Dr. Curtis Hancock

Dr. Curtis Hancock


by Curtis L. Hancock

Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
World Conference of Metaphysics, July, 2006)

Occasionally, people I know will express bewilderment at the cultural landscape that postmodernism has fashioned. They wonder how postmodernism could fascinate intellectuals and attract other agents of cultural change. Since I have an interest in the history of philosophy, these friends, acquaintances, and colleagues will ask me to opine on the genesis of our postmodern academic and social world. These inquirers are not only philosophers, by the way. They include people from many walks of life, such as primary and secondary educators, clergy, students, social scientists, and liberally educated observers of culture. To the extent they understand postmodernism, they sense that it represents the ultimate surrender of philosophy as classically understood (i.e., as philosophy according to the ancient Greeks, who first discovered and developed the discipline). They often express concern, even alarm, at whether education, as classically understood (i.e., as a disinterested pursuit of truth) can survive postmodernism. Isn’t postmodernism, one colleague asked, the abolition of education?

I will suggest here ways to answer this question in the affirmative. In these remarks, I will discuss (1) what postmodernism is and (2) how postmodernism insinuates itself into contemporary education. Finally, I will (3) test postmodernism for cogency and (4) suggest ways to restore alternatives to post-modernism in the academy and the wider culture. In nine-and-a-half pages, I cannot discuss these matters in depth, but, at least, I can make some observations as a springboard for our panel discussion.

In commenting on these issues, I will identify certain postmodernist themes, especially the themes of skepticism and tolerance. These themes, among others, I refer to as “idols of the education tribe,” because, in my judgment, they have become axiomatic in today’s academy.

The Nature of Postmodernism



Advisably, postmodernism is not a subject that one should define. It covers a broad spectrum of theories. Yet there are traits that postmodernists share. Most notably, postmodernism is (1) neo-Heraclitean, Heraclitus

(2) skeptical, and (3) reactive. By “neo-Heraclitean” I mean that experience labors under such flux that neither objects of knowledge nor the knower have identities sufficient to establish objectively justifiable knowledge. “Identity,” or the lack thereof, is a principal postmodern motif. This motif is especially evident in the work of Jacques Derrida, who states that identities, presences, or predications exist only by virtue of what they are not. Experience is fluid because its objects (presence) are constituted by what they are not (a realm he refers to by the neologism, différance). Every identity depends on something other than itself. We cannot access these differences, because if they are absent, they, obviously, are not present to us. “The self identity of the signified conceals itself unceasingly and is always on the move.”[i] It follows that presence is a construction, primarily of language. Since we are born into a culture that has inherited linguistic structures, philosophy begins with their deconstruction.

I call postmodernism “neo-Heraclitean,” so as to distinguish it from the ancient variety. Postmodernism is anti-realist, meaning that the mind does not grasp real (extramental) things, but its own objects (intramental states), which are constructed by culture, language, and psychology. This, of course, differs from the actual followers of Heraclitus, who, being Greek cosmologists, were realists, confident that the mind was in contact with reality (even though a reality in constant flux). Perhaps, to continue the play on ancient philosophy, one could speak of postmodernism as “neo-Protagoreanism,” since the movement is committed to Kant’s conviction that the measure and “fixity” of knowledge is not provided by awareness of the real but by the mind’s own constructions.

(2) This neo-Heracliteanism implies a radical skepticism, of course, because consciousness cannot grasp reality. It must be content with its own constructions or those it has inherited. Neither the knower nor the known abide so as to secure a stable object. Anti-realism compounds this skepticism, as postmodernists radically develop the implicit skepticism of the moderns that the objects of consciousness are its own states. Since consciousness is itself predication, postmodernism is essentially linguistic. It is nominalism. In light of these remarks, postmodernism radically extends and develops certain characteristics of modernism: skepticism (Descartes , and Locke), nominalism (Hobbes, Berkeley, and Hume), and anti-realism (Kant).

(3) Nonetheless, postmodernism reacts to modernism, for early moderns did not recognize the implications of their skepticism. In spite of their skepticism, early moderns were confident that reason somehow could objectively justify answers to many, if not all, practical and speculative philosophical problems. To the contrary, postmodernism asserts that knowledge, including awareness of goodness, rightness, and the human subject, is a cultural construction. Since there are no objective standards, nor human nature to establish natural law to dictate how human beings ought to behave, reason is a rule for self-invention. Once reason recognizes that it is self-justifying, it transcends finally its “self-incurred immaturity,” as Kant put it. Reason is, at last, autonomous.

For Richard Rorty, postmodernism represents the last stage of the Enlightenment Project, which has already passed through Rationalism and Romanticism. We are now in a third stage, bringing to a close the Enlightenment Project. This last stage he labels “ironic,” because, while philosophical claims to objective truth are empty, each self has its best opportunity to live autonomously on the pretense that talk about truth matters. This serious talk about what, in the end, must be play is ironic. Since everyone’s interest is served by these conditions for democratic discourse, social solidarity can exist. Rorty believes that there are no standards of justification for our narrations. All we have are the constructions of our narrations themselves. “Truth,” to the extent the word should be used at all, is relative to social consensus. Through its narration, each self seeks novelty. This pursuit of novelty without standards to adjudicate differing narrations is central to postmodernism.

Postmodernism takes Kantian autonomy and radicalizes it. Accordingly, philosophy is not bound by objective standards, nor can it pursue public truth, except as a will to power. In such a state of affairs, the aggregate “we” trumps the individual. Still, postmodernists, like Richard Rorty , insist that the solidarity of community depends on tolerance. Since one cannot ultimately justify one worldview or moral behavior over another, one must demonstrate unlimited openness. For postmodernists intolerance is added to the original list of deadly sins. Social dialogue, along with institutions that support it, is a social priority. Since toleration makes autonomy and open discourse possible, toleration is a necessary condition for the self-invention that is the postmodernist’s project. Postmodernism “substitutes Freedom for Truth as the goal of thinking.”[ii] Democracy is prior to philosophy.

Postmodernists disagree whether tolerance is negative or positive. For Richard Rorty, tolerance is a condition for liberal democracy. But for other postmodernists, such as Michel Foucault, tolerance requires that we make the world safe for tolerance. This view calls for a liquidation of all cultural bases of intolerance. Intolerance is defined as willful perpetuation of our self-imposed immaturity, to use Kant’s language again, and something we must transcend, perhaps with the aid (or coercion) of others, as enlightened participants in historical progress, to use the language of Rousseau. Hence, curiously, postmodernism is, for some, supportive of democratic politics; for others, collectivist politics.

Postmodern Idols on Campus

Among educators, one will detect these postmodern attitudes in conversation, practice, and policy. This is especially evident in the prevailing (1) multiculturalism, (2) skepticism, and (3) political direction in today’s schools. (1) Multiculturalism conforms to the postmodern belief that the content of worldviews and moral attitudes is unjustifiable. Tolerance demands it. Accordingly, “no judgments” about individual values and cultural differences is the watchword.

(2) No more conspicuous casualty exists on campus than the word “truth.” Expressions ranging from bemusement to horror will appear on the faces of academics when the dreaded “t-word” occurs in conversation, especially if one uses it in the classical sense to suggest that education is about conveying objective truth to students. In the postmodern worldview, truth becomes relativistic and arbitrary. One may have her “truth,” as an assertion of her will and her self-invented reason, but truth that is objective and arguable by publicly rational standards is an illusion.

(3) Since an authentic human being ought not to make judgments, and since there is no way to adjudicate the truth-content of such judgments, education devolves into the will to power. A vision of enlightened postmodern society is put forward as the consensus for an educational standard. Hence, the political indoctrination in schools abounds, an annoyance to some parents who see their children imbibing values and politics that may radically differ from their own.

I should add that, as a rule, educators do not argue for these beliefs. They are assertions more than arguments. They are uncritically accepted as the consensus. Multiculturalism, skepticism, and postmodern politics are the zeitgeist.

An Assessment of Postmodernism

I dare say that the postmodernists themselves do little more than assert their views. This is not so much a criticism of their positions as a description. They themselves admit that they have abandoned the “metaphysics of demonstration” and embrace poetic _expression to suggest their worldview. In this way, they claim to elude criticism. Of course, this will not do. By this strategy, postmodernists find themselves in a quandary. On the one hand, if they argue for their position, they contradict themselves. On the other, if they do not, what reasons do we have philosophically for accepting their worldview?

In other words, the standard criticism of postmodernists is that they suffer self-refutation. Postmodernists try to avoid this by demurring to offer another theory of reality. Their philosophical vision is put forward poetically. Hence, it is not bound by the standards of logical truth or falsehood, according to which to assert “x” implies denying “not x.” However, this response appears to be more of a dodge than an adequate answer. “Any theory, thesis, viewpoint, etc., whatever it is, and however one conceives and presents it, is telling us how things really stand, or how things really are. Insofar as it does this, it is a substantive thesis, and must be firmly within the metaphysics of presence.”[iii] When Derrida says that the mind can mistake constructions for reality, because reality is differentiated and elusive to cognition, and that, therefore, the mind must resign itself to its own constructions, he is making claims about the reality of the human condition and knowledge. So not only does Derrrida not avoid the metaphysics of presence, it is logically impossible to avoid the metaphysics of presence due to the nature of reality and its relationship to thought. Derrida might reply that his writings are not vulnerable to logical difficulties because logic itself is precisely what his work calls into question. But if this is the point about logic that he is supposed to be establishing, he cannot beg the question and dismiss a priori our use of logic to evaluate his effort. The demolition of logic has to be an outcome of his view. He cannot presuppose its destruction initially.

Richard-Rorty-QuotesSimilarly, Rorty’s work is unconvincing because he uses public reasoning against the possibility of public reason. In spite of his protests, his writings abound in truth claims. But, like Derrida, he maneuvers against charges of what he calls “self-referential inconsistency” by saying such charges rely on standards that retain theology and metaphysics. Since he is deconstructing theology and metaphysics, his work cannot be measured by such standards. All we have are motives, not reasons. Philosophy has been replaced by poetry, and the “strong poet” asserts his or her motives as matters of will. Language is not a “mirror” representing the way the world is, but only a tool for dealing with it. Rorty declares that he is a pragmatist and that his mentor is John Dewey, although, for Rorty, pragmatism is not a “faith,” merely a method. But the primacy of will shows his more distant mentor is Nietzsche, for whom what matters is that one can say about one’s life: “I willed it!.” This will is not arbitrary because it is a reaction to fear; fear that oneself will be forgotten; fear that oneself will lack novelty and just repeat “the coinage of his predecessors.” “Ironist theory is thus a ladder which is to be thrown away as soon as one has figured out what it was that drove one’s predecessors to theorize.”[iv] Once the ladder to the past has been kicked away, one is not bound by those standards. Life is about managing the resulting contingencies of this historicism, about having the courage, as Freud said, to “treat chance as worthy of determining our fate.” Ultimately, the only standard is the will of the self itself. “Charges of inconsistency or moral relativism do not apply to the ironist who does not acknowledge the referents by which inconsistency or relativism might be determined.”[v]

Of course, I may still object in the same spirit as I did with Derrida. First, Rorty implies metaphysical claims when he declares himself a pragmatist. Pragmatists frequently overlook this fact, making them vulnerable to the barb that “pragmatism doesn’t work.” While it is a tired criticism, it still has legs: a tool works because implicitly it refers to the way the world is. A fork is a tool because I know really what it is to eat and to open my mouth. Tools are parasitic on awareness of what is the case. Hence, pragmatism implies a metaphysics.

Beyond this, Rorty regularly enumerates numerous things he believes are the case and, to compound his difficulties, draws logical conclusions from them. Richard John Neuhaus makes this criticism effectively:

He knows that people do and do not fear, he knows that Freud has given us a way to understand human behavior that is more adequate than earlier descriptions, he knows the course of history toward maximizing freedom, goodness and truth will take care of themselves. He even knows that “scientific discoveries” have discredited belief in an immortal soul. The ironist’s final vocabulary turns out to be not so formal as it appears; it is filled with contents that other people call facts, and about which, contra the first article of his ironist’s creed, Rorty gives no indication of having “radical and continuing doubts.”[vi] Even these brief critical remarks suffice to indicate that postmodernism—if Derrida and Rorty are its representatives—is unconvincing and incoherent.

A Final Word on Postmodern Idols in the Schools

In light of the incoherencies of postmodernism, its influence on education is unfortunate. In today’s academy pronouncements about policies, practices, and pedagogies rely commonly on postmodernist language. This influence is especially manifest in the earnest regard for certain icons of postmodernism evident in primary, secondary, and university teaching today: These icons include especially tolerance, relativistic discourse, lack of standards, pragmatism, autonomy in private virtue, and collectivism in civic virtue.

Having shown how problematic postmodernism is, we ought to challenge educators’ reverence for these icons. A recovery is called for. This recovery consists in a classical realism and a virtue ethics and the philosophy of the human person that justifies them. In short, this is a return to “common sense,” an _expression much maligned in both modern and postmodern philosophy. Of course, skeptics have to deride common sense. Once the consensus among intellectuals is to accept beliefs that are counterintuitive to people untrained in departments of philosophy, their criticism and bemusement can be dismissed as the doubts of the unsophisticated. This fosters a Gnostic culture, as Eric Voegelin explains, in which modern and postmodern intellectuals seek to create a Magisterium of secular intellectuals. This is the consensus of Enlightened intellectuals who qualify for what Kant called “public speech,” by which even common sense is criticized. In this way, modern and postmodern intellectuals can use education and other arms of culture to monopolize discourse about their definition and interpretation of the social contract. They can protect public speech from intolerance. They can root out intolerance wherever it occurs. People who are not qualified for “public speech,” that is, those who live by the guidance of common sense, can be forced to be tolerant, just as Rousseau said Enlightened leaders can force citizens to be free. In education and in practice, this is political correctness, another idol of the postmodern pedagogical tribe.

[i] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 49.
[ii] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. xiii.
[iii] Brendan Sweetman, “The Deconstruction of Western Metaphysics: Derrida and Maritain on Identity,” in Postmodernism and Christian Philosophy (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Unviersity of America Press, 1997), pp. 241-242.
[iv] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.
[v] Richard John Neuhaus, “Joshing Richard Rorty,” First Things, December, 1990, p. 19.
[vi] Ibid., p. 19.