Postmodernism explained—and criticized

September 21, 2019 • 12:30 pm

The title of this 2017 article in Areo by Helen Pluckrose (also editor of the site) pulls no punches, and the piece is well worth reading—unlike the tedious and impenetrable lucubrations of the postmodernists themselves. Pluckrose not only explained postmodernism clearly—well, as clearly as one can—but also outlined the dangers it poses to academic education in sciences and humanities, to society at large, and then suggested a way to combat it. Click the screenshot to read:

I’ll give just three quotes (indented) from Helen on the topics above, but I recommend you read the whole thing. The headers are mine, and any comments of mine are flush left.

What is the gist of postmodernism?

Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida are just three of the “founding fathers” of postmodernism but their ideas share common themes with other influential “theorists” and were taken up by later postmodernists who applied them to an increasingly diverse range of disciplines within the social sciences and humanities. We’ve seen that this includes an intense sensitivity to language on the level of the word and a feeling that what the speaker means is less important than how it is received, no matter how radical the interpretation. Shared humanity and individuality are essentially illusions and people are propagators or victims of discourses depending on their social position; a position which is dependent on identity far more than their individual engagement with society. Morality is culturally relative, as is reality itself. Empirical evidence is suspect and so are any culturally dominant ideas including science, reason, and universal liberalism. These are Enlightenment values which are naïve, totalizing and oppressive, and there is a moral necessity to smash them. Far more important is the lived experience, narratives and beliefs of “marginalized” groups all of which are equally “true” but must now be privileged over Enlightenment values to reverse an oppressive, unjust and entirely arbitrary social construction of reality, morality and knowledge.

What are the dangers of postmodernism to science education? (Helen says, correctly, that science will go on, practiced in the future as it has been in the past, but how it is seen by people will be severely corroded by postmodernism.)

How much of a threat is postmodernism to science? There are certainly some external attacks. In the recent protests against a talk given by Charles Murray at Middlebury, the protesters chanted, as one,

“Science has always been used to legitimize racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state. In this world today, there is little that is true ‘fact.’”[9]

When the organizers of the March for Science tweeted:

“colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex-phobia, & econ justice are scientific issues,”[10]

many scientists immediately criticized this politicization of science and derailment of the focus on preservation of science to intersectional ideology. In South Africa, the #ScienceMustFall and #DecolonizeScience progressive student movement announced that science was only one way of knowing that people had been taught to accept. They suggested witchcraft as one alternative. [11]

I remember the first quote, which made me cringe, and is one of the reasons I was not a big fan of the March for Science, which appears, by the way, to have accomplished nothing.  The issues mentioned are political and moral issues, not scientific ones in the sense that they cannot be decided by empirical observation. That doesn’t mean they’re not important issues—just not scientific issues, though they can be informed by empirical study. As for “other ways of knowing”, I discuss that at length in Chapter 4 of Faith Versus Fact, and conclude that there are no valid ways of knowing other than the empirical approach that I call “science construed broadly.” Certainly witchcraft, revelation, religion, art, and “feelings” are not ways of knowing.

What are the dangers of postmodernism to the humanities? 

The social sciences and humanities, however, are in danger of changing out of all recognition. Some disciplines within the social sciences already have. Cultural anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and gender studies, for example, have succumbed almost entirely not only to moral relativism but epistemic relativism. English (literature) too, in my experience, is teaching a thoroughly postmodern orthodoxy. Philosophy, as we have seen, is divided. So is history.

Empirical historians are often criticized by the postmodernists among us for claiming to know what really happened in the past. Christopher Butler recalls Diane Purkiss’ accusation that Keith Thomas was enabling a myth that grounded men’s historical identity in “the powerlessness and speechlessness of women” when he provided evidence that accused witches were usually powerless beggar women. Presumably, he should have claimed, against the evidence, that they were wealthy women or better still, men. As Butler says,

“It seems as though Thomas’s empirical claims here have simply run foul of Purkiss’s rival organizing principle for historical narrative – that it should be used to support contemporary notions of female empowerment” (p36)

I encountered the same problem when trying to write about race and gender at the turn of the seventeenth century. I’d argued that Shakespeare’s audience’s would not have found Desdemona’s attraction to Black Othello, who was Christian and a soldier for Venice, so difficult to understand because prejudice against skin color did not become prevalent until a little later in the seventeenth century when the Atlantic Slave Trade gained steam, and that religious and national differences were far more profound before that. I was told this was problematic by an eminent professor and asked how Black communities in contemporary America would feel about my claim. If today’s African Americans felt badly about it, it was implied, it either could not have been true in the seventeenth century or it is morally wrong to mention it.

What are the dangers of postmodernism to society? Pluckrose floats the idea that if there is no such thing as “objective fact”, a view originated by Leftist philosophers, it can be (and has been) adopted by the Right as well.

The dangers of postmodernism are not limited to pockets of society which center around academia and Social Justice, however. Relativist ideas, sensitivity to language and focus on identity over humanity or individuality have gained dominance in wider society. It is much easier to say what you feel than rigorously examine the evidence. The freedom to “interpret” reality according to one’s own values feeds into the very human tendency towards confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

It has become commonplace to note that the far-Right is now using identity politics and epistemic relativism in a very similar way to the postmodern-Left. Of course, elements of the far-Right have always been divisive on the grounds of race, gender and sexuality and prone to irrational and anti-science views but postmodernism has produced a culture more widely receptive to this. Kenan Malik describes this shift,

“When I suggested earlier that the idea of ‘alternative facts’ draws upon ‘a set of concepts that in recent decades have been used by radicals’, I was not suggesting that Kellyanne Conway, or Steve Bannon, still less Donald Trump, have been reading up on Foucault or Baudrillard… It is rather that sections of academia and of the left have in recent decades helped create a culture in which relativized views of facts and knowledge seem untroubling, and hence made it easier for the reactionary right not just to re-appropriate but also to promote reactionary ideas.”[12]

What is to be done?

In order to regain credibility, the Left needs to recover a strong, coherent and reasonable liberalism. To do this, we need to out-discourse the postmodern-Left. We need to meet their oppositions, divisions and hierarchies with universal principles of freedom, equality and justice. There must be a consistency of liberal principles in opposition to all attempts to evaluate or limit people by race, gender or sexuality. We must address concerns about immigration, globalism and authoritarian identity politics currently empowering the far-Right rather than calling people who express them “racist,” “sexist” or “homophobic” and accusing them of wanting to commit verbal violence. We can do this whilst continuing to oppose authoritarian factions of the Right who genuinely are racist, sexist and homophobic, but can now hide behind a façade of reasonable opposition to the postmodern-Left.

Our current crisis is not one of Left versus Right but of consistency, reason, humility and universal liberalism versus inconsistency, irrationalism, zealous certainty and tribal authoritarianism. The future of freedom, equality and justice looks equally bleak whether the postmodern Left or the post-truth Right wins this current war. Those of us who value liberal democracy and the fruits of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution and modernity itself must provide a better option.

Although Pluckrose’s essay was written 2½ years ago, it sounds as if were written yesterday.

For further reading, I’d recommend these four books (click to get Amazon links), all of them strong critiques of postmodernism and its antiscientific tenor:

and this book by Gross and Levitt: the first shot across the bow of postmodernism:

h/t: Douglas (for the “Pomo Way” photo


104 thoughts on “Postmodernism explained—and criticized

  1. Is relativity theory postmodern since it denies an absolute time and replaces it with a concept of time inherently based on subjective experience?

    1. That’s not what special relativity claims. Time doesn’t become subjective in SR. SR doesn’t posit that time is based on people’s opinions.
      Instead it posits that time varies depending upon a person’s frame of reference. There is no single, absolute frame of reference, as almost everyone before Einstein assumed.

      There will be different measurements from person to person, but they will still be objective rather than subjective(subjective in the sense of ‘opinion-based’), and there won’t be an overall ‘universal clock’ relative to which we can measure time.

      The word ‘relative’ trips people up here. It doesn’t mean the same thing in special/general relativity that it means when we use it to speak of, say, ‘moral relativism’.

    2. No, and relativity doesn’t replace the concept of time with one based on subjective experience. But postmodernists have seized the idea to mean that things “depend” on a standpoint. Postmodernists have often used concepts from physics to make their nonsense to appear more profound. Today’s generation for example asserts that sex and gender are on a “spectrum”, even though this notion is patently nonsensical (you can’t meaningfully arrange diverse sexual identities and conditions on a spectrum, but it sounds more profound and connects well with the rainbow iconography).

            1. No, it is not “..being in the (you surely mean “a”, not “the”) uniform frame of reference”.
              Rather, it is the general understanding of real scientists that being quantitatively sufficiently close to such a frame of reference for the purpose of your observations should give sufficiently close to results which confirm (do not disconfirm, if you prefer) the theory.
              Scientists prefer precision to catch phrases, even if pseudo-philosophers do not always.

            2. And also, no, Michio, at least if you are talking to people with a small amount of 1st year university education in linear algebra. Rather than as a “river”, time is better described as the past/future cone determined by a quadratic form of signature (+++-) on the 4-dimensional spacetime of special relativity. Einstein became well aware of this in 1908 as a result of reading his former math prof Minkowski, who surely by that time would withdraw his opinion of his former student as “a lazy dog”.
              But certainly Einstein ‘is the man’. Nobody, including not Minkowski, nor Poincare, nor etc., contributed anything remotely as creatively true as Einstein did here (and in at least 3 or 4 other instances).
              I’d like to think in this non-blog, a good number of readers are easily at the level of knowledge described above.

          1. There is also some confusion over the word “observer”, which is often assumed to be a conscious mind, whereas in relativity it is really a shorthand for a set of measuring devices.
            Here’s a quote from Spacetime Physics (Wheeler & Taylor, page 39):
            “In relativity we often speak about the observer. Where is this observer? AT one place, or all over the place? Answer: The word “observer” is a shorthand way of speaking about the whole collection of recording clocks associated with one free-float frame.”
            It goes on, but the upshot is that if there is any “observer” in the colloquial sense, he or she would read off numbers on the devices, so these data are objective, not subjective.
            This might resolve Raph’s confusion.

        1. Science is not amenable to the kind of analogies and metaphorical connections you’re making.

          Physics in particular has very specific parameters, and is undergirded by some very subtle concepts, and what you’re doing is a prime example of the kind of thing postmodernists often did, which is to take a welcoming and simple-sounding word, like ‘relative’, and assume that it means the same thing as it does in the humanities.

          Postmodernists did the same thing with Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty’ principle, and often referred to his work as a way of claiming that truth was ‘uncertain’. Ditto Godel’s ‘incompleteness’ theorem.

          But it’s just gibberish. These words have very specific conceptual meanings; they’re not metaphors. Divorce them from their context and they’re meaningless.

          1. I can’t resist pointing out that you just claimed the word relative has different meanings depending on the field of study that it is used in. But I am interested in distinctions between the subject and the object. Is there a concise scientific description? To me subjective is observer dependent and objective is observer independent. But I accept that migh not be a scientific distinction. In the cultural sphere for instance Twitter presents a different thing to each user where the television did not. This is a cultural change relevant to ideas of objective/subjective and to me it is worth analysing what impact that has on the individual. Writing off the study of these cultural phenomena doesn’t seem valuable to me.

            1. “I can’t resist pointing out that you just claimed the word relative has different meanings depending on the field of study that it is used in.”

              I made that very point in my comment; that words have different meanings in the sciences compared to the humanities.

              “But I am interested in distinctions between the subject and the object. Is there a concise scientific description?”

              You’d have to be more specific, perhaps give an example of what you mean. And a ‘description’ of what? Again, this is where precision of language is important.

              1. When I use English I know when to use ‘I’ and when to use ‘me’. We know that neuroscience in studying the Brain from outside has not yet approached the internal experience. My question is, if you accept that distinction, is that fundamentally different from observer invariant measurements versus observer dependent measurements. If observer independence is not the definition of objective, or depends on some clause ‘observers in the same frame of reference’ that is an interesting distinction to me. I think modern physics in this exact debate has had an impact on culture and was why in the postmodern Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon used so many physics metaphors. If we are angry that the ‘postmodernists’, whoever they are, are offering inaccurate descriptions of political systems. That these descriptions re inaccurate because they are ‘subjective’ then the hard sciences should declare whether it makes a distinction between the subject and object and if so what the definitions of each are. If the definition of subjective is according to personal opinion then it isn’t particularly interesting to point out that that is not universally applicable. If, alternatively, the hard sciences cannot offer any explanation of subjective experience then do they deny its existence or posit it as outside the realm of study that the hard sciences can offer explanations for. I’ve moved off topic slightly but lets take the fundamental claim of the postmodern that there are no objective grand narratives such as e.g. Marxist conception of history moving toward Communism then why exactly does that claim pose a threat to the hard sciences?

              2. Can I ask – do you understand special relativity?

                I’m not trying to patronise you. This is an incredibly subtle scientific theory, incredibly nuanced. I get the feeling you’ve read that it’s all just a cloud of technical terms that are used to baffle and cover up the emptiness of the science. But it really isn’t. You genuinely need to understand what it means before you start studying ‘connections’ between it and non-scientific subjects, because if you don’t you’ll end up drawing parallels that don’t exist.

                So, and I stress this following point, the different measurements we find with different frames of reference are NOT subjective in the sense you mean. In fact they’re not subjective at all.

                …Eg. we can just send a couple of extremely accurate clocks in different directions around the earth and they will end up measuring different times. Humans don’t have to get involved in that at all, except to read the clocks when they’ve finished their journey.

                And there’s no real reason to drag in the nature of the self at all. Whoever convinced you of that was leading you up the garden path. The fact that science doesn’t understand the nature of consciousness, the fact that there is a subjective distinction between ‘I’ and ‘not I’ is irrelevant to the concept of special relativity. As I mentioned, humans are never involved in the actual measurements that prove time dilation occurs. Obviously – we don’t just send someone up a mountain and then ask them if they felt time go faster than normal due to the lower gravity. It kind of seems like you think that’s what happens.

              3. Do we even need humans to read the numbers from the counter-orbiting clocks? Couldn’t we program a computer to read the clocks and flash an orange light if the numbers are the same or a blue light if the numbers are different? Wouldn’t that remove the human “observer” from the experiment?

            2. I cannot help mentioning that, once outside mathematics/hard science, “relative” is invariably never defined nor used with any reasonable sense of intellectual rigour.

              1. I think ‘regarding the relation between two things’ as opposed to a feature in and of itself is getting somewhere. For instance wages can only be understood relative to the cost of living but mass does not need to be considered relative to another thing but is a fundamental measure.

              2. When you refer to “mass” as not being Relative to anything, would that be what formerly was referred to as ‘rest mass’? Or would it be ‘mass/energy’ of some volume of space? Or would it be the observer-independent energy/momentum tensor in space-time?
                I find the Relative comparison of these three to be quite fascinating, as well as the Relative dependence on frame of reference of the 1st two.

            3. To me subjective is observer dependent and objective is observer independent.

              So even if all observers agree that each others’ perspectives are described by Lorentz transformations between different frames, and one could accelerate to an identical speed and end up agreeing on their perspective, it is still subjective? I don’t see how that word would be useful then.


        2. Just for a second time, because this really seems to be the crux of the misunderstanding: there doesn’t need to be an ‘observer’ to measure the effects of special relativity.

          In fact, to accurately measure the effects of special relativity we _can’t_ use observers; we have to use mind-bogglingly accurate atomic clocks, and then come back after they’ve been on a round-the-world trip in opposite directions. Then we check the measurements to see if they’re different: and they are.

          So you can hopefully see that there is no need to use the word ‘subjective’ at all when talking about special relativity, and there’s no mysterious connection to the self.

          1. Yes I like your distinction between observer and path through space-time. Although I as an observer necessarily have one space-time path it does not follow that one space time path corresponds to exactly one observer.

            One final idea I had last night was that use of object and subject as categories is inherently tied up with the idea of will:

            I (the subject) choose to look at you (the object).

            You (the subject) choose to look at me (the object).

            If we follow the blog’s author in his rejection of will then we eliminate these categories. There are no subjects and objects just things interacting which can be equivalently described as A interacted with B and B interacted with A.

            This worldview may or may not be related to trends in the arts and humanities from the late twentieth century.

    3. Einstein is said to have regretted his choice of the phrase theory of “relativity”, rather than the theory of “invariance”, for the main claim of his theory is that the laws of physics are absolutely the same (i.e. invariant) in all frames of reference.

      1. Interesting. I read recently that Einstein was influenced by David Hume’s claim that space and time were mental constructs for understanding phenomena and therefore for direct experience of the world. Fundamentally I’m interested in how advances in the sciences in the early twentieth century influenced art and philosophy movements. Perhaps an archetypal postmodern artefact such as The Simpsons or Gravity’s Rainbow are only tangentially related to these developments but I suspect they are more causally related than we would like to believe.

    4. Einstein’s greatest blunder isn’t postulating the cosmological constant, it’s naming what should have been called “invariance theory” “relativity”.

      The whole point of relativity is to find what is left invariant in light of the constancy of the speed of light (pun initially unintended), e.g. the spacetime interval.


    5. No, because it does no such thing. Spacetime in relativity is perfectly objective – in fact one can call it just as correctly the theory of spacetime invariants.

      (This can be rigorously proved in, e.g., Mario Bunge’s semantics.)

    1. Why is the choice only “going back”? Can’t we improve and move forward? As Pluckrose (love that name) said:

      Those of us who value liberal democracy and the fruits of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution and modernity itself must provide a better option.

      I don’t think she is saying that modernism or premodernism are the better options.

      1. If Modernism is “an art movement from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century” then given the year is 2019 how can we be anything other than ‘post’ it?

      2. I think some people make a category error with postmodernism. That is they mistake a description for a thing being described. To me Postmodernism is a name for the cultural movement which came after Modernism. You can’t really claim The Simpsons is more wrong than Ulysses. That would be a ridiculous way to talk about culture.

    2. Postmodern does not mean it is more advanced. It’s an umbrella term to describe related philosophical ideas that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century, among them post-structuralism. And then there’s especially postmodern art.

      Even though it often seems all-encompassing, epoch-changing and as we see, even attempting to supplant “the Left”, it’s mostly hot air, pompous pretension with little behind it. Even on the art side, it soaked up a lot of what existed before, e.g. readymade art that questions art itself is

      The art is a different story, but even there it’s often applied to art that might be simply modern, and also tends to suck up everything that is ironic, subjective etc. Even if it has little to with actual postmodern ideas.

      1. Yes I’d agree with that. I have read a lot of impenetrable stuff but then something like Jameson’s Postmodernism seemed quite matter of fact and clear about what he was discussing, how if was defined, and what he had to say about it.

      2. Bunge points out the only place where “postmodernism” has a clear meaning is in architecture. I do not know about that specifically, but in virtually every other context it is an admittedly vague cluster concept. This does not detract from its analytical usefulness, however. (Even if it gets Bruno Latour or Derrida or their followers complaining.)

  2. I have three of the four recommended books; they’re all good, but Higher Superstitions is the most interesting read, and not just because it’s so elegantly written – it’s very prescient considering when it was written. The two conservative writers offer an excellent, fair analysis.

    1. …However, I don’t agree with Kenan Malik that post-modernism and left-wing relativism can be blamed for the Trump-right’s gleeful fuck-you attitude to objective truth. That’s a tendentious claim, and it’s an attempt to blame all ills on a convenient source.

      The Trump-right’s approach to truth bears little resemblance to the academic left’s po-mo relativism. Rather, it’s just flat-out bullshit, the same kind of outright denialism that characterises fascist, totalitarian regimes who control opinion through sheer fear and might, and tribalistic propagandising.
      There’s no sense in which the Trump-right try and subtly question the meaning of truth itself: instead they lie, blatantly, and simply dare you to do something about it. Dishonesty becomes a display of power, and taking part in that dishonesty, propagating it, becomes a kind of tribal bonding ritual that defines ‘us against them’.

      Not everything can be blamed on political correctness and left-wing academia. The Trump-right have gone their own way w/r/t to political truth, and they should be held to account for it on that basis.

      1. In general I’m in agreement with you here, Saul, but while Trumpism relies largely on pure bullshit, the relativism infection of the right wing predates his dominance of that part of the political spectrum.

        1. Yes, Trump and his followers are standing on the shoulders of the moral midgets who came before them, you’re right.

          It took a lot of iteration and experimentation by trailblazing mavericks for the modern right to finally arrive at such an avant-garde, minimalistic approach to truth.

          In a sense, Trump is the John Cage of honesty, bending it into unrecognisable shapes and questioning whether we need it at all.

      2. The notion that the Trump-right view involves the slightest trace of intellect is risible.

        “Trump is the John Cage of honesty” is however a very fine summation.

        1. Another way to summarize Trump, and also various pomo fundamentalists: “A wrang-wrang, according to Bokonon, is a person who steers people away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the wrang-wrang’s own life, to an absurdity.” Details in Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, chapter 36. Trigger warning: it doesn’t end well for the narrator’s cat (or by book’s end, all cats).

      1. +1

        Was about to point that out. As far as I’m aware, he was apparently strongly opposed to the Republicans. Notable also that the early “anti-postmodernists” previously engaged against creationists, and that all of the big names that come to mind, from Dawkins to Sokal to Chomsky are either liberal or outright left wing.

        1. Levitt’s co-author Paul Gross describes himself as conservative, though I do not know in what sense or what party that involves. (After all as far as I am concerned, the Democratic Party is conservative, but that’s not the view in the US by most.)

          Other examples, however, that illustrate your thesis – Bunge is a democratic socialist (in favour of worker democracy, no less). Haack describes herself as a “passionate moderate”, whatever that is.

  3. I think Fashionable Nonsense and Intellectual Impostures might be the same book with different titles for the respective US and UK editions. In any event, I recommend either or both of them.

    1. Wikipedia says:

      “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, published in the UK as Intellectual Impostures, is a book by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.”

    2. They are. Also recommended are _The Flight From Science and Reason_, _Against Relativism_ (which argues that Derrida is [IMO wrongly, but still], for example, not one, but does skewer Latour and Pickering and other “science studies” ends of the pomos), _A House Built on Sand_, _Defending Science: Within Reason_, _Social Science Under Debate_ and its companion, _Finding Philosophy in Social Science_, _Science, Truth and Democracy_, etc.

      All flawed, all very valuable. (Authors and editors on request, but these days finding without that is easy, so forgive the sloppiness.)

  4. Norman Levitt also wrote a book that I read many years ago called “Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture.” Richard Dawkins’s blurb: “Norman Levitt is a new enlightenment hero, a post-postmodern Prometheus bringing fire to the bellies of scholars and students intimidated by obscurantist intellectual bullies and needing encouragement to fight back. There is a real world, we live in it, true and false things can be said about it, science is how we find out about it, and it really matters.”

  5. “Empirical historians are often criticized by the postmodernists among us for claiming to know what really happened in the past.”

    Historians have grappled with the question as to what extent the past can “really” be known. I will hedge and say that in most instances historians cannot conclusively say what happened in the past and the farther you can back in time the less an historian can write with certainty. The reason is lack of evidence, conflicting evidence, or the emergence of new evidence. Hence, historians fill in the gaps with plausible surmises. But, the problem is deeper than this. When an historian writes on a topic, he/she must reach a subjective judgment as to what evidence or facts to include in the narrative. That is, the historian makes a subjective judgment as to what is important to include in the manuscript. Different historians writing on the same topic may reach radically different conclusions.

    Finally, any good work of history goes beyond simply reciting the facts. The Dragnet approach to presenting the past may work for almanacs, but not for a work of history. A good historian chooses the facts to include in the work for the purpose of offering a thesis or explanation of the topic at hand. This is why that over the years historians can present very different interpretations of events. The interpretation the historian chooses is often influenced by the era in which the historian is writing. One example of this is how the interpretation of the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War is portrayed so differently today than historians did in the 1920s. Even if a historian strives for objectivity (some admittedly do not), if honest, he/she will admit that is impossible for the reasons I have outlined.

    It seems that many in the general public have the mistaken belief that there is only one way to understand the past, the “true” past. People who believe this should ask themselves why, for example, there are countless works on the Civil War. It is not because prior historians (or at least most of them) were rogues intentionally distorting past. No, the reason is that there can be many different perspectives on historical events based on the evidence, the historian’s interpretation of it and the influences of the era the historian is writing in. This is the way it was, it is, and always will be. At best, there can only be approximations to knowing what happened in the past.

    1. “The interpretation the historian chooses is often influenced by the era in which the historian is writing.”
      “At best, there can only be approximations to knowing what happened in the past.”

      I differ on both these contentions. History is inherently written from the point of view of the the author and present time, so it is always influenced, not “often”. And then, there is no ‘objectively true history’ to try to “approximately” approach.

      And both these points of mine are a good thing for “history”; since history tries to ‘explain’ and ‘legitimize’ who “we” are now. Where our current ‘cultural context’ —beliefs, norms, ways we do things and live — comes from. Its one “perspective” trying to ‘see’ its roots (incipience) in another.

      The only Objectivity (capital O) in the past is the hypothetical program of the physicist running back the tape of time and tracing the progression of all the individual states and particles. And that itself is Just an idealized proposition, a norm, a standard to try to achieve, not something that any physicist can Actually Do.

      Seems like I’ve been infected with something like the Subjectivism (capital S) of postmodernism!

      1. Umm. . . .is reporting that John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 not an objective statement. You say that there is, in effect, “no objectivity”. You’re wrong, and I just gave you an example of a report of history that is not just an “approximation” to what happened.

        1. No, I don’t contend there is “no objectivity”. I contend that “objectivity” is an intellectual standard, a norm to be sought in various ways in various situations. It is objectively true that Henri Matisse is a great artist.

          Yes, there is a core fact in JFK’s assassination. The question is where to draw the line between fact and interpretation; it’s a blurry thing. Meaningful analysis of the assassination soon gets into discussion of “best evidence”, reliable evidence, motivations behind the act, political implications…

          I assume you will disagree, but Fact is Theory laden. That is a core insight behind postmodern thinking, and a valuable insight.

          1. Umm. . . . no, there is no “objective” criterion for being a great artist. Some people would disagree about Matisse. And as for “fact is theory laden”, well, that’s not an insight of postmodernism, because a. it was suggested before and b. it’s wrong. The interpretation of fact can be laden with personal biases that are not “theories”.

            By making art quality objective but facts often not, you are inverting the truth.

            No need to reply.

            1. Thanks for your reply, Jerry, and your good blog. Just one last short reply on my part.

              Taking the facts and laws of physics to be the Ultimate Facts and setting facts like the Kennedy assassination Completely apart from interpretations/theories of it, sets up a giant dualism.
              You ‘solve’ that dualism with your Hard Determinism by allowing no real standards or contexts in which persons can act, create, and do in a manner that is described effectively by anything except hard science.

              But, there are more ways to effectively describe and explain the world, and especially us in it, than that. Matisse Knew How to do art, in the same manner as scientists Know How to do science: They act according to ideal standards and experiences in highly reflective (evolved) settings that assists Mother Nature and us to do and create new and meaningful Real things: art, intellectual arguments, language, math, technologies, historical change…

              And, those people that disagree about Matisse being a great artist are wrong, much like those who disagree with evolution are wrong. They ignore the standards of truth and objectivity well established in those contexts of human achievement.

              1. I will let other readers adjudicate your claim that there are objective criteria for deciding who’s a great artist. I for one disagree vehemently. Yes, many more people like Matisse than like “Dogs playing poker,” but there are also people who don’t think he’s so great, and even more who denigrate artists like Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. There are no “standards of truth” in judging art; were that the case, all critics would agree on a ranking of artists. They don’t. That’s different from science, in which all rational scientists agree that evolution is true. But where are the “truths” that establish someone as a greater or lesser artist? Would you say that Velasquez was a greater or lesser artist than Matisse? If so, why?

                I’ve said my piece, but it’s odd for someone who touts postmodernism to say that there are objective standards for truth in both science AND art.

                By the way, I’m not a huge fan of Matisse.

              2. You don’t even have to look at the art itself to see that judging artists is subjective. Who’s to say what “great” means in this context? How do you define the level of greatness needed to make your “great artist” list?

                Of course, one can apply objective measures to art and artists. You can take a poll in which you ask the question, “Was Matisse a great artist?” and then decide that some percentage of “yes” votes makes the question true.

                BTW, I do think Matisse was a great artist but I am undecided as to how great. 😉

              3. Jerry missed my point, to some extent. It is, the Doing of art, and the Doing of science, both are based in traditions and standards of practice. Scientist and artist both THINK they rely and behave upon these, to get to their objects. Jerry, himself, defends some broad definition of the Empirical Method of science to attain facts and truth.
                If scientists can act to attain their object, then so artists can just as legitimately do so to attain theirs. What I am defending is not postmodernism but the Theory/Action laden reality of ‘facts’.

              4. Enough, please. You have not made the case that there are objective standards for good versus bad artists. Instead, you substitute the claim that both scientists and artists act to achieve their ends. That is not the same thing as what you maintained. Please do not continue this argument. I did not miss your point: you said clearly that Matisse is objectively a great artist, and that there are objective standards for good art. Now you’ve changed your argument.

                If you keep changing the goalposts in this way, and make incoherent arguments, you will be gone.

      2. Since everything we know (or think we know) comes through our senses, there is always some uncertainty but one can take this too far and slip into solipsism, which goes way beyond subjectivism.

        1. My system is a set with binary relation R which is transitive: That is, the one axiom is

          aRb & bRc implies aRc

          I know that a theorem about my system is

          aRb & bRc & cRd implies aRd

          I have this knowledge without receiving any information from my senses.

          Note: Displayed sentences above are universally quantified, i.e. should beign

          ‘for all a, for all b, etc’.

          1. ‘begin’ not “beign”,

            and, for extra clarity,

            put brackets around the start of each displayed doen to just before “implies”.
            My extra spaces didn’t show up.

    2. The way I think is fair to go is that the goal of the historian is to state what (as Ranke put it) really happened. However, that does not entail that one is always successful at doing it, nor that somehow this makes matters immune to revision based on better arguments, evidence, etc.

  6. The problem is that when you explain postmodernism clearly, it sounds ridiculous and postmodernists claim the explanation to be a straw man.

    Apparently, only postmodernists are allowed to explain postmodernism.

    The same applies to theology.

  7. Science does not deal in absolute certainty.

    Science is comfortable with uncertainty and tries to reduce the degree of uncertainty.

    To me postmodernism puts uncertainty on a pedestal and makes no attempt to reduce it. Only that postmodernists are certain they are uncertain.

    1. Yes, this exactly.

      If we imagine the perfect ideal of a scientist and the perfect ideal of a postmodernist, they both believe there is an objective reality out there and they both accept that we can never be entirely sure we have found it. The difference, as you say, is where they go from here.

      The scientist would set up as many safeguards as possible to minimise human bias and error and then continue to seek knowledge. The postmodernist will remain in the fog of uncertainty and theorise about the socially constructed nature of knowledge and how and why we constructed it.

      The scientist has specific skepticism which is productive – s/he asks “How do I know this is true?” The postmodernist has stultifying radical skepticism – We cannot know that anything is true.” (Sokal & Bricmont make this distinction. I condensed it)

      1. “.. scientist and … postmodernist, they both believe there is an objective reality out there and they both accept that we can never be entirely sure we have found it”

        Another thing we can be sure of, besides being unsure as above, is that the postmodernist has done absolutely nothing to find out anything (perhaps only approximately true) about objective reality; often the scientist has. Ask the fan of postmodernism for a specific counterexample to this (or even ask a Wittgenstein supporter) and you get blather, not any supposed instance.

      2. Congratulations on your article.

        In postdernism I find that, much as with theologians and practitioners in religion (and maybe I would go as far as saying postmodernism is in fact a religion, but that´s another point)there’s a certain distinction between the postmdernist philosophers and the everyday practitioner next door; and I think you focused more on the first, correct me if I’m wrong, while we in the comments tend to focus more on the second.

        While with christianism we usually focus more on the practitioners than on the sophisticated theologians, for practitioners are who have the most impact the world; with postmodernism we can’t so easylly dismiss, I think, their impact, as seen with social sciences for example, and quantum quackery.

        I’ve never had the ocasion to have a direct aproach to postmodern/postestructuralist philosophy until I met and had a personal relationship with a postmodernist teacher. She was otherwise a very warm, gentle and intelligent person, very very intelligent and cultivated, and we had such interesting and engaging conversations I rarely have with people I find along my life. But when we talked about subjects direcly related to philosophy, she talked just like a priest, with such a gentle smile and pious loook in his face and, not realizing this until we parted ways, such a condescending attitude.

        And for the actual content of the exchanges, I had curiosity about having postestructuralism explained to me by and actual postmodernist, and so she proposed me to read Deleuze and Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus”, as a “good exposition on postmodernist ideas”, from which of course I didn’t understand anything. For what already knew about postmodernism, I knew that I wasn’t going to agree with her, but I wanted to know how his mind worked, so I went ahead.

        The trick was that in my effort to “learn” I tried to asign temptative meaning to some of the concepts. And if I had go ahead that path, I would have built a meaning for the posmodernist ideas on my own, and of course I would have agreed with it ’cause it’s very difficult to not agree with oneself. And that’s just how demagogy works. In the end, and based in his own words, I had to read the text to know and understand what the posmodernist ideas were, and and the same time the text would teach me how to read postmodernist texts. What she didn’t say is that it was just a leap of faith, like in religion, for I as aproached the text with understanding it, I just had to accept the teachins at face value. My skepticism and materialism were just obstacles I had to throw away without any justification to do so.

        She described herself as being part of an intelectual elite, namely teachers and philosophers who made this, for me foggy, elevated group which stood above the normal people. She prided herself also about having the capacity to write a perfectly nice and long text without actually saying anything, his own words.

        So you have it all, sacred texts, faith and a guiding priesthood; just like religion. Once I asked her what would happen with his life if somehow she would change his views and became a materialist philosopher. She didn’t take the question very well, she just said that she couldn’t answer the question because the case was sooo imposible that she couldn’t imagine it happening. It just reminded me of these priests and pastors trapped in his lives because if they left it, they would just not have a job and meanings to survive

        In the end it was finished because when having debates, I of course put all my reasoning on the table, and pointed out any inconsistency on his part I deemed apropiate, but always discussing ideas, never anything personal. She felt personally pressured and pushed by this and resented me, and finally she exploded, unexpectedly for me at that point, and just shuted me off with, literally, a bang on the table just like a she would do to child. So that was it, me the angry and loud atehist and she the offended believer. I don’t know if she saw a way going forward after that, because she refused to talks abot it, so it seems I had to decide for both to part ways.

  8. To be brief for a change, note that the authors recommended are described as mathematical physicist, mathematical biologist, theoretical physicist, philosopher of physics and mathematician. Is it perhaps that rigorous mathematical education is particularly useful to keeping one’s head screwed on in the correct fashion, to being resistant to pseudo-intellectual nonsense?

      1. Fair enough.

        I guess Bohr’s mathematics had to have been pretty serious, despite few of his papers using much heavy mathematical lifting AFAIK. Fortunately, his ‘complementarity’ and his non-reality of the quantum world never had much real effect on anyone besides maybe Heisenberg and Pauli, not on many physicists who say their interpretation of quantum physics is the capital of Denmark. Is Copenhagen any more than a philosophical figleaf?

        I was perhaps being just a bit tongue-in-cheek. It somehow to me seems unsurprising that professors of psychiatry, sociology, literary studies, &c. are unable to write books effective at debunking postmodernist nonsense.

        [My latest fad is writing ‘etc.’ in Victorian fashion, emulating letters quoted in Janet Browne’s fantastic –thanks, Jerry–biography of Darwin.]

        1. I think there is a case to be made it confused umpteen students (myself included!), gave rise to bad popularizations, and (most contentiously) forestalled developments of alternatives (because instrumentalism and other antirealisms took over), at least in the QM case.

          Bunge calls David Bohm (before the woo-departure of the latter’s own) the “Goliath that stared down orthodoxy” or something like that, by (correctly) pointing out how cause and chance can “work” and attempting to develop a sub-quantum theory accordingly. Bohm failed, unfortunately, and Bunge gave up on this line but I do think it is interesting to see (finally) the philosophy of physics community clarifying the options. I dare say we are down to three:

          1) Objective randomness with no underlying mechanism (unlike statistical mechanics with underlying) and the Bell inequalities as is. This is now the consensus.
          2) Some unspecified nonlocal approach (Smolin program, etc.)
          3) Retrocausation with 1 or 2. (Stenger, in the first case.)

  9. An enthusiastic second to the recommendation of “Intellectual Impostures” and “Higher Superstition”. Both books have the added virtue of containing very, very funny stuff.

    Postmodernism will have no destructive effects on science for a simple, decisive reason: its tenets cannot work at all in the simplest scientific projects, such as those of motorcycle maintenance. Imagine how one would apply Judith Butlerian thinking to cleaning a carburetor or adjusting valves.

    It is the Liberal Arts/Humanities in higher education that suffer the real damage from postmodernism, as a consequence of its essential fraudulence. Purveyors of postmodernism do not, in fact, follow its tenets when their own comfort is at stake: when they have a toothache, they go to a dentist, not to a shaman of one or another marginalized, non-colonial other way of knowing. This fact demonstrates that postmodernism is not a philosophy at all, for its own proponents, but a mere affectation, a form of dress-up. The Humanities undermine their own integrity when an affectation is dressed up as a philosophy, and awarded academic status. No wonder we hear so much
    hand-wringing about the declining enrollment in the Humanities.

  10. I’m still reading it but I love Pluckrose’s article. My favorite line so far:

    “… one wonders why Derrida bothered to explain the infinite malleability of texts at such length if I could read his entire body of work and claim it to be a story about bunny rabbits with the same degree of authority.”

    So cheeky!

  11. Just a brief note about Pomo Way. It is a dirt road in Nederland, Colorado. Fittingly, it is a very short dead end, and the only people that use it are the two folks who live there 🙂 The next road up the hill is Navajo Trail, so the street is most likely named for the Pomo Tribe.

  12. Regarding “other ways of knowing” – to my mind there is only one way of knowing – conscious awareness – and literally everything else falls outside of that category into “things that are known”, rather than “ways of knowing”. And I would say that you can know an emotion in much the same way you can know a color, scent, or sound. We don’t think of colors as revealing greater truths to us in isolation, and yet visual knowledge is one of the foundations of empirical knowledge. In the same way, I don’t think emotions reveal greater truths beyond recognition – yup, this is how I feel – but I think this basic knowledge can be incorporated into larger projects. Morality, psychology, culture, and so on. (I also think we tend to view feelings as wildly divergent and almost random in different individuals in our culture, which, again, I’ve come to think is incorrect. I think they are more patterned and predictable than that.)

    That said, I think postmodernism goes off the rails in combining something like hedonism (the only thing that matters – or, if taken even further, the only thing that is even real – is the project of trying to experience positive emotions and avoiding negative ones) with an entirely external locus of control (the only way to avoid negative emotions is to force everyone around you to do whatever it takes not to elicit them.) I mean seriously, if you went to a psychologist and presented that as your worldview, I assume they would ask you to go ahead and schedule for the next 10 years at the front desk. Why when it’s labeled philosophy do we decide this is suddenly a good idea or conducive to a healthy society? Perhaps it’s a backlash to our very individualistic society, where for a long time people were asked to assume individual, internal responsibility for pretty much everything – a way of rebelling in the other direction. If that’s the case, I hope people kind of get it out of their system quickly and move on to a more balanced way of viewing society. (I know the article also talks about postmodernism and relativism, but I actually don’t see that as a huge problem. Math is relative, after all, in that it’s based on relationships – ‘relative’ certainly doesn’t have to mean ‘chaotic and nihilistic’.)

      1. Interesting, what do you mean by knowledge in the biblical sense? Intuition, revelation, etc.? My thinking above was that we tend to draw this incredibly sharp line between objective / subjective in our culture, where ‘subjective’ is treated as almost analogous to ‘imaginary’ at times. But clearly this is not the case, as we have uniform standards, for example, of what constitutes abuse (child, animal, spousal, etc.) We do not say “Well, maybe some animals enjoy being neglected, subjectivity is totally random”, after all. And if someone falls too far outside of these norms – for example, if a child gets into a fistfight every time someone looks at them funny because to their mind this is so annoying it is a form of abuse – we generally recommend counseling, we don’t say “Oh, well, subjectivity is different for everyone.” (I try to explain this to my cat as well, when she howls at 4:00 in the morning acting as if she is undergoing terrible neglect because her food bowl is only 2/3 full, but she is not convinced, ha ha.)

        I won’t say that internal subjective experience is as uniform as external, empirical impressions, obviously. But I do think that subjective experience is objective to the degree that one can say “Yes, this is happening” – even if it’s a hallucination, it’s still objective to say one is having a hallucination – and that in many areas they are more predictable than we tend to think. If this wasn’t the case I don’t think we could develop things such as morality, social standards (politeness, customs, etc.), psychology, and so on.

        1. Romance languages tend to make a distinction between knowledge in a propositional sense (or knowledge of a technique) or knowledge in the personal sense (I know Bill, Bill would never do that).

          I don’t like applying the concept of intuition to these cases, because there is empirical content to the experience, and it is probably rational to make inferences from that experience (even if not infallible). But you can look at phenomena like gaydar for example:

  13. It’s not enough to focus on post modern theorizing.

    You have to see how it dovetails into the Progressive political agenda. You can look at Derrick Bell’s work here:

    The problem is this:

    Group A does better on cognitive testing than Group B over a prolonged period of time. This inevitably suggests that Group A on average has higher cognitive capacities than Group B, and that Group B is always going to lag behind Group A in aggregate, at least in a meritocratic system.

    If you are an advocate for Group B, the only way you can advocate for Group B to be over-represented (at least relative to their ability) is to ideologically attack the underlying testing regime (as biased against Group B), and to attack people promoting the testing as biased, and deplatforming them. [Because they are saying Group A in the aggregate performs better than Group B.]

    Racial advocacy + postmodern theory = Progressive ideology.

    The downside is that if everything is subjective, then you eliminate the legitimacy of the Academy itself, which rests on the idea that Group A (smart people) have higher cognitive abilities than Group B (people too dumb to get into the Academy), and that Group A (professors) have more knowledge and experience than Group B (students at the Academy). If Harvard students aren’t smarter than everyone else, its just hidden white supremacy, who cares about Harvard, and if Harvard professors don’t know anything except sublimated white supremacy, why should we be subsidizing Higher Ed and why should we care what professors say?

      1. Honestly, we are all members of Group A and Group B, depending on how the issue is framed. [Race, sex, age, religion, SES, mental health, physical health, criminality, behavioral choices, etc.] Of course, it is politics that focuses on certain kinds of differences and neglects others.

  14. The humanities seem to be coming out of the fog with the adoption of big data analyses. That countervaling trend may save academia.

  15. “. . .religion, art, and ‘feelings’ are not ways of knowing.”

    OK, since you define “knowledge” elsewhere as “public acceptance of facts” and insist (in Faith Versus Fact) that “Knowledge isn’t knowledge unless it’s factual,” I may finally have to agree with you: if you narrow the definition of “knowledge” down to encompass only those things that science broadly construed can arrive at, then yes, only science broadly construed can arrive at knowledge. But I still think you’re impoverishing the term.

    1. “knowledge” is “only those things that science broadly construed can arrive at”

      I have knowledge of language, my 4 year old granddaughter is almost on a daily basis increasing her knowledge of language. In each of those cases, that “knowledge” of language is Not scientific knowledge. In fact, scientists have very little scientific knowledge of language, yet we all know how to speak.

      In fact, Matisse knew how to paint (and cut out paper)— though Jerry doesn’t like him much, and scientists know how To Do science but they don’t scientifically know how they do it! It’s a different kind of knowing, it seems: knowing How to Do something and knowing That something is true.

      I believe that Knowing How to Do various things logically precedes Knowing That something is true. Doing, including scientific doing, Objectifies the things discovered in that domain of action. This is the route to a philosophy that has Both objects and minds (not just brains) existing, objectivity and subjectivity together, fact and the interpretation of fact as equally true.

  16. Re the discussion above of art and objectivity, I would say that the only “objective” standard for art is what lasts over time. Art can appeal to a specific culture in a specific historical context, but the greater the art the more it will transcend that culture/context and speak to something more universal in human experience.

    In literature, the consummate examples of this are Homer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, which is not to say that everyone is going to dig H, S, or T, but only that the test of time (a form of natural selection?) comes as close as we’re going to get to achieving anything approaching de facto consensus in the arts.

    1. I think that personal preference when ranking specific things (paintings, books, etc.) is a particularly difficult area of subjectivity and one where we do see high variability. But, I think it’s important to remember that there are many subjective aspects of the arts where inter-observer agreement (which, to my mind, is the basis of calling something objective in the colloquial sense) is much higher. In much the way that most people agree on the bouba/kiki test, I think the majority of people would describe Waterlilies as a light and airy painting, not a dark and brooding one; or recognize a sorrowful chord progression the piano vs. a cheerful one; or agree that when conducting urban renewal projects that a green space with sculptures is better than cramming in a new row of dumpsters. I wouldn’t call such information objective but I would say there’s a case to be made that subjective information is often uniform enough to be predictive and useful beyond simply describing the preferences of any one individual person.

    2. “Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion.”
      — George Orwell, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”

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