An Old Intellectual “Failure of Nerve” Shows Again

By | August 24, 2010

Recently I have had come contact with students of philosophy who embrace strange forms of “pop philosophy” in which subjective relativism and irrationalism are presented as solutions to an alleged narrow, limited perspective of the sciences and rational philosophy. Any casual glance at historical and current trends in philosophies shows us that this rush to the irrational is nothing new.

Historically this irrationalist yearning was part of the religious opposition to rational, skeptical philosophy; and then part of the Romantic writer’s reaction to the rational trend of the Enlightenment. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some aspects of the existentialist perspective picked up the same theme.

Some philosophers — either precursors to existentialism, e.g. Kierkegaard, or part of the ‘existentialist’ trend, such as Heidegger, express a strong anti-scientific attitude. Sometimes this takes the form of the assertion that truth as subjectivity (Kierkegaard) and in other places it is a strong denial that science and reason can give us objective truth (Heidegger). This attitude, which strongly rejects the ideals of the Enlightenment, is also found in the relativism of the some so-called ‘post-modernist’ philosophers.

Psychologist and cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, writing in his insightful book, The Blank Slate, gives an informative summary of the philosophy of the post-modernist trend. He sees in Postmodernism “the abandonment of Enlightenment confidence in the achievement of objective human knowledge through reliance upon reason . . .” Pinker notes that socio-biologist E.O. Wilson characterized postmodernistic philosophy

“…as the polar antithesis of the Enlightenment; …[whereas] enlightenment thinkers believed that we can know everything, radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing.”

According to Wilson,

“postmodernists challenge the very foundations of science and traditional philosophy. … [They see] …reality as a state created by the mind, not perceived by it. In the most extravagant version of this constructivism, there is no “real” reality, no objective truths external to mental activity, only prevailing versions disseminated by ruling social groups.(40)

In short, here we have an assertion of subjective relativism in matters related to “truth.”

Matt Cherry, writing in the magazine Free Inquiry (Fall 1998), tells us that

“postmodernism questions accepted standards and emphasizes how social context affects beliefs and theories. It therefore tries to “deconstruct” the assumptions underlying truth claims, and it encourages openness to the points of view outside the mainstream.”

He also points out that

postmodernist thinkers go much further than simply stressing the difficulty of getting at the truth. They reject the very notion of “truth” itself. They argue that there is no “objective knowledge” and no “facts,” only personal interpretation, and that “reason” and “science” are no better than any other “myth,” “narrative,” or “magical explanation.”

(FI, fall 1998, page 20)}

So, according to the postmodernist, there is no objective knowledge, only specific culturally conditioned ways of talking about reality and specific culturally-based theories of reality.

Steven Pinker finds the same relativistic philosophy in George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984. There the regime presents a philosophy which is equivalent to the postmodernistic view. The philosophy of the regime

“.. is explained to Winston Smith by the government agent O’Brien. When Winston objects that the Party cannot realize its slogan, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” O’Brien replies:
You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal.

O’Brien admits that for certain purposes, such as navigating the ocean, it is useful to assume that the Earth goes around the sun and that there are stars in distant galaxies. But, he continues, the Party could also use alternative astronomies in which the sun goes around the Earth and the stars are bits of fire a few kilometers away. And though O’Brien does not explain it in this scene, Newspeak is the ultimate “prisonhouse of language,” a “language that thinks man and his ‘world.’ “

(Pinker, p.426)

Those who embrace the current trend in “Pop Philosophies” – with their confused notions of subjective truth and the value of irrationalism – should be aware of their companion travelers in this rush to irrationalism.

3 thoughts on “An Old Intellectual “Failure of Nerve” Shows Again

  1. Firooz R Oskooi

    Isn't postmodernism explained above the same as Platos "shadows on the wall" ? Also it reminds me of an example that someone was insisting that truth is only subjective and in your mind and has no existence outside! The listener's arguements and reason was to no avail. Finally, he slapped the person on the face and said, it is all in your mind and I didn't slap you! So, it takes two to tango my friend.

  2. philosophylnge

    The notion that there is no reality beyond subjective interpretations of reality is simply a silly notion. I'm always surprised at the number of people, not just postmodernists, who take it seriously. Of course, they assert it using a language which — insofar as it is a public language used by a number of speakers and listeners — presupposes a public, objective world. But the proponents of subjectivism – who embrace some form of irrational relativism – deny this public, objective world while standing in it, interacting with it as we all do. Isn't this when 'philosophy' becomes comedy?


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