Postmodernism and the Assault on Reason
Philosophical fads and intellectual trends come and go. It sometimes seems that each new one is more bizarre and short-lived than the previous one. This can certainly be said of the twin terrors, postmodernism and deconstructionism, or Po Mo and De Con for short. Many in fact are already speaking of the death of Po Mo, or of living in a post-postmodern world.
It has been a difficult task to clearly define these two movements. Many of their proponents are obtuse, often deliberately so. And often their writings seem to abound in irrationality and murkiness. They still have a powerful hold on intellectual life, at least in some Western universities. So it is worth giving them a closer look, even if they may in fact be on the way out.
One person who is well-placed to assess and critique this new intellectual fashion is Roger Scruton, the English philosopher, writer and commentator. Scruton is always a pleasure to read, and his many books and essays are well worth digesting.
Way back in the Spring 1999 edition of the City Journal Scruton had a piece entitled “What Ever Happened to Reason?” It is a classic critique of postmodernism and deserves careful attention. It is a lengthy article which is best read several times over, but a few ideas and quotations from it can here be presented.
He begins by noting how the Enlightenment emphasis on reason, for all its faults and excesses, cannot and should not be so readily dispensed with. But the recent philosophies have done their best to jettison reason, deny truth, and promote relativism.
Of course much of the mischief – and blame for this – goes back to Nietzsche, who famously said, “There are no truths, only interpretations”. But it is postmodernism that has picked this up and run with it to its logical – or illogical – extreme. As a result, “Reason is now on the retreat, both as an ideal and as a reality.”
Three major Po Mo and De Con figures are addressed by Scruton: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty. These three have been hugely influential, and their status as philosophical demigods seems to be well-entrenched. Says Scruton, “It is vain to argue against these gurus. No argument, however rational, can counter the massive will to believe that endears them to their normal readers. After all, a rational argument assumes precisely what they put in question – namely, the possibility of rational argument.”
Yet Scruton seeks to interact with, and lay siege to, these mighty men and their ideas. Consider his take on Derrida. “Nobody knows – or at least nobody has explained – what deconstruction is. But its very obscurity constitutes a large part of its appeal. By offering reams of gobbledygook, the deconstructionist is able to fortify his all-important assumption: that meaning is impossible. There is no such thing as the objective, decidable meaning of a word or argument. In the official jargon, there is no ‘transcendental signified.’ Every word, once uttered, is hostage to interpretation, and the decision to interpret the word one way rather than another is in the last analysis political – the only real questions are the old ones uttered by Lenin: Who? and Whom? Who is doing the interpreting, and against whom as his victim?”
Or take his critique of Rorty and pragmatism: “Crudely put, pragmatism is the view that ‘true’ means ‘useful.’ The most useful belief is the one that gives me the best handle on the world: the belief that, when acted upon, holds out the greatest prospect of success. Obviously that is not a sufficient characterization of the difference between the true and the false. Anyone seeking a career in an American university will find feminist beliefs useful, just as racist beliefs were useful to the university apparatchik in Nazi Germany. But this hardly shows those beliefs to be true.”
The result of all this is the death of meaning, of rationality, of truth. “In place of objectivity we have only ‘inter-subjectivity’ – in other words, consensus. Truths, meanings, facts, and values are now regarded as negotiable. The curious thing, however, is that this woolly-minded subjectivism goes hand in hand with a vigorous censorship. Those who put consensus in the place of truth find themselves distinguishing the true from the false consensus. Thus the consensus Rorty assumes rigorously excludes all conservatives, traditionalists, and reactionaries.”
And it is in the university that the pernicious effects of such beliefs are the most strongly felt. “If you study the opinions that prevail in modern academies, you will discover that they are of two kinds: those that emerge from the constant questioning of traditional values, and those that emerge from the attempt to prevent any questioning of the liberal alternatives. All of the following beliefs are effectively forbidden on the normal American campus: (1) The belief in the superiority of Western culture; (2) The belief that there might be morally relevant distinctions between sexes, cultures, and religions; (3) The belief in good taste, whether in literature, music, art, friendship, or behavior; and (4) The belief in traditional sexual mores. You can entertain those beliefs, but it is dangerous to confess to them, still more dangerous to defend them, lest you be held guilty of ‘hate speech’ – in other words, of judging some group of human beings adversely. Yet the hostility to these beliefs is not founded on reason and is never subjected to rational justification. The postmodern university has not defeated reason but replaced it with a new kind of faith – a faith without authority and without transcendence, a faith all the more tenacious in that it does not recognize itself as such.”
Scruton reminds us of the paradoxical nature of the new relativism. “While holding that all cultures are equal and judgment among them absurd, the new relativism covertly appeals to the opposite belief. It is in the business of convincing us that Western culture, and the traditional curriculum, are racist, ethnocentric, patriarchal, and therefore beyond the pale of political acceptability. False though these accusations are, they presuppose the very universalist vision that they declare to be impossible.”
He winds down his discussion with these remarks: “The subliminal awareness of this paradox explains the popularity of the gurus I have discussed. Their arguments belong to a new species of theology: the theology of political correctness. As in all theology, it is not the quality of the argument, but the nature of the conclusion, that renders the discussion acceptable. The relativist beliefs exist because they sustain a community – the new ummah of the rootless and the disaffected. Hence, in Rorty, Derrida, and Foucault, we find a shared duplicity of purpose: on the one hand to undermine all claims to absolute truth and on the other hand to uphold the orthodoxies upon which their congregation depends. The very reasoning that sets out to destroy the ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes political correctness as absolutely binding and cultural relativism as objectively true.”
Much, much more, of course is said in this brilliant piece. But the snippets provided here will hopefully tempt the reader to read the entire article. The fallout from postmodernism continues to impact the Western world. Clear thinking and analysis is required to see through its elusive claims and pinpoint its many dangers. And Scruton provides just such a tonic.