Postmodernism as Truth in Advertising

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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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.

11 Comments »

  1. I was slightly amused by your example of that hammer.
    It’s very well possible that “modernist philosophers” (if I may call them so) think it’s the postmodernists who are advertising their hammer in a wildly exaggerated way.

    Your piece would have been more convincing – for me at least – if you would have added a similar analysis of postmodernist philosophy.

    Sure, the idea that every question has a – one? – correct answer and that there’s a – unique? – path leading to it etc. should be questioned. Personally, I think that valuable points of view should be able to say about themselves where their limits are.

    Therefore, my question is: what has postmodernism to say about itself? About its claims, principles and limits? About the reach of its pronouncements? Let me give an admittedly simplistic example:

    “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.”

    Are we supposed to evaluate this idea against the backdrop of some non-neutral way of interpreting the world?
    Or is it just true in an old-fashioned Enlightenment way, and should we keep the backdrop-thing to a minimum here? (But why? Any reason given has its own backdrops, I suppose.)

    Forgive me if I feel that some postmodernists try to sit on the chair they just demolished.

    (I also think Foucault denied he was a post-modernist.)

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  2. The value of this article resides in its contribution to a much needed demystification of commonly held misconceptions about the postmodern project, its dialectical relationship to the enlightenment, and its implications for how we ought to conceive of the function and proper scope of human reason more broadly.

    While the postmodern and enlightenment view of reason seem to conflict in important ways across a broad spectrum of hermeneutic construals, the degree of perceived conflict between the two seems (more or less) determined by not only the tenets one deems essential to their accurate historical representation, but also by the intensity with which each is presumed to express in its representational form. The task of differentiating between ostensibly adversarial forms of intellectual history seems particularly prone to uncharitable distortions, especially when influential figures who participate in the discourse, such as Jordan Peterson, think that the direction of political history will significantly depend on the intellectual framework in which postmodernism and the enlightenment are publicly understood. But if we are right in assuming that Peterson’s involvement in this discourse is primarily motivated by politics (which seems rather obvious) then we are right to also assume that rigorous and charitable presentations of postmodernism and the enlightenment were never of primal concern for actors like Peterson. But as for whether it is plausible to view the historical depiction of the enlightenment and postmodernism as causally relevant to the directional evolution of politics: well, such a task (for better or for worse) probably requires a revisitation to Hegel.

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  3. This seems to me to present something of a caricature of the way Postmodernism was received. I was still in academia during the “Science Wars” and remember the heated arguments quite well. No one ever disputed that facts need to be interpreted (duh!), however any attempt to explain to the Post-modernists why we interpreted the facts in a given way, was met with derision and and claims that we were just apologists for Colonialism. I remember being told that the movement of a certain Polynesian goddess explained volcanoes just as well as anything in geology, and the fact that I didn’t see that was because I had been brainwashed by a Western racist way of viewing the world. Your defense of it dilutes Post-modernist claims quite a bit. So they think you can’t answer every question yes or no in a neutral way (no shit!). The problem for us was that they didn’t think you can answer any question, full stop. As far as i know none have ever backed down from their extreme positions.

    I like couvent2104’s response; what has postmodernism to say about itself? Can you provide any examples of how Postmodernist ideas can help in making sense of the world and in helping everyday people deal with complexities such as Climate Change, vaccination, AI, and so on?

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    • I also remember the Science Wars. The claim that no backdrop or standpoint or whatever is neutral – even if we accept it as true – does not imply that any standpoint is as good as any other. The slide from the first claim to the second was a routine move as I recall.

      As for postmodernism in general, my impression is that the phrase “motte and bailey” might as well have been invented to describe the style of argument that prevailed in those circles, at least back in the 90s when I was paying attention. Honestly, my impression is that postmodernism or poststructuralism or whatever had already entered its period of decadence by the 90s. Whatever genuine excitement and novelty drove its rise during the 70s and 80s was played out and now it was all mostly a matter of careerism and turf wars.

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  4. When you describe the dialectic — we should recognize that there is no neutral way, we should recognize that reason is one tool among many — I find myself quite inclined to agree.

    But, isn’t the way you’ve set things up implicitly purporting to be neutral *itself*? In other words, you’re saying: “this is the way things are: there is no neutral way of describing how things are — everyone comes at reality with their own conceptual scheme”, etc. Is this way of describing things *itself* up for grabs? If it’s right, I feel like it must be, by its own logic. But if it’s right that there’s no neutral way of describing things, then isn’t it also wrong, because it indeed found a neutral way to describe things?

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    • Robert, I’m not sure the threat you see necessarily follows from the set up in this essay. One question to ask is whether under the broad description given here one can ever have *reasons* to choose one version over another. If Postmoderns were simply radical relativists then your concern would be telling, but I see no such commitment in either what the author has spelled out or my own understanding of Postmodern interests.

      It seems that if we start with how humans live their lives we can see all sorts of competing points of view, and the Postmodern wants to honor that (it seems to me) rather than stand only on the firm grounds of ‘neutral’ perspectives. I missed out on the culture wars some of the commenters have described, but it hardly seems a well thought out move to claim such absurd things as Polynesian goddesses explaining geological facts as well as the science does. It seems a fringe move that has more to do with embracing relativism than a serious anthropological appreciation of what people do when they do what they do. If Postmodernism simply means “relativism” then the conversation will be a short one.

      Dan had a great word for the non-neutral perspectives in his fantastic essay ‘The Decline and Rebirth of Philosophy’. That word was ‘apt’. We need to see how an apt perspective charts a middle course between absolute scientific conditions on the one hand (if there is such a thing) and mindnumbingly incoherent relativism on the other. There are many competing ways of being adequate if the questions are empirical, and there are different grounds supporting each practice of implementing such a view. We don’t always choose for reasons other would accept, but the idea is that the abandonment of neutral god-like perspectives doesn’t end only in relativism. Sometimes it comes down to what Wittgenstein identified at the bottom of all language games: This is simply what we do.

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  5. I had to reread your essay to tie several things together in my mind, but I greatly enjoyed it and agree with you on almost every point. We (some folks) have taken such a disliking to the idea of ‘postmodernism’ in certain quarters that the thing we imagine we are discussing takes on a shape that more reflects our own animosity than the breadth of intentions loosely gathered under that banner. You can’t come up with what postmodernism IS anymore than you can have a conclusive definition of ‘games’. That is, what people are doing as postmoderns is reacting to modernism, but that doesn’t tell us what the reaction amounts to. There is no essence to postmodernism. It is more like what Wittgenstein referred to as a family resemblance concept.

    I see the same problem for reason, and you allude to it in your analogy with tools and your May/Foucault quote, “There is no Reason; there are rationalities.” I think part of what gets us into trouble is that we have our eyes on the tool itself as if unpacking ‘reason’ would answer our questions, as if the problems were to be solved in the nature of reason itself. It is so very human to prioritize the thing we can hold in our hands (metaphorically) and manipulate to our advantages. The world where the tool lives is just the background. The activities in which the tool are used are merely second nature practices and well worn habits.

    The thing I would advocate is learning to look at the tool as less than what we have been impressed by and come to appreciate that the tool only exists as a tool because it has a world it can be used in, and it only functions as a tool because people know what to do with it in such and such circumstances. There is no such thing as a disembodied reason. Reason comes up for inspection in isolation simply because it is most readily at hand. It is a matter of our convenience and the temptation to abstraction. And in the moment of abstraction the sleight of hand has already taken place. There are no independent ‘rules of reason’ because there are multiple different ‘reasons’ with only overlapping similarities. Family resemblances only.

    So when you point to postmoderns as campaigning for truth in advertising perhaps it shouldn’t be so much an inquiry into ‘reason’ as an inquiry into the human life in which reason becomes rationalities. Instead of abstracting the function of reason from life, and hopelessly yet earnestly wrangling with that fantastical unicorn, perhaps we need to stick our noses back down into our daily trivialities and observe just how complicit rationality is with anything loosely categorized as a human practice.

    If reason is fractured and we come to the roughly postmodern conclusion that no one right version is adequate to all human interests, it isn’t so much a failure of reason as it is the foundation of lived experience collecting its due. The idea that science-like reason will have an application that is comprehensive and conclusive is just one more fairy tale in which the mythology of the unicorn of reason gets told. As soon as you take reason out of life, reason has no more sense than a hammer does jettisoned from a spaceship into the moon’s orbit.

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    • That’s what I was thinking too.

      I checked a book I read 20 yrs. ago, called “Rationality and its Limits” (not translated in English as far as I know).
      The overwhelming majority of the philosophers mentioned are not postmodern, and the book is written in a very clear, almost analytical style. (One of the authors is a Spinoza expert, by the way)

      It seems that old-fashioned philosophy is quite good at examining its ambitions and reach.

      I’m curious to know: is postmodernism good at it too?

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  6. In any discussion of post-modernism, I always begin by reminding audiences that there is an important difference between advocates of a hyper-relativism they defend as post-modern, and critical inquirers into what has been known,since Lyotard, as the ‘post-modern condition.’ (The OP falls into the latter category, although presented as mild defense of the former.

    What’s the difference between this and Hume? More importantly, what’s the difference between Currie-Knight’s discussion and Kant – the Critique of Pure Reason is quite evidently an attempt to discover the limitations of rationality, and the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment” explores the cultured differences in ‘rationalities,’ although these are not addressed as such. Nonetheless, it is clear that aesthetics is discussed always rationally, yet differently in different cultures.

    It is not surprising, therefore, that the author of the term, “post-modern condition” (Lyotard) was a scholar in Kantian aesthetics. The bombshell is there, although must be ignited with a fuse derived from Hegelian aesthetics (the supposed ‘death of art’), What Hegel realized was that, given that the modern sciences were answering, and closing off, the wonders that the arts had long celebrated, we were entering ‘the age of prose,’ when poetry would no longer be relied on to produce coherent ‘knowledge’ of the world. I put it in the simple (oversimplified) terms: before the dominance of the new sciences, to understand romantic love, one read poetry. In the Modern era one read psychology. In the post-modern era? one reads tweets. The tweet becomes the verse of the day, the ‘truth’ of the day. Tomorrow, it will mean nothing at all.

    The (painful) point is this: with the end of the history of art, paradoxically, anyone may produce anything at all, and call it art. However, it is not ‘art for the ages,’ only art for ‘today.’ Tomorrow – who cares?

    We can (and should) argue against the wild relativism promoted as the ‘new thing’ for the new era. But that should not mislead us into missing the fact that we are living in a new era. We are surrounded with post-modern architecture (which is where the term originally came from) and post-modern art; Deadpool is post-modern cinema with a vengeance. Donald Trump, a failed Reality TV host elected to high office for no other reason than to bring chaos to Washington, is our post-modern president. Post-modern Neo-Platonists demand acquiescence .to post-modern transgenderism. Millions get their ‘news’ from Facebook, a post-modern medium. Facts disappear, rationalities collide, urban legends and conspiracy theories fly by, chased after by cultists otherwise immovable by any argument.

    I walk into Walmart’s, and am surrounded by people wearing pajama bottoms as though they were everyday dress. Do they know they are dressing in a post-modern style? Of course not. But are they doing so? Obviously. What was once worn only at night at home now has currency in public during daylight. Despite the fact that they are incredibly ugly and inappropriate.

    But what do ‘ugly’ or ‘inappropriate’ mean any more? According to Kant the rationalities vouchsafing such terms are culturally dependent. But the post-modern condition is partly, perhaps largely, the fragmentation of Western cultures – the loss of shared ‘meta-narratives’ of our origins and progress..

    Marxists like to talk about the post-modern as “late capitalism.” But in fact right now only capitalism holds Western cultures together (and also links them to other world cultures as well). The gangsta in the hood and the stock speculator on Wall Street have only one value in common – money.

    (This, BTW and ironically, is an argument for the liberal state: Because it is only by acceptance of the liberal state’s insistence on obedience to a rule of law, that maintains control over the interpretation of money as wealth, that fragments of differing cultures can find some means of co-existence. Both the gangsta and the stock speculator can be shown to flaunt and break innumerable laws; but they both adhere to the laws that validate the currency of the United States as a measure of wealth.).

    It follows, therefore, that we must not only accept, but promote, critical study into the post-modern condition. I accept that it is true that there is no neutral position from which to engage in such study, but so what? Any such study is going to need to assume such a position in order to articulate itself – that’s just in the nature of explanation; but every audience to such study should be prepared with critical awareness of the possible non-neutral biases of the study.

    Of course that means things are going to get very complicated for a while. But let’s not crucify the messenger for the message. The post-modern is here; how long will it stay? Possibly until either an economic catastrophe or a climate catastrophe alters the world arena; possibly when governments move into a faceless, leaderless autocratic mode, where elections become irrelevant and the masses are controlled through entertainments, drugs, mass social events (perhaps via electronic media) substituting for actual participation in community. Or perhaps through the resurrection of the liberal state in openly capitalist mode, with all choices and expressions monetized and marketed.

    The post-modern offers itself as a dance of differences. My fear is that it will ultimately reveal itself as the same-old same-old of fear, power plays, and avarice disguised as socialization.

    The tragedy is not to be labelled “post-modern,” but, rather, the human condition. From the cave we came, to the cave we return. How could we really have expected otherwise?

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