There have been a few threads lately in which the subject of postmodernism has come up, usually in the context of people comparing it to the “post-truth” tactics of the modern American right.
We also have a few folks here who push back on that; sometimes by denying the analogy altogether, sometimes by denying a causative link between the phenomena.
Personally, I’m not rabidly opposed to postmodern academia; I think that it’s an approach that can provide useful insights in certain areas. However, my background in this area comes from the Philosophy of Science (dual major in my undergrad degree, turned down a doctoral slot to do neuro instead), and that does not seem to be an area where postmodernism is particularly useful.
To explain why, I need to give a quick skeletal description of the history of the philosophy of science.
The modern field kicked off with Karl Popper, best known for Conjectures and Refutations. The focus of his work was “the demarcation problem”. Basically, it’s “how do you tell science from non-science? Why is astronomy science and astrology bullshit?”. It also leads into related questions like “if science is a special way of doing things, is it better than other ways? Why?” and “is science only one thing, or is it a group of things?”.
Popper proposed a system that was elegant, logical and appealing. He argued that science functions by a logical process involving the creation of hypotheses which are in turn tested against reality. There is no such thing as an absolute proof, but our confidence in the accuracy of any given hypothesis should increase with time, as it survives more and more attempts at refutation. If a hypothesis is experimentally contradicted, it should be immediately abandoned.
For a few decades, this was pretty much accepted as fact. The Phil of Sci field successfully concentrated on finding demonstrations of Popper’s theory in action (e.g. Einstein and the Michelson/Morley experiment).
Unfortunately, there were some problems with Popper’s theory, all arising from the fact that Popper was originally a physicist. Firstly, he failed to notice that the way things are done by physicists is not at all typical of scientists in general. Secondly, he wasn’t a historian.
Thomas Kuhn was. In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he demonstrated that although Popper’s theory is lovely and logical, when you look at the real world you notice that science isn’t done like that, never was done like that, and wouldn’t work if you tried to do it like that.
Instead of an elegant logical process, Kuhn correctly saw science as a messy, human endeavor, subject to both social and individual biases. He noted that the result of an experimental refutation was most typically not “Eureka! The theory is disproved!” but is instead “oh, shit, what did I do wrong?”.
Theories persist beyond refutation; it is not until a sufficient mass of discordant experimental data accumulates that a theory is overturned, in a pattern more reminiscent of oppression and revolution than of neat, mathematical logic. Even when a refutation is accepted, the solution is not obvious; any result may have a myriad of different causes, and any hypothesis is only one of an infinite number of possible explanations. Our choices of hypotheses are more a function of psychology and sociology than logic.
Because of these arguments, Kuhn is often described as the first postmodern philosopher of science. I have absolutely no problem with Kuhn; I agree with him almost entirely. My only quibble is that he focuses a bit too much on the revolutions and a bit too little on the day to day research that he calls “ordinary science”.
After Kuhn came Imre Lakatos. His main contribution was an attempt to save Popper by melding him into Kuhn’s theories, but all he really achieved was an unconvincing Frankenstein. Much more important was his drinking buddy, Paul Feyerabend…
Feyerabend is best known for the infamous Against Method, and he’s the first of the hardcore Phil O’Sci postmodernists.
Against Method is basically a litany of historical scientific errors mixed with a description of the difficulties encountered when attempting to resolve the demarcation problem. From this, Feyerabend jumps to the conclusion that all science is irretrievably tainted by social biases, and that therefore science has no more claim to authority than any other “system of knowledge”.
Feyerabend claimed that all knowledge-seeking traditions are epistemologically equal, and that there is no reason to privilege any one form of knowledge over another. He explicitly states that, for example, the medical expertise of a pre-industrial shaman and a modern biochemist are identical in the validity of their claims to truth.
Basically, Feyerabend was a disingenuous troll; he was infatuated with the game of argumentation, and very fond of creating a stir. It wasn’t so much that he was dishonest, more that he didn’t care if his conclusions were bullshit so long as they drew attention and irritated his opponents. But in doing so, he laid the groundwork for the Counter-Enlightenment.
Feyerabend was eventually blown out of the water by Helen Longino’s Science as Social Knowledge, where she demonstrated that although science is susceptible to all of the issues of bias and influence raised by Kuhn, it nevertheless approaches truth and objectivity when viewed collectively over the long term. She also argued that the social factors so problematic to Kuhn were in fact the driving force behind this long-term trend towards increasing accuracy.
However, in the meantime, Feyerabend’s nonsense had spread. Over in the Sociology of Science, Barnes & Bloor and Bruno Latour (Scotland and France respectively, all hardcore postmodernists) got working on the SSK Strong Programme. This was a response to an observed problem in the historiography and sociology of science: there was a tendency towards Whiggishness.
Whiggism is a view of history that frames it as an inexorable march towards progress. It’s something many historians are prone to, but they tend to be very wary of it these days. In the history of science, it manifested as a tendency to explain scientific advancement with no reference at all to social factors; “the theory changed because the old theory was false and the new theory was true”.
This is obviously a problem, but the Strong Programme folks took their response way too far. Declaring that they would now deliberately ignore the influence of the natural world on the history of science, they proceeded to analyse every scientific event as if it were motivated purely by social biases and individual prejudices.
Their writing is mostly just insufferably tedious, but in the process they provide lengthy justifications for casually discarding any piece of scientific knowledge that one dislikes. And this is a problem.
Science, overall, is arguably the greatest humanitarian and intellectual achievement in history. Science is the reason why the average lifespan is now longer than twenty years. Science is why we know that our universe is bigger than the horizon. Science is why famine and poverty are no longer an inevitability. Science is why we have the wealth and technology to sit around thinking about things like “what is science, anyway?”. Science is why a sick kid like me didn’t die a dozen times over before I was five years old.
But the power of science to do what it does fundamentally relies upon its position as a trusted source of relatively accurate knowledge. Medical science is useless if no one believes their doctor. Climate science is useless when it’s all just a conspiracy invented by the Chinese. When you needlessly damage the authority of science, you reduce its ability to save lives.
I could go on, but you get the idea. That is my experience of postmodernism; tediously longwinded bullshit that willfully ignores standards of reason and evidence in order to manufacture conclusions that attend more to fashion than truth. Some of it is just laughable gibberish (e.g. Lacan on “the mind is a torus”, Kristeva explaining why the theory of relativity is misogynistic…), some of it is actively destructive.
However: I’ve known plenty of smart people, people I respect, who do find things of value in postmodernist writings. And among the writers cited as the inspiration for postmodernism are some who I greatly respect (e.g. Kuhn).
So: what’s your experience with postmodernism? Do you like it or not? Why? What is it that you do or don’t find of value, and what is your reaction to the issues that some readers find problematic?