MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Libertarian Postmodernism—A Reply to Jordan Peterson and the Intellectual Dark Web: New at Reason

Reason's Nick Gillespie defends Foucault, Hayek, and an "incredulity towards metanarratives."

People of many political persuasions have identified postmodernism as a major threat to civilization. The most notable recent attacks have come from Jordan Peterson and other members of the so-called "Intellectual Dark Web."

Reason Editor-at-Large Nick Gillespie has a problem with that. He sat down with Zach Weissmueller, video journalist for Reason TV, to discuss and defend postmodernism—a term he says has been widely mischaracterized by its most vociferous critics—from a libertarian perspective.

Watch the full interview above. Transcript is below.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Lorenz Lo.

"Say It Again, I'm Listening," by Daniel Birch is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial NoDerivatives 4.0 License: (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/) Source: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Daniel_Birch/Synth_Movements_Vol1/Say_It_Again_Im_Listening Artist: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Daniel_Birch

"Fluid Dreams," by Daniel Birch is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial NoDerivatives 4.0 License: (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/) Source: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Daniel_Birch/Synth_Movements_Vol1/Fluid_Dreams Artist: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Daniel_Birch

"Telling Me Yes," by Ryan Andersen is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial NoDerivatives 4.0 License: (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/) Source: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Ryan_Andersen/MORE/Telling_Me_Yes Artist: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Ryan_Andersen

Subscribe to our YouTube channel

Like us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter

Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes

Subscribe to it via FeedPress.

Subscribe to it via Google Play Music.

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT: This is a rush transcript. Check against video for accuracy.

Zach Weissmueller: [0:48] Postmodernism has been identified as a threat to civilization by people of all sorts of political persuasions over the years. Recently, most prominently, by Jordan Peterson and other members of what's become known as the Intellectual Dark Web. But you, Nick Gillespie, think that postmodernism might be useful and is not all bad from a libertarian perspective. First, what exactly is your understanding of postmodernism?

Nick Gillespie: [1:18] Yeah, famously in the 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard, he defined postmodernism as "incredulity toward metanarratives," which means that, you don't take knowledge, or assertions of knowledge, as a given, but rather you understand that knowledge and wisdom, and even scientific understanding of things, is not something that you're walking around and you discover in the backyard that you stumble across like you stumble across the Grand Canyon, or a mountain, or something. Rather it's something that produced by humans, and, as a result, it's contingent, it's limited.

Incredulity toward metanarratives means that you are skeptical of these big stories that we tell about, "Well this is the why the world is the way it is. This is why it's always been that way. This is why it always will be that way." Or, alternatively, "This is why the world should be this way, which just happens to comport with what I want." I see that phrase, incredulity toward meta narrative, as very simpatico with libertarianism, and it's very simpatico with something like public choice economics, which James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, the founders of it, called "politics without romance." What it does is it looks at what is being said, why it is being said, who benefits, and whether or not it actually holds up to scrutiny from a kind of 360-degree angle.

Excerpt of Michel Foucault: [2:38] It seems to be that the real political task in our contemporary society is to criticize the workings of insitutions--particularly the ones that appear to be neutral and independent--and to attack them in such a way that the political violence, which has always exercised itself obscurely through them, will finally be unmasked so one can fight against them.

Excerpt of Jordan B. Peterson: [3:04] People in power do tend to act in their best interests, but a tendency is not an absolute, and that's one of the things that needs to be considered continually. There are no shortage of flaws in the manner in which we've structured our society, and compared to any hypothetical utopia, it's an absolutely dismal wreck.

But compared to the rest of the world, and the plight of other societies throughout the history of mankind, we're doing pretty damn well, and we should be happy to be living in the society that we're living in. The first thing that you might want to know about postmodernism is that it doesn't have a shred of gratitude.

Weissmueller: Peterson and other defenders of the classical liberal tradition say that—

Gillespie: [3:46] No, no, no. Wait, and I'm sorry to interrupt you, but they're not defenders of the classical liberal tradition. Peterson talks much more about being a conservative, which is not being a classical liberal. I think that's an important distinction to make. What he argues at various points is that, he seems to be saying they don't have any gratitude. First off, any cultural critic from any point of view... I love the fact that I was born in the late 20th century and am living in the 21st century in the West, or what's now, what is called the West.

That's great. Does that mean I have some gratitude for it, but I'm not allowed to interrogate my own culture? Even he is admitting constantly that Western civilization, however you want to define that, is constantly in flux, it fails itself, it is constantly falling short of its own goals, its own aspirations, its own ideals. This idea that you can't criticize your own society without, unless you show enough gratitude, it's just nonsense words. It's culture warriordom.

Weissmueller: [4:50] One thing you hear along those lines is that postmodernism leads to moral relativism, where we can't say that one idea, or a set of social arrangements is any better than the other. Is that a serious objection?

Gillespie: I don't think so, particularly there's two things to consider. One is the idea that people are somehow disallowed from disagreeing, or from denouncing certain aspects of the world, whether you're a right winger, or a left winger. I think the very existence of social media proves that's wrong. There are attempts at censorship and whatnot. There is no shortage of people bitching and moaning about every goddamn choice that everybody around them makes, both big and small, so that's just just spurious. The larger question, and this gets to the distinction between being a classical liberal, or a libertarian, I think, and being a conservative: Do you believe in pluralism or not? If so, what is your commitment to saying, "On things that are very important to each of us, we fundamentally disagree with one another. How do we live peacefully with that?"

That is the actual signal accomplishment of Western civilization, and it came out of the religious wars when people took religion very seriously. "You believe in the Pope. I believe in an unmediated access to Jesus Christ, my Lord and savior." Or, "I believe in this version of Protestantism versus your version of Protestantism." People used to kill each other in Europe and in North America over these questions. We don't anymore. That is not moral relativism; it's pluralism. And that's the thing that we need to get back to and understand and fully appreciate. That's the great achievement of Western civilization, if we're using that term... of civilization, that we can disagree on fundamental things and still live peacefully side by side.

Weissmueller: [6:35] How does a postmodernist embrace pluralism and avoid sliding into moral relativism?

Gillespie: Well, it depends on what we're talking about here, because you'll search far and wide for anybody, whether they're a Marxist, whether they're a monarchist, whether they're a postmodernist, a liberal, a conservative, republican, whatever, who will say like, "Oh, murder and rape of children are good things." Or, "It's no different than not raping them, or not killing them." These are false charges. There are large broad moral absolutes that virtually everybody agrees with.

Pluralism is a world in which people who believe deeply, deeply, deeply in God, and they believe in different conceptions of God, and the stakes are as high as they can possibly be, can get along without killing each other, and can actually gain from talking to each other and engaging each other in peaceful commerce, in peaceful discussion and peaceful dialogue. This is where I think Peterson in particular, more than many people of that kind of follow him, is really great on the issue of free speech and demanding free speech, particular at college campuses. It is truly a sad state of affairs that especially on college campuses, of all places, or universities, speech is being restricted for reasons that are not particularly clear or compelling.

Excerpt of Richard Dawkins: [8:01] Gravity is not a version of the truth, it is the truth. Anybody who doubts it, is invited to jump out of a 10th floor window.

Gillespie: I think Richard Dawkins is demonstrating there why every time he speaks, even people who don't believe in God suddenly want to worship Jesus. Friedrich Hayek in a book that came out in the early '50s called The Counter-Revolution of Science, referred to what Dawkins is doing as "scientism": Taking a kind of understanding of knowledge, the production of knowledge and the assertion of knowledge and truth, at least with a lowercase "t," in one area, and then trying to mechanically apply it to other aspects of the world, where it just doesn't make any sense to do that.

I think you can see that Dawkins is right about gravity, and that tells us exactly nothing about what's the best job to have, who should we love, should love among same-sex people be legalized or not? These are totally different realms, and only a modernist—an unreconstructed modernist—would try to claim that because we know physics, we know everything about human activity and human society.

Excerpt of F.A. Hayek: [9:04] A physicist believes that you must be able to reproduce every intellectual model in detail. That you really master everything. That's why I've come to the conclusion to say that the physical science is really the science of the simple phenomena.

As you move from the physical sciences, to the biological and the social science, it gets into more and more complex phenomena. This essence of complex phenomena is that you can explain the principles on which they work, but you never can master all the data which enter into this complex phenomena, therefore, even with perfect theory, it does not enable you to predict what's going to happen.

Weissmueller: Does postmodernism undermine productive conversation by questioning the validity of rationality itself? I mean we work at a place called Reason that purports to believe in reasons dialogue, and without dialogue it seems like the only recourse you have is tribalism, and that might partially explain the rise of identity politics, which is what seems to concern Peterson. Postmodernism and productive dialogue, are those two things compatible?

Gillespie: [10:17] Yeah, I think they're totally compatible, and in fact postmodernism celebrates the limits of human knowledge. Not that we don't have any knowledge, but that the knowledge we have is constantly being revised, adapted, discarded, and expanded, and pushed forward so that we know more.

But this is something somebody like Karl Popper, who was very ideologically akin-- or actually epistemologically akin--to Friedrich Hayek, who is a great libertarian social theorist, said that, "The real truth about science is that the more we learn, or with every new breakthrough, we recognize how little we really know about other things, and we constantly move forward."

Excerpt of Karl Popper: The discovery of new problems can be more important than the solution of the problems. I think this is perhaps the most important thing in science, and is the result of an attitude, which does not go for certainty, but goes for where we fail... for the uncertainty.

Gillespie: [11:29] Postmodernism merely says that our knowledge is contingent, and it's going to change, it's going to evolve, and hopefully it's going to get better. It actually is one of the great foregrounds of conversation and of dialogue. If you are a hardcore modernist, meaning that you figured it out, you're a French revolutionary, and there's a figure that Hayek in particular attacks in The Counter-Revolution of Science--the Marquis de Condorcet--who ended up becoming a victim of the French Revolution. Condorcet said, "Look, we found, we figured out how biology works. We figured out how physics works, math, in all of these natural sciences. We can apply that to human society and actually kind of perfect man, speed up the evolution of society towards perfection."

That's a dangerous thing. Condorcet and the French revolutionaries didn't want to have dialogues with people, because they already knew what they wanted. They moved forward. It's really the postmodernist, in my experience, and particularly in the way I'm talking about it, a libertarian postmodernism, which starts with the idea that I have my point of view and I have a hypothesis, and it might be predictive, it might be useful. It will become persuasive the more that I am able to engage you and convince you that it makes sense and that it has something meaningful and important to say about how we might go forward in history and in our individual lives.

Weissmueller: [12:52] People like Peterson and others like Steven Pinker, view themselves as defenders of the Enlightenment. I've always viewed libertarianism, and classical liberalism obviously, as a product of the Enlightenment. Is postmodernism compatible? How does that square with Enlightenment ideas and values?

Gillespie: Well, first off, we need to get rid of this idea that there is the Enlightenment, or an Enlightenment. There are multiple enlightenments. People like David Hume would underscore that in his own writings. There are many aspects, and the Enlightenment is best understood not as a single course that a bunch of really smart people took and got A's in.

It was a wide-ranging set of activities and a shift in mentality and understanding that was born out by technological innovation as well as political innovation, and social reality and historical reality. People were tired of killing themselves over which god, because of the gods they worshiped, and which god was more powerful or more right, and who, and which god gave me the right to force you to live the way that I wanted to. The political achievement of the Enlightenment is classical liberalism, which is the idea of a limited government, the idea that individuals matter, and that they have rights that come before government. This is instantiated in America's founding documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence. We hold these rights to be self evident that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That's a powerful statement. That is an Enlightenment statement, but it's not the whole thing.

[14:40] If you don't think the French Revolution, every bit as much as the American Revolution, is a product of the Enlightenment, and of Enlightenment thinking, then you are merely saying, "I refuse to take anything bad and associate it with the Enlightenment." But the fact is getting rid of superstition, getting rid of speaking from authority, demanding that we get rid of the rule of kings, but then we put in the rule of science or the rule of a vaguely formed populace, a vox populi, that gets to dictate what we do. That's part of the Enlightenment as well. Romanticism with a capital R, both as an aesthetic movement, but especially as a political or philosophical movement is a reaction to industrialism, but it is also part and parcel of the Enlightenment, as is, in perverted and dark forms, Nazism and the Soviet Union, and the gulag: The systematization of social organization, the various things like that.

The Enlightenment has many, many good things in it, and many, many bad things in it. If we're not taking that in the totality and looking at how these things are intertwined, I don't think we're being serious intellectually, and we're more likely to fall into the same problems that we saw in the 20th Century in particular.

Excerpt of Jordan B. Peterson: Postmodernism, in many ways, especially as it's played out politically, is the new skin that the old Marxism now inhabits.

Excerpt of Pat Buchanan: They had to get into the culture and change the way of people's thinking through Hollywood, and all the rest of it, to create an anti-Christian culture, which would destroy the Christian beliefs and convictions in the vast majority of the people-

... so they would embrace the ideas of Marxism, and they would embrace the ideas that they had rejected, and they would be open to a takeover, basically, by Marxism.

Weissmueller: [16:36] So one theory says that postmodernism is really the latest evolution of Marxism. After communism failed all over the world, the Marxists decided, "We need to undermine Western culture." Is postmodernism Marxism in disguise?

Gillespie: No, and actually back when I was going to grad school, if you liked something, you would call it postmodern because you wanted it to be a positive thing. Now, if you dislike something, I think you tend to call it postmodern. One of the most interesting things about postmodernism and its changing kind of value in the academic marketplace: In the earlier '90s Fredrick Jameson, comparative literature and English literature professor at Duke, wrote a book called Post Modernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. He's a Marxist scholar. In the early '90s, if you were a Marxist, you looked at postmodernism and you said, "This is the cultural logic of late capitalism. It hides the economic base and the exploitation that is at the very center and the foundation of capitalism. Postmodernism is giving people a kind of diversion from what they should be looking at, which is the brutal fact of their own exploitation."

You flash forward 25 years later and now it's the Right who is sort of saying that postmodernism is the ultimate triumph of Marxism. It's a little bit confusing to me because what drops out in all of this is the role of the consumer and the producer in what we're talking about and any stable definition of what it means to be postmodern.

Weissmueller: [18:11] The French postmodernists, people like Foucault, what was their relationship like to Marxism?

Gillespie: Both he and Derrida were seen as antagonistic to Marxism. They were not sufficiently political or ideological in a way that, for instance, celebrated the Soviet Union or were highly politicized. Michel Foucault was obsessed with the understanding of power and how power circulates in a given system, and how you might limit or divert that, or spread it around, and decentralize it. In this, he follows nobody more closely than Thomas Szasz, who was a psychiatrist, for decades was a contributing editor at Reason magazine. He's everybody's idea of libertarian. In the early '60s, Thomas Szasz wrote a book called The Myth of Mental Illness. In the early '60s, Michel Foucault published his first book-length work, The Birth of the Clinic.

Each of these looked at the ways in which the medical establishment under the guise of using helper language, "We're going to help you get well. We're going to help solve your mental illness. We're going to make you feel better. We're going to banish death and illness." Under the guise of that kind of helping positive language, they were actually systems of social control, of getting and taking people who were problematic in society, casting them as sick and ill, and then removing them from society or controlling them through the use of... It could be physical manipulation akin to torture. It could be drugs. It could be operations, all sorts of things.

[19:39] Foucault and Szasz have many things that they're different about, but they actually also overlap a lot, and this is one of the things when you get to that "incredulity toward metanarrative" that Lyotard used to define the essence of postmodernism. This is what post modernism is. It's taking a whole discourse, and asking, "Is it true? Does it benefit people? Does it benefit people by hiding certain kind of contradictions or a curious lack of persuasion in its rhetoric or in the data that it's hiding to prove it. "

Excerpt of F.A. Hayek: [20:38] Socialism assumes that all the available knowledge can be used by a single central authority. It overlooks the model of society, which I will prefer to call the external order, which exceeds the perception of any individual mind, is based on the utilization of widely dispersed knowledge. Once you are aware that we can achieve that great utilization of available resources, only because we utilize the knowledge of millions of men, it becomes clear that the assumption of socialism as a central authority and in command of all this this knowledge is just not correct.

Weissmueller: [21:27] You detect a postmodern strain in certain libertarian thinkers, notably F. A. Hayek. What post modern ideas are most important to contemporary libertarianism?

Gillespie: I think when you think about libertarian ideas, particularly about governance and at any point when people start to say, "We know this to be true, so we are going to force everybody to live this particular way." The distinction between postmodernism and libertarianism gets pretty narrow pretty quickly. I think when you look at the idea of understanding that we all have partial knowledge of the world, particularly in the social sphere, we're not talking about what Hayek called relatively simple systems of knowledge, like chemistry, and biology, and physics, where there are relatively few variables at play at any given point, and we can kind of model things and get things right.

[22:23] When you start thinking about human societies, and when you're talking about what Hayek called the "extended order" or the market order where there are millions of people, if not billions of people, who have subjective desires that they want, which change all the time, how do you equilibrate all of that into something other than mere chaos, madness, hostility? One of the ways you do that is by recognizing the limits of your knowledge rather than demanding that everybody exceed to what you consider to be the full knowledge of what is right, what is proper, what is valuable, what is not. This is also one of the reasons why Marxists back in the day hated postmodernism because it was antithetical to Marxism, which believed that there is an inherent value or an inherent essence in any given situation and that that's not subject to flux.

That's one of the reasons they hated capitalism. Because they felt like values go up and down in a way that is very difficult. You can't plan. You can't do this. You can't do that. You certainly can't control how people are going to act and react to things. One of the great things that libertarians have done, Hayek certainly, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, they would go back through history and they would show a lot of the things that we thought were true actually weren't. That's also what somebody like Michel Foucault does. He would talk about an archeology of knowledge rather than a God-given divine understanding of everything in the past. Archeology implies that we're creating the past from the future looking backwards rather than discovering it like we are on a dig somewhere where you brush down gently and you find the tomb of King Tut or something like that.

[24:09] These are human creations and we should not mistake the map that we're drawing for the actual territory we're trying to describe. There were times where people who might call themselves post modernists or whatever would say, "Well, science is just another story we tell. It's no different than the Bible. It's no different than a bedtime story." It actually serves the nefarious ends of a patriarchy or a this or a that. We recognize that fully. During the Cold War, people would look at the way that the Soviet Union political prisoners were invariably called psychiatric patients, and they were put in mental institutions but, of course, that couldn't happen here because we're an open society.

People like Szasz and Foucault challenged that in a way that is very difficult to accept. It's hard. But growing up there were all kinds of medical truths that we held to be self evident. Go ask women who graduated to high school before about 1995. Ask them if they pole vaulted on the track team. It was a given. It was a scientific fact, a medical fact, that women just didn't have the upper-body strength to pole vault, so you didn't have pole vaulters at the high school and the college level.

[25:27] You do now because it turns out, actually, that a lot of the things that we thought about women in particular is just false, like as a question of physiology, but then there are other things where it's like, well, women throughout history--and this is where postmodernism grants the idea that we're not perfect and that we make a lot of mistakes, and we gain more knowledge as we move forward through time rather than truth being revealed once and for all in some kind of biblical or religious ectasy--but women for a long time, well, they shouldn't have the vote because women have menstrual periods, and that changes the way they think or maybe it's not that women can't think so well, but it's they're too bound to their body or they can abstract out of certain situations because their brains are different than men.

We find as we get into more of this stuff there are real biological differences, obviously, between men and women, but they don't always show up the way that we think, and they don't always mean what we think they mean in social situations. That's one of the key things. Again, to go back to Hayek and The Counter Revolution of Science, the whole point isn't that scientific knowledge doesn't exist and that it doesn't work within that sphere, but somewhere, and he identifies it as being in the early 19th Century, particularly in Continental France, science was taken out of the realm of the natural research sciences, and brought to bear on human organization. That's the primary abuse is taking science out of its realm where it actually was explanatory and powerful, and putting it into human society where it actually doesn't do a very good job of helping us understand society or people.

Weissmueller: [27:38] What are the aesthetics of postmodernism and how do they affect our perception of art and media?

Gillespie: What postmodernism does, certainly in TV shows, in architecture, and art, it kind of celebrates and foregrounds the creation of meaning rather than kind of trying to show a perfectly finished product at the end that seems to have just come out of nowhere. Postmodernism is constantly bringing to the fore the idea that you are constructing meaning by watching things. "The Simpsons" is paradigmatic in this case in the '90s. "The Simpsons" is rife with examples where the TV family is watching a TV family that's watching a TV family, and they're figuring out how do you consume this critically? How do you construct meaning? What are the tropes? What are the motifs? What are the narrative forms that are used to make you think something is normal or natural when, in fact, it's all weird and fucked up?

Weissmueller: Postmodern art tends to be self-aware, reflexive. What if an entire Q & A were, in fact, pre-scripted to some degree, and what if the interviewer tipped his hand a bit to the audience at some point? What would that, for instance, say about the conversation, or about conversation in general, or what would it say about postmodernism?

Gillespie: You know, I think it's probably already happened in this video and it will in every other conversation that you have. If we take "Rick and Morty" and the multiverse seriously, all of this has already happened and it will continue to happen in an infinite number of ways at different times. "Mystery Science Theater 3000" would show bad movies while three people, or one man and two robots usually, gave running commentary on it. What it calls attention to is its own creation and construction of meaning and of value and of things like that.

I think that's a very useful thing. In a media age, in a world where we are meeting more and more different people from more and more different places and more and more different backgrounds.

That's a very useful aesthetic to have. How do we create meaning? How do we construct things? How do we find ourselves and define ourselves as individuals and as groups?

The points I'm making here actually remind me of one of the most consistent blunders, I think, that critics of postmodernism make, particularly in a university context, when they're talking about identity politics. You'll hear this again and again from people who say, "Postmodernism is bad," "Postmodernism is evil, "Postmodernism is rotten," "Postmodernism is the same thing as identity politics."

Excerpt of Jordan B. Peterson: [talking to Joe Rogan] If you're a postmodernist, just to have a discussion with someone like you… cisgendered male of power, and white to boot, it's like, that's an evil act in of itself!

Gillespie: [30:40] In fact, postmodernism is anti-essentialism. It says that there is no one fact of our lives that totally defines us. Intersectionality, which is a current term in feminism, is actually all about saying, "Each of us, whoever we are, we are the product or the sum of multiple, overlapping, often times contradictory identities, communities, backgrounds, historical forces, and in order to fully understand things, we need to layer these things on top of one another to understand exactly where we are at any given point in time and how we might interact the most productively, the most peacefully, the most interestingly, and the most humanely with other people whom we don't necessarily recognize as part of our tribe."

Weissmueller: [31:27] So in a 2-hour 15-minute debate with Sam Harris on the meaning of the word "truth," Peterson had this to say:

Excerpt of Jordan B. Peterson: Truths are always bounded because we're ignorant and every action that you undertake that's goal-directed has an internal ethic embedded in it and the ethic is the claim that if what you do works, then it's true enough. There's no reason to assume that our current scientific view of the world isn't flawed or incomplete in some manner that will prove fundamentally fatal to us.

Weissmueller: Is it possible the kind of postmodernism we're discussing here is actually, in some ways, compatible or at least informing Peterson's world view?

Gillespie: [32:16] I mean, absolutely. What he's talking about there comes straight out of Hayek. It comes straight out of Karl Popper. It comes straight out of the Enlightenment, which is the one thing we know for sure is that we don't know so much. That actually comes out of Socrates. So this is a pre-modern understanding of the limits of human cognition. This is part of what, I think, needs to be understood and accepted by people, particularly on the Right, but some of the Left, who are anti-postmodern because they think it means that nothing matters, or that there's only nihilism, and that all choices and all discourses and all forms of knowledge are equally valid. Very few people, if any, actually believe that.

You know, the only thing that we can know for sure is that we know less than we think we know. That doesn't let you off the hook; you still have to act and you still have to move into the future, but you can do it with a set of policies that are much more humble and limited so that you're not dictating other people's lives, or how to live, or how to be in the world.

We've tried different competing political and even philosophical ideas of governance. From a kind of contemporary liberal point of view where we control lots and lots of parts of people's business life or their public lives, or on the conservative side where we try to regiment people's personal lives and things like that. Libertarianism, precisely because it invokes a postmodern understanding of the limits of human cognition, gives us the space to experiment in all sorts of different ways to run what John Stuart Mill called "experiments in living" in small places where then we see, "Well, what's happening here? Does it work? Does it not work?"

I think that is one of the fundamental attractions of libertarianism in the 21st century. We are coming off 250 years of what Steven Pinker calls the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution, what Jonah Goldberg in his recent book calls "the miracle," which is this incredible explosion in standards of living, and possibilities, and equality under the law.

Libertarianism is the philosophy that has not been tried yet, and it's not simply a political philosophy, but it's a belief in pluralism and a belief in individualism, and voluntaryism, as well as running what John Stuart Mill called "experiments in living," where people are allowed to try out different ways of living and we all learn from that, and we all pick off the parts that we like, and we recombine it, we hybridize it, we mongrelize it. As long as we don't force that process too much by saying, "No, you're not allowed to do that, even though you're not hurting anybody else, you're not allowed to do that because it offends my sense of what is the good life or the right life," we'll be in a better place.

And I think this is where postmodernism and libertarianism come together to create a vision of a future that is open-ended, that is innovative, that is increasingly not just interesting, but prosperous both in literal ways and figurative ways. This is something where I think a lot of people who are antagonistic to postmodernism should go back and they should read their Lyotard, they should read their Foucault, but they especially should read their Hayek if they want to understand where this comes from and the type of world that it might lead to.

Excerpt of Marshall McLuhan: If the wheel is an extension of feet and tools of hands, back arms, the electromagnetism seems to be, in its technological manifestations, an extension of our nerves and becomes mainly an information system.

You cannot cope with vast amounts of information in the old fragmentary, classified patterns. You tend to go looking for mythic and structural forms in order to manage such complex data moving at very high speeds.

Weissmueller: [36:17] Can we close out by talking a little bit about the media landscape? The people we've been talking about here: Peterson, Harris, some of the members of what's been called the Intellectual Dark Web... Their popularity emerged in the boundless world of digital media where you can just speak freely for hours at a time and people will actually sit there and listen at their own convenience. It's easy to really dive deep into someone's head and really fully understand their perspective.

Is it a coincidence that discussions about postmodernism have arisen again in this fractured but boundless media environment?

Gillespie: No, I don't think it is a coincidence. I think it's a telling understanding, first and foremost, that this conversation, which is vital and important is not taking place on the university campus. The university, as an institution, is a phenomenon of the Renaissance and the Reformation and the Enlightenment. It's a modernist institution or a modern institution, not a postmodernist one. It's always been a conservative backward-looking institution by design, and that's not a bad thing. You don't want to throw everything out the minute that you think you have the right theory. This has happened in societies as well as in university discourses and things like that. It rarely ends well. It usually ends with a guillotine slapping down somebody's neck.

But universities are not up for this kind of conversation anymore. It's a shame and we probably shouldn't be supporting universities in the same way that we might have once. But the really important thing is not that it's not happening at the university, which often times seems to be trying to squash free speech on all sorts of grounds, but rather that it is taking place, and it's taking place in alternative spaces that simply did not exist. In the same way that the Enlightenment--there are theories of the Enlightenment that the introduction of caffeinated beverages and coffee houses where people could get together without having to hide what they were talking about--but they could get together and talk about stuff while they're hopped up on caffeine. That was a huge part of how the Enlightenment got started because you had a lot of smart people talking about stuff, and building, and riffing off of each other, and they had the energy to do it.

In a different way today, what we're finding is the coffee houses and the salons are taking place in alterative media that just didn't exist. That's supplementary space, which is fractured, and it can lead to a lot of bad things. When Nazis get together in a beer hall, it doesn't end well. But it's also true that when the great philosophers and scientists of 17th, 18th, 19th century Europe and North America were able to get together and just hash things out in a marketplace of ideas and go deep on what they cared about, it turned out pretty well.

In a weird way, we may be focusing too much on the problems of universities because they served a function. Perhaps they won't ever serve that function again of being a place of open-ended inquiry and discourse, and instead, that's migrated into places that are more amenable to it.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online