29 June 2006


Again: I really loved Sokal's essay about transgressing hermeneutic boundaries with quantum gravity, etc. Blah blah blah. Postmodernism is funny! It's kind of like Carrot Top: Carrot Top's humor, objective and subjective genetive--let's poke fun at him. He's ridiculous!

This Keith DeRose writes for the excellent Certain Doubts epistemology blog. But he takes such a dim view of postmodernism, which can be characterized roughly speaking as continental philosophy, that he seems pretty dim himself. Now, wait:
  • He's very insightful--sharp.
  • I'm not committed to binary opposition's necessary usefulness, but analytic and continental go together like pb and j.
  • He doesn't really say much against postmodernism, he just sort of quotes a lot of people and comes of as snarky (not an a priori bad thing).
His post here, the most popular post on Certain Doubts, it seems, is quite long. This passage characterizes his view. Surely.
My duties on humanities divisional committees have involved me in reading quite a bit of material by (what I at least take to be) postmodern writers. I would have to classify a lot of the material I’ve had to read as philosophy, but it is written by people who teach in various different humanities departments other than philosophy departments at various schools. And I generally find it to be dreadful.
And remember, he teaches at Yale. From my limited understanding Yale is a hotbed of French psycho-analytic criticism. I sloughed through much Lacan with a professor from Yale. In an English department. Just as you would expect. What are my points?

a) Writing off a whole system of thought in such a cavalier manner is like writing off a whole system of thought! WTF. I'm no Holocaust denier, but I think postmodernism (read interchangeably [roughly speaking] as continental) merits a bit more pondering over.

b) My main, personal point: I came into philosophy by studying Derrida, Levi-Strauss, the Frankfurt School, FOUCAULT et alia. I still like them, and many many people read them. Slavoj Žižek! I've only read one slim book by Lacan, but I read tons of Žižek. Do you know why these continental, pomo philosophers are widely read? They are entertaining to read: esthetically, culturally and intellectually. Analytic philosophy is a tangled morass of Ps and Qs--I hate it. But I'm trying to learn. Maybe some dogs are too old to learn new tricks.

c) This relates to some above points but merits an elucidation.
This leads me to a suggestion for philosophers who teach introductory philosophy courses. Why not forewarn our students? Do a unit – perhaps just a class meeting or two – on postmodern philosophy.
This passage comes after a section called "Forewarned is Forearmed". What kind of closed-minded cracker wants to prejudice his students against a popular, world-widely practiced type of philosophy? Why don't we "forewarn" students about the gays and the Jews and everyone else we don't like? A Leiter Report post says that postmodernism hasn't had any impact on US philosophy departments. Stopping the spread of those European ideas, I'm glad that the proctors of philosophy in America are behaving like little J. Edgar Hoovers. That's ad hominem, but I don't see this debate being taken out of the ad hominem realm.

I was never warned that serious philosophy in America only encompasses analytic; and I never thought I had to be warned because I thought philosophy was about rigorous thinking, not prejudice.

But I am at heart bitter that most of my education was in continental-type philosophy: literary theory, structuralism, existentialism, phenomenology. I did not advance in logic or take any analytic classes. But I discovered Wittgenstein, luckily. But the most troubling thing about postmodernism, and this is summed up very well by Nagel in a related book review, is
Those who have no objective standards themselves find it easy to deny them to others.
That's it. It's the crushing sense of nihilism one receives from denying objective truth. What is truth? DeRose plays dumb for that question in his blog post, but it is certain (rhetoric: I mean to convince) that some brand of Kantian transcendental idealism underlies experience; and we can know only concept and not things in themselves. The truth lay in how you act. There does not have to be a big-T Truth (DeRose--you know what that means!), but it is shown by your actions, truth is.

But what about people that ardently deny truth? (Besides, of course, the truth that there is no truth.) Those people should perhaps be feared.