Current Events, History/Culture

Explaining Postmodernism

Originally Published on Bionic Mosquito

In listening to Jordan Peterson over the last few months, he has often commented on the destructive philosophy of post-modernism, a philosophy that – in his view – is the force behind the cultural destruction underway in the west.

Prior to hearing this from him, my knowledge on the matter went to the cultural Marxists of the Frankfurt School and, before this, Antonio Gramsci.  Peterson is aware of these influences, but for him the Post-Modernists are today’s driving force.

What is meant by postmodernism?

Postmodernism is difficult to define, because to define it would violate the postmodernist’s premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist.

Are nationalism, politics, religion, and war the result of a primitive human mentality? Is truth an illusion? How can Christianity claim primacy or dictate morals? The list of concerns goes on and on….

It seems both an infinite number of realities and no realities – all at the same time.  No wonder it is difficult to define.

I have been thinking about this post from the first time I heard the subject mentioned by Peterson.  Even setting aside the normal life that often gets in the way of writing, this has been a subject that I have had to let stew in the old noodle for a while.  I offer the following as an initial foray into a subject that I do not yet understand very well.

I have found a few helpful resources on the topic and will reference two of these in this post.  With this, let’s begin.

Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Stephen R. C. Hicks, a book review by David Gordon

A more thorough definition and explanation of this philosophy:

…Hicks tells us exactly what he means by postmodernism: “Metaphysically, postmodernism is anti-realist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality. Epistemologically, having rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring direct knowledge of that reality. . . . Postmodern accounts of human nature are consistently collectivist, holding that individuals’ identities are constructed largely by the social-linguistic groups they are a part of . . . postmodern themes in ethics and politics are characterized by an identification with and sympathy for the groups perceived to be oppressed in the conflicts, and a willingness to enter the fray on their behalf” (emphasis in original).

While there may be some differences between the postmodernists and the cultural Marxists, it seems the objectives are quite similar – use identity politics (“groups perceived to be oppressed”) in order to destroy western culture and tradition and, hence, bring on their socialist paradise.

Hicks tells us that the “names of the postmodern vanguard are now familiar: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty. They are its leading strategists.”

All are French except Rorty, for whatever that is worth.  Derrida and some of the other French advocates are or were affiliated with the Collège international de philosophie:

The Collège international de philosophie (Ciph), located in Paris’ 5th arrondissement, is a tertiary education institute placed under the trusteeship of the French government department of research and chartered under the French 1901 Law on associations. It was co-founded in 1983 by Jacques Derrida, François Châtelet, Jean-Pierre Faye and Dominique Lecourt in an attempt to re-think the teaching of philosophy in France, and to liberate it from any institutional authority (most of all from the University). Its financing is mainly through public funds.

The college offers no degrees, it has few students, and attendance is open and free.  Why it deserves to exist, I cannot explain.  Therefore, this leads one to consider cynical possibilities.

Returning to Gordon’s review:

[Hicks] proceeds to ask an insightful question: what is the appeal of these irrational views to contemporary intellectuals?

A fair question.  And the answer:

Leftist intellectuals during most of the twentieth century looked to socialism as a secular equivalent of salvation.

This has only grown in the twenty-first century.

The socialist intellectuals were in a quandary. They ought rationally to have abandoned their views, since their doctrine was fallacious in theory and disastrous in practice; but rationality is not a trait much in evidence among the socialistically inclined. If reason speaks against socialism, is not the solution obvious: out with reason! If reason provides no access to reality, but is rather a mask for power, the critique of socialism is disabled.

The problem with looking to socialism today is that in order to make an omelet, one must find a Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or Kim Il Sung to be the cook.  This isn’t stopping the intellectuals.

Hicks points to Rousseau as the intellectual source for the post-modernists:

He did not celebrate civilization, but deplored its onset. “There is an inverse relationship between cultural and moral development: Culture does generate much learning, luxury, and sophistication—but learning, luxury, and sophistication all cause moral degradation.” The unfortunate rise of reason drove humans from their simple, primitive life.

Remove the one thing that makes man different from the apes, and what are you left with?  I take that back: apes maintain, and do not destroy, the attributes that have sustained them.

Next is a Jordan Peterson video, Identity politics and the Marxist lie of white privilege.  I do not have a transcript, so what is identified as from Peterson is merely paraphrased; any errors between Peterson’s views and the following cites are mine.

The objective of postmodernism is to bring on communism: Marx’s way didn’t work. Postmodernism is a way to bring on Marxism under a new guise.

As I mentioned, I see this as the same objective held by the cultural Marxists.  What I struggle is to understand is the difference in the means.  Both are after destroying what is known generally as western culture and tradition; both do so for the same ends.

For postmodernism, the white patriarchy is the target.

The most natural, longest-lasting form of voluntary governance is the family.  For humans, tradition (certainly in the west) is a family led by the male.  This leaves the “white” part of the target.

I cannot speak with any meaningful understanding of non-western cultures and traditions.  I do understand the western (i.e. “white”) tradition reasonably well.  It is certain that the idea of the value of the individual has strong roots in the western tradition; it is certain that the idea of the value of liberty has strong roots in the western tradition.  My hypothesis is that it is for these reasons that “white” is a characteristic of the target.

Peterson points to where the postmodernists are right:

There are an infinite number of interpretations to the world.  This is true, but only partly true!

Where they are wrong:

It is true that there are an infinite number of interpretations to the world; but there aren’t an infinite number of viable interpretations.  You can’t have an interpretation that leads to death, damage, agony, and pain.

For which, of course, we have overwhelming evidence that demonstrates clearly that the socialist interpretation leads to death, damage, agony and pain.

The viable interpretation must be life-affirming right now and across time, for you and your family and future generations.

We are told that communism would work if we only found the right leader.  History gives us something like 20 communist countries, past and present – this, if you count the Soviet Union and its controlled eastern-European satellites as one.  None of these had the right leader?

There are hardly any viable interpretations.  Why?  “You do what I tell you” requires force.

What is likely to happen when you tell a population to give up their property and give their life to “the people”?  Whatever it is, it isn’t good.

When we agree about the interpretation, there is peace.

It is an interesting point; it points to a common culture – but not just any common culture – as the number of viable possibilities is not infinite.

Whatever my displeasures and complaints about the west (truly, the governments in the west), it is a reasonable proposition to suggest that those of us in the west today are living in a pretty good time and place in history.  How did it get this way?

The interpretation we have has been filtered by millennia – what works, what doesn’t work.  When we find something that doesn’t work, we improve it.

Peterson finds the roots of our interpretation captured in the first few chapters of the Bible.  He offers a lecture series, The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories.  In this series, he examines the earliest stories – Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, etc.  It runs about 30 hours – a worthwhile investment in time if this subject is of interest to you.

This isn’t good enough for the postmodernists:

The postmodernists don’t work to improve what doesn’t work – they want to destroy the whole thing.

What is it that they want to destroy?

“They don’t like inequality.  Well who does?  ‘I’m against poverty!’  DUH!”

That one is pretty close to a direct quote.  The issue is: what do you do about it?

But there are real differences among people.

Which suggests that there will always be inequality.  To get past this problem, the postmodernists start lumping people together into groups; big surprise – it is all of the groups that aren’t white and male and patriarchs that must be propped up.

This is pushed under the name of diversity.  Peterson finds the current means of achieving diversity (group identity) to be fallacious – on many levels.  For example:

There are more differences within groups than between groups.  The idea that there are more differences between groups is the fundamental racist idea.

Yes, but to come to this conclusion one would have to accept reason.

You can get plenty of diversity without focusing on the “group.”

A business has an objective to get the “right” amount of diversity – in thought, ideas, counter-opinions, etc. – and this can all be achieved without focusing on the group identity.

A side note:

Apple’s diversity chief is stepping down after only six months on the job — after causing an outcry by saying that being a minority or a woman are not the only criteria for diversity, according to reports.

Keep in mind: the diversity chief is a minority and a woman.

“There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation,” the inaugural diversity chief said.

I need some hot chocolate.

“Diversity is the human experience,” she said, according to Quartz. “I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is tagged to the people of color, or the women, or the LGBT.”

And a teddy-bear.

Returning to Peterson:

Social status and payment (in a free society) is based more on competence than power.  But when a person in a hierarchy acts like their position entitles them to power, the society begins to corrupt.  The misuse of power leads to the corruption of society.

He offers Harvey Weinstein, but the list is long.  And, for this reason,  society is corrupt.

Is it white privilege or majority privilege?  Is it white privilege in China?  This is culture, nothing more.

It’s not about white privilege.  It is about destroying the culture (and I have given my view about why the target is the “white” culture).  When you destroy the culture – with all of its traditional and reasonably voluntary governance structures (e.g. the patriarchy, church, etc.), who or what is left to govern?

A gold star if you know the correct answer.

Conclusion

From Peterson:

Why are they choosing the differences that they choose?  Why not other differences – there are an infinite number of “groups” and categories of people.  Eventually, taken to its logical conclusion, the individual is the ultimate minority.

But reaching a logical conclusion would require reason….  Peterson should pay more attention in class!

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