A Defense of Postmodernism
I have wanted to write on postmodernism, or rather on the attack on it, because it seems to receive almost universal revulsion. I must admit straightaway that I feel a bit defensive of postmodernism, not least because its critics seem to me to avoid the most central premises of postmodernist thinking.
As I see it, the criticisms take four different forms:
- Postmodernism opposes or challenges science.
- Postmodernism expresses skepticism at the idea of objective reality (or, better, “interrogates” it).
- Postmodernism promotes the idea that all opinions are equally valid.
- Postmodernism argues that all human concerns are social constructions.
To these four specific criticisms we can add a more overarching one: Postmodernism is nonsensical, essentially political, and self-deceptive. In other words, it is really, really wrong.
Not that anyone’s asked me to do so, but I’ll make myself an apologist for postmodernism.I want to do this because I actually see postmodernism as quite compatible and consistent with skeptic and atheist views of the world and of knowing the world.
(1) Postmodernism opposes or challenges science.
This statement is not true, in my opinion, yet I feel there’s nothing inherently wrong with those outside the natural and physical sciences questioning and criticizing what science issues as its facts, methodologies, and philosophies. Nevertheless, postmodernism generally does raise matters that surely must trouble science because postmodernist thinkers often will question the whole enterprise of science as a totally separate and absolutely definable discipline.
If I may be forgiven for simplifying matters too much, postmodernism opposes and challenges not science but truth claims. For example, when biologist Jerry Coyne says that “evolution is true,” we can agree with the claim at a factual level and yet also recognize that the term “evolution” is itself an ever-evolving understanding of how life on Earth developed. Indeed, when we look at the Intelligent Design movement, we see that they center their critiques and challenges on “Darwinian evolution” as some sort of specialized corruption or perversion of a concept that may apply in nature.
My point: the postmodernist opposition and challenge is not to the factual status of the claim but to the idea that the statement is always true and only in a specific way. As evolution continues to be refined and older questions become resolved, the definition of evolution will also develop. The statement “evolution is true” means different things in 1859 and 2009, even though the words are the same. Unfortunately, I think often people use science as a generic, default term when they try to explain postmodernist attitudes to truth. To challenge science is radical, controversial, and sexy – I guess.
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However, we can take a bit from über-postmodernist Jean-Francois Lyotard and wonder if my “postmodernism doesn’t oppose science” stance is mere wishful thinking and woefully inaccurate. Lyotard is quoted as having said:
Science is a highly elaborated set of conventions brought forth by one particular culture (our own) in the circumstances of one particular historical period; thus it is not, as the standard view would have it, a body of knowledge and testable conjecture concerning the real world. It is a discourse, devised by and for one specialized interpretive community, under terms created by the complex net of social circumstance, political opinion, economic incentive and ideological climate that constitutes the ineluctable human environment of the scientist. Thus, orthodox science is but one discursive community among the many that now exist and that have existed historically. Consequently its truth claims are irreducibly self-referential, in that they can be upheld only by appeal to the standards that define the scientific community and distinguish it from other social formations.
The discerning reader will observe that Lyotard makes a more nuanced point than “science has been wrong before; therefore, modern science will be proven wrong in the future.” Rather, his point is that social and cultural values influence not only scientific communities (which is unsurprising), but also the production of scientific knowledge (which is more surprising).
I happen to agree with Lyotard that science is a set of conventions and a discourse. After all, this is the cultural aspect of science and its performance. While Lyotard may certainly be attacking science, the truth claim lies at the center of the critique. Lyotard certainly makes a strong claim, but I do not read him as rejecting the idea of objective reality, an idea we will discuss in more detail below.
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(2) Postmodernism expresses skepticism at the idea of objective reality.
I don’t doubt that some hard-core postmodernists jettison the idea of objective reality altogether. But I think most other postmodernists question our human ability to access objective reality using language, whether it be natural or even mathematical language. All language is imprecise and, as I asserted above, subject to change (to say nothing of misunderstanding). In other words, objective reality exceeds our linguistic systems. We don’t seem to be able to say anything about objective reality that isn’t either inconsistent or incomplete.
Now, this doesn’t mean necessarily that language constructs reality – another idea that gets treated below – but instead that it frames both our perceptions and our understandings of it. Reality isn’t subordinate to language; however, language’s effect is the perception of subordinating reality. The fiction that postmodernism exposes is that language is ever neutral, stable, and precise.
Postmodernism also notes, rightly, that we often talk about objective reality in almost transcendental terms, in the sense that it is supposed to be the thing outside our human systems that nevertheless provides an ultimate foundation and reference for these systems. I think this is an astute observation that helps us use language more consciously, that helps us avoid facile expressions and portray some things as possessing intention or transcendence when they really do not have such properties.
(3) Postmodernism promotes the idea that all opinions are equally valid.
I tend to think of this as a straw man argument, a bad sound bite of a more important idea. As I understand postmodernism, the idea promoted is not that all opinions are equally valid but rather that no one opinion is fully and completely valid always and everywhere. Indeed, I like to think most postmodernists would agree with the substance of Isaac Asimov’s great statement about our ever-developing knowledge, “right and wrong are fuzzy concepts.”
As I said in my comments to the first point, not the factual content of an opinion but its use and its disposition for those asserting it are the important matters. When conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg rails against postmodernism’s critique of “Our traditional understandings of right and wrong, true and false” – well, what are these implied understandings of which he speaks? He tacitly assumes we know what these understandings are. He seems to imagine that we will be outraged that anyone dares question these long-standing beliefs. Yet there seems to be some disjunction, for he uses the plural understandings. Perhaps he is a bit postmodern himself. Perhaps he’s not sure what the Capital-T truth is among these traditional understandings of right and wrong, true and false.
I think the postmodern stance on opinions can be explained also through the metaphor of grammar. If we want something to act as the subject of a sentence, we know we need a noun phrase in the nominative case: John, who, the bear, physics, love, a sleeping bee, colorless green ideas, and so on. Are some noun phrase subjects more valid than others? Perhaps, in the context of the rest of the sentence. But the point is that so long as something is a noun phrase and nominative (and the right number), it can go into the subject position of a sentence. Just as a subject does something, does some work, so too does an opinion. Any opinion in its context will not only issue content but also perform work of an ideological, social and political nature.
We don’t need to go much farther here because the point is actually quite simple: it’s not just about what the words of the opinion mean, it’s also about the use to which the opinion is put.
(4) Postmodernism argues that all human concerns are social constructions.
More than the other points, the social constructionism idea seems to drive people batty against postmodernism. To understand the idea, read a great summary such as Paul Boghossian’s:
To say of something that it is socially constructed is to emphasize its dependence on contingent aspects of our social selves. It is to say: This thing could not have existed had we not built it; and we need not have built it at all, at least not in its present form. Had we been a different kind of society, had we had different needs, values, or interests, we might well have built a different kind of thing, or built this one differently. The inevitable contrast is with a naturally existing object, something that exists independently of us and which we did not have a hand in shaping.
There are certainly many things, and facts about them, that are socially constructed in the sense specified by this core idea: money, citizenship and newspapers, for example. None of these things could have existed without society; and each of them could have been constructed differently had we so chosen.
The controversial part of social constructionism comes when the concept is applied to belief, as in beliefs about gender and race. Boghossian writes:
Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1953) and other feminist scholars since, have illuminated the extent to which gender roles are not inevitable but are rather the product of social forces. Anthony Appiah (Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, 1996, with Amy Gutman) has been particularly forceful in demonstrating that nothing physical or biological corresponds to the racial categories that play a pervasive role in our social lives, that these categories owe their existence more to their social function than they do to the scientific evidence.
Other claims are more controversial. Mary Boyle has argued that our belief in schizophrenia is socially constructed (Schizophrenia: A Scientific Delusion? 1990). Her claim is that there is no adequate reason to believe that the symptoms commonly lumped under this label are manifestations of a single underlying disease and, hence, that the search for its etiology by neurochemistry is doomed. Perhaps she is right: our understanding of mental illness is certainly in its infancy. On the other hand, there appears to be increasing evidence that the symptoms associated with schizophrenia are predictable significantly before their onset and that the condition is highly heritable. These facts point in the opposite direction.
The real question is whether social construction applies to everything, including knowledge from the natural sciences (see Andrew Pickering, Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar, and Richard Rorty). Boghossian quite fairly concludes:
At its best – as in the work of de Beauvoir and Appiah – social constructionist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices that we had wrongly come to regard as inevitable. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become either a general metaphysics or a general theory of knowledge.
I also think it’s helpful to quote a section from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that cites new directions for social construction:
Constructionist Explanation and Integrative Models
Fitting the social construction of human traits or kinds together with an account of representations, we see that one can be more or less thoroughgoingly constructionist. Social role accounts of traits or kinds may be paired with constructionist accounts of the representations that structure the social roles, and indeed, this is the natural way to read much constructionist work: work that is committed to explaining both theories of human kinds and the traits those theories purport to explain by appeal to social agents. One might hold, for example, that both our theories about gender and the differential behavior those theories structure are products of social construction.
But, as we noted above, some naturalists concerned with explaining representations have suggested integrative models combining constructionist and cognitive (and sometimes nativist) explanations of those representations (e.g. Sperber 1996, Machery and Faucher 2005). When combined with social role accounts of human traits, such accounts offer the possibility of combining (partially) nativist accounts of representations of human traits or kinds with fully constructionist accounts of the traits or kinds those representations create via the production of social roles (Mallon 2003, 2007). Such an account not only offers a way of integrating constructionist accounts with work in evolutionary cognitive psychology, but also offers an avenue of rejoinder to Hacking’s claim that the targets of the social sciences are “on the move.”—viz., that representation-structured social roles and the traits they explain are stabilized, in part, by the developmental stability of the cognitive mechanisms that help produce them.
Social Construction as Ultimate Explanation
The canonical way to understand social constructionism about human traits is as suggesting that human traits emerge from experience of the world and as emphasizing the role of culture in structuring the world so experienced. Such constructionism thus contrasts with nativist accounts of those traits.
Recent work by some scientists and philosophical naturalists have suggested a different role for social, cultural forces in shaping less proximal, more ultimate (but still naturalistic) explanations. The distinction between a proximal and ultimate explanation is one that indicates relative distance of the explanans from the explanandum. For example, one’s eating the doughnut might be explained by one’s desire for rich foods (a relatively proximal explanation), but it also might be explained as the product of the evolutionary pressures that produced such desires (a relatively ultimate explanation). While “ultimate” is frequently used to label organic evolutionary explanations (because they contrast with proximal explanations that invoke only intrinsic properties of an organism), recent work suggests the possibility that culture might provide relatively more ultimate explanations of some evolved traits. For example, Philip Kitcher (1999) suggests that a cultural practice of dividing persons into racial groups could itself result in biologically significant divisions among populations where those cultural practices result in significant reproductive isolation. Kitcher’s point is simply that, in principle, such isolation allows biological differences among populations to be preserved and accumulate over time. While Kitcher expresses skepticism about whether this has actually occurred among contemporary populations that we think of as candidate races (e.g. contemporary American groups picked out by “black,” “white,” “Asian,” etc.), his model does suggest a possible role for culture as an ultimate explanation, one that shapes the evolution of traits.
In a different vein, recent work on niche construction—the process by which organisms successfully modify their environments in ways that benefit themselves and their offspring (Odling-Smee, Laland, and Feldman 2003)—has also suggests a role for culture in altering natural selection. While key examples of niche selection emphasize a role for artifactual culture or technology in shaping selection—for example, the cultural adoption of dairy farming creating selective pressure for lactose tolerance (Feldman and Cavalli-Sforza 1989, Holden and Mace 1997)—the niches may also be more or less structured by our cultural conceptions, including our conceptions of different kinds of person.
In a controversial recent paper, Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending (Cochran et al. 2006) have argued on the basis of a range of evidence that cultural practices of racial classification and discrimination against Jews in 9th to 17th century Eastern Europe created selective pressure for higher IQs but also certain genetic diseases (e.g. Tay-Sachs) linked to high IQ, specifically among Ashkenazi Jews (the authors argue that Ashkenazi Jews were very reproductively isolated by cultural practices during that period). Such a hypothesis combines Kitcher’s suggestion of the biological significance of intracultural reproductive isolation that socially constructed racial classification may produce with the niche selectionist idea that culture may produce selective pressures resulting in biological adaptation. Work like Kitcher’s, the niche selectionists’, and Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending’s is noteworthy in part because it is in a certain sense social constructionist, but because of its emphasis on social agents as ultimate rather than proximate causes, it is still quite jarring to many with social constructionist sensibilities.
Mine has been a long essay with many quotes, but the ultimate point is that culture plays a central role in shaping human social environments, behaviors, identities, and development. I don’t think anyone denies this point, and the point forms an answer to all four issues with postmodernism.
To move forward, the question is whether we are capable of arriving at objectively reasonable beliefs about how things are, beliefs that anyone would feel bound to regardless of their ideological perspective. To approach such a goal, there would need to be broad and un-coerced appreciation of what defines relevant evidence.
Even if social constructionism drives one batty, I think it’s a positive value if it or other postmodernist approaches result in discussions around such concerns as relevant evidence and how we could and should establish it. The value of postmodernist thinking lies in its near-pathological opposition to the argument from authority. In another essay, I used a quote that’s relevant to rejecting arguments from authority and overcoming our own biases:
This is why questioning our own motives, and our own process, is critical to a skeptical and scientific outlook. We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process. The process (i.e., science, logic, and intellectual rigor) has to be more important than the belief.
Is postmodernism nonsensical, essentially political, and self-deceptive? I think no, yes, and often. Caricatured postmodernism often is nonsensical; actual postmodernism often is both affected and obfuscating. Postmodernism embraces political grandstanding and doesn’t try to shroud itself in the fiction of “staying neutral.” Postmodernism can be practiced as banal philosophy, as when Foucault’s panopticon is applied to this or that social structure. However, I can only say that just as any idea should not be indicted for being used in a silly, oppressive, or evil way, so too should postmodernism not be charged with the wrongdoing of some practitioners.
Postmodernism focuses its skepticism on claims made in the cultural sphere, rather than in the natural sciences sphere. It has empirical dimensions, actual use of language, as well as speculative and philosophical ones. I dislike seeing skeptics and atheists dismiss postmodernism out of hand because postmodernism can be an ally. I also dislike political conservatives using postmodernism as a term like communist or fascist – that is, they call someone a “PoMo” and can instantly grab a whole crowd of intellectual sock-puppets to echo their derision toward the person, no questions asked. This is why level-headed assertions of postmodernism should be made more available in the public arena than they are currently.