Postmodernism is a buzzword of recent cultural debates. The left tends to believe that it is used as a boogeyman to blame the moral failings of society by conservatives who are loathe to see society progress and become open to necessary change. The right (or of the classical liberal persuasion) tend to view postmodernism as an attack on the very foundation of our society and thereby a destruction of various moral pillars that buttress it. To the left it can be seen as a purely harmless form of artistic interpretation (see the ‘Didn’t get the joke?’ section on Existential Comic). To the right it can be seen as an example of intellectual nonsense on stilts that is enforced through public education systems.
To determine the accuracy of these two different viewpoints, it’s important to gain an understanding of what postmodernism is, what its philosophical roots are, and what it aims to achieve (if anything). Therefore, in this article, I will be summarising Stephen Hick’s Explaining Postmodernism (2004), that attempts to trace the history of postmodernism and explain its overall philosophy. This will also serve as a potential springboard for further articles that will focus directly on works from postmodern writers (e.g. Franc Derrida, Michael Foucault, Richard Rorty).
Chapter One – What Postmodernism Is
In order to understand postmodernism, we ought to understand modernism. Modernism, according to Hicks, originated from the Enlightenment through the works of various philosophers, economists and scientists such as Renee Descartes, John Locke, Franic Bacon, Adam Smith, and Isaac Newton. The enlightenment project differs from the postmodernism project in its metaphysics (i.e. what is ultimately real), epistemology (i.e. how we acquire knowledge), conception of human nature, and values. The enlightenment argued for a realist metaphysical foundation with a rational epistemology. It argued that the objective world was knowable to humans via reason (either through from rationality – rationalism – or from experience -empiricism).
Out of this idea, it was proposed that human individuals had the ability to properly understand the world and how best to act in it, leading to a view of human nature as individualistic. Therefore, enlightenment viewpoint emphasised freedom for individual citizens from the tyranny of the state and from superstition. According to Hicks, this value on individuality led to the creation of liberalism and free market societies, leading to the development of science, the improvement of engineering, and the beginning of an effective medicine. As a result, people in modern societies enjoyed a higher degree of freedom, wealth, material goods, and health compared to all other societies.
In contrast, postmodernism philosophy substitutes a realist position for an anti-realist position that is derived socio-linguistically. Their view is that reason serves as a false pretence for understanding the world and our true ‘natures’. For the postmodernists, there is no canonical understanding of the world or ourselves, but instead such understandings are subjectively constructed by different groups in society, groups of which are at necessary conflict. An important point to stress is that, according to Hicks, ‘human nature’ under postmodern philosophy is collectivist as we are defined by various socio-linguistic categorical features, such as race, sexual orientation, and gender. The conflict between these different groups under these categories is often justified through power games that enforce the status quo (such as reason and the scientific method). Although the postmodernism project seems not to have any logically necessary values, its academics almost simultaneously stem from the Marxist left which views these groups as operating under oppressor vs oppressed dichotomies. The postmodernists overwhelmingly side with those who are “oppressed” by the norms of societies.
An example in how postmodernists and modernists differ can be seen in their attitude to education. For modernists, education is the means of equipping children with the tools for exploring and understanding reality, developing critical thinking skills, and learning how to reason and engage in rational debate. There will often be a set of canonical texts that will be seen as essential to a proper education (for an example see here). Postmodernists on the other hand do not view the primary purpose of education as a way of becoming more adept at reason, but as a means of understanding and creating identity, and teaching people to be more open to the subjective identities of others (see Sensitivity or Diversity training). For postmodernists, there is no set of canonical texts (see debates on whether strictly western curriculums are ‘racist’), no objective laws or facts, but subjective interpretations that are enforced by groups through power. Education is not a means of understanding the world but a tool for political power.
Postmodernism then, according to Hicks, is a symbol of the Counter-Enlightenment. It sets itself up as antithetical to the values of the enlightenment, preaching scepticism about the possibility of understanding objective reality and our true natures through reason, science, and philosophy, as these concepts are mere human constructions. Hicks claims that this anti-realist position can be traced back from Derrida and Foucault, to Nietzsche and Marx, and all the way back to Hegel and Kant. The postmodern philosophy is not a historically shallow one.
Chapter Two – The Counter Enlightenment
The emergence of the enlightenment came with the restructuring of the role of religion in society. The foundation of society was no longer in a theistic moral god. Science instead prided itself on mechanistic and reductionist theories of the world and for many thinkers this was a major source of anxiety. A deterministic viewpoint of the world was deemed antagonistic to ideas of a spirit, to free will, and to the importance of subjective experience. Similarly, reason as the prima facie mode of being seemed to emphasise selfishness and demolish the justification of old virtues such as honour, duty, and other communitarian values.
The tension caused by this intellectual transformation led to the development of the counter-enlightenment in Germany and France, beginning with the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Whilst Kant is often assumed to be an enlightenment thinker, Hicks argues that this is wrong, as Kant did not believe in the power of reason in gaining an objective understanding of the world outside of our subjective experience. Instead Kant’s reconciliation of rationalism and empiricism planted the first seeds of postmodern thought.
For Kant, the rationalists and the empiricists both had a major problem. If our senses prevented us from gaining true knowledge of the external world, then our reason is unable to reach it and understand it. However, if reason worked off what the senses gave it, then it could not claim to find universal and empirical truths, and was doomed to contingency (as was pointed out by Hume in his famous problem of induction). Rationality without empiricism is empty, whilst empiricism without rationalism is chaotic.
Kant rejected the idea of the mind as a blank slate. For him the mind came equipped with a set of faculties that created the world with a set of universal and consistent qualities, such as giving it the quality of time and space. Given the similarities of our brains, Kant argued, this meant that we all shared a similar construction of the world, called the phenomenal world. This similar construction justifies the use of science as a means of understanding this world, but it prevents science from telling us about the thing-in-itself, the noumenal world.
Kant’s compromise was founded on the assumption that our brains are not trying to understand reality as it truly is, but instead they enforce a shape and structure on to reality so that we can experience and act in it; reason does not explain the world, but bends it to its wishes. Consistency and universality are not a feature of the world independent of our brain. This is an important point in postmodern philosophy as they claim that since this appearance of universality and order is given subjectively, then it can be taken away subjectively too. As Hicks puts it:
“If the rules of the game have nothing to do with reality, then why should everyone play by the same rules?… On principle, because our minds’ faculties are structured in a certain way, we cannot say what reality is. We can only say how our minds have structured the subjective reality we perceive” [pp.40]
Kant’s conclusion was incredibly influential and philosophy took off it in a variety of different directions trying to wrestle with it. In the 19th century, speculative metaphysics through Hegel, and epistemological irrationalism beginning with Kirekegaard, was born. Hegel is particular important for postmodernists as he developed a view of reason that was contra to the enlightenment definition. For Hegel, our minds created the actual world and through reason we could figure out existence. This ‘reason’, however, was creative, self-contradictory, relative to time and space, and operated by the collective rather than the individual. This was another step in the dethroning of individual reason.
Similarly, the irrational epistemologists disliked the view of the world as mechanistic and reductionist. They agreed with Kant’s critique of pure reason and considered the spirit of the world as irrational and cruel. To better navigate such an irrational world then, it was best not to hide behind the false comforts of rationalism, but commit ourselves to irrationality. This could be achieved either as self-introspection as a guide to divinity (Friedrich Schleiermacher), a leap of faith based on the feelings of our soul (Kierkegaard), a seclusion into the pure form of art (Schopenhauer), or by perfecting the use of the unconscious instincts (Nietzsche). The work of both of these philosophical schools would be picked up by another influential philosopher for postmodern thought, Martin Heidegger.
Chapter Three – The Twentieth-Century Collapse of Reason
Stemming from the metaphysically problems posed by Kant and the follow ups of Kierkegaard on epistemology, Heidegger attempted to formulate a philosophy of being, or Daesin, (very) roughly translated into a philosophy of the self. Why was there a self with subjective experience rather than nothing? What underlined the self and gave it its qualities? Heidegger, influenced by Kant’s metaphysics, claimed that rational metaphysical attempts to answer this question led to paradoxes of logic (a nice example of this logical breakdown can be found in Louis CK’s sketch ‘Why?’). Instead he opted for a phenomenological conception of the world, which begins with subjective experience first. However, grounding his philosophy in the self led him with a philosophical conundrum. If there was something outside of the self, then it would have to be explained from nothingness, which is absurd. However, if there is nothing outside of being that grounds it, then the self exists without reason, which also seemed absurd.
The question of the foundation of being leads to a conflict in our intellectual and emotional capacities. Our subjective experience tells us that this is a deeply profound and important question, whilst our intellect tells us that it is, in terms of logic, a poorly formulated and ultimately meaningless question (e.g. similar to asking what is the meaning of purple). Faced with this conflict, Heidegger sides with our emotional capacities and states that we must not allow our intellectual capacities to be a slave to logic and instead use it to investigate the nature of being. For Heidegger, people still possessed the potential for a deep understanding of their natures, just not via pure rationality.
Postmodern philosophy however, infatuated with Heidegger’s refusal to bow down to the object/subject distinction, kept Heidegger’s faith in the power of subjective feelings and added to it fellow German philosopher, Nietzsche, notion of power struggles. Rather than being able to realise being, postmodern philosophy claimed that instead all we could do is enforce a particular conception of being en masse through the use of power, without any fundamental logical reason for doing so. The prominence of a particular philosophical theory of being was therefore not a result of truth or accuracy, but a result of a larger and inescapable socio-political context.
3.1 Cultural Context
Whilst German philosophy laid the groundwork for postmodernism it was in America and ironically in the positivist movement that led to its wide scale development. The brightest students began studying in Germany and taking their new-found knowledge back to America. The Americans had previously stayed quite close to enlightenment ideals, but through the influence of German philosophy, began to eat its own tail. The idea began to concretely emerge that philosophy was not a discipline that could answer its own basic questions. This epistemological scepticism led to rise of analytical philosophy, which stated that philosophy was not meant to answer the deep questions, but to be an analytical tool for science, namely sorting out what perception, language, and logic were all about.
In America and in the world, the idea of our perceptions being theory laden came to prominence. This meant that we were all trapped by our conceptual schemes. Similarly, in logical positivism, there was an agreement that all synthetic judgements (propositions where the truth of the statement comes from outside the subject. E.g. Ryan’s car is white) came from experience, whilst analytical judgements (logical and mathematical propositions e.g. triangles have three sides) came apriori. This was a problem, as many pointed out that if logic and mathematics were devoid from experience, that makes them rather meaningless, making the laws and methods of science detached from fundamental experience too.
Trying to solve this issue, Neo-Kantians claimed that laws of mathematics were also functions in our brain, providing us all with a logical starting point. Neo-Humeans took a more cynical approach, claiming that we merely decided by subjectivity and dialogue which conceptions of mathematics and logic were acceptable to us. This meant that differences in opinion on the nature of language, logic and mathematics could not be resolved by any objective principle. Thomas Kuhn in his publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions landed a bigger blow to our beliefs in science as an objectively continuous way of discovering truth, by showing that sociological matters repeatedly played a pivotal role in science shifting paradigms (conceptions of the world) that were fundamentally incommensurable with previous conceptions.
Hicks sums it up:
“The various analytic schools began with Kant’s conclusion that metaphysical questions were unanswerable, contradictory, or meaningless nonsense to be set aside. Philosophers were then urged to retreat to conceiving of their discipline as a purely critical or analytical enterprise. As part of that enterprise, some early analytic philosophers sought universal and necessary structural features in grammar and logic. But with no external metaphysical basis for language and logic, they retreated further to the subjective and the psychological. Once there, they found that the subjective and the psychological were highly conventional and variable, and so they felt forced to conclude that language and logic not only have nothing to do with reality but are themselves conventional and variable.
Then arose the question of the status of science. Analytic philosophers had, for whatever reasons, decided that they liked science and so had picked its concepts and methods to analyze. But now they had to ask, as Paul Feyerabend urged them to ask, Why is science special? Why not analyze theology’s concepts and methods? Or poetry’s? Or witchcraft’s?45 Having abandoned discussion of “truth” as useless metaphysical speculation, analytic philosophers could not say that science’s concepts were truer or that science’s method was special because it got us closer to truth. The analytic philosophers of the 1950s and 1960s were only able to say that science happened to push their personal value buttons.
So, we now ask the question of value: If the basis for the study of science is one’s personal value buttons’ being pushed, what is the status of personal values? On questions of value, by the middle of the century, the Anglo-American tradition had concurred with the Continental. Again, the conclusions reached by the analytic tradition were highly subjectivist and relativist. Accepting the divorce of facts from values that dated back to Hume, most philosophers concluded that expressions of value are neither objective nor subject to reason. Summarizing the state of the profession in the middle part of the century, Brian Medlin wrote that “it is now pretty generally accepted by professional philosophers that ultimate ethical principles must be arbitrary.” Their arbitrariness could be rooted in sheer acts of will, or in social conventions, or, as argued by the leading Logical Positivists, subjective emotional expression.” [pp. 79-80]
This leads us to Hick’s first hypothesis on postmodernism:
“Postmodernism is the first ruthlessly consistent statement of the consequences of rejecting reason, those consequences being necessary given the history of epistemology since Kant.” [pp. 81]
Chapter Four: The Climate of Collectivism
There is something strange about the postmodern movement. Despite their epistemology prioritising emotion – particular deeply felt emotion – over reason, there is near perfect homogeneity on political issues. This ought to be emphasised, the political opinion of the most influential postmodernists is found on the left to the far-left side of the distribution. This seems suggest that there is an underlying rationale behind postmodernity, aside from its disagreements with western thought, as it seems hard to expect that pure subjective experience would align so neatly to a particular political agenda. There is also a practicality used by postmodernists, as many of those who espouse such views are likely to engage in tactics of combative opinion and rhetoric.
This leads us to Hick’s second hypothesis about the postmodernist movement. In the response of the theoretical and applied failings of socialism, left-wing intellectuals adopted postmodernist thought to maintain and justify their political sentiments. Hicks argues that socialism was initially a philosophy that was predicated on rationality and was adopted on mass by intellectuals in academia for such reason. For instance, socialism’s four empirically testable hypotheses were:
- That socialism creates kinder societies, whilst capitalistic societies would be more selfless.
- Capitalism is horribly exploitive both nationally and internationally. It is the enslavement of the poor.
- Capitalism makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, causing conflict which is ultimately counterproductive.
- Socialism is the best way of creating a prosperous society.
However, at least according to Hicks, socialism was a massive failure in both theory and practice. Most people on the left eventually shifted their focus to arguing for welfare liberalism. In practice, from the USSR to Cuba, the effects of socialism were disastrous whilst the West thrived. The USSR was initially seen as the last hope of a communist utopia for left-wing radicals until they sent tanks into Hungary to disrupt protestors suffering under its rule. Then, in a particularly devastating move for left-wing intellectuals, the USSR politician Nikita Khrushchev admitted that Joseph Stalin’s “regime had slaughtered tens of millions of human beings, staggering numbers that made the National Socialists’ efforts seem amateurish in comparison.” [pp. 88]
This according to Hicks, was a pivotal moment in the sudden growth of postmodern thought:
“Postmodernism is born of the marriage of Left politics and sceptical epistemology. As socialist political thought was reaching a crisis in the 1950s, academic epistemology had, in Europe, come to take seriously Nietzsche and Heidegger and, in the Anglo-American world, it had seen the decline of Logical Positivism into Quine and Kuhn. The dominance of subjectivist and relativistic epistemologies in academic philosophy thus provided the academic Left with a new tactic. Confronted by harsh evidence and ruthless logic, the far Left had a reply: That is only logic and evidence; logic and evidence are subjective; you cannot really prove anything; feelings are deeper than logic; and our feelings say socialism.” [pp. 90]
4.1 Rousseau and Collectivism, German Philosophy, The Left & The Right
Rousseau is major figure head for postmodernism and socialist philosophies. Rousseau concluded that societies had corrupted man. He believed along with the liberals that reason was the foundation of societies but societies had led to an egocentric, competitive, and nasty moral environment. Rather than the sharing, passive, and unconscious state of pre-society, man was now selfless, disobedient, horribly conscious, and chained to the shackles of ‘high’ culture.
While Rousseau believed that man was forever corrupted by the birth of society, he also believed that some midway compromise could be achieved. Rousseau thought man was a passionate animal rather than a rational one; people needed to believe in a higher power in order for people to function and this necessitates the unity of the state and religion with the subservient nature of the individual to the group. This is regardless of whether the religious convictions are factually true or not, as the will to believe is so strong that any disruption will cause societies to unravel. The central cog of a healthy society is based on emotion, not intellect. For Rousseau, there is no individual when that individual’s being is contra to the dogma of the state.
The left and right views of collectivism share a common set of features: such as a disdain for individualism, a socialised view of education, and a clear vision on the relationship between government and religion. For Hicks, this helps us understand why continental thinkers such as Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger are both cited as influences for the right and for the left. It wasn’t unusual for Nazis to become Communists and vice versa in the 20th century. A prominent reason is that these philosophies share enough common ground that their thinkers can be attributed to either side of the spectrum. However, this cannot be done with liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill or John Locke, as they rest on a qualitatively different set of assumptions. It was easier for a Nazi to understand the rationale of Communism, than that of liberalism.
Rousseau view of collectivism had a major influence on German intellectuals. Kant, in contrast to his liberal label, emphasised collectivist views. He saw that the natural plan for human species was one of higher and higher culture in an attempt to foster rationality in order to save ourselves from our original sin that came with our freedom. To do this, we must follow our moral duties and not our inclinations. However, this was thought of as too difficult a plan of action for most people to partake in just yet. So, in the meantime, people needed to follow the rule of a master to help breed a better society.
Other German intellects espoused more extreme collectivist views. Johann Herder advocated for a relativist morality among culture and despised the notion of cultures sharing ideas or comparing ideas amongst each other. Cultures were self-contained units and morality was restricted to the rules of the particular culture, whilst the mixing of other cultural ideas was seen as an inevitably route to the destruction of that specific culture’s foundation. This is a view shared by the philosopher Johann Fichte, who believed that liberalism had weakened the hearts of German culture. In response, Fichte demanded a socialisation of German education, in which kids were to be separated and ideologically trained to be collectivist and dutiful, destroying their individualistic tendencies. Fichte also believed that the German education and culture should be firmly religious to give the true meaning of existence through spirit in all. Where he contrasted with Herder was that he believed that German society was the highest in the world and it needed to stay strong in order to buttress the world from moral disintegration.
Hegel was also highly influenced by Rousseau and believed that freedom was the surrendering of the individual to the state in so far as it embodied the divine idea or the wishes of God. Hegel recognised that this would come at a cost to the individual’s daily freedoms, but the laws of the state are universal and constant whilst the needs of the individual are singular and expedient, and the former ought to take precedence over the latter. In short, when the individual and the collective clash, the collective is prioritised. For Hegel, the goal of the individual is to further the development of the state in whatever way the state deems so best.
Hicks on the contrast between the enlightenment thinkers and the counter-enlightenment thinkers, and the similar ground shared by the collectivist left and the collectivist right:
“Enlightenment liberals were individualistic, the center of their political and economic gravity tending toward limited governments and free markets. Our four figures [Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel], by contrast, voiced themes of strong collectivism in ethics and politics with calls for individuals to sacrifice for society, whether society was defined as the species, the ethnic group, or the state. We find in the case of Kant a call for individuals to be willing to do their duty to sacrifice for the species; we find in the case of Herder a call for individuals to find their identity in their ethnicity; we find in the case of Fichte a call for education to be process of total socialization; and we find in the case of Hegel a call for total government to which the individual will surrender everything. For a school of thinkers who advocated total socialization, “socialism” seemed an appropriate label. Accordingly, many thinkers on the collectivist Right thought of themselves as true socialists” [p. 125]
“Both Right and Left were anti-individualist; both advocated government management of the most important aspects of society; both divided human society into groups which they took to be fundamental to individuals’ identities; both pitted those groups against each other in in- escapable conflict; both favoured war and violent revolution to bring about the ideal society. And both sides hated the liberals.” [pp. 126]
German society and its thinker helped build the intellectual foundations for the National Socialists and the collectivist right before WWII. It is no surprise that Goebbels, for example, hated money, or that Hitler similarly despised liberal philosophy. Hicks argues that there was, in contrast, little difference between the National Socialists and the collective left-wing and other Marxist parties in the German state. Their squabbles were a result of power struggles than pure ideological differences. For those students who travelled to Germany to study, it was no surprise then that often came back with a clear hatred for Western liberal society but to others it was unclear whether they were socialists, Nazis, communists, or Marxists. However, after Western Civilisation survived the second World War and the collectivist right disintegrated, the time came for the battle between left-wing collectivism and liberal capitalism.
Chapter Five – The Crisis of Socialism
The initial theoretical predictions of class conflict under Marxism/Socialism ideas were threefold:
- In Capitalistic societies, the proletarian (e.g. the working class) will grow to a large size and become alienated and frustrated with their exploitation.
- The middle class will shrink to zero.
- The upper class (or the capitalistic class) will grow small but enormously powerful.
For Marxists, the plan was to wait. Capitalist societies in their zero-sum philosophy had a flaw in their own logic and by allowing it to play itself out, the revolution of the proletarian would by necessity occur. However, all three predictions were wrong. The lower class shrunk, whilst the middle and upper classes grew. This meant that socialists/Marxists had to thinker with their theory and plan for active change. For example, both Lenin and Mao despised the idea of waiting out a capitalistic revolution in their respective countries, and decided to go for authority in their attempt to transform a feudalist state straight into a socialist one. This is an important point to consider: Socialists eventually became distrustful of the people they claimed to protect, as for them, they were fooled by a false consciousness and therefore an authority was needed to ensure their needs were met.
“Ironically, then, by the 1930s large segments of the radical Left had come to agree with what national socialists and fascists had long argued: that socialism needs an aristocracy [Bolded by me]. Granted—the far Right and much of the far Left now agreed—socialism must be for the people. But it cannot be by the people. The people must be told what they need and how to get it; and for both the direction and impetus must come from an elite. Thus, the Soviet Union came to be the great hope for socialism.” [pp. 141]
The left hoped that WWII would lead to the destruction of both the collectivist right and the liberal philosophies. However, just as their hope that the great depression would bring about the end of capitalism, this proved to be untrue. The liberal societies recovered quickly from the war and made a much smoother transition into peace. Not only that, it rebounded quite triumphantly.
“Socialists have generally been willing to grant that possibly, just possibly, capitalist economic production would outstrip socialist production. But no socialist has ever been willing to grant that capitalism can hold a candle to socialism morally. Socialism is driven more than anything else by an ethic of altruism, by a conviction that morality is about selflessness, being willing to put others’ needs before one’s own, and, when necessary, being willing to sacrifice oneself for others, especially those others who are weaker and needier. Thus, to a socialist, any socialist nation has to be morally superior to any capitalist nation—socialist leaders are by definition concerned primarily about the needs of the citizens and are sensitively responsive to their expressions of concern, their grievances, and, when there are troubles, to their plights.” [pp. 146]
Meanwhile in the USSR it had been shown that general production of food had either stagnated or actually declined in others between the start of the revolution and the next few decades. In comparison, during the same time, the lowest members of the Western societies enjoyed numerous benefits, as their societies as grew inexorable richer at all levels of culture. This was particularly true of the country that seemed to embody capitalistic values the most, America.
As the revelations of mass genocide, starvation and brutality from the USSR, Mao’s China, and other communist countries became more undeniable, socialists across the globe felt a major existential crisis in trying to explain what had happened. Could it have possible been the case that a left-wing collectivist movement had caused the most bloodshed than any other regime in the 20th century?
The Left splintered into various movements and attempted to persuade everyone that true socialism had never existed, especially not in Nazi Germany and not in the USSR. One of their main changes was to substitute need and replace it with equality. Before, the communists had lived the by the dictum that a moral society is one that provides the basic needs to all its members. They viewed capitalistic societies as creating mass poverty among the poor. This turned out to be wrong. They now substituted this claim to argue that capitalism created relative poverty and this led to psychological oppression. It was no longer a good thing if everyone had access to decent standard of life in a society if some members of that society enjoyed a much higher standard of life than others.
Their second change was to focus on wealth as a dangerous influence. Previously having a lot of wealth was seen as a good thing. Now, through the writings of people like Herbert Marcuse, left wing activists believed that money caused man to become lazy and complacent, created a captive class that had to ‘work for a living’, and alienated man from his natural environment and persuaded him that everything outside of humanity was to be enslaved and ruled over. In matters of ecology, socialist humanism was now thrown into the bin.
Overall the Left began to abandon reason and joined the collective Right in embracing irrationality as a means of motivating the masses. Since it was no longer believed that a rational society meant a morally functioning society, it also meant that reason was no longer deemed appropriate to expect of the masses. Instead the tactic was to focus on the fragments of human nature that divided people into different groups, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. Activists were to play on the passions associated with these identities in order to mobilise action and create change.
Herbert Marcuse, a German-American philosopher, was the figure head of the new Left collectivist movement. He argued that capitalistic society was a totalitarian society dressed up under false pretences of freedom and democracy. Capitalism neutered and deluded the masses so they would not revolt against this oppressive regime. Why did he believe it was so oppressive? This largely stemmed from Freud’s theories of civilisation which claimed that civilisation suffocated our most basic and primal needs and Marcuse believed that this was a pathway to violence. Marcuse claimed that we ought to train reactionaries in order to find those marginalised and used them to pierce through the ‘rationality’ of capitalistic society. We needed those who weren’t willing to be obedient in order to disrupt society, show the true exploitative nature of capitalism, and allow the opportunity for a socialist rising.
“Marcuse’s reign as the pre-eminent philosopher of the New Left signalled a strong turn towards irrationality and violence among younger Leftists. “Marx, Marcuse, and Mao” became the new trinity and the slogan to rally under. As was proclaimed on a banner of students involved in closing the University of Rome: Marx is the prophet, Marcuse is his interpreter, and Mao is the sword.” [p. 166]. The left became committed to revolutionary violence, with a series of political attacks in the 1960s and early 1970s, but that was quickly disrupted by liberal capitalistic forces. After those setbacks, the remaining pieces of the radical left was picked up by the likes of Foucalt, Lyotard, Derrida, and Rorty in universities as they attempted to tackle capitalism theoretically and rhetorically.
Chapter Six – Postmodern Strategy
A major question this book is trying to answer is: “Why has a leading segment of the political Left adopted sceptical and relativist epistemological strategies?” [pp. 174]
Hicks argues that to understand the tactics of left-wing intellectuals than we must understand their epistemology and views on language. For a realist, language is both functional and cognitive. It is used to reflect and understand an external reality and to orient ourselves in that external reality. For postmodernists, only the latter part is (partly) true, as language is ultimately a human creation with no actual relation to objective reality and all uses of language to persuade can be defined as rhetoric.
Rorty, for example, sees that groups are fundamentally divided and that we are driven to favour our own group and are unable to gain the perspective from another group. He believes that language should then be used to help cool relationship between different identity groups. However, for a lot of postmodernists, they see the relationship between groups as a battle and in a battle, you need a weapon. This can help us explain why postmodernists use nasty rhetorical tactics, because “truth or falsity is not the issue: what matters primarily is the language’s effectiveness” [pp. 178]
On socialist failings: in a rational philosophy, there ought to be thorough investigations into any failings in applying that philosophy. However, “this is not what we find in postmodern reflections on contemporary politics. Truth and rationality are subject to attack, and the prevailing attitude about moral responsibility is again best stated by Rorty: ‘I think that a good Left is a party that always thinks about the future and doesn’t care much about our past sins.’” [pp. 179]
Hicks admits that so far, he has posited an incomplete account of the postmodern condition. Socialism is similar to a religion in that it formulated a utopia that could be founded on rationality, failed to tackle the biting logic of its critics, so then turned and adopted Kierkegaard-ian irrationality. This crisis of faith in socialism and a disbelief in rationality allowed socialists to make a leap of faith with the solace that those pesky enlightenment thinkers were essentially doing the same under all the surface dressing.
The question then remains for Hicks is why is there both an absolutist and relativist streak in their philosophy? How can they hold the belief that the West is evil to minority groups whilst knowing that the West treats such groups better than the vast majority of the world? Hicks proposes three hypotheses. One hypothesis is that politics dictates and philosophy argues. Then language and rhetoric is a just way of trying to hammer home a position – regardless of its logic. Hicks uses the example of someone using the ‘just semantics’ argument. Previously, the person arguing was happy to discuss the reality of his/her position, but when met with better logic and rationality, the person then switches to an epistemological argument to undermine logic and rationality altogether. You are then either forced to tackle such an argument or grant him/her their semantics claim. It is a Machiavellian tactic:
“A familiar analogy may help here. On this hypothesis, post-modernists are no more relativistic than creationists are in their battles against evolutionary theory. Postmodernists, wearing their multiculturalist garb and saying that all cultures are equal, are like those creationists who say that all they want is equal time for evolutionism and creationism. Creationists will sometimes argue that creationism and evolutionism are equally scientific, or equally religious, and that they should therefore be treated equally and given equal time. Do creationists really believe that? Is equal time all that they want? Of course not. Creationists are fundamentally opposed to evolution—they are convinced that it is wrong and evil, and if they were in power they would suppress it. However, as a short-term tactic, as long as they are on the losing side of the intellectual debate, they will push intellectual egalitarianism and argue that nobody really knows the absolute truth. The same strategy holds for the Machiavellian postmodernists—they say they want equal respect for all cultures, but what they really want in the long run is to suppress the liberal capitalist one.” [pp. 189]
This hypothesis helps explain attacks on Western Cannon. No longer will postmodernists have to deal with a variety of topics and issues that are not favourable to left wing radical opinions, as they can be assumed to be inherently flawed and deconstructed to show that they are perpetuating a destructive game and must be ignored. Although “on this Machiavellian hypothesis, then, postmodernism is not a leap of faith for the academic Left, but instead a clear-eyed political strategy that uses relativism but does not believe it” [pp. 191]. This is in contrast to the second hypothesis, a Kantian view of postmodernism, where scepticism is primary and politics secondary. However, Hicks argues that this view seems highly implausible given the political homogeneity among postmodernists. Hicks ultimately favours a third hypothesis on postmodern motivation:
“Nihilism is close to the surface in the postmodern intellectual movement in a historically unprecedented way.” [pp. 192]
“The contemporary Enlightenment world prides itself on its commitment to equality and justice, its open-mindedness, its making opportunity available to all, and its achievements in science and technology. The Enlightenment world is proud, confident, and knows it is the wave of the future. This is unbearable to someone who is invested totally in an opposed and failed outlook. That pride is what such a person wants to destroy. The best target to attack is the Enlightenment’s sense of its own moral worth. Attack it as sexist and racist, intolerantly dogmatic, and cruelly exploitative. Undermine its confidence in its reason, its science and technology. The words do not even have to be true or consistent to do the necessary damage.” [pp. 200]
Hicks believes that the postmodernists are motivated by Nietzschean ressentiment. Their socialist philosophy is dead and capitalism is on the rise. Rather than adopt the rules of the enlightenment game and attempt to formulate a rational critique, they instead hope to destroy the rules altogether. They are ultimately nihilistic. Therefore, to survive the onslaught from postmodern nihilism, people in the West have to recover the values of the past and demonstrate why they are superior. Postmodernism is not a shallow philosophy for Hicks and its effectiveness has largely come as a result of people in the West failing to tackle it seriously. For those of us who believe in liberal values and the necessity of rationality, we can no longer rest idly.
This is the first of a series of articles that will focus on the topic of postmodernism, although future articles on this topic will not necessarily be any time in the near future. The next article I have planned on postmodernism will cover the books The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey (1989) and Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Butler (2002). However, in the meantime, I am planning on writing an article on three of the economist/political philosopher Friedrich Hayek’s famous works (The Road to Serfdom, The Fatal Conceit, and The Constitution of Liberty), and a series of articles on Carl Jung’s Analytical Psychology.