What the Postmodernism Debate Is REALLY All About
Postmodernism is a very loose term.
In fact, it literally can be applied to every thinker who sought to go beyond the modernist canon or what one might think of as the classical enlightenment tradition.
It all can get terribly confusing.
We could put Marxist social theorists in that box. Or traditional leftists who firmly reject moral relativism. Or the subjectivist positions of the “to each their own truth” crowd. Even theistic thinkers such as A. N. Whitehead and his followers who sought to move beyond the conundrums inherited from modernist Enlightenment philosophy.1
So, instead of getting caught up in useless definition games, let’s have a broader look at the intellectual currents at work here.
At the heart of it all, it seems to me, there is a conflict between those who see—and experience—the universe as something transcendent: a world embedded in an ultimate reality we know little about and that we can only make sense of indirectly.
A world that seems to exhibit a certain deeper order, but one that is impossible to fully capture in laws, or systems, or words. A world where our aspirations, our thoughts, our feelings, our actions are of the utmost significance and may decide the fate of the cosmos. A world where higher forms of existence are recognized to be possible and likely based on our own experience of growth, within ourselves and all around us.
And those who see the world as dead: made up of dead matter randomly floating around. Where we are the unlikely byproduct of an unlikely accident. Where nothing is active, and everything just happens. Where there is no goal, no order, no plan, no mystery—these are just illusions of ultimately useless biological computers.
Where morality cannot go beyond circular utalitarian reasoning, and beauty is just another “thing” that ultimately serves the purpose of reproduction, species survival, or whatever (even though there are no purposes in that view, but nevermind).
Now, the funny thing is this: those who would consider themselves “modernists”—let’s call them the Enlightenment Warriors—and those in the postmodernist camp BOTH fall into the latter category. They are all materialists at heart.
And therein lies the confusion.
A Good Example: Positivism vs. the Frankfurt School
In many ways, the debate that raged roughly from the 1930s to the 1960s between the (logical) positivists and the Frankfurt School was a precursor to the conflict we are seeing today between science-believers and those who think changing society is more important than empirical facts.
What went down roughly in the first half of the 20th century is perhaps best thought of as a triangle:
On the bottom left, we have the logical positivists, who were the equivalent of today’s True Science Believers: all truth comes down to empirically verifiable facts. Everything else is nonsense. Philosophical treatises can be analyzed linguistically—chopped up into little language-atoms that can then be recognized as empirically true, false, or tautological.
Everything hinting at something beyond the world of facts can be thrown out: finally, philosophy can be “cleansed” of all silly speculation about higher worlds, mysterious realms of forms and other such indulgences of idle minds.
On the bottom right, you have what we today may call postmodernists: those, like Horkheimer/Adorno of Frankfurt School fame, who advocate for social change, and fiercly critizise the scientific establishment for perpetuating social ills by not taking an active ideological stance against society’s problems.
In part fuelled by the Nazi experience, they don’t want to recognize science’s commitment to impartiality: in their view, impartiality enabled Hitler, and therefore science, especially social science, should not be impartial politically and socially.
They emphasize theory over empiricism, on the basis that every empirical study is itself conditioned by society. They jumble the idea of truth by claiming it is always somehow intertwined with a mission to change society.
But here’s the thing. As far as I can tell, Horkheimer and Adorno never even attempted to come up with a philosophical justification of their moral stance, or the possibility of any moral stance for that matter. They just took it for granted.2
Neither did the logical positivists. But at least they were partly aware of the problem: you cannot argue that language must be chopped up and the resulting parts subjected to empirical verification, and at the same time rely on some non-negotiable meta-rules of the game that dictate your “right” conduct as a scientist.
We begin to realize: both camps, the Science Believers and the Postmodernists, have a problem with the issue of morality and its justification—with the justification of their own principles. Both empirical science and social activism must be based on higher principles, deeper presuppositions that are logically prior to these endeavors.
In denying this, they must choose simplistic and arbitrary “anchors” for their theories.
Both camps, while putting on this show of a fight, fiercely object to any notion of transcendent truth beyond the material realm: the material realm of “empirical facts” and the material realm of “social conditions”, respectively.
The Enlightenment Warrior’s Holy Facts are the Postmodernist’s Holy Social Issues.
Nothing else exists for them. Certainly nothing that is prior to facts or social issues in any way, shape or form, because this would dethrone them from their central place as the Only Thing That Matters: their absolute anchors.
But this observation is often obscured because both camps got something right: the science-believers are right in that when it comes to straight-forward empirical facts, it is an insult to our basic intelligence to question and deny those facts based on some half-baked theory.
The postmodern crowd is right in that the chunk of reality you have access to depends on your angle and your lens: depending on your presuppositions, therefore, the world presents itself in radically different ways. And your presuppositions are partly conditioned by society.
Both are wrong, again, in their belief that their idea of how all this works is the whole story.
Not even close.
Both camps have just blown up some obvious observations into silly all-encompassing theories that severely limit their access to Reality.
This is also the deeper reason for the incredible confusion surrounding the infamous Positivismusstreit that raged in Germany in the 1960s, with precursors starting in the 1930s. Both camps base their theories on materialism combined with extremely narrow theories about the world, and are incapable of justifying their prescriptions based on higher principles. This results in ever-changing positions built on quicksand.
But there is a third option, our top of the triangle.
This third option recognizes that there are nuances, and that there is way more that we don’t understand than we understand. That if we want to come closer to the truth, we must give up our simplistic ideologies, thought systems and models of the cosmos. We must realize that indeed, our materialist model of the world is just that: a model, one way of looking at things, but not the whole story by any stretch of the imagination.
Pretending otherwise leads to disaster.
Ignoring the third option leads to the sort of Scientism that seeks salvation in a technocratic class of unaccountable scientist-priests. To the abhorrent clash between our lived experience of incredible depth and alignment with a cosmic order we can barely grasp, and the Official Theory of Original Nihilism.
It also leads to seeing social ills as the only problem worth solving, and seeking salvation in the re-modelling of society based on an absurdly narrow focus on one form of inequality or the other.
Both paths have the same root: the denial that there is so, so much more to the universe than 19th century materialism, and all the ideologies it spawned—Realism, Positivism, Marxism, Scientism, Critical Theory, and the rest—, would have us believe.
And both paths lead to shallowness across the board, to authoritarian societies that seek to “solve” problems they over-emphasize and don’t understand, and ultimately to a complete decoupling from Reality—concrete reality as well as ultimate reality.
There is an alternative.
What we desperately need at this point is to go beyond what has become entrenched Enlightenment dogma, but without right falling back into the materialist snake pit like most of the postmodernists did.
We could build on the foundation laid by forgotten thinkers like A.N. Whitehead or R.G. Collingwood, and even the physicists of the 1920s and 1930s. I have called it “Souled Thought”, the top of the triangle. Maybe we can call it lived subtlety, or embodiment of depth, or living the souled life in everything we think and do.
It doesn’t matter what we call it. It is the only way forward.
See David Ray Griffin, Whitehead's Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy: An Argument for Its Contemporary Relevance, SUNY Series in Philosophy, 2008
See Hans-Joachim Dahms, Positivismusstreit: Die Auseinandersetzungen der Frankfurter Schule mit dem logischen Positivismus, dem amerikanischen Pragmatismus und dem kritischen Rationalismus, suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft, 2016 (1994)
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