To many timid, albeit sincere, souls of an earlier century, the decay of the doctrine that all true and worthful science is knowledge of final causes seemed fraught with danger to science and to morals. The rival conception of a wide open universe, a universe without bounds in time or space, without final limits of origin or destiny, a universe with the lid off, was a menace. We now face in moral science a similar crisis and like opportunity, as well as share in a like dreadful suspense.
It is difficult to think of a topic of greater concern than the nature of truth. Indeed, truth and the knowledge thereof are the very rails upon which people ought to live their lives. And over the centuries, the classic correspondence theory of truth has outlived most of its critics. But these are postmodern times, or so we are often told, and the classic model, once ensconced deeply in the Western psyche, must now be replaced by a neopragmatist or some other anti-realist model of truth, at least for those concerned with the rampant victimization raging all around us. Thus, “we hold these truths to be self evident” now reads “our socially constructed selves arbitrarily agree that certain chunks of language are to be esteemed in our linguistic community.” Something has gone wrong here, and paraphrasing the words of Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, “We came, we saw, and we conked out!”
Like most post-modernist professors of jargon, Caputo isn’t ever clear about anything, but he appears here to be saying that reason itself is “socially constructed,” and therefore subjective or arbitrary, or something. The close corollary is that language is also “socially constructed” and just a tool for power. Whenever I meet such people I have two questions: Why are we having this conversation — if in fact we really can’t talk to each other? Moreover, if language is an arbitrary social construction, then how are we having this conversation? May I answer by interpretive dance instead of sounds from my mouth? Why not?
A Newtonian might put it this way: for every myth there is an equal and opposite myth. Consider popular accounts of Christianity’s relations to science. Everyone is familiar with the myth that popes, bishops, priests, ministers, and pastors all saw it as a sacred duty to silence scientists, stymie their inquiries, and stifle their innovations. Lately, a new account of Christianity’s link to science has been put forth, opposite in attitude to the first but equally bold and, in the end, equally wrong. In this account, not only did Christianity not quash science, but it and it alone gave birth to modern science and nurtured it to maturity. And the world is a far better place for it.
The “blind spot” metaphor is ubiquitous to the point that we hear it with a yawn. But my accident reminded me that, while the familiarity of the metaphor may dull its impact, it is a powerful hidden factor of everyday life. Whether one is driving, theologizing, or debating social issues and public policy, blind spots are pervasive and dangerous. We are often too lazy to crank our necks for the full truth. It’s easier to keep looking ahead and assume all is well. It seems easier—until we crash.
Modernity is a period, a mindset, and a malaise. The period begins with the French Revolution in 1789. The mindset is that ethos reflected by an elitist intellectual class of “change agents” positioned in universities, the press, and in influential sectors of the liberal church. This elite continually touts the tenets of modernity, whose four fundamental values are moral relativism (which says that what is right is dictated by culture, social location, and situation), autonomous individualism (which assumes that moral authority comes essentially from within), narcissistic hedonism (which focuses on egocentric personal pleasure), and reductive naturalism (which reduces what is reliably known to what one can see, hear, and empirically investigate). The malaise of modernity is related to the rapidly deteriorating influence of these four central values between roughly 1955 and 1985. … Anybody who knows the modern university knows that we have gone far beyond modernity. We left it behind in 1968. It is only a matter of catching up with where history is taking us. We must now learn how to live with the consequences of the failure of those assumptions and values. This is the challenge of the postmodern period.
A fascinating journey through Western civilization’s ongoing attempts to understand and explain the concept of God. Celebrated religion scholar Armstrong (The Bible: A Biography, 2007, etc.) creates more than a history of religion; she effectively demonstrates how the West (broadly speaking) has grappled with the existence of deity and captured the concept in words, art and ideas. Beginning in the majestic caves of Lascaux, Armstrong explores how religion became a meaningful part of prehistoric societies, and the ways in which these societies passed down their practices and ideas in the earliest forms of art. The author then moves on to early monotheism and its rivals, offering a brilliant examination of ancient Greek views on religion and reason, which laid the groundwork for so much of Western thought. Looking at the early Christians and Diaspora-era Jews in tandem, Armstrong delves into Talmudic study and midrash, as well as Christian adaptations of theological concepts. Throughout the book, the author argues against religion as an abstraction, noting that it most truly exists in practice. "Faith . . . was a matter of practical insight and active commitment," she writes. "It had little to do with abstract belief or theological conjecture." Nevertheless, scholars have always attempted to define and "prove" God, and Armstrong admirably outlines the best of them through the centuries, including Origen, Anselm, Pascal and Tillich. Armstrong claims that the "warfare" between science and religion is a myth perpetuated by those with axes to grind. Likewise, the modern atheist movement, "death of God" theology and even fundamentalism arise from extremists who see religion as correct doctrine,not correct praxis. Though mostly focused on the West, Armstrong maintains a global perspective, masterfully weaving in her solid understanding of the world’s panoply of faiths. Accessible, intriguing study of how we see God. ~ Kirkus Reviews
However all this may be, some might think that the resurgence of natural theology in our time is merely so much labor lost. For don’t we live in a postmodern culture in which appeals to such apologetic arguments are no longer effective? Rational arguments for the truth of theism are no longer supposed to work. Some Christians therefore advise that we should simply share our narrative and invite people to participate in it. This sort of thinking is guilty of a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture. The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that’s not postmodernism; that’s modernism! That’s just old-line verificationism, which held that anything you can’t prove with your five senses is a matter of personal taste. We live in a culture that remains deeply modernist.
In this essay, Lewis takes as his subject the thesis presented by two unnamed schoolmasters in what he calls “The Green Book”: that our value judgments refer only to our own sentiments and never to any intrinsic worth in the objects we judge (i.e. subjectivism). He is concerned as to what this will mean for the education of English children, and this essay constitutes one part of Lewis’ Abolition of Man, subtitled “Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools”. In the authors’ seemingly innocent and casual subjectification of value there is a subversive outcome: “I do not mean, of course, that [the schoolboy] will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial. The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.” The Green Book’s authors analyze a piece of banal and deceptive advertising. But, Lewis notes, the authors have effectively precluded any normative judgment of the ad, for a similiar judgment upon Johnson, Wordsworth, or Virgil could be no less an accurate description of a reader’s sentiments, and there is no other quality to which to appeal. Lewis ends with this oft-cited poetic prose: “And all the time — such is the tragicomedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” His argument continues in “The Way”. ~ Afterall
Postmodernism is both a historical, chronological notion and a philosophical ideology. Understood historically, postmodernism refers to a period of thought that follows and is a reaction to the period called modernity. Modernity is the period of European thought that developed out of the Renaissance (1300-1550) and flourished in the Enlightenment (c. 1650-1800) in the ideas of people like Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, and Kant. In the chronological sense, postmodernism is sometimes called "post modernism." So understood, it is fair to say that postmodernism is often guilty of a simplistic characterization of modernity because the thinkers in that period were far from monolithic. Indeed, Descartes, Hume, and Kant have elements in their thought that are more at home in postmodernism than they are in the so-called modern era. Nevertheless, setting historical accuracy aside, the chronological notion of postmodernism depicts it as an era that began in and, in some sense, replaces modernity.¶ As a philosophical standpoint, postmodernism is primarily a reinterpretation of what knowledge is and what counts as knowledge. More broadly, it represents a form of cultural relativism about such things as reality, truth, reason, value, linguistic meaning, the self, and other notions. On a postmodernist view there is no such thing as objective reality, truth, value, reason, and so forth. All these are social constructions, creations of linguistic practices and, as such, are relative not to individuals but to social groups that share a narrative. Roughly, a narrative is a perspective such as Marxism, atheism, or Christianity that is embedded in the group’s social and linguistic practices.
Put simply, postmodernism is self-refuting. Postmodernists appear to claim that their own assertions about the modern era, about how language and consciousness work, and so forth are true and rational; and they write literary texts and protest when people misinterpret the authorial intent in their own writings. In these and other ways postmodernism seems to be self-refuting. ¶ Sometimes postmodernists respond by denying that they take their own assertions and writing to be true, rational, constituted by their own authorial intent, and so forth. If these claims are correct, then they would, indeed, save postmodernism from self-refutation. But this response must be rejected. When one actually reads carefully postmodernist writings, it is hard to avoid the impression that they do, indeed, present themselves as true, rational, and so on. In this sense, though on the defensive, postmodernists may deny that their writings exhibit these features; nevertheless an examination of those writings seems to undermine those denials.
[P]ostmodernism leads to the institutionalization of anger. Postmodernists are preoccupied with power struggles that surround language use and social practice, and they see themselves as part of a missionary movement to liberate powerless, oppressed victims from dominance. They often practice a "hermeneutics of suspicion" in which they interpret body language, speech, and written communication not in terms of the communicators’ own intentions but in terms of their attempt to victimize and dominate "the other" as understood according to the postmodernists’ interpretive agenda (e.g. feminism, gay rights, and so forth). To be sure, power issues are a legitimate aspect of language, though one hardly needs postmodernism to see this. But by making power struggles and victimization a central focus of the postmodern crusade, the movement dignifies anger by institutionalizing it and placing it on ideological high ground, and it creates anger by fostering relational suspicion according to which there is a victimizer under every linguistic tree.
What is postmodernism? The answer to this question is sometimes offered as a historical thesis: postmodernism has been variously described as a kind of post– (after-) modern condition and is sometimes even linked to particular historical events such as student riots in 1968, the abandonment of the gold standard, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or, to be specific, 3:32 p.m. on July 15, 1972! Each candidate for the advent of postmodernism relies on an account of the supposed collapse of modernity. Trying to pinpoint the advent of the postmodern condition by linking it to a historical epoch, particular event, or even a particular cultural sphere (architecture, literature, music, visual arts) seems counterproductive, given the widespread disagreement about such historical claims. Further, it seems naïve to think that a Zeitgeist like postmodernism could be spawned by a single event. Instead of trying to pinpoint its historical origin or essence, I want to unpack an assumption that most commentators on postmodernism seem to share in common: postmodernism, whether monster or savior, is something that has come slouching out of Paris.
Deconstruction’s recognition that everything is interpretation opens a space of questioning — a space to call into question the received and dominant interpretations that often claim not to be interpretations that have been silenced. This is the constructive, yea prophetic, aspect of Derrida’s deconstruction: a concern for justice by being concerned about dominant, status quo interpretations that silence those who see differently. Thus, from its inception, deconstruction has been, at root, ethical — concerned for the paradigmatic marginalized described by the Old Testament as “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.” To put it differently: Wall Street and Washington both want us to think that their rendering of the world is “just the way things are.” Deconstruction, by showing the way in which everything is interpretation, empowers us to question the interpretations of trigger-happy presidents and greedy CEOs — in a way not unlike the prophets’ questioning of the dominant interpretations of the of the world.
What characterizes the postmodern condition, then, is not a rejection of grand stories in terms of scope or in the sense of epic claims, but rather an unveling of the fact that all knowledge is rooted in some narrative or myth… The result, however… is what Lyotard describes as a “problem of legitimation”… since what we thought were universal criteria have been unveiled as just one game among many. If we consider, for instance, the reality of deep moral diversity and competing visions of the good, postmodern society is at a loss to adjudicate the competing claims. There can be no appeal to a higher court that would transcend a historical context or a language game, no neutral observer or “God’s-eye view” that can legitimate or justify one paradigm or moral language game above another. If all moral claims are conditioned by paradigms of historical commitment, then they cannot transcend those conditions; thus every moral claim operates within a “logic” that is conditioned by the paradigm. In other words, every language game has its own set of rules. As a result, criteria that determine what constitutes evidence or proof must be game relative: they will function as rules only for those who share the same paradigm or participate in the same language game. The incommensurability of language games means that there is a plurality of logics that precludes any demonstrative appeal to a common reason. Recognition of the incommensurability of langauge games and the plurality of competing myths means that there is no consensus, no sensus communis. Many ? especially Christians ? lament this state of affairs… But is the problem as bad as we think? … In the face of this problem, we must not lose sight of the fact that what constitutes the postmodern condition is precisely a plurality of language games ? a condition in which no one story can claim either universal auto-legitimation (because of the plurality of “the people”) nor appeal to a phantom universal reason (because reason is just one myth among others, which is itself rooted in a narrative). And this plurality is based on the fact that each game is grounded in different narratives or myths (i.e. founding beliefs).
It is worth considering the strange media landscape in which political talk radio is a salient. Never before have there been so many different national news sources — different now in terms of both medium and ideology. Major newspapers from anywhere are available online; there are the broadcast networks plus public TV, cable’s CNN, Fox News, CNBC, et al., print and Web magazines, Internet bulletin boards, The Daily Show, e-mail newsletters, blogs. All this is well known; it’s part of the Media Environment we live in. But there are prices and ironies here. One is that the increasing control of U.S. mass media by a mere handful of corporations has — rather counterintuitively — created a situation of extreme fragmentation, a kaleidoscope of information options. Another is that the ever increasing number of ideological news outlets creates precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which “the truth” is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda. In some respects all this variety is probably good, productive of difference and dialogue and so on. But it can also be confusing and stressful for the average citizen. Short of signing on to a particular mass ideology and patronizing only those partisan news sources that ratify what you want to believe, it is increasingly hard to determine which sources to pay attention to and how exactly to distinguish real information from spin.
Post-modernists know many ways to disparage and eliminate claims to truth in all of these dimensions. If history (as assessment of what actually happened) is infinitely malleable at the behest of the powerful, if moral suppositions about what histories are important to recover, are arbitrary, if personal experience has nothing to do with collective acknowledgment of truth, if human suffering is not accessible to moral judgement at the moment or post facto, and if the facts of history cannot be attributed in some tangible way to human agency, then both judicial institutions and truth commissions are philosophically illegitimate. Such illegitimacy would spell the demise of Christian ethics, of course, for the discipline, with Christian theology, has a stake in the truths of history, in vital distinctions between just and unjust suffering, and in the obligations which persons and societies owe to identify, curb, and remedy wrongs suffered by any of our neighbours.
The “Midas touch” picture of consciousness, as I call it — is the view that to take something as our ‘object’ automatically transforms it in some essential way (possibly even making it ‘mental’). How, exactly, consciousness — or for that matter language, or culture — being what it is, could make a tree or block of ice what it is, or turn something that was not already a tree or block of ice into one, is truly hard to say. We actually know how trees etc. come about, and they are not made by consciousness. One can also safely say that the story about how consciousness supposedly does its transforming and productive work has never been satisfactorily told. The second interpretation plays off of the saying that one cannot escape consciousness — cannot, as it is often said, “step outside of one’s mind.” Certainly, to be conscious of anything one must be conscious. But it does not follow from this that one cannot compare a thought to what it is about and whether it “matches up” or not. Only confusion could make one think it does — a confusion probably based upon the “Midas touch” picture of consciousness. [Editor’s note: Midas, in Greek mythology, had the ability to turn everything he touched into gold.]
For obvious reasons, PoMos hate science more than dogs hate vacuum cleaners, and they bark at it about as much. You see, scientists work on precisely the opposite assumptions as PoMos; they actually think that facts exist outside of clever word games. You can say all you like that physics is phallocentric, but it’s not going to change the rules of thermodynamics. This really pisses off PoMos, because scientists keep making really cool gadgets that work while, to date, Duke’s English department hasn’t been able to make an airplane run on metaphors or to illuminate a football stadium with the adverbs from James Joyce’s Dubliners.
For example. If I stood up in a classroom at Brown or Harvard or Yale and declared, “Let the best man win,” the students would turn into a human sprinkler-system of deconstructing inquiry. What do you mean by “man”? What are your criteria for “best”? Why does someone have to “win” at all? Couldn’t we define the task more cooperatively? When you say “let,” who is doing the “letting”? Isn’t that just another way of saying we should “let” the patriarchal capitalist system continue to reward those already deemed “best” (and, therefore, most advantaged)? This word “the,” it seems to connote that there is only a single criterion for determining a privileged status; couldn’t there be a more pluralistic approach? Etc., yawn, etc.
Postmodernists claim that the profusion of images induces a state of vertigo, a sort of rapture of indeterminacy, in which people no longer care whether images correspond to the world in which they think they live, or, in fact, that they relish the discrepancies between images and realities, between signifiers and signifieds. Yet this is plainly not so. For all the irony and bemusement with which we manage the flow, people still search for solid ground, a search that, perversely, leads us astray, as the cultural and political industries exploit our old-fashioned, unhip longings.
Again and again, the authors of these manifestos open with a mighty trumpet blast, issuing the most lofty and passionate denunciations of the imbecilic, stale, decadent, safe, bourgeois, vile, outmoded, mechanical, academic, etc. tradition they are rejecting. But when it comes time for them to reveal their epochal new vision, the mighty doctrine that will overthrow the past, turn art on its head and lead mankind into a dazzling new era of truth and beauty, it turns out to be, well, “spatial forms arising from the intersection of the reflected rays of various objects” (Rayonists Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharov). Or a theater in which the actors read aloud from their parts (the Russian symbolist Fyodor Sologub). Or a placard proclaiming “No Girdle!” (The nunist Pierre Albert-Birot, who also incorrectly asserted that nunism is “an ‘ism’ to outlast the others.”) Without discounting the originality of these ideas — rayonist paintings are among the first abstract works ever executed, Sologub’s theater anticipates Brecht, and Birot would have burned Andy Warhol in a game of one-on-one — after the mighty windup, there’s something banana peel-like about these aesthetic punchlines.
You would not believe the number of sensitivities that have to be kept in mind in public discourse. I once got mad at some Texas legislators over a spectacularly pea-brained stunt and referred to them as “a bunch of droolers.” I was promptly served with pamphlets from an outfit called the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Those Who Involuntarily Drool. (Very sad, actually, people who have had strokes often drool involuntarily.) People make fun of political correctness, but if you’re running for office, left-handed lesbians of Czech descent are out there, and they are touchy.
[M]oral relativism suffers from a problem known as the reformer’s dilemma. If normative relativism is true, then it is logically impossible for a society to have a virtuous, moral reformer like Jesus Christ, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Why? Moral reformers are members of a society who stand outside that society’s code and pronounce a need for reform and change in the code. However, if an act is right if and only if it is in keeping with a given society’s code, then the moral reformer himself is by definition an immoral person, for his views are at odds with those of his society. But any view that implies that moral reformers are impossible is defective because we all know that moral reformers have actually existed!