"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Postmodernism For Rationalists (my attempt)

EDIT: Been told by people I trust that this is not a good explanation. Retracted.

I.

Some of the Seattleites put together a Postmodernism For Rationalists presentation that’s been sparking a lot of discussion. It’s not quite the way I would have explained things. I’m no expert in postmodernism, and can’t give anything more than a very simple introduction to one of many facets of the movement. But I am an expert in explaining things to rationalists. So it’s worth a try.

Last week, I went over the evidence for and against a European Dark Age. Most people on both sides agreed on some facts in favor, like:

1. The fall of Rome was associated with a decline in wealth and population in Western Europe.
2. The fall of Rome was associated with a loss of capacity for things like urban living and large-scale infrastructure in Western Europe.
3. The intellectual output of the period included less literature and philosophy of lasting value than periods before and after

And on some facts against, like:

4. A lot of the worst-looking trends actually started before the fall of Rome, and were getting better by the time Rome finally collapsed.
5. Any collapse was relatively circumscribed both geographically (didn’t extend to the Islamic world) and temporally (didn’t last into High Middle Ages)
6. Few people thought the world was flat, the Church mostly didn’t persecute scientists, and there were lots of knowledgeable and cultured people.

So was there really a Dark Age? This question is meaningless insofar as there’s no objective criteria for what a Dark Age is. Even if there were (for example, historians decided that any century in which economic activity contracted by greater than 10% was a Dark Age) those objective criteria would themselves be subjective (why didn’t the historians decide 5%?). Any assessment would have to combine objective historical facts with subjective beliefs about what metrics were important.

And these subjective metrics will inevitably include political agendas. For example:

A. New Atheists might want to say there was a Dark Age, because it supports a narrative of religion crushing progress.
B. Classicists might want to say there was a Dark Age, because it makes Greece and Rome look extra good if their fall destroyed everything.
C. Conservatives might want to say there was a Dark Age, because it reminds us that civilization is fragile and needs to be protected from barbarism.

But:

D. Catholics might want to deny there was a Dark Age, because they were ascendant during that period and it would be pretty embarrassing.
E. Multiculturalists might want to deny there was a Dark Age, because a Dark Age would imply that some cultures and time periods are better and more civilized, while others are superstitious and barbarous.
F. Whigs might want to deny there was a Dark Age, because it hurts their narrative of ever-improving human progress.

Postmodernism is the belief that thinking about agendas A through F is at least as important as thinking about facts 1 through 6.

A postmodernist will be less interested in recalculating the GDP per capita of Carolingian France for the twentieth time, and more interested in investigating how all of the historians who invented the idea of Dark Ages were atheists who emphasized all of the most sensational examples of the Church screwing things up in order to fit their agenda. They focus less on objective facts than on how politically-motivated people choose to weave those facts together to tell one story rather than another. Then they explain how many of the stories and concepts we unquestioningly believe come from processes like this.

In the Dark Age debate, they’d probably just notice that lots of the people defending the Dark Age’s existence are atheists – which wouldn’t be too interesting. More creative postmodernist scholarship finds cases where there isn’t yet much debate, and explains why it might be in the interest of society as a whole (or rich capitalists, or white males, or whoever else they think controls society) to tell only that side of the story. For example everyone knows “the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD” even though it clearly didn’t; the Roman Empire survived until 1453 AD, but after 476 we arbitrarily switch to calling it “Byzantium”. Maybe that’s because our civilization has a line of descent that passes through Charlemagne, who was personally interested in having Rome be gone so he could be Holy Roman Emperor? Maybe it’s because the West is pretty proud of being the heirs to Rome, Russia is pretty proud of being the heirs to Byzantium, and the West doesn’t want to have to share its patrimony with dirty Commies? I don’t know. But this seems like the sort of question a postmodernist scholar would look into.

Postmodernists don’t necessarily deny the existence of objective facts. But they find them hard to pin down. It would be tempting to say “It’s a matter of opinion whether the fall of Rome started a Dark Age, but it’s an objective fact that the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD.” But we just saw otherwise. Even a more careful statement like “the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD” is iffy; barbarians deposed Emperor-claimant Romulus Augustulus in that year, but an equally legitimate claimant, Julius Nepos, ruled some Roman territories until 480. The date of the Western Roman Empire’s fall implicitly depends on whether you support Augustulus’ or Nepos’ claim to the throne.

Maybe there’s still an objective fact like “Romulus Augustulus, who claimed to be Roman Emperor, was deposed in 476 AD”. I can’t think of anyone annoying enough to dispute that, or any non-ridiculous argument against. But post-modernists would draw the boundary of ‘objectivity’ at “how annoying and ridiculous it would be to argue” rather than as a fundamental feature of the world. This doesn’t deny objective reality as a generator for these kinds of statements. It just urges extreme wariness about claims that any particular human statement captures it perfectly.

In practice, practically all of us are postmodernists sometimes. Last week I asked about why New Atheism failed as a cultural movement. Some people blamed certain facts about New Atheists, like:

1. New Atheists are often annoying socially inept people
2. New Atheists often repeat stuff to people who already know it, the equivalent of telling everyone incessantly that the world is round
3. New Atheists had trouble with accusations of sexism, racism, and harassment.

But other people pointed out that these “facts” were negotiable. New Atheists are annoying and socially inept only if our type specimen is a teenager posting “CHECKMATE FUNDIES” on r/atheism, rather than the suave and charismatic Christopher Hitchens sorts. New Atheists often repeated stuff everyone already knew, but no more than global warming activists, Trump #Resistance members, and other groups who are still in good standing. New Atheists had trouble with accusations of sexism etc, but were they worse than others, or did the accusations just stick to them better?

These questions inspired a second range of explanations for New Atheism’s decline: it was no longer useful to people in power. For example, the Democratic coalition kept New Atheism around to embarrass GW Bush style fundamentalists on the opposite side. But by the late 2000s, the evangelical Christians were no longer such an important political force, and Muslims had become a key part of the Democrats’ strategy. New Atheism switched from being convenient to the Powers That Be on the left, to being inconvenient – so the Powers arranged to have it crushed.

(these aren’t literal Powers any more than there’s a Council Of Males taking actions enforcing the patriarchy; it’s just a shorthand for what happens when people organize to protect their own interests)

In these explanations, everything else is downstream of the Powers’ decision to crush New Atheism. New Atheism was inconvenient, therefore the Powers arranged for coverage to focus on its most annoying members. New Atheism was inconvenient, therefore the Powers arranged to have the sexism and harassment allegations against it stick.

If this sounds paranoid to you, keep in mind that something similar is a pretty standard explanation of why the Harvey Weinsten assault stories came out now rather than twenty years ago. Weinstein was a Power, or at least a friend of the Powers, so he was untouchable. Then he became weaker, and we learned he was terrible. There was an objective reality – he really did assault lots of people. But the way the rest of us understood it was filtered by his social position and by the media industry’s interests.

And if this still sounds paranoid to you, fine – lots of postmodernist theories sound pretty paranoid. The point is that this isn’t just about college professors who think history books were written by the patriarchy. It’s something everybody does on every point in the spectrum. Trump supporters who say the rest of us are deluded by the liberal media are making a postmodernist claim – this is why there are so many articles calling Trump our “first postmodern president“. I myself think like a post-modernist every time I see a new study come out saying that priming implicit-associated stereotype-threatened ego-depleting power poses has proven that plumbers are racist. I don’t react with “I guess that proves plumbers are racist”. I react with “Huh, apparently the Two Minutes Hate is being directed at plumbers today, I wonder why the Powers are angry at them.” The information content is boring; only the signals it carries about who’s in power and what they want are worth examining.

This way of thinking makes its way into all the other stuff we call “postmodernist” – postmodernist art, postmodernist literature, postmodernist architecture, etc. For example, postmodern literature sometimes uses unreliable narrators, transforming a text from an objective records (albeit of fictional events) into a heavily filtered account where we have to consider what our source is trying to make us believe. This is one of my favorite examples of a similar technique.

II.

Optimistically, postmodernism isn’t necessarily opposed to rationality: rationality says to believe what is true, and it’s true that people are often trying to manipulate us. Hopelessly optimistically, both groups are engaged in the same project of overcoming bias, just taking different perspectives.

But pessimistically, there’s a risk that postmodernism collapses into people ignoring any facts they disagree with, arguing that facts are just mutable products of hostile power structures trying to perpetuate themselves. And by “pessimistically there’s a risk”, I mean “this has obviously been going on for decades”. Again, I’m not just complaining about lefty professors here. The guiding narrative of Breitbart – that Cultural Marxists have taken over society and are indoctrinating everyone with their own concepts and language in order to make it impossible to think outside their boxes – is postmodernist as hell.

This leads to the classic freshman-philosophy critique of postmodernism: “Postmodernism says nothing is objectively true and it’s all just opinion. But in that case, postmodernism isn’t objectively true and it’s just your opinion.” Make this a little more sophisticated, and we can get an at-least-sophomore-level critique: “Postmodernism says that facts have enough degrees of freedom that they often get reframed to support the powerful. But there are bucketloads of degrees of freedom in how to use and apply postmodernism; it’s inevitably going to itself be twisted to support the powerful.” Whether “the powerful” are cultural Marxists, or far-right media, or whatever, gets left as an exercise for the reader.

(cf. the Less Wrong Sequences, Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People)

I don’t know if the postmodernists have a good solution to this problem (I think I know what their bad solution is, but I’ll stay quiet lest I strawman a movement I’m not qualified to speak for). But the rationalist solution is some combination of The Fallacy of Gray and The Lens That Sees Its Flaws. Yes, everything potentially contains elements of subjectivity, but not everything contains exactly the same level of subjectivity; there’s still some real way in which Breitbart News is worse than BBC. And although our perceptual and cognitive apparatus is biased, it has some non-zero connection to objective reality that we can bootstrap from to reach reflective equilibrium.

I expect most postmodernists would consider this hopelessly naive. But I don’t know what the alternative is.

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330 Responses to Postmodernism For Rationalists (my attempt)

  1. c0rw1n says:

    The steelman of postmodernism I got from reading the Postmodernism For Rationalists thing was something like “find five thousand ways to spell THEORY OF MIND and you’ll get there”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t understand. Clarification?

      • c0rw1n says:

        The thing of “there is no objective point of view” that seem to be the central point of the whole idea, taken to mean “every interpretation of this that an human mind could come up with is #valid an (human) interpretation; it is not necessarily better or worse than any other interpretation of the (thing) and what do you even mean by ‘better’ and ‘worse’, those are also interpretation criteria”.

        Thence, “THEORY OF MIND (for all possible minds that could be interpreting things)”

  2. richwu says:

    Hi — I made this 🙂
    Honored to be on SSC!

    For some context, these slides were made for a talk I gave at Seattle’s weekly rationality meetup, and as several commenters on lesserwrong have noticed, there’s a bunch of missing context which I filled in during the presentation (unfortunately it was not recorded). To any readers in the area, you’re welcome to join us any time! It’s a great community with some awesome and genuine people.

    Furthermore, I feel compelled to say that I consider the content on my site to be several orders of magnitude better than these slides. Have a taste 😉

    • Anonymous Colin says:

      Hey there. Here’s a cheeky ask: can you tell me what I was supposed to appreciate in Metaphors We Live By?

      I went into it with high hopes, and was on-board with (but not exactly blown away by) the first three-quarters or so, in a cousin-of-Sapir-Worph stories-we-use-to-make-sense-of-things-inevitably-impact-how-we-reason-about-them sort of way. But then it gets onto “the human conceptual system is intrinsically metaphorical”, which it doesn’t even explain as a statement, let alone make a coherent case for.

      I’m happy to accept I probably picked it up with the wrong set of expectations, and probably didn’t get as much out of it as I could because of this. What was I supposed to get out of it?

      • richwu says:

        …can you tell me what I was supposed to appreciate in Metaphors We Live By?

        Well, in the strict sense what you’d appreciate is necessarily yours 😉 but I’ll say what I appreciated. For me, it presented a perspective on linguistics (I cheekily call it empiricist neostructuralism) I hadn’t encountered before, one that I find instrumentally utile for empathizing with others who might have different ways of conceptualizing the world. Lakoff’s framework was also useful for introspective purposes because it allowed me to see, in many ways, the degree to which my mental models depend on foundational metaphors to function; how I approached highly abstract concepts like “Love” and “Time” became suddenly less mystifying.

        I know this probably still sounds wishy-washy. Maybe this is a more concrete example.

        • Anonymous Colin says:

          Thanks for the response.

          I have since looked over the (shorter) 1980 paper in which Lakoff tries to explicitly set out his “intrinsically metaphorical” thesis, and realised he’s making a much more modest claim than the one I was vaguely attributing to him in MWLB.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      If you don’t mind me asking, where is that first example of Postmodern architecture from?

  3. tjohnson314 says:

    Typo thread:
    “and getting better” -> “and were getting better”
    “would have combine” -> “would have to combine”
    “he really did assaulted lots of people” -> “he really did assault lots of people”.

  4. Leo Schlosberg says:

    Very much liked the explanation, but was surprised to see not even a mention of Protestants (who at one time, maybe still, outnumbered atheists). Catholic Dark Ages were followed by Protestant Enlightenment.

    • 天可汗 says:

      Right — it’s not uncommon for atheistic anti-Christian propaganda to be derived from Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda. The Spanish Inquisition is another example.

      • Hayek, in Capitalism and the Historians, describes cases where modern anti-capitalist propaganda was derived from 19th century Tory anti-industrialization propaganda.

        • Perhaps the moralizing variants of anti-capitalism like utopian socialism or anarchism.

          Marxist socialism recognizes capitalism as a progressive force, and its collateral damage on traditional culture, its “icy waters of egotistical calculation,” as a good thing. It pulls away mystifications and illusions and allows workers to clearly contemplate their economic interests with sober senses.

          Marx was scathing towards the Tory anti-capitalist reactionaries like Malthus.

          Lenin, likewise. For example:

          “The economic development of Russia, as of the whole world, proceeds from feudalism to capitalism, and through large-scale, machine, capitalist production to socialism.

          Pipe-dreaming about a “different” way to socialism other than that which leads, through the further development of capitalism, through large-scale, machine, capitalist production, is, in Russia, characteristic either of the liberal gentlemen, or of the backward, petty proprietors (the petty bourgeoisie)…the fundamental idea running through all Marx’s works, an idea which since Marx has been confirmed in all countries, is that capitalism is progressive as compared with feudalism. It is in this sense that Marx and all Marxists “put a gloss” (to use Rakitnikov’s clumsy and stupid expression) “upon the capitalist noose”!

          Only anarchists or petty-bourgeois, who do not under stand the conditions of historical development, can say: a feudal noose or a capitalist one—it makes no difference, for both are nooses! That means confining oneself to condemnation, and failing to understand the objective course of economic development.

          Condemnation means our subjective dissatisfaction. The objective course of feudalism’s evolution into capitalism enables millions of working people—thanks to the growth of cities, railways, large factories and the migration of workers—to escape from a condition of feudal torpor. Capitalism itself rouses and organises them.

          Both feudalism and capitalism oppress the workers and strive to keep them in ignorance. But feudalism can keep, and for centuries has kept, millions of peasants in a down trodden state (for example, in Russia from the ninth to the nineteenth century, in China for even more centuries). But capitalism cannot keep the workers in a state of immobility, torpor, downtroddenness and ignorance.

          The centuries of feudalism were centuries of torpor for the working people.

          The decades of capitalism have roused millions of wage-workers.

          Your failure to understand this, gentlemen of the Left Narodnik [populist] fraternity, shows that you do not understand a thing about socialism, or that you are converting socialism from a struggle of millions engendered by objective conditions into a benevolent old gentleman’s fairy-tale!

          To advocate the slightest restriction of the freedom to mobilise allotment land [freely trade land] actually amounts to becoming a reactionary, an abettor of the feudalists.”

          Of course, this was before Lenin became an opportunist who thought he could take power on a platform of skipping capitalism with the help of the (quite optimistically assumed) imminent world revolution.

          • Marx was scathing towards the Tory anti-capitalist reactionaries like Malthus.

            Why would you describe Malthus as an anti-capitalist reactionary? He criticized the Utopian views of Godwin and Condorcet, but where did he argue against capitalism or progress?

        • g says:

          It seems like the conclusion we’re being invited to draw is: clearly this anti-Christian/anti-capitalist propaganda is Bad (intellectually dishonest, strawmanning, etc.). I expect that’s true in some cases, but the structure here (broader thing X with varieties Y and Z; anti-Y propaganda from proponents of Z gets tweaked to make anti-X propaganda) is not very good evidence for it.

          Sometimes Z’s anti-Y propaganda actually undermines Z too, but the Z-ists haven’t noticed. (E.g., because it points out some silliness in Y, and actually Z suffers from the same but Z-ists are so used to it that they don’t see the silliness.)

          Sometimes Z’s anti-Y propaganda with some small modifications undermines Z too (e.g., perhaps again some silliness in Y but Z has a different-but-parallel kind of silliness).

          Sometimes Z’s anti-Y propaganda comes from some subvariety of Z and applies to other varieties of Z as much as it does to Y.

          Sometimes Z’s anti-Y propaganda is deliberately focused on things that are equally weaknesses of Z, to make it harder for Y-ists to make use of them.

          Sometimes Z’s anti-Y propaganda really does apply only to Y, but Y is a large and important subset of X and discrediting Y is therefore a reasonable course of action for someone opposed to X.

          Sometimes Z’s anti-Y propaganda really does apply only to Y, but Y is a large and important subset of X in such a way that if Y is discredited it probably means X is wrong. (E.g., a large part of X’s claim to credibility derives from its popularity, and Y is almost as popular as X itself.)

          Sometimes Z has changed, since the time of the Z-ist anti-Y propaganda, to resemble Y more, so that the propaganda now applies to Z as well as to Y.

          Sometimes Z (at least in its earlier form) has largely ceased to exist and all of X is now more or less what Y was when Z’s propaganda was directed at it.

          Some of these shade into one another. For instance, imagine a religion (it’s easy if you try) and call it X; suppose it has a traditional version Y and a newer allegedly reformed version Z. Some advocates of Z are kinda-rationalists railing against obfuscation and blind adherence to tradition. Now, over time, the rationalist Z-ists tend to notice that actually all of X is rather irrational (so you have less of Z over time), and as this happens the people flying the Z flag drift towards their own variety of obfuscation and tradition-adherence (so Z becomes more Y-like over time) and after a while there’s basically nothing left of the rationalist version of Z. I am not, for the avoidance of doubt, claiming that this is an accurate account of what happened with Christianity. (There’s some resemblance, though.)

          Of course Y can change too, perhaps making the original anti-Y propaganda less applicable to it. In some cases Y and Z may more or less change places. (Notoriously, something like this happened to the Republican and Democratic parties in the US, at least as regards some issues.)

    • Timandrias says:

      You are off for several centuries. Scott argues that there was a period of European history that was quite dark, and though it coincides with the rise of catholic faith, he cuts it by the high middle ages (that’s around the eleventh century). Luther wouldn’t come till the sixteenth century, so linking the end of the Dark Ages to the rise of the protestant faith is quite far fetched.

      • JohnofSalisbury says:

        Leo (I assume) wasn’t endorsing ‘Catholic Dark Ages were followed by Protestant Englightenment’, he was presenting in capsule form a Protestant-friendly Dark Ages narrative.

        Also, while the point about Whigs being unfavourably disposed towards Dark Age narratives ought to be true in principle, in practice Whigs lap them up, which is weird and interesting.

      • @JohnofSalisbury

        As much as the Enlightenment (as if it’s all one seamless event) can be seen as looking forward, a lot of it was about rebelling against the orthodoxy of the day by looking back to what was seen as the scientific and political golden age of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Some classical liberals/whigs were taking inspiration from Rome in one way or another. You can see this in the American case with the Roman Republic as a model for the ideal of government, and use of Greco-Roman symbolism and architecture in government buildings.

    • Watchman says:

      Arguably a pre-modern (or early modern if you follow the medieval-modern periodisation) example of postmodernism there. There’s no objective link between protestanism and enlightenment (indeed, most of the early protestant churches were more hostile to scholarship than much of the Catholic church at the time) – the main proto-protestant intellectual, Erasmus, notably remained Catholic for example. So this is just an assertion that Europe was dark until protestants brought the light – I can’t think who might have thought that was a narrative worth spreading…

    • keranih says:

      Except that prior to the Enlightenment there was no “Catholicism”, only Christianity. It could be argued that Christian Dark Ages were followed by Protestant Enlightenment, but that’s a different thing.

      • drachefly says:

        The Orthodox would like a word with that. Many of them don’t even draw a distinction between Protestant and Catholic – they’re all Catholic to them!

        • Ticviking says:

          Technically the Orthodox hold that we are the unchanged Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and both Protestants and the Latins are simply schismatics and/or heretics.

          Of course that depends on whose side of the narrative you follow, and if the institution of the Papacy was present in the primitive church or not, and if we ought to take Saint Pope Gregory 1’s statement, “In every age there have been those who considered the claims of a single bishop to supreme authority to be a sure identification of the corruption of the church, and perhaps even the work of the Antichrist.” as a condemnation of the notion that there is one Bishop who has universal authority, or as an opposition of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s exercising authority that was the Pope’s alone. A debate that to my knowledge has been raging since roughly 500 AD. Suggesting that maybe post-modernism may not be particularly recent.

      • Mary says:

        It doesn’t help to call the Reformation the Enlightenment. They are not even that close in time.

  5. ruelian says:

    One of my favorite applications of meta-postmodernism (that is, noticing the political motivations behind the decision on where to apply postmodernism) is empathizing with people whose political opinions seem absurd to me. That is, I can look at the different affects I ascribe to “things that are objective facts” and “propaganda”/”the narrative the enemy is trying to push” and imagine how I would feel about the issue if they got swapped.

    And an extra-nice thing is that this makes a pretty effective argument in favor of niceness and empathy, which is extra effective in circles where postmodernism is philosophically influential (read: leftist/liberal spaces).

    • userfriendlyyy says:

      I do this too, but you have to be careful not to turn people into characters. as explained here: https://www.vox.com/2016/4/21/11451378/smug-american-liberalism

    • SebWanderer says:

      a pretty effective argument in favor of niceness and empathy, which is extra effective in circles where postmodernism is philosophically influential (read: leftist/liberal spaces).

      I used to think that. But lately I’m not sure this is the case. People who adhere to the PoMo school of liberal politics are notorious for their lack of empathy, unless you belong to one of their protected categories (PoC, female, LGBT, Muslim, etc..).

      The fact that this makes them huge hypocrites either escapes their notice or doesn’t seem to bother them.

  6. melboiko says:

    You seem to be calling “postmodernism” what in my circles would be called “critical studies”. I know “postmodernism” as “that which came after Modernism”. Modernism, you’ll recall, was a quite well-defined trend in art, literature, architecture etc.; at some point people grew tired of it, but what came after wasn’t so easy to define, so a hodgepodge of Modernism-rejecting attitudes and techniques (irony, meta, pop, collage, reader-response, perspectivism…) was called, noncommittally, “after Modernism”, and the name stuck. Accordingly, the humanities people I know use “postmodernism” to describe this 20th-century trend in art, literature, architecture etc., and also a mode of relating to it (e.g. deconstruction of texts), known for analyses that refuse to bow down to authorial intention. That is, I think of “postmodernism” as referring primarily to matters of aesthetics and creation, of what used to be called “the human spirit”. I would not try to do a “postmodern” analysis of such a mundane thing as “the Dark Ages”; only of things like “Oscar Niemeyer’s Eye Museum” or “William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch“.

    • Watchman says:

      I think postmodernism is used by practicioners (I tend to self-define academically as post-modernist, but can’t really speak for others’ views on the term) as after the thinking that defined the modernist style, not the actual style. I’d characterise this thinking as a belief that it is possible to make changes that have clear outcomes and that there is a concordant need to consider how to make the best outcomes. Now I put that down on a screen, it suggests what I am using postmodernism against is perhaps proto-rationalism, although rationalism at least tends to avoid the erroneous assumptions that doom modernism.

    • Björn says:

      I think “critical studies” is related to “Critical Theory”. Critical Theory is a sociological theory that was created by german sociologists like Horkheimer and Adorno shortly before the Nazis took power in Germany, and it was developed while they where in exile in the USA. It is related to “postmodern theory” insofar as both theories have their roots in the European humanities that where really influenced by Marx. From this, they both derive a deep skepticism of contemporary culture and contemporary life. They also both have a tendency for convoluted language and broad claims that are not really based on anything. Because of this, from afar “postmodern theory” and Critical Theory look quite similar from afar.

      What one should also keep in mind is that postmodern can have two meanings. There is art historical postmodernism, which is what you describe, and there is “postmodern philosophy”, of which deconstruction of texts is a part. “Postmodern philosophy” is also often called post-structuralism, which is a better term because there is no danger of mixing it up with art historical things. Post-structuralism was developed in the 80s in France, and has its roots in linguistics and cultural studies. In short, it’s about making meaningful statements creak by doing weird things with the semantics. From this, a theory is developed that claims to show that all statements are heavily dependent on context (which is what Scott did here with statements about New Atheism and the Dark Age).

      • Speaker To Animals says:

        Post-structuralism was developed in the 80s in France, and has its roots in linguistics and cultural studies.

        I’d amend that to ‘obsolete’ or ‘discredited’ linguistics as the linguistic theories are those of Saussure or Whorf. You won’t find anything in postmodernism derived from Chomsky.

        Likewise the psychological theories which underlying postmodernism are archaic (Freud by way of Lacan), ignoring the advances of cognitive psychology, social psychology and neuroscience entirely, and the economic theories are relevant only to the 19th Century (Marx).

        For all the ‘post’ this and ‘post’ that terminology there’s virtually nothing in it that post-dates any intellectual development of the last 50 years.

    • antilles says:

      There is a postmodern movement in art and literature as well as one in philosophy, social science and other “knowledge disciplines.” They’re connected in various ways by shared assumptions but not necessarily the same movements. Your impression isn’t wrong, it’s just not exhaustive.

    • Tracy W says:

      I recall my systems & control lecturer at engineering school, when he started teaching us Modern Control Theory, advising us to never ever name anything ‘modern’, as the theory he was teaching dated back to the 1920s.

      The critical studies people possibly had the same idea.

  7. richwu says:

    Some preliminary remarks:

    Postmodernism is the belief that thinking about agendas A through F is at least as important as thinking about facts 1 through 6.

    Postmodernism isn’t a belief; it’s more of a socio-cultural-historical gestalt. Reducing it to a belief or a system of beliefs would be inaccurate because pomo in art isn’t the same as pomo in literature, pomo in philosophy etc. However, I would grant that those who’ve studied postwar continental philosophy place a greater emphasis on questions of hermeneutics and (particularly Foucault) structural power and political motivation than empiricists who focus on questions of fact (of what is the case). But even the notion of facticity can be genealogically deconstructed, which is where things get fun!

    Optimistically, postmodernism isn’t necessarily opposed to rationality: rationality says to believe what is true, and it’s true that people are often trying to manipulate us. Hopelessly optimistically, both groups are engaged in the same project of overcoming bias, just taking different perspectives.

    Postmodern meta-epistemology, as I like to call it, is compatible with rationality (and rationalism, and empiricism, etc). It just contends that “truth” is an unstable concept that depends on a language game to mean, which means there is no ultimate guarantor of what truth per se is. I myself am a huge fan of empiricism and disagree with postmodern theorists who consider it intellectually bankrupt. Which leads into another point: postmodernists come in all shapes and sizes, just like Satanists 🙂

    I myself think like a post-modernist every time I see a new study come out saying that priming implicit-associated stereotype-threatened ego-depleting power poses has proven that plumbers are racist.

    David Chapman agrees! See replies to Twitter thread.

    But pessimistically, there’s a risk that postmodernism collapses into people ignoring any facts they disagree with, arguing that facts are just mutable products of hostile power structures trying to perpetuate themselves.

    Yes, I’d say this is accurate. I don’t think people should touch postmodern theory without some grounding in classical and modern philosophy, as it is a historicist tradition and liable to be radically misinterpreted by those barging through the doors, so to speak, sans any prior context.

    “Postmodernism says nothing is objectively true and it’s all just opinion. But in that case, postmodernism isn’t objectively true and it’s just your opinion.”

    Ah, Plato’s critique of the Sophists. But the proper relativist (relativism is not postmodernism btw) would agree with the freshman’s second sentence and claim that using the logic of relativism to critique itself affirms it rather than invalidates it. And that it doesn’t fall into the swamp like idealist philosophies.

    “Postmodernism says that facts have enough degrees of freedom that they often get reframed to support the powerful. But there are bucketloads of degrees of freedom in how to use and apply postmodernism; it’s inevitably going to itself be twisted to support the powerful.”

    A general hope (I use the word deliberately) in postmodern theory is that by studying rhetoric and the mechanics of hermeneutics one can identify and nullify the techniques of the powerful. Those in power can, of course, co-opt these techniques and evolve their strategies in turn. Your fellow Scott at Dilbert tries very hard to inhabit Trumpian epistemology 😉

    • suntzuanime says:

      David Chapman agrees! See replies to Twitter thread.

      Ugh, it’s so frustrating to see people mischaracterize Yudkowsky’s point. He wasn’t saying that Bayesian reasoning was the only valid way to reason, he was saying that ways of reasoning were valid in proportion to how well they would match the output of an idealized Bayesian reasoner. It’s a yardstick, not a blueprint.

      A little confusing because he does also advocate using explicit Bayesian reasoning in many cases, perhaps even more than is wise. But his absolutist-sounding statements are not supposed to be taken as practical guides.

      • richwu says:

        Yeah. I can’t speak for Eliezer, but I will say that many do interpret (you would argue falsely) his LW-era absolutist statements as more blueprint than yardstick.

        #pomomode: cf. Death of the Author, Derrida’s slippage

        I think we’d agree he could’ve been clearer with his rhetoric. Or might you say his readers ought to have paid closer attention? Both? 🙂

      • it’s so frustrating to see people mischaracterize Yudkowsky’s point. He wasn’t saying that Bayesian reasoning was the only valid way to reason, he was saying that ways of reasoning were valid in proportion to how well they would match the output of an idealized Bayesian reasoner.

        Does an ideal Bayesian reasoner include an ideal theorem-generator? Can it operate without one?

      • vV_Vv says:

        Ugh, it’s so frustrating to see people mischaracterize Yudkowsky’s point. He wasn’t saying that Bayesian reasoning was the only valid way to reason, he was saying that ways of reasoning were valid in proportion to how well they would match the output of an idealized Bayesian reasoner. It’s a yardstick, not a blueprint.

        Not only the “idealized Bayesian reasoner” is ill-defined (you still need to specify a hypothesis class and a prior over it, and no, Solomonoff induction does not solve this problem), but there seems to be no agreed method of assessing how close an actual reasoner is to the alleged ideal.

        Hence EY’s claim sounds vacuous: it’s not like there is anyone with basic scientific literacy who seriously criticizes Bayes’ theorem, or probability theory in general. The disagreement is about how useful are Bayesian techniques in practice, with most people taking the position that Bayesian techniques are a tool in the toolbox of statistics.

        A little confusing because he does also advocate using explicit Bayesian reasoning in many cases, perhaps even more than is wise. But his absolutist-sounding statements are not supposed to be taken as practical guides.

        So what are they supposed to be taken as? Philosophical navel gazing?

        • So what are they supposed to be taken as? Philosophical navel gazing?

          Quite..the context is that he is teaching the reader stuff they can use. Either his claim is intended to support “Bayes is the one way to rule them all” or it is irrelevant.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          he was saying that ways of reasoning were valid in proportion to how well they would match the output of an idealized Bayesian reasoner.

          Yeah, unless you can reverse this statement (thereby implying that “idealized” is doing ALL of the work), it still just maps to “Bayesian reasoning is the best reasoning”.

      • Ilya Shpitser says:

        This is “not even wrong,” by the way.

        I can you give a problem, say a missing data problem, right now and ask “what is the Bayesian yardstick I should compare against,” and I will be met with silence.

        To be completely specific: I have a regression with features X, and a repeated outcome Y1, …, Yt.

        Yi for i=1,…,t is missing monotonically at random, X is always observed. I want to learn the parameters of the regression model E[Yt | X; beta] because I want to predict Yt from X. Or, if you like, I want to update my degrees of belief about beta.

        What’s the Bayesian yardstick, and why is it a yardstick?

        This is not a contrived problem, this is literally the type of stuff anyone doing regression problems with repeated outcomes in practice would come up against. There’s nothing special about this, I just happened to be thinking about a slightly fancier version of this problem today.

        • suntzuanime says:

          I don’t get the question. Isn’t the regression model just a model? The yardstick is not for how well you update your model but how well the model does compared to what’s possible. It’s like the thermodynamic optimal heat engine, it’s not telling you how to build an actual engine in practice.

          If that doesn’t seem useful, it’s more of a philosophical point than a practical one. Yudkowsky was laying out a philosophy.

          • Eli says:

            Well the point is that there are really two major claims made about Solomonoff Induction. Let’s call them Solomonoff A, and Solomonoff B.

            Solomonoff A asks us to rephrase our regression problem as a sequence-prediction problem. As Solomonoff promoters like to point out, many problems can be rephrased this way; I may have seen someone phrase regression this way. Then Solomonoff Induction will yield an optimal computable predictor for the missing data (one which requires fewer samples than all other computable predictors to perform just as well).

            Solomonoff B asks us, again, to rephrase our regression problem as a sequence-prediction problem. Our having done so, it then locates a god’s-eye-view of the universe we’re in and the problem we’re giving it, and puts most of its probability mass on the correct answer. This is not merely good prediction, it’s finding a computational simulation of the ground’s truth from a universal or even multiversal standpoint and then running it forward.

            Notice the difference in “modesty” here.

            (A) is justified by theorems: it’s “just” a nonparametric Bayes model of universal Turing machine output tapes, with the prior weighted by Kolmogorov complexity of the initial UTM program. There are mathematical details to quibble over, but the theorems hold “up to cross-compilation”, more or less.

            (B) is offering a god’s-eye-view of the ground truth.

            In statistics, one normally assumes that only God knows the ground truth. Since we can’t actually run Solomonoff Induction, we really can’t tell whether (A) or (B) is more true.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            The issue is missing data. That is, people I see are systematically different from people I don’t. So if you are not careful, your regression will give you garbage answers.

            There are methods to deal with this, but the “meat” of the problem has nothing to do with Bayes.

            Yudkowsky’s “Bayes is the yardstick” philosophy is, as near as I could tell, entirely useless for my problem here. In other words, it is philosophy of the “wankery” variety.

            And, again, I didn’t specifically pick this to be adversarial. These are the types of problems statisticians/data scientists who have work to do think about.

            There is probably some sort of larger point about “epistemic humility” here, but I don’t want to get into a lengthy thing about this. It will waste a lot of everyone’s time and make me look like a dick.

            It takes a lot more energy to refute bullshit than to propose bullshit.

          • vV_Vv says:

            @suntzuanime

            I don’t get the question. Isn’t the regression model just a model?

            No, it’s the task.

            Let’s make it as simple as it gets: you have a sequence of observations (x_0, y_0), (x_1, y_1), …, (x_n, y_n), then you receive x_(n+1) and are asked to predict y_(n+1).

            What is the output of the “idealized Bayesian reasoner”?

            @Eli

            Solomonoff induction, even if we could run it, would produce outputs which are dependent on the choice of the UTM. In fact, any infinite-support computable prior over the class of computable enviornments corresponds to an UTM and vice versa (ref, ref). Therefore, Solomonoff induction has the same problem of prior dependence as any other Bayesian inference technique.

            The convergence theorems of Solomonoff induction are all asymptotic in the number of observations, and they correspond to similar results of generic Bayesian inference: any Bayesian method will converge to the true data-generating distribution given enough observations as long as the data-generating distribution is in the hypothesis space. But these results say nothing about finite-sample performance, which is what really matters and it is the whole point of having priors (various frequentist approaches also converge to the data-generating distribution).

            It is often argued that we still lack a good theory of inference, a “thermodynamics” of intelligence. Possibly Bayesian inference and Solomonoff induction will end up being pieces of the puzzle, but claiming that they are already the whole picture, therefore inference is solved at a theoretical level and it is just an engineering problem, is deeply misleading.

          • vV_Vv says:

            I’ll attempt to clarify what Ilya was talking about, which demonstrates yet another issue with Bayesianism: he’s not talking about simple regression, but regression under systematic sampling bias of the training set:

            Let the training data-generating distribution be the composition of a base distribution that creates (x_i, y_i) samples, and a filtering distribution that throws away some of these samples, with a probability that depends on their content. You are given a training set (or sequence) sampled from this combined distribution, and then you are given an x sampled from the base distribution and you are asked to predict the corresponding y.

            No matter how powerful your Bayesian reasoner is, even if it has a sensible prior, even if the training data is large, it will get it wrong in the general case: it can learn to predict according to the training data-generating distribution as accurately as possible, but it has no way of telling where the base distribution ends and the filtering distribution begins.

            This scenario is not contrived at all, in fact, to some extent it corresponds to most applications of machine learning and statistical inference: training sets are typically created from a range of data limited in scope and time, and don’t fully represent the distribution of data in the wild.

            This becomes especially important in some domain such as medical: suppose that you want to predict if a treatment works. The x_i are symptoms an other properties of patient i, the y_i are Boolean variables which tell if the treatment worked for patient i. But doctors don’t give this treatment to a random sample of patients, they look at the x_i before making a decision. If the treatment is particularly good or particularly bad for some subset of patients, but the doctors for some reasons didn’t try it on many of them, then the training set will be systematically biased. The doctors act as the filtering distribution, but you are interested in the treatment performance on the general population, the base distribution. In practice there will be additional filtering caused by the fact that your training set will not record all the applications of this treatment in the world, but only a set taken at some hospitals in some countries in a limited time span.

            In order to make sense of this data you need to model the doctors’ decision process, and possibly the other confounders, applying what is known as causal inference. Standard Bayesian inference, even when powerful, will not solve this issue.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            Just to clarify a bit — it is certainly possible to get Bayes to do the right thing in missing data problems, but you will have to construct a very strange prior that carefully incorporates the treatment/missingness mechanism in just the right way.

            Again, the “meat” of the problem here isn’t Bayesian, a Bayesian will be forced to use ideas that are completely non-Bayesian in their character to get the right answers to come out. This is called “Frequentist pursuit” by some folks.

            Another thing Bayes is bad at is diagnosing situations where your target of inference isn’t a function of the data.

            EY often has no clue what he’s talking about, which is slightly jarring given how confident he sounds.

            Re: epistemic humility, a good strategy is to listen less to folks like EY, and to read more. I like advising to read more, because you take status out of the equation. Books don’t compete with humans for status.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            vV_Vv

            I just realized reading this that you could do everything right, and then the world might change. The disease mutates, or the environment changes in a way which makes people vulnerable to a similar disease which needs a different treatment, or whatever.

            How long will it take people to notice that there’s a problem with their evidence-based treatment?

      • Michael Arc says:

        It seems to me that he actually advocates using formal Bayes less often than is optimal, but so does everyone else.

    • 27chaos says:

      The language games point could be fleshed out more. This post talks about postmodernism as Foucault, but there’s also postmodernism as Derrida to consider.

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      But the proper relativist (relativism is not postmodernism btw) would agree with the freshman’s second sentence and claim that using the logic of relativism to critique itself affirms it rather than invalidates it.

      You could, I suppose, become a total nihilist, but the every actual person using postmodernist arguments makes specific claims, often towards specific goals. And postmodernist arguments invalidate those claims as much as any. So, all you have to do is wait for the supposed nihilist to start making specific claims.

    • Montork says:

      Postmodernism isn’t a belief; it’s more of a socio-cultural-historical gestalt. Reducing it to a belief or a system of beliefs would be inaccurate because pomo in art isn’t the same as pomo in literature, pomo in philosophy etc.

      I would say that even pomo in philosophy isn’t about any particular beliefs. I mean that there is no set of beliefs that would make you a postmodernist. It’s true that there are some widespread memes in pomo philosophy but writing style and authors to whom you refer are at least equally important.

      E.g. we can summarize some of Carnap’s beliefs like that: “In a certain sense there is no such thing as ‘reality’ and ‘truth’. Everything depends on our linguistic framework. Questions like ‘What is really true?’, ‘Which framework is the true one?’ are normative in nature”. It may sound postmodernish but Carnap was the most hardcore analytical philosopher, not postmodernist.

      • richwu says:

        I would say that even pomo in philosophy isn’t about any particular beliefs. I mean that there is no set of beliefs that would make you a postmodernist. It’s true that there are some widespread memes in pomo philosophy but writing style and authors to whom you refer are at least equally important.

        You’re right.

        But I recommend looking beyond Carnap a little, at his teacher and inspiration Ludwig Wittgenstein 😎

        • Protagoras says:

          I’m not sure if you mean that seriously with the smily, but that is a highly misleading description of the relationship between Wittgenstein and Carnap. Carnap seems to have had a high opinion of the Tractatus, as did many of the logical positivists, but he was a student of Frege, and learned about Russell through Frege, before he had any contact with Wittgenstein’s ideas. He didn’t rely on Wittgenstein as a go between, and so his philosophy was probably less Wittgenstein-influenced than that of any of the other Vienna Circle members. Certainly Wittgenstein was never his teacher in any formal sense.

          • richwu says:

            That’s fair – and duly noted. Orthogonal, though, to what I was pointing at, which is that if we were to look for postmodern-ish antecedents in the analytic tradition Wittgenstein (especially late) would be my first pick.

          • Protagoras says:

            Well, if the point was to snark at the late Wittgenstein, no sensible person could possibly object to that activity.

          • Montork says:

            All in all late Wittgenstein was better than early one. Philosophical Investigations are a mess but anyway are a better source of inspiration today than Tractatus, I guess. Vide Kripkenstein debate.

    • PDV says:

      >Postmodern meta-epistemology, as I like to call it, is compatible with rationality (and rationalism, and empiricism, etc). It just contends that “truth” is an unstable concept that depends on a language game to mean, which means there is no ultimate guarantor of what truth per se is.

      In what way is this not intellectually bankrupt? Truth is a property of reality, that which continues to affect you when you refuse to believe in it.

      • richwu says:

        I advise giving Eddy’s comment below the good old college try; it’s pretty solid. If the project still reads as gibberish or nonsensical, I doubt I can present you with a better case without traversing significant inferential distance. You’re always welcome to draw your own conclusions, of course.

        • manwhoisthursday says:

          Eddy points to some serious problems in modern philosophy. Thing is, most of them can be solved by returning to premodern philosophy, especially the Aristotelian tradition. Modern philosophers, unfortunately, have mostly misunderstood, caricatured or just plain forgotten what the earlier tradition had to say.

        • Eddy says:

          Thanks Rich, I think a sticking point for many is that many people who work in the postmodern tradition have come up through gender and cultural studies and so perhaps don’t have the toolkit to respond to people who have come up through philosophy/rationalism, leading many here to have the impression that the arguments in favour of postmodernism are very weak since that’s what they mostly encounter. Your presentation and comments here are super clear and helpful and move the debate beyond the usual ‘truth is objective’ ‘truth is subjective’ back and forth.

      • In the terminology of analytical philosophy, existence is a property of reality that affects you, and truth is a property of sentences or propositions. You are somewhat supporting the postmodernists point by using “truth” in a very loose way. Actually, analyticals have a good response to the problem, which is to forget about capturing natural language meanings , and use stipulated definitions.

  8. suntzuanime says:

    There’s a certain two-word phrase about people trying to manipulate us via narratives that would be useful to be able to say in discussing this topic.

  9. liskantope says:

    While I was still reading the earlier parts of this essay, I was feeling a little dismayed because it seemed to vaguely describe the way that I process and argue things. That is, I follow an instinct of shying away from trying to nail down hard facts (because the real world is far too complicated for any one person to understand all the facts, and the facts we do hear depend an awful lot on who we’re hearing them from) and towards analyzing the (sub)conscious biases behind other people’s bad arguments. This is a lot of what I was trying to describe when talking about my constant feeling of epistemic helplessness. So am I effectively a postmodernist?

    Then I realized at the same time that a lot of the bad arguments I’m arguing against are postmodernist in nature, as described in the essay, and that I’ve always been a stickler for the importance of finding the objective facts without any agenda in mind (while somehow sliding out of any obligation to nail down those facts with any certainty myself). So that seems ironic. And then I got to the part of the essay which addresses exactly this.

    So I guess that makes me, and probably a lot of us, a postmodernist one meta-level up or something. Which isn’t incoherent in itself, but where does it end?

    • A less charitable interpretation would be that this is merely an “isolated demand for rigor”.

      Relatedly, isn’t it easy to use these mental tools to simply win arguments/signal intelligence without advancing truth? It seems to me that the source of an argument is only interesting after you’ve established the factual claims.

      [As opposed to sources of factual claims, where who is speaking is one of the best sources of truthfulness]

    • quaelegit says:

      Postmodernism has been around for decades. I think its fair to say that most of us (on multiple sides of arguments) have postmodernist outlooks and/or use postmodernism a lot of the time (at least as this essay describes postmodernism).

  10. esraymond says:

    This is a nice theoretical explanation of what post-modernism *could* be as a critical style, if practiced with honesty and humility.

    In practice, I fear Chip Morningstar’s How To Deconstruct Almost Anything from a quarter-century ago is still both more descriptive and more predictive. It’s “My politics trump your facts” all the way down, an obsession with imputed power relationships over all else. Entire academic fields have been rotted out by it – reduced to self-parodies emptied of insight and riddled with arid Marxist cant.

    I am personally especially offended by the way postmodernism has ruined cultural anthropology. When you insist that everything a culture presents or believes about itself has to be analyzed in terms of political cui bono, you effectively destroy the possibility of learning anything about or from that culture that isn’t circumscribed by a political narrative.

    This isn’t a merely theoretical point for me. I have watched postmodern anthropologists descend on a subculture I am deeply invested in and spit out analyses that ignore, caricature, or deny every important thing I know about it. I’ve not seen this just once but on *both* of the two occasions I’ve been watching when the postmodernist anthropologists landed in my subculture and I was there to evaluate.

    I have also watched postmodern literary critics equally misconstrue and then damage, through their influence on publishing, the genre of science fiction.

    These creatures are a blight. They traduce and uglify everything they touch.

    • Peter says:

      Yeah, I saw the title and thought, “what I’m going to read about here is not postmodernism, but a Scott Alexander steelman of postmodernism”, and what I got was a steelman of some small aspect of postmodernism. What we need is a field guide for dealing with postmodernism as it is encountered in the wild.

      David Chapman likes to write about Heidegger (who is not a postmodernist as such but could be construed as an ancestral proto-postmodernism and is generally beloved by postmodernist authors) as interpreted by Dreyfus. I’ve read some of Dreyfus’s stuff and it’s not bad – in particular, it’s remarkably clear and comprehensible. “It’s actually possible to translate continental philosophy into English!” I thought. Then one day I looked Dreyfus up on Wikipedia, and encountered the term “Dreydegger”, implying that a lot of people thing that what Dreyfus presents as Heidegger’s thoughts would better be described as particular to Dreyfus. Shrug. Possibly “Dreydegger” is a far better philosopher than Heidegger.

      Chip Morningstar’s essay is a good one. What’s interesting about the Morningstar essay is that on a quick breezy reading of the middle and the end he’s quite dismissive of the subject matter of the piece, but looking at some of the paragraphs towards the middle, it’s clear he’s utterly fascinated by it. Some of the fascination is train-wreck fascination, but still…

    • Fluffy Buffalo says:

      Could you give some examples of aspects that were misrepresented and ignored? (I’m not doubting you at all, I’m just trying to follow my own suggestion to anchor narratives in actual events).

      Random thought that just crossed my mind: people have a tendency to believe that one aspect of social life rules supreme, and they find it hard to believe that others have different priorities. For example, to an atheistic capitalist, it’s hard to grasp that some people really, deeply believe in God, and that they really find money or power irrelevant, or just an unfortunate necessity. One of the important functions of anthropology is to remind people that, yes, different times and places were different in important ways. It’s ironic that postmodernists, who should be sensitive to the importance of overarching narratives, seem to want to retroactively impose their own narrative on all others… (am I completely off-base here?)

      • esraymond says:

        Here. This one was the less horrible trainwreck.

        Coding Freedom: a review

        The worse one was a bunch of face-to-face conversations with a different anthropologist whose eagerness to impose her own political hobbyhorses on what she was studying was far *more* cringe-inducing.

        • Incurian says:

          I suppose that’s ironic – aren’t they supposed to be super aware of that sort of thing?

          • ec429 says:

            Compare: “I suppose that’s ironic — aren’t Objectivists supposed to be super objective?”
            Merely defining yourselves as “the guys who avoid bias X” does not help you to avoid bias X, otherwise the rationalist project would be a lot easier.

      • Lambert says:

        > seem to want to retroactively impose their own narrative on all others

        Hypothesis: everyone wants to do that to a certain extent, and many are not too scrupulous to do so if they can.
        And postmodernism gives them an opportunity to do just that.

    • Watchman says:

      Politicised academics might claim the trappings of postmodernism, and their underpinning rejections of earlier certanties might well fit as postmodernist – note postmodernist does not imply all postmodernists will accept it, but once they start imposing their own dogma then they are clearly modernist at best. Foucault famously didn’t offer solutions (perhaps wisely – I would be a lot less comfortable with hm if he had I suspect) and seems to have enjoyed baiting French Marxist philosophers as something of a hobby, because he was aware that analysising the problem and proposing the solution are two different processes, and either might be unduly influenced by beliefs – and that the desire to promote beliefs is a major issue with missionising ideologies such as Christianity or Marxism. As I’d hold the deliberately cautious (and inpeneterable at times) Foucault up as the model of postmodernism, I would suggest that those presumably self-labelled postmodernist anthropologists you have met are failing to fully live up to the label they adopt. Have you tried winding them up about this – should be good for a laugh because left-wing postmodernists have such good senses of humour in my experience…

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      I’ve read that piece a few times now, and I can never remember why I don’t pay it more attention, and then I get to this line:

      > using a literary version of the same cheap trick that Kurt Gödel used to try to frighten mathematicians back in the thirties.

      This “cheap trick” is basically inventing the idea of a computer program before computers (that’s how Scott Aaronson has characterized it), something which a computer scientist or programmer might be interested in. It doesn’t do wonders for his credibility, particularly when he claims to be dissecting ideas whose proponents claim hold deep insights but which look to an outside observer to be obscured by jargon and complicated ways of talking about simple ideas.

      • John Nerst says:

        Can you elaborate on how it’s basically like inventing the idea of computer programs?

        • Alex Zavoluk says:

          How familiar are you with logic? This paper gives some explanation, but the short version is that a particular statement being provable is equivalent to a particular computer program halting.

          • ec429 says:

            I think the “cheap trick” in this context is diagonalisation. I’m not totally sure how that maps on to deconstruction, but Morningstar is arguing that deconstruction somehow involves ‘getting the text to talk about itself’, which is at least vaguely analogous to diagonalisation.

      • toastengineer says:

        I’m pretty sure he’s being sarcastic. You know, “deliberately try to disprove your understanding of the world” is sort of a “cheap trick” as well – a cheap trick that happens to be really, really powerful.

        • Alex Zavoluk says:

          His description of Deconstruction doesn’t indicate he’s being complimentary of it, though, which means “cheap trick” would be taken literally, and the comparison would be sarcastic, I guess? Still seems weird and unclear.

    • I have a similar lament about sociology. Instead of trying to accurately describe the social world, it’s seen as a platform for activism. Even where I agree with the agenda (I’m fairly egalatarian so sometimes I can agree with the more moderate stuff), I think that sort of thing belongs on a placard or petition, not in an institution that should be providing a true account of the world as a neutral body of knowledge for the use of everybody. I also found where you challenge the postmodernist agenda there can definitely be negative consequences.

      It would be great to find a hub/institution/online forum where truth-seeking non-political (neither left or right) sociology and anthropology was the norm, but I’m not aware of any. Have you encountered any?

  11. reasoned argumentation says:

    A postmodernist will be less interested in recalculating the GDP per capita of Carolingian France for the twentieth time, and more interested in investigating how all of the historians who invented the idea of Dark Ages were New Atheists who emphasized all of the most sensational examples of the Church screwing things up in order to fit their agenda. They focus less on objective facts than on how politically-motivated people choose to weave those facts together to tell one story rather than another. Then they explain how many of the stories and concepts we unquestioningly believe come from processes like this.

    More creative postmodernist scholarship finds cases where there isn’t yet much debate, and explains why it might be in the interest of society as a whole (or rich capitalists, or white males, or whoever else they think controls society) to tell only that side of the story.

    So they’re Marxists with the serial numbers filed off. Got it.

    • Peter says:

      Hmmm, I tried to reply to this, but the comment filter might have eaten it. Possibly I mentioned a certain bad word to do with members of a defunct political party.

      Anyway: normally I’d say, “grrr, those people seeing Marxists everywhere, they really need to get their outgroup homogeneity bias under control”, but if you look at the biographies of a lot of what for want of a better term I’ll call the founders of postmodernism, a lot of them were at least Marx admirers, even if they couldn’t bring themselves to be orthodox Marxists. It’s as if a bunch of people had noticed in the late 40s, 50s and 60s that Marxism had gone terribly wrong somehow but had learned the wrong lessons from that going-wrong.

      • cassander says:

        It’s really hard to overstate how massively influential marxism was in the middle of the century. And it’s understandable why. Imagine if the US government today decided to dedicate itself to making american baseball the most popular sport in the world; that it spent tens of billions of dollars setting up amateur baseball leagues in countries all around the world, promoted baseball scholarship in universities, conducted a global propaganda effort to convince people of the virtues of playing baseball. Is there any doubt that the popularity of baseball would increase?

        That’s what the USSR did with Marxism. They made it into an aggressively evangelical church backed by the full power of the soviet state. On top of that, Marxism could create at least the appearance of seriously impressive achievements. Marxists had seemed to go from a band of terrorists freedom fighters to leaders of the second most powerful state in the world in 25 years, to transform a feudal society into an industrial colossus, to go toe to toe with Hitler and the might of his Panzers and win where France and Britain collapsed in weeks, to reach space before even the vaunted United States could tread there. Granted, none of these achievements actually happened that way. All successes were massively exaggerated, failures covered up, the immense human costs badly concealed, but it was enough to create at the appearance of progress.

        As a result, people believed. See, for example WEB Dubois eulogy for Stalin. That man was a true believer, no ifs ands or buts. And his statements were, if a little effusive, not that unusual. It might not always have been Stalin, but it’s hard to find a single mid-century intellectual to the left of Buckley who didn’t at one point or another heap lavish praise on some part of the communist movement, and as a result everyone else had to take them seriously.

        • Art Vandelay says:

          I find it strange that you take baseball as an example. Why not use the real world example of the USA making free-market fundamentalism into an aggressively evangelical church backed by the full power of the mightiest nation the world has ever known?

          • cassander says:

            Because I wanted a neutral example and because the idea that the US evangelizes is democracy, not free-market fundamentalism.

          • Art Vandelay says:

            The US has supported the replacement of democratically elected socialist governments with capitalist dictators because they evangelise democracy?

          • enye-word says:

            Free markets are a good idea; we should try them in America some time!

          • cassander says:

            @Art Vandelay

            The US has supported the replacement of democratically elected socialist governments with capitalist dictators because they evangelise democracy?

            The US has replaced a lot of regimes, with a lot of different regimes, for a wide variety of reasons. But the most consistent thrust, especially in the last 30 years, is to topple autocrats. But enye-word really hits the nail on the head.

          • Protagoras says:

            @cassander, Past 30 years? Kind of odd to pick a narrow time range that pretty much starts when the cold war ends, given context. A suspicious person might think that the time range was cherry picked to support the thesis you wanted.

          • Art Vandelay says:

            Obviously the relevant period is when the USSR was trying to do the same with Communism, during which time almost all the US involvement was to overthrow socialist/Communist governments, many of which were democratically elected.

            Even if we take your conveniently chosen period, many of the autocrats headed socialist parties (Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad).

          • cassander says:

            @Protagoras says:

            >30 years? Kind of odd to pick a narrow time range that pretty much starts when the cold war ends, given context. A suspicious person might think that the time range was cherry picked to support the thesis you wanted.

            There’s nothing suspicious about it at all, and it’s hardly a narrow time range. More to the point, though, I wasn’t trying to slip things by anyone, I was clearly referencing the end of the cold war, or so I thought. It’s not at all strange to suggest that countries behave differently when confronted with an existential struggle, or that their true nature desires are more revealed out when they no longer face that challenge.

            @Art Vandelay says:

            During which time almost all the US involvement was to overthrow socialist/Communist governments, many of which were democratically elected

            Relatively few of which were elected, you mean. Most were strongmen ratified by fig leaf elections and they were with replaced other strongmen ratified by elections. Very rarely was there anything that would be recognized as democratic in any objective sense.

            Even if we take your conveniently chosen period, many of the autocrats headed socialist parties (Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad).

            Just, wow. There’s a lot to unpack here.

            (A) In all three of those cases, our effort was explicitly motivated by a democratizing impulse.

            (B) All three were overthrown (we will ignore the fact that Assad has not been overthrown) for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with their socialism, which was, in any case, extremely nominal by the time of their ouster.

            (C) If your point is that there are a lot of socialist autocrats, and isn’t that convenient….well, yes, but that proves a lot more than you want it to. Of course there are a lot of socialist autocracy, autocrats are just about only thing socialist systems ever manage to produce in abundance (the others are dark humor and corpses). You should perhaps think about this next time you declare yourself a socialist, question if you really want to stand in the same ideological camp as Saddam Hussein, and ponder why there are so many socialist autocrats.

            (D) Putting all the above aside, none of those cases comes anywhere close to backing up your argument. Assad and Saddam were perfectly willing to conduct capitalist trade with the west, and the US led the charge to PREVENT that from happening, for essentially humanitarian reasons. As for Libya, we’d actually repealed the sanctions against them, and they had started trading, and we overthrew gaddafi anyway, for, again, purely humanitarian/pro-democratic reasons.

          • Art Vandelay says:

            There’s nothing suspicious about it at all, and it’s hardly a narrow time range. More to the point, though, I wasn’t trying to slip things by anyone, I was clearly referencing the end of the cold war, or so I thought. It’s not at all strange to suggest that countries behave differently when confronted with an existential struggle, or that their true nature desires are more revealed out when they no longer face that challenge.

            Right, but the comparison was to the behaviour of the USSR. The most relevant period is obviously when they were both engaged in an existential struggle (incidentally, that struggle began with Western powers contributing to the efforts to overthrow the Soviet government in 1918).

            (A) In all three of those cases, our effort was explicitly motivated by a democratizing impulse.

            The reason given for overthrowing Saddam was that he had WMDs.

            Also, just because your President says he’s motivated to overthrow governments by his love of democracy, it doesn’t mean that’s actually the reason.

          • cassander says:

            @Art Vandelay says:

            Right, but the comparison was to the behaviour of the USSR. The most relevant period is obviously when they were both engaged in an existential struggle

            No it wasn’t, at least not when I made it. Nor would it make sense to, since no one has ever claimed that the USSR ran around upholding democracy. In fact, I’m not sure they ever once did.

            (incidentally, that struggle began with Western powers contributing to the efforts to overthrow the Soviet government in 1918).

            If you’re going to play that card, no, it didn’t. If it started anywhere, it started when the west teamed up with the Bolsheviks to overthrow the Czarist government. And if you don’t want to count the Kaiser’s germany as part of the west, fine, but then the conflict started when the bolshevik government started murdering westerners and seizing their property, causing interventions that were usually NOT meant to materially aid the whites.

            The reason given for overthrowing Saddam was that he had WMDs.

            That was one reason given. Democracy was another reason given, one of considerably more importance to the people making the decision. On top of that, the US spent 10 years and a trillion dollars running around iraq, it certainly wasn’t to make sure there weren’t any WMD.

            Also, just because your President says he’s motivated to overthrow governments by his love of democracy, it doesn’t mean that’s actually the reason.

            It’s even more true that just because an America is more or less capitalist, American presidents only overthrow people to serve the greater glory of capitalism. There is a great deal of evidence for the theory that they cared about democracy in the cases you mentioned. There is none it was about capitalism.

          • Art Vandelay says:

            @Cassander

            You’re trying to move the goal posts and I can see why.

            This began with you saying it was necessary to be constantly on guard against the influence of Marxism because it has a very wide reach due to the fact that the USSR put a lot of effort into promoting it. You illustrated this with a hypothetical example of the United States doing the same with baseball. I queried why you didn’t use the real-world example of the United States doing the same thing the USSR was doing, at the same time the USSR was doing it, but with capitalism in place of Marxism-Leninism. Your responses have indirectly answered my question to my satisfaction.

          • cassander says:

            @Art Vandelay says:

            This began with you saying it was necessary to be constantly on guard against the influence of Marxism because it has a very wide reach due to the fact that the USSR put a lot of effort into promoting it.

            I said absolutely no such thing. I said marxism achieved huge influence. I said that it did this in large part to active evangelism by the soviets. Both facts are indisputably true. I said absolutely nothing about remaining on guard against it.

            I queried why you didn’t use the real-world example of the United States doing the same thing the USSR was doing, at the same time the USSR was doing it, but with capitalism in place of Marxism-Leninism. Your responses have indirectly answered my question to my satisfaction.

            And I stand by my answer, because the US DIDN’T do that with capitalism. the only examples you have provided to the contrary were demonstrably not actually examples to the contrary.

          • Art Vandelay says:

            I gave those examples to show that the more recent years were less clear-cut than you thought, the older examples seemed too obvious to warrant mentioning:

            Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Cuba 1961 (and throughout the 1960s), Dominican Republic 1965, Chile 1973, Afghanistan 1979-89, Nicaragua 1982–1989, Grenada 1983…

          • cassander says:

            @Art Vandelay

            I gave those examples to show that the more recent years were less clear-cut than you thought

            And you were, frankly, flat out wrong about them. They are very clear cut, conspiracy mongering and your poor historical memory doesn’t change that.

            Iran 1953

            Was more the british pulling one over on kermit roosevelt than anything, but in any case, Mossadegh was ruling by decree under emergency decree when he was overthrown, not really a democracy at that point.

            Cuba 1961 (and throughout the 1960s),

            There were no democrats on either side in the cuba conflict, there were communists and a non-communist dictator.

            Dominican Republic 1965,

            The US intervened in an active civil war, not getting rid of a democracy.

            Chile 1973,

            Dozens of investigations into this have unanimously concluded that there is zero evidence that the US was involved in the Pinochet coup. Allende was overthrown by the military, after both the Chilean Supreme court and the parliament declared him in violation of the constitution and called for the military to intervene.

            Afghanistan 1979-89,

            the soviet regime was not a democracy.

            Nicaragua 1982–1989,

            the sandinistas were NOT democrats, they were communist thugs who had overthrown the previous non-communist thug

            Grenada 1983…

            We ousted a communist tyranny that had violently thrown out the post-colonial government. We then replaced it with a democracy.

            I don’t see what point you think you’re proving by trotting out the old left wing list of evil things the US has done. Even where you’re not factually in error about what happened, and that’s most of them, it manifestly does not prove that the US ran around overthrowing democracies. In fact, it proves the opposite. You can’t hang a century of american foreign policy on guatemala.

          • Art Vandelay says:

            OK, sure, they were all about democracy.

          • cassander says:

            @Art Vandelay

            You really need to learn to read what other people write, not make up straw men then skewer them. I did not claim they were all about democracy. I didn’t claim anything that could plausibly read as such. what I said, very clearly, was that they weren’t anti-democracy. Not A does not imply B.

          • Art Vandelay says:

            the idea that the US evangelizes is democracy, not free-market fundamentalism.

            ETA: It’s very clear that the United Sates was willing to support the overthrow of democratically elected governments if those governments also happened to be socialist, as evidenced by Iran, Chile, and Guatemala. To claim otherwise is insanity.

          • Art Vandelay says:

            Could add Brazil in 64 to that list.

          • cassander says:

            @art

            ETA: It’s very clear that the United Sates was willing to support the overthrow of democratically elected governments if those governments also happened to be socialist, as evidenced by Iran, Chile, and Guatemala.

            As I already pointed out, the US didn’t overthrow anyone in Chile, and if it had, Allende was, according to his supreme court, ruling as a unconstitutional dictator. In Iran, the man overthrown had made himself dictator and was ruling by decree. These are facts. Insanity is letting one incident in guatemala define a century of american foreign policy. I’ve already pointed this out, do you even bother to read what others say?

          • Art Vandelay says:

            The USA most certainly supported the overthrow of Allende, they made that very clear. It is a fact. One of the ways Mossadegh used the powers of decree (granted to him by parliament) was to strengthen the power of democratic institutions in relation to the Shah. The point, though, is not how democratic these different governments were, the point is what the main aim of US foreign policy was. The US government, throughout the cold war, never tried to hide the fact that their main aim was to stop the spread of socialism.

            If you need to believe that the US’ goal to help democracy rather than to roll back what they saw as the socialist threat, then fine. But I can’t really be bothered to argue against it anymore because it’s not a credible position.

          • @Art:

            One problem with your argument is that you are confusing economic systems with geopolitical alliances. The U.S. was in favor, where possible, of overthrowing governments allied with the Soviet Union and replacing them with governments allied with the U.S., just as the Soviets were in favor of the same thing with parties reversed.

            Sweden called itself socialist and the U.S. had no interest in overthrowing it. Yugoslavia called itself communist, was not allied with the Soviets, and Stalin was not a fan, although so far as I know he never actually tried to overthrow Tito.

            India had a government that called itself socialist from the beginning and an economic development plan modeled on the Soviet Union’s. The U.S. supported that plan with both foreign aid and praise. Various African kleptocrats allied with one side or another with only occasional links to their domestic economic policies.

          • Art Vandelay says:

            @David Friedman

            I think that’s a good point and there is certainly a lot of truth to it (although, there’s still a strong case that both side’s ultimate aim was to push their own economic ideology). As you point out, the USA and USSR were engaged in largely the same sort of activity. That was the main point I was arguing for and which Cassander was disagreeing with.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        This is essentially what people mean by “Cultural Marxism.” When Derrida and friends could no longer sell Marxist economics in the face of the failures and horrors of the Soviet Union, they switched from money/capital imbalances as the source of oppression to power imbalances based on cultural constructs surrounding race, gender, etc.

        We’ve been through this before in open threads, and yes, no one calls themselves a Cultural Marxist. It’s basically a snarl-word shorthand for the behavior of various political enemies. Compare with “The Patriarchy.” There is no Council of Males imposing patriarchal oppression. But “The Patriarchy” is a useful shorthand for various behaviors and attitudes of the political enemies of some critics of society. So, “Cultural Marxism” exists about as much as The Patriarchy or the Dark Ages.

        • Art Vandelay says:

          This is essentially what people mean by “Cultural Marxism.” When Derrida and friends could no longer sell Marxist economics in the face of the failures and horrors of the Soviet Union, they switched from money/capital imbalances as the source of oppression to power imbalances based on cultural constructs surrounding race, gender, etc.

          Yes, “Cultural Maxism” is basically the history of critical theory as presented by various youtube conspiracy-theory channels.

        • multiheaded says:

          When Derrida and friends could no longer sell Marxist economics

          wow, I’d like to see Derrida’s implied attempt at advocating public ownership of the MoP, then. it sounds fascinating.

          • Art Vandelay says:

            Yes, he could have at least gone with someone like Adorno to give it some semblance of accuracy.

    • antilles says:

      No.

      ETA: Marxists are high modernists, what with their nasty belief in the comprehensibility and perfectibility of Man via science. Like, learn a book.

      • John Nerst says:

        Looking at how it’s used, it’s obvious that the phrase “cultural marxism” doesn’t refer to the whole of marxism, only certain aspects of it.

        This happens. Complex concepts get worn down into simplified symbolic communication aids. That’s how language tends to work, even if it is annoying to those with specialized knowledge.

        • antilles says:

          He didn’t say “Cultural Marxists,” he said “Marxists.” Also in the way of understanding “Cultural Marxists” that actually makes sense, i.e. “we should judge all art and culture based on whether it advanced the cause of the proletarian revolution” he’s *still* wrong. That’s just a particularly ruthless form of modernism.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        Marxism has premises that it claims are empirical facts frex; society has cycles that lead from feudalism to capitalism to a dictatorship of the proletariat to true communism, the malleability of man, etc.

        If you deny this and point out counter evidence you don’t get a classical / modern argument about where you made an error – you get denounced as an enemy of the people and your work is bourgeoisie science (like anyone in the USSR who denied Lysenkoism), hence discredited because you are not of the people.

        It’s a subset of “arguments against the motive of the speaker” type arguments except with a single specific permitted motive – “enemy of the people”. This was also the introduction of a system where this type of argument is supposed to be accepted as a valid form of reasoning.

        Postmodernism has a broader set of motives you’re allowed to use to discredit the speaker (you can call the speaker racist or sexist or Islamophobic or homophobic, etc.) but it’s the same structure of argument.

        I didn’t say it was communism with the serial numbers filed off – was referring specifically to the Marxist style of argumentation.

        • apollocarmb says:

          Not all Marxists were a part of the soviet union bureaucracy. I have been active in Marxist circles for a while and I have never once seen anything like that.

          • As usual, it all starts back at Marx.

            Marx couldn’t help but divide the pro-capitalist political economists of his day into the “scientific” ones that unflinchingly sought to describe how capitalism functioned (for both good and ill—Marx likewise acknowledged when capitalism had a progressive role to play in advancing human productivity and mastery of nature)…versus the “vulgar” ones who sought to simply defend capitalism as a moral system, obfuscate or rationalize its contradictions, and/or brazenly defend some class interest or personal interest.

            Which economists belonged in which category? To Marx, it just seemed obvious. Here is just one example. Marx’s glowing praise of (pro-capitalist economist) David Ricardo:

            “He wants production for the sake of production and this with good reason. To assert, as sentimental opponents of Ricardo’s did, that production as such is not the object, is to forget that production for its own sake means nothing but the development of human productive forces, in other words the development of the richness of human nature as an end in itself. To oppose the welfare of the individual to this end, as Sismondi does, is to assert that the development of the species must be arrested in order to safeguard the welfare of the individual, so that, for instance, no war may be waged in which at all events some individuals perish…Ricardo’s ruthlessness was not only scientifically honest but also a scientific necessity from his point of view. But because of this it is also quite immaterial to him whether the advance of the productive forces slays landed property or workers. If this progress devalues the capital of the industrial bourgeoisie it is equally welcome to him. If the development of the productive power of labour halves the value of the existing fixed capital, what does it matter, says Ricardo. The productivity of human labour has doubled, Thus here is scientific honesty. Ricardo’s conception is, on the whole, in the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie, only because, and in so far as their interests coincide with that of production or the productive development of human labour. Where the bourgeoisie comes into conflict with this, he is just as ruthless towards it as he is at other times towards the proletariat and the aristocracy.” – Marx, “Theories of Surplus Value” Part II, Chapter 9

            Versus Marx’s scathing criticism of Malthus:

            ““… when these same demands of production curtail the landlord’s ‘rent’ or threaten to encroach on the ‘tithes” of the Established Church, or on the interests of the ‘consumers of taxes’; and also when that part of the industrial bourgeoisie whose interests stand in the way of progress is being sacrificed to that part which represents the advance of production—and therefore whenever it is a question of the interests of the aristocracy against the bourgeoisie or of the conservative and stagnant bourgeoisie against the progressive—in all these instances ‘parson’ Malthus does not sacrifice the particular interests to production but seeks, as far as he can, to sacrifice the demands of production to the particular interests of existing ruling classes or sections of classes.” – Marx, “Theories of Surplus Value” Part II, Chapter 9

            So, Marx already had elements of both modernism (the belief in scientific truth, the over-arching goal of the advancement of human productivity as a grand meta-narrative) and post-modernism (the claim that some people’s ideas were influenced by economic interests and agendas, and that economic interests pushed people to rationalize certain positions that they ought to have been smart enough to know were untenable).

          • It’s a tangent, but was Marx aware of Ricardo’s argument that the friends of mankind should hope that workers would have expensive tastes, since that would result in raising the long term equilibrium wage? I’m not sure that fits with his description.

    • Art Vandelay says:

      Sartre called Foucault, ‘the last barricade the bourgeoisie can still erect against Marx.’

  12. Fluffy Buffalo says:

    The underlying problem seems to be that in order to make decisions in a hopelessly complex world, we necessarily have to boil down a gazillion facts to a few narratives, which are – by necessity – inaccurate approximations (for a fun exercise, take some of the statements that are rated “half-true” by Politifact, and think about how they would have to be phrased to warrant an unconditional “true” rating, even assuming the best of intentions and in-depth knowledge). Replacing a strangely shaped cloud of data points by a representative vector, so to speak. However, if you don’t choose your representative vector carefully, not only do you throw away a lot of detail, but you’re left with something that’s orthogonal to reality – a superstition, a conspiracy theory.
    To avoid that, it’s necessary to connect your narrative back to reality – ask, “is that really a good approximation of what’s happening? What observable predictions does my narrative make? To what degree is my narrative compatible with the competing ones, and what explains the differences?” And that just doesn’t happen when people move away from the object level to the postmodern, political level, where all narratives are just power plays.
    Could it be possible to find a quantitative degree of the quality of a narrative, a measure for the amount of inconvenient facts that had to be swept under the rug, in the same sense that you can characterize a random variable by an average AND a standard deviation, or a signal by its signal-to-noise ratio, or a statistical result by its p-value?

  13. A1987dM says:

    Myself, I’m a postpostmodernist: by now, I have the same attitude towards things like A-F as postmodernists have towards things like 1-6.

  14. AC Harper says:

    I can make a reasonable argument that Breitbart News and the BBC are as bad as each other. They both manipulate their output to suit their biases, in different ways, and convince particular groups of people.

    If you really take postmodernism seriously then favouring one complicated issue over another just means that you have been recruited to a particular power structure. The issue may or may not be true reflection of reality – and postmodernism doesn’t seem to me to have the tools to unpick issues.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      My complaint with regards to mainstream media vs. Breitbart is that Breitbart knows it’s biased and admits its bias. CNN is blind to its own biases.

      Assume on the same day an unarmed black man is shot by police and a pretty white girl is raped and murdered by an illegal Mexican. CNN spends 24/7 coverage on the shooting and ignores the rape while Breitbart runs WAR IN EUROPE headlines about the rape and ignores the shooting. Who exactly is the lying propagandists in this scenario?

      • baconbacon says:

        Does knowing you have and admitting you have some bias equate to being better? As an absurd comparison is saying “Yeah, I’m a racist if you knew the (insert ethnic slur) that I know you would be racist to” actually better than “locks car doors as he drives through black neighborhoods but reads the NYTs so isn’t a racist”?

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          In terms of imparting information to others, yes, being aware of one’s own biases is very important. Also, being aware of the bias of those imparting information to you is very important.

          There are people who think CNN is unbiased. This is a problem, because they’re not critically evaluating what CNN is telling them. No one, including Breitbart, thinks Breitbart is unbiased.

          Also I think you’re conflating different types of biases. One for “things I care about and don’t care about” and “things I like and don’t like.”

          • baconbacon says:

            You are leaping from “admitting X” to “accurately assessing and admitting X” or “enabling accurate assessment of X”. “There are people who think CNN is unbiased” isn’t automatically worse than “there are people who reject outright what Brietbart says because they are known to be biased”.

            Information without accuracy will often be indistinguishable from noise, and worse false accuracy is the worst type of information (NNT paraphrase).

            IF Brietbart is admitting bias in an attempt to overcome it and be transparent that is almost certainly better than pretending to be without bias, but if they are simply doing so to contrast themselves against CNN as a marketing ploy then they are likely as bad, and potentially worse.

          • lvlln says:

            There’s something to this that, to me, looks very similar to one line of reasoning I’ve observed people who subscribe to postmodernism use to reject empiricism and rationality. The argument being that people who claim to pursue empiricism and rationality are, in fact, just as biased as anyone else, and as such the conclusions they draw using what they believe to be empiricism and rationality are just as irrational and lacking in evidence as the conclusions that anyone else draws. And postmodernists (we) might be no better at empiricism and rationality too, but at least they (we) admit that we’re biased, and so they’re (we’re) better.

            I think there’s something to this argument, but, at the same time, I think reality really does exist, and different degrees of bias and abuse do exist. In this example, I think Breitbart is better than BBC in the way that they’re upfront about their biases. But I also think Breitbart tends to twist and sensationalize things in a way that is more extreme and more consistently extreme than BBC, and so on net they’re worse (I think the competition between Breitbart and Vox might be a lot closer). But of course I would think that, because I’m a leftist.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I agree that reality exists. My point is that what aspects of reality you find relevant are very dependent on your motivations.

            Very few people are killed by Islamic terrorism.

            Very few people are killed by racist cops.

            You can say “people who focus on Islamic terrorism are just xenophobes. I mean, you’re way more likely to die from a car accident!”

            You can say “people who focus on police shootings are just troublemakers. I mean, you’re way more likely to die from a car accident!”

            These are both true statements. There is a common refrain from people all over the political sphere that “the other side doesn’t care about facts” or “doesn’t know the facts” or “we’re right because we have the facts!” I think an awful lot of our disagreements over facts are nitpicking, and what’s far more important are which facts you find relevant.

      • cassander says:

        @Conrad Honcho

        This is precisely why I prefer the British press model to the American.

        @baconbacon

        from a purely moral point of view, being doing something bad and admitting it seems better, almost by definition, than doing something bad and lying about it.

        From a practical point of view, the question would seem to be does the pretense of objectivity do more good or harm than its absence. I can certainly a CS Lewis type argument. Objectivity (Christianity in Lewis’ case) might not be true, but the pretense encourages good behavior and without it things would be worse.

        I don’t buy this argument, however. I think it’s a recipe for creating a journalistic community that defends its own at the expense of truth and everyone else, which is arguably what we have now. I’d much rather our watchdogs be mutually suspicious of one another and be able to get ahead by tearing the prideful down, not scratching their back.

        • baconbacon says:

          from a purely moral point of view, being doing something bad and admitting it seems better, almost by definition, than doing something bad and lying about it.

          I would agree if you stipulate that you assume the actions are independent. If, however, one group is using its veneer of honesty to push an agenda while the other is using a veneer of low bias to push a different agenda then where are you? Or to make another bad analogy, if one guy beats his wife and doesn’t apologize, and one guy beats his wife and apologizes the latter is only better than the former if we assume that the apology isn’t a tactic to prevent her from leaving so he can beat her again later.

          • cassander says:

            I don’t assign much moral value to apologizing. I do assign a fair bit to honesty. Assuming the two agenda are of equal value, I’d prefer the guy who tells the truth to get what he wants to the guy that lies to get what he wants, on both utilitarian and deontological grounds.

          • baconbacon says:

            The difference I see is that selective disclosure isn’t honesty, choosing to disclose something when the disclosure is then used to build a shield around other dishonest (or immoral) decisions is worse than someone who lies all the time (specifically on utilitarian grounds the persistent liar is less dangerous).

        • SebWanderer says:

          This is precisely why I prefer the British press model to the American.

          I don’t understand. Could you explain, please?

          (I’m neither British nor American).

          • Lambert says:

            All the major news papers here have their own biases, to a certain extent, and are generally read by people biased the same way.

          • SebWanderer says:

            “Here” is the US or America?

            And how is it different in the other country?

      • pdbarnlsey says:

        I think the fact that Breitbart would run that story whether or not there had actually been a rape makes them a bit different.

      • g says:

        In this scenario, as you’ve presented it, with a single case on each side selected to make the two look equivalent? Yeah, probably both are roughly equally “lying propagandists” in that case. (Not necessarily: reactions to the events may be as much of the story as the events themselves, and for whatever reason there may be a lot more reaction to one than to the other.) But the question that matters isn’t “can someone come up with one case in which CNN might be lying propagandists and one case in which Breitbart might be?”. It’s something more like: on the whole, which emits more and worse lies, and more and worse propaganda?

        And … does Breitbart actually “admit its bias”? What does that mean? Does it mean it wears the label “conservative” with pride, or something of the sort? Because the usual accusation against Breitbart isn’t simply that it leans conservative, it’s that it’s some kind of hive of extreme far-right scum and villainy, and I doubt it admits that. (I have no idea whether there’s any substance to that accusation.)

    • Mark Moores says:

      I can make a reasonable argument that any piece of information prepared by anyone, including myself, is biased in some way.

      I would be happy to bet that an independent fact checking committee of 4 left leaning people, 4 centre leaning people and 4 right leaning people would, if they scored the output of both channels on a daily basis, decide that the BBC had been slightly biased and that Breitbart had been significantly biased.

      The BBC in the UK is regularly accused of both left-wing and right-wing bias – which implies it is not too bad at its job.

      • Schmendrick says:

        The fact that there are accusations of bias in a particular direction doesn’t mean much without knowing who’s doing the complaining. If Hillary Clinton criticizes National Review for right-wing bias, but the John Birch Society complains that NR is a bunch of left-wing c*ckservatives, NR is being critiqued for both left- and right-wing bias. But because the starting points of the critiquers are not equivalent, we shouldn’t use the existence of the critique as evidence that NR is a centrist publication.

        • Mark Moores says:

          Well to be specific the BBC is criticised by centre left broadsheets – Guardian/Indie for being right wing and centre right broadsheets for being left wing.

          It is also criticised by more extreme groups of both wings.

          So specifically I feel that it does indicate that the BBC does represent a range of views – enough to annoy most political shades at some point.

      • Colin Reid says:

        There’s another axis of bias that the news media are frequently accused of: running from contrarian bias (a fondness for ideas simply because they are unpopular or incendiary) to its opposite, consensus bias (simply taking whatever appears to be the political consensus as if it’s objectively true or reasonable, and dismissing ideas as ‘unrealistic’ simply because they don’t have enough political support). The BBC, like CNN, is more often accused of the latter, and you can argue it’s a more politically and psychologically dangerous bias than any specific ideological lean. So for instance, the BBC has been criticized by economists for being instinctively pro-austerity in the period 2010-15, not out of right-wing bias, but because the three biggest political parties supported it (even Labour was advocating for ‘austerity-lite’), so the BBC journalists blithely assumed it reflected the expert consensus as well. In the USA, you could similarly say that the bulk of the media in 2015-16 consistently underrated Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ popularity, because those candidates didn’t fit into the media’s model of a political spectrum defined by ‘mainstream Democrats’ and ‘mainstream Republicans’.

        Mindless contrarianism and iconoclasm has its problems too of course, as we see with the excesses of postmodernism and literary criticism, or the troll culture that’s developed on the Internet. When it comes to the news though, I don’t know how many professional journalists are truly contrarian, and how many just stir up superficial squabbles to mask their deeper support of orthodoxy.

        • Mark Moores says:

          Yes, the BBC, as a public broadcaster has all kinds of rules designed to stop it expressing bias, particlarly political, but it does tend to present a mainstream view much of the time.

          However, it has also be criticised for representing minority opinions with as much weight as majority opinions – a recent example was Lord Lawson’s views on climate change (no warming since 1998) going unchallenged.

          So they can’t win really. If they present a contrarian view, someone will complain. If they present only the mainstream view, someone will complain.

        • Lambert says:

          The other thing about the Beeb is that the Government is the hand that feeds it.
          People have been talking about reforming the license fee system that funds them for a while now.

  15. Fluffy Buffalo says:

    Also, here’s a criticism of postmodernism that I hope reaches sophomore level: “So, you’re telling me that all narratives are essentially about the self-interests, in particular the power, of the group propagating them. If you actually believe and live by this postmodernist narrative, you’ve admitted you’re a selfish, opportunistic bullshitter; why would I believe anything else you’re telling me? And if you don’t believe it and yet propagate it, you’ve proven to be a selfish, opportunistic bullshitter; why would I believe anything else you say?”
    (To which the proper answer is probably, “it doesn’t matter if you believe me when there’s power to be grabbed.”)

    • John Nerst says:

      The justification is going to be something in the vein of “since everything is power-grabbing, to be good is not to avoid manipulating our sense of reality for power-purposes but to do it in service of underprivileged groups.”

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        Isn’t that what Jordan Peterson is always saying? That post-modernism by itself doesn’t lead to any value structure, and you need to add (cultural) Marxism to tell you who should have more power?

        • John Nerst says:

          I don’t know what Jordan Peterson says, but it’s true that postmodernity is virtually by definition a state without a privileged moral order. This is why social justice ideology isn’t exactly postmodernist as it contains significant modernist elements (e.g a grand narrative).

          Shockingly, people often aren’t consistent. Postmodernism-inspired ideas are often used more as a tool than as a coherent worldview.

          • Antistotle says:

            Jordan Peterson:
            https://www.youtube.com/user/JordanPetersonVideos

            He’s got several videos on PostModernism there. Some mix other issues in, and I can’t find the *really* good one I watched on Monday. Might have been on a different computer.

            He comes at it from a completely different perspective than Our Host, and is more in line with the history of POMO that I am familiar with.

  16. John Nerst says:

    But I am an expert in explaining things to rationalists. So it’s worth a try.

    Indeed. This is a better introductiuon than the one linked, or perhaps would be a good “appetizer” to it, as a way to explain how to interpret what it says.

    Because the fact that postmodernists don’t really care about truth (in a sense – they’re more interested in social relations) can be quite hard to fully appreciate. Part of it is, if I use myself as an example, simply disbelief due to indignation. It used to be my firm impression that to be an academic, a researcher, an intellectual – is synonymous with only caring about truth and accuracy. Even touching tawdry politics or letting it influence your beliefs was just not done, it’d be like breaking your sacred vows. And then reading about people doing just that felt like reading about priests praising Satan, a combination of blind hypocrisy, adolescent edgelording and plain, cartoonish bizarro-world evil.

    Let’s just say I’ve grown more cynical. Not everybody aims for rationally uncovering physical truths. And things make better sense since I’ve understood that what sounds like denying truth is more like ignoring it.

    From the article I linked a few open threads ago on this topic:

    [scientific facts are socially constructed] should ideally not be seen as a “claim” at all but as an invitation to apply a particular perspective to scientific knowledge: to see it as a component in the social system rather than a representation of physical reality.

    So part of the dislike of postmodernism and related ideas stem from this misunderstanding of how overlapping the two “magisteria” are – somewhat, but less than you’d assume.

    But I think another part of it isn’t a misunderstanding at all. Further:

    Scientists will of course resist this particular partial narrative because it conspicuously excludes the aspect of scientific knowledge that justifies its privileged status.

    Instead it’s a very real (but perhaps partly subconscious) understanding that people are deliberately undermining the status of science and knowledge by focusing exclusively on the social consequences of factual claims instead of what evidence supports them. And this perhaps reminds science-y-rationalist-types (nerds, basically) about unpleasant experiences they’ve had where what they’ve said has been evaluated not based on its logical and rational validity but on its emotional consequences for others. For some (yes, including me) this can be frustrating and quite infuriating. And – and this is important – academia/research/intellectual culture is seen as a place where other social norms are supposed to be dominant. To see that kind of (in their/our minds) anti-intellectual attitude flow from inside the protective walls of a university feels like a betrayal by people who should be allies.

    The intellectual content of postmodernism can definitely be salvaged, and recently I’ve been able to appreciate its insights more. But the attitude is still off-putting in a way I can’t quite shake, and I’m probably not alone in that.

    • liskantope says:

      I certainly went through a similar transformation in the direction of cynicism, but more with regard to the atheist/skeptic community as I came to perceive that many of its members seemed more concerned with emotional consequences than with uncovering the bare facts (which is the very cornerstone of the skeptical creed). And I don’t claim that these individuals’ emotional priorities are necessarily misplaced. But there needs to exist some space that prioritizes getting down to the hard, cold facts over everything else, and where else could that be found if not in the skeptic community? (This was before I discovered the rationalist community, which does on some level fill this role.)

  17. Kevin C. says:

    No mention here of Bulverism?

    • hnau says:

      That’s exactly what I was thinking!

      As a kind-of-defense/steelman of Bulverism this post actually works pretty well. And Bulverism plays a big role in the modern world, and especially on certain parts of the Internet.

      But I don’t think Bulverism is the same thing as postmodernism. They’re related somehow– I can’t quite articulate how– but postmodernism is more abstract and less about arguments. I suspect it’s possible to be a responsible postmodernist, but not to be a responsible Bulverist.

  18. yoshi says:

    Quick remark, the trouble is postmodernism is not really a thing. Postmodernism is a bunch of attacks against modernist ideas, that usually work by thinking hard about epistemology of X and discovering that the praxis in X strongly effects the results. The trouble is, that to the best of my knowledge nobody succeeded in giving a good account how to rebuild a philosophical system that can serve a similar role as the grand narratives of modernity, because postmodernist flavored attacks are really good at attacking grand narratives. (If that is important.)

    The problem with that is, that nobody gets a good answer for the question: “What is postmodernism?” because postmodernism is not really a thing in a strong enough sense to tie together the answers into something coherent, but on the other hand there is enough similarity that people try to answer that question and confuse anybody who tries to understand postmodernism as a thing. It is a lot better to think about postmodernism as a bunch of different theories that were build after WWII and therefore just understand it as an historical label.

    • Watchman says:

      Why would we want to build a coherent narrative? The narrative itself is an artifact of modernism, or of precursor ideologies, and reflects the choices of the people who create and maintain it. The need for a narrative is a need created by those producing the narrative.

      And that my friends is (very simple) postmodernism in action – challenging the assumptions behind a thesis on the basis that the thesis does not reflect an objective fact but simply the requirements of a (changing) group of people. It also happens to be something I believe, but it makes a fun example.

      • baconbacon says:

        Why would we want to build a coherent narrative?

        Because action is required continually. “Your soil line in 100 years old, you probably want to get that replaced”- well isn’t that convenient Mr Plumber, who stands to benefit from my replacing pipes! A legitimate post-modernist critique, but so is the “crap, my basement is filled with crap” response some time later.

        • Watchman says:

          I’ve yet to meet a proponent of postmodernism who applied it to plumbing, but it’s a fun idea. Mind you, my father-in-law is certainly not a postmodernist, and he has exactly the same reaction to tradesmen as the one you describe (with the slight proviso that he can fix a lot of the stuff himself).

          I seriously doubt you can live by a postmodernist creed though – its not a belief system in any way. And postmodernism does not doubt the need for action, just questions the motivations for it.

      • DarkTigger says:

        The narrative itself is an artifact of modernism, or of precursor ideologies, and reflects the choices of the people who create and maintain it. The need for a narrative is a need created by those producing the narrative.

        Semi-Serious question, isn’t that a narrative?
        So where does this little piece of insight lead us?

        • Watchman says:

          Of course. I needed a narrative about narrative to justify the otherwise unsupported and therefore slightly offensive question (at least that is my explanation for that narrative – others could be offered with equally validity), so produced that.

          The question leaves us wiser, as we have recognised a narrative in what we have read. The fact I answered probably doesn’t leave us much wiser, but gives us a further narrative.

          It’s probably worth mentioning that narratives are not a negative thing – they are the basis of understanding what is going on with a piece of writing or whatever. For a historian whose main sources are legal documents and chronicles, which might be taken to be dry and factual, the recognition of underlying narratives is essential to understand what it is I am actually reading, especially as the documents often exist without external context.

      • yoshi says:

        Yes, I agree. The trouble is, that in my experience people who ask the question “What is postmodernism?” expect an answer that is a drop in replacement for some kind of modernist realism. The question presupposes actually that, unlike “What is critical theory?” for example.

  19. tmk says:

    That does explain a certain thing that annoys me about the new right (whatever we call them this minute). Despite being a bit of a lefty, I’ve always had a certain aversion to post-modernist fluffiness. It just felt like bullshit and a way to avoid engaging in rational argument.

    The the right started this habit of never answering the argument, always attacking the source. At first I though it was just a rhetorical trick, but not it seems like a core ideological tenet.

  20. futilemoons says:

    With regards to the notion of paranoia, there’s what I think is a really interesting critique from within the postmodern tradition, by Eve Sedgwick.

    It’s naturally also very postmodern and non-rationalist in approach and advances more ideas about how our practices when approaching of critique affect us than how effective they are at approaching the truth. So your mileage may vary. But for me it really usefully highlights the value of genuinely “reparative” approaches to thinking, as opposed to paranoid ones that get bogged down in proving how fucked we are rather than trying to fix it. It can also be pretty funny:

    With the passage of time since the New Historicism was new, it’s becoming easier to see the ways that such a paranoid project of exposure may be more historically specific than it seems. “The modern liberal subject”: by now it seems, or ought to seem, anything but an obvious choice as the unique terminus ad quem of historical narrative. Where are all these supposed modern liberal subjects? I daily encounter graduate students who are dab hands at unveiling the hidden historical violences that underlie a secular, universalist liberal humanism. Yet these students’ sentient years, unlike the formative years of their teachers, have been spent entirely in a xenophobic Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush America where “liberal” is, if anything, a taboo category and where “secular humanism” is routinely treated as a marginal religious sect, while a vast majority of the population claims to engage in direct intercourse with multiple invisible entities such as angels, Satan, and God.

    • Peter says:

      Parts of that critique – especially pages 141-142[1] remind me of the tragedy of Kurt Gödel – he had an obsessive (paranoid?) fear of being poisoned, and in the end starved himself to death. The silly thing won’t let me copy-and-paste, but there’s a bit about how being paranoid about everything makes it impossible to predict – and therefore successfully oppose – anything specific, and that said failures of prediction cause people to double down on the paranoia.

      The last sentence of the article explicitly uses the word “sustenance” to describe what these reparative approaches are after; possibly the author would find the idea of pure paranoia leading to starvation quite apt.

      [1] That’s book page numbers, the article starts on page 123…

      • futilemoons says:

        That is very apt. Aside from the annoyingly weaponised relativism, I think this gets at the heart of the problems postmodernism causes even for avowed postmodernists. It tends to start from a position of maximum paranoia and then try to reverse-engineer an argument from there, basically neutering its own predictive (if not its analytic) value.

        I don’t reject postmodernist thought as a whole by any means, I think much of it is quite valuable. But it first has to reject that paranoid mindset in favour of something more, as Sedgwick says, “reparative”, for me to get much out of it I think.

  21. EGI says:

    Aw, Scott, your such a spoilsport. You are taking the whole fun out of hating the Hated Outgroup.

  22. Loris says:

    6. Few people thought the world was flat, the Church mostly didn’t persecute scientists, and there were lots of knowledgeable and cultured people.

    Actually, no. I had a good laugh at your list of scientists persecuted by the Church as evidence against scientists being persecuted by the Church.
    Clearly, the Church did persecute scientists. Just… not specifically because they were scientists.

    Sorry for bringing this up, slightly inappropriately to the thread, but it didn’t seem to be stated explicitly before.

    • John Nerst says:

      In itself a good example of the instability of meaning and the following indeterminacy of (verbal) facts: does the truth of “the church persecuted scientists” require persecution of scientists qua scientists? There’s wiggle room here and it’s exactly the kind of wiggle room in which political narratives live.

    • Alethenous says:

      Just… not specifically because they were scientists.

      Or at least, not explicitly because they were scientists.

      Al Capone was not actually persecuted just for tax evasion.

    • John Schilling says:

      Clearly, the Church did persecute scientists. Just… not specifically because they were scientists.

      Some fraction of the people serving time in prison in the United States for murder, on account of their being reliably known to have actually killed people without just cause, are Jewish. Also some fraction of the people who were convicted on sketchy evidence and may not actually be guilty. The same is true in Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, whatever your favored exemplar for good and just government in the real world may be. Is it thus A: reasonable and B: meaningful to say that all these governments, and all the rest, “persecute Jews”?

      The phrase, “persecute [group]”, is useful if and only if it is understood to be shorthand for “persecute [group] for the reason of being [group]”, and the principle of intellectual charity suggests that it should be read as such unless there is strong evidence that it is meant otherwise.

      Also, Scott did explicitly say “the Church mostly didn’t persecute scientists”

      • Loris says:

        The phrase, “persecute [group]”, is useful if and only if it is understood to be shorthand for “persecute [group] for the reason of being [group]”, and the principle of intellectual charity suggests that it should be read as such unless there is strong evidence that it is meant otherwise.

        I’m not convinced by that, actually. In the previous discussion someone pointed out that scientists may have been predisposed to exibit traits which would put them at risk of persecution. If group A (scientists) has a large overlap with group B (awkward gits who won’t accept things on faith), and the church persecutes group B, I think it’s still a reasonable claim.

        Conversely, if the church were to persecute basically everyone except the extremely devout, in which scientists were underrepresented, then I think it would be reasonable to say that scientists were persecuted. Your example is a bit extreme and I would say rather contrived; murder is frowned on in most polite societies. However I accept that things are different in America. So if some random subgroup murdered people at the same rates but due to collusion etc. just basically never got sent to prison, but were themselves very active in sending other groups there. It might be reasonable to say that they were persecuting each of these other groups.

        Also, Scott did explicitly say “the Church mostly didn’t persecute scientists”

        Sure. And evidence for that would be an analysis of how likely scientists were to be persecuted, vs non-scientists. I’m not asking for it (I think it would be hard to do), it’s just an observation. The fact is that a list of people the church persecuted is never going to be good evidence that the church ‘mostly’ didn’t persecute these people (regardless of the claimed reason as Alethenous notes) – if anything it’s evidence that it totally did.

        • B_Rat says:

          In the previous discussion someone pointed out that scientists may have been predisposed to exibit traits which would put them at risk of persecution. If group A (scientists) has a large overlap with group B (awkward gits who won’t accept things on faith), and the church persecutes group B, I think it’s still a reasonable claim.

          […] evidence for that would be an analysis of how likely scientists were to be persecuted, vs non-scientists. I’m not asking for it (I think it would be hard to do), it’s just an observation. The fact is that a list of people the church persecuted is never going to be good evidence that the church ‘mostly’ didn’t persecute these people (regardless of the claimed reason as Alethenous notes) – if anything it’s evidence that it totally did.

          Come on, ‘da Evil Church oppressed Science!™ has been the subject of interminable debates, online and not, academic and not. At the end of the day, most of its “examples” turned out not to be examples (i.e. Bruno); since as I detailed two of the guys in the Kolmogorov post were not scientists by any means and another doesn’t seem to have been imprisoned, to this day I failed to bump into the names of more than 3 (proto)scientists whom the Church viciously persecuted. In 2000 years.
          Since modern Science developed in Christian Europe, I just don’t see how a 3-names-list “if anything it’s evidence that it totally did” or that “(scientists) has a large overlap with” (condemned by Church), other than in the most literal sense that there has been a non-zero number of scientists hunted down by the Church for whatever reason. In which case John Schilling’s comment is spot on.

          • Loris says:

            I don’t care about other debates or their bogus examples; they’re not my problem.
            In the post you link, you say Roger Bacon may not have been imprisoned, but if he was he could write up and publish in any case.
            Let us assume this to be true for the sake of argument.
            You are of course not going to see the research of any proto-scientists who didn’t get to publish.
            Also I am concerned that scientist wasn’t really a profession, hence your terming them proto-scientists.
            I think the way to show it one way or the other would be to compile a list of all the various inprisonments, executions etc, and compare that data to the three known-good persecuted proto-scientists. (I think you’re counting Michael Servetus, Pietro d’Abano, and someone else?)
            I am not a history enthusiast like you, but as I said above I imagine that it would be an almost impossible task to tell for most of the victims how scientific they were.
            I mean – you’ve excluded Lucilio Vanini as a scientist, and maybe that’s appropriate, but looking at the wikipedia page I think it would be fair to call him a philosopher. He had theories. Sure, they didn’t know who he was when he was executed, but that’s not really the point. Who knows what he might have done if he hadn’t been running away or obfuscating for 8 years. And he’s someone we actually seem to have data about. For a lot of the victims, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve basically just got records from their trial to go on, and I think we all have some idea how they were conducted.

            If you look at modern-day scientists, many of them have strange ideas in one domain or another. If “has strange ideas” nowadays maps to heresy in the dark ages when the church was burning heretics, they’d have caught proto-scientists as by-catch.

          • SebWanderer says:

            I think we are all missing the point vis-a-vis The Church persecuting scientists.

            The point is not “The Church was anti-science because it deliberately persecuted scientists because they were scientists”.

            The Church wasn’t opposed to scientific inquiry per se, in fact, some scientific inquiry came from the clergy itself.

            The problem is, The Church was cool with science as long as science didn’t contradict religious dogma. When that happened, the Church prioritized “revealed truth” (i.e. dogma) over scientific truth. The scientist in question was declared a heretic, and forced to repent or die. The Ur Example of this is, of course, Galileo.

            And that’s why it’s completely fair to say that the medieval/early modern Church was anti-science.

            Because a true pro-science institution corrects it’s mistaken beliefs when they’re contradicted by strong new evidence.

            If the Church wasn’t anti-science, the Pope would have said: “This Galileo guy is right. Either we’ve been interpreting the Bible wrongly, in which case we should correct that, or the Bible is wrong and we should stop believing in it (or at least, the parts of it that don’t make sense)”.

          • cassander says:

            @SebWanderer

            The problem is, The Church was cool with science as long as science didn’t contradict religious dogma. When that happened, the Church prioritized “revealed truth” (i.e. dogma) over scientific truth. The scientist in question was declared a heretic, and forced to repent or die. The Ur Example of this is, of course, Galileo.

            And that’s why it’s completely fair to say that the medieval/early modern Church was anti-science.

            By the same argument, wouldn’t you have to call the Soviet Union anti-science because of lysenkoism? And doesn’t that seem a bit too low a bar?

          • publiusvarinius says:

            By the same argument, wouldn’t you have to call the Soviet Union anti-science because of lysenkoism? And doesn’t that seem a bit too low a bar?

            Not to mention the entire field of economics, or anything that even slightly went against diamat, including parts of physics and even mathematics.

            How would that be a low bar?

          • B_Rat says:

            @Loris

            I think the way to show it one way or the other would be to compile a list of all the various inprisonments, executions etc, and compare that data to the three known-good persecuted proto-scientists.

            Oh boy, this must be The Isolated Demand For Rigor To End All Isolated Demands For Rigor!
            Since 3 (4?) data points in 2000 years are outliers at best, all you ask is merely a sociological review of all known sources about all Christian religious punishments ever happened! (Since often we haven’t got the actual legal recordings, if they even existed.) Have you any idea of how many items we are talking about?! We just haven’t got the manpower, I only hope that one day AIs may help us! Do you even believe anything at all about history with such high standards of proof?!

            On a more realistic note, in a millennial history spanning a continent and intermittently plagued by massive religious strife, so few cases are just random chance whatever way you look at them. Actually, even by random chance alone I assume that there are many more out there to be found, and to this day I’m dumbfounded that this is all Church-bashers have to offer (from which my wild ass hypothesis that heresy accusations actually selected negatively for scientific-mindness).

            I was given the weird impression that it’s the one making a positive claim who has to advance proofs. For if I affirm that the Church had no problems with Science, and I produce countless quotes of churchmen saying “We totally love that stuff!”, one can just counter that they are not to be believed on their word: but if I say “look at what didn’t happen” and people keep saying that it totally happened, I can’t comment much if they don’t offer an actual argument of some merit.

          • B_Rat says:

            I am not a history enthusiast like you, but as I said above I imagine that it would be an almost impossible task to tell for most of the victims how scientific they were.

            I’ve already been fair, I’d say. I don’t know of any scientific advancement of note made by Cecco d’Ascoli, but he wrote of astrology and that fits the bill for his times. Astrologers and physicians went to form the backbone of the scientific revolution (actually, in order to study medicine you even had to study astrology, since it was thought to influence ailments).

            I mean – you’ve excluded Lucilio Vanini as a scientist, and maybe that’s appropriate, but looking at the wikipedia page I think it would be fair to call him a philosopher. He had theories.[…]
            If you look at modern-day scientists, many of them have strange ideas in one domain or another.

            Every tinfoil-hat guy has theories too, just not ones that we’d call scientific. That’s the difference between a Bruno and a Kepler: while the latter also had the more than occasional mystic argument, he did plenty of empirical science too. Vanini did not to my knowledge, yet he came after Paracelsus, Copernicus, Vesalius, Stevin: if he was of the inclination to do proto-scientific work and not just philosophical one, he would have done it.

            If “has strange ideas” nowadays maps to heresy in the dark ages when the church was burning heretics, they’d have caught proto-scientists as by-catch.

            Bloody hell, and Scott himself said that “Dark Ages=Middle Ages” was a dead horse. Every example of “”persecuted scientist”” here is AFTER the so-called Dark Ages.

          • B_Rat says:

            @SebWanderer

            The problem is, The Church was cool with science as long as science didn’t contradict religious dogma. When that happened, the Church prioritized “revealed truth” (i.e. dogma) over scientific truth. The scientist in question was declared a heretic, and forced to repent or die. The Ur Example of this is, of course, Galileo.

            And when did this ever happen? The Bible suggestet a Flat Earth, an example used by the most important of the Church Fathers St. Augustine as what not to learn from the Bible (in a reasoning a bit like yours, he warned Christians of the risk of looking like fools by quoting the Bible as the astronomical text it isn’t in front of learned pagans, see De Genesi ad litteram Book I).The doctrine of the antipodes was merrily trashed once the explorers went Sud enough. Now, if you want to start to argue for the ideas condemned in 1277 by the bishop of Paris, stuff like “God cannot create a void” or “God cannot create more than 3 dimensions”…

            The Ur Example of this is, of course, Galileo.
            […]
            Because a true pro-science institution corrects it’s mistaken beliefs when they’re contradicted by strong new evidence.
            If the Church wasn’t anti-science, the Pope would have said: “This Galileo guy is right. Either we’ve been interpreting the Bible wrongly, in which case we should correct that, or the Bible is wrong and we should stop believing in it (or at least, the parts of it that don’t make sense)”.

            Thank you for making clear that your argument comes from being poor-informed about even the basics of this famous case. (Which, sadly for historians, is the norm, nothing personal.)

            In the XVI century Copernicus was actually cheered by churchmen, Pope included. But in Galileo times the strong evidence was still AGAINST heliocentrism, among the others because of the parallax-star size problem. Galileo proposed many “proofs” of Copernicus, but none of those worked (phases of Venus, sunspots, freaking tides). The leading theologian of the Church, Cardinal Bellarmino, made your very argument, writing:
            “I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me.”
            The problem is that Galileo 1) never showed such demonstration 2) decided that as a layman a neat idea was to dabble in biblical interpretation during the Counter Reformation using heliocentrism 3) even then he got a symbolic slap on the wrist until he included an insult to his generous benefactor Pope Urban VIII in his Big Heliocentric Book.
            Had heliocentrism had strong evidence, they would have found something else to condemn him with (part of the documentation used to condemn him was falsified anyway).

            A great work to learn about the relationship between Church, heliocentrism and Galileo is The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown.

          • SebWanderer says:

            @cassander Yes, by that standard, I’d totally call the Stalin-era Soviet Union anti-science (I don’t do it often because these days, when the Soviet Union is gone and completely irrelevant to current political discourse, criticizing it is mostly useless except as Red Tribe virtue signaling, and I already have to deal with being mistaken for a Red because of my Blue-ish/Grey affiliation).

            In any case, it’s irrelevant, because as B_Rat pointed out, I was actually quite poorly informed about the Galileo affair. (Not that it changes much, since I never subscribed to the “We-would-have-had-spaceships-by-the-8th-Century-if-it-weren’t-for-those-damned-Catholics” narrative to begin with).

            What’s funny about this, I had already read the arguments B_Rat presented before, but my brain somehow dismissed them (probably because of the site’s pretty explicit right-wing slant) and returned to the clergy-as-easily-scared-anti-intellectual-rubes stereotype.
            A testament to the power of political bias, I suppose.

          • Loris says:

            Oh boy, this must be The Isolated Demand For Rigor To End All Isolated Demands For Rigor!

            Yeah, except no, because I explicitly said I didn’t think it was feasible. Twice, actually.

            I was given the weird impression that it’s the one making a positive claim who has to advance proofs. For if I affirm that the Church had no problems with Science, and I produce countless quotes of churchmen saying “We totally love that stuff!”, one can just counter that they are not to be believed on their word: but if I say “look at what didn’t happen” and people keep saying that it totally happened, I can’t comment much if they don’t offer an actual argument of some merit.

            The thing is, it’s not whether a claim is ‘positive’ which applies the onus to supply evidence. It’s making a claim at all. Please observe that I’m not actually making the claim here; just pointing out that the the evidence presented by Scott was a list of persecuted people, some of whom were scientists or similar. And altogether this didn’t constitute evidence against the church persecuting scientists, because they obviously did in at least some cases.
            Now, to be clear, following on from that list, Scott’s original blog entry (“Kolmogorov Complicity And The Parable Of Lightning”) does make it clear where he’s coming from : even if the church doesn’t target scientists, they may still become targets indirectly because of their associated nature. But when boiled down to a single sentence, it turned out to be wrong.

            If you think I’m claiming, or tying to propagate the idea that the church did specifically target scientists (as a group) then you’re mistaken.

            Bloody hell, and Scott himself said that “Dark Ages=Middle Ages” was a dead horse. Every example of “”persecuted scientist”” here is AFTER the so-called Dark Ages.

            Sorry, I used the phrase offhand. I should have said “Age in which Christians went around persecuting anyone they didn’t like.”

    • Deiseach says:

      If you think Giordano Bruno was a scientist in any recognisable sense of the term, I have a large island off the west coast of Ireland that you may be interested in purchasing. Everyone agrees Hy-Brasil is very desirable property!

  23. humeanbeingblog says:

    My qualifications: Philosophy professor, but not a specialist in post-modernism or critical theory.

    A few scattered points in reply:
    – There are lots of different views in the general postmodernist area, and hard to say exactly what is and isn’t postmodernist (and hard to distinguish critical theory from post-structuralism from post-modernism from…) That said, there are absolutely a large number of post-modernists (broadly construed) who think that there are no objective facts. At the very least, post-modernism is characterized by an INDIFFERENCE to objective fact as the guiding light of inquiry.
    – Examining people’s motives when you hear their testimony is not “thinking like a postmodernist.” That’s just good old fashioned critical thinking. We are looking for evidence that is an indicator of the truth. If someone tells me that P not because P is true, he knows this, and wants to share his knowledge, but rather because he wants me to believe P to further some nefarious political end, I ought not believe P. That’s because his testimony is insensitive to the truth, and only sensitive to his political ends. As rationalists, we look for evidence that is sensitive to the truth. A post-modernist, on the other hand, is indifferent to truth. A post-modernist examines testimony not in order to determine WHETHER that testimony is an indicator of truth, but instead presumes that it is not an indicator of truth (“What is truth anyway?”) and seeks only to explain the testimony in terms of the (typically violent or oppressive) political ends that could have motivated it.
    -The “freshman” objection to post-modernism is better than you think. The problem is not that postmodernism is UNTRUE by its own lights. It’s that it’s INCOHERENT. If claims are only true or false relative to some framework or perspective, then it is that framework or perspective that explains the truth or falsity of the claim. The concern that arises when you apply postmodernism to itself is not that it renders the postmodernist’s key claims UNTRUE, but that the postmodernist’s key claims are UNEXPLAINED, unless we can interpret them in light of some framework. But them to explain our framework, we need to make claims about that framework, which are themselves incoherent unless explained by some further framework. This kicks off a vicious regress; postmodernism commits itself to an infinite series of frameworks-about-frameworks. The only way to end the regress is to say that there are objective facts about what is true relative to what frameworks. But once objective facts of this kind are admitted, why not accept other kinds of objective facts?
    -I don’t think I did a very good job of explaining that last argument. I’m trying to give a one-paragraph summary of a book by Paul Boghossian, “Fear of Knowledge.” That book is highly, highly recommended.
    -“Tetralogue: I’m Right, You’re Wrong” by Timothy Williamson comes only slightly less highly recommended.
    – Foucault-influenced critical theorists are activists through and through. Language is not used to represent objective matters of fact, but instead is seen simply as a tool to promote political ends. Critical theorists do not only adapt this as a descriptive truth in their theorizing, but as a normative truth that governs their own use of language. A critical theorist makes claims not because they believe them to be true (“What is truth anyway?”) but in order to get you to go along with their political agenda. The Marx quote “The point is not to analyze the world, the point is to change it” is popular and representative. See this great Jon Haidt talk for more.
    -Something I wrote on the subject a couple years ago.

    • Rick Hull says:

      Well put, thanks!

    • Eli says:

      This kicks off a vicious regress; postmodernism commits itself to an infinite series of frameworks-about-frameworks. The only way to end the regress is to say that there are objective facts about what is true relative to what frameworks. But once objective facts of this kind are admitted, why not accept other kinds of objective facts?

      As I usually understand things, isn’t this a problem for all philosophy? You can always step back and ask for another layer of justification, question another layer of presumptions and concepts. Eventually you hit some point where you just can’t be having with these questions anymore, throw your hands up, and say that’s just the way it seems to you — this is called an “intuition”. Of course, intuitions largely just help you find points for amicable social agreement or disagreement. They don’t necessarily or indefeasibly point at objective facts.

      The trouble is that as you peel off more and more layers of presumptions, concepts, and useful hypotheses, you actually have less and less of a framework left to be reasoning from. So it looks like attempting to “regress deductively upward” from everyday conclusions (theorems, if we’re mathematicians) to necessary foundational truths (structures and axioms, if we’re mathematicians) can’t really work, at least not for substantive philosophy.

      So really, we need another way entirely to do the job.

      • humeanbeingblog says:

        This is not the traditional epistemic regress of evidence for your evidence for your evidence. It’s a different kind of regress: frameworks about frameworks about frameworks. So the fact that we can solve the traditional regress (assuming this is a fact) does not mean that postmodernists are off the hook.

        As for the traditional regress, that is usually ended not by appeal to INTUITIONS, but by appeal to SENSE PERCEPTIONS, as it is our senses that put us in direct contact with reality. You might worry that sense perceptions can tell us very little, and that an inability to rely on intuition means that knowledge of esoteric metaphysics is impossible. If so, you’re in good company. That’s what Hume was all about. Fortunately, Bertrand Russell and G E Moore showed a century ago why we probably don’t need to be too skeptical about what our senses tell us. But the possibility of metaphysical knowledge remains controversial.

        Obviously, this is all a lot more complicated and controversial than I’m making it look here. To really get into all of this, take a course on epistemology. Auto-didacts might want to look at Richard Feldman’s short intro text “Epistemology.”

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        Aristotle starts with the fact of change, which, ironically, is a pretty stable place to start from.

    • DeepSpawn says:

      The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth or even an approximation to it: they are after a kind of amazement. They consider metaphysics a branch of fantastic literature
      Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius – Jorge Luis Borges

      While Borges was writing before postmodern philosophy was really a thing, I found that quote really captured the spirit of postmodernism in philosophy.

  24. av says:

    Sometimes it is like listening to a child attempt to explain away the missing cookie. All sorts of fantastic things might be said. And our ability to suspend disbelief, even in meaning, for a time, might itself be mistaken for all sort of metaphysical nonsense, if one did not note the context that we were speaking to a child that just stole a cookie.

  25. lpetrazickis says:

    For example everyone knows “the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD” even though it clearly didn’t; the Roman Empire survived until 1453 AD

    Except the Eastern Roman Empire was speaking the wrong language. If the language spoken doesn’t matter, then the Roman Empire survived until 1922 AD, because from 1453 until 1922 there was still an empire with a capital in Constantinople with similar territorial extent ruled by someone whose title was the Sultan of Rome (Rum).

    • Lillian says:

      The Sultan of the Turks may have adopted the title Kayser-i-Rûm, but that did not give him political continuity with Rome, nor make his people consider themselves Romans, nor their culture descended from Rome’s. The Eastern Roman Empire spoke Greek, but they called themselves Rhomanoi, their culture was Greco-Roman, and their government a clear descendant if Constantine’s.

      Suppose the Canadian state mostly collapsed, leaving behind Quebec. If the Quebeqois continued to consider themselves Canadians, called their country Canada, and retained their government and civil institutions, then it clearly would be Canada, even though everyone spoke French. However a subsequent invasion and conquest of Quebeqois Canada by the Portuguese would not make the resultant state Canadian even if their leader called himself the Prime Minister of Canada.

      • I feel like the Quebec example you give, or the Byzantine example, is a kind of “Ship of Theseus” problem. Replace the culture one plank at a time. OK, when did the culture cross the line into not being its old self any longer?

        Usually history provides nice, clear turning points, but sometimes not.

    • ilikekittycat says:

      Consistency of language is obviously not the deciding factor, or else the Western empire didn’t collapse either, because Odoacer, Theodoric, etc. still spoke Latin and ruled over Latin speakers with Latin laws, took care to be called “patrician” instead of “rex” because of the charged nature of that word in Latin, etc.

    • Watchman says:

      Latin was also a language of administration in Byzantium for a couple of hundred years after 476 at least though. It probably disappeared when the western provinces were lost after Islam and the Lombards went to work in the seventh and eighth centuries (because even after 476 much of Italy, Africa and even Spain remained in the Roman Empire…).

    • SebWanderer says:

      I believe this could be of use.

      All of these matters are covered there: The continuity of the Roman Empire post-476 AD in the East. How the “Byzantine” Empire totally is the continuation of the Roman Empire. Why the artificial division and re-labeling to “Byzantine” (hint: lots of bias, by historians both past and present, and some philosophers). How much weight is there to the argument that Ottoman Turkey is a continuation of Romania (according to the author: not much, but the similarities are interesting. There’s not much cultural and institutional continuity, though), and many myths regarding the “Fall” of Rome.

      If you’re interested in the subject, it’s a very enjoyable read.

  26. Protagoras says:

    Some interesting points here and in the discussion. Many have pointed out how diverse the category of postmodernism is, but one point that hasn’t been made (and perhaps is too rarely recognized) is that surely one contributing factor is how diverse modernism is. The postmodernists themselves are bad at recognizing this (probably outgroup homogeneity bias) and so it definitely doesn’t come out in their writings, but one of the big reasons I tend to see myself as more of a modernist than as a postmodernist is because most of what I think is valuable in postmodernist criticism of modernism is already present in modernist criticisms of one another. Since postmodernism is a reaction against modernism, and different postmodernists all had different parts of modernism that they were reacting to (and weren’t necessarily even aware of the bits of modernism they weren’t reacting to), different postmodernists end up in very different places.

  27. Baeraad says:

    I think I’ve grown both more and less postmodern over the years.

    On the one hand, I don’t so much disbelieve in the existence or importance of facts as I have completely despaired of ever learning what most of them are.* Everyone thinks that they have the objective truth, and everyone can bombard me with cherry-picked but absolutely accurate facts that, taken in and of themselves, do in fact seem to conclusively prove the person’s point… and then the next person comes along with their own prejudices and their own store of facts that prove them to be right. So yeah, I assume that everyone who I get information from is biased. At least if I figure out why they’re biased in the way they are, I can understand something about their personal experience, and that is at least a sort of data point.

    At the same time, I have only gotten less and less convinced that there is any sort of top-down flow of biases and narratives. A sideways flow, sure, that I can believe – people tend to believe that which they get told a lot by their peers. But part of that is also that for someone to be a “peer,” they need a more or less similar life experience to yours, and so you’re already halfway to believing them. The narratives that take root isn’t the ones that get spouted on television, it’s the ones that make visceral sense to people – and just as I don’t credit information-givers with being anything less than completely biased, I also don’t credit the Powers That Be (whether they are a literal conspiracy or just random powerful people acting in their individual self-interest) with having a clue how to speak to the masses in a way that will actually work. If they were that smart, they wouldn’t be spending so much time falling flat on their faces.

    * Technically, I actually have one rule of thumb that I believe in – if the facts reported are confusing, contradictory and does not lend themselves to any particular interpretation, I assume that they’re mostly accurate. This is because my observation of my own life – which is, after all, the only thing that I can directly perceive – is that reality is boring and pointless. If a story is not boring and pointless, then I assume that someone has massaged the facts to turn them into a better narrative, and so the story is not to be trusted.

    This has one obvious problem with it – it means that the only information I trust is the kind that is useless. For information to be useful, it would have to point the way to one particular course of action, and as stated, I distrust all information that seems to point the way to one particular course of action. The only information I trust enough to act on it, is the information that can’t be meaningfully acted on.

    And the really annoying thing? I can’t help but notice that I, a notoriously lazy person, have somehow ended up with a philosophy which consistently tells me to do nothing. It’s almost like I had some sort of implicit bias or something… :p

  28. “Postmodernism says that facts have enough degrees of freedom that they often get reframed to support the powerful. But there are bucketloads of degrees of freedom in how to use and apply postmodernism; it’s inevitably going to itself be twisted to support the powerful.” Whether “the powerful” are cultural Marxists, or far-right media, or whatever, gets left as an exercise for the reader.

    What I’m confused about is how we decide “support the powerful” is bad in the first place. In the original Postmodernism For Rationalists document, we’re continuously asked to look at context, but then the author comes out and decides that different uses of post-modernism can be better or worse, and that the worst uses support “greed is good” neoliberalism and movements like social justice and the alt-right. Surely the context matters there too.

    • richwu says:

      Author of the PPT here. You’re correct, context matters – it always matters. None of my statements in the presentation are context-free. That being said, a couple clarifications:

      1. “Greed is good” was added for humor and to show that, even if grand narratives no longer exist, capital still binds us together (as a sort of lowest-common-denominator narrative). I doubt that very many in favor of neoliberal economics ground their positions in postmodern theory. In fact, I characterize Clinton’s 2016 campaign as distinctly Modern both in terms of rhetoric and policy.
      2. That different uses of postmodern theory can be better or worse is not a position found in the theories themselves; they can be used to justify any ethical position. However, it’s within my purview as a subject (with a subjective opinion) to point at certain ways postmodern tactics are used in practice and call them distasteful. I would prefer if identitarians spent more time understanding where their techniques came from instead of using them to justify their preexisting, unexamined ethical positions.

      Also in my opinion, supporting the powerful isn’t necessarily or inherently bad. For instance, if the powerful increase the commons and create policies encouraging prosociality, better health outcomes, etc I’m 100% for it. But do keep in mind that “the powerful” tends to be a broad catch-all phrase with many degrees of interpretive freedom.

    • @richwu

      I’m happy with this response.

  29. eh says:

    Post-modernism seems to have two aspects: analysis of motivation over analysis of provided facts, which is what Scott discusses, and large social rewards for taking down large targets, which is the unspoken underlay of critical theory, Breitbart, Occupy Democrats, and so-called insight porn in the vein of SSC/Less Wrong/Ribbonfarm.

    To me, these two aspects make up a system for grinding down trust in social institutions, destroying meaning, and breaking apart consensus, by means of isolated demands for rigour against anything large enough to rise to the top of the heap. An obsession with finding lies prevents anyone from finding much truth at all.

  30. Alethenous says:

    SCOTT! You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would destroy the disingenuous Motte-and-Bailey Strategy for defending the wild and fantastical by equating it with the obvious, not join in! Bring balance to the Discourse, not leave it in darkness!

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the archons, against the exousiai, against the kosmokrators of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

      Hell, postmodernists are less advanced when they teach that the ideas that oppress the world ought to be fought by punching those who believe them.

  31. ItsGiusto says:

    I don’t see why the freshman-level critique is so bad. For me it always came down to mathematical-logical reasoning. It’s a proof by contradiction. Assume p is true, then use that to prove that p is false. Therefore p is not true.

    As in, postmodernism makes the claim that every viewpoint is motivated by people’s political ideologies and cannot be believed. If I assume postmodernism to be true, that means that postmodernism is motivated by people’s political ideologies and cannot be believed. Therefore we have just proved postmodernism false, or at least cast extreme doubt on it. Q.E.D., no?

    • Deiseach says:

      Therefore we have just proved postmodernism false, or at least cast extreme doubt on it

      I think the rejoinder there is that postmodernism is the mirror that looks at itself; that there is no solid ground, no objective point of view, everything is shifting and contingent. So there is no proving or disproving, by showing that postmodernism is subjective and ideologically motivated, you have accepted their theory as valid.

      • ItsGiusto says:

        I disagree for the same mathematical reason that if I suppose that the sum of two positive numbers is negative to prove that the sum of two positive numbers must be positive, I didn’t actually accept that the sum of two positive numbers is negative – I used it to prove the opposite.

        Or maybe you’re saying that the mere acceptance that someone’s view of the world can be untrue is itself postmodern? I don’t think postmodernists can really lay claim to that. Quite contrary, they’re always saying that different ways of viewing the world are equally valid (see Scott’s previous mentions about the sun glinting off the horns of the sky ox: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/03/all-in-all-another-brick-in-the-motte/ )

      • lvlln says:

        The whole mirror-that-looks-at-itself line of thinking reminds me a lot of some arguments I’ve seen about the nature of god, i.e. that he’s the creator that doesn’t need a creator. In both cases, this pieces of special pleading never seems adequately explained, at least from my point of view as an atheist. I wonder how much this plays into many peoples’ observations that current movements that use a postmodern framework look extremely similar to religions at their core.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          The difference is that postmodernists claim that every viewpoint is hopelessly compromised, whereas religious apologists don’t claim that every creator needs to have been created.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          The argument is that everything that has a beginning must have a cause, not everything full stop. The First Cause exists beyond the time dimension(s).

          • lvlln says:

            But that’s just shifting where the special pleading takes place, from god uniquely being the thing that doesn’t require a cause to god uniquely being the thing that has no beginning (at least uniquely among things that exist).

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            The universe was a candidate for eternal-thing-without-cause (even Aristotle believed in an eternal material universe) until astrophysicists failed to falsify Le Maitre’s Big Bang theory. Fred Hoyle was seriously freaked out about how not stopping Big Bang theory would give aid and comfort to theism.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            But that’s just shifting where the special pleading takes place, from god uniquely being the thing that doesn’t require a cause to god uniquely being the thing that has no beginning (at least uniquely among things that exist).

            Well, no, because there are arguments for why the first cause must have the properties commonly associated with God. You could try reading the first few hundred pages of the Summa Contra Gentiles, for example, or pretty much any book-length modern defence of the cosmological argument.

          • Protagoras says:

            @The original Mr. X, That would be considerably more impressive if the arguments you reference were any good, of course.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            @ Protagoras: Less of this kind of lazy, content-free dismissal, please.

          • Protagoras says:

            @The original Mr. X, I apologize for the lack of detailed response to your detailed points, but, well, you didn’t make any detailed points, did you?

          • The original Mr. X says:

            @The original Mr. X, I apologize for the lack of detailed response to your detailed points, but, well, you didn’t make any detailed points, did you?

            I did, however, reference someone who made detailed points, which is more than you did. Now unless you’ve got something more interesting than “Yeah, but they suck” to add to the conversation, I think I’ll bow out.

          • Nick says:

            (Warning that this is off the cuff, because I’m too tired to look up my sources at the moment, so please take with a grain of salt, all errors are my own, etc.)

            lvlln,

            We don’t proceed from “there is a God” to “God is the first cause”; we proceed from “there are caused things” to “there is an uncaused cause” to “that uncaused cause is God.” The old principle whatever comes into existence has a cause does sound on first hearing like it’s making an arbitrary exception, but it’s not; we start from common observations of things, all of which do come into existence (you don’t exactly encounter eternal things in day-to-day life! And of course, it takes work sometimes to uncover what these causes are, and to explain cases like radiation), from which we extract the principle; if we’d extracted the principle “everything has a cause” we’d be going beyond the evidence in a way we aren’t with the real one, and that principle would be obviously false anyway, leading as it does to a vicious regress. Anyway, the real principle, together with a few others, implies the existence of an uncaused cause. We then proceed from what we already know about this uncaused cause to other divine attributes like uniqueness, omnipotence, etc., and when we’ve established that it has all the usual ones, we’ve established that it’s God. So at no point, as far as I can tell, is any special pleading going on.

            This thread is no doubt going to be superseded any second, so if people are still interested in talking about this, it may be best moving to a new open thread. ETA: Well on second thought, this not being an open thread that’s not necessary. But I don’t subscribe to comments, so warning that I may miss any replies.

  32. Deiseach says:

    Wishing not to sound like a court toady to the Rightful Caliph, but wow. This is the first explanation of post-modernism and the bases on which it operates that makes sense to me; I suppose my problem was reading post-modernism explanations and that only gets three sentences in before they’re invoking Derrida (another guy I was willing to defenestrate because I’d only read his fanboys; reading an actual bit of Derrida showed me that he was intelligent and there was thought going on there, even if I wasn’t getting it).

    Also with regard to point D, it’s not that it’s embarassing. I’m getting sort of proud of us, all things considered; yes, there was stupid crap going on but I invite you to look out your window at all the stupid crap going on today as well. The Church was one of the few, if not the only, trans-national and beyond-borders entities still surviving as well as providing structure and leadership and holding things together – when the Empire moved East to Byzantium and more or less abandoned Rome to be a provincial town, the fact that it was the seat of the Papacy meant that the Pope got landed with ‘okay so you’re the government now’ (it’s not down to coincidence that in 452 AD it was Pope Leo I who was sent out to negogiate with Attila the Hun not to sack Rome), it’s to do with point A. That makes me want to say “I’d like to drop you into the middle of a ruined economy and crashed civilisation, in a warzone, exacerbated by sporadic outbreaks of plague and famine, and see how freakin’ much scientific and technical progress you got done, smart-ass!” You magically go back in time and strangle Christianity in its cradle while leaving paganism the dead shell of itself that even Emperor Julian could not revive, you are still not going to get rocket ships to Mars by the 8th century, guys!

    • DarkTigger says:

      The Church was one of the few, if not the only, trans-national and beyond-borders entities still surviving as well as providing structure and leadership and holding things together – when the Empire moved East to Byzantium and more or less abandoned Rome to be a provincial town, the fact that it was the seat of the Papacy meant that the Pope got landed with ‘okay so you’re the government now’

      The persistence of the roman church makes the whole “end of the Roman Empire”-thing even muddier. The Church was an important part of the administration in the late empire.
      How can anyone argue that a state ceased to exists, when it’s civilian administration still exists, and even expands? Yes the roman military stopped to exist in the west and were replaced by barbarian warlords, but it’s not like this wasn’t the case in big parts of the empire before some point in the late 5th century.

    • moscanarius says:

      Minor nitpick: Leo I was not the sole negotiator sent by the emperor to chat with Attila. Consul Gennadius Avienus and former urban prefect Memmius Aemilius Trygetius were also on the job, and it is a matter of speculation how much each of them contributed to the result, if they contributed at all.

  33. spurious says:

    The social justice left can be explained psychologically by seeing its members as being cardinally defined – individuated from one group, validated through another – by a belief that one is against racism, sexism etc. Once it looks like one’s original classification of injustice has been widely accepted, it becomes necessary to broaden the classification or have one’s identity subsumed by the mob. Or worse, Mum and Dad. (See also: ‘I liked them before they sold out’.)

    Theorists (po-mo, post-structuralist, critical et al) at the far end of the spectrum can be explained in the same way. The idea that I might not be giving you the truth, the whole truth is trivially true (or ‘true’) and didn’t take long for the rest of academy to accept. But if I claim the rate of change of velocity of falling objects – and even the idea that they fall – is nothing but a kind of cultural bullying . . . then I’ve got a defining soapbox to stand on.

    Now . . . to where do rationalists migrate when it looks like everyone agrees with them? That’s an interest question.

  34. greghb says:

    The one-liner for postmodernism that I learned in college and have found useful ever since is, “Postmodernism problematizes the relationship between the signifier and the signified.” If you hate “problematizes”, you can replace with “draws attention to the complexities of”.

    I think this is a more abstract starting point than, “understand the social forces giving rise to _”, which is what I take Scott to be saying above. Social force is a big way the relationship between signifier and signified gets complicated. The suspicious study on racist plumbers is a good example: the apparent meaning (signified) of the study (signifier) is that plumbers are racist, but the relationship is complicated by social forces.

    But postmodern art explores a bunch of ways that visual signifiers (images) have complex relationships to whatever they’re supposed to be images of. There’s lots of room for social forces to affect that, but you don’t have to take the “social forces” lens. You could use, e.g., a cognitive psychology lens. Or, postmodern study of speech and language explores a bunch of ways that written or spoken signifiers (words, writing) have complex relationships to whatever they’re supposed to mean. Again lots of ways for social forces to affect that, but also other angles.

  35. B_Rat says:

    Ironic as this might be, I get the impression that exactly what “postmodernism” is and what its positions are could be too hard to define to be able to say anything meaningful about it, if even possible.

    Anyway, I might be pedantic, and surely it can be framed as the same Catholic agenda that I seem to share with Tim O’Neill, but while I think this post is fairer about history I still don’t buy “the Church mostly didn’t persecute scientists” (emphasis mine).
    i) Any specific suggestion of “Church persecuting scientists” I ever saw, here included, points to after the Dark Ages, during the High or Late Middle Ages or the Renaissance.
    ii) Even then, so far in two thousands years of history I’ve seen the names of maybe 3 proto-scientists that got whacked: Cecco d’Ascoli, possibly Pietro d’Abano and finally Galileo, and only the last one looks at least apparently as “persecuting scientists” rather than persecuting heretics (apparently since you know, the reaction to heliocentrism by churchmen went from “Cool!” in Copernicus’s time to “Now that’s enough!” a century later only when Galileo 1. showed how lay people may dabble in biblical interpretation during Counter Reformation using heliocentrism 2. even then he got a slap on the wrist until he included an insult to his generous benefactor Pope Urban VIII in his Big Heliocentric Book). As I remarked, the Kolmogorov post suggests that the Church might have accidentally created honey pots for scientists, but not only the number of victims seems rather low, it also somehow likened it to the Soviets actually condemning entire fields of study, proscribing thousands of scientists and even sending some to their deaths in prison or gulags for their scientific positions.

    I might be postmodern, but I seriously muse about the lack of a “Communism hates Science” general sentiment at least specular to the one affecting Christendom.

  36. Björn says:

    I must say, that’s a really nice post on “post-modern theory”, or I would rather say post-structuralist philosophy, since this protects from confusing art historical post-modernism with philosophical post-modernism.

    I think it helps in the understanding of post-structuralism when one considers exactly what parts of it one is looking at. In your post, you are deconstructing the concepts of The Dark Age and The Decline of New Atheism, so you use the aspect where you go to the foundation of a concept and you jiggle the foundations of it until the concept looses its meaning. Also, you use the understanding that historical questions always bring a certain narrative with them, which shapes the answers maybe more than the associated facts.

    But in my opinion, one should not mix this thoughts with thoughts about post-modern art without need. The two things go well together in some ways, but they are not necessary for one another. If keep those two things divided, you don’t run into so many traps where your philosophical background or your sense for aesthetics deceives you. For example, pieces of art where random things are combined in random ways fit very well into a post-structuralist word view, but this is modern art and not post-modern art, because it is hardcore abstract art. And thinking about how Trump as a president is constructed by media may give you a warm and fuzzy intellectual feeling, but this is more chasing after 9001 memes and less about understanding something about American politics. It would be much more interesting to look at the relationship between Trump and American narratives, but that is not as much fun.

    In this vein, I wouldn’t say that claiming an opposing group is deluded is something post-modern. But seeing that this claim comes from having a strong opinion that necessarily leads you to the conclusion that disagreers might be deluded, and that everyone has some strong opinions like that, this is the post-modern aspect. This is what (at least the sensible) postmodernist mean when they say that everyone lives in their own socially constructed reality.

  37. xXxanonxXx says:

    I feel like you already said everything that needed to be said about postmodernism years ago in your original motte and bailey post.

  38. antilles says:

    I think this is an incorrect approach to begin with. “Post-modernism” is not an argument or even a methodology, it’s a movement. The single unifying characteristic is that it is a group of people who in some sense reject “modernism,” whose single unifying characteristic is that its members superseded the “pre-modern,” and so on ad infinitum. Because of course none of these groupings are proper rigid conceptual categories, they’re family relationships in which many members during a particular historical time period shared some, but not all, of a set of overlapping assumptions and commitments.

    Modernism:
    -Human knowledge and capacities grow progressively over time
    -Pursuit of some sort of intersubjectively valid “truth” which holds for everyone
    -Attempt to perfect or improve society over time
    -In politics, commitments to a particular conception of “the good” which the ideal form of government upholds, be it liberal notions of freedom or Marxist notions of equality. Note that liberals, Marxists and fascists are all “moderns” in this sense.
    -In ethics, moral absolutism in some sense: either a commitment to moral realism or moral anti-realism
    -In aesthetics and literature, commitment to expressivism, which is treating a work as an attempt to express a particular feeling or attitude by the author and judging its success (note that this both doesn’t conform with the rest of what is described as “modernism” vs. the “postmodern” and also that many people are 100% wrong in thinking that this is itself a “postmodern” attitude in conflict with “modernist” conceptions of objective artistic merit being a measurement of technical skill. In fact, that is a “pre-modern” or “classical” view which “modernism” supplanted).

    Post-modernism:
    – The progress of knowledge is not linear over time
    – The best approach to truth, if such is even possible, is in competing subjective narratives
    – The progress of society might be impossible and is at least highly suspicious (reaction to fascism, Soviet communism, imperialism, and the failures of liberal democracy)
    – In politics, general disaffection with most systematizing views. Some are strange paleo-paleo-conservatives, some are anarchists, some are just generally anti-oppression.
    – In ethics, different flavors of moral relativism
    – In aesthetics, a belief in the “death of the author” and argument for treating texts as not having a single definite interpretation

    I’m positive this list is non-exhaustive but I think it gets my point across. These are convenient labels for movements tied to the ideals of particular historical periods, and should be treated as historical and descriptive labels, not rigid ideological programs.

    • Urstoff says:

      If relativistic ethics is a hallmark of postmodernism, then it seems to be a tiny, tiny movement, even within academia. The humanities and social sciences are saturated with activist-scholars who seem quite confident in the righteousness of their moral beliefs.

      • antilles says:

        It is very possible to be a moral relativist and have strong moral commitments. The question is, what are your moral principles relative *to*? Alasdair Macintyre, for example, is a virtue ethicist who believes it’s impossible to be moral outside some particular cultural tradition, and therefore inter-tradition moral critique is impossible, but he would feel perfectly comfortable calling out some American or British politician who took a bribe because that’s intra-tradition. Some self-described postmoderns would say that our moral judgments should be based in “the pedagogy of the oppressed” i.e. learning from the subjective experiences of oppressed people and doing what we can to support their empowerment. This is also highly relativistic – to the point of view of a particular group of people at a particular point in time – but doesn’t preclude a sense of righteousness.

        • Urstoff says:

          But that’s not quite metaethical moral relativism. Rather, that is saying the truth/falsity of (all?) moral judgments are based on facts and experiences about group X, where the specific composition of group X may vary across time. Thus, there are correct moral judgments that apply to all individuals at a particular time. That’s not relativistic in the strong metaethical sense, undercut as it is by its universalism. If pomo is characterized by that fairly weak form of relativism (across time, but not across individuals), then my characterization of the academy doesn’t hold.

        • manwhoisthursday says:

          inter-tradition moral critique is impossible

          I don’t think this is what MacIntyre says. In fact, I believe he explicitly says that you can critique other traditions.

  39. Alex Zavoluk says:

    Isn’t the rationalist answer to “was there a Dark Ages?” really something like “that depends entirely on your choice of definition, so ignore the phrase ‘Dark Ages’ and just understand the actual things that happened, and once you know all those things, if there is debate on whether the ‘Dark Ages’ happened, then those debates are map debates, not territory debates.”

    • Björn says:

      The funny thing is, this is also the post-structuralist answer.

    • Urstoff says:

      “define your terms” does seem to undercut much of the pomo impulse, unless it’s commenting on people’s resistance to defining their terms

      • Björn says:

        Poststructuralism recognizes that wether you think that there was a Dark Age depends on what historical narrative you subscribe to (= what you think the Dark Age was). Since which narrative you subscribe to is molded by your beliefs, cultural background etc. (your (implied) definitions), this means the answer to the Dark Age question is only dependent on your definitions. So instead of studying what follows from your narratives, you should study what shapes your narratives and what has shaped all the sources that tell us about the “Dark Age”. The only thing post-structuralists would not agree with in Alex’ post is that they would say you can not know all things that happened in the Dark Age, you can only look at distorted images in your sources, but you can at least admit they don’t tell you what really happened.

        And talking about the relationship between maps and territories is something that poststructuralists love to do.

        • Alex Zavoluk says:

          I think most rationalists would agree that our knowledge of what happened during the Dark Ages is inherently limited; I should have been more specific and said something like “once you learn everything that it is possible for you to learn about the people, events, etc. of that time period, there is nothing left to explain.”

          I think where Rationalism diverges from Postmodernism (as described above, I’m not sure if you’re using “postructrualism” in this question) is that aspiring rationalists see the problems of confirmation bias and history written by people with agendas and limited evidence, and attempt to do the best they can to come to correct conclusions anyway, taking the research into biases into account. I much prefer “use economics, science, probability, computers, psychology, and whatever else works to refine your approach, discover and fight the biases, clarify what you say, incorporate all the evidence, and improve your empirical methods” to “throw your hands up and declare everything to be power and narrative,” but maybe that’s just a strawman?

          • SebWanderer says:

            I think you described it perfectly.

            The problem with Postmodern academia is that instead of acknowledging that biases exist and using the scientific method to try to weed out those biases, they just say: “Embrace the bias!” And let the side with greater political commitment win.

            This video series pretty much sums it up.

  40. Virbie says:

    > EDIT: Been told by people I trust that this is not a good explanation. Retracted.

    Did this people mention what a good explanation _would_ be? And did you personally find it compelling? Does the Seattle presentation that you linked meet that bar?

  41. rich lewis says:

    I think what Scott is outlining above is better described as a kind of ‘realist perspectivism’ rather than ‘post modernism’ in its bolder (and more obscurantist) forms. As I see it you could isolate three threads coming out of post modern and post structuralist writings – two of them compatible with realism/rationalism, one of them not at all. The third (obscurantist) thread being by far the most popular of course.

    Of the ‘realist’ threads, one narrow and unpopular one can be seen in the work of Manuel DeLanda and his ‘realist / materialist’ version of Delueze – this is basically an interesting (in its details) meta-theory of life, the universe and everything according to non-linear systems theories, strong emergence and the like with some post modern window dressing drawn from Deleuze thrown in (rhizomes, etc). The second realist tradition is the ‘realist perspectivism’ I mentioned above – and we could say this is a kind of ‘realist version’ of Foucault on historiography that is alert to the role of power, legitimating discourses, etc. For this see someone like Brian Leiter on Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as revealing systemic obstacle to seeing reality ‘as it is’, or maybe even Edward Said on Orientalism (despite his omissions and biases). The third, non realist tradition is the mainstream one. For this see Derrida, Butler, Zizek, et al. For these folks ‘reality’ at its ‘core’ is a seething contradiction – a constitutive abyss that is both ‘productive’ and malleable; ‘Reality’ for us is performed, and needs constantly to be performed to ward off the anxiety of that constitutive nothingness endlessly looming at the end of our struggle for meaning, for closure, etc. Perhaps at their best (i.e not Butler) these are interesting nihilists in Buddhistic or ‘negative theology’ traditions. At their worst they are charlatans, using grandly negative formulations to endorse the usual array of upper middle class liberal obsessions with identity politics and post colonial bullshit.

  42. Eponymous says:

    Can anyone offer me an argument likely to convince me that I should invest any effort in learning about or understanding postmodernism? My current assessment of the EV of that endeavour is decidedly negative.

    • Matthias says:

      The best argument, IMO, is that it’s good to occasionally really try to read people/research programs/whatever who are coming at angles very different from your own. Of course, that doesn’t tell you whom among those to read – personal curiosity is probably as good a tiebreaker as anything.

      (Also, Scott is hardly the first to use “postmodernism” rather liberally, so often the association gets thrown onto any academic who 1) writes poorly and 2) has noisome political views from the perspective of the person throwing around the label. This is a broad enough net to catch nearly the whole profession when it needs to, so there may be good academics who’ve been thrown into the bucket for the sake of mental shorthands. Bourdieu is often sane and interesting; the same applies to Foucault, though for the same amount of time you could be reading someone with a better writing style and a less sloppy approach to documentation, so don’t count that as too strong an endorsement from an EV perspective.)

    • Art Vandelay says:

      My argument is that I used to believe there were a group called postmodernists who were a bunch of bullshitting charlatans, but after reading quite a lot of it I changed my mind to a pretty significant degree, and while I still think it has inspired a lot of really awful work, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there too.

      I’d suggest starting on the fringes of “postmodernism” with someone who writes reasonably clearly. Try an article and see if it catches your interest at all. I would recommend Bruno Latour who comes out of Science and Technology Studies and is critical of postmodernists but often gets grouped in with them by their critics. Bonus: his articles are available for free on his website.

      This one that someone else recommended in another thread is a great starting point. If you’re sceptical of postmodernism, this article is critical of a large strand of theory that gets labelled as postmodernism so you might find you have some points of agreement.

      If you get on with that one reasonably well and what to read more, this one’s also worth a read.

      If you liked him enough to read a book after those two, We Have Never Been Modern is interesting, and reasonably easy to get through because it’s pretty short.

      I’d also second the recommendation of Bourdieu, but his work varies massively in readability. In some ways he’s too keen on the idea of objective reality to really fit the way “postmodernism” is normally used by those who see it as an out-group, but that could work in his favour in terms of you thinking his ideas were worthwhile.

  43. Matthias says:

    FWIW, my general view is that you and the most of the commentariat here significantly underestimate the value of lefty-or-coded-lefty academia, especially the humanities, for boring boo-hiss-outgroup reasons – but that your garbled version of postmodernism here is still far more useful than anything Actual Postmodernism has to offer. So maybe the terms or framing are inaccurate, but that doesn’t make this a bad post IMO.

  44. suntzuanime says:

    I’m really concerned that you might be excessively scrupulous and easily cowed into backing down from positions because you do not have every i dotted and t crossed, even when the people making you back down have their shit much less together than you and are merely more capable of projecting confidence about bullshit.

  45. manwhoisthursday says:

    A philosopher in the Platonic/Aristotelian tradition would emphasize the importance of teleology in the creation of categories. The P/A philosopher would insist that some kinds of things have their own internal teleology (substances), but can acknowledge that many categories are imposed on reality purely by subjective human purposes, though even there there must be the appropriate underlying “matter.”

    So, the P/A philosopher can acknowledge that social construction can sometimes be real, but would deny it applies to all categories, especially when it comes to substances, like basic physical particles, elements, chemical compounds, plants, animals and human beings, and perhaps even biological sexes. Those things have their own in-built purposes and don’t need subjective human purposes to create them.

    • Eli says:

      What’s the causal role of Platonic or Aristotelian teloses, and what predictions do they help us make?

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        The teloi of something give it its nature, which explains how it behaves. Investigating material and efficient causes, as empirical science does, is rendered unintelligible without reference to things with definite natures. I.e oxygen is directed towards a certain range of effects. Those tendencies make up its nature. Without oxygen having a certain definite nature, it is pointless to investigate it empirically.

        • Nick says:

          The plural of telos is actually telea. It’s a third declension neuter. 😛 Probably better to just say teloses, ends, or final causes; I actually prefer speaking of final causes because I think it’s better to place it in the context of the four causes, but different situations benefit from different emphases.

  46. Art Vandelay says:

    I like to think these are at least sophmore critiques of postmodernism and post-structuralism:

    1. Postmodernism believes that as the result of inexorable processes beyond anyone’s control, modernism has been shattered, all the totalising systems – humanity, science, nation, truth – are fragmented and in this condition it is impossible to create change through collective political action, but we can still preserve some form of agency or resistance in the creation of subversive identity through quirky forms of consumption.

    This is an extremely appealing worldview for someone who likes to think of themselves as a revolutionary but really just wants to buy cool lamps/weird chairs and sit in the university writing papers rather than manning the barricades.

    2. Post-structuralism is the related idea that the world is fragmented into fields where individuals compete in status games that often have a lot to do with language and cultural capital.

    This is a description of what most post-structuralist/postmodern academics actually do. It is an accurate description of their reality.

    • Good god! I think you are on to something here.

      By the way, if my choice as an academic is between a lifetime of academic language and status games and a lifetime of a “boot stomping on a human face—forever,” I’ll take the totalizing system, please, thank you! Actually, both are kind of totalizing in their own way. But the latter is honest about it, whereas the former demands that you occasionally say that 2 + 2 = 5.

      Zizek (someone who himself gazes deeply into the Palantir of PoMo and knows full well its horror, though he cannot look away) has a good metaphor for this. In one of his lectures, he explains that modern liberalism is often not content to simply get people to go through the proper motions. Good works done begrudgingly aren’t enough. You have to WANT TO do “good works.” You have to LIKE doing “good works.” You have to be PURE OF HEART. You have to BELIEVE that 2 + 2 = 5, not just mumble the mantra like some late 1980s Soviet apparatchik. That’s far more totalizing.

      • Art Vandelay says:

        Thanks! I think I’ve seen that Zizek lecture too. I’ve never done too much getting into his theories more deeply because I’ve always had the impression the thing he excels at is interesting/revealing little observations like this.

      • SebWanderer says:

        Do you happen to have a link to this lecture? It sounds interesting.

        • Art Vandelay says:

          I think he mentions it in a longer lecture but can’t remember what it’s on. But a short video where he touches on it can be found here. “Political Correctness is a More Dangerous Form of Totalitarianism”

    • Eli says:

      1. Postmodernism believes that as the result of inexorable processes beyond anyone’s control, modernism has been shattered, all the totalising systems – humanity, science, nation, truth – are fragmented and in this condition it is impossible to create change through collective political action, but we can still preserve some form of agency or resistance in the creation of subversive identity through quirky forms of consumption.

      So it’s like getting a professorship in saying we’re fucked.

  47. Bugmaster says:

    I could be wrong, but isn’t the colloquial version of Postmodernism a pretty typical motte-and-bailey fallacy ? The motte is, “our human biases affect everything we say, even the things we think of as facts”; the bailey is, “reality is either unknowable or totally nonexistent, everything is a narrative and all narratives are equally valid”. All that stuff about architectural styles and art and other non-epistemological claims belongs in the motte, as well.

  48. Eddy says:

    Philosophy PhD, not an expert on this but here’s some things which helped me get a grip on postmodernism and recognise that I’d definitely been strawmanning it for many years and some people here may be too.

    Everyone’s been doing a good job of explaining what it is, and dissecting whether it’s stable or justified, but no-ones really been pointing at holes in the non-postmodenist / rationalist project to help motivate the move to postmodernism, and this can be useful (in the same way that learning about communism can help you understand democracy better and see that the current state of affairs isn’t just ‘the way things are’. See also how understanding ‘tenant’ helps you understand what it means to be a ‘landlord’ which in turn helps you understand what it means to be a homeowner).

    1) If you try to link postmodernism to seeking objective truth, you’ve basically already failed to understand what it’s about, because it sees the project of ‘seeking truth’ differently. They’re not just skeptics or relativists. It’s not just that we have biases and sometimes we get things wrong and we can never be 100% that we’ve overcome these, it’s that the entire project you’re engaged in is fundamentally misguided. This is the point at which the rationalist says ‘but obviously I know some things e.g. the earth is round, 2+2 is for, I mean look we have all this evidence and these beliefs give us a certain level of control and ability to predict what will happen that gets verified’. So to understand how this entire project could be misguided, you have to understand a few of the problems with the philosophical/rationalist project which seem to be pretty intractable given philosophers have been working on these for decades, which unfortunately I don’t have time to lay out:
    2) Problems with rationalism and empiricism
    3) Problems with coherentism and foundationalism
    4) Other epistemic wormholes e.g. how can anything ever be counterfactually true?
    5) Gettier problems, not in the sense of ‘oh maybe we think we know something but we don’t’ but in the sense of ‘ok what exactly IS our concept of knowledge? Is it stable at all? Does it exist? What do we even mean when we say I know x?” and then doing the same for ‘truth’ and ‘objective’
    6) Recognising all basically *all* of our concepts (Tables, Mugs, Truth, Value, Responsibility, Wrong, Good, Rational, and even Bachelors which are supposed to be the simplest concept there is) fail to have any necessary and sufficient conditions and so it’s hard to say when and in virtue of what we can make true claims about them (not just that it’s hard to figure out, or that they’re ambiguous or polysemous, it’s that the concepts themselves are possibly dodgy)
    7) Realising that far from being a fun intellectual exercise, this keeps playing out in the real world with consequences (see how more and more things are counted as addiction, or diseases, or mental illness, or a human right, how hysteria was socially constructed and seems silly now but was just as real as anorexia, how sexual harassment literally didn’t exist before 1975, how there are culturally bound mental illnesses, the nation-state as the primary category of loyalty, the modern invention of teenagers etc.)
    8) And finally turning towards Wittgenstein / philosophy of language and realising that much of the world (‘objective truth’) is determined by our concepts themselves, not the features of the world. The map is not the territory.

    Once you understand all of these problems, “Hey maybe we should understand truth as this invention by society and start looking at hidden assumptions and power dynamics etc” suddenly starts to look a lot more plausible and informative.

    Sorry I can’t give the full treatment here, but you’ll just have to take it on faith that if anything above seemed immediately overcomeable or irrelevant to seeking truth, you haven’t quite understood the problem. “Postmodernism’s silly, of course there’s objective truth’ commits you to a lot of assumptions which you probably couldn’t defend if pressed, namely because the concepts your using are somewhat unstable or question begging.

    To be clear I do believe in objective truth, and I think it’s fine if you do too. The point isn’t just whether there is or isn’t, or whether you should decide to to think there is or isn’t. The point is that if pressed, most of us probably couldn’t defend our current project without relying on some unsupported suppositions anymore than the postmodernist/structuralist can, and so calling it silly or unjustified may be an exercise in hypocritical epistemic standards / an isolated demand for rigour.

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      There are some serious problems in modern philosophy. Thing is, most of them can be solved by returning to premodern philosophy, especially the Aristotelian tradition. Modern philosophers, unfortunately, have mostly misunderstood, caricatured or just plain forgotten what the earlier tradition had to say. I remember reading some introductory material on Derrida and thinking that such critiques, while they might have some force against modern conceptions of essence, would have absolutely no force against how Aristotle would have done it.

    • Tracy W says:

      This sounds rather old hat. Didn’t Hume and Popper already go down these paths? E.g. “we can’t justify induction”, or “we can only disprove hypotheses, we can never prove them.”

      And, also, when it comes down to it, no one actually acts like there isn’t an objective truth. You can’t get post-modernists to bet on their claims. Even quite a complex historical claim, like the Holocaust, all I find is that I need to say something like “I don’t follow, are you saying that Holocaust denial is a legitimate narrative?”, and suddenly it’s all “well it’s a lot more complex than that.”

      • Eddy says:

        I agree no-one acts like there isn’t. But what you’re essentially doing when you make this appeal is saying “Look maybe let’s take this as our starting point, our foundation, and build out from there” and things get a lot more unstable /inconsistent at the higher meta levels. What the postmodernists is doing is starting at the meta levels with some consistency that ends up appearing inconsistent to us at the every day level (“If you really believed x you’d bet on x but you didn’t”). But the point is you’ll have just as many inconsistencies as they do, and it’s hard to say which should be our starting point and why those inconsistencies arise in the first place (tip: seems to be something to do with our concepts themselves)

        Also no, Hume and Popper were talking about a completely different issue. You haven’t understood the problem. The issue isn’t justifying or proving statement x, the issue is whether our concepts of ‘justify’ ‘prove’ ‘truth’ ‘reality’ ‘knowledge’ are actually stable, meaningful concepts that track something consistent, or whether they’re piecemeal fictions that are ultimately have no reason to be consistent with each other.

    • SebWanderer says:

      “Postmodernism’s silly, of course there’s objective truth’ commits you to a lot of assumptions which you probably couldn’t defend if pressed

      “Cogito Ergo Sum”

      – René Descartes

      “The only truth is reality”

      – Juan Domingo Perón (Probably paraphrasing Aristotle)

      If I think, I exist.
      If I exist, reality exists.
      If reality exists, statements can be made about that reality that describe it accurately.
      Those statements are what we call “truth”.

      Whether we can actually discover truth with our limited senses, that’s another matter.

      • Eddy says:

        This assumes you can get a grip on what the words “I”, “reality”, “exist” “about” and “accurately” mean, which is more difficult than it first seems.

        • humeanbeingblog says:

          One’s ability to make true claims using a concept is not limited by one’s ability to give a satisfactory philosophical analysis of that concept.

    • tvt35cwm says:

      Thank you for this brief survey, Eddy. Much appreciated.

      It’s a pity that the only replies you got are so juvenile.

      At the risk of setting the cat among the pigeons I’d like to add that in particular postmodernist critiques pose a serious problem for Bayesianism, so beloved around these parts.

    • Came here to say some of this stuff, although I think you’ve said it better than I could. Thanks!

      I’m opposed to 90% of postmodernism but you’re absolutely right that it’s being straw manned a lot here. There is obviously massive epistemological problems that remain very unresolved in the modernist camp, and although I think that’s an extremely poor justification for postmodernist approaches, especially if we include how it’s applied in practice, I think you’re totally right to say that almost no-one could provide a comprehensive defence of moderist epistemology if really pressed.

  49. onyomi says:

    If postmodernism is ultimately about a skepticism toward grand, objective, coherent narratives and standards (as I think it is), why do so many of its practitioners seem to explicitly or implicitly subscribe to a whig and/or Francis Fukuyama-ish theory of history? Why do so many seem to have Thomas Sowell’s “unconstrained vision”?

    • reasoned argumentation says:

      Because skepticism is only permitted for approved reasons – basically you can always (and only) question the motives of the arguer as a substitute for engaging the argument if the speaker is arguing against the progressive perspective – in fact if you argue in a postmodern way about the motives of good progressives you’re a bad person. As an example Steve Sailer has pointed out lots of times (when demonstrating examples of it) that there’s no word for Jewish anti-gentileism. Another recent example of the concept:

      http://www.unz.com/isteve/nyt-is-spitting-mad-that-trumps-fbi-understands-sapir-whorf/

      An NY Times author objects to the FBI creating a postmodern thought grouping of “black identity extremism” because it isn’t a Platonic category that can exist (for no given reason).

      Lots of effort and energy is spent policing the creation of categories that might otherwise enable postmodern deconstruction of progressivism.

      • Art Vandelay says:

        ‘What has become of critique when DARPA uses for its Total Information Awareness project the Baconian slogan Scientia est potentia? Didn’t I read that somewhere in Michel Foucault? Has knowledge-slash-power been co-opted of late by the National Security Agency? Has Discipline and Punish become the bedtime reading of Mr. Ridge?’

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      Postmodernism is itself a metanarrative, which sees itself as having achieved some vantage point above all other vantage points.

  50. Michael Arc says:

    At it’s heart, it seems to me that PoMo is trying to reach by example, not by explanation, how to coordinate in opposition to peer structures which have compromised your ability to create a shared truth tracking context of common knowledge.

  51. romeostevens says:

    >Postmodernists don’t necessarily deny the existence of objective facts. But they find them hard to pin down.

    objective facts have ontological commitments and ontologies are hard to pin down. The discourse in this area is confused because Wittgenstein and Quine aren’t exactly light reading. AFAIK a clean method of talking about ontologies doesn’t exist yet, and every few years the new generation invents a new vocab to talk about it. Curious what people think the best attempts are.

  52. onyomi says:

    Random, but, I think, related observation:

    The Chinese (and I’m guessing a good number of other world cultures I’m less familiar with) are much less sarcastic than the Anglo-Americans I know (and probably Westerners in general).

    I recently was at an academic conference a large portion of which was devoted to interminable banquets filled with interminable toasts. I’m not a fan of the Chinese “toasting” culture for various reasons, as I am not a fan of getting drunk with professional colleagues I just met in general, but one thing I couldn’t help thinking: “this could never happen today in an Anglo-American context, not just because we’re less about getting drunk with colleagues as a way to form professional relationships, but also because no one is this darned earnest (that they can, without a touch of hipsterish irony, go around saying “here’s to you!” “here’s to this thing!” “let’s raise our glasses to x!”)

    Related, I recall when I was a child it was still not completely bizarre for someone to e.g. recite a mediocre poem in honor of someone at a birthday party. Now this would seem way too cringey.

    How can we make it okay to like things again?

  53. hnau says:

    Since Scott has retracted his post without saying why, I thought I’d try to offer a slightly different characterization / steelman of postmodernism. (Caveat: I don’t have any particular knowledge of the subject, just random ideas and interest.)

    Modernism usually thinks in terms of two categories: map and territory. In science this is obvious, straightforward, and logical: the map is a set of physical laws, the territory is our observation of reality. But you can also apply it to fields like literature: a book is a map that the author uses to convey some “message”, usually some observation(s) about our experience of reality. Modernist literary criticism operated very much along these lines, trying to understand the author’s “meaning”. A third example is history: historical modernism would be about analyzing the past (the territory) to some identifiable reason(s) why things happened the way they did (the map).

    Postmodernism is a reaction against modernism. Its great insight is that a map is just another kind of territory. (Think of laying a big map down on the floor and walking all over it.) It thinks modernism is arbitrarily privileging the map when it separates map and territory. How so? I’m not exactly sure, but my guess is that it has to do with the way map and territory can interact. Modernists might say this doesn’t really happen– a map is just a symbol or a summary of some kind. Postmodernists would respond that the map, being a part of the territory, *does* interact with the territory. And based on this they’d consider a lot of the modernists’ conclusions invalid.

    What does this look like in practice? Well, “The Dark Ages” is a good simple example. If your map of history has “The Dark Ages” written on it, then you’re likely to get lost exploring the territory of European history 0 – 1500 CE. It’s not just that “The Dark Ages” is in the wrong place– the entire category is misleading. And the first step to understanding the territory in that case would be to recognize that the label “The Dark Ages” is itself part of the territory– a product of that history, created by specific people with a specific purpose.

    The equivalent practice in dealing with literature would start by analyzing the text itself– essentially treating the author and his or her intended “meaning” as part of the territory to be explained. The result often runs counter to modernist interpretations that take those aspects as given.

    In short, a lot of the postmodernist project has to do with “unmapifying” (academic equivalent: “deconstructing”) anything that modernists are used to treating as a map, by turning it into a form of territory that can itself be analyzed and explained. Thus the postmodern inclination to self-awareness, irony, and all forms of meta-ism.

    The main problem I see with this project is that once you turn all your maps into territory, you’re left with no maps. “The map is all in your head!” the postmodernists might say. Fine, and technically true, but for most of us it’s still easier to get around if we have one, even an imperfect one.

    • onyomi says:

      This seems a pretty good summary to me.

      I am also interested in the specific criticisms that caused Scott to retract the post.

      Personally, I don’t think his take was so much wrong as very partial. Constantly asking “cui bono” is an important technique of postmodernism, but as an intellectual and artistic movement, it’s a lot bigger than just that. I think you’re probably on the right track with your interpretation of the epistemology.

      I could be wrong, but I also think it has a lot to do with reacting against the triumphalist aspects of 19th c. modernism as typified by e.g. colonialism and as arguably reached their logical conclusions in both World Wars and fascism (WWI, in particular seems to be the moment Western civilization writ large “jumps the shark” on some weird, spiritual level).

      This path dependency (that so much of postmodernism is a reaction against fascism) might explain a lot of the contingent elements of postmodern practice about which I expressed confusion above.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Edward Said’s 1978 book of literary criticism “Orientalism” was an influential milestone in postmodernism as an intellectual creed.

        Said was ostensibly writing about the Middle East (i.e., “the Orient” in European rather than American usage). But he loudly announced he wasn’t going to write in his book about the “territory” of the Middle East, giving excuses such as that it was all very diverse and hard to sum up. (My suspicion: he found the reality of the Middle East depressing.) Instead, he devoted his book to a critique of the “map” of the Middle East created by European writers like Flaubert (whom he found more stimulating than actual Middle Easterners), implying that the biases in their maps had created the power imbalance that allowed Westerners to gain so much power over the Middle East rather than vice-versa.

        I have to give Said a lot of credit: I think he intentionally and successfully did a fair amount of damage to his Arab people’s hereditary enemies (such as the Franks and the Jews) by insinuating this self-destructive way of thinking into their universities, such as Columbia.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said, author of “Orientalism,” was an important figure in the rise of the postmodernism. I find him a rather sympathetic figure:

      http://takimag.com/article/the_vengeance_of_edward_said_steve_sailer/print#axzz4wlrM5yr9

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      The Platonic/Aristotelian view is that there is no representational gap between what is in the mind and what is in the world: the way we know something is that the mind formally becomes what it is thinking about. Knowledge is possible because the mind is not radically unlike the world around it.

      • Protagoras says:

        Yeah, and that’s crazy. Aristotelianism has been rejected for good reasons. Frege/Pierce logic is far, far better than Aristotelian logic, as it is far less limited and less limiting. The Aristotelians seem to see that as a plus, under the delusion that the limits are at the boundariest between sense and nonsense. I grant that in some cases, some people find the limits of Aristotelian logic match up with their intuitions, but the qualifiers already begin to show what I think of that. Intuition is an unacceptable guide to logic. Intuition is also an unacceptable guide to metaphysics; that the Frege/Pierce logic lacks the metaphysical implications of Aristotelian logic adequately demonstrates that we can do without those metaphysical implications, insofar as Frege/Pierce do everything practical so much better than Aristotle.

        • manwhoisthursday says:

          Not sure what logic has to do with it. Anyway, modernist epistemology has been in complete and utter tatters ever since Hume and Kant. That’s why the postmodernists have been able to make such hay.

  54. Steve Sailer says:

    Ironically, the English novel started out rather postmodernist in the 18th Century. For example, Fielding’s “Tom Jones” (1751) plays a lot of late 20th Century games with the narration and Sterne’s “Tristam Shandy” (1762) is even more convoluted and self-aware.

    The modernist third person objective novel with an impersonal reliable narrator was largely a social construction of the 19th Century that finally faded in the later 20th Century.

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      Though, to be fair, the impersonal reliable narrator has been the standard for most narrative since humans started telling stories: ancient epics, the Bible, fairy and folk tales.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Right. Postmodernism keeps getting reinvented. I’m remember when critics were enthusing over Woody Allen’s postmodern fourth wall-breaking like pulling Marshall McLuhan out from behind a poster to tell the loudmouth guy he doesn’t understand McLuhanism in “Annie Hall.” And Woody would say he was just imitating 1940s Bob Hope movies.

        And Bob probably got the idea from some vaudeville act.

        And so on.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      My favorite early novel is Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais was deconstructing language when Modern French was a newfangled invention.
      One memorable example is II.21, which starts with the character Panurge sexually harassing a Parisian lady. “At these words the lady pushed him back More than three hundred miles, and said: [dialogue lasting the rest of the chapter]”

  55. BeatriceBernardo says:

    I think what you described is not postmodernism. Rather, it is something else, that needs a name, that needs a good amount of discussing as well.

  56. arandur119 says:

    It’s unfortunate that this is apparently not a good explanation of postmodernism, because it’s a really good explanation of something. I don’t know what that thing is now, though.

  57. tvt35cwm says:

    I’d like to nitpick this:-

    there’s no objective criteria for what a Dark Age is.

    Using the epistemology of science, a main objective criterion for this particular dark age is that in formerly Roman Europe technology regressed, both in sophistication and in extension. Examples:

    Domestic pottery became a lot cruder, being made of worse clays, with older techniques, and fired at lower temperatures.

    Construction widely reverted from masonry and brickwork to timber and thatch.

    Settlements contracted in size and considerable effort was devoted to defensive structures such as wooden palisades.

    Socially useful structures such as aqueducts, bridges and harbours commonly fell into disrepair, with few attempts at repair. Those that were repaired were repaired with older or simpler technologies. Such new bridges as were attempted were again made with older, less sophisticated technologies.

    These are objective evidence that life was worse in the “dark age” than before.

    PS. I understood that the European dark age dated from about AD 400 to about AD 800 (or maybe 750).

  58. I love 97% of your articles Scott, but I agree with others that this probably doesn’t describe postmodernism in way that will give rationalists an accurate perception of it.

    The first chapter or so of “Explaining Postmodernism” by Stepehn Hicks gives a fairly good introduction in my opinion:
    http://www.stephenhicks.org/explaining-postmodernism/
    It’s pitched at a level I think the average rationalist should be able to digest without needing a philosophy phd. It’s available in audiobook apparently too. I wasn’t able to tell from reading those chapters whether Stephen was or wasn’t a postmodernist, which is probably a fairly good sign.

    The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy article, a usual goto for this sort of thing, is fairly bad imho, because it’s too obtuse and insider to be easily digestable by anyone that doesn’t already have a good idea what postmodernism is.

    If a punter has only got a few minutes I’d actually say that the wikipedia article is roughly on the mark, though probably its not enough to prevent the straw manning that appears to be common in the comments here today.

    For the record I’m strongly opposed to postmodernism, but think it’s often straw manned and is in part possible because of some problems (lamentably) with moderism and the philosophies that defend objective truth.

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