had bought cheap because, you know, English Depts. hadn’t exactly been celebrating him. And this was an English Dept. where somebody was too busy worrying about Hegel and politics to remember Flann O’Brien’s name. This literary grad student was also weirdly unfamiliar with the use of the word “literature” to mean “literary art” or, as some philosophers have tried to put it, “belle-lettristic” (yik). I think he had at least heard of Paul Bowles.

    Around that time I read a Scientific American article by Martin Gardner attacking William Carlos Williams’ poems as inaccessible and favoring doggerel like “Casey at the Bat” over them. I was young and in those pre-Internet days I thought of writing a letter to him (I never did), complaining that serious literature was under attack from the Deconstructionists who were using and abusing it for political ends and analyzing it in political terms obliviously to literary-artistic terms, and that Gardner should be a “team player” (serious science & serious art as ultimately on the “same team”) and at least leave WCW alone — I wanted to warn him that the Deconstructionists were “simply” practicing and revving up for an attack on science itself. It would have been a weird and funny letter but I still wish I had sent it. Its prediction came true. No, I have no current predictions. In recent years I’ve read and conversed with a few pomo types who clearly do love and appreciate literature, which love is the likeliest beginning of literary critical work that’s useful or illuminating. So I guess pomo can’t be all bad. But English Depts. whose professors wrap literature like rags around their heads, preach about politics, and scream right-wing oppression at their critics, are simply aggressive parasites.

  91. I think I owe a few answers; to post 87: firstly, I appreciate Kuhn’s work. His own work probably lies between the two paradigms I had in mind, although I would like to gain him for my camp. Border line cases however do not show that distinctions are not worth making. Secondly I said I have read much Foucault, but I did not say I am an expert. It might be a worthy subject for an academic subject (I would not say the same about Deleuze). I would not suggest anyone to read his work on her or his own. I hope this also answers post 89, since I cannot here tell the story of my intellectual life and much less the story of contemporary French philosophy.
    what I find more interesting however is post 88 (by the way “Daniele” is a male name in Italian).
    Foucault’s statement was
    “Behind all knowledge, behind all attainment of knowledge, what is involved is a struggle for power. Political power is not absent from knowledge, it is woven together with it.”
    John takes the negation of this to be that:
    Behind all knowledge, behind all attainment of knowledge, there can be no struggle for power on pain of contradiction.
    Or that:
    Political power is absent from knowledge as point of logic.
    This is not so however; the negation of Foucault’s claim is
    Not behind all knowledge there is struggle of power.
    In aristotelian logic terms, he is confusing the contrary and the contradictory. Compare “All ravens are black”, “no raven is black”, and “some raven is not black”; the second is the contrary and the third the contradictory.
    So it is Foucault who is making a claim of conceptual impossibility; he is saying, or so it seems, that no knowledge is possible if there is not a struggle for power behind it; and this I find absurd.

  92. Does the following quotation from Foucault speak to the apparent absurdity of Foucault’s view on pointed out in #91?

    “MF: We have to return to the relationships between knowledge and power. I think that in the public’s eye I am the one who has said that knowledge has become indistinguishable from power, that is was only a think mask thrown over structures of domination and that the latter were always oppression and enclosure, etc. On the first point I will respond with a burst of laughter. If I had said, or wanted to say, that knowledge was power I would have said it, and having said it, I would no longer have anything to say, since in identifying them I would have had no reason to try to show their different relationships. I directed my attention specifically to see how certain forms of power which were of the same type could yield to forms of knowledge extremely different in their object and structure. [. . .] Those who say that for me knowledge is the mask of power don’t seem to have the capacity to understand. There’s hardly any point in responding to them” (Foucault Live, p. 462).

    Now, this is from 1984 so it is in Foucault’s later period, but it seems to me that it indicates that he perhaps holds a somewhat different view than the one attributed to him in #91. Foucault revises his view on power in significant ways after the publication of History of Sexuality, Volume One (1976) that are not often taken into account in discussions about his views. It is absurd to suggest that there is a relationship between what we take to be truth or knowledge and power?

  93. Sorry about the gender bending, Daniele. I should have noted the single L.

    It was more the issue of whether or not it is conceptual problem than what the specific denial would be. My suggested contradictions are indeed only vaguely contrary. What you are saying, then, is that

    There is knowledge behind which there is no struggle for power; and there is knowledge from which political power is absent.

    Foucault would disagree, and so would I, but the argument would be an empirical one: we mean that, as a matter of fact, there is no knowledge behind which there is no power (there is not some knowledge that is free of politics) and, like Kuhn, we see the history of human knowledge (science) as evidence for this claim.

    Obviously, we can find very, very tame, domestic examples of knowledge which will have very, very domestic and tame politics behind them. I know there is milk in my fridge and, unlike my small children, I have secured the right to access the fridge at will and to discover facts about its contents and justify my thereby acquired beliefs. This affects the sense we make of my children’s claims about those same contents.

    Indeed, I would suggest that “political power” here refers to something like the local contextual standards that Keith defends in his paper (see my comment 78). That’s why I made the comparison.

    I think Foucault and I may be wrong, and that this wrongness could be demonstrated. That’s what I mean by it being an empirical issue, not a conceptual one. I think he is right in the cases of knowledge he has studied in detail and in all cases of knowledge that has been important for human history (and therefore enter the history of ideas.)

    That point is trivial if taken generally and interesting when considered in the details of particular knowledge claims, as Foucault does.

    As for possible everyday counterexamples, keep my fridge in mind. Where the “science” is very rudimentary it would be enough for a very rudimentary “politics” to be at work behind it.

    Finally, I hope you are not suggesting that John misread your claims about Foucault. You now say: “I have read much Foucault, but I did not say I am an expert. It might be a worthy subject for an academic subject (I would not say the same about Deleuze). I would not suggest anyone to read his work on her or his own.” But in your original post you did say exactly the same thing about Foucault and Deleuze. You said, “for no reason anyway I would suggest a student to read them. The huge amount of effort needed is not worth the intellectual gain, which is often near to zero,” which is about as good as saying they are unworthy of academic study. You now (honourably) admit that you were wrong about Foucault. But before I defend Deleuze, let me just ask if you mean,

    Deleuze might not be worthy of academic study.


    Deleuze is in no case worthy of academic study.

    (Because I think John’s question was a good one, let’s make it “the hard case”: I mean worthy of study *as philosophy*, not, say, literature.)

  94. Chris,

    I think the quoted claim (from 1973, “Truth and Juridical Forms”, printed in Essential Works, vol. 3, p. 32) is an example of the sort of thing that often gets misunderstood. I don’t think there’s any change of position here. In 1973 Foucault says that there are two things, knowledge and power, and there’s one thing “behind the other”, but this does not imply that one “masks” the other. In 1984, he says he’s wanted to understand the relations between two different things that can be distinguished.

  95. Ah right, it was Nick, not Badger. Sorry about that.
    Also, maybe the Gardner article wasn’t in SciAm but in Skeptical Inquirer, I can’t remember.

  96. Thomas,
    after some reflections, my views about the works of both Foucault and Deleuze are
    1) I would not suggest to read their works for your own intellectual pleasure
    2) There are many subjects of serious philosophical academic work which I find more worthy.
    3) I am in doubt whether there would be any worth whatsoever in a serious philosophical academic work on their texts. My doubts are stronger in Deleuze’s case.
    It is clear I am not giving arguments here, I am just stating my views.
    About your view of the relations between power and knowledge, I admit making it an empirical claim (which is not how it sounds in the original quote; talk about two things being “woven” does suggest them to be “indistinguishable”, despite Foucault’s later clarification) does much better. However I still find it implausible
    I would distinguish two claims
    1) Knowledge requires evidence; and to acquire evidence you need some sort of power
    2) Asserting to have knowledge is a social practice that is not allowed if you have not some form of power.
    The second claim I will not discuss. The first claim I find implausible; as your own example shows to defend it you have to allow an absolutely uncommon use of “power”. To open the fridge you need not more than the physical ability to do it. In other cases you need just the ability to open your eyes, or being alive. If that is (political) power, then your claim is true, because you need to exist in order to know something, but it loses much of its interest. If “power” means something more, than the claim seems empirically false.
    It would be interesting, anyway, to know what is the opinion of De Rose on the relations between contextualism and the view you are defending.

  97. Yes, the first thing to know about Foucault is that his project is an empirical one (in the sense that may be distinguished from a transcendental one). Interestingly, however, once this is taken into (or out of) account, his project is essentially Kantian, i.e., he’s interested in the (historical) condition of the possibility of making particular kinds of knowledge claim. (This, I’m beginning to think, is because he’s a contextualist in Keith’s sense; but I need to do a lot more work to be sure of that.)

    Next, it is not that my kids are physically unable to get into the fridge; they are not allowed to do so (without supervision) and that is (part of) why they have no business making assertions about its contents. That, in a sense that is as rudimentary as the example itself, is a pretty straightforward example of political power.

    Now, if Keith is right (and I understand him correctly) in “Assertion, Knowledge and Context” then there is no reason not to connect your second version of the political conditions of knowledge to the first. The conditions under which I have warrant to assert P comprise a truth-condition for for “I know that P”. If the assertibility conditions are political, then so too are the truth conditions for ascribing knowledge claims.

  98. I’m going to try to push Deleuze on you. I think the relative usefulness of major philosophers is not only subject to both the law of diminishing returns (once you’re got a few heavy weights under your skin there’s little others can contribute) and path dependency (e.g., once you’re “into” Brandom you are really “into” Brandom, which is a point that has been made with various degrees of charity in the previous discussion).

    We spent the early part of our training in philosophy collected a set of problems that define our work. Not everyone has the problems that notions like “intensity”, “multiplicity” and even “schizophrenia” are apt ways of dealing with. Some, however, do.

  99. I meant:

    We spend the early part of our training in philosophy collecting a set of problems that define our work. Not everyone has the problems that notions like “intensity”, “multiplicity” and even “schizophrenia” are apt ways of dealing with. Some, however, do.

  100. Oops! I meant to assure you I wouldn’t try to push Deleuze on you. (Interesting slip, though.)

  101. To an engineer who’s spent his career working in that oft-forgotten-by-academia space where the rubber meets the road, much of this exchange and the post that spawned it looks like an ivory tower spit wad fight. Additionally, the main arguments against postmodernist thought here are similar to the complaints that I, and the nurse that I’ve been married to for 23 years, hurl at academia in general. The complaints leveled at postmodernist academia by grad students here, are similar to those we make against our respective university experiences. Furthermore, we had to start homeschooling our children, not because of religious or ideological disagreements, but because, despite (or because of) all of their expensive “standardized” programs and their purported embracing of “diversity”, the university developed primary system cannot teach the four Rs to kids who fall outside of their ever narrowing bandwidth. Do you see the metanarrative problem here? Probably not.

    Over the last two years I’ve mounted a frenzied study of philosophy, theology and sociology (including many of Brian McLaren’s books) in an attempt to understand the social changes that I’ve sensed for the past few decades. What I’ve found is that too much philosophy is “difficult and banal.” For those with an IQ in the 98th percentile who’ve worked with complex systems technology for decades, this difficult banality appears rather self serving. Also, some of the arguments found in this thread are similarly self serving. McLaren’s response in this thread is poignant mostly because of his grace under fire but also because he is one of those smart people who took it upon himself to address what our expensive, self serving institutions have failed at–helping people live better lives.

    Whether you call it postmodernism, skepticism, existentialism or merely anti-modernism, an increasing number of us are fed up with metanaratives from meta-know-it-alls. Meta-know-it-alls who live in business, government and academia space. A very large number of us in the great-unwashed-public space, are deconstructing the “truths” handed us from on high and building our own conclusions. If you merely take a walk around the ‘net, you’ll find more postmodern deconstructing than you can shake a modernist stick at. In other words, even without your stamp of approval, the deconstruction goes on.

    For those of you in academia, here’s a little secret. The rest of the world gets on quite well despite your inattention. For all of your argument, analysis and categorizing, most of the real societal advances take place in that unseen-by-you space where the rubber meets the road.

  102. Daniele wrote in #97: “It is clear I am not giving arguments here, I am just stating my views.”

    Thank you for sharing your views. When you are ready to give some arguments to back them up, specifically regarding your poor opinion of Deleuze, please contact me.

  103. Like in every school of philosophy, postmodernism too has its share of pseudo writers. But language is a social construct and being a social construct it is typically used in a manner that denotes certain type of relationship between language and power. For instance, in India, there was a time when Sanskrit was considered the language of power. Later on other Indian languages too initiated a process of sanskritization.

    As for clarity in communication, it is possible that clarity is always achieved by the elimination of possibilities of communication. Those who write clearly “follow” a certain sense of logic, a certain sense of exclusion, and a certain sense of sequencing of thoughts.

    What someone like Derrida attempted to do was to deconstruct this apprent clarity and reveal the internal contradictions.

    It’s too early to write off postmodern thinking.

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