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A Peek at Postmodernism

August 15, 2010

Justin has suggested that we have a serious attempt to blog about and understand postmodernism. I thought I’d start out by setting out my understanding of one aspect of it.

Firstly, what is postmodernism? The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy tells us:

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism.

Not so helpful. So I’ll turn to Ideas that Matter by A.C. Grayling:

If you are a relativist about values, if you are sceptical about Enlightenment ideals of liberal humanism, if you are a pessimist about progress, if you lack confidence in the idea of a ‘grand narrative’ premised on the belief that liberty and knowledge can be made to increase by the endeavour of mankind while human suffering and tribulation concomitantly diminish, then you are a paid-up ‘postmodernist’.

I’ll return to what Grayling has to say about this position at some point, but for now I want to focus on one aspect of it that (at the moment) I take particular issue with – relativism.

Relativism in its purest form is the claim that all truth is relative. By “truth” I don’t mean a simple statement like “it is sunny today”; that may indeed be true for me but false for you without being contradictory. The truth claims we’re interested in are those about which we would have a serious disagreement if we held opposing views; “lying is wrong” or “acupuncture works”. These are statements about which it is much more interesting to disagree.

This “pure” relativism stumbles at the first hurdle, losing to an argument that I think Plato gave somewhere. If all truth is relative, then surely the statement “all truth is relative”, which is itself a truth claim, is relative. This simple argument shows that pure relativism cannot work.

There’s an obvious workaround for the relativist, which is to say that not all truth is relative, just some subset of it. We can then put relativism into the set of non-relative truths and we’re safe.

So, for example, a moral relativist might say that moral truths are relative. This doesn’t suffer from the immediate refutation given above. However, it suffers from a similar problem. If I say that all moral truths are relative, then I have to admit that I cannot condemn the actions of another culture as being morally wrong. So the moral relativist cannot condemn the actions of, lets say, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge.

I cannot imagine a modern ethical system in which this is possible being acceptable. So we have to further erode the relativist position. Sure some moral truths are relative, but there are other moral truths that are universal. Now, I don’t feel comfortable with this position, but I haven’t come up with an objection that I feel happy with yet. Something to think about.

I think a lot of relativist positions suffer from this contradictory nature. Take for example “scientific” relativism, the position that logic, reasoning and empiricism are just one possible route to truth. I assume that proponents of this position try to justify it, and do so by using some form of reasoning… This form of relativism isn’t just an abstract academic exercise unfortunately. It’s all to real in current Western culture, where the scientific method is seen by some as a “Western” imposition. So for example we have homoeopaths arguing that the randomised controlled trial isn’t the correct way to judge the efficacy of their treatments (this is mainly because they show they don’t work). There is however a practical argument against this form of relativism. For example, how many planes that are in the air right now have been designed and built by an alternative truth system from the “Western” scientific method?

One final point about relativism. It seems to me that in society today there is a tendency to accept the position that in order to be tolerant to others (and to be “PC”) we have to adopt a relativist position with regards to their beliefs, customs etc. I’m not comfortable with this. What does this relativism have to say about a group of people that believe that we shouldn’t be tolerant to a particular group of people (say, for instance, the extreme Muslim position on women’s rights)? Surely in order to accept that there is a universal need for tolerance we have to reject the relativist position?

So that’s where I stand on relativism right now. I think it’s a poor position, and I can see some (superficial?) objections to it, but I don’t think I’m in a position to legitimately reject it outright just yet.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    August 15, 2010 6:07 PM

    The Stanford Encyclopedia entry looks good. I am in the process of giving it a thorough read, top to bottom, now. I’m especially excited to read Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols.”

    One of the things we are going to have to be careful about is making Postmodernism or relativism play by our rules. In particular, statements aren’t being made in a western, rationalist framework for thinking. Consequently, the axiom-deduction (definition-theorem-proof) doesn’t seem applicable. Does Postmodernism make any statements of universal truth? Does it operate according to some internal logic (even if it is non-boolean or rejects law of excluded middle)? These we should keep in mind.

    The rejection of pure relativism is faulty. It is the liar paradox in slightly different language. Is the statement “There are no universal truths” true? Is exactly the problem that occurs in “This statement is not true” – except instead of quantifying over all statements, which includes itself, the Liar refers just to itself. Since there is no satisfactory solution of the Liar, we should reject the argument as being part of a larger, more insidious problem.

    Let’s read on.

  2. August 15, 2010 7:28 PM

    Yep, the entry certainly looks good. Looking forward to trying to get to grips with it during the week.

    In what sense does the axiom-deduction method not seem applicable? Are we not going to be basing a theory about the world on evidence of one sort or another? I’m interested to see how else we might go about talking about it. We shall see!

    I do think we need to be careful when looking at postmodernism. Ophelia Benson warns that:

    It’s also arguable that obfuscation is what postmodernism is all about. Clouds of squid ink in the form of jargon, mathematical equations whose relevance is obscure, peacock displays of name dropping, misappropriation and misapplication of scientific theories are often seen in postmodernist ‘discourse’. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Heisenberg, Einstein, Godel, Wittgenstein are hauled in and cited as saying things they didn’t say…

    Finally, I don’t see why the argument I gave refuting pure relativism doesn’t work; relativism in this form it isn’t a consistent statement. If someone said it to me in an argument I’d accuse them of talking rubbish – it simply can’t be true. Admittedly, my mathematical logic training isn’t quite as good as yours, but even so…

  3. Justin permalink
    August 17, 2010 5:09 PM

    You’re right, my claim that it is the Liar re-cast is rubbish.

    The problem as I see it is that Pure Relativism is just trying to say that what you consider to be true is dependent on your axioms, which might be different for someone else. In it’s strongest form it might say that there are no truths (interpretations) consistent with every possible choice of axioms. This is a meta-statement about systems of logic and inference, so it isn’t claiming to be its own statement, derivable from some set of axioms. Of course, that statement is a meta-meta-statement and so it goes, until (unfortunately) Tarski’s fixed-point property occurs and we reach a level where the metas stabilize and consequently get a language that can refer to itself. All this gets messy and I don’t know enough logic to make sense of these issues. [As a final aside, I will mention a weird thing about truth. By Godel’s Incompleteness we know there are formal systems with statements that are true, but not provable. Consequently, there should be things true-independent-of-axioms. How do we access these truths?]

    Besides, we don’t need pure relativism to get post-modernism (pomo) off the ground.

    However, I want to get back to the issue of logic. From the SEP article on pomo:

    According to Nietzsche, the moral sense of the “I” as an identical cause is projected onto events in the world, where the identity of things, causes, effects, etc., takes shape in easily communicable representations. Thus logic is born from the demand to adhere to common social norms which shape the human herd into a society of knowing and acting subjects.

    So here we are told that logic is a basically a social convention. I don’t think it follows from what comes before, but it does seem to be the case that concepts are social norms and any attempt to interpret logical statements in terms of these concepts is bound to be loaded with cultural norms. In it’s more fundamental form we start to run against a problem Kant and others considered, which is to what extent we impose structure on our perceptions? How do we get to know things in-themselves? Finally, (I am in a rush here) let me convey a fun legal puzzle that illustrates how our concepts of causality and ethics are not so clear cut:

    Ann is going for a long hike with her canteen of water. Bill, without Ann’s knowledge, empties her canteen and fills it with poison. Ann begins to hike, but before her first drink, Bob steals her canteen, thinking it is water. Ann dies of dehydration. Who is responsible?

  4. August 17, 2010 7:17 PM

    Will have a think about the rest of your comment, but the puzzle that you gave…

    At the risk of giving the naive answer, I’d go with Bob being responsible for Ann’s death (and presumably Bill being responsible for Bob’s death after he drinks the poison). Ann’s death has nothing to do with the actions of Bill and everything to do with the actions of Bob.

    I am now prepared to be told why it isn’t this simple…

  5. Justin permalink
    August 19, 2010 8:50 PM

    I agree with your answer. However one of the classic definitions of causality, i.e. C causes E, is that if C hadn’t occurred then E wouldn’t have occurred. If naively we put C to be Bob’s stealing of Ann’s water and E as Ann’s death, then the definition fails, because she would have died by poisoning.

    David Lewis (famous philosopher, now dead) wrote a whole series of papers on this subject (except with two rocks thrown at a glass bottle, one slightly ahead of the other) and he based his analysis on counterfactuals. When Lewis address this issue of redundant causality, he says that one event is different from the other.

    This specification works very well in the Ann-Bob-Bill story. Dehydration and Poisoning are two different events. In the eyes of the law the first is either no crime or manslaughter at worst and the latter is almost always murder or suicide. With this degree of specificity we get the desired causation. I actually wrote a paper on how certain areas of science might render causation a useless notion. I might post it somewhere for your reading leisure.

  6. August 30, 2010 6:58 AM


    Sorry about the delay in replying, finally managed to battle my way through a bad out of food poisoning. I’d be very interested in seeing the paper you wrote if you put it online somewhere for me.

    Not managed to read too much about postmodernism yet… I get bogged down in the excess verbiage and head back to more comforting philosophy. I will get around to finishing the stanford entry soon though!

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