|Montreal, December 15, 2004 / No 149
by Edward W.Younkins
Many of today's leading intellectuals are postmodernists who accede to the ideas of anti-realism, skepticism, subjectivism, relativism, pragmatism, collectivism, egalitarianism, altruism, anti-individualism, the world as conflictual and contradictory, and emotions, instincts, and feelings as better and deeper guides to action than reason. The roots of the above ideas and to postmodernism can be traced to a number of thinkers including, but not limited to: Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Fichte, Dewey, Freud, Quine, Popper, Kuhn, Foucault, and Derrida(1).
Words as rhetorical weapons
Proponents of postmodernism, the most active intellectual movement of the late 20th century, have replaced reality with subjective and noncommensurable social-linguistic constructs that vary across conflicting groups based on dimensions such as sex, ethnicity, race, religion, and wealth. The language and logic of each group is seen to be a function of its own conventional internal system. Given the postmodernist view that there is no connection of language to a non-linguistic reality, words are to be used as rhetorical weapons in a battle of competing wills involving the coercive assertion of each group's interests. All words, concepts, and claims to truth can be deconstructed in a never-ending process in which each narrow subdivision of the human species vies to attain social power. Deconstruction has the effect of destroying (and thereby equalizing) the meaning and value of all truth claims. Because postmodernists view reason as subjective and as unable to know reality, they are not concerned about truth, consistency, and the existence of logical contradictions.
According to postmodernism, reality is socially constructed and pluralism is a fact of life. Postmodernists exhibit disbelief in metanarratives in a myriad of areas such as literary criticism, political theory, music, architecture, etc. They display disdain for the modern ideas of rationality, linear progress, and one right way to do things. Postmodernists find fault with systems of thought that try to explain the world, its social and natural laws, its true morality, the path of history, and the nature of the human person, in universal terms that apply equally to all people in all times and places.
Postmodernism tends to revolve around the following themes: (1) the attainment of universal truth is impossible; (2) no ideas or truths are transcendent; (3) all ideas are culturally or socially constructed; (4) historical facts are unimportant and irrelevant; and (5) ideas are true only if they benefit the oppressed. Postmodernists generally use Marxist rationale and concepts (e.g., oppression, inequality, revolution, and imperialism) to attack and discredit American culture.
A fixed, universal reality
Postmodernism brings metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, and ethics to an end because these types of study assume a fixed, universal reality. Postmodernism denies the basis for knowing anything except itself. Consequently, postmodernists proclaim a universal tolerance of all ideas. Ironically, the result is a philosophy that accepts only local truths (rather than universal truths), thereby dividing people according to race, gender, locality, etc. The result of this division is an intolerance that is exhibited in racism, sexism, nationalism, etc. When various peoples' truths are different depending upon the differences between them, then the differences between them cannot be overlooked – they are too important.
Postmodernism encompasses the idea that people tell stories in order to explain the world. None of these stories is reality but are simply representations of reality based on incomplete and often inaccurate information. There are a variety of socially constructed realities, belief systems, and stories that attempt to explain the world. People construct stories that seem to fit the information at their disposal. This is analogous to Thomas Kuhn's idea of paradigm shifts in science. When experiments yield evidence that does not fit the reigning paradigm, then eventually a new paradigm that better explains the evidence at hand is adopted.
Postmodernism can be evidenced in the following instances. Some scientists believe that there is no one self; rather the self is a changing socially constructed reality. Other scientists now contend that one of the brain's functions is to tell stories (even with only few facts and frequently without the use of logic) in an effort to make sense of the world. Literary criticism is thought by many to find meaning in the reader's experience – the reader creates the book's reality. In turn, literary deconstructionists debate the idea of representing anything with words. Postmodernists tend to view the world as theater in which we are all competing spin-meisters. For example, political leaders try to get their story told by the media and believed by the people. In law, many scholars dismiss the idea of permanent legal principles. In psychology, a method for treating people involves the creation of a new life story for them (i.e., putting a different spin on their circumstances).
Postmodernists are unified in their repudiation of universal truths. They then depart from their commonality to join various factions in order to participate in the debate. Deconstructionists try to devalue and dismantle the logic by which a specific system of thought preserves its integrity. Deconstructionists claim that words are inadequate for defining reality. They argue that language, particularly in written form, intercedes between the reader and the ideas.
According to deconstructionists, everything is simply perspectival appearance and there is not a fixed way of discerning linguistic meaning. It follows that when critics analyze a work of literature, they do not analyze what the writer originally meant but rather what the reader interprets from the work.
Deconstructionists, as critics of text and language, try to understand how the media and vocabulary used to represent ideas fail to mean the same thing to all people. As the idea of author has lost its significance, there is no longer a need to determine what the meaning was in its original context. Instead, the reader's context becomes paramount.
After the idea of objective and attainable truth has been discredited as myth, there is no longer confidence in truth that is obtainable through reason. Deconstructionists argue that reason is simply an attempt at "metanarrative" (i.e., an attempt to control societal values). Literature and language become means of promoting ideology as each group represents its own worldview. They become means for enforcing a specific ideology on others for the purpose of exploitation.
Constructionists, realizing that we can't universally know objective reality, contend that we can construct or define it in any manner we choose. Then there are the pragmatists who contend that the lack of universal truths is sufficient reason to retreat to one's own local community – people should stay with the beliefs and concepts that they are capable of knowing, those natural to their own cultural group.
A response to the failure of socialism
Postmodernists are constantly redefining themselves and are searching for new meaning. As problem finders and problem solvers, they tend to reduce life (and especially political and social issues) to problems and solutions. They also like to engage in zero-base thinking, dismissing the systemically evolved knowledge of the ages.
Postmodernism is the irrational response of today's intellectuals to the failure of socialism both in theory and in practice. It is through the doctrine of postmodernism that these thinkers and politicians can continue their beliefs in many of the ideas that underpinned the failed worldview of socialism. Postmodernism embodies the most distressing and detrimental conditions that Ayn Rand observed and predicted about contemporary and future society(2).
There has been a steady erosion of the doctrines upon which America was founded including the ideas that: (1) the material world is an orderly, intelligible, natural domain that is open to man's mind and (2) man's rational mind is able to attain objective knowledge of reality. In the place of these ideas we are increasingly finding the postmodern views that: (1) reason is impotent and (2) the world is unknowable, contingent, ungrounded, unstable, and indeterminate. As a result, there is a desperate need to educate, persuade, and convert individuals to a pro-reason, reality-based view of man and the world.