Postmodernism Is Its Discontents

Explaining postmodernism requires explaining its causes, and that is a task beyond the scope of one essay. For now, I will simply locate its historical foundations. For more on its effects, you might check out relevant entries under the “truth” and “goodness” tabs that are linked below. Its central importance for me is its unique means of warranting claims to truth, goodness, and beauty and the effects its warrants and axioms have upon public discourse and private conviction.

Postmodernism grew out of modernism, of course, and it wouldn’t have been either possible or necessary if modernism had done an adequate job of providing satisfactory modes of justifying truth claims (see “Modernism and Its Discontents“). So postmodernism’s genesis lay in discontent. Its genius lay in the entirely new way it assembled solutions to modernism’s dilemmas as they were gradually revealed.

The mind/body disjunction was revealed by Descartes, leading to further analysis by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, all of which indicated the impossibility of verifying sense data. This doubt is the root of modernism’s crying need to find new axioms of moral commitment. Seen in this light, that need was conceived in the doubt of truth and goodness claims that corroded authority as warrant during the Reformation era, but the doubt that forced modernism into being was continually reinforced by its own methodology, a relentless questioning of experience underwritten by the presumptions of universal reasoning. At one level, the parching thirst for confirmation was all to the good, for it continually demonstrated the strength of modernist axioms to generate answers to the questions its warrants generated. Certainly, this resiliency was superior to authority’s fatal weakness: its inability to resolve challenge without restoring agency and challenging trust. In the ruins of the Reformation epistemological collapse, modernist resilience seemed attractive, but its tentativeness in warranting truth was magnified by its utter failures to warrant goodness, morality in particular. Individual rational agency found itself unable to reconcile the conflicts in valuing goods without appealing to the same authority its axioms had attacked. It is true that modernism’s self-critique gave birth to modern rationalism and science , a gradual tightening of standards used to determine truth that evolved into the scientific process. And that was good. But it was also true that its efforts to wrestle with morality ultimately led to scientism, a belief system maintaining that only scientific knowledge is true knowledge (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). Not only could such a belief not be warranted by the very methodology that had produced science’s success; it violated the act of severance, the truncation of truth from goodness, that allowed empirical truth itself to be discovered and which was the greatest discovery of empirical effort. This grievous error most clearly characterized the human sciences. In the hard sciences, advances in technology and the development of discrete disciplines led to astonishing discoveries entirely beyond the scope of nonspecialists’ understanding and in some areas beyond all rational comprehension, which only magnified empiricism’s cachet and obscured its limitations. I consider World War I to be the dividing line between modernism and postmodernism, due in part to the technological horrors of its methods of combat and in part to the popularization of the theory of general relativity in 1916. But the conjunction of radical doubt and radically increased specialization led to one inescapable conclusion that began etching itself into popular consciousness around the time of that horrific war: if scientific knowledge is the only reliable form of knowledge, then nonspecialists can claim no reliable knowledge. This led to a generalized effort to squeeze all kinds of efforts into scientific boxes and thus to theories in the human sciences that cast serious doubt on modernism’s assertions of human rationality (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). I consider Marx and Freud the exemplars of this problem, Marx because he challenged Victorians’ notions of self-creation in favor of an unconscious class identity that shaped their reality and Freud because he formalized that unconscious motivation into a general theory that challenged modernism’s notions of rationalism in general. Both thinkers’ ideas are widely seeded in postmodern culture. The efforts of human science could hardly fail to challenge human freedom, for their subject areas are defined by those activities governed by human will, and they could hardly claim to be legitimate sciences without claiming the determinism and predictability of their objects of study (see “The Determinism Problem”). Seen in this light, their utter failures may be judged less the fault of their violation of the act of severance or the injection of moral values into their theoretical frameworks and more the complete futility of attempting to corrall human preferential freedom in the first place.

Theories in the natural sciences challenged modernism’s claims to understand and dominate the natural world. Darwin and Einstein are only two examples of this problem, Darwin because he challenged human exceptionalism and Einstein because he posited a reality beyond the power of perception to comprehend. But remember that perception as assembled in experience was modernism’s only source of knowledge (see “Modernism’s Midwives” to understand the reasons for these desperate efforts to replace authority as warrant for truth and goodness claims).

The dominance of contingent determinism advanced by science in opposition to the popular structures previously accepted introduced a splintering of justifications reminiscent of the nightmare of the Reformation: divine command,  (see “Premodern Authority“), appeals to traditional institutions, Deistic rationalism, Romantic pantheism, or some bastardized hybrid. This was particularly devastating in light of empirical science’s utter failure to provide guidance on goodness issues, a failure guaranteed by its ever-tightening focus on material reality, leading to increasing specialization and professionalization of natural science, but gradually eliminating other spheres of human concern.

Modernism had trumpeted the power of individual agency as the arbiter of truth and goodness. But its own products challenged its claims. By the late Victorian era, natural science had professionalized to the point that “common sense” could not justify its paradigms or explain its theories in language open to the non-specialist. Human science continued to spin its fanciful theories out of the whole cloth of its practitioners’ self-deception, and those thoeries continued to fracture into others just as Reformation revelation had done with a similar preference for belief over knowledge. By the time of the Great War, the collapse of institutional authority became obvious to the thickest mind, and Victorianism splintered into the shards of its antinomies (see ‘The Victorian Rift“). The final arbiter of conflict, positive law, had sought its foundation in modernism’s core axioms, but the contractarian solution to the problems of democratic government was distorted from its beginnings by the Reformation miseries that had forced its emergence (see “Why Invent a Social Contract”). The combination of contractarian oppression of minorities and Victorian authoritarianism’s denials of agency to women, persons of color, imperialized cultures, industrial workers, and university students produced wave after wave of revolution in the nineteenth century. As its hypocrisies rose in public awareness, persons turned to the only source of truth that continued to grind out new discoveries and technologies and to its shadowing human sciences that were all to pleased to bask in empiricism’s glory and satisfy the growing hunger for moral direction. And so postmodernism was born.

As the failures of modernism’s justifications for claims to truth, goodness, and beauty were made undeniable by the slaughters of World War I, thinkers resolved to build new structures from the ruins of the old while rejecting the hypocrisies that Victorianism had produced. This was and remains tricky because as the greatest product of modernism is science and nobody gets to reject science, at least not its products. So postmodernism struggled to lend theoretical cohesion to its structures for half a century, beginning with the frantic search for novelty in the early 1900’s and culminating in the enunciation of postmodernism, mainly by a cadre of mutually contentious French theorists, in the last third of that dark century. The essences of postmodern theory were cobbled together from the shards of modernism.

They began with a Romantic emphasis on intuition, emotion, imagination, insight, and the exotic without the warrant of a God-in-nature to provide certainty. Kierkegaard  and Nietzsche laid the groundwork for this point of view before World War I.

With that kind of a foundation, it was only natural that they embraced a suspicion of all claims to objective rationality, this suspicion based on acceptance of human science paradigms of unconscious motivations formed by race, class, gender, nationality, etc. This is a deeply rooted and powerful objection tracing to Locke’s theory of tabula rasa, Kant’s theories of intuition as beneath conscious awareness, and the influences of Marxism and Freudianism. Paradoxically, this suspicion was enunciated in academia through an intensely rationalist analysis molded by the arcane terminology of the human sciences. Simultaneously, popular culture was permeated by new technologies that elevated the narrative as an alternative to discursive language focused either on sappy Romanticism or the new archetype of the antihero (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”).

A consequent distrust of language as a transparent mode of communicating thought followed their emphasis on the primacy of the unconscious and the formative power of culture; this distrust was motivated by phenomenology’s emphasis on bias in reasoning and language with the consequent growth of semiotics. Ironically, postmodernism’s suspicion of the transparency of language only magnified its faith in the metaphorical power of narrative, visual, and musical arts to transmit vital truths. But, of course, these truths could not be discursively revealed or known because of the phenomenological foundations of the theory. The perceptual wall  built up by the theories of the modernist epistemologists was thought to be entirely impermeable by postmodern theorists for whom intuitions were entirely self-generated. The solipsistic result was an entirely original mode of warrant generated by postmodern axioms. Modernists had shown experience to be fundamentally private, its analysis always constructed inside the perceptual wall. But they had thought proper exercise of reason could pierce that wall, could be universal and objective. After Kant, they granted it might be only intersubjective, but they had taken that common faculty to be sufficient to found common consent for science, mathematics, and expertise. Postmodernists objected, arguing that experience forms reason rather than being directed by it, thus casting doubt on preferential freedom and opening the door to cultural determinism and identity politics. In their early efforts they seemed blissfully unconcerned with the problems that view creates.

Their efforts were not entirely built on rejection though. They also embraced a deep appreciation for the organic social nodes disdained by modernism, particularly by its self-interested rationalizing of imperialism, racism, sexism, and capitalism as producers of “order” as a cover for exploitation and oppression. This valuation produced a profound suspicion of the uses of power, particularly institutionalized power, in favor of creativity, radical individualism or group identity, and spontaneity (see “Correlation, Causation, Motivation“). There is less flattering way to view this development, though. Their obsession with power and its uses was necessitated by the failure of postmodernists to advance a moral theory that could prescribe any other means of resolving disagreements among the private convictions their warrant must necessarily produce (see “Belief in the Public Square“).

It is important that these elements not be too disentangled. Postmodernism is an integrated paradigm of mutually supportive judgments surrounded by a thicket of associations and implications not universally embraced, particularly since it is a product of academia, which thrives on creative disagreement and of Romanticism, which encouraged a radical individualism. But it is also important that at least its essentials be understood, for it is a real antithesis to modernism and saturates the culture.

That influence may be obscured by the continued existence of the two older modes of justification still percolating through the zeitgeist. Postmodernism has not been as successful as earlier efforts to provide cultural consensus, in part because each new model only partially replaces its predecessor. Modernism had to accommodate a continuing strain of premodern authoritarianism, and postmodernism must continue to grapple with both a nostalgia for authority and the attractions of modernist rationality best represented by the scientific enterprise. Worse, it must deal with its own inconsistencies and its utter inability to resolve the anomalies inherent in its own positions (see “One Postmodern Sentence“).

It is my deepest conviction that much of the disagreement and frustration that characterizes our culture derives from the continued existence of these three separate modes of warrant still prevalent. Disputants tack effortlessly, perhaps unconsciously, among these modes, ignoring the lack of consensus that made their existence possible (see “Tangled Terms” for some common examples). Authority, the ancient source of pre-Reformation consensus, is held in disrepute by modernists and utter contempt by postmodernists. Universal reason and closely examined experience, modernism’s contenders, have been battered by objections and limitations, particularly in regard to goodness claims. It is worth noting that much of the power of that attack has come from the critical efforts of modernists that were later appropriated by the more radical critique embodied in postmodernism. It is little wonder that irony is the dominant tone of postmodern culture. But discontents have their limits. Postmodernism has had to invent its own warrant for claims to truth, goodness, and beauty. This warrant, a most impressive structure and one entirely new, was codified only in the 1970’s after nearly a century of flirtation and false starts.

This warrant has been called coherence theory by epistemologists, but it has assumed a much grander aspect in the culture than the rather narrow and pretty well discredited coherence theory would suggest. In examining the broader historical and philosophical roots of the postmodern warrant to claims of truth, goodness, and beauty, I have coined the term virtual circle to characterize it. I think it a very powerful cultural force because it provides a respectable way to justify one’s claims to truth, goodness, and beauty, though one in utter opposition to that provided by modernism. This is the arena of contention we see around us (see “What is the Virtual Circle?“.


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