Dressing up old ideas in post-modern clothes

When people ask me about post-modern literary theory, I am tempted to
answer them by talking about the Holy Roman Empire -- which, famously,
was not holy, was not Roman, and was not really an empire. In much the
same way, post-modern literary theory is not literary, not really a
theory, and certainly not post-modern.

As far as I can make out, what is called "postmodernism" is a style of
thinking which has almost entirely taken over literature studies in
universities, and is now spreading even into high schools. It is based
on a philosophical school common in universities in continental Europe,
originating in the thought of people such as Michel Foucault, Jacques
Derrida and Jacques Lacan.

In literary studies it is distinguished by giving priority to the
reader, not to the author. The text merely exists as an uninterpreted
"given": it is up to the reader to construct his or her own
interpretation of it. The distinction between the given and the
constructed here is an important one.

All this seems a little strange to a philosopher brought up in the
English-speaking tradition. To us, the most important post-modern
philosopher is Wittgenstein, and he is both important and genuinely
post-modern because he showed the emptiness of the modern project.
(Those in continental Europe who are called "post-modernists" often
speak of the "Enlightenment project", but for philosophers in the
English-speaking countries "modernism" goes back to Descartes in the
17th century, well beyond the Scottish, English and German
Enlightenments of the 18th century.)

Wittgenstein’s critique
Ludwig Wittgenstein The key idea of Descartes -- and, to a Wittgensteinian, his key mistake
-- was to search for a solid foundation for knowledge, a foundation
which would be indubitable and infallible. For a Wittgensteinian, no
knowledge is indubitable or infallible: you can't know something unless
at least someone - perhaps you on another occasion - could possibly be
mistaken about it. He distinguished between a sentence such as "She is
in pain" about which one might be mistaken, and for which a demand
"what evidence do you have?" is relevant, and one such as "I am in
pain", about which I cannot be mistaken, and for which I cannot be
asked for the evidence. "I know she is in pain", for Wittgenstein,
makes sense, a sense different from "She is in pain": but the sense of
"I know I am in pain" is no different from that of "I am in pain". So
the "I know" of "I know I am in pain" is redundant and senseless, and
doesn't answer to any real knowledge at all, precisely because it is
redundant and senseless.

Since Descartes was, mistakenly, searching for a completely infallible
and indubitable foundation for all other knowledge, he fixed on his own
internal conviction: since he was thinking, he knew he existed. It
should be pretty clear that the "I know" of "I know I exist" does not
differ from the "I know" of "I know I am in pain". Descartes thought
that from this "knowledge" he could develop a knowledge of all the
truths of logic, mathematics, and even of the existence and
truthfulness of God. From the truthfulness of God followed the reality
of the world outside him. But since "I know I exist" does not really
express any knowledge at all, we cannot in fact develop any other kind
of knowledge from it.

The modernist thinkers who came after did find not at all convincing
his account of the foundation of knowledge, or of the way further
truths could be developed from them. Writers like Spinoza and Leibniz
tried to follow him in finding the foundations of knowledge in abstract
rational principles -- hence the label of "rationalists" that is given
to them. Thinkers in English-speaking countries, such as Locke,
Berkeley and Hume, tried (and failed) to find a foundation for
knowledge in what was immediately experienced in seeing, hearing,
touching, tasting and smelling. This is why they are called Empiricists
-- those who base their theory of knowledge on sense-experience.

But both groups, the rationalists and the empiricists, were trying to
answer Descartes' basic question, of how we can be infallibly sure of
what we know. The same is true, with some qualifications, even of later
philosophers, such as Kant and Hegel. But in any case, they tried to
find a foundation for knowledge in what was immediately known to them
-- that is, in the contents of their own minds. These contents were
known only to themselves: then they faced the task of trying to escape
from the prison of privacy they had shut themselves into, and to try to
reach the external world.

No private knowledge
Wittgenstein drew attention to the fact that we have absolutely no
knowledge that is entirely private and has no connection with the
outside world. What we know, even of our own mind, is based on what we
know of the external world. The word "red" doesn't mean this experience
I can create for myself when I close my eyes and conjure up a visual
image, or even this patch in the middle of my visual field when I open
my eyes and look directly in front of me, without attempting to alter
my visual field. (You or I would say "by turning my head or by
swivelling my eyes", but the empiricists would say that all we are
directly aware of is our visual field: that we have eyes or a head at
all is a constructed inference.) But for Wittgenstein and those who
follow him, what "red" means is something publicly accessible, such as
the colour of the evening sky, or of fire-engines, or of mail-boxes in
the United Kingdom. The foundations of meaning, and therefore of
knowledge, are not private but public.

But there is more. The whole distinction between the foundations and
what is built on them - the distinction between the "given" and the
"constructed" -- is a false one, if we take it in an absolute sense. We
can perhaps sometimes see that some of our concepts are more basic than
others - perhaps our concept of "right-angled triangle" is constructed
on the basis of our concept of "triangle" -- but there is no absolutely
basic set of concepts. As Elizabeth Anscombe once said (she was one of
Wittgenstein's closest disciples, and his literary executor), if we are
asked "What is given?" we have to say "the lot" -- everything we know
about. It all forms part of what Willard Quine, another 20th century
English-speaking philosopher, called a "seamless web" of concepts.

Post-modern, but still old-fashioned
So much for the followers of Wittgenstein, who I take to have made an
entirely successful overthrow of the Cartesian, modern problem. But
when we look at those who call themselves "post-modernists", we find
that they are still tangled up in the old modernist distinction of "the
given" and "the constructed". The text is the "given", and each one's
interpretation of it is the "constructed": with the proviso that
anyone's interpretation is as good as anyone else's.

A baby has been thrown out with the bathwater here. In their anxiety to
be rid of "Enlightenment rationality" the post-modernists have thrown
out rationality altogether. One suspects that they have never read any
ancient or medieval thinkers, and that therefore they have no idea what
a genuinely non-modern rationality would look like. What is more, as
well as throwing out the baby, they have kept some very evil-smelling
dregs of the bathwater, in the shape of the distinction of the given
and the constructed. They are not real rebels against modernity, merely
its bastard children. They have kept some modern notions while they
reject others, and rejected some notions (such as rationality) which do
not belong properly to modernism at all, but are part of the human way
of looking at the world.

Above all, what rules in post-modernism is subjectivism -- what is
individual, immediate, private to one's own experience. This is not to
escape from modernism, but to surrender oneself wholeheartedly to it.
It has been said, and I think accurately, that post-modernism is a cure
for which no adequate disease has yet been found.

Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas.


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  • Christopher Martin