The Meaning of Objectivity

Part 2: The Postmodernist Reaction to the Loss of Certainty

Abandoning the idea that objectivity is attainable and worth striving for—a dangerous step in itself—seems to lead inexorably to the even more pernicious step of thinking that there is no such thing as objective reality: not only can we know nothing, really, but there is nothing, really, for us to know. Even the findings of the hard sciences and mathematics have been called simply stories that we like to tell ourselves, and stories very different from those that other cultures, or at least alien beings in distant galaxies, might tell themselves with equal justification. 1And this doctrine, in itself so abstract as to seem to have no bearing whatever on sublunary life, has in fact had some very curious effects on Western politics and cultural life.

Nietzsche was the first philosopher of stature to proclaim the death of God and the loss of belief in objective reality that is its frequent concomitant, and to attempt to base something like a system of thought and morality upon that loss. (The general educated public in the West has been a little slower to follow this path; it took the horrors of the twentieth century to make that public accept in large measure that they were no longer—if they ever had been—looked after by a benevolent personal God.) Thinkers since Nietzsche have reacted to the loss of belief in God in one of three ways: by attempting to replace the lost belief with one founded on science or Marxism or some other secular authority; by inventing or reviving some substitute religion, such as New Age spirituality, Wicca, or millennarian cults; or by accepting the loss without regret, and welcoming the absence of belief as a positive development.

The most extreme and doctrinaire followers of the third way are variously called Postmodernists or Relativists or Antifoundationalists or anti-Platonists or antimetaphysicians or antiessentialists or antidualists or pragmatists or any of several other names, but I think Postmodernism is the most common name, and it is the one I will use (usually abbreviated “PM”) here. In an earlier essay I said that two men were commonly regarded as leaders of the PM movement here in America—Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty—and I dealt with Fish there. Here I will look a little further into the causes and consequences of PM, and in particular at the work of Rorty as it affects our cultural and political life after The Attack of September 11, 2001 —and only that. This is not the place, and I am not the man, to assess Rorty’s work in general, and in any case that task has been performed more than once by his professional colleagues 2. All I am concerned to do here, and consider myself qualified to do, is to assess the effect of Rorty’s views on the West’s conflict with terrorism.

The Rorty flavor of postmodernism (which I will call postmodernism tout court) seems to be unique among nominally philosophical doctrines in having no roots in philosophy. And far from feeling the lack of such roots as a weakness, it explicitly repudiates any need of them; it regards virtually all of Western philosophy from the pre-Socratics to John Dewey as misguided or worse. Although many of postmodernism’s champions are, like Rorty, members of departments of philosophy, and lard their writings liberally with quotations from and references to philosophical works, they themselves do not practice what has traditionally been called philosophy. Nor do they point to a philosophic path to be taken by their followers; they look at philosophy from a position outside that discipline, occasionally even hostile to it.

This makes PM so unusual among nominally philosophic doctrines as to arouse intense curiousity; what made people formulate it, and others then accept it, I wondered? What changes would we need to make in our thinking and our projects if we did accept it? It was with these questions in mind that I read several of Rorty’s books, as well as a few by other PM spokesmen 3, but nowhere in them did I find what I’d hoped for. Most of their message seems to consist of variations on one theme: “you only hold the Realist-Objectivist position because you’ve been trained to; you simply can’t imagine an alternative way of looking at things.”

And I kept wanting to ask Rorty and his allies, “Suppose I could see things your way—what good things would result? What problems would be solved, what advantages would I enjoy?” But no answer is offered to these questions; we simply get told, in effect, that we have to have faith. When we are told by an orthodox religious believer that faith must come first, we are offered some powerful inducements: salvation, the beatific vision, eternal life, the ministrations of a bevy of virgins—but Rorty and the others make no such promises, don’t even tell us just how our life here on earth will change for the better if we adopt their views. Is it possible that the only reason that the postmoderns can offer to induce us to join them in their war against Absolute Truth is that their doctrine is Absolutely True?

How did such a doctrine ever come to be formulated? What makes anyone hold it? The PM champions offer no answers; I offer mine here.

Three Roots of Postmodernism

PM has three main roots:

  1. The need to come to terms with the “death of God” and the concomitant loss of the illusion of apodictic knowledge; PM is the result of taking the welcoming approach in dealing with this crisis—and taking it to an extreme. This root was discussed at length in the first installment of this essay, and will not be dealt with further in this one.

  2. The war against absolutism and other abuses of religious and intellectual authority, and the rapid slide of that war into one against authority as such; this will be a major topic of the present installment.

  3. The special problems of Western intellectuals, and especially academic intellectuals; this will be glanced at briefly here.

The War Against Absolutism: Abolishing the Abuse by Abolishing the Use

he central tenet of PM is that “objective reality”—meaning the way things inescapably are, independent of human thoughts and wishes—is a myth, and along with it, of course, the notion that a statement is true to just the extent that it accurately describes its correlative in objective reality, that part of the world it asserts something about. This rejection of objective reality, I believe, has grown out of the urgent desire of some modern philosophers to combat religious fundamentalism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance. They have noted with horror that people who think they have absolute knowledge, especially those who believe they have had a unique revelation from God, often behave despotically and cruelly toward others, feeling that their monopoly of enlightenment justifies such behavior toward the unenlightened. The absolutists often go even further: they come to feel that it is their duty to behave so, and that the unenlightened—if they survive the process—should be grateful for being coerced into enlightenment.

It is in response to that triumphalism, I believe, that the PM spokesmen try to convince us not merely that no one has such absolute knowledge, or can have such knowledge, but even that there is no such knowledge to be had. They apparently believe that if we give up our absolute beliefs and our belief in the absolute, what will remain is sweet reason. Rorty, usually (he speaks with more than one voice, as we shall see), seems to think that if we give up our belief in objective reality, we will become liberals or progressives or whatever Utopian socialists are called these days. I think he is wrong; what would remain, for most of us, is moral emptiness and despair. The only effect on most educated Westerners of an exposure to PM is to undermine (or subvert , to use one of PM’s favorite terms) the assumptions that form the basis of their thinking. For some PM believers this is a welcome consequence, and perhaps their main reason for talking PM up; but for many others, I think, PM is a runaway doctrine, an ideology that has escaped the seminars and coteries in which it was conceived, and has become a monster its creators can no longer control. And as seems to be the habit of monsters, this one, now loosed, is turning on its creators.

Last Infirmity of Noble Mind: The Predicament of the Western Intellectual

The rapid progress of PM, even among many who do not describe themselves as PM believers, is largely traceable to the difficulties inherent in being a Western intellectual or academic. If a large part of your life is devoted to thinking, reading, and writing, and especially if you’ve taken years to get a Ph.D while others were forging careers in business or the professions, you’d better be able to show results in the form of advanced ideas and deeper knowledge—what was it all for, if you can’t? If your subject is one of the sciences, even one of the social sciences, you’ll have no trouble doing that; you know many things that laymen do not, and can do many things they cannot.

But what if your studies were in the humanities, where little or nothing can be demonstrated, and where you cannot get the laity to see you as a master of esoteric knowledge? And what if your studies seem to lead to conclusions very close, even identical, to those reached by ordinary intelligent people outside academia? What if, to look squarely at the worst case, the non-intellectuals have arrived at the right answer without your help? For many academic intellectuals, the need to distinguish themselves from the crowd is so great that they will take a position that is outrageous if that’s the only alternative to simply agreeing with the popular view. This behaviour could be the subject of a long essay, even a book, in its own right; I cannot do more here, without extending this essay intolerably, than note its existence.

And while the academic intellectual suffers from the special need to differentiate himself at virtually any cost from the laity, he is also subject to the common human desire to stand out among one’s peers. The academic has more than ordinary problems here, too, because he is usually too high-minded (or simply unqualified) to compete with peers in possessions, power, or worldly achievement. But many academics have found an alternative arena in which to express the unquenchable human drive for distinction and fame: they compete among themselves to see who can be more radical, more critical of the West, more sympathetic to every doctrine and movement inimical to the United States, more ‘understanding’ of everyone who has hurt us. They thereby earn admiration for their courage in defying Authority, which in the United States is well known for its habit of hauling dissident professors off to concentration camps or oubliettes. (In fact, professors who bravely speak truth to power are in danger of receiving a MacArthur genius grant. Note the terrible fates that have befallen Professors Chomsky and Said for their defiance of the powers that be.) Debarred from the usual forms of showing off, they flaunt what Veblen would have called Conspicuous Compunction.

Rorty: The Priority of Politics

The PM project of which Rorty is a leading spokesman is at bottom a political campaign, not a philosophical doctrine. Rorty is, so far as I know, the only PM philosopher who says this, explicitly and proudly:

Those who share Dewey’s pragmatism will say that although it may need philosophical articulation, it does not need philosophical backup. On this view, the philosopher of liberal democracy may wish to develop a theory of the human self that comports with the institutions he or she admires. But such a philosopher is not thereby justifying these institutions by reference to more fundamental premises, but the reverse: He or she is putting politics first and tailoring a philosophy to suit. 4

And seeing what they usually try to sell us politically, it’s no wonder that postmodernists open by trying to discredit the concept of objective truth. Those who ask us to abandon the traditional Realist concept of truth never say, as one might expect, “There’s no objective truth, so do your own thing!”; their cry is always, “There’s no objective truth, so do what I say!” And all too often the beast that their chase has in view turns out to be a mangy donkey; in Rorty’s case, all of Western philosophy from Plato to Dewey is to be junked so that, in effect, the results of the election of 1972 can be reversed, and George McGovern be declared the victor after all.

But because he is pleading for a political cause rather than a philosophical thesis, he cannot give any philosophical reason why anyone else should join him in his pseudo- or anti-philosophical position. The claim Rorty makes for his position is not that it is true, but simply that it leads to a more salutary state of things in general. Rorty asserts that if we accept PM, we will be better people—better friends, better parents, better citizens, living in a better world: one that is kinder, more tolerant, more inclusive, more joyous. He makes this quite clear in many of his writings, perhaps most fully in his “Solidarity or Objectivity?” From Rorty’s point of view, then, the only relevant objection to be made of PM would be that it does not make us happier and healthier—if adopting the PM position does not improve our well-being as individuals and citizens, then PM fails. (It may well be the only philosophical doctrine that is in need of testing and approval by the Food and Drug Administration.)

Rorty wants us to stop talking about objective truth, and turn instead to talking about ideas that help us become happier, better people. But the idea of objective truth is one that has long made Western man happier, perhaps even on balance better, so by Rorty’s own criterion, we ought to retain that notion. Rorty himself might be happier if we abandoned the idea of OR, but he has not offered us any evidence that we would be happier. For another thing—or maybe it’s just another aspect of the same thing—many people find little comfort in a doctrine that that has obviously been formulated just to give them comfort; we metaphysical prigs (a Rorty term for those curmudgeons who will keep insisting on Objective Reality) are so perverse that frankly feel-good doctrines are no more likely to succeed with us than a medication that frankly admitted it was a placebo. In short, if Rorty really wants to see philosophy help us cope with our total situation, he ought to support OR, however much pleasure it would give him to see it abandoned; if we are metaphysical prigs, the PM bunch are epistemological sluts.

Rorty thinks that we should stop debating all the traditional questions of Western philosophy, and simply ask of any proposition, does this help us realize our objective of becoming nicer people? He writes as if the proposition “human progress consists solely of becoming ever more friendly, trusting, unprejudiced, non-judgmental, and accepting of others’ needs” has been established, and that further debate is pointless—in fact, was always pointless, but just wasn’t fully recognized as such until PM came along. This suggests that it must be a pleasure to be a neighbor of Rorty’s, but likewise that he may have nothing very cogent to tell us about living off-campus. At his most typical, he seems to be saying—gracefully, at length, and very learnedly—“everything important that I know, I learned in kindergarten,” and his essays seem simply very well-written and footnoted position papers sponsored jointly by the ACLU, NOW, and the local PTA.

He seems also to believe that his own principles are not controversial propositions, but such obvious common sense that they need only be mentioned to win assent. He writes:

…we [pragmatists] see both intellectual and moral progress not as a matter of getting closer to the True or the Good or the Right, but as an increase in imaginative power 5

This is argument by typography; one might with equal justification write “not as An Increase in Imaginative Power, but as a matter of getting closer to the true or the good or the right.” Why is the pragmatist’s goal a simple good, while the Realist’s are rigid ideologies, to be mocked with copybook capitals?

Rorty’s Postmodernism and the World After The Attack

But Rorty is by far the most interesting writer of the PM party, and unlike most of his allies, has more than one dimension—so much so that sometimes there seem to be two of him, Rorty Major and Rorty Minor. In the next few paragraphs I am (still) dealing with R. Major, the senior and far better known of the two, but his döppelganger or kid brother will be looked at shortly, too. R. Major’s principal claim for PM is that it makes us more receptive to new and foreign ideas, more open to the pleas and arguments of outsiders, more ready to sympathize with the claims of aliens. And in urging this course on us, he recognizes no limit—he ignores the case of unresolvable conflict; the case in which we encounter those who will not sit down and reason with us, who believe they already know the truth, and will not stay for an argument.

Rorty Major is concerned exclusively with preventing us from becoming such absolutists and bullies, and ignores the possibility that we are at least equally in danger of meeting those from other cultures who are just such threats themselves, and who have killed, imprisoned, or exiled all their own Rortys, who might have pointed out the error of their ways. He worries that even Dewey’s pragmatism (Rorty’s special term for the PM faith) was not sufficiently thorough-going, even while millions of those whose marginalization he deplores are plotting to kill yet more of us. But for R. Major, human progress consists solely in ever-increasing inclusiveness, ever-increasing readiness to allow the claims of others, ever-increasing sympathy with whatever was once regarded as alien; he has no advice for those faced with an adversary unwilling not only to talk, but perhaps even to accept surrender.

Whether the cheery consequences that Rorty envisions following on the adoption of PM, if they actually came about, would justify the adoption of PM is debatable; what is clear is that, so far as one can see today, PM does not tend to bring them about, but rather the reverse. The effect on most people of exposure to PM is—again—to sap their confidence in their own values, weaken their will to resist aggression by others, and confuse them on moral issues—and some at least of the postmodernists are quite aware of this, and seem not at all unhappy about it. (As I noted in my treatment of one of Stanley Fish’s post-Attack writings, the fact that Edward Said is one of those who have called for the rejection of “false universals” suggests that not every postmodernist is simply trying, as Fish suggested, to arm the West better for its battle.)

Rorty Minor: The Philosopher Who Can Say No

But Rorty has more than one persona, as I said, and can spring surprises on us. His most common message, by far, is that we need to extend imaginative sympathy in ever-widening circles so as to embrace the marginal and even the hostile, and that the great merit of PM is that it prevents us from thinking that we are The People, and everyone else the Barbarians. But then there is Rorty Minor, who occasionally peeps out from behind the Professor of Niceness; in one of the essays that has already been quoted from, R. Minor speaks:

…we heirs of the Enlightenment think of enemies of liberal democracy like Nietzsche or Loyola as, to use Rawl’s word, “mad.” We do so because there is no way to see them as fellow citizens of our constitutional democracy, people whose life plans might, given ingenuity and good will, be fitted in with those of other citizens. … They are crazy because the limits of sanity are set by what we can take seriously. 6

And later in the same essay,

We have to insist that not every argument need to [ sic ] be met in the terms in which it is presented. Accommodation and tolerance must stop short of a willingness to work within any vocabulary that one’s interlocutor wishes to use, to take seriously any topic that he wishes to put forward for discussion.

And in a closely related essay (italicized words in square brackets, are mine, not Rorty’s),

Yet their connoisseurship forces them to realize that most of the globe’s inhabitants simply do not believe in human equality, that such a belief is a Western eccentricity. Since they [ it doesn’t matter for present purposes who “they” are ] think it would be shockingly ethnocentric to say “So what? We Western liberals do believe in it, and so much the better for us,” they are stuck.

Anti-anti-ethnocentrists [ a category in which Rorty includes himself ] suggest that liberals should say exactly that… 7

I find R. Minor a very refreshing and hope-inspiring fellow; it’s a shame that he’s so little known, even—apparently—to R. Major. It is my fondest hope, in writing this piece, that it might help the two Rortys to meet, and to get the senior to recognize that his kid brother is no longer a mere kid.

Incommensurability

This point of R. Minor’s, that there are some political and social positions that we must simply reject, and cannot hope to ‘understand’ or empathize with or accommodate, seems to be the practical counterpart of the more abstract notion, often found in PM, that there are cultures or schools of thought or Weltanschauungen that are simply ‘incommensurable’—that are radically different all the way down, that admit no common ground on which one might stand while trying to bridge the gap, that cannot even communicate with each other. PM finds this notion fits in well with its rejection of absolutism in the usual sense—if there are such irreconcilable differences between human groups on such fundamental matters, how can there be any one Objective Reality?—but the cost of making this argument is very high; in its insistence on so unprovable a position, it arouses the suspicion that PM is itself an example—perhaps the best current example—of what it seems to be deploring. PM philosophers, here as elsewhere, get hold of the wrong end of the stick; on the conceptual level, where they might be expected to be determined to understand everything, they find some strains of human thought hopelessly incomprehensible, while on the practical level, they cannot bring themselves to wholly condemn those who attacked us. Rorty, again distinguishing himself from the ruck of PM believers, explicitly repudiates the ‘incommensurability’ thesis 8, but PM in general is stuck with it—and Rorty, in rejecting it, is to some extent at odds with many of those he elsewhere refers to under such labels as “we pragmatists” and “we liberals” and similar claims to unanimity.

There have been a number of theories offered within living memory that prided themselves on being incommensurable, Freudianism and Communism notable among them. Each was a closed system: one that protects itself from attack by explaining away all possible criticisms as so many vestiges of a now discredited mode of thought, so that to seek to criticize it is simply to beg the question. PM is yet another of this genus, and thus an example of just what it claims to find throughout the world, a system or paradigm (the term Kuhn made ubiquitous) so radically different from others as to be incommensurable with them; no neutral vocabulary exists in terms of which anyone outside the system can talk about it so as to make sense within it. Postmodernism, then, is a mousetrap so cunningly made that no mouse, once inside, can escape—but one that will catch few mice, because it contains no bait that many will find attractive.

One question that should be put to the incommensurable-paradigm monger is, How does a new paradigm come into being, if not as the brainchild of someone raised under an older paradigm? How did Einstein, trained in classical pre-relativistic physics, come up with a concept of space-time utterly incommensurate, under your hypothesis, with that of Newton—and remain capable of reasoning within that older paradigm, as well as in the newer? One thinks of the anecdote told of Enrico Fermi, who was discussing some advanced physics with a group of much younger men. When they showed some impatience with his failure to grasp their arguments instantly, he said, “Gentlemen, you must excuse me; remember that I was trained in pre-Fermian physics!”

The postmodernist suggestion that there are incommensurable outlooks or weltanschauungen that preclude agreement or even mutual comprehension between parties who subscribe to different flavors of them is very like the notion behind the gadfly’s questions, “How do you know that anyone except yourself exists?” or “How do you know that everything didn’t double in size overnight?” or “How do you know that the world, including your memories of the past, didn’t come into being just fifteen minutes ago?” And the answer to the incommensurability-monger, like the answer to the gadfly, is “I haven’t the faintest idea; now go away, I’m busy.” There may be no such thing as a stupid question, but there certainly are impudent and time-wasting questions. And those pushing the ‘incommensurability’ thesis may find they have generated yet more unintended consequences: if we are persuaded to accept that thesis, we may well wonder why we need to be concerned about members of cultures so different from ours that communication is impossible. We may see such beings as less than human, and treat them accordingly—an especially unwelcome outcome for a movement one of whose chief motivations was a fervent desire to end bigotry and oppression.

To get back to Rorty—he would not agree, I think, that there are two of him. He would say, I think, that what I see as Rorty Minor, the tough Rorty, has always been implicit in his writings, and that I simply failed to see it. Let it be so; if it is my failure as a reader not to have realized when reading Rorty that these other sentiments, the ones I think of as coming from Rorty Minor , were right there all the time, then I accept the blame. But my fault or not, it’s a fact that such tough words as I have just quoted from him are not explicit in any but a very few passages in his many books and papers. And it would be of the greatest interest— practical interest—to know if he sees the Islamic fundamentalists by whom we are now threatened as being on a par with Loyola and Nietzsche in unacceptability as fellow-citizens, and as equal candidates for the epithet mad .

It would be of practical use, I think, to be able to say to the droves of academics to whom Rorty’s is a name to conjure with that he, the arch-pragmatist and co-doyen, with Fish, of PM, has had it up to here with those who attacked us on September 11, and gives permission to his allies, even the most serious readers of the German sociologists and the French literary theorists, to simply hate the attackers’ guts. Rorty might do both his country and his philosophy a large service if he could bring himself to say so, loudly and clearly.

I say this because I believe that the United States, and most of the Western world, is living in what psychologists call a fugue state; the true meaning of The Attack of September 11, 2001, is so terrifying that very few can face it fully, and events have not yet broken through our shell of complacency and self-imposed blindness to force us to. We are, I think, fighting for our lives, and our peril is all the greater because for the great majority of us nothing has yet happened to drive that message home. In such a situation, the harm done by a false philosophy, which would ordinarily be contained within academic circles, is visited on all of us. PM, problematic and potentially dangerous even in normal times, is for a civilization under deadly attack a corrosive acid that weakens us where we are most vulnerable: not in our airports or office buildings or shopping malls, but in our will and our spirit. It is bitter beyond irony to observe that what began as an attempt to prevent us from being tyrannical and intolerant to others has become a weapon in the hands of those who would be so to us.


Article Footnotes

1 See, for example, Reuben Hersh, What is Mathematics, Really ? (Oxford U.P., 1997), page 38.

2 See, for example, Alan R. Malachowski (ed.), Reading Rorty. Oxford & Cambridge (Mass.): Basil Blackwell, 1990, and Robert B. Brandom (ed.), Rorty and His Critics . Blackwell, 2001.

3 Among them Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Belief and Resistance ( Harvard U.P., 1997), a book that, as its title implies, does not so much try to make a case for PM as to offer a study of how and why people resist, in the psychoanalytical sense, the PM ethos.

 

4 “Solidarity or Objectivity?” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge U.P., 1991), page 178.

 

5 Philosopy and Social Hope (N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1999), page 87.

 

6 “Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge U.P., 1991), pages 187-188.

 

7 “On Ethnocentrism,” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth , page 207. Words in square brackets are mine, not Rorty’s.

 

8 “Solidarity or Objectivity?”, page 25