Back From Chaos

Enlightenment thinkers knew a lot about everything, today's specialists know a lot about a little, and postmodernists doubt that we can know anything at all. One of the century's most important scientists argues, against fashion, that we can know what we need to know, and that we will discover underlying all forms of knowledge a fundamental unity.

ALL movements tend toward extremes, which is approximately where we are today. The exuberant self-realization that ran from Romanticism to modernism has given rise now to philosophical postmodernism (often called post-structuralism, especially in its more political and sociological expressions). Postmodernism is the ultimate antithesis of the Enlightenment. The difference between the two can be expressed roughly as follows: Enlightenment thinkers believed we can know everything, and radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing.

The philosophical postmodernists, a rebel crew milling beneath the black flag of anarchy, challenge the very foundations of science and traditional philosophy. Reality, the radicals among them propose, is a state constructed by the mind. In the exaggerated version of this constructivism one can discern no "real" reality, no objective truths external to mental activity, only prevailing versions disseminated by ruling social groups. Nor can ethics be firmly grounded, given that each society creates its own codes for the benefit of equivalent oppressive forces.

If these premises are correct, it follows that one culture is as good as any other in the expression of truth and morality, each in its own special way. Political multiculturalism is justified; each ethnic group and sexual preference in the community has equal validity and deserves communal support and mandated representation in educational agendas -- that is, again, if the premises are correct. And they must be correct, say their promoters, because to suggest otherwise is bigotry, which is a cardinal sin. Cardinal, that is, if we agree to waive in this one instance the postmodernist prohibition against universal truth, and all agree to agree for the common good. Thus Rousseau redivivus.

Postmodernism is expressed more explicitly still in deconstruction, a technique of literary criticism. Its underlying premise is that each author's meaning is unique to himself; neither his true intention nor anything else connected to objective reality can reliably be determined. His text is therefore open to fresh analysis and commentary from the equally solipsistic world in the head of the reviewer. But the reviewer, too, is subject to deconstruction, as is the reviewer of the reviewer, and so on in infinite regress. That is what Jacques Derrida, the creator of deconstruction, meant when he stated the formula "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" ("There is nothing outside the text"). At least, that is what I think he meant, after reading him, his defenders, and his critics with some care. If the radical postmodernist premise is correct, we can never be sure what he meant. Conversely, if that is what he meant, perhaps we are not obliged to consider his arguments further. This puzzle, which I am inclined to set aside as the "Derrida paradox," is similar to the Cretan paradox (a Cretan says "All Cretans are liars"). It awaits solution, but one should not feel any great sense of urgency in the matter.

Scientists, held responsible for what they say, have not found postmodernism useful. The postmodernist posture toward science, in turn, is one of subversion. It contains what appears to be a provisional acceptance of gravity, the periodic table, astrophysics, and similar stanchions of the external world, but in general the scientific culture is viewed as just another way of knowing, and, moreover, a mental posture contrived mostly by European and American white males.

One is tempted to place postmodernism in history's curiosity cabinet, alongside theosophy and transcendental idealism, but it has seeped by now into the mainstream of the social sciences and the humanities. It is viewed there as a technique of metatheory (theory about theories), by which scholars analyze not so much the subject matter of a scientific discipline as the cultural and psychological factors that explain why particular scientists think the way they do. The analyst places emphasis on "root metaphors," those ruling images in the thinker's mind whereby he designs theories and experiments. Here, for example, is the psychologist Kenneth Gergen explaining how modern psychology is dominated by the metaphor of human beings as machines:

Regardless of the character of the person's behavior, the mechanist theorist is virtually obliged to segment him from the environment, to view the environment in terms of stimulus or input elements, to view the person as reactive to and dependent on these input elements, to view the domain of the mental as structured (constituted of interacting elements), to segment behavior into units that can be coordinated to the stimulus inputs, and so on.

Put briefly, and to face the issue squarely, psychology is at risk of becoming a natural science. As a possible remedy for those who wish to keep it otherwise, and many scholars do, Gergen cites other, perhaps less pernicious root metaphors of mental life that might be considered, such as dramaturgy, the marketplace, and rule-following. Psychology, if not allowed to be contaminated with too much biology, can accommodate endless numbers of theoreticians in the future.

As diversity of metaphors has been added to ethnic diversity and gender dualism and then politicized, schools and ideologies have multiplied explosively. Usually leftist in orientation, the more familiar modes of general postmodernist thought include Afrocentrism, constructivist social anthropology, "critical" (that is, socialist) science, deep ecology, ecofeminism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Latourian sociology of science, and neo-Marxism -- to which must be added all the bewildering varieties of deconstructionism and New Age holism swirling round about and through them.

Their adherents fret upon the field of play, sometimes brilliantly, usually not, jargon-prone and elusive. Each in his own way seems to be drifting toward that mysterium tremendum abandoned in the seventeenth century by the Enlightenment -- and not without the expression of considerable personal anguish. Of the late Michel Foucault, the great interpreter of political power in the history of ideas, poised "at the summit of Western intellectual life," the literary critic George Scialabba has perceptively written,

Foucault was grappling with the deepest, most intractable dilemmas of modern identity.... For those who believe that neither God nor natural law nor transcendent Reason exists, and who recognize the varied and subtle ways in which material interest -- power -- has corrupted, even constituted, every previous morality, how is one to live, to what values can one hold fast?

How and to what indeed? To solve these disturbing problems, let us begin by simply walking away from Foucault, and existentialist despair. Consider this rule of thumb: to the extent that philosophical positions both confuse us and close doors to further inquiry, they are likely to be wrong.

To Foucault I would say, if I could (and I do not mean to sound patronizing), it's not so bad. Once we get over the shock of discovering that the universe was not made with us in mind, all the meaning the brain can master, and all the emotions it can bear, and all the shared adventure we might wish to enjoy, can be found by deciphering the hereditary orderliness that has borne our species through geological time and stamped it with the residues of deep history. Reason will be advanced to new levels, and emotions played in potentially infinite patterns. The true will be sorted from the false, and we will understand one another very well, the more quickly because we are the same species and possess biologically similar brains.

To those concerned about the growing dissolution and irrelevance of the intelligentsia, which is indeed alarming, I suggest that there have always been two kinds of original thinkers -- those who upon viewing disorder try to create order, and those who upon encountering order try to protest it by creating disorder. The tension between the two is what drives learning forward. It lifts us upward on a zigzagging trajectory of progress. And in the Darwinian contest of ideas order always wins, because -- simply -- that is the way the real world works.

As today's celebrants of unrestrained Romanticism, the postmodernists enrich culture. They say to the rest of us, Maybe, just maybe, you are wrong. Their ideas are like sparks from fireworks explosions that travel away in all directions, devoid of following energy, soon to wink out in the dimensionless dark. Yet a few will endure long enough to cast light in unexpected places. That is one reason to think well of postmodernism, even as it menaces rational thought. Another is the relief it affords those who have chosen not to encumber themselves with a scientific education. Another is the small industry it has created within philosophy and literary studies. Still another, the one that counts most, is the unyielding critique of traditional scholarship it provides. We will always need postmodernists or their rebellious equivalents. For what better way to strengthen organized knowledge than continually to defend it from hostile forces? John Stuart Mill correctly observed that teacher and learner alike fall asleep at their posts when there is no enemy in the field. And if somehow, against all the evidence, against all reason, the linchpin falls out and everything is reduced to epistemological confusion, we will find the courage to admit that the postmodernists were right, and in the best spirit of the Enlightenment we will start over again. Because, as the great mathematician David Hilbert once said, capturing so well that part of the human spirit expressed through the Enlightenment, "Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen." ("We must know, we will know.")

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