Bleg: Defense of Post-modernism

My understanding of post-modernism is based pretty much on what I have read from its critics. What is the best defense of post-modernism that is out there?

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22 Responses to Bleg: Defense of Post-modernism

  1. Charmides says:

    Deirdre McCloskey’s work?

  2. Handle says:

    Not exactly the best argument of the original article postmodernism, but a good indication of where things went after that and how we got to where we are today: Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

  3. Adam Gurri says:

    The problem with the question, which is also the problem with most critiques of post-modernism, is that post-modernism is not one thing. To ask for a defense of it is like asking for a defense of continental philosophy; the latter is a catch-all term for a wide array of thinkers some of whom are completely opposed in both substance and method, and some who are so different in their focus as to be utterly uncomparable.

    Postmodernism can mean, off the top of my head, hermeneutics, deconstruction, gender theory, or whatever one might call Foucault.

    If you are seriously interested in a readable account of one kind of postmodernism, I would suggest Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class?

    Another short, interesting, and readable book is Adam Sandel’s The Place of Prejudice.

  4. andrewknorr says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading Contingency Irony Solidarity by Rorty (essays), Confidence Games by Mark Taylor, and Beyond the Brillo Box by Danto, and We have never been modern by Latour.

  5. Inc says:

    As luck would have it, I read this today. It is maybe not a defense so much as an interesting explanation.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    Going along with what Adam Gurri said, there are lots of postmodernisms, and in some sense “we are all postmodernists now.” Dierdre (writing as Donald) McCloskey’s “The Rhetoric of Economics” (21 Journal of Economic Literature 481-517 (June, 1983) probably doesn’t say much that you would disagree with. On the other hand, I think there is some silliness/overstatement mixed in with the useful in Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics (1994).

    I tend to think of good postmodernism and bad postmodernism. Good postmodernism is just realism. No, scientists aren’t disinterested seekers of truth. Yes, incentives and ideology within a science influence what results are published and accepted. It is impossible to pin down exactly what many terms mean; often they only have meaning within a particular system of thought. Science is a social process. Etc.

    And then there is bad postmodernism. Science is nothing but a social process.

    • Adam says:

      100% agree. The label “post-modernism” is specifically framing it in terms of the critiques of modernism, especially of the Neo-Kantian and positivist variety. But the various post-modernisms developed into legitimate schools of thought in their own right.

    • Adam says:

      Here’s a good example of Roger’s point about how we are all post-modernists: economists’ tendency to treat models instrumentally rather than as representations of literal truth is pretty postmodern. Furthermore, Arnold’s argument that economics is about using particular frameworks as lenses for interpretation is also quite postmodern.

      • Handle says:

        Maybe it’s quibbling, but I don’t think it’s accurate to describe the way Kling thinks as ‘postmodern’.

        I see the modern epistemic progression as something like this:

        1. Mere positivism / modernism: the metaphysical rejection of theism in favor of empiricism, and the distinction of claims into those that are rationally justifiably from those that aren’t.

        2. Overconfident positivism: I suppose one could say that these are the folks who had a naively huge estimation of the space of things which can be known with high confidence, but more importantly, the space of real outcomes which could engineered and rationally constructed with that knowledge. These people were also too trusting in the purity of the investigatory processes of knowledge production and their ability to overcome various human-derived failure modes.

        3. Postmodernism in general: Making all kinds of criticisms of the flawed overconfident positivism, mostly based on social considerations and linguistics, some of which were valid and judiciously limited to those real flaws, but many of which reached to (or implied) absurd and unjustified conclusions which were claimed to undermine the foundation of any other claims of knowledge.

        4. Positivist Realism (aka: post-post-modernism). After the dust settled from phase three – an ongoing process – modern public intellectuals outside of soft fields seem more focused on the study of the origin of the valid criticisms of Roger’s “good post-modernism” and mostly uninterested in the past abstruse and convoluted works of intractable postmodern philosophizing. That is, there is more acceptance and study of the practical limits of knowledge and discourse about complex topics (i.e. those with high causal density), and the ‘social failure modes’ that plague any human attempt at an authoritative knowledge production process.

        I see Kling in category 4, which is simply too distinct in character and perspective from the overall zeitgeist of the postmodernist heyday to fairly be given the same label.

        I should note how hard it is to tell this story without getting into various moral and ideological matters associated with the evolution of progressivism and its interaction with real-world politics during this period.

        Many of these acted as both a kind of effective constraint and unprincipled exception to the logic of postmodernism, and the prominent figures had to work very hard at the pretense of being able to bridge the Humean gap and hand waving these problems away in the pretense that they didn’t exist.

        • Handle says:

          I should also add that there was a parallel sequence of intellectual movements in the theory of law and jurisprudence which shares much of the same character moving from extreme positions regarding the appropriate degree of cynicism and shamelessness, to something which could be called “Realistic Realism” these days.

          That is, judicial institutions aren’t either perfect or hopelessly corrupt, and that some systems seem to be better than others, and we’re currently trying to separate the baby from the bathwater, while recognizing that the players in the game are also going to try and nudge things in the direction of their agenda under the cover story of neutral, disinterested analysis.

        • Adam says:

          I think your characterization of 4 as a distinct thing is fair; it’s a response to post-modernism as much as post-modernism was a response to modernism.

          It’s worth noting that most of the big post-modernists weren’t primarily aimed at 2 per se, though those were their contemporaries (or the most influential among the generation before them). A great deal of post-modernism goes right back to aim at 1, and rightly so. The epistemologies developed by continental rationalists after Descartes _and_ British empiricists after Bacon and Locke were garbage. Though group 4 has done much to modify these frameworks, you can still frequently see some premises looming at least as motivating forces in the background that ought to have been done away with a long time ago.

  7. John Hamilton says:

    For any topic in philosophy, I would begin with the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

  8. Patrick Laske says:

    Jean Baudrillard’s works from the 1980s are readable. You might like ‘America’, which is kind of like a postmodern update to Tocqueville, or ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ which ‘The Matrix’ very very loosely inspired from. Some of his essays from the 90s and 2000s are interesting but come to wrong or weird conclusions, and are ultimately undone by our post-2001 world view.

    Foucault is a bit less readable, but some of his works like ‘Discipline and Punish’ are good to read in contrast with earlier classical authors he’s referring to, in this case Bentham. Past these two most of the other authors lose a lot in terms of readability or fun.

    PoMo is best when it’s seen as an update to, or a remix, or a response or even a response to a more modern reactions to writings of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century. Many of the ideas would have been fine for a single article or essay or conference. Its overwhelming dominance in English and Philosophy departments is unhealthy. Some of the stuff has not aged well. It was much more speculative about things we’ve got better understandings of, and they often over emphasized things that were important at that time that didn’t really pan out of don’t apply anymore.

  9. As several have observed, there are multiple construals of postmodernism, most playing off of a particular construal of modernism.

    In my setting, I associate modernism as a philosophical tradition working through Descartes, Locke, Hume, etc. Some of the features of modernism include:
    – The centrality of epistemology and the quest for certainty. Some variants are optimistic (“This is how real knowledge is possible – and we can achieve it”), some pessimistic (“This is how real knowledge is possible – but we cannot achieve it”).
    – Individualism as the way to understand things (through analysis of constituent parts) and people.

    Given this (simplified) construal of modernism, postmodernism would entail:
    – The rejection of the centrality of epistemology (this can take several forms) or the rejection of the quest for certainty (as found in people like Quine and Rorty). To moderns, this looks like pure anything-goes relativism. It tends to be relativistic, but relativism with constraints.
    – The rejection of individualism. Things (and people) are what they are not as independent monads, but as they are in relation.

  10. Think of post-modernism as an unconstrained neural network, that searches for patterns in the highest, most abstract, and meta level of dimensions. It can generate nonsense, usually, or uncover profound links across seemingly unrelated facets of human reality.

    Positivist science can be thought of, generally, as more structural or well-defined mathematical or econometric models. Where the relationships across reality must be well defined, and to some degree, open to measurement.

    In this world post-modernism opens up a very large world of inquiry, where the human brain is adept at making seemingly unrelated connections that are entirely elusive and out of our ability to map with measurement, quantitative data, or robust scientific statements.

    McCloskey on rhetoric is as fine an example as many. There is obviously something of use there, but it’s in such a high-dimensional and unstructured vector space, that to reduce it to a more formal are of inquiry becomes intractable. So instead we are left with examples in a high unstructured dimension space.

  11. uair01 says:

    As always I’m late to the discussion but I hope this still gets through to Mr. Cowen :-)

    I would recommend these two books:

    This is a good explanation of new-realism (or post-post-modernism) by one of the stars of current German philosophy. It is popular philosophy but there are many references to modern logic and analytic philosophy (Kripke etc.). The idea of “fields of meaning” was an eye opener for me.

    The book does not survive translation well. In German it is very witty. It’s excellent as audiobook read by the author (in German). Highly recommended:

    A clear and excellent presentation about how post-modern thinking works is this book about Friedrich Kittler. I’ve read it two times already. Kittlers ideas are weird, but the book clarifies them and explains how they evolved. I disagree with most of his speculative ideas but it’s fascinating reading:

  12. Charles W. Abbott says:

    I once took an architecture tour on “Modernist” buildings in downtown Chicago–the sort of thing provided by the foundation that does tours.

    The tour guide pointed out the skyscrapers in / north of the Loop that flaunt the fact that they are built out of steel girder framing–some of the buildings have the girders exposed in the courtyard. and they have a cartesian window grid.

    Modernism is the building made out of the steel frame, and you can see it.

    Post-modernism has decorative flourishes that are un-necessary. a portico, some Greek columns holding up nothing, perhaps a turret…. They reveal nothing, and exist on top of the structure.

    = – = – = – = – =

    Traditional “tribal” life would be ritual scarification to demonstrate what lineage you belong to. I knew a woman (the late Mary W) who had “Mary” written on her arm in black ink so her family could always identify her if she was lost. From Nigeria, an Oyo Yoruba woman raised in northern Ghana, you could tell by her facial “tribal” marks that her home was in the Oyo area of S.W. Nigeria. The marks on her face (cut with a razor and with ink rubbed in) showed her lineage, which had a claim on the chieftaincy of her town. See in her Ghana and her face screamed out that her hometown was elsewhere.

    This is different from tattoos that people get on a whim, because they look good or seem like a good idea. That would be postmodernism. Asian characters, poorly understood, on a non-Asian who cannot speak the Asian language or draw the characters and explain them, would qualify.

    Such tattoos are also different from having your military branch and unit tattooed on your arm, with “Death before dishonor.” Or for example it is claimed that the Waffen SS had their blood type tattooed on the upper arm. I think that would be Modernist. Modern (not traditional) because more bureaucratic than a family lineage, which is a descent group.

    What I am getting at is this: Postmodernism refers to the promiscuous mixing, floating, borrowing of signs, flourishes, with little to do with the underlying structure.

    This is as much as I have managed to puzzle out.

    = – = – = – = – =

    Some people liked David Harvey’s _The condition of postmodernism_.

    = – = – = – =

    Like Arnold, I tend to read the critics. For example, I have never read _Orientalism_ by Edward Said, but meanwhile I have read several polemical criticisms of the book.

    = – = – = – = – =

    As Robert Conquest has pointed out (I’m repeating myself), many academics are intellectuals who are “excited by ideas” whether good or bad, because new.

    Thus there is a market niche for people like Roger Scruton who debunk the ideas.

    But looking at the buildings in Chicago’s loop helped me understand the concept just a little bit better.

    • Candide III says:

      Or for example it is claimed that the Waffen SS had their blood type tattooed on the upper arm.

      This is the single most popular tattoo in Ukrainian army, and I gather it was in the late-Soviet army. They usually have it on the trunk. It’s quite reasonable, too: what will they do in the field hospital if the badge (or the arm for that matter) with the blood type gets torn off and lost?

      Postmodernism refers to the promiscuous mixing, floating, borrowing of signs, flourishes, with little to do with the underlying structure.

      Whether intentionally or not, you are echoing Spengler, who wrote a while before what we call postmodernism:

      End of form development. Meaningless, empty, artificial, pretentious architecture and ornament. Imitation of archaic an exotic motives.

      Spengler’s final stage of development reflects in art (and philosophy is certainly an art) as

      Formation of a fixed stock of forms. Imperial display by means of material and mass. Provincial craft-art.

      This has parallels to the identity ‘philosophy’ of the present.

  13. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Thanks for the reply, Candide III. I had the unsettling confusion of not knowing if you were quoting the original Spengler or the columnist David Goldman who writes under the same name. They might agree on the issue in question.

    I have the sense that Prof. Arnold does read all these comments, eventually.

    Before I mentioned David Harvey’s _Condition of Postmodernity_ which is not a brand new book. It came out in 1991, Amazon says.

    David Harvey is one of the best read and well known geographers currently writing. Typically comes out with a book every year, and is often read by people far removed from geography. I’m not a follower, but you really can’t get away from his influence.

    Harvey began as a firm and orthodox old-style quantitative economic geographer, wrote a book on such called _Explanation in Geography_ then read Marx and has never been the same since. Because he is now (I think) a firm and orthodox marxist, he might be fairly easy for an economist such as Prof. Arnold to understand, especially if you consider Marx as “a minor Ricardian.”

  14. Eric says:

    Good resources for post-modernism:

    – Ilya Prigogine: The End of Certainty

    – Benoit Mandelbrot: The Misbehavior of Markets

    – David Colander: Thumbnail Sketch of the History of Thought from a Complexity Perspective

    – Nassim Taleb: Antifragile

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