Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Were we ever postmodern?

It seems that now whenever I see references to postmodern philosophy they are in the past tense:
"The postmodernist agenda was..."
"An attraction of postmodernist philosophy was that it..."
"There is much worth retaining from postmodernism..."
Postmodernism is alive, well, and current according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (though note that the cited texts were mostly written in the 1980s). But the present tense and the past tense are at battle on the Wikipedia sites for Postmodernism and Postmodern Philosophy. Is postmodernism alive or deceased? The copy on wiki sites is subject to change, but right now the tense confusion has produced this:
"[Davidson] argued that truth was not about getting it right...but was part of a social practice, and language was what served our purposes in a particular time."
(This use of the past tense seems to make it impossible to say anything about truth in general and to talk only about the intent of past truth-claims. But maybe, for a postmodernist, that's the point.)

When I was an undergraduate I identified with postmodernism. It was the movement of the times, so how could I not? I read Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson, and was especially motivated by her introductory essay and by Sandra Harding's article on "Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques." I heard the feminist worry that perhaps postmodernism, by dismissing grand narratives, would also be dismissive of feminism. But I thought that sounded like a mere technical problem.

I read Foucault, and I read Nancy Fraser on Foucault. I thought postmodernism was about identifying power, calling it out, and then getting on with the business of using theory to smooth the way for progressive political change. I thought that the critical, disillusioning technique of postmodernism would be a useful one.

What I did not realize was that postmodernism's critique of reason was powerful but blunt. Its success was such that it was not able to carve away at a problem, exposing the power relations, exposing the ideologies, and revealing the questions of justice and knowledge that would yield to moral argument and empirical inquiry. It cuts and cuts and cuts until nothing is left.

The problem is that research into social relations, power dynamics, and ideological influence can never turn up negative results. If the problem with the modernism that postmodernism opposed was that history and intellectual development in the West was a monotonous story of the revealing of Reason through the ages, then the problem with postmodernism was the converse. Postmodernism is also monotone. Ideology and power relations always have an influence.

Philosophy is still working out how to distinguish the influence of reason from the influence of power, or better, how these interact. I think many areas of philosophy are at work on this. Social epistemology, feminist epistemology and philosophy of science, pragmatism, social and political theory, philosophy of technology, applied ethics.

No comments: