Let’s face it. For much of the Twentieth Century and into the current one, we’ve been living in the Sneering Age among intellectuals. Or it could be called the Age of Contempt or the Age of Hyper-skepticism.
It is most often called the Postmodern Age.
These intellectuals loathe the West and America, even though they live very comfortable lives; they have contempt for their own home.
To me, it seems like an irrational, cultural-intellectual anorexia and bulimia.
Where does the self-loathing come from? What are the origins of postmodernism?
The prefix hyper- means “over, above, beyond.” Skepticism means “true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain”; and it is the “method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics”; finally it is “doubt concerning basic religious principles” (Webster’s).
The two words come from ancient Greek, but we don’t need to go back that far, though a big book could be written on Greek skepticism.
In any case, a little skepticism can be healthy, particularly about human nature and politics, but hyper-skeptics take things over and above and beyond what’s healthy even going so far as attacking stabilizing institutions.
Let’s reach back a few hundred years.
The Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800+) shook Western civilization down to its foundation. Taking their cue from ancient Greek skeptics, philosophers like Descartes (1596-1650), Hume (1711-1776), and Kant (1724-1804), advanced skepticism beyond all historical bounds, hence the prefix “hyper.” Then Nietzsche blew up the giant monolith called the West even more.
René Descartes (1596-1650)
He is called the founding father of modern philosophy for good reason. Modern philosophy, especially epistemology, is characterized by heavy doubt. (Epistemology studies how we acquire and define knowledge.) Thus, in his First Meditation he says that he set out on a project to reject everything that is not “plainly certain and indubitable.” In the same way he would reject things that are “patently false,” if he finds a reason for “doubting even the least of them.”
This criterion of discovering truth is extremely high: “plainly certain and indubitable.” This last word means “unable to be doubted.” Elevating certainty to such unattainable heights gives Descartes free rein to doubt anything, even if it is the existence of his body or the outside world. He even doubts the truth of mathematics.
What does he come out with from his systematic doubt? He cannot doubt that he is thinking, a thing that thinks. “I think, therefore I am,” he says elsewhere. Even if he is dreaming, then he thinks and therefore exists, for only a thinking thing can dream. And a thinking thing exists. If an evil genius deceives him, then at least he thinks and therefore exists, for only a thinking thing can be deceived. And anything that can be deceived must exist.
Descartes’ systematic doubt places the individual in the center of existence. How does this impact postmodernism? To apply his doubt to the main topic of this series of articles, how does such doubt affect the interpretation of texts? He seems to have discovered a foundation, the self. And in the rest of his Meditations he works hard to restore certainty. But certain later philosophers conclude that his efforts are unconvincing. He let the hyper-skeptical genie out of the bottle.
David Hume (1711-1776)
Hume also challenges our ability to know with certainty. In his Enquiries concerning Human Understanding, he says, for example, that our knowledge of cause and effect, the basis of science, is not founded on demonstrative knowledge. This high level is reserved only for mathematical proofs, as in geometry. Then what is the basis for our knowledge of cause and effect? Before we answer that, let’s look at some examples of the nexus or connection of cause and effect.
Gravity causes unhindered objects to fall earthward (effect). Water causes salt to dissolve (effect). How do we know cause and effect?
Let’s continue with some of Hume’s examples, can we know that an egg, just by looking at it for the first time, could nourish us? No. If a visitor came to this planet “of a sudden,” says Hume, can he know what would happen to a billiard ball if anyone pushed it on the table? How would the visitor know that it would not go upwards or straight through the table?
The visitor would know its direction only by experience. He would have to play with the billiard ball for a while, rolling the ball down the table to discover what would happen to it. So the foundation of our coming to know cause and effect is experience. And what is the foundation of experience? It is the accumulation of experiences with cause and effect.
And this accumulation Hume calls custom or habit. That is our foundation of our knowledge of science—custom or habit.
This is quite shaky.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Credit goes to Kant for bridging Descartes’ rationalism and Hume’s empiricism, but that is not the central point of this brief survey. In Kant, we find a philosophy that challenges our objective knowledge. He says that our minds constitute and shape the world around us. When our five senses feed the raw data of the outside world into our understanding, it simultaneously organizes the data. This disagrees with the commonsense notion that the outside world is the fountain of our knowledge and that we can come to know the outside world objectively and independent of our mind restructuring it. I use a basic introduction to philosophy to help us navigate the deep waters (Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation: an Historical Introduction to Philosophy, 5th ed. Oxford UP, 2007).
It’s this organizing of the sensory data that separates us from knowing the thing-in-itself, by itself, as it really is.
Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. (Critique of Pure Reason, quoted in Melchert, p. 427)
So far, so good. This is the commonsense notion we all experience (or assume that we have). Objects exist “completely independent of our apprehension of them” (Melchert).
However, Kant is about to reverse or overturn our assumption. After he says that “all attempts at establishing our knowledge of objects . . . have . . . ended in failure,” He overturns the old ways, writing:
We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success . . . if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. (ibid, emphasis added)
“Objects must conform to our knowledge.” That is a remarkable statement. One interpreter of Kant explains:
Perhaps the objects of experience are (at least in part) the result of a construction by a rational mind (Melchert p. 428).
Kant’s philosophy, like that of Descartes and Hume, lands us in the world of uncertainty. Can we know the world of objects without our own minds shaping and constituting those objects? Can we know them as things in themselves? Oliver A. Johnson, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, answers that question in his article “Immanuel Kant,” in Great Thinkers of the Western World, ed. Ian P. McGreal, Harper Collins, 1992. Johnson says:
We can have no knowledge of things as they are in themselves, existing independently in a physical world. (p. 283)
This troubling conclusion means that we cannot separate our subjectivity from how the world exists in its own right. Our near-objective knowledge of the world has frustratingly been pushed back out of reach.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Now we return to philosophy and the one man who was a large stick of dynamite—with its fuse lit—in a crumbling monolith, though only parts of the monolith were weak.
He should not be considered an Enlightenment thinker. Just the opposite. As a philosopher, he has been called the “anti-philosopher.” As a writer, he is frighteningly powerful.
He proclaims that God is dead, so we must create our own morality, that of the Übermensch or Overman or Superman. This is the superior human whose will to power takes him to the top. It’s the logical outworking of evolution without compassion.
So now our focus is on his notion called perspectivism. It means that “every view is only one among many possible interpretations . . . especially Nietzschean perspectivism, which itself is just one interpretation among many interpretations” (Douglas J. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom: an Introduction to Philosophy, 3rd ed. Wadwsorth, 1998, p. 566).
The idea of the ambiguity in interpretations agrees with Kant.
Nietzsche goes on to say in this brief excerpt that facts do not exist, but only interpretations do. He writes:
Everything is Interpretation: . . . Against those who say “There are only facts,” I say, “No, facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations.” We cannot establish any fact in itself. Perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing. (Quoted in Louis P. Pojman, Classics of Philosophy, Oxford UP, 1998, pp. 1015-16, emphasis original)
In the next excerpt Nietzsche says that there is no meaning, but countless meanings.
Insofar as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise. It has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings (Quoted in ibid. emphasis original)
One philosopher puts Nietzsche’s perspectivism in perspective (pardon the pun). Soccio writes:
There is, however, a characteristically postmodern quality to Nietzsche’s perspectivist assertions: By repeatedly calling attention to his own aesthetic perspectivism, Nietzsche models what he asserts in a flagrantly self-referential way. He exuberantly adopts points of view. (Soccio, p. 566, emphasis original)
Still another interpreter of Nietzsche describes the logical outcome of Nietzschean perspectivism. Nehamas says:
Every view is only an interpretation, and . . . as perspectivism holds, there are no independent facts against which various interpretations can be compared . . . If perspectivism is correct and, as it seems to claim, every interpretation creates its own facts, then it may seem impossible to decide whether any interpretation is or is not correct . . . (Alexander Nehamas, quoted in Soccio, p. 566)
So what does all this mean?
For most people none of this means anything, thankfully. But can we depend on our blissful slumber? For a few of us, the heavy and excessive skepticism that masquerades as postmodernism makes the one Book that has influenced Western culture (and other cultures) and has been the guide for hundreds of millions and for the better—makes it unstable and unsecured, cut loose from an anchor of plain meaning. Do we want to lose this fountain of wisdom called the Bible?
The last three hundred-plus years can be characterized as times of uncertainty and instability. The old order has been cracking during this timeframe. Debatably, this ethos or general character was most visible first in philosophy, which then transmogrified other areas, such as politics, social customs, and economics. We lose a solid foundation. We lose our essence as humans. We lose the real world out there, existing objectively and in its own right, apart from and independent of our perceptions and understanding.
In the big picture, the real innovators did not begin in the 1960s, but in the 1870s. The hyper-radicals, particularly of the 1960s, are mere borrowers with only a few twists and turns on old ideas in modernism. They transmogrified it. Wider mass communication gave them a larger audience than early modernists had.
This article updates the Origins of Postmodernism at American Thinker, written in March 2007 (no. 2, below).
For the entire series, please visit these articles posted at americanthinker.com between March 17, 2007 and May 12, 2007.
1. Postmodernism and the Bible: Introduction
2. The Origins of Postmodernism
3. Postmodern Truth Soup
4. Deconstruction: a primer
5. The Deconstructed Jesus
6. The De-Deconstructed Jesus
7. Alternatives to Postmodern Hyper-skepticism
8. Postmodernism and the Bible: Conclusion
You can also read how I have fun with Derrida and deconstruction, here: