Postmodernism, Liberal Education, and Authority

Lecture Supplement for IDS 6937 for June 24 Class

     Copyright © 2004 Bruce W. Hauptli

As we turn to Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, we move from a historical survey of what liberal education has been (and of its relation to ancient and contemporary democracies) to a look at the contemporary praxis of liberal education.  To “situate” our core issues, let me introduce the “Alan Sokal affair.”  Sokal, a physicist who was perturbed with postmodern thinkers and their “research,” set out to write a meaningless article (one which would use scientific terminology and ideas—in ways that any scientist would instantly detect as without merit—to “support” some postmodern theories).  He submitted the article to a postmodern journal, Social Text, and it was accepted for publication.  After publication he published an “expose.”  This created a firestorm of intellectual critique.  Many physicists and scientists felt that it had finally been shown that “the emperor had no clothes” (that postmodern thought was “sound and fury, signifying nothing”), while many postmodernists felt that the critique was indicative of the fact that “scientists just don’t get the point.”  The debate, of course, rages on today.  The article I mentioned in the last class from the “postmodern generator” is indicative of the continuing controversy.1

     To get closer to identifying it, consider the following passage from Nussbaum:

40 we should, then, agree with several important claims that postmodernist thinkers have recently stressed.  The search for truth is a human activity, carried on with human faculties in a world in which human beings struggle, often greedily, for power.  But we should not agree that these facts undermine the very project of pursuing truth and objectivity.  The insights of the Kantian tradition…yield not a radical assault on truth and reason, but a new articulation of these goals.  Acknowledging the contributions of language and the human mind invalidates a simpleminded type of empiricism but leaves Socrates on his feet.  We need not forgo the aspiration to truth and objectivity; we need only conceive of these goals in a nuanced way, taking account of the shaping role of our categories.  Socrates himself made no appeal to truths that transcend human experience, and yet he held that the pursuit of ethical truth is essential to full humanity.2

As we shall see, Nussbaum wishes to be very sensitive to many of the contemporary pressures calling for reform within the tradition of liberal education.  Nonetheless, she is an important theoretician of, and defender of this tradition, and she advances a specific conception of such an education and of its relation to democracy.

     Before we can get to that story, however, we need to try and attain an initial understanding of “postmodernism.”  Let me build on and revise the earlier “Inadequate Introduction.”  Architects, artists, literary critics, musical theorists, philosophers, painters, and many others speak of “modernism,” and “postmodernism” and mean similar and distinct things (and identify similar and distinct periods) by their use of these terms.  Philosophers often speak of the Modern Period as extending from the 16th to the 20th Centuries.  Non-philosophers, on the other hand, often identify the “modern” period as the first half of the 20th Century.  Dino Felluga, for example, offers a historical background to postmodernism which breaks the Western tradition from 1550 on into the following periods:

the Renaissance (1550-1660),
the 18th Century (1660-1789),
Romanticism (178901832),
The Victorian Period (1832-1989),
Modernism (1898-1945), and
Postmodernity (1945-present).3

John McGowan maintains that:

the term “postmodernism” was first used in reference to architecture as early as 1947, spurring a fruitful debate among architects that has not disappeared….Literary critics…began to use the term in the 1960s to distinguish the post-World War II experimental fiction of Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, and others from the classics of high modernism.  From the start, postmodernism spurred skepticism…and antagonistic evaluation.  The Old Left…and the critical establishment…deplored the new writer’s lack of high seriousness; their apparent contempt for the well-made, unified literary work; and their addiction to popular culture.  The linchpin of modernism, according to critics of the 1950s and 1960s was art’s autonomy from the sordid daily concerns of a bourgeois, commercial culture.  The artist…exiled himself from ordinary life to create a useless, disinterested art object.  This art was potentially revolutionary in the purity of its contempt for the given and in its creation of alternative worlds ex nihilo.  Only the distance afforded by exile and autonomy maintained art’s critical and oppositional edge.  Postmodern art seemed to capitulate to the dominant culture….Thus, discussions of postmodernism considered not only changes in artistic style but also the extent to which society itself had changed and the fact that the contemporary artwork’s relation to politics was problematic in new ways.
  Fiedler’s slogan “Cross the border, close the gap”…exemplified the determination of postmodernism’s champions to pull art back into the maelstrom of daily life.  Literary criticism, as well as its new colleague literary theory, began to explore the complex relations between the artwork and its social contexts.….
  A cultural politics accompanied this shift in critical paradigms….the New Left and the liberation movements it inspired…insisted that cultural practices—common linguistic usage, media images, educational curricula and techniques, for example—were crucial sites of oppression and of potentially transformative struggle.4

     I believe that the question “What is postmodernism?” is bad in several ways.  First it carries the presumption that a set of necessary and sufficient characteristics could be specified in the effort to capture the “essence” of postmodernism.  This presumption has to be false as a central theme of postmodern thought is the rejection of timeless and static essentialistic thought.  Whereas much of philosophy in the Western tradition has sought such essences, many 20th century philosophers have raised serious questions as to whether or not there “really are” such things.  Following the mature thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein (his views in his “later period”), many maintain that there is not a useful set of characteristics which can be appealed to if one wants to capture the nature of “language,” for example.  Just as there is no single characteristic which one can appeal to in characterizing all the things we call “games,” so there is no one characteristic (and no simple set of characteristics) which capture exactly what it is to be a language.  Wittgenstein, instead, speaks of “language-games,” and uses the metaphor to indicate that instead of there being essential characteristics where many philosophers thought such notions applied, instead there are a variety of overlapping characteristics, a set of conventionally “clear-cut” cases, and several families of “border-line” cases.

     Wittgenstein’s view was influential on many “postmodern” thinkers.  His views that there are many distinct “language games” (different activities which people employ using language in contexts of praxis to accomplish goals and objectives), that different games are founded on different “conventions,” and that it is improper to judge or evaluate one game from the perspective of another, were important to the development of the postmodern orientation that “there is no privileged vantage point.”

     To understand postmodernism, of course, one has to have a conception of “modernism.”  Modernists held to the Enlightenment picture which posited the view that there are universal and timeless truths (both in science and in morality), that these truths could be reached via objective methodologies, and that individuals of radically different times and cultures could come to recognize these truths [see my lecture The Enlightenment Project for a fuller characterization].  In short, the modernists held there was “a way the world is,” and they held that we could come to rationally understand this “way.”  Modernists also generally believed in the idea of “human progress”—they believed that as we pursued the objective truths of science and morality, we would improve our condition.

     While many postmodern thinkers are attracted to elements in this “Enlightenment picture,” they reject its core elements. Postmodernists contend that all descriptions (analyses, theories, evaluations, etc.) are such only from a particular perspective, and they contend that the Modernists often (though, sometimes unconsciously) adopted perspectives which were colonial, racist, capitalist, sexist, paternalistic, and homophobic.  As McGowan points out,

the rise of literary theory, particularly the theory inspired by Jacques Derrida, Ronald Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Michael Foucault…made the two [literary theory and postmodernism] nearly synonymous….[Jean-François] Lyotard emphasizes the antifoundational and antiholistic aspects of French theory, as well as its hostility to eternal, metaphysical truths or realities and to grand narratives (theories that provide totalizing explanations).  “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives,” Lyotard writes.5

In sum, postmodernism is best understood as marking the site of several related, but not identical debates among intellectuals in the last four decades of the twentieth century.  These debates revolve around the relation of artworks to social context, the relation of art and of theory to political action and to the dominant social order, the relation of cultural practices to the transformation or maintenance of society in all its aspects, the relation of the collapse of traditional philosophical foundations to the possibility of critical distance from the effective critique of the status quo, the relation of an image-dominated consumer society to artistic practice, and the future of a Western tradition insufficiently tolerant of (open to) multiplicity.  At the very least, postmodernism highlights the multiplication of voices, questions, and conflicts that has shattered what once seemed to be (although it never really was) the placid unanimity of the great tradition of the West that gloried in it.6

In her “Postmodernism,” Mary Klages maintains that:

“Modernism” generally refers to the broad aesthetic movements of the twentieth century; “modernity” refers to a set of philosophical, political, and ethical ideas which provide the basis for the aesthetic aspect of modernism.  “Modernity” is older than “modernism;” the label “modern,” first articulated in nineteenth century sociology, was meant to distinguish the present era from the previous one, which was labeled “antiquity”….generally, the “modern” era is associated with the European Enlightenment, which begins roughly in the middle of the eighteenth century….7

Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos.  The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function….Because modernity is about the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of order, modern societies constantly are on guard against anything and everything labeled as “disorder,” which might disrupt order.8

Lyotard argues that all aspects of modern societies, including science as the primary form of knowledge, depend on these grand narratives [the theories, stories, etc., which are the social vehicles for maintaining order].  Postmodernism then is the critique of grand narratives, the awareness that such narratives serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organization or practice.  In other words, every attempt to create “order” always demands the creation of an equal amount of “disorder,” but a “grand narrative” masks the constructedness of these categories by explaining that “disorder” REALLY IS chaotic and bad, and that “order” REALLY IS rational and good.  Postmodernism, in rejecting grand narratives, favors “mini-narratives,” stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts.  Postmodern “mini-narratives” are always situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary, making no claim to universality, truth, reason, or stability.9

     Here, however, it becomes difficult to continue.  The Postmodernists are more unified by what they reject rather than what they accept.  I want to finish this introductory discussion on postmodernism by focusing our attention upon a claim by Klages—one which I think would garner broad agreement amongst the postmodern thinkers:

postmodernism is concerned with questions of the organization of knowledge.  In modern societies, knowledge was equated with science, and was contrasted to narrative; science was good knowledge, and narrative was bad, primitive, irrational (and thus associated with women, children, primitives, and insane people).  Knowledge, however, was good for its own sake; one gained knowledge, via education, in order to be knowledgeable in general, to become an educated person.  This is the ideal of the liberal arts education.  In a postmodern society, however, knowledge becomes functional—you learn things, not to know them, but to use that knowledge.  As Sarup points out…educational policy today puts emphasis on skills and training, rather than on a vague humanist ideal of education in general….
  Not only is knowledge in postmodern societies characterized by its utility, but knowledge is also distributed, stored, and arranged differently in postmodern societies than in modern ones….
  Lyotard says (and this is what Sarup spends a lot of time explaining) that the important question for postmodern societies is who decides what knowledge is (and what “noise” is), and who knows what needs to be decided.  Such decisions about knowledge don’t involve the old modern/humanist qualifications: for example, to assess knowledge as truth (its technical quality), or as goodness or justice (its ethical quality) or as beauty (its aesthetic quality).  Rather, Lyotard argues, knowledge follows the paradigm of a language game, as laid out by Wittgenstein.10

Now, if I am right that many of these thinkers would agree with Klages here, then we have to return to Nussbaum, and try and understand the initial citation from her in the context of what we have gleaned from a quick introduction to postmodern thought.  She understands some of the concern, but rejects the core of the postmoderns’ view and we must try and understand why.  We will, in the future, be even more directly concerned with the issue of “who should control educational policy” in a democracy.

     Before we turn to that topic, however, let us look at some of Nussbaum’s core contentions:

8 the relation of liberal education and citizenship seen in terms of the Roman Stoic’s conception of “citizens of the world”—what does this mean?

9-11 and the three capacities necessary for cultivating humanity:

-a capacity for critical self examination and examination of one’s traditions,

-the ability to see oneself as “tied” to other human beings,

-the capacity for “narrative imagination.”

What is this latter capacity, why is it necessary, is it “natural” in us, and can we really do this?

27 Democracy can’t simply be a vehicle for resolving competing interests.

38 Education and the transformation of the pupil.

Next: “Nussbaum on Liberal Education, Democracy, and Authority.”


1Cf., to produce such an essay.  I accessed this site on 06/17/04 and the engine produced “The Reality of Dialectic: Cultural desituationism and constructivism.”   Back

2 Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education, (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1997), p. 40.   Back

3 Cf., Dino Felluga, “General Introduction to Postmodernism,” accessed on-line at: on 06/22/04.   Back

 4 John McGowan, “Postmodernism,” in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, eds. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1997).  Accessed on-line at: on 06/17/02.  Emphasis (bold) added twice to passage.   Back

5 Ibid.  McGowan cites Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition (1979), p. xxiv.  Emphasis (bold) added to passage.   Back

6 Ibid.   Back

7  Mary Klages, “Postmodernism,” accessed at: which was accessed on 06/21/04.   Back

8 Ibid.  Emphasis (bold) added to passage.   Back

9 Ibid.  Emphasis (bold) added to passage.   Back

10 Ibid.  Klages is referring to Madan Sarup’s “Lyotard and Postmodernism,” in An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, by Sarup (Atlanta: Univ. of Georgia, 1993)—cf., p. 138 ff.  Emphasis (bold) added to passage.   Back

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