books on postmodernism

book review score+1

Explaining Postmodernism:
Skepticism And Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, expanded ed.
Stephen R. C. Hicks
Ockham's Razor, 2011, 266 pages

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise Reviewed by T. Nelson

No doubt postmodernists have a lot of 'splaining to do. As a scientist, I would be right up there in the front row, throwing tomatoes at them along with everybody else. Few things are as enjoyable, or as easy, as critiquing somebody who proposes that there is no such thing as truth. But to criticize postmodernism effectively, we need to know where the movement came from, and what its proponents really stand for.

What we have here is a critique of postmodernism, disguised as an explanation of the origins of their philosophy. The audience will not be professional philosophers: the prose is far too clear and too logical for anyone who believes, as postmodernists do, that logic is just a tool of the phallocentric oligarchy. Judging from the tone, the intended audience is students seeking an understanding of what postmodernism is all about. These students will learn a little about postmodernism, but mostly they will learn Stephen Hicks's opinion of it, which is largely negative.

Hicks says that postmodernism had its roots in the 18th century Counter-Enlightenment, starting with Kant. The term counter-enlightenment is usually used to describe the Naturalists and Romantics in literature and politics, like Rousseau. But Hicks portrays almost all Western philosophy as if it were one continuous attack on reason, as if he were looking through the eyes of a postmodernist. Unfortunately, nowhere in the book does he say that this is what he's doing, and the reader gradually realizes that something has gone very wrong.

For example, on page 39 he dismisses Kant by saying “any thinker who concludes that in principle reason cannot know reality is not fundamentally an advocate of reason.” As with Hicks's description of Heidegger, the opinions here are much like the cherry-picking of the points that a postmodernist might do. It's as if Hicks is presenting the philosophers from the point of view of a postmodernist, but forgets to tell the reader that's what he's doing.

Perhaps the clearest example is on page 78 where he says that Kuhn, the famous philosopher of science, “drew the conclusion that science has nothing to do with anything called ‘truth.’” He backs this up by quoting Kuhn's famous statement saying that paradigm shifts do not necessarily bring scientists closer and closer to the truth. This is exactly what a postmodernist would say.

Treating postmodernism as a natural development of Western epistemology overlooks the fact that, without exception, postmodernists are politically ultra-left-wing. Hicks also notices this, calling it a puzzle. “Puzzle” seems like not quite the right word here: it would seem to call for a totally different approach.

So, starting on page 84, Hicks comes up with a new thesis: postmodernism is “the academic far Left's strategy for responding to the crisis caused by the failures of socialism in theory and in practice.” What follows is a very good description of socialism and Marxism, working up to the idea of false consciousness, which was the Marxists' explanation for their failure to get the proletariat on board for the revolution that never came.

This thesis gets much better traction, and he makes some good points, but ultimately it's not convincing, either, as Hicks soon realizes. Postmodernists, says Hicks, used words not to discuss ideas, but as weapons. He writes: “The regular deployments of ad hominiem, the setting up of straw men, and the regular attempts to silence opposing voices are all logical consequences of the postmodern epistemology of language.” In other words, their claim that truth is meaningless was mainly a way for them to justify lying and rabble-rousing and get paid for it by calling it philosophy.

But does calling itself a philosophy make it one? Politics, not epistemological questioning, is what motivated most postmodernists from the beginning. They rejected reason not because reason was unable to grasp universal noumena, but because it was the most potent obstacle between them and power. True, they were academics trained in philosophy and words were their weapons. But their words were soon consigned to the dustbin, because the idea that truth is relative cannot be taken as a serious philosophical position. At best, one could call it a philosophical dead end. The postmodernists did not really believe what they said. It was all just a political strategy.

Even if postmodernism once imagined itself to be a philosophy, it has now degenerated into critical theory, which is pure politics with every trace of philosophical thinking stripped away, leaving little more than hate. And that hate persists and grows, and makes the postmodernists still dangerous.

It may be, then, that postmodernism was just another brand of hatred, fundamentally irrational and meaningless: a version of Nazism that turned around and directed itself against reason and progress instead of against other races and nationalities. If so, then an attempt to integrate it into a coherent philosophy would have been doomed from the start.

jan 25, 2014; updated apr 13, 2014; revised apr 03, 2016