Postmodernism 101, Part 3: Hegel’s Dialectic

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.

Previous posts include:

Recap

Reason, truth, and knowledge are meaningless, argue the postmodernists, they are only political oppression.  Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism and its progeny – truth, reason, knowledge, science, individualism, free markets, and liberal democracy.

Enlightenment’s modern philosophy overthrew the Medieval philosophy of faith.  It replaced faith with reason.  It supposed individuals could use perception and reason to know reality.  Modernism produced individualism, science, liberal democracy, free markets, technology, and medicine.

The German Counter-Enlightenment reacted against Enlightenment’s threats to replace religion and community with a godless, soulless, amoral machine.  Immanuel Kant struck a blow in defense of religion.  He took logic’s razor to cut away objectivity, leaving only subjective reality.  Reason staggered on, half-blind.

Reunited
hegelGeorg W. F. Hegel

German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel, like Kant, was a defender of the faith.  Hegel marked an even further break from Enlightenment thinking.  His work had profound, lasting effects on the world.

Hegel thought Kant’s defense of religion to be intolerable.  Kant separated man (the subject) from reality (the object).  In doing so, Kant denied universal truths.  This seemed no defense of religion, at all.

Hegel sought to restore universal truths (to defend religion) with a different strategy.  He would reunite man and reality by reuniting the subject with the object.

Reason Redefined

Hegel aimed to reunite man with reality by changing the perspective and redefining terms.  Enlightenment philosophy supposed that the subject (man) perceived the object (reality).  We were cut off from objective reality and universal truths.  We constructed subjective reality in our minds.

Hegel changed that perspective.  He redefined the “subject”.  The subject is not the individual, but the whole universe.  The individual is only a part.  Hegel agreed with Kant that reality comes from us.  But, he broke with Kant, arguing that we can know all of reality (universal truths) because it comes from us.

Hegel redefined reason.  Reason creates reality.  So, reason is a creative function, not a cognitive one.

Dialectic

Hegel broke western logical traditions.  Enlightenment reason argued in terms of traditional Aristotelian logic.  This logic questioned contradictions in Christian dogma:

  • How can God create something from nothing?
  • How can God be both one and three (the Trinity)?
  • How can a loving God create a world that contains evil?

Reason contains contradictions, Hegel answered, and reason must give way for them.  Logical contradictions are a problem for reason, he argued, only if we make them one.  The answer is to redefine reason, Hegel said.

  • The universe can have a beginning and be eternal.
  • God can be both one and three.
  • Loving God can create evil.

Hegel’s dialectical reasoning dispensed with individualism.  Reason’s contradictions create tensions and clash in a process of evolution, he said. Deeper universal forces act through and upon individuals, who are shaped by evolving cultures.  Universal reason realizes itself, without regard to individuals, Hegel wrote.

Hegel’s work was a major assault on Enlightenment and modern philosophy:

  • Reality.  Reality is entirely subjective.  We create reality.  Reality and reason contain contradictions.
  • Human Nature.  We have no autonomy or free will.  Culture and universal forces act through us.
  • Values. We value the collective (not the individual).  Truth is relative and constantly evolving.

Hegel’s themes of contradiction, conflict, collectivism, and relativism profoundly affected history.

Commentary

Hegel’s Counter-Enlightenment seems much a reactionary counter-revolution.  He seems to restore the Medieval philosophy of faith, in part.  He threw down individualism from its lofty perch, and restored unseen God to his throne.  Individuals were but serfs or puppets, dancing for God and other invisible forces.

Hegel’s vision differed from Medieval philosophy in other ways.  Medieval faith supposed a relatively stable divine order that changed slowly.  Hegel’s faith proposed something chaotic – ever changing, evolution, revolution.  He left God’s throne on shifting sands, amidst a whirling cyclone.

Next

German Counter-Enlightenment opens a new front: irrationalism.  Next: Part 4, Staring into the Abyss.

Postmodernism 101, Part 2: Objectivity is Dead

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks,  Professor of Philosophy, at Rockford College.  His excellent book goes into great detail, exploring postmodernism and its origins.

Previous posts include:

Recap

Reason, truth, and knowledge are meaningless, argue the postmodernists, they are only political oppression.  In Marxist tradition, postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism and its progeny – truth, reason, knowledge, science, individualism, free markets, and liberal democracy.

The Age of Enlightenment’s modern philosophy overthrew the Medieval philosophy of faith.  Modernism replaced faith with reason.  Individuals could use perception and reason to know reality.  Reason produced individualism and science.  Individualism produced liberal democracy and free markets.  Science produced technology and medicine.

Counter-Enlightenment Strikes Back
immanuel-kantImmanuel Kant

Postmodernism’s seeds were sown during the Age of Enlightenment.  There was a Counter-Enlightenment, a reaction to modernism – both to defend faith and to criticize modernism’s logical flaws.  The Counter-Enlightenment planted the seeds of postmodernism.

Enlightenment thought helped make England into a powerhouse.  Continental Europe took notice.  The French followed, for a time.  Many Germans were troubled. The Enlightenment threatened politics, religion, community, and morality.

Enlightenment reason and individualism threatened to replace religion with a godless, soulless, amoral machine.

  • Gone was a personal God, replaced by a distant, disconnected abstraction.
  • Gone were faith, religious answers, and the human spirit, replaced by logic, causation and mechanical necessity.
  • Gone was morality and community, replaced by the selfish pursuit of happiness.

The German Counter-Enlightenment gathered its forces.  Its progeny would include existentialism, nihilism, Marxism, Nazism, communism, and postmodernism.

Objectivity is Dead

German philosopher Immanuel Kant was a defender of the faith.  He attacked Enlightenment reason in order to defend religion.  “I here therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith,” Kant wrote.  In defense of faith, he struck reason a crippling blow.

Reason is clueless about objective reality, Kant argued.  Our reason is limited by our subjective perceptions and understanding. Our perceptions are subjective.  Our understanding is subjective.  Therefore, we cannot know objective reality.

Our perceptions are subjective, said Kant.  Our sense perceptions are not reality.  They are only internal representations of reality.  Our sense organs veil reality.

Our understandings are subjective, Kant contended.  Our understandings are even further removed from reality than our perceptions.  We construct our understandings from artificial concepts.  “We always remain involved in conditions” that make our experiences, he said.

Kant rejected knowledge to protect faith.  We cannot know objective reality, he concluded.  Reason and science are cut off from reality.  Truth exists only inside our brains.  Thus, science cannot disprove God.

Anti-Reason

Kant struck a blow against reason, in a major break from Enlightenment thought.  The results might be:

  • Reality.  We know objective subjective reality because reason and perception are subjective.  Our organs of consciousness are obstacles to consciousness.
  • Human Nature.  We have the autonomous limited capacity or the illusion of capacity to form our own character.
  • Values. The individual is might be the unit of value.  Universal principles are subjective.

Kant made powerful, logical arguments against reason.  He separated object from subject, and reason from reality. Modern ideas about reason, truth, and knowledge are called into question.

Commentary

Kant turned reason (logic) against itself.  Objectivity had stood on shaky legs.  Kant took logic’s razor and cut objectivity’s legs from under it.  The fight left reason wobbling – and blind in one eye.  Science could see only part of the truth.

Next

The German Counter-Enlightenment launches a counter-revolution.  Next: Part 3, Hegel’s Dialectic.

Postmodernism 101, Part 1: Truth is Dead

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  Prof. Jordan B. Peterson sees postmodernism as an existential threat.  Prof. John Vervaeke suggests that the plague of postmodernism has brought a zombie apocalypse upon us.

What is postmodernism?  The following is the first in a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks,  Professor of Philosophy, at Rockford College.  His excellent book goes into great detail, exploring postmodernism and its origins.

Previous posts:

Intro: The Trouble with Zombies

Truth is Dead
jacques-derridaJacques Derrida

Reason, truth, and knowledge are meaningless, argued French philosopher Michel Foucault.  Reason, he claimed, is the ultimate language of madness.

Postmodernism offers no truth or knowledge, said American philosopher Richard Rorty, because there is no truth.  Postmodernism cannot claim to be “right” or correspond with reality, he said, because there are no such things.  The postmodernist has no obligation to be “right”, agreed American legal scholar Stanley Fish, only to be “interesting”.

Reason, truth, and reality are just power and oppression, wrote French philosopher Francois Lyotard, the same as prisons and prohibitions. Postmodernism is a strategy against reason, power, and oppression.

andrea-dworkinAndrea Dworkin

Reason oppresses women, argued feminist legal critics Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.  Sex between man and woman is a predatory “act of invasion and ownership”, argued Dworkin, “He owns you inside and out”.  Pornography is not free speech, MacKinnon and Dworkin agreed, but political oppression.

karl-marxKarl Marx

The West disguises political oppression, claimed Foucault.  Oppression is naked only in its prisons, he said, “brutal tyranny”, in the guise of “serene domination of Good over Evil, of order over disorder”.

Postmodernism is Marxist, admitted French postmodernist Jacques Derrida.  It is a tool for “radicalization … within the tradition of a certain Marxism in a certain spirit of Marxism,” he said.

Postmodern Philosophy

Postmodernism is a philosophy that denies being one.  Philosophies rest on assumptions:

  • Reality.  How do we define reality?  What is knowledge?
  • Human nature.  What is it to be human?
  • Values.  What are our values (ethics)?

Postmodernism rests on philosophical assumptions:

  • Reality.  We cannot use reason to know objective reality.  Reality is subjective (artificial).  Society uses language to “construct” reality.  Knowledge is meaningless because we lack truth and reality.
  • Human nature.  Society uses language to construct our group identities (gender, ethnicity, class).  Society is conflict.  Society’s powerful (oppressors) use force against the weak (oppressed).
  • Values.  We value fighting against oppressors on behalf of the oppressed.

Postmodern philosophy rejects modern philosophy.

Modernism

Modernism arose during the Age of Enlightenment (the Age of Reason).  It gave birth to liberal government, capitalism, science, technology, and modern medicine.

Before this, Medieval Europe was dominated by the philosophy of faith:

  • Reality.  We know reality based on tradition, faith, and mysticism.
  • Human nature.  We are defined by original sin and are subjects of God’s will.
  • Values.  Individuals are subordinate to divinely ordained political, social, and religious hierarchies. We value altruistic service to others.

Modernism replaced the philosophy of faith, which had been succumbing to Renaissance and Reform thought.  Modern philosophy arose:

  • Reality.  We know objective reality by using reason and perception of nature.
  • Human nature.  Individuals are a unit of reality.  Our minds are sovereign.  We have the autonomous capacity to form our own character (free will).
  • Values.  The individual is the unit of value.
isaac-newtonIsaac Newton

Modernism emphasized reason.  John Locke made reason the key to individualism – individual ethics, individual rights, political equality, and justice.  Enlightenment thinkers, like Isaac Newton, made reason the key to science.  Science produced technology and medicine.

Modernism emphasized individualism.  Individualism in politics produced liberal democracy and ultimately led to the demise of slavery.  Individualism in economics produced free markets and capitalism.

Modernism’s views grew and dominated: nature, reason, science, individualism, and liberalism.  People became more free, lived longer, and suffered less.

Death to Modernism

Postmodernism attacks the philosophical foundations of modern Western society, and all that flows from it.  It attacks the foundation of truth, reason, and knowledge.  It attacks the edifices of individualism, science, markets, and liberal politics.

richard-rortyRichard Rorty

Postmodernism seeks to throw down Western society and replace it.  The question for postmodernists is how to proceed, now that “The Age of Faith and the Enlightenment seem beyond recovery,” Rorty stated.

Postmodernist philosophy had little influence in philosophy.  It has had greater influence in education.

  • Literary criticism.  Literary texts have no objective meaning.  They have subjective meaning to the reader.  We can deconstruct them to reveal the author’s biases – racism, misogyny, patriarchy.
  • Legal theory.  Legal Pragmatists argue against universal theories of law or legal principles are illusory.  Critical Legal Theorists reject objective or neutral readings of laws or precedent as fraudulent.  The law, they argue, is a weapon of coercion that serves white males.
  • Education.  The purpose of education is not to develop cognitive reasoning ability.  Its purpose is to mold social identities that are sensitive on issues of race, gender, and class; and to overthrow the powerful and the privileged.

Postmodernism attacks Western culture.  Some complaints have seeds of truth.  Others seem absurd, even comical, but are no laughing matter.

  • The US is not based on liberty, equality, and opportunity, but on sexism, racism, and class oppression.
  • We should not be judged by the content of our character, but affirmed based on our race or gender.
  • The West is not leading the world to freedom, but to oppression and exploitation.
  • Science does not work to make us better off.  Instead, it is elitist and sexist, and represents rape culture (full of phallic symbols, conquering and penetrating nature).  It privileges the speed of light over other speeds.
Totalitarian Power

Postmodernism’s Marxist assault on the modern West has been ongoing for decades.  Postmodernism pervades education and the humanities.  It claims no reason, no truth, no morality.  It is unprincipled, uncompromising, and promotes unthinking hate and division.  Postmodernism seeks one thing: totalitarian power.

Commentary

Postmodernism underlies Prof. Vervaeke’s zombie apocalypse metaphor.  Zombie mythology resonates with us, he says, because it expresses a collective unconscious idea that something has gone very wrong.  Zombies have lost thought and meaning, identity and community.  They wander aimlessly, attacking and destroying meaning.  This zombie apocalypse looks quite postmodern.

Postmodernism is also central to Ted Kaczynski’s Unabomber Manifesto.  Kaczynski attacked Industrial Society as a threat to man and nature.  He more harshly attacked postmodern Leftism.  They oppose science and technology only until they gain power, he warned.  Then, these become tools for totalitarianism.  Otherwise, postmodernism resembles Kaczynski’s strategy for toppling Industrial Society.

Next

How did this come about?  Next: Part 2, Objectivity is Dead

The Trouble with Zombies

Zombies are a real problem, a real crisis, and a real threat.  Each of us must act or zombies may destroy us all.

What are zombies?

walking-dead-comic

The popular television show, The Walking Dead offers a useful guide to zombies:

  • Everybody (living or dead) is infected.
  • The infection can sicken and kill the living; and reanimates the dead.
  • The dead mindlessly wander in packs, driven by insatiable hunger, spreading death and destruction.
  • The living face choices:
    • Is life worth living?
    • Why? What’s the point?
    • At what cost?

At its best, the show explores these deep questions.

A real problem

Professor John Vervaeke, psychology professor and cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto, suggests that zombie popularity points to a real problem.

  • We use stories/myths to express difficult ideas.
  • The zombie myth expresses an idea that there is a problem – something going very wrong.
  • The zombie myth is popular because the problem is real and pervasive.

A real crisis

Zombies symbolize the real crisis – a meaning crisis, says Vervaeke, our lack of meaning (purpose).

  • Zombies lose the capacity for meaning (cannot think, cannot speak).
  • Zombies are mindless consumers who attack and destroy meaning. (They kill the living and eat the brains that give meaning.)
  • Zombies are adrift, wandering aimlessly, with no sense of belonging (no home).
  • Zombies have no personal responsibility because they lack self-awareness.
  • Zombies have no community responsibility because they have no community, only the herd – a destructive mob.

Viewers can offer the survivors little advice, says Vervaeke, because we are trapped with them.

A real threat

The meaning crisis threatens us with annihilation, in a very real sense, unless we confront it.  In a sense, the post-modern world is the zombie apocalypse.

It takes courage even to name the problem.  The word “zombie” is almost never spoken in zombie stories, says Vervaeke.  We struggle to identify and confront the problem because this requires standing against popular postmodern thinking.

  • This leaves us without (spiritual) meaning and (ultimate) purpose, and the capacity to think/speak in those terms.
  • Materialism is unsatisfying, while scientific rationalism attacks the institutions that give (spiritual) meaning.
  • This leaves us adrift, aimless, with no sense of belonging.
  • Personal responsibility erodes, as moral traditions are replaced with ideologies that reject morality and responsibility.
  • The community (society, family) decays, replaced with unthinking and destructive mobs.

antifa-anarchists-with-murderous-soviet-flag
So, the post-modern world is the zombie apocalypse.

  • We are the infected.
  • Our postmodern infection sickens us and threatens to kill us.
  • Postmodern thinking leads nowhere but death and destruction.
  • Without meaning (purpose, values, morality), life feels pointless – like its not worth living.

An answer

We must build a meaningful civilization, says Vervaeke.

  • We must each help our self before we can help others.
  • None of us can save the world, but each can save our self and help others.

How do we find meaning and purpose?  Is it really that important?  This post is the first in a series on meaning and purpose.

Next: Postmodernism Part 1, Truth is Dead