Thought Control and Cultural Decline

by Mark English

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Late last year I wrote a piece about censorship and humor, alluding to the fact that in times of oppression and excessive censorship, humor tends to bubble up and create a space for the expression of dissenting thoughts and feelings. The self-expression involved here may be controlled and deliberate (as in sophisticated satire and black humor), or it may be reckless and anarchical (i.e. “laughing when one shouldn’t be laughing”).

But – as foreseen by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell – more sophisticated and all-encompassing forms of propaganda can change the situation in fundamental ways. When propaganda is truly effective, it may not be readily identifiable as such and so the scope for independent thinking and feeling – and, by extension, for satire, black humor and various forms of disobedience and dissent – narrows dramatically.

We are not (in Western countries, at least) seeing effective totalitarian control but we are seeing more effective forms of thought control being deployed than those which applied in previous times. Whether one is talking about the narratives disseminated by dissident or radical sources or those promoted by big tech and mainstream media, biases and preconceptions inevitably come into play. And artful communicators now have new means of gathering data and shaping their messages to flatter the vanity and play on the biases, fears and predilections of their target audiences.

One consequence of the cultural and technological changes we are seeing is that the line between political activism and research and knowledge sharing has been erased – at least in many areas. Journalistic and publishing standards have plummeted, obviously. But it is the failure of the universities and other institutions of science and scholarship which is particularly galling for me. The institutions which I most respected – and to which I devoted many years of professional life – are being compromised and debased. Whatever could be politicized has been politicized and in very boring and predictable ways. The trends have been obvious for decades, but I had no idea just how fragile the commitment to science, scholarship and truth-seeking was, both within academia and in the broader community.

At the heart of the problem, as I see it, are postmodern and pragmatic views on truth and history. For whatever reason or reasons, such views have been energetically promoted by academics and school teachers, and they now pervade the broader society, contributing to the failure of political discourse. Everything is being reduced to rhetoric and the here and now.

I am not saying that there are not serious flaws in traditional ways of seeing the world. There are. But, for me, it’s a baby and bathwater thing. If we abandon the path of consilience and convergence in the realm of knowledge, we are ultimately condemning ourselves to intellectual impotence and irrelevance.

This is just rhetoric, you may say, and so it may be. I have not proved anything here. But my claim is a substantive one. It is a claim about the past and a prediction concerning the fate of cultures which abandon traditional epistemic values. The basic idea or intuition behind it is that epistemic relativism facilitates ideological fantasies which in turn lead to a disconnect between cultural and economic realities.

With respect to our future, time will tell. The intellectual fashions of which I speak could conceivably pass as the generation that has promoted and popularized them slowly dies off. But the signs are not good. Great damage has been done.

Maybe these tendencies of thought (mutating now in grotesque and seemingly crazy ways) are best seen as epiphenomena driven by economic forces or by the physics of complex systems. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense to claim that certain ways of thinking caused or contributed to this or that. Nonetheless, we can always observe and describe. Clarity and perspicacity are possible even when we cannot see into the heart of things or identify the root causes of the changes which we observe.

We see, for example, domestic problems in many Western countries and a commensurate decline in power and influence. The prestige of Western civilization derived largely from scientific, technical and industrial achievements. Nobody was imitating us during the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance would not have happened without the scientific and technical innovations that so fascinated Leonardo da Vinci and which changed the face of art and architecture. Even the English Romantics defined themselves against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. No Industrial Revolution, no Romantic reaction.

For centuries the West was envied and admired for its prosperity and cultural sophistication. It was also, of course, respected and feared for its military might. But this aura of power, status and invincibility is now gone. The United States, the last in a succession of Western imperial powers, is failing. Economically speaking, the U.S. has been living on borrowed time for decades. The national debt is skyrocketing and is now at unprecedented and unsustainable levels. This in itself is enough to undermine hope in the future. As the dollar devalues over time (as it must if defaults are to be avoided), the U.S. standard of living – once amongst the highest in the world – will decline inexorably.

Most of the thinkers I am interested in and know a bit about are out of fashion in Western academic circles. A number of them dealt with economic as well as political themes, but not in a Marxist or Keynesian way. I am encouraged, however, to see that the traditions of political and economic thought to which I am attuned still find expression in some quarters.

For some time I have been following the thoughts of Hong Kong-based Louis-Vincent Gave on geopolitics and investment. He is not an academic. But I was surprised and pleased to see him refer favorably in a recent interview to the French economist and political thinker Jacques Rueff who was, in the middle decades of the last century, a prominent and articulate opponent of Keynesian ideas.

Gave sees the world splitting into separate economic blocs. This process – putting security of supply above cost and efficiency – will reverse the deflationary tendencies of globalization and lead to inflation in most Western economies. The consequences for American power and influence – and for human welfare and well-being – will not be positive. He sees China coming out of this process stronger and the United States weaker.

I claimed that, in Western countries, the ill effects of digital technologies have been compounded by certain relativistic and ahistorical modes of thought. But these technologies pose similar problems everywhere. Traditional scholarship – in the East as in the West – was developed within the context of linguistically sophisticated cultures and centered around paper documents which persisted over time. A sense of history was built in. You held firm evidence of the past in your hand, and many of the most important and influential fields of scholarly research dealt with historical (and historico-linguistic) questions. Objective evidence was painstakingly marshalled and deployed. And, over all and over time, epistemic progress occurred. There was a convergence of views on central questions.

The savagery with which scholars were treated during Mao’s Cultural Revolution or by the Khmer Rouge can be seen in this context. It showed how seriously scholars were still taken in the Far East less than fifty years ago. They were perceived as a real threat to forcibly imposed radical ideas.

We are now in an utterly different world, of course. Today’s all-enveloping digital environment makes it relatively easy for history to be rewritten, for minds to be molded at will and at scale. What could be more insidious – and more destructive of individual autonomy – than opaque, monopolistic systems skewing searches for information in order to promote particular views and agendas, and using AI to monitor personal communications and manipulate what people will and won’t see on their screens?

I would like to resist, but don’t see how I could do so effectively. Institutions of learning have been hijacked by ideologues and self-serving bureaucrats. More generally, the common ground which makes effective discourse possible has all but disappeared.

What, then, can one do? Join a rhetorical battle which by its very nature will never result in a clear or decisive outcome? Or withdraw, watch and wait – while cultivating one’s garden?

34 comments

  1. Well needless to say I strongly disagree with your stance in this essay, perhaps this puts me at odds with The Electric Agora in general. That is not my concern here as I am lifelong student of intellectual history and in general have respected the scholarship and work on this site. I am in that camp that you so vilify. I consider myself in part a postmodernist. And in the mid 1980s I was part of seminar where we read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as an uncorrected proof. Yet i also love Isiah Berlin and Bernard Williams, os I guess, as they say it is complicated.
    i agree with your evaluation of where the United States is. Decline is a real and verifiable thing. But I do not see a causal relationship between Continental philosophy and what you call pragmatism and this negative trend .indeed I see it quite opposite. Anglo-American modes of thought are doubling down on their rigidity. to put it bluntly when first I read The Wilson Quarterly’s debate on the unity of knowledge, I sided with Richard rosy in his Again Unity and against, well E. O. Wilson in his project of consilience. It is not that i disagree with the science of Wilson. I am most open to evolutionary psychological explanations of some things. It is what happens after. That is, what you do with those facts. I appreciate your candor here but I have learned too much from the traditions you disparage to ever attack them as you do here.

    1. 1970scholar

      As you say, it’s complicated. I am pleased that we share quite a bit of common ground.

      “Anglo-American modes of thought are doubling down on their rigidity.”

      I would categorize these rigidities in terms of dogmatism (which is consistent with my thesis, because ideologies breed dogmatism).

      “I sided … against … E. O. Wilson in his project of consilience. It is not that I disagree with the science of Wilson. I am most open to evolutionary psychological explanations of some things. It is what happens after. That is, what you do with those facts.”

      It’s a long time since I read Wilson but his seriousness always impressed me.

      Also, Wilson’s attachment to ants predisposes me to like him. My favorite high school teacher (maths) — the sweetest and most down to earth of men — had a species of ant named after him. He never talked about his research. I only found out after his death.

  2. Mark, the claim that the problems you identify — and which you know I agree are quite serious — is due to “postmodernism” and “pragmatism” sound like the sorts of things Jordan Peterson would say. I am as close to 100% sure as one can be about such things that no such thing is the case: that postmodernist theory and/or pragmatism have nothing whatsoever to do with our intellectual, epistemic, and characterological disintegration.

    Then again, you do seem to acknowledge this in paragraph 9, so I’m not sure we disagree on this. However, I also would question the usefulness of this analysis, even if taken as being a post-hoc effort at clarification. Mendacity and an increasingly mercenary, cynical ethos combined with the new technologies are more than sufficient to explain what’s going on.

    The only other thing I take issue with is the predictions re: the United States. We’ve been hearing that song forever. I find it incredibly unlikely. So long as the US retains its overwhelming military superiority — which it will — and so long as it remains a major market and a major innovator in S&T — which it will — what you describe simply isn’t going to happen. Indeed, I’m certain enough of this that I’d be willing to make a pretty hefty 10 year bet to that effect.

    1. I agree that all those predictions about the demise of the US are premature, and I also agree that there are simpler and more convincing explanations than “postmodernism” for many problems in Western societies: deregulation, the idea that “the market will provide”, bad educational policies, powerful lobby groups etc. etc.

      However, perhaps you’re underestimating the influence postmodern ideas have. There used to exist something like “Vulgarmarxismus”; now there is something like “postmodernism for the plebs”, not really postmodernism in the academic sense but nevertheless a powerful tool.

      I’m coming from a scientific background and postmodern analyses about science aren’t interested in facts – or should I write “facts”? They view everything as stories about other stories. Facts don’t count or are uninteresting, Creationism is a story just like evolution theory is a story. Of course, that makes it hard to explain why scientists think that creationism is nonsense, but! There is a solution: everything is the result of some institutional powerplay. Creationism isn’t “wrong” – to understand that it’s wrong you have to take facts into account, but we shouldn’t talk about “facts” – it’s merely another story that for some reason didn’t make it into academy.

      I’m exaggerating here, but you get my drift: facts don’t count, the only thing that counts is who controls and dominates the stories. This “postmodernism for the plebs” is a powerful tool. I’m seeing it often in the digital discourse that’s dominating public discourse now, and I’m not certain academic postmodernism is entirely innocent in this respect.

      1. I think these are fair remarks. I just don’t like the way Jordan Peterson types — and lesser sorts — have been throwing around “Cultural Marxism” and the like as “explanations” for what’s going on.

      2. “They view everything as stories about other stories. Facts don’t count or are uninteresting, Creationism is a story just like evolution theory is a story. Of course, that makes it hard to explain why scientists think that creationism is nonsense, but! There is a solution: everything is the result of some institutional powerplay. Creationism isn’t “wrong” – to understand that it’s wrong you have to take facts into account, but we shouldn’t talk about “facts” – it’s merely another story that for some reason didn’t make it into academy.”

        I know you admit to exaggeration here, but I’d say this is downright caricature of postmodern positions. I know of no postmodern intellectual who believe that facts don’t matter or that evolutionary theory is on Twitter flying with creationism as “just” another story. To be honest, the only folks who say this are IDW-like critics of postmodernism who never cite actual sources for where they attained this understanding.

        With the above caricature, are there particular postmodernists you have in mind who’ve argued this? Or are you talking about how postmodern-esque discourse is (poorly) understood by the masses?

        1. I was criticizing “postmodernism for the plebs”. I’m aware that academic postmodernism can be a bit more subtle than that.
          I’m less certain, though, that academic philosophers, sociologists etc. have no responsibility for the spread of this “postmodernism for the plebs”. After all, Steven Fuller (Warwick) was a witness at the 2005 Dover creationism trial, defending the teaching of intelligent design in public high schools.

    2. Dan

      You say that you are “as close to 100% sure as one can be about such things” that my claim that the problems I identify are due to postmodernism and pragmatism is wrong.

      But, as you note, my claims are qualified. *Any* definitive claim about causes at this level of generality is going to be open to challenge, however plausible it may seem to the speaker or sound to others.

      “The only other thing I take issue with is the predictions re: the United States. We’ve been hearing that song forever. I find it incredibly unlikely.”

      Just because these predictions have been around for a while doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually prove true. I would say that the decline is already happening but that it has been slowed down by the global demand for U.S. dollars. The world still depends on SWIFT and the dollar-based financial system, and this demand for dollars has prevented crippling inflation despite trade imbalances and chronic and ever-increasing budget deficits. But alternatives to SWIFT and the USD as the default reserve currency of the world are now being actively developed.

      “So long as the US retains its overwhelming military superiority — which it will — and so long as it remains a major market and a major innovator in S&T — which it will — what you describe simply isn’t going to happen.”

      The military superiority is gone if the currency loses purchasing power. And scientific talent is likely to go where they are paid best. So a strong dollar is essential. (In 1979 and the early 80s Paul Volcker could raise interest rates to protect the dollar’s purchasing power. The federal funds rate reached 20 percent. But because of debt levels the Fed no longer has the option of raising interest rates, even a relatively modest amount, unless they want to trigger a cascade of defaults.)

      “Indeed, I’m certain enough of this that I’d be willing to make a pretty hefty 10 year bet to that effect.”

      I would be happy to bet (an ounce of gold, perhaps?) that by 2031 the “overwhelming military superiority” of which you speak will be diminished to the extent that the phrase would no longer be considered appropriate by the relevant experts.

      1. I’ll take that bet. Indeed, by 2031, I expect the military superiority to be even greater than it is now. As for the rest, I’m afraid your economics are rather dated, but of course, all of these things are highly debatable.

        Say, $100 US dollars?

  3. Over and over again, in the last decade, Keynsianism has been proven right. The U.S. recovered from the 2008 financial meltdown faster than Europe and the U.K. because they injected more money into the system. It was even more obvious last year during the ongoing pandemic, when payments made to citizens and businesses helped to buoy the economy. Anti-Keynsians predicted the spectre of inflation after massive “quantitative easing” of the American money supply, and they were consistently proven wrong. Yes, it is possible that inflation could be a problem in the future, but, because of depressed demand, due to the pandemic, it is highly unlikely. The American economy is like a freight train, that takes a while to get going, but once it gets going it seems almost unstoppable. The Trump administration basically rode that train, and then blew it by ignoring and minimizing the dangers of the pandemic.

    1. Charles Justice

      “The U.S. recovered from the 2008 financial meltdown faster than Europe and the U.K. because they injected more money into the system. It was even more obvious last year during the ongoing pandemic, when payments made to citizens and businesses helped to buoy the economy.”

      Only the U.S. didn’t really recover from 2008. The liquidity injections were a temporary fix and actually allowed the underlying problems to get worse. More and more deficit spending is required just to keep things going.

      1. “Only the U.S. didn’t really recover from 2008. The liquidity injections were a temporary fix and actually allowed the underlying problems to get worse. More and more deficit spending is required just to keep things going.” – That’s because of Trump’s signature tax legislation that lowered taxes on the rich and therefore deprived the U.S. of a huge amount of tax revenue.

  4. I would prefer to talk of cultural progress, than of cultural decline.

    To talk of cultural decline is to presuppose that we have a standard by which we can measure whether things are improving or declining. We do not have such a standard.

    So how can we talk of progress without a standard? As I see it, culture is progressing at the rate of approximately 365.2425 days per year. It is making progress in whatever direction it is going. But that’s about all that we can say.

    A couple of old sayings seem appropriate:

    1: We live in a world where the only fixture is that everything is changing.
    2: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    I think I agree with both of those, even though they may seem contradictory.

    The trends have been obvious for decades, but I had no idea just how fragile the commitment to science, scholarship and truth-seeking was, both within academia and in the broader community.

    I am not seeing that at all. The commitment to science still seems strong. However, the frontline has moved away from high energy physics, and is now in evolutionary biology. There is still lots of good science being done.

    As for the other issues — culture seems to follow fads. After a while, fads die out and are replaced by new fads. But it has always been that way, as best I can tell. I get that you don’t much care for the new fads. I don’t either. But then I never much cared for the old fads. I am not as pessimistic as you seem to be.

    1. Neil Rickert

      “To talk of cultural decline is to presuppose that we have a standard by which we can measure whether things are improving or declining. We do not have such a standard.”

      No single standard. But, given how multifaceted cultures are, you would not expect one.

      There is certainly resistance to talking about decline when dealing with social and cultural phenomena. And, if you are looking at things in a scientific way, there are often good reasons to avoid such terms; in linguistics, for example, where linguistic change is generally interpreted without recourse to concepts like progress and decline.

      But, even here, there are times when advances in complexity are clearly positive and productive. We know that early human languages must have developed from simpler and less expressive and flexible forms; and we have plenty of evidence of pidgins developing into creoles, for example. We also see instances of social and linguistic failure. Languages die.

      I am wary of the analogy with biological species or organisms, but cultures and cultural elements certainly do seem to go through stages.

      I would say that basic social and economic factors (such as public health, prosperity, mutual trust, etc.) are easier to judge in terms of relative desirability than intellectual and artistic elements. Think of early twentieth-century Vienna. Suicides all over the place and yet it was a beacon of the arts and a hotbed of new ideas.

      “There is still lots of good science being done.”

      I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. Science will continue — despite the trends to which I allude.

  5. Thanks Mark for your reference to Louis-Vincent Gave. The interview was well worth reading. Quote:

    Interviewer: In the middle of this tech war sits Taiwan. What are your thoughts about Taiwan and the semiconductor industry?

    Gave: Taiwan today is what Alsace-Lorraine was 120 years ago. There were two hugely important events this year that most people have missed because of the Covid crisis. One, the market value of the global semiconductor industry has moved above the market value of the global energy sector. The market is telling us that semiconductors are more important than energy; they are the commodity of the future. We should think of Taiwan the way we used to think of Saudi Arabia.

    Interviewer: What’s the second important event?

    Gave: At the end of 2019, the market value of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing was $200 billion, while the market value of Intel was $350 billion. Today, TSMC is $450 billion, while Intel has dropped to $200 billion. Why? This summer, TSMC came out and said they can produce 7 nanometer chips and will be able to produce 3nm chips in 2023. A week later, Intel came out and said they won’t be able to produce 7nm chips by 2021. So in the summer of 2020, we witnessed the passing of the technological baton from Intel to TSMC. The leadership in the semiconductor industry now belongs to Taiwan.

    Interviewer: Why does this matter?

    Gave: It matters because Washington has decided to make semiconductors the battleground in its war against China. And that means that Taiwan is the battleground in the great conflict of the 21st Century, an island that Beijing regards as a renegade province, sitting 60 miles from its shore. Taiwan has always been a sore point between China and the U.S., even when Taiwan produced plastic toys and bicycles. Imagine if Saudi Arabia was a political uncertainty between America and China, where the regime depended on Washington for survival, but the territory was claimed by China. We’d be very worried.

    Very interesting.

    Alan

  6. Mark,

    Interesting piece, and I agree with its argument to some degree.

    But I think I share Dan’s perplexity at the idea that postmodern and pragmatic ideas about truth are in any way to blame for the disintegrations we see. To put it as bluntly as I can, had postmodernists never written a word about epistemes and pragmatists written about truth, the same technological, economic, and political shifts could easily have led to the same results as we are seeing now.

    I think at root – what intellectual dark webby figures never really got – is that postmodernism was best seen as a diagnosis and prognostication, not a normative theory. Foucault always hated being called a philosopher. Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition doesn’t say a word about what epistemic norms we should hold. (His task was wholly descriptive, about what will happen when truth-finding discourses are demonopolized. Baudrillard was a sociologist. Fish a literary critic. The only postmodernist (at least first gen) who was a philosopher was Deleuze and arguably (for several reasons) Rorty.

    “If we abandon the path of consilience and convergence in the realm of knowledge, we are ultimately condemning ourselves to intellectual impotence and irrelevance.”

    I sympathize with this, even as I sympathize at the same time with a more ‘conservative’ type of postmodern position. My concern is that the way you phrase it here, we can sort of collectively decide (“condemning ourselves” as if there is a deliberate collective decision about what direction we should all go in) how to proceed. I think part of the postmodernists’ point is that we can’t, because there is no gigantic, homogeneous “we” that will all sit down at the same table, from which we should expect any sort of grand consensus to come. And if we act like there is – or that we can get back to the way things were when there allegedly was one – that can only happen in some sense by eithker undoing or curtailing the internet in all its plurality or(/and) deciding to follow some model like that of China.

    “The basic idea or intuition behind it is that epistemic relativism facilitates ideological fantasies which in turn lead to a disconnect between cultural and economic realities.”

    It’s funny you mention this, because just the other day, A Q supporter came up to me confused wanting advice. He knows I am a philosopher who has dabbled in different theories of truth-finding, and he really really wanted my permission – or a philosophy’s permission – to indulge his ideological fantasies that will allow him to disconnect from cultural and economic realities. But he didn’t have a theory of truth that would “facilitate” that indulgence, and felt that without such a theory and justification of it, he wouldn’t be able to spout his Qanon stuff.

    Satirical, yes, but the point is that if you think people who want to indulge fantasies need to wait for some sort of permission slip that they get by finding a theory of truth that allows them to do it, you assign way more power to philosophy than anyone save philosophers think is justified.

    Car salesmen and politicians will lie, and journalists will factionize if and when that sells, and people will believe a ton of stupid shit, all without having given even five seconds of thought to what theory of truth they need to justify themselves.

    1. Kevin

      [Posting reply in two parts.]

      “I share Dan’s perplexity at the idea that postmodern and pragmatic ideas about truth are in any way to blame for the disintegrations we see.”

      Dan is not perplexed. He just disagrees!

      “To put it as bluntly as I can, had postmodernists never written a word about epistemes and pragmatists written about truth, the same technological, economic, and political shifts could easily have led to the same results as we are seeing now.”

      Yes, you can imagine a hypothetical world in which similar technological, economic and political shifts occurred to those we have seen in the real world but where intellectual history took a different course. But that is not our world.

      Postmodernism (in various academic and popular forms) is a part of history. Whether the promotion of certain ideas by educators had/has any significant effect on the world may be debatable. I believe this sort of thing does have an effect. And if it does, and if the ideas in question are false or misleading, the effect (in my opinion) is likely to be deleterious.

      “I think at root – what intellectual dark webby figures never really got – is that postmodernism was best seen as a diagnosis and prognostication, not a normative theory.”

      Diagnosis and prognostication of this kind has to be based on a particular view of the world which inevitably has norms built in.

      “Foucault always hated being called a philosopher… The only postmodernist (at least first gen) who was a philosopher was Deleuze and arguably (for several reasons) Rorty.”

      It doesn’t matter whether these people call themselves philosophers or not. It’s irrelevant. What matters is the substance of what they are saying, the worldviews and perspectives they are promoting. Take Rorty. His philosophical work was clearly motivated by his values, his personal views on science and knowledge and his commitment to a progressive social (socialist, utopian?) agenda.

      “[Quoting me] “If we abandon the path of consilience and convergence in the realm of knowledge, we are ultimately condemning ourselves to intellectual impotence …” … My concern is that the way you phrase it here, we can sort of collectively decide (“condemning ourselves” as if there is a deliberate collective decision about what direction we should all go in) how to proceed.”

      I am using a perfectly clear (and harmless) English idiom. To say that by engaging in a certain course of behavior one is condemning oneself to, say, irrelevance you are simply saying that a certain course of behavior *leads to* irrelevance. Nothing more.

      And my use of the word “we” (which prompts a number of paragraphs from you on postmodern views on collective decision-making and consensus) was also quite innocent if read correctly. I used the word “we” as a gentle way of saying “you (and not me)”. I am not part of the “we” because I am explicitly defending consilience, etc.. I am saying that *those who abandon consilence etc.* will be intellectually
      impotent etc..

      1. “Yes, you can imagine a hypothetical world in which similar technological, economic and political shifts occurred to those we have seen in the real world but where intellectual history took a different course. But that is not our world.”

        Then I don’t think you’ve showed at all either that, as you say, postmodernism and pragmatism “now pervade the broader society” OR any semblance of the causal claim that they are “at the heart” of the problems you mention earlier in the article. Here’s what I see: we have a fracturerd media and society and a bunch of people all willing to bleieve different dumb stuff. I see that as caused primarily by (a) the internet and the fracturing of pre-existing bottlenecks on truth-seeking and -dissemination, (b) economic and other shifts that add to people’s increasing sense of uncertainty that adds to folks zeal to find answers anywhere they can in a world whose authoritative voices they grow increasingly to distrust.

        I may be missing something – and tell me if I am – but I don’t see any of that as caused by postmodernism. As i’ve said, what I see is that postmodernists (presciently) DIAGNOSED the coming problem, not that they caused any of it. So, how do the problems you mention in the article seem at all to be caused by (even in part) postmodernism? It is not clear from the article.

        “What matters is the substance of what they are saying, the worldviews and perspectives they are promoting. Take Rorty. His philosophical work was clearly motivated by his values, his personal views on science and knowledge and his commitment to a progressive social (socialist, utopian?) agenda”

        Okay, here is a game I have noticed conservatives (not saying you are one necessarily) like to play: “All worldviews I do not like are relativism. Hence, when worldviews I dislike seem to be on the ascent, must be the fault of relativism.”

        If I were to approach any progresssive – antifa, BLM, Marxist socialist – or any of their conservative counterparts – Qanon supporters, MAGA Trumpsters, etc – and ask them “Hey, do you believe that your view is correct in the sense that what you are saying gets at the way things really are?” I can just about assure you that they are going to say what any self-respecting postmodernist is not: hell yes I do! If I were to give them the most Rortyan or Foucaultian critique of timemless truths I can, I doubt anyone in these groups would do anything short of argue against it.

        The way I see it, the problem isn’t that we are all postmodernists now. The problem is that we are all dogmatists now who are pulling in different directions.

        1. I think this is a good point, kevinck. The outlook of the dogmatist types you list is indeed something like: what makes what I believe true is that I and others like me believe it strongly. And that is one of the most common caricatures of postmodernist thought. But I t’s not postmodern; it’s childish.

          1. “The outlook of the dogmatist types you list is indeed something like: what makes what I believe true is that I and others like me believe it strongly.”

            I would go even beyond that and say that they really believe x to be true in the wholly conventional non-postmodernism non-pragmatism sense. When people believe that modern politics is a pedophilic cabal that Q is exposing, or that it is “open season” for white cops on unarmed black men, I think those people believe these things to be facts that would bear investigation. They have just found ways to dismiss all investigators who conclude differently from them as somehow biases, hoodwinked, or evil in ways the believer is not.

            No postmodernism involved.

        2. In my hastily written comment, kevinck, I made an error that makes it seem like I was simply mis-paraphrasing your point. What I was intending to do is supplement your point with a different but related one.

          My second sentence should read “However, the outlook of many of the dogmatist types you list is not: what makes what I believe true is that it reflects reality. Rather it’s: what makes what I believe true is that I and others like me believe it strongly.”

    2. Kevin

      [Part 2.]

      “[Quoting me] “The basic idea or intuition behind it is that epistemic relativism facilitates ideological fantasies which in turn lead to a disconnect between cultural and economic realities.” It’s funny you mention this, because just the other day, A Q supporter came up to me confused wanting advice. He knows I am a philosopher who has dabbled in different theories of truth-finding, and he really really wanted my permission – or a philosophy’s permission – to indulge his ideological fantasies that will allow him to disconnect from cultural and economic realities. But he didn’t have a theory of truth that would “facilitate” that indulgence, and felt that without such a theory and justification of it, he wouldn’t be able to spout his Qanon stuff… Satirical, yes, but the point is that if you think people who want to indulge fantasies need to wait for some sort of permission slip that they get by finding a theory of truth that allows them to do it, you assign way more power to philosophy than anyone save philosophers think is justified.”

      Your little tale misses the point. By epistemic relativism I meant a belief that many people have today — and that has been encouraged by school teachers who may have absorbed it in their college years — that anything goes on the knowledge front, that mythical thinking is as good as (or preferable to) scientific thinking, etc., etc.. In a previous comment couvent2104 nicely described this popular phenomenon. It is this with which I am primarily concerned. (Note that couvent2104 believes (as I do) that academics have likely played a role in bringing about this state of affairs.)

      1. “Your little tale misses the point. By epistemic relativism I meant a belief that many people have today — and that has been encouraged by school teachers who may have absorbed it in their college years — that anything goes on the knowledge front, that mythical thinking is as good as (or preferable to) scientific thinking, etc., etc.. ”

        Kevin: What are you here protesting?
        Person 1: I believe that the US is inherently racist. Down with all the statues!
        Pereson 2: I believe that politicians are a pedophile ring where they drink children’s blood for the energy it gives them! Q is right!
        Kevin: Dang, you two. You sure seem passionate. But let me ask you something. Do you think that the cause you are fighting for is true in the sense that you are fighting for something that is borne facts that correspond to the way things really are independently of your beliefs?

        Which one of these – or any othe of the many fanatical groups these days – do you think are going to answere in tihe negative? Which one of these folks do you think is probably postmodernist in outlook?

        To reiterate, I think – and given our recent exchange, am more convincned – that you are just doing what conservatives tend to do: confate people holding beliefs you think are silly (no matter how convinced those people are that those beliefs are TRUE in the most non-relativistic sense) with thinking they must be relativists or postmodernists.

      2. Put it this way:

        If someone who is deeply into Qanon or Robin DiAngelo were to read and be convinced by Richard Rorty’s work on truth and rediscription, they wouldn’t likely be able to believe in their prior position in the fervent and absolute way they probably did before they met Dick.

        Maybe what we all need is precisely some Dick.

  7. We’re circling, once again, around the fundamentally adolescent notion that objectivity, convergence, consensus, knowledge, understanding, and the like wouldn’t be so much as possible if there weren’t magical, conversation-stopping entities telling us what and how to think. These powerful entities go by many names, a few of which are: The Truth, The Facts, Reality, Logic, God. These names are often intoned with great solemnity, and anyone who questions whether these names refer to the deities they’re thought to refer to is guilty of blasphemy.

    It’s no wonder the believers misread (the significance of) postmodern discourse. Only someone who believes in these magical entities would think their nonexistence would imply that “all things are permitted,” to paraphrase Dostoevsky, and that having a good-faith discussion about whether these things are as the believers say they are is to invite chaos. There would be no facts! No objective standard to employ in determining better and worse interpretations! Nothing to keep us from just wishing things into and out of existence! “Knowledge” would amount to nothing but stories we want to tell ourselves! “Reasoning” would amount to no more than exertions of power!

    Far from the rich, robust reality they take themselves to be championing, the world these believers worship is a remarkably fragile, binary thing.

    1. Animal Symbolicum

      “We’re circling, once again, around the fundamentally adolescent notion that objectivity, convergence, consensus, knowledge, understanding, and the like wouldn’t be so much as possible if there weren’t magical, conversation-stopping entities telling us what and how to think. These powerful entities go by many names, a few of which are: The Truth, The Facts, Reality, Logic, God. These names are often intoned with great solemnity, and anyone who questions whether these names refer to the deities they’re thought to refer to is guilty of blasphemy.”

      If you think that is what I’m doing, you are mistaken.

  8. “He was young therefore abstract and cruel”. (of Roskolnikov in C & P)

    There are and always will be liars and when a theory is proposed that makes a lie as sound as the truth, they will embrace it in the spirit of self-justification. In every generation variants of such overarching ‘truths’ are current. In Dostoevsky’s ‘The Devils’/The Possessed ‘ the nest of high minded conspirators create rumours to destabilise. Now of course the command of the heights of media make it all the easier to proclaim what is true and what is not particularly when you have an in-house fact checker. Doubt everything, join nothing someone said or did I just make that up?

  9. I was criticizing “postmodernism for the plebs.”
    However, when someone like Steve Fuller (Warwick) testifies at the Dover intelligent design trial (2005) and defends the teaching of ID in public high schools, you have to wonder if academic philosophers, sociologists etc. were partly responsible for the spread of this “postmodernism for the plebs”.

  10. An elegantly written essay with much to agree with for those concerned with the status of knowledge and knowledge claims especially in the current moment of ideological debate, especially in the academy. However, it has a couple of problems for me. First, the title: “Thought control” is rather over-wrought. Debate over what may be said is not decisive in matters of what may be thought. “minds to be molded at will and at scale” – in general people are less intelligent than many of us would hope, but they are not sheep – when they slide down a rabbit-hole they do so because they have already thought leaning in that direction, it offers them something, even it be really an illusion.

    Secondly, the essay covers ground you have covered before – and brings no new insight or argument to those previous essays. Third, there is an over-generalization here; the lack of specifics leaves me hesitant to embrace those points with which I am sympathetic, since I’m not sure what I purchase with agreement. This over-generalization combined with the focus on the academy leads to a certain disconnect with the world beyond the academy. I certainly agree that our “all-enveloping digital environment” presents us with much to be concerned about; but what does this really mean ‘in the trenches,’ so to speak – that is, what does it do to discussions and behaviors in the public square? To be sure, we had some demonstration of what it could lead to in excess and to extreme on January 6th; but I am almost as concerned with the ‘social distancing’ that occurred long before the pandemic, when people began to spend more time on their phones than dealing with people sharing the same immediate space,

    While certain parties, left and right, may have relativist agendas we can loosely call “post-modern,” the post-modern, as an era, is a condition. Explanation has weakened as a discursive force in many arenas, as human connectedness frays. That is something we must for now learn to live with, while trying to find new ways to share knowledge such that knowledge can once again be valued and shared.

  11. Kevin

    “Okay, here is a game I have noticed conservatives … like to play: “All worldviews I do not like are relativism. Hence, when worldviews I dislike seem to be on the ascent, must be the fault of relativism…”

    Am I playing this game? I don’t think so.

    “If I were to give them the most Rortyan or Foucaultian critique of timeless truths I can, I doubt anyone in these groups would do anything short of argue against it.”

    Which, again, has nothing to do with what I am saying. You are making a point about dogmatism: that extremists are usually dogmatic and not relativists. I agree. But the decimation of traditional scholarly knowledge structures and processes and the loss of public knowledge of, and confidence and trust in, science (which people like Rorty have contributed to) have dramatically reduced an epistemic common ground which used to exist. I think of my father and mother, for example. We once had a common base of knowledge, something that people of all political views and sensible religious views could agree on. That is gone. As I said, everything that can be politicised has been politicised (even a lot of science). And Richard Rorty like most scholars who might plausibly be labelled postmodernists (as well as deconstructionists, semioticians, critical theorists and so on) was very political. Politics drove him as politics drives so many intellectuals today. That apolitical common ground of common knowledge is no more. Is it any surprise, then, that ideologies and other kinds of self-justificatory narratives hold sway?

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