Discussion of Postmodernism for Dan Alvarez’ Derrida Seminar

on October 31, 2014

  Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli

Professor Alvarez asked me to lead a discussion of postmodernism, rationality, truth, knowledge, and meaning asking whether it poses a serious threat to modernity and the Enlightenment project and whether is a fad which has no serious philosophical consequences. 


     It is hard to take the measure of philosophical orientations within the century when they originate.  Cartesian Occasionalism and Logical Positivism were all the rage for an extended period of time but, thankfully died out rather quickly, while Platonism, Thomism, Rationalism, and Empiricism seem to be going strong. 


            My view is that a large portion of postmodern thought will come to be of historical rather than philosophical interest rather quickly.  I don’t believe there is a serious threat to modernity and the enlightenment project, and I don’t believe that so far the philosophers grouped under this heading have made substantive contributions to our understanding of rationality, truth, knowledge, or meaning. 


To provide you with some of my reasons for these claims, I have a presentation and will then have time to have a discussion and take questions. 


First, a card game, will you cut the cards?  I said ‘cut’ not ‘cut’—cut a card. 


Deal, are you ready?  No?  Card trick.  Are you ready? 


Can you play a game if you don’t know the rules, goals, etc.? 


In his “Deconstruction; or. The Mystery of the Mystery of the Text,” Joseph Margolis endeavors to discover what deconstruction is—or what it is to deconstruct a text; “or at least what Jacques Derrida means by deconstruction.”[1]  He begins by noting that:


…to ask that threatens to set in motion an anxiety of infinite regress or an infinite anxiety of regress or, for that matter, and infinite anxiety (or an infinite prospect) of infinite progress; for, as everybody knows, Derrida’s notion was bound to invite its own deconstruction and every would be analysis or interpretation of it was bound to be subject to the same sort of development (if that’s the right word to use).  Will it be worth our while to attempt to answer the question?...Derrida, we suppose, supposes that we will understand him, that is, understand what he says; but in leading us to understand what he says, he supposes—and we, with at least an inkling of what he has in mind, suppose—that we understand what he says, by understanding what is and must be left unsaid in what he says in order (precisely) to convey his meaning.  Apparently, he has succeeded all too well, because here we are playing his game with the greatest of ease.  Or is it that he has really failed, because it’s still so hard to tell the difference between explaining his notion and only pretending to do so?[2] 


The essay continues at length to try and understand what “this fellow” might be doing, and it is entertaining—frankly much more so than reading Derrida himself!  He concludes:


deconstruction cannot supply in a privileged way criteria or grounds on which the supplementation of any deconstructed system can be justified, and such criteria or grounds can be identically applied in a nondeconstructive manner.  Deconstruction favors no conceptual or interpretive schemata, though those we favor it favors deconstructively; and any schema can be favored anti-deconstructively.  Deconstruction is exclusively concerned with deconstructing texts, signs, concepts, conceptual networks, that is, with linking whatever surd in the name of which it does so.  Deconstruction…well, perhaps this is as good a place to stop as any.[3] 


     Thus the card game I alluded to before.  Now let’s look at some “tests:”


a weather report: is it “an imposition” of modernist presumptive preferences on reality (forcing hot/cold, windy/still, rainy/sunny” on it? 


Socrates in The Apology by C.D.C. Reeve, p. 5 and “Socratic irony”[4]—views of Thrasymacus, Quintilian, Vlastos, Kierkegaard, and Reeve.  


The Archaeology of Knowledge by Michael Foucault, p. 21 and a concern with the assumption of continuity in his efforts to highlight how discontinuity poses questions of procedure and theory for the history of ideas. 


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert Pirsg, p. 389 and the rhetorician’s attempt to unseat the dialecticians leads to a fool’s mission


Finally several standard critiques of the postmodernist orientation:


In his The Philosophical Discourse on Modernity (1987), Jürgen Habermas contends that postmodern thinkers, like Derrida, commit a performative contradiction and fall prey to problems of self-reference as they advance their critiques of modernity.  He criticizes Derrida’s effort to dislodge the distinction between philosophy and literature and bring logic and argumentative reason into the domain or rhetoric contending that: “whoever transposes the radical critique of reason into the domain of rhetoric in order to blunt the paradox of self-referentiality, also dulls the sword of the critique of reason itself.”[5] 


The Margolis passages can be interpreted as trying to make manifest Derrida’s deconstructive performative contradiction.  It may also help understand the alleged problem of self-reference—the deconstruction of deconstructive activities is “infinitely problematic!” 


In a similar vein, in his “The Sleep of Reason,” Thomas Nagel maintains that elements of the postmodern theories are self-refuting:


...the denial of objective truth on the ground that all systems of belief are determined by social forces is self-refuting if we take it seriously, since it appeals to a sociological or historical claim that would not establish the conclusion unless it were objectively correct.  Moreover, it promotes one discipline, such as sociology or history, over the others whose objectivity it purports to debunk, such as physics and mathematics.[6] 


In their Why Deliberative Democracy? Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson maintain that the postmodern attempt to move logic and argumentative reason into rhetoric is anti-democratic:


a critique that reduces reasons to power politics can succeed only by deception.  The critic’s listeners will be convinced by his arguments only to the extent that they misunderstand him to be presenting reasonable arguments, which he must deny if he is being truthful.  On the one hand, if he is being deceptive, no one has any acceptable reason to give his arguments any credence.  On the other hand, if he is being truthful, then no one has any acceptable reason to think his arguments are anything more than covers for asserting his self-interest.  Once people recognize that his rules of argument authorize him to say anything that helps him win, and that winning is merely a matter of causing people to accept his views (whatever they happen to be), his arguments dissolve into self-assertion.  This kind of self-assertion may be common enough in politics, but it is not the kind of politics that most democrats [meaning here those who are committed to democracy—or, better, deliberative democracy] wish to encourage.  Anyone who would defend this kind of politics would need to present arguments that could be accepted by his fellow citizens.  If he does so, he enters willy-nilly into the forums of deliberative democracy, and falls under its obligations for reasonable argument.[7] 


Additional criticisms which, in their own way, point to the problems commonly identified with the postmodern viewpoint include:


In his Renewing Philosophy, Hilary Putnam maintains that:


but why should one suppose that reality can be described independent of our descriptions?  And why should the fact that reality cannot be described independent of our descriptions lead us to suppose that there are only the descriptions?  After all, according to our descriptions themselves, the word “quark” is one thing and a quark is quite a different thing.[8] 


For deconstructionists, metaphysics was the basis of our entire culture, the pedestal on which it all rested; if the pedestal has broken, the entire culture must have collapsed—indeed, our whole language must lie in ruins.  But of course we can and do make sense of the idea of a reality we did not make, even though we cannot make sense of the idea of a reality that is “present” in the metaphysical sense of dictating its own unique description.  As we saw, seemingly incompatible words may actually describe the same situation or event or the same physical system.[9] 


The problem is that notwithstanding certain moments of argument, the thrust of Derrida’s writing is that the notions of “justification,” “good reason,” “warrant,” and the like are primarily repressive gestures.  And that view is dangerous because it provides aid and comfort to extremists (especially extremists of a romantic bent) of all kinds, both left and right.  The twentieth century has witnessed horrible events, and the extreme left and extreme right are both responsible for its horrors.  Today, as we face the twenty-first century, our task it not to repeat the mistakes of the twentieth century.  Thinking of reason as just a repressive notion is certainly not going to help us do that. 

  Derrida, I repeat, is not an extremist.  His own political pronouncements are, in my view, generally admirable.  But the philosophical irresponsibility of one decade can become the real-world political tragedy of a few decades later.  And deconstruction without reconstruction is irresponsibility.[10] 


The following passage from Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education is also instructive:


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.[11] 


In his “Afterword: Pragmatism, Pluralism and Postmodernism,” Richard Rorty offers a pragmatist’s critique maintaining that:


but perhaps the transvaluation of traditional philosophical values to which I have referred—the shift from unity to plurality—was simply an attempt by philosophers to climb on an economic and military bandwagon?  Perhaps philosophy was simply following the flag? 

  A Deweyan response to such a postcolonial sceptic would go something like this: Sure, pragmatism and utilitarianism might never have gotten off the ground without a boost from colonialist and imperialist triumphalism.  But so what?  The question is not whether the popularity of these philosophical views was the product of this or that transitory hold on power, but whether anybody now has any better ideas or any better utopias.  We pragmatists are not arguing that modern Europe has any superior insight into eternal, ahistorical realities.  We do not claim any superior rationality.  We claim only an experimental success: we have come up with a way of bringing people into some degree of comity, and of increasing human happiness, which looks more promising than any other way which has been proposed so far.[12] 


Insofar as ‘postmodern’ philosophical thinking is identified with a mindless and stupid cultural relativism—with the idea that any fool thing that calls itself culture is worthy of respect—then I have no use for such thinking.  But I do not see that what I have called ‘philosophical pluralism’ entails any such stupidity.  The reason to try persuasion rather than force, to do our best to come to terms with people whose convictions are archaic and ingenerate, is simply that using force, or mockery, or insult, is likely to decrease human happiness. 

  We do not need to supplement this wise utilitarian counsel with the idea that every culture has some sort of intrinsic worth.  We have learned the futility of trying to assign all cultures and persons places on a hierarchical scale, but this realization does not impugn the obvious fact that there are lots of cultures we would be better off without, just as there are lots of people we would be better off without.  To say that there is no such scale, and that we are simply clever animals trying to increase our happiness by continually reinventing ourselves, has no relativistic consequences.  The difference between pluralism and cultural relativism is the difference between pragmatically justified tolerance and mindless irresponsibility.[13] 


And, finally, in his Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward A Politics of Radical engagement, Stephen Eric Bronner offers a criticism of postmodernist thinkers which suggests to me that while the “egocentric predicament” in epistemology may be “wrong,” in ethics and social/political philosophy it is dangerous!  He maintains that:


from the standpoint of a socially constructed subjectivity, however, only members of the particular group can have the appropriate intuition or “experience,” to make judgments about their culture or their politics.  That is the sense in which Michel Foucault sought to substitute the “specific” for the “universal” intellectual.  This stance now embraced by so many on the left, however, actually derives from arguments generated first by the Counter-Enlightenment and then the radical right during the Dreyfus Affair.  These reactionaries, too, claimed that rather than introduce “grand narratives” or “totalizing ambitions” or “universal” ideas of justice, intellectuals should commit themselves to the particular groups with whose unique discourses and experiences they, as individuals, are intimately and existentially familiar.  The “pure”—or less contaminated—experience of group members was seen as providing them a privileged insight into a particular form of oppression.  Criticism from the “outsider” loses its value and questions concerning the adjudication of differences between groups are never faced.[14] 


But history has shown the danger of turning “reason” into an enemy and condemning universal ideals in the name of some parochial sense of “place” rooted in a particular community.  Or, put another way, where power matters the “pure” experience is never quite so pure and no “place” is sacrosanct.  Better to be a bit more modest when confronting social reality and begin the real work of specifying conditions under which each can most freely pursue his or her existential longing and find a place in the sun.[15] 

[1] Joseph Margolis, “Deconstruction; or The Mystery of the Mystery of the Text,” in Hermeneutics and Deconstruction edited by Hugh Sliverman and Don Idhe  (Albany: SUNY Press, 1985), pp. 138-151). P. 151. 

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Ibid., p. 151. 

[4] C.D.C. Reeve, Socrates In The Apology (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989). 

[5] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse on Modernity, Frederick Lawrence, trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1987), p. 210.  Emphasis added to the passage (italics and bold). 

[6] Thomas Nagel, “The Sleep of Reason,” The New Republic, October 12, 1998, pp. 32-38, p. 36.  Emphasis (bod) added to the passage. 

[7] Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy? (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 2004), pp. 47-48. 

[8] Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1992), p. 122.

[9] Ibid., p. 124. 

[10] Ibid., pp. 132-133. 

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

[12] Richard Rorty, “Afterword: Pragmatism, Pluralism and Postmodernism,” in his Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin, 1999), pp. 262-277, p. 273. 

[13] Ibid., p. 276. 

[14] Stephen Eric Bronner Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward A Politics of Radical engagement (NY: Columbia U.P., 2004), p. ix.  

[15] Ibid., pp. 131-132. 

Return to Hauptli's Home-page  

Last revised: 10/31/2014