A review of Explaining Postmodernism, Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Stephen R.C. Hicks
What is postmodernism? We hear the word all the time, but unless we really make a study of it, it’s just a word to describe a way of thinking that somehow follows modernism. Of course, “modernism” is itself a vaguely-defined word. So if you really want to get a grasp on postmodernism, the thing to do is go out and read a book or two explaining it, right? Isn’t that what we do with most subjects with which we want to become more familiar?
Ah, but postmodernism is different. It’s different because, unlike with most subjects, you can’t really turn to objective assessments of its content, because its content negates (or purports to negate) the possibility of an objective assessment, about postmodernism or anything else. Postmodernism, it turns out, is a loose collection of inconsistent and sometimes strained snippets, sound-bites, shout-downs, left extremism, and subversion of bourgeois attempts at understanding. Postmodernism is a spoiled brat sneering “oh yeah?” Truth is what I say it is, not something out there to be discovered.
That being the case, what Hicks is doing is not really writing an entire book about the content of postmodernist thought. When he says he’s “explaining” postmodernism, he isn’t defining it. He’s explaining how it came about. Much like one would explain an epidemic without presenting the science of the particular disease.
This is evident in his subtitle. It’s obviously a reference to historical development. Rousseau died around the time the United States was born. But he along with Hegel and others, particularly Kant, are pivotal in the development of this particular disease. Michel Foucault, also referred to in the subtitle, is a twentieth-century philosopher, along with the other three horsemen to whom Hicks assigns primary authorship of the insanity: Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and Jean-Francois Lyotard.
All that said, it’s necessary to know something about what postmodernism is, in order to know what the history is pointing to. It’s not enough to just perceive it like a bad smell. We need to at least know something of the symptoms, before the epidemiology will make sense to us. On this score Hicks is not strong, but only because he doesn’t lay out the symptoms clearly until later in the book. You’re expected to know going in, something of what postmodernism looks or smells or sounds like.
The key principles of postmodernism include these. All truth is relative; “truth” is just a word we assign to our own point of view (or to our collective, uber-left point of view); there is no objective truth to be discovered; truth is the result of the power struggle occurring inside a collectivist paradigm, wrongly denominated a social “consensus.” Truth is purely a function of coherency theory, foundationalism was your grandfather’s idea for the source of truth, it is now entirely to be discredited. The collective controls over the individual, in everything. No excuses are to be made by postmodernists for the polemical use of discourse. There is, after all, no discoverable universal, there is only the power struggle.
Here is how Hicks eventually oulines a postmodernist strategy of contradiction in political and cultural discourse, in order to carry the day for hard-left efforts to overthrow our preconceptions of order and liberty:
— On the one hand, all truth is relative; on the other hand, postmodernism tells it like it really is.
— On the one hand, all cultures are equally deserving of respect; on the other, Western culture is uniquely destructive and bad.
— Values are subjective – but sexism and racism are really evil.
— Technology is bad and destructive – and it is unfair that some people have more technology than others.
— Tolerance is good and dominance is bad – but when postmodernists come to power, political correctness follows.
Now to explain the epidemic.
Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment
Hicks cites the pervasive epistemology rooted in reason, as a product of the Enlightenment, without any real re-examination. He moves on from there to cite Kant for his Critique of Pure Reason, among other works, as introducing into philosophy a departure from reason as a way of knowing. According to Hicks, Kant sought to retain some room for religion, because he thought the primacy of reason would push out religion.
By the way, Hicks is wrong about this, make no mistake. Not about Kant’s purpose or methods, necessarily, but about the premise that the demise of religion is inevitable in the light of reason. It’s a common trap for secularists, and understandable if one rejects religion a priori, as Hicks evidently does, leaving no room in his epistemology for divine revelation. But I don’t quibble with the other part of his premise, that the Enlightenment emphasis on discovering natural processes through empirical means has been largely beneficial from the standpoint of material well-being. And we’re on the same team, so to speak, in our disregard for postmodernism, so let’s press on.
By citing Kant’s thinking as pivotal, Hicks is setting up a German counter-Enlightenment. German because Kant was so pivotal, but also because he was followed in this path by Hegel, Fichte, and later, Nietzche and Heidegger. This line of thinkers provided the counter-Enlightenment predecessors to modern-day post-modernists. The four above cited (Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, Lyotard) were all born within a few years of each other in the 20’s and 30’s of the twentieth century, and became influential in the 60’s.
Hicks explores another strain of thought leading to the advent of the postmodernists, this one more tied to political events. Marx was a mid-nineteenth-century thinker, and though his aims were primarily political, he developed a Hegelian philosophical paradigm to support it. It depended on two primary tenets: atheist materialism, and materialist direction to history in man’s struggle for “freedom.” I put “freedom” in quote marks because what that means is eternally debated. Marxism amounts to a leftist illiberalism, which is not typically called fascist, but is certainly in opposition to classical liberalism. Classical liberalism means political freedom for people vis-à-vis the collective, the government. Marxism doesn’t involve that idea of freedom at all. Marxism necessarily employs the state, so whatever one thinks of the “freedom” its adherents pursued, it did not involve freedom from the state.
Classical liberalism did. Classical liberalism was the foundational principle at the founding of the United States. As is all too obvious, it has diminished in force, though still not enough, for postmodernists. Classical liberalism was a principal model of freedom from Enlightenment times, but at mid-19th century was on the decline in the face of leftist illiberalism.
Hicks describes a three-way tension in the 19th and 20th centuries, among Marxism, classical liberalism, and what I’ll call Fascism. Marxist ideology was played out in real life, in the regimes of the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, and many other places. It has famously failed, spectacularly, everywhere it has been tried. Its blood-drenched century of failure had thoroughly discredited Marxism as the manifestation of leftist illiberalism, by the 1960’s.
Similarly, Fascism, or right-wing illiberalism, picked up the body count where the Marxists left off. Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain exemplify what can be thought of as right-wing illiberalism. The point of both left and right illiberalism was that they were in opposition to classical liberalism, which is a conception of freedom that properly sets people against, rather than with, the state.
Though completely discredited by actual application, Marxism as a repository of leftist ideals hung on, tenaciously, but that can’t go on forever. It’s ludicrous for anyone of sound mind to attach their leftist tendencies to Marxism any longer. The postmodernists rode to the rescue. This is perhaps a bit oversimplified, but so be it: postmodernism is today’s left answer to yesterday’s Marxism.
Postmodernism as Collectivism
One thing Hicks does very well is explain that postmodernism is irreducibly collectivist. The leftist collectivist instinct very much drives the postmodern worldview. It is no accident that postmodernists are uniformly leftist. Classical liberals (modern-day political conservatives in the US) are not. They preserve the individualist opposition to the state, and grasp the virtues of preserving individualism as a matter of their vision of freedom. So they are in irreconcilable conflict with postmodernists. Those whose epistemology harkens back to Enlightenment reason stand on one side of a great divide (the right side, naturally) and those who throw over reason for an epistemology free of objective truth stand on the other (the left).
Postmodernism is not all about Duchamp’s urinal. It is a system of thought that is a kind of anti-thought. While reading Hicks, I kept thinking of Roger Scruton’s exasperation at the philosophical nihilism of postmoderns. I commented on some of Scruton’s work here. I can think of no better way to sum up the right reaction to postmodernism, than to quote Scruton again:
“A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”