Goodbye True World

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"Communities may resemble each other in many respects, but the Greeks differ from Lutheran Germans, the Chinese differ from both; what they strive after and what they fear or worship are scarcely ever similar.[This] is not relativism," writes Berlin. "'I prefer coffee, you prefer champagne. We have different tastes. There is no more to be said.' That is relativism. But what I should describe as pluralism the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathising and deriving light from each other, as we derive it from reading Plato or novels of medieval Japanworlds, outlooks, very remote from our own." Although Berlin is speaking of a pluralism among cultures, his ideas can be logically extended to a discussion of pluralism within culturesor of individuals across culturesas well.

The end result of what French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has famously called "incredulity towards meta-narratives" suspicion regarding grand theories that claim to explain every cough, hiccup, and burp in human and natural historyis certainly all to the good. For even as we recognize that Enlightenment thought still largely informs our understanding of natural and social sciencesas well as individual rights and representative governmentwe should acknowledge that, as Hayek put it, the period's "naive" or "social rationalism" wrought immeasurable harm by assuming "that man in the full knowledge of what he was doing should deliberately create such a civilization and social order as the process of his reason enabled him to design. It is from this kind of social rationalism or constructivism that all modern socialism, planning and totalitarianism derives."

In a sense, postmodernism merely insists that we constantly explain ourselvesand our expla nations of ourselves. "Seeing truth as made, not found, doesn't mean deciding there is nothing 'out there,'" writes Anderson. "It means understanding that all our stories about what's out thereall our scientific facts, our religious teachings, our society's beliefs, even our personal perceptionsare the products of a highly creative interaction between human minds and the cosmos."

Such ongoing interrogation is in fact part and parcel of the Enlightenment tradition itself. Although postmodernism is often packaged (by admirers and detractors alike) as a radical, revolutionary break with the past, as with many "new and improved" products, those claims are plainly exaggerated. "Our age," observed Kant in Critique of Pure Reason, "is in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit." And, as S.S. Wolin wrote of Kant's philosophical flipside, David Hume, he "turned against the enlightenment its own weapons," looking "to whittle down the claims of reason by the use of rational analysis." This, then, may be the ultimate postmodern irony: In relentlessly questioning the whys and wherefores of the Enlightenment, its aims, methods, and motives, postmodernism may be stumbling closer to the real thing whatever that might be.

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