by Kevin Currie-Knight
Does postmodernism spell the death of reason? If you have been caught up in some recent online discussions of it, you’d think so. Postmodernism, its critics (often of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web) say, poses an existential threat to reason, a bedrock value of “the West.” An article on how French postmodernist intellectuals “ruined the West,” explains that thanks to postmodernism, “the need to argue a case persuasively using reasoned argument is now often replaced with references to identity and pure rage.” Jordan Peterson, talking on the Joe Rogan Podcast, suggests that postmodernism is, among other things, a complete assault on “everything that’s been established by the Enlightenment,” namely “rationality, empiricism, [and] science.”
Wow! Any philosophy that uses reason to argue against reason must be not only awful and dangerous, but self-contradictory. I want to argue that it isn’t necessarily so. My goal isn’t to convince people that postmodernism can’t be taken in irrationalist or even dangerous directions, but that it need not be, and probably wasn’t originally intended to be. If anything, I do not see postmodernism, as Peterson does, as a “complete assault” on “the” Enlightenment (there were several Enlightenments, not just one). I see it as a potentially valuable corrective to some of the Enlightenment’s excesses.
Here is an admittedly corny, but possibly helpful, example to show how I conceive of postmodernism’s relationship to reason. Imagine an infomercial for a tool a company wants to sell. For sake of simplicity, just imagine that the tool is a hammer. Like all infomercials, this one is pitched to put the product – the hammer – in the best possible light. And like all infomercials, that means not only showing what the product can do, but maybe exaggerating a bit about what it can do. We’ll imagine that this particular infomercial gives a long list of things this nifty hammer can help you do: “It helps pound nails…. like, really well; it helps extract nails too.” Fine so far. “But there’s more! It is an excellent mallet for cracking crabs and lobster, is a great back-scratcher, it can help you saw wood (just smash the wood really hard until it breaks), and has tons of other everyday uses!”
Now, certainly this infomercial is overly generous toward the hammer and its uses. The first two uses – hammering in and extracting nails – are surely on point, but the others are probably exaggerations. So, imagine that a truth-in-advertising campaign comes along geared toward potential consumers: “Our independent tests indicate that the hammer is really good for some of the things listed, but buyers should beware that hammers are not so good at the other things. The hammer itself is a good tool, but only when confined to its proper uses.”
What does this have to do with postmodernism and its relationship to reason? Well, imagine that the hammer is reason, the exaggerated infomercial is what happened to reason under (the excesses of) the Enlightenment, and the truth-in-advertising campaign is postmodernism. The way I see it, the problem is not that the Enlightenment advocated for things like reason and science. Those things were and are good things. The problem is that some of the more enthusiastic Enlightenment figures, mainly within the French and German Enlightenments made some really extravagant claims for what reason and science could do. Postmodernism is not trying to kick reason to the curb any more than the truth-in-advertising campaign wants us not to buy hammers. Rather, like the truth-in-advertising campaign, postmodernism is just trying to check some possible excesses and exuberance about what reason and science can do.
To see this, let’s look at some of the claims that certain Enlightenment figures made about what reason could do. In his study of the Enlightenment and his reaction to it, Isaiah Berlin depicted the message sent by some of the Enlightenment’s more enthusiastic champions, the French Encyclopedists:
A wider thesis underlay this: namely, that to all true questions there must be one true answer and one only, all the other answers being false, for otherwise the questions cannot be genuine questions. There must exist a path which leads clear thinkers to the correct answers to these questions, as much in the moral, social and political worlds as in that of the natural sciences, whether it is the same method or not; and once all the correct answers to the deepest moral, social and political questions that occupy (or should occupy) mankind are put together, the result will represent the final solution to all the problems of existence.
This is certainly not a view that all Enlightenment figures held, and doesn’t come close to describing Hume, Smith, and a host of others we readily recognize as participants in the Enlightenment. But certainly, the view Berlin depicts has left a big cultural mark. However big you think that cultural mark is – and there is room for debate there – it is that mark that I see postmodernists as intending to call into question. They’re not aiming at hammers, but against being led by overeager advertisers to expect more of hammers than they can actually provide.
The big message in postmodern thinking is that there are many ways to understand and interpret the world, and when those ways battle for supremacy, there isn’t a neutral way to adjudicate between ways. Anyone who attempts to adjudicate between ways of seeing the world is doing so against the backdrop of some non-neutral way of interpreting the world. If you are arguing that God exists and is omnipresent and I am arguing that God is a fiction, anyone who hears our debate and wants to decide which side is right will be doing so with some non-neutral framework for making the decision. It may be that she is an atheist and, as such, puts more burden of proof on you than I do (or vice versa if she is a theist). It may even be that she has no existing view on whether God exists, but even then, she is not appraising neutrally. She probably has some idea of how to appraise arguments. Should I give weight to personal testimony, or should I only consider evidence that can be independently verified? How do I make sense of what ‘God’ means in this debate? How much weight to I give to argument appealing to logic, or arguments from authority? What criteria makes an argument convincing? Here’s neopragmastist-cum-postmodernist philosopher Richard Rorty’s way of explaining:
Philosophy, as a discipline, makes itself ridiculous when it steps forward at such junctures and says that it will find neutral ground on which to adjudicate the issue. It is not as if the philosophers had succeeded in finding some neutral ground on which to stand. It would be better for philosophers to admit there is no one way to break such standoffs, no single place to which it is appropriate to step back. There are, instead, as many ways of breaking the standoff as there are topics of conversation.
A more concrete way of describing this situation is made by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, who envisions a disagreement between interlocutors:
Whom should we have straighten out the matter? Someone who agrees with you? But since he already agrees with you, how can he straighten it out? Someone who agrees with me? But since, she already agrees with me, how can he straighten it out? Someone who disagrees with both of us? But if he already disagrees with both of us, how can he straighten it out? Someone who agrees with both of us? But since he already agrees with both of us, how can he straighten it out? So neither you nor I nor any third party can ever know how it is.
Devotees of the Enlightenment might retort with: “But of course, there is a neutral way. Just look at the facts and adduce from there/Just go where reason takes you/just look at the situation objectively.” (And not coincidentally, we all think that we are the ones doing this and our interlocutors are not.) Yet, facts must be interpreted (Is this fact decisive to refute the claim?), reason must proceed via some method (Are appeals to authority acceptable?), and the interlocutors almost certainly all believe that they, not their opponents, are looking at the world objectively. (No debate was ever solved by a third party coming in and saying: “Hey, I got an idea; let’s just all look at the world objectively. The correct answer will stare us in the face!”)
Yet, none of this means that we must abandon reason. At best, it means that we must take an inventory of what is and isn’t realistic to expect from reason. Humans have to live and act in the world, and we all want to act intelligently (yes, even postmodernists). Insofar as reason is a great tool for thinking, we should use it! And even if some disagreements might be un-resolvable – for the reason that there is no fully neutral way to adjudicate disputes – that doesn’t mean that reason can’t or shouldn’t be used for argument. I think my belief is a better one than yours, and I want to persuade you that adopting it would make you better off. Even if I can no longer say that my view just represents The Way Things Really Are and complain about how if only you’d just listen to objective reason, persuading you will still mean providing you with reasons, and if I really want to persuade you, I should provide you with strong reasons.
One can be a postmodernist and recognize all of these things. But, a postmodernist might say, reason is probably not good for the things Berlin writes about: leading all correct reasoners to the same once-and-for-all answers, and creating consensus around what those answers are. Nor is reason good at seeing the world objectively. Surely, it can be used to detect some of our own biases, but since reason is as much a part of us as our biases are, it can’t detect those biases it can’t be aware of.
I’ll close with a quote that philosopher Stephen Hicks wrongly attributes to Foucault in his book Postmodernism Explained. Even though the author was really philosopher Todd May, May is describing what I think is an accurate read of Foucault: “it is meaningless to speak in the name of — or against — Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.” Well, that sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Okay, we can hand it to Foucault (or May) that it is meaningless to speak against reason, but see, he wants to end all talk in defense of it, too! In context, however, Foucault (or May) is saying that “There is no Reason; there are rationalities.” it is not that we should banish all attempts to give and listen to reason. It is that when we do, we are always working within one of many possible sets of rules that we are reasoning within (such rules as what types of arguments are acceptable and not acceptable, will and won’t be deemed convincing).
Whether you agree with the postmodernists on this is beside my point. My point is that this postmodernist vision would only undermine reason if you believe that reason is either the type of thing Berlin describes or nothing at all. Either the hammer works as a back scratcher and a saw, or it is nothing. By my interpretation, postmodernism isn’t against reason any more than our fictitious truth-in-advertising campaign is against hammers. Postmodernists are simply trying to give us a better understanding of what we should and shouldn’t realistically expect reason to do. Moreover, I wonder if tempering our expectations in this way might actually help us appreciate reason more: a hammer will likely be better appreciated if one doesn’t buy it expecting it to be a good saw.
Kevin Currie-Knight is a Teaching Associate Professor in East Carolina University’s College of Education. His teaching and research focuses on the philosophy and history of US education. His more popular writings – on a range of issues from self-directed education to philosophy – have appeared in venues like Tipping Points Magazine and the Foundation for Economic Education.