Shibboleths, Scapegoating and Unreason

Postmodernists are notorious for arguing that there is no truth. The world is a text open to any interpretation one may foist upon it. Of course, this is self-contradictory, since postmodernists must think that what they are saying is true.

In Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, Roger Scruton points out that postmodern  writing abandons sense and meaning and takes on a kind of ritualistic, incantatory aspect. One is not dealing with arguments per se, so pomo writing is immune to rational criticism since it is itself irrational. Once one abandons the minimum conditions for intelligibility one either joins in the nonsense or abstains. Adherents are famously incapable of distinguishing “real” pomo writing and the explicit and intended nonsense of the postmodern generator computer program.

Likewise, analytic philosophers pretend to believe in determinism even though by doing so they are explicitly counting themselves and their readers as mindless, automatons with no free will and thus no ability to genuinely think and make up their own minds. They are compelled to say what they say by physical forces and have no choice about whether they believe what they are saying or not and they claim that their readers or listeners are in the same boat. The entire exercise is pointless based on their own premises.

Feminists, liberals and all politicians of every stripe complain about the male/female wage gap. Five minutes of thought should be enough to convince them of the stupidity of this complaint. The gap is produced by women taking time off work to raise children and by women choosing men who earn more than they do for child-rearing purposes – thus men will do more than women to earn more such as working longer hours, commuting twice as far on average than women, being more willing to relocate for work and entering the death-professions where injury, death, hard physical labor, exposure to the elements and an excellent chance of not making it to retirement exist, such as mining, logging, roofing, construction, firemen, policemen, truckers, garbage collectors, etc.

Such examples of unreason have a bullying quality. They are intended more as shibboleths – as tests of group membership. Are you willing to renounce reason to the extent necessary to join this group? The more flagrantly the simplest principles of logic are flouted the more committed one proves to be if one accedes to the stupidity.

One is considered a misogynist for not agreeing that the wage gap is a problem. One proves oneself to be beyond the pale if one is not a determinist among professional philosophers. One is viewed with suspicion in some contexts for rejecting postmodernism.

Hence, one is vilified and ostracized. One is scapegoated.

The only defense against this demonic state of affairs is to appeal to reason, but abandoning reason is a condition for group membership. The more one protests the more of an anathema one is proving oneself to be. It is the same as the famous test for whether one is a witch. Dunked in a pool, you are innocent if you drown, guilty if you float – either way, you die.

When accused of a crime, the burden of proof is on the prosecution. If one can point out holes in the evidence presented against one, using logic and facts, then one can prove oneself to be not guilty. For logical reasons, one can usually not prove one is innocent, having to do with not being able to prove negatives. However, with the philosophers and the exponents of postmodernism, one can point to the contradictions in their positions that do in fact prove they are wrong. Yet, by abandoning reason and the minimal requirements of rationality, the prosecution will remain unpersuaded.

The smiling unreason of the determinist and the postmodernist; the unsmiling unreason of the liberal and feminist, return us to the witch hunt and scapegoating Catch-22s; to the brutish and demonic scapegoat mechanism where the truth is no defense.

14 thoughts on “Shibboleths, Scapegoating and Unreason

  1. Postmodernists are notorious for arguing that there is no truth. The world is a text open to any interpretation one may foist upon it. Of course, this is self-contradictory, since postmodernists must think that what they are saying is true.

    You know, it’s possible to argue against postmodernism without reducing it to a stupid caricature that nobody could possibly believe.

    If I were to say, eg, that Christianity was just about some guy who claimed to be the son of God and then came back from the dead, which is nonsense since that stuff can’t happen, you would (rightly) think I was being stupid. Because whatever your opinion of Christianity, there is more to it than that.

    Similarly, whatever you think of postmodernism it is more than the stupid caricature you offer. Serious people take it seriously. They may all be wrongheaded in various ways, but you can assume they have already thought of the all the junior-high-school level criticisms.

    I’m not really in the business of explaining or defending postmodernism, but you are driving me to it…anyway, it is not the (puerile) stance that there is no truth and we can interpret however we choose, it is rather that there is no master narrative to refer truth back to. We have various forms of knowledge such as science, religion, ethics, art…but (contrary to the claims of both science and religion) there is no bedrock foundation that is 100% reliable.

    I will use the term modem to designate any science that legitimates itself with
    reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal
    to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics
    of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth…Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodem as incredulity
    toward metanarratives.

    — Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

    It’s not we are free to interpret the world in whatever way we want, rather the opposite, it’s that we are trapped in a cultural matrix of divergent metanarrative frameworks, which govern how we interpret the world, a necessary task since we don’t have any direct (uninterpreted) knowledge of it. Postmodernism is about acknowledging this and figuring out what to do about it, rather than futilely grasping for some master narrative to tie the world together.

    While there are a lot of problems with this, it is intellectually dishonest to reduce it to something stupid. The issue of what kind of knowledge there is and how we come to have it and use it are serious questions.

    • I believe you are driving yourself to it. You are arguing here with people for whom direct knowledge of the world exists, however strange this might appear to someone caught in the narratives of the intellect. If direct knowledge isn’t possible, then there is nothing to figure out, except a different cultural matrix, which leaves us with you defending the oversimplification you are fighting.

      • Yes – the only Grand Narrative that the pomos never deconstruct is the Grand Narrative of their own heroic deconstruction of the Grand Narratives. Postmodern discourse is “taken seriously” only by people who are immersed in that discourse, and can see nothing beyond it, just as World Ice Theory is “taken seriously”… by World Ice Theorists.

        Was it Michel Foucault or some vaporous “Death-of-the-Author” wraith who cashed Michel Foucault’s royalty checks?

    • The formless one writes: “We are trapped in a cultural matrix of divergent metanarrative frameworks.” And yet, a veritable miracle, the formless one is not “trapped in a cultural matrix of divergent metanarrative frameworks.” What then does his (or her) “we” mean? It means, “everyone else except me.” It means, “the Illuminated One, me!” And then there’s Divergent, a girl-power “metanarrative,” which is to classic adventure-movies what Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge is to philosophy. The formless one is right: Postmodernism is not “stupid”; it’s silly, as in the ridiculous word “metanarrative” or the girls’ club movie Divergent.

      The formless one writes: “We are free to interpret the world in whatever way we want,” as when a man who “identifies” as a woman is privileged by what is called a law to urinate in the ladies’ toilet, or when a one-hundred-percent ancestrally European woman like Elizabeth Warren “identifies” as a Tribal American, or when Hillary Clinton “identifies” as a champion of moral righteousness who lucked out in a stock-trade. Such people have, of course, liberated themselves from the Grand Narrative.

      • Ah!
        The cognitive dissonance associated with the “metanarrative”.
        Lyotard’s least favorite fruit on the boughs of the tree of Knowledge.
        (re: The Postmodern Condition; A Report on Knowledge: 1979)

        Lyotard suggested that identity is whatever one chooses to identify and by whatever means.
        Best I could ever tell, this exercise in uncertainty and ambiguity was summed in Lyotard’s idea of a “quest for paralogies” rather than a “search for truth”.
        “Paralogy” vs “analogy”, perhaps; Lyotard doesn’t say.
        Alternatively from Kant, a search for truth by means of false reasoning.

        But then, Lyotard eventually believed his 1979 evaluation of the postmodern condition was “the worst book he had ever written”,
        Academic peer review failed utterly to detect the flaw(s) in Lyotard’s rant.
        How, exactly. could a failure of such magnitude slip past the custodians of human knowledge?

  2. I think amorphous has a point. Basically postmodernism is an affirmation of epistemological pluralism, and it arose in reaction to the epistemological monism of logical positivism and scientism. As such, it is something most Orthosphere readers should applaud. The wacky stuff that RC describes is part of the epistemological pluralism, since the end-state of postmodernism is Feyerabend’s “anything goes,” but so is the revival of traditional, non-positivist reasoning, such as neo-Thomism.

    I think RC is really complaining about the indestructibility of wacky postmodern beliefs that have infested the universities. Presumably there is an epistemological middle ground between “anything goes” and “my way or the highway.”

    • @JMSmith – I’ll accept that characterization. Ken Wilber says something similar and I like him! But I also accept Scruton’s analysis of much of it.

      • @JMSmith- Lyotard did have a good point; the arts cannot be restricted to some set of dogmatic rules. In that sense, artistic freedom is required for the man-made beauty one finds in the world.

        However, the word processor you’re using is not a consequence of artistic freedom. The laws of physics are not a form of artistic expression. Perhaps the distinction you suggest is the difference between qualitative and quantitative thinking. These are complementary modes of thought; both entail valid methods for understanding different aspects of a complex world. Such a model would suggest that knowledge is multi-dimensional, an epistemological “dyad” (2D) or “triad” (3D), perhaps.

        Lyotard’s model reduces knowledge to a single, local, and personal dimension (1D “monad”) while ignoring everything else. It isn’t so much what he affirmed; the mistake was in what he ignored by denying all “metanarratives”. He was much impressed by Wittgenstein’s analogy of “language-games”, but ignored the fundamental concepts that underlay analogies. [see “Postmodernist interpretation”]

        Misinterpretation of Wittgenstein reached epidemic levels in the late 20th century.
        In the 1930’s, Wittgenstein was working on a math problem ; i.e., Russell’s paradox.
        He used an analogy to help understand what he was thinking.

        Hence, one might wonder why analogies were removed from the SAT tests for 2016.
        Particularly, Aquinas’ “analogy of being” gets a bit fuzzy if you eliminate the analogical mode of thought,
        Postmodern academia seems to be reducing the number of modes by which human beings can understand the world they live in and what they believe.
        That isn’t academic freedom; it’s intellectual tyranny.

      • @RC – “But I also accept Scruton’s analysis of much of it.”
        I agree entirely, particularly with “postmodern writing abandons sense and meaning and takes on a kind of ritualistic, incantatory aspect.”

        Applying Wittgenstein’s thinking in 1930’s, the “ritualistic aspect” refers to how people form coherent “sets”; i.e., sets of people who accept common “rules of inclusion” that identify a coherent “set”.
        The problem is;
        Who decides what rules of inclusion apply for everyone else in a coherent set?
        There are no “meta-rules” for choosing rules of inclusion.
        That’s Russell’s paradox, more or less.

        Arguably, the postmodern mode of thought entails a quest for power and authority. Truth gets lost in this quest. The “flash mob” phenomenon is a good example. The travesty isn’t people doing silly stuff; it’s the anonymous source that proposes silly stuff in the first place.

        A better example:
        (re: BF Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971).
        Skinner held that behavioral psychology provides a “technology for the control of human behavior”, making a distinction between the controlled and the controllers.
        Skinner’s thinking is a staple in postmodern management.

        It was also a factor in the recent sex scandals that rocked religious institutions of all stripes.
        Bishops believed that their problem merely required “behavior modification” a la Skinner’s doctrine.

        Perhaps the “ritualistic, incantatory aspect” of postmodern thinking refers to more than just silly stuff at the shopping mall ??

    • “Data are theory-drenched” is a pomo word-string. After googling a bit, I can’t source it though I’m sure some pomo said it to me once when I was young and easily enraged—I think it was one of those sociologists who are into the Strong Program. They count as pomos, right? It seems insightful to me these days, rather than enraging.

      • When I was in graduate school in the mid 1980’s it was hip to say that “all data are theory-informed.” This is true insofar as all observations entail metaphysical presuppositions, but that’s not exactly what we meant back in the day. Having since read more widely (and carefully), I now know that the phrase was used to foist Marxism on my discipline. The whole purpose of the “theory-informed” wheeze was to put Marxist presuppositions on a level with more conventional modes of scholarship. And it worked.

      • In my own google trajectory, the “Sokal affair” was instructive with respect to cultural studies.
        The “Bodanov affair” provided similar insight into physics.

        Rage is not an option because it simply takes too much effort at my tender age.

        Math was more or less a trainwreck from 1900 till 1990 or so.
        Still is, if you go into all the obscure and esoteric details from the last century.
        Currently, math makes a lot of sense AFTER you choose a particular frame of reference.
        That’s the “Gödel effect”, if you will.
        You can have logical consistency, but at the expense of generality and completeness.
        I suppose that’s similar to the Strong Program.

        Point is, analogical reasoning is useful when considering similarities.
        I truly don’t understand why postmodern academia deems it unimportant.
        Universal knowledge is beyond human capability, but we routinely encounter similarities.

      • DrBill, with all due respect for your academic ordination, I hope your post does not rely on patronizing condescension. I don’t think that works very well anymore. An advanced education reflects a serious economic and emotional investment, and someone making that investment requires more than the platitudes of Ward Churchill or similarly “ordained” thinkers.

        Postmodern academia provides tenure at the expense of a larger social system. It is therefore accountable for its cumulative mistakes. The real world moves very slowly compared to academia, but it moves with a frightening finality,

        One can only hope that this hypothesis will never be tested.


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