Postmodern Premortem

I’m here to announce the death of postmodernism. I’m slightly ambivalent about this as I’m not sure postmodernism is something that ever had any life in it in the first place. I’ve tried to get a handle on a good definition of postmodernism, and I think the best I can come up with is that postmoderns reject the enlightenment project of searching for absolute truth. This project is alleged to have begun, I think, with Descartes and carried on by people such as Spinoza, Leibniz, Galileo, and Newton. According to postmoderns, this project was a failure, as we all know that calculus, gravity, and Newtonian physics all turned out to just be socially constructed features of a peculiar language game (please don’t saddle Wittgenstein with the inanity of his followers).

We also know that no one before Descartes sought or claimed to have absolute Truth. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, and Aquinas were just playing language games and posing riddles. And when Socrates and the others were on their quest for Truth (or not), a few other people were saying things along the lines of “man is the measure of all things” and “truth” is determined by your culture, but the “Pomos” are sure it all started with Descartes. And after Descartes, of course, no one questioned the reliability of sense data to determine truth (Hume who?).

But Modernism, that evil quest for verified truth, has oppressed everyone but dead, white, European men, or so we still hear (I really thought these things had been resolved). Back in the 1980s, Dale Spender wrote, “Multiple reality is a necessary condition for the acceptance of the experience of all individuals as equally valuable and viable. Only within a multidimensional framework is it possible for the analysis and explanation of everyone to avoid the pitfalls of being rejected, of being classified as wrong.” As nothing can be verified, this is a great theory for liars. We must all recognize the “truth” of anyone who disagrees with our position. The use of logic, reason, and observation only serve as forms of tyranny over those whose voices have been suppressed and whose experiences have been diminished.

Also in the 1980s, feminist Jean Grimshaw rejected the postmodern idea of unverifiable realities. She wrote, “The fact that one group has power over another cannot be reduced to anyone’s belief that this is so; nor does the fact that someone does not understand their own experience in terms of oppression or exploitation necessarily mean that they were not oppressed or exploited.” She rejected the idea that one reality cannot be judged better than another. A reality that identifies and eliminates oppression is better than a reality that enables oppression. The irony is that postmoderns claim to be trying to eliminate oppression, but how can you eliminate anything bad when you deny any value judgments related to ultimate “truth” or to dissenting voices?

Postmoderns sometimes quote Richard Rorty as if he is on the same team. This is because he is a pragmatist who rejects ultimate truth (much as Hume did in the 18th century). In 1999, Rorty said, “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 trying to reinvent ourselves, has no relativistic consequences.”

The point for me, and that is the most important consideration for me, is that we can be tolerant and listen to marginalized voices without claiming there is no way to judge one opinion or observation as being better than another. We can recognize that no particular group or individual has a key to absolute knowledge without succumbing to the paralyzing belief that there is no truth and no way to improve our working in the world. Reason and observation have had their success and failures. Irrationality and lack of judgment cannot make the same claim (with regard to success). Finding the truths that work best for us takes effort and judgment and a little rationality. Some things and some beliefs are just better. What makes them better? They reduce misery.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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