Goodbye True World


The Truth About Truth: De-Confusing and Re-Constructing the Postmodern World, edited by Walter Truett Anderson, New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 272 pages, $13.95

Some people fall into conversational catatonia at the mere mention of the voguish—and vague—term postmodernism. Others, seized by an intellectual version of Tourette's Syndrome, start barking and cursing wildly. Such reactions are understandable—why grapple with what might turn out to be only the latest academic version of the pet rock?—but also unfortunate. For just as we were all socialists once, all Keynsians once, and all Brooklyn Dodger fans once, we are all postmodernists now.

The negative reactions to postmodernism are unfortunate for another reason, too: Although there are important differences, a good deal of postmodern thought accords very well with the hard- and soft-core libertarian writings of people such as F.A. Hayek and Karl Popper. Hayek and Popper stressed time and again the provisional, ongoing nature of our knowledge of ourselves and our world. "We know a great deal," wrote Popper, but "our ignorance is sobering and boundless. With each step forward, with each problem which we solve, we not only discover new and unsolved problems, but we also discover that where we believed that we were standing on firm and safe ground, all things are, in truth, insecure and in a state of flux." That sort of epistemological modesty is fundamental to their arguments against widescale social engineering and utopian planning.

Postmodernism similarly complicates explanatory systems. As Walter Truett Anderson writes in the epilogue to The Truth About Truth, "The quest for universal understanding—and the work of creating a global culture—goes on. What's happening now is in many ways similar to what happened a few centuries ago when people were exploring the planet: They kept discovering they lived in a wider world and re-drawing their maps. The world that had once been flat became round, and then it became larger, and old worldviews were discarded regularly."

The postmodern willingness to walk around an object of study and check it out from different angles is often caricatured as cultural relativism at its worst. The charge doesn't really stick, though. "Nobody really believes that everything is equal, because the human mind doesn't work that way," says Anderson. "Whatever else it is doing, it is always tirelessly, relentlessly evaluating." Postmodernism's recognition of the limits of knowledge can be a useful ally in battling what Hayek once called the "engineering type of mind."

The Truth About Truth, featuring selections from more than 30 authors, including Umberto Eco, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, bell hooks, and Václav Havel, suggests the range of interests and various approaches of postmodernism. The collection is a good introduction to the topic, and Anderson's annotations explain and enliven a book that could easily have been duller than a telephone directory and more ponderous than a rock opera. Truth is a serious matter, but Anderson appreciates irony, too; hence, the inclusion of sociologist Stephen Katz's "How to Speak and Write Postmodern," an essay that originally appeared on the Internet several years back. "Postmodern language requires that one uses play, parody and indeterminacy as critical techniques," writes Katz. "Often this is quite a difficult requirement, so obscurity is a well -acknowledged substitute."

So what exactly is postmodernism? In the postscript to The Name of the Rose, reprinted in Truth, Umberto Eco has "the impression that [the adjective postmodern] is applied…to anything the user of the term happens to like." Or, alternatively, anything the user scorns. Postmodernism, like pornography, is notoriously difficult to define but people tend to know it when they see it (and, again as with pornography, there seem to be different strokes for different folks).

While difficult to nail down with any great precision, postmodernism can be seen as a critique of the ideas and activities associated with the "modern" period inaugurated by the Enlightenment, the broad-based intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that included such figures as Bacon and Descartes. (Postmodern art, a reaction to the aesthetic modernism of the early 20th century, is a related but slightly different kettle of fish.) Generally speaking, the Enlightenment countered tradition and superstition with reason and systematic observation, believing that a universal culture based on rational principles would eventually usher in a utopian age.

One of the reasons why postmodernism can only be defined loosely is that the Enlightenment itself was hardly a monolithic program. Writing in 1963, when postmodernism was hardly a twinkle in anyone's eye, Hayek observed: "To lump together under the name of 'enlightenment'…the French philosophers from Voltaire to Condorcet on the one hand, and the Scottish and English thinkers from Mandeville through Hume and Adam Smith to Edmund Burke on the other, is to gloss over differences which for the influence of these men on the next century were much more important than any superficial similarity which may exist." There's no question that Bacon and Descartes bore many offspring, some of whom looked like neither parent.

The worst tendency of Enlightenment thought—at least from a libertarian perspective—was the drive to apply "scientific" principles to human society. As the Marquis de Condorcet put it in The Perfectibility of Man (written, ironically, but not coincidentally, during the French Revolution), "The sole foundation for belief in the natural sciences is this idea, that the general laws directing the phenomena of the universe, known or unknown, are necessary and constant. Why should this principle be any less true for the development of the intellectual and moral faculties of man than for other operations of nature? Our hopes for the future condition of the human race can be subsumed under three important heads: the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind."

Underlying such an attitude is the assumption that all individuals experience the world in the same way and that ultimate "truths"—both scientific and moral—are unconditional and unchanging. "This is the character of truth," wrote Voltaire in 1750, "it is of all time, it is for all men, it has only to show itself to be recognized, and one cannot argue against it."

Postmodernists deign to argue precisely this point, often in interesting ways. "There exists no pure, uninterpreted datum," writes Danish psychologist Steiner Kvale in TTAT, "all facts embody theory." Hence, there are no simple—or final—truths that exist independent of the people, the cultures, and the languages that produce them. The variety of past, present, and future human experience always manages to escape our ability to comprehend it fully. "Skeptical postmodernists" (to use Pauline Marie Rosenau's terms) emphasize the negative potential of fragmentation, disintegration, and chaos, while "affirmatives" embrace the possibilities inherent in uncertainty.

Critics of postmodernism including hard-core conservatives such as Gertrude Himmelfarb and diehard leftists such as Frederick Jameson argue that such sentiments, whether shot through with optimism or pessimism, necessarily result in relativistic nihilism or theoretical autism. Once we turn away from the North Star of objective reality or historical necessity and steer toward the idea that consciousness is largely a subjective matter, say critics, there is nothing to keep us from becoming lost in a destructive solipsism, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness: "He had kicked himself loose of the earth…. Being alone in the wilderness, [his soul] had looked within itself, and by Heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad."

And, indeed, some elements of postmodernism seem less interested in unfettered inquiry than in scoring ideological points. Michel Foucault, for instance, at times reduced all "discourses" and "disciplines" to power structures, to means of controlling and subordinating thought to institutional power. While there is a certain strength in a broad levelling of differences, such an approach ignores the varied methods and aims applying to, say, scientific writing and literary scholarship. Two of postmodernism's marquee players, the two Jacques (Derrida and Lacan), seem to argue that linguistic structures essentially dictate the way we perceive "reality." While such analysis rightly calls attention to how particular words create specific meanings, it ignores voluminous research that suggests thought and perception precede and exist independent of language. And many postmodernists believe wholeheartedly in the "social construction of reality," the doctrine that all meaningful differences among humans are solely determined by cultural factors and hence, infinitely manipulable.

But the postmodern impulse needn't necessarily result in anything like relativistic nihilism. At its best, it leads to a more critical—if more compromised—understanding of the world, one that allows for more than one definition of truth. In an unfortunately abridged selection from The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Isaiah Berlin, drawing on the thought of Giambattista Vico and Johann Gottfried Herder, sketches out the particulars of a pluralistic world that is neither dogmatic nor disintegrated.

"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 Japan—worlds, 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 cultures—or of individuals across cultures—as 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 history—is certainly all to the good. For even as we recognize that Enlightenment thought still largely informs our understanding of natural and social sciences—as well as individual rights and representative government—we 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 ourselves—and our explanations 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 there—all our scientific facts, our religious teachings, our society's beliefs, even our personal perceptions—are 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.