Friday, December 14, 2007

A Problem for Postmodernism

Consider the following dilemma discussed by David Detmer, in his Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Politics of Truth. Those who call for a rejection of rational inquiry must either do so in conformity to the principles of rationality or not. These principles include consistency, commitment to fact, and the basic tenets of logic. If they call for this rejection in conformity with these principles, then their arguments are self-referentially inconsistent (because, for example, they would be employing logic in their case for the claim that we should abandon logic). On the other hand, if they do not call for this rejection in conformity with the principles of rationality, then they should not be taken seriously unless they offer a developed alternative framework. Simply asserting that truth is perspectival or a social construct is insufficient. Given that such an offer has not been forthcoming, it follows that we should remain committed to the principles of rational inquiry.


Anonymous said...

I frequently hear about 'post-modernists' who are guilty of such self-refuting nonsense, but I've never read or met one. Is there anyone specifically that you're thinking of here, or are you just critiquing the naive 'postmodernism' of those first-year undergrads whose only philosophical training consists of (mis)reading Brian McLaren?

Mike Austin said...

Detmer's book contains numerous examples, but I'll give you just one of them here, from Tom Bridges, "Modern Political Theory and the Multivocity of Postmodern Critical Discourses," Inquiry (1991): 3, 7.
Here's what he says:
"The failure of the Enlightenment project is by now simply a fact.
...Of course there are still many in our midst who out of misunderstanding, habit and resistance to change routinely make claims to objective knowledge of history and nature."
There is more, but this is enough. The declaration that the failure of the Enlightenment is a historical fact certainly seems like a claim of truth and knowledge, about history.

Eric said...

While I am probably sympathetic toward critiques of pomo, I am not sure what to think of this critique. I have presented this critique before to adherents of pomo, and they weem to think it misses the point in some way. I think there is something odd, and I have never tried hard to put my finger on it, about self-referential incoherence (SRI for short) refutations. One of the classic ones is Anselm's refutation of the atheist. According to Anselm's explanation, to utter "God does not exist" is to utter a kind of SRI. A more recent example is Plantinga's arguments against the conjunction of evolution and naturalism. In fact, reading Plantinga is where I learned the great SRI philosophical tool While I tend to think that coherence and truth are connected, I just haven't thought how that relates to my belief that Jesus was God and human, that a dead man rose from the dead, that God became incarnate. So of those (and I haven't thought deeply about this) seem dang close to SRI, and yet I am not quite ready to abandon them. Maybe what I do is to hold those beliefs with less dogmatism? Yes, maybe that is it. And then that would be close in theme and attitude to pomo. An adherent of pomo, when presented with the SRI against it, just has to hold pomo beliefs with less dogmatism, and wouldn't that be more consistent (as if pomos cared about consistency!) with other core pomo commitments?