Explaining Postmodernism to Analytics Without Rorty, But Lyotard?

In this post, I have detailed some aspects of a chapter for my Scheler book, Being and Value in Scheler: A Phenomenological Defense of Participatory Realism. This section is the expository introduction (or as much time I have to devote to purely expository efforts since the book is pitched “across the Analytic and Continental Divide”). The question I will put to the larger blogosphere is simply: Do you think my exposition cuts ice? Does it work?

1.1 What is Postmodernism?


Magritte’s Treachery of Postmodernism

Some years ago, I attended a dinner party put on by an unnamed psychologist. She is in her years and has been teaching for more than two decades. She made a quip against what she called “postmodernism,” diagnosed it as part of larger divide between her scientific approach to truth and what she saw in the work her colleagues in the humanities. These quips are quite common: “postmodernism says that all truth is relative,” or that “truth is historical only.” If postmodernism amounts to a type of relativism or historicism, then how can it really help know and describe the world around us? At this time, I claimed the difference between phenomenology and postmodernism consisted in their treatment of truth. Needless to say, this claim was partly true, depending upon how one might conceive of both.

What I should have said is that there is nothing exactly like postmodernism simpliciter. The caricatures some maintain about their opponents are rarely ever accurate, and the caricature inspired by philosophers to those outside are extremely inaccurate. In this situation and numerous like it, postmodernism is a fancy term of art; mostly the term is used by those outside philosophy to generalize several French thinkers without coming to know their work in detail. Like William James’s idea of truth, however, postmodern thought is more than what its opponents report it to be. The deconstructionism of Derrida, the Foucault’s genealogy, and Lyotard’s death of metanarrative are all singular skeptical efforts. Better put, there are many postmodernisms, and these postmodernisms are skeptical about one or several aspects of philosophy’s pretension to think universally about what is really real. As such, Lyotard’s eventual “incredulity for metanarratives” cuts two ways. First, postmodernism is skeptical about knowing reality, but also having access to reality itself as an object for speculation. For Derrida, the target is metaphysical language; for Foucault, the target is subjectivity and power; and for Lyotard, the target is the cultural conditions of scientific inquiry itself, which by itself could absorb and subsume both Foucault and Derrida’s versions (and the reason why I pay a little attention to it here).

In each philosopher, the “postmodern project” shifts depending on the target of that discourse. To boil down these specific projects to the overall implication of what those discourses might say about truth is simply a distortion of their overwhelming complexity and beauty—even if we fundamentally disagree with them. In analytic philosophy, the parallel might be thinking that while cultural relativism in ethics leads to the classical difficulties we all teach but, surely, Gilbert Harman’s 1976 paper Moral Relativism Defended is a more refined and sophisticated piece than the relativism we teach in our introductory ethics classes. The same is true about any of the postmodern theorists.

Needless to say, one could ask am I guilty of the same distortions if I understand postmodernism as a form of anti-realism? Yet, I put to my readers that this is why I define the various postmodernisms as skeptical efforts about one or more aspects of philosophy’s pretension to think universally about what is really real. In Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, a concentrated interrogation of Lyotard’s Preface can introduce elements common enough to the various other thinkers, enough to set the stage for engaging in a lengthy discussion of Caputo’s ethics soon to follow. First, I will make some distinctions to refine our understanding of postmodernism itself.

1.2 Distinguishing the Complexity of Postmodern Critiques

Postmodernism can be divided into two distinctions: postmodern epistemological anti-realism and postmodern metaphysical anti-realism. Postmodern epistemological anti-realism is the view that epistemic agents cannot claim to know anything outside their own lived-contexts, and as such, knowing what there is created and bound to those same lived-contexts. In postmodern metaphysical anti-realism, the metaphysical thesis is that the only things that exist are the projects and fabrics of lived-contexts. The fabric of reality is a woven construction of mind-dependent factors inhering in lived-contexts. For both Lyotard (and Caputo to follow), they are both postmodern epistemological anti-realists and postmodern metaphysical anti-realists.[1] From the fact that human beings are bound to metanarratives in terms of knowing also indicates that we have no access to reality itself apart from them in Lyotard.

In Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, Lyotard develops a conception of postmodernism as a report on the status of knowledge in the post-industrial age from the 1950s even until today.[2] In this way, his work could be understood as either a particular discourse in either social epistemology or the philosophy of science, but more broadly, his work could capture the spirit under which the other French thinkers might embrace. Ultimately, however, Lyotard’s project amounts to a type of sociology of knowledge about science as it is practiced in today’s ethos. Specifically, science seeks truth within its own discourse, but the legitimation of science, its contents, theories and practices is what Lyotard defines as philosophy.[3] Furthermore, Lyotard defines the modern “any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative.”[4] For example, Kant’s first critique provides the possible conditions of possible knowledge such that it legitimates Newtonian mechanics. Put another way, Kant’s transcendental critique defends why we experience objects of experience that Newtonian mechanics studies. In another example, Descartes removes the uncertainty about God and souls from 17th century natural philosophy’s domain in the res extensa, securing certainty of their existence in a realm untouchable by physics in his res cogitans. The grand/meta narrative is that which grounds and motivates a particular discourse. The ground and motivation are often implicit in a discourse and only after some reflective distance has been gained from a particular discourse’s the implicit details do we even become aware of how those implicit details –the metanarrative – become operative. What is implicit is brought to the surface. Lyotard attributes several examples to this role historically: the dialects of spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working class, or the creation of wealth.[5] One could easily imagine Hegel, Gadamer, Kant, Marx, or Smith in those examples.`

By contrast to the modern, the postmodern is “an incredulity toward metanarratives.”[6] Each metanarrative is an apparatus of legitimation that justifies the sciences at that particular historical moment. The purpose of what Lyotard labels postmodern knowledge is in the cultivated “sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.”[7] In this way, the postmodern condition explains the condition under which information is controlled since the practices of legitimation are interlinked with the normative problems of ethics and politics. For Lyotard, the interlinkage between science and values (ethics and politics) “stem from the same perspective, the same ‘choice’ if you will, the choice of the Occident.”[8] By that “choice,” The West (since Plato) has always linked the normativity of what is just with the expectations of what knowledge can serve. The metaphysical and epistemological projects are tied to the social dimensions of knowledge and power—“revealing that knowledge and power are two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is and who knows what needs to be decided?”[9] In addition, since both metaphysical and epistemological efforts can secure the social dimensions of knowledge and power, this inextricability of the social underlies both metaphysics and epistemology, and that provides evidence to the view established above, namely, that Lyotard is both a postmodern epistemological anti-realist and a postmodern metaphysical anti-realist.

Lyotard’s method for assessing the condition of postmodernism is Wittgenstein’s conception of a language game. For him, there are three features of language games and these features best elicit how the social dimensions of knowledge and power are at play in any particular discourse. First, the rules of language games are by no means insular; “they do not carry the within themselves their own legitimation.”[10] Second, “if there are no moral rules, then there is no game.”[11] In other words, even a slight modification of the tiniest rule changes the nature of the language game and if the participant makes a move not beholden to the current rules, then that participant is not playing that particular language game. Finally, “every utterance should be thought of as a ‘move’ in a language game.”[12] In other words, every utterance made in written and spoken form takes place within a specific language game, in a particular discourse interlinked to the dimensions of knowledge and power.

[1] I really have to thank J. Aaron Simmons of Furman University for a discussion on this point.

[2] Jean-François Lyotard’s, Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 3.

[3] Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiii.

[4] Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiii.

[5] Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiii.

[6] Lyotard, Postmodernism, xxiv.

[7] Lyotard, Postmodernism xxv.

[8] Lyotard, Postmodernism, 8.

[9] Lyotard, Postmodernism, 9.

[10] Lyotard, Postmodernism, 10.

[11] Lyotard, Postmodernism, 10.

[12] Lyotard, Postmodernism, 10.


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