One Postmodern Sentence

The connections intellectuals make among the mooring notions of our age always surprise me; they demonstrate the malleability of the virtual circle we build from experience and fallible reasoning (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). It sometimes seems as though almost any claim may be advanced as reasonable. And that is an indictment of logic. Or it might be until one uses that same logic a bit more rigorously. It bears repeating that a logical expression is logical all the way down, so to speak. It does not self-destruct under close and patient scrutiny that calls the specious assertion into doubt. This healthy distrust of what Plato called the love of our own opinions was codified by Karl Popper as the principle of falsifiability. What Popper advised in respect to natural science should be broadened into a more generalized strategy for testing our judgments. We are all eager to fall in love with our own point of view, and for that reason we should skeptically examine it.

This conclusion was reinforced by a perusal of the introduction of David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. This is a serious scholarly work. Hart earned his masters from Cambridge and his PhD from University of Virginia and has won plaudits for his published works defending Christianity from atheism. I don’t intend to confront the book’s thesis. I can’t, having been defeated by the introduction alone. What stymied my effort was the writer’s presentation, which seemed composed of a fusillade of unsupported assertions so dense, vague, and twisted that no reasoned response could follow my effort to mine the text for comprehensibility. I find Hart’s sentences to be something other than discursive prose: their density, disregard for clarity, and floating referents closer to journaling than argument. It seems fair to mention at this point that Hart should expect nothing more, for the precondition of his theoretical position is a rejection of the very notion of disinterested rational appraisal. I cannot assert this all that strongly, for Hart assumes the assent he presumably pursues without resorting to anything as prosaic as warrant. It is unsurprising that Hart, a postmodernist to be sure, would advance claims supporting that peculiar position, but the question inevitably arises of why he bothers to take so much paper and ink and time to make it. Finding his core argument is rather like attempting to find the best restaurant meal in East Timor: one has to negotiate unfamiliar terms, confusing directions, and unsubstantiated opinion in equal measure. It may be that his introduction covers ground already so familiar to his presumed reader that Hart feels no obligation to justify or even do more than sketch out his frame of reference. But surely this does a disservice to both the skeptic and the generalist. Postmodernism is hardly a fait accompli, and Hart must appreciate that faith is even less of one, and defensible aesthetic theories least of all. I finished his introduction with only a sense of Hart’s self-satisfaction to reward me for my effort. And that is a shame, for one expects an analysis to produce either assent or rejection, but the vapidity of his language allows the reader neither option. To disengage from Hart’s fundamentally postmodern assertions is to reject notions that float through this culture, but to assent is equally problematic, for one hardly can know what her assent commits her to. Hart advances positions so far beyond his justifications that one might be signing away her core convictions by accepting on faith any one of his conjectures.

So what can be done with a work whose terms are too squishy to define and whose “arguments” cannot be bothered with correspondence justifications that might be examined by his reader (see “What Makes It True?)? How can one approach an analysis whose central axiom is that logical justifications are merely rhetorical devices used to exert power? Why his argument, such as it is, should escape the same charge is just one more mystery. What can we make of this gelatinous glob of aesthetics and religion, illuminated only by the black light of postmodern theory? How can we know before launching into chapter one that engagement with his ideas might prove worth the enormous effort his style demands? Or how can we throw down the book in disgust simply because it makes demands of us that seem absurd? Perhaps the dross is worth the gold.

To illustrate as well as resolve this problem, one that characterizes postmodern thought in general, I will take a single sentence of Hart’s introduction as an object of serious analysis with the goal of both framing the difficulty of more extensive assessment and of exposing the suppositions that underlie what can only be called the effluvium of words that comprise his effort. I ask you to accept that this one sentence is not exceptional but rather entirely indicative of Hart’s presentation. I chose it because it is somewhat independent of what precedes and follows it. Please trust that nothing in its vicinity adds to its intelligibility. I also argue that this sentence is what we might call a postmodern one in that in terms of structure and argument, it is entirely representative of a mode of thought that disdains but fails to replace reason and discursive language in what we can only assume is a rhetorical exercise. At any rate, that may be its intent. I really am not sure.

So here it is.

“The great project of “modernity” (the search for comprehensive metanarratives and epistemological foundations by way of a neutral and unaided rationality, available to all reflective intellects, and independent of cultural and linguistic conditions) has surely foundered; “reason” cannot inhabit language (and it certainly has no other home) without falling subject to an indefinite deferral of meaning, a dissemination of signification, a play of nonsense and absence, such that it subsists always in its own aporias, suppression of sense, contradictions, and slippages; and “reason” cannot embody itself in history without at once becoming irrecoverably lost in the labyrinth of time’s interminable contingencies (certainly philosophy has no means of defeating such doubts).”

The greatest compliment one can give another is to listen attentively to her declarations, straining to comprehend them, and once understood, to weigh them, apply them to experience, and then engage in a deliberative conversation with their author so as to produce a consensual claim to truth, goodness, or beauty justified by some correspondence to a shared reality. But this sentence denies that possibility at the outset, for it rejects access to rationality by “reflective intellects,” and it questions reason’s role in making sense of the declarative contents of the sentence because reason must fall prey to the inadequacies of present culture, etymology, and manipulative intent. So even without careful explication, the sentence seems to deny itself what it intends to proclaim: a declarative truth. If modernity cannot succeed in such an effort, why should postmodernity (or Christianity or any aesthetic proclamation) be permitted to succeed? Metaphorically, this sentence seems to exemplify the old conundrum of the office worker advising the new hire, “Believe me when I tell you no one in this office can be trusted.”

But let us grant it the dignity of a serious effort at comprehension anyway. The sentence seems to me to make no fewer than fifteen truth claims, which are dissected below. So what are we to do with them? Old-fashioned modernity would ask us to do what Hart advises us cannot be done: examine each truth claim in light of its warrant to determine our judgment of its truth (see “What Counts as Justification?“). But what would postmodernity advise as an alternative? My understanding has always been that it would ask us to enfold these truth claims as a jellyfish would a morsel of food: envelope it into our virtual circle, examine it for the bitter taste of personal contradiction, and either make it flesh of our flesh or spit it out like gristle. But Hart doesn’t seem so forthright in his expectation: he presents these claims as self-evident and universal historical truth, though what makes them so escapes me as does the entire postmodern schema of justification. So how do we approach these fifteen declarations? His flabby syntax combines with the blizzard of truth claims to render parts of the sentence almost a poetic utterance, yet one chained to history and philosophy. Do we explicate it as historical truth or appreciate it as an aesthetic unity? If the former, do we take it to be a rhetorical rather than an analytic use of language, and if the latter, what aesthetic theory do we use to apprehend it? Given its discursive inadequacy, how much creative construction must the reader bring to the sentence to vivify it with meaning?

I can’t know how to answer these questions without some sense of what the sentence actually does mean. What follows is my best shot.

That “modernity’ has committed to a “great project,” that project being a search for comprehensive metanarratives and epistemological foundations. It is a postmodern charge that modernity’s project is the search for metanarratives and epistemological foundations. This certainly is not how modernism would characterize its own foundations. The notion that the great paradigms of modernity are merely narratives is a pernicious one, for explanatory models are far more than merely stories we tell ourselves (for more, see  “Tall Tales”).

That modernity argues for neutral and unaided rationality as the means to succeed in this great project.Modernism accepts as axiomatic that the epistemological foundations of analysis are universal and rooted in human nature. ( see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). The only remarkable point of the sentence’s second contention is that rationality might be “aided.” Hart offers no referent in the vicinity of this sentence for that possibility, though one might expect him to champion divine guidance as the aid modernity rejects, which is certainly true. It is equally a truism that modernity unapologetically offers rationality as the means of finding truth in reality along with rationally examined experience (see “Modernism’s Midwives”).

That modernity argues that such rationality is available to all reflective intellects.Modernity does offer the universality of reason as a key to unlocking the secrets of reality. It is actually a serious thing to accuse rationality of this charge, for, if true, it equalizes access to truth and goodness, an intention postmodernism often denies to modernity. In this as in other foundational convictions, modernism has often lost its way in practice, but the appeal to universal rights demonstrates the very self-correcting quality of rationality that Hart denies in this sentence (see “Needs and Rights”).

That such rationality claims to be independent of all cultural and linguistic conditions. The alternative is pretty awful. If rationality were dependent on cultural or other conditions, postmodernism would have no reason to charge modernism with hypocrisy for asserting the superiority of some cultures, races, or genders. That modernists were hypocritical in their judgments of gender, culture, or race might assault either their suppositions that reason is the universal qualifier for judgment or their conclusion that some were more capable of exercising it than others. It cannot, as this sentence implies, call both into question. If Hart subscribes to the postmodern position that rationality is a product of experience and is therefore idiosyncratic, he ends in a relativism that justifies oppression and exploitation on grounds of cultural determinism and a subjectivism that robs individuals of the means to resolve their differences or condemn those oppressions he seems to dislike.

That the effort has “surely foundered.” This unexamined and unsupported contention is patently false. It seems to question the triumphs of science, the avatar of modernism. Let those who proclaim modernism’s failure try to forego the benefits of its most muscular project: medical, theoretical, mathematical, technological. On what grounds can postmodernism indict natural science as the royal road to those truths about reality that its methodology supports? I am convinced that three possible sources of this disdain exist for the postmodernist. First, a narrow focus on the failures of the human sciences might deceive a poorly educated observer to consider the human sciences representative of science in general (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). Secondly, an historicist excavation of science’s overreach (of which the human sciences are the detritus) over the last two centuries might mistake the hubris of scientism for the actual activities of today’s natural scientist, which is rather like lumping Comte with Crick (see “The Victorian Rift”). The only areas in which such scientism survives today are the human sciences and popular cosmology. Third, postmodernists might champion some pseudo-science alternative as a means of justifying truth or goodness claims that true science as now defined simply cannot warrant. But in this position as well postmodernism seeks to have it both ways: share in the reflected glory of successful scientific endeavor through the use of arcane terms and fanciful theories without subjecting them to the rigors of the scientific method. True science can never resolve goodness issues; its method forbids judgments based on non-material and non-quantitative factors. Postmodernism, on the other hand, remains true to its roots in philosophy, human science, and pseudo-science and so embraces what seems almost a mockery of scientific trappings in its attachment to philology, psychology, sociology, constructivist education, and the embarrassments of Freudianism and Marxism. How charming that Hart’s weighty, macroscopic condemnation of two centuries of Western thought should merit merely a throwaway line without a shred of warrant! Such an act of intellectual vandalism seems only possible for one either preaching to the choir or from the throne of Peter. But a postmodernist religionist cannot embrace both the postmodern disdain for authority and traditional religious elevation of it.

That reason cannot “inhabit” language. I don’t know what this truth claim means. The metaphorical and poetical preferences of postmodernism are evidence either of intentional misdirection or a self-delusion about the nature of truth. I challenge any reader of Hart’s prose to explain discursively what it means for reason to inhabit language. I don’t know what the words mean. If he means that language can only roughly approximate reasoning, he may have a point, which is why the natural sciences use the language of mathematics to frame and instantiate their truth claims. If he means that non-mathematical language is insufficient to delineate the truths of reality, he certainly has a point, but what of it? The only language capable of revealing the scope of that inadequacy is the language that produces it, so unless he wishes to either find a better means or stop making truth claims about reality that are not mathematical, he should simply remind us that all such claims, including his own, are to be considered as only provisionally true, and not merely because of the insufficiencies of language but more so because of the uncertainty of their warrant. But then Hart seems not to worry about warrant.

That reason “certainly has no other home” than language. I don’t know what this claim means either. It may restate for some reason the one above, or perhaps Hart is gauzily referencing the difficulty of communicating our truth claims to others as opposed to that of framing them for ourselves. Such problems were far more thoughtfully teased out by that early prophet of modernity, Francis Bacon, who appropriately saw them as serious but not fatal impediments to rational examination of experience.

That any attempt by reason to “inhabit” language subjects it to an indefinite deferral of meaning. I also don’t know the meaning of this claim. In what sense is meaning “deferred”? What necessitates such deferral? What would resolve it? If language is inadequate to the task of discursively clarifying or communicating our understanding of reality, how can such an inadequacy ever be resolved? What are we to make of the language of this claim? If Hart is referencing the postmodern insistence that language creates rather than contains meaning, he should say so, though such a charge would destroy rather than defer the denotative function of language, something that may mark Hart’s prose but doesn’t seem to have fatally wounded discursive communication more generally. But I am only guessing as to what this claim means.

That any attempt by reason to “inhabit” language subjects it to a dissemination of signification. I am also guessing on this one. If “dissemination” refers to a democratization of meaning based on culture or other group experience, then I suppose the problem references issues of validity suggested by declaration #4. How postmodernism could resolve such claims befuddles me. Modernism would subject them to logical analysis. Linguistic claims that purport to deconstruct the hidden power relationships between signifier and signified have opened language to a psychological critique that psychology as a science is not equal to, though it has given postmodernists that good old thrill of revelation of hidden agendas so characteristic of human science paradigms. If language is not a clear container into which we pour meaning, it is also not infinitely malleable or used inevitably as a weapon. While it is true that the claim to truth is also a claim to power, the power that ensues derives from the truth rather than the claim itself, for possession of truth confers the potential to choose goods accruing from the accurate comprehension of reality. Nothing nefarious or curtained in that. In the physics sense, power is merely the capability to accomplish work, the first stage of which is discerning what work is to be accomplished. It is no accident that every claim to truth is also a claim to power. It is no evil either.

That such a dissemination of signification is in apposition, “a play of nonsense and absence.”  I don’t understand this contention. Do you? Perhaps a use of language even more figurative than the rest of the sentence?

That such a play causes reason’s attempt to inhabit language always “to subsist in its own aporias.” If verbalized truth claims are always attended by doubt, then I would agree with this claim, for the discursive power of ordinary language will never be up to the task of delineating any element of reality beyond a reasonable doubt. Whether such a shadow of a doubt should disqualify a truth claim from rational consideration is a valid epistemological question, as is the degree of certainty required to validate a truth claim. That such uncertainty accompanies a truth claim is hardly an indictment of a modernism that continually subjected its own claims to precisely this question, the resolution lying in the use of more sophisticated (mathematical) language for certain kinds of issues and increased levels of doubt attached to those less empirical. At any rate, such a charge is hardly either a new one or one modernism has not confronted. One might think a proper response to an unavoidable lack of certainty would be an effort to minimize doubt by increasing rational confidence. But perhaps figurative obfuscation is another way to go.

That such a play causes reason’s attempt to inhabit language always to subsist in “suppression of sense.” I have no idea what this claims. How is “sense” meant? If the thought refers to “sensation” as an alternative to reasoning, then this argument harkens to the entire idealist objection to rationality. This would constitute another macroscopic contention to which millions of words have already been devoted, one disputed by naturalists and their natural science heirs, an argument hardly resolved by another throwaway line that simply assumes without warrant what it also thinks everybody knows. If by “sense” Hart means our faculties for making sensations intelligible, then to argue that the only means we possess to frame our picture of reality does fatal violence to that reality suggests that we can say nothing valid nor reason gainfully, in which case we can stop torturing ourselves with his writing. But I may be maligning Hart beyond his desserts by reading “sense” in either meaning, so I will only malign him for one more muddy expression.

That such a play causes reason’s attempt to inhabit language always to “subsist in contradictions and slippages.” This claim is false, as neither empirical reasoning nor positivism nor even ordinary reasoning about experience is self-refuting. Let postmodernism refute empirical science and the interlocking subject disciplines it has developed, its use of mathematical language to extend reasoning into theory, and its production of working technology. In ordinary language, one can posit logical questions that conduce to self-contradiction, and critics make much of the difficulties posed by Heisenberg to science and Godel to formal reasoning. If this kind of thing is what Hart refers to, let us accept his point for the sake of argument, though doing so means ignoring the success of science. The challenge then lies in positing an alternative to a rational sense of operations that proves more effective at resolving issues of truth, goodness, and beauty. Even more basically, it lies in satisfying Hume’s claim that even reason’s success in divorcing cause and effect ontologically would do nothing to dissuade us from its epistemological necessity. My accepting determinism will not deter me from exercising what I take to be my free will (see “Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing“). And as much as postmodernists condemn reason, they cannot forego it, though Hart demonstrates how their disdain damages their use of it.

That reason’s attempt to “embody itself in history” must result in it at “once becoming irrevocably lost in the labyrinth of time’s interminable contingencies.”If you understand this truth claim, please let me know. I can’t even hazard a guess as to what he means by this one. There seems a bit of a lilt in it, though. Poetry?

That philosophy has “no means of defeating such doubts.” If his mode of thought in this sentence can be charitably described as philosophical, this final assertion seems Hart’s strongest by far, for his presentation is bad philosophy and even worse discursive language. Of course, his own position is not the one he is assailing, and his triumphant flourish at the end of the sentence seems to be the claim that modernism has no means of erasing the doubts raised by postmodernists, doubts poorly alluded to in the sentence under examination. In this he is correct, for the failings of modernism are everywhere to be seen. The cadre of French theorists who nailed the jello of postmodernism to history’s wall in the 1970’s were conducting what they saw as a post-mortem. Though poorly understood at the time, modernism had died on the battlefields of the first World War, or at least a variant of it had. The twentieth century was a miserable and sustained effort to resurrect from the ruins adequate warrants for claims to truth, goodness, and beauty in the face of what was widely perceived as modernism’s failures (For a fuller explanation of this event, please see my book What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful: Challenges to Justification).

But modernism did not die, though it changed, in part in response to academics’ century-long flirtation with postmodernism. Its resilience lay in its relentless self-critique, one that began with the first pitiful attempts by rationalist philosophers attempting to conduct another post-mortem, this one on the cataclysmic collapse of authority in the Reformation. Modernism certainly was never the intellectual bully its critics on the right (religionists nostalgic for a vanished authority) or left (postmodernists sensitive to its hypocrisies and inconsistencies) saw it as being (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). Rather, from its birth in the seventeenth century it was a desperate attempt to warrant truth, goodness, and beauty claims by some consensual means that might bind persons to each other with even a modicum of the force of lost authority, an attempt subject to endless self-criticism and relentless reductionism. Hart for once uses just the right language to describe philosophy’s failure to replace religious authority, for rationalism truly found no means to defeat the objections of its opponents, only to confront and minimize them. Reason and closely examined experience, the warrants modernism advanced, could never offer the certainty of Gnostic claims, nor in the messy amalgamation of Romantic and modernist warrants embraced by Victorians could it counter charges of bad faith and hypocrisy. The enduring appeal of scientism is a current example of modernism’s failure to project a defensible framework of moral justification, and religionists are quick to identify it as a threat, probably because it is rooted in a nostalgia for authority’s lost certainty, such nostalgia characterizing their position in general. Nor has modernism produced clarity in regard to evaluations of quality (for more on its problems with goodness issues, see “Is Goodness Real?”). And it has not risen to the challenge of constructing an unambiguous aesthetic, though Kant laid a solid foundation for that effort (see “Three Portraits“).

Modernism’s struggles are likely to continue. It sloughs off accretions and inconsistencies clumsily and often embarrassingly, as it did the hypocrisies of Victorianism that fueled the postmodern critique. Worse, its failures and its efforts to correct them dominate the zeitgeist. Its demand for rational consistency and honest examination of experience open it to relentless criticism from reactionary advocates of authority and from post-structuralist champions of the virtual circle proclaiming their own warrants for truth and goodness claims.

But neither of these approaches can succeed, for the history of the Reformation laid bare authority’s bankruptcy in the face of challenges from within its mode of warrant. Authority simply cannot resolve disagreement from other authority. Nor can the virtual circle model of postmodernism resolve conflicts among cultures or between individuals except by recourse to coercion. No critic of modernity has been harder on reason as warrant than modernists themselves, and this relentless application of the principle of falsifiability remains our best hope of finding truth in the face of the kind of obscurantism we see in Hart’s cited sentence.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s