Deconstructing the Postmodern Thinkers

Conservatives should be wary of those who so casually reject the wisdom of the ancients.

Michel Foucault in 1971. Credit: YouTube Screenshot

Not long ago, a friend of mine—an Air Force veteran now serving elsewhere in the public sector—interviewed a young, well-spoken, female applicant with a strong academic portfolio from a respected public university. A few questions into the interview, she started talking about “power structures” and their influence on every part of society. My friend, a bit bewildered, asked her to explain. He got a mouthful of pedantic jargonese about race and power that implied that he, a white male, was perpetuating a system that exploited and oppressed all manner of disenfranchised peoples, including the applicant, an Asian American. My friend patiently reminded the applicant that insinuating that he was racist might not be the most advised means of acquiring a job.

What my friend had encountered were concepts from some of the most predominant philosophical schools in the West: postmodernism and deconstructionism. Many conservatives and Christians know they’re supposed to be wary of these ideologies, as well their most notorious advocates, 20th-century Frenchmen Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Francois Lyotard. There is good reason for this wariness, given that postmodernism and deconstructionism, as they are understood at the popular level, are based on initial premises of skepticism and cynicism towards established authorities and beliefs. Yet a proper understanding (which admittedly is itself a problematic moniker for what those two words represent) reveals that they are an effective tool in dismantling the falsehoods of modernism, even if they ultimately fail to offer a robust, coherent alternative.

The problem with even classifying the thought of Foucault and Derrida is that they weren’t necessarily seeking to create a unified intellectual system to explain reality. Indeed, postmodern philosophers are de facto suspicious and critical of such attempts. They’re far more interested in making observations—often true and insightful—regarding certain aspects or subsets of knowledge. The problems develop when people try to universalize these observations.

Consider first Michel Foucault, whose most famous aphorism is that “power is knowledge.” This observation stems from Foucault’s experience with various institutions of power, including mental hospitals and prisons, though his analysis extends to factories, sex, and money, among other things. In his Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that knowledge is not disinterested or innocent, but inextricably united to power relationships that affect both the exterior and interior of man. This “disciplinary society” forces people, including through implicit societal surveillance, to conform to various cultural standards. Those who exist outside the ad hoc boundaries are often demonized, pathologized, and criminalized. Those who enjoy power and privilege aim to control those who do not.

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Foucault’s theory of social construction certainly has merits—it is perhaps impossible to fully sever truth from power, as all information is communicated to us through mediums with some level of authority. Moreover, we can certainly point to many historical and contemporary examples of the “disciplinary society.” Today, political correctness and identity politics, mediated to us through powerful institutions like the media, the academy, and politics, corral us and foist upon us an ever-narrowing intellectual conformity, lest we be branded racists, homophobes, bigots, sexists, or the like.

In this respect, conservatives can actually turn Foucault back on his proponents, since they are now the ones commanding these oppressive power structures. Yet Foucault still fails inasmuch as his ideas are used to undermine any attempt at an objective universal truth. Indeed, to even engage in any argumentation or theorizing using language and logic is immediately to presuppose all manner of truths that one denies at his or her own peril. Not to mention, as TAC writer Graham Daseler notes, that power takes many forms, and sometimes those outside traditional power structures can still command influence and wealth. Alternatively, Western civilization has a millennia-old conception of servant leadership in which those with power are enjoined to consider themselves servants of those under their authority.

Jacques Derrida, in turn, is known for his declaration, “There is nothing outside the text.” In his Of Grammatology, Derrida the deconstructionist proposes that readers, and, more broadly, persons, can never truly “get behind” a text. There is no “pure” reading or viewing that is not subjective interpretation. This premise is then used to take apart ideas by uncovering assumptions and contradictions, while evaluating the context of those ideas and the way that language shapes them. Though Derrida doesn’t entirely reject the meaningfulness of language or the importance of truth, he, being a true postmodern, considers them unattainable ideals.

It is not hard to find truth in Derrida’s analysis. Our lives are defined by the interpretation of data, whether reading a text, listening to a speech, or considering our natural environment. When engaging data, we cannot suddenly put on our “objective hat,” step outside ourselves, and consider things as they really are. It’s helpful to remember this whenever one’s opponents start projecting objectivity or superiority, as if somehow they’ve discovered how to transcend their own subjective experience. Derrida’s theory starts to unravel, however, if the acknowledgment of subjectivity leads to a presumption that there is no objectivity, and debilitates man from attempting to discover it. Our very personal experiences push against such intellectual pessimism precisely because the more we interact with data—through mathematics, observation of nature, language between humans, etc.—the more we can perceive that there is indeed truth outside ourselves. The Aristotelian “triangle of reference” and the Thomist conception of analogy are helpful in conceptualizing a philosophical framework that enables access to objective truth while still acknowledging man’s subjectivity.

Finally, let’s consider Jean-Francois Lyotard and his definition of postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Lyotard attacks the modern penchant for “metanarratives” that seek to apply a supposedly objective, totalizing, scientific approach to knowledge. Lyotard targets modern thinkers who propose “scientific” paradigms that can supposedly explain reality, whether it be Kant’s “noumena/phenomena” distinction, Hegel’s “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” model, or Marx’s economic analysis of human labor and capital. Whatever the metanarrative, Lyotard perceives an inherent tension. Modern thinkers claim to offer criteria that stand outside any local, historically and culturally conditioned paradigms. Yet they themselves operate within their own supposedly unassailable modernist paradigms. Thus they arrogantly seek to impose metanarratives of knowledge on all persons and cultures that are birthed within their own mini-narratives.

Lyotard’s analysis is useful in many respects. For one, as many writers and critics have noted, modern science can often be biased, political, and unscientific (in that it its data and analysis cannot be replicated). The scientific method as originally formulated in the Western tradition has much to be lauded, but many streams of it have been co-opted by power structures in order to justify all manner of social engineering and political agendas. Additionally, as TAC has been warning since its founding, liberalism is increasingly devoted to all manner of metanarratives that seek to remake both America and the world in its image.

Yet we should also be incredulous of “incredulity towards metanarratives” inasmuch as such suspicions can lead one to reject any metanarratives that transcend peoples or cultures. Indeed, Lyotard’s incredulity is itself a metanarrative of sorts, in that it seeks to explain the diversity of human experience. Moreover, some metanarratives have proven remarkably impervious to incredulity. Two plus two always seems to equal four, whether one is in Paris or Pyongyang; the logic behind syllogisms always applies whether one speaks French or Farsi.

Postmodernism ultimately must be understood as part of a broader sequence of historical developments within philosophical thought. Deconstructionists like Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard are all critiquing the modern project, and in many respects, their attacks are dead on. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the philosophies of modernism retain some truths, but are all fundamentally flawed. As Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko has argued in his masterful The Demon in Democracy, moderns promised freedom and perpetual progress, but have given us instead mediocrity and debasement. Unfortunately, instead of backtracking to where moderns took a wrong turn, postmodernists try to forge their own path. They thus commit the same sin as their modernist forefathers: pride. We should heed the words of American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, who declared that all philosophy is bound to fail when it arrogantly rejects out of hand the wisdom of the ancients (and Medievalists) who synthesized so much of human knowledge and wisdom that was indeed true, good, and beautiful.

Moreover, many postmoderns who promote a purist school of deconstructionism are fed their just desserts when their own paradigms are deconstructed. American university students have perceptibly recognized the inherent tension within a school of thought built on cynicism and suspicion. From Yale to Middlebury to Evergreen State, academics and university staff are suffering the effects of an education system that questions all authority and is always on the prowl for some injustice to protest, some to statue to topple. As conservative writer Sohrab Ahmari acknowledged in his shift away from the radical Left, in a postmodernity severed from any metanarrative of objective truth, there is “no standard left on which to base these various claims for justice.”

Should conservatives fear postmodernism? Not necessarily. But since it is in effect an extension and evolution of the modern mind, it is no panacea, and we must be prudent in applying its lessons. Anything that so casually rejects the wisdom of the ancients is bound to be dangerous, as we unfortunately keep having to be reminded.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.

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22 Responses to Deconstructing the Postmodern Thinkers

  1. Kasoy says:

    “all philosophy is bound to fail when it arrogantly rejects out of hand the wisdom of the ancients“ – CC

    All philosophy is bound to fail when it is not based on absolute unchanging truth of God & His laws. This is the ultimate test for any postmodern philosophy.

  2. TR says:

    I suspect we should object out of hand anything that Mortimer J. Adler says and any meta-narrative, but this is a very even-handed and objective treatment of the postmodern philosophical grab-bag.

    I would point out that Derrida, at least in interviews, did not reject ancient thinkers in toto any more than any other philosopher does. And that Foucault has a famous essay trying to come to terms with Kant’s view of Aufklarung.

    I hope you can be as enlightening on Lacan and Levinas–two thinkers I really need help with.

  3. Brian Villanueva says:

    Despite that long diatribe, the original point still stands: spouting post modern drivel is a lousy way to get a job doing anything actually meaningful.

  4. Carl says:

    Postmodernism is the wrong lens to understand the applicant. She was using standpoint epistemology, not French postmodernism.

  5. Michael Kenny says:

    John Stuart Mill, that canny old Scotsman, famously said that philosophers are usually right in what they affirm mand wrong in what they deny. It’s always worth bearing that in mind.

  6. James from Durham says:

    So what I think you are saying, Carl, is that if only she had used French postmodernism, she might have got the job.

  7. Blanc de Blanc says:

    Please, somebody, just make them stop!

  8. Ricardo says:

    Philosophy is just intellectual masterbation and vanity. All truth lies in the Bible.

  9. Jim says:

    The influence of postmodernism imho has been greatly underappreciated by conservatives or even centerists. It has engendered or influenced everything that has led to our cultural decay. Especially unnoticed and unchecked is it’s influence on K-12 education. Critics have been decades late and, in this author’s case, far too mild in criticizing it. The real war Trump should be wagering is the war against Progressive education, which has done so much to dumb-down our society and create the next generation of voters in the AOC mold. The s-storm from Postmodernism hasn’t even begun to wreak the havoc that is imminent.

  10. CLW says:

    Of course, when you say, “… the wisdom of the ancients,” you mean elements of classical philosophy selectively embraced by Adler and other Neo-Thomists to buttress Catholic ideology against secular Humanism, which itself was grounded in classical philosophy.

    This amounts to cherry picking what was otherwise rejected as Paganism when it is found useful for constructing complex arguments “proving” Catholic doctrine. It’s a ruse, designed as an alternative means of encouraging faith when the “infallibility of the Church” argument was losing its luster.

  11. David Nash says:

    We seem to go through this “iconoclastic” debate every several generations. And we will again, after the iconoclasts have sold out and rejoined society when they realize that adding zeroes is a worthless hobby.

    Nevertheless, a good article.

  12. Jeeves says:

    Reading this gives me that matryoshka dolls sensation. The “wisdom of the ancients” wasn’t the metanarrative of its day? If I were a graduate theology student, I would be grateful for post-modernism.

  13. Jon says:

    TR

    Doig this unedited, sorry for any missing commas or misplace phrases.

    Levinas certainly does not reject the ancients. I don’t know if Levinas is right, but, like string theory, if he is right, our problems make a lot more sense and our solutions are within our grasp.

    You can find a good summary of Levinas work, 20 pages by Willaim Paul Simmons in the link below. The essay is titled “The Third.” Of special interest, on pages 92-94, is the way Simmons describes how Levinas phenomenology of our infinite experience moves us to justice and categorical expression— to ontological terms, but motivated and given meaning by contact with infinity, which can only be described outside ontological terms, loosely, and perhaps dangerously in images and metaphor, but in a more disciplined manner using phenomenology.

    One way of understanding Levinas is to go, as Levinas does, to the Republic 509b, and its reference to the “ground”, to use Eric Voegelin’s word, of “being”, which is, in Plato’s words, ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας, translated since the 19th century as “transcending” being.

    However, if you go to the Greek Lexicons, like Lidell-Scott, you see ἐπέκεινα used in Classical Period Greek texts as “outside,” “beyond,” “outside,” “farther,” or some other time. The choice to translate ἐπέκεινα as “transcending” gives the passage some kind of ridiculous mystical hocus pocus image…translated by a 19th idealists…not to surprising, but misleading.

    What Plato appears to be saying, and what Levinas argues, is that the origin of meaning (being, The Good) appears outside ontology, outside of οὐσίας.

    But Plato never really examines ἐπέκεινα, except in passing. His primary goal appears to be stopping Classical Period men who want to become Greek Heroic Age Heroes by turning the Polis, the Greek state, to their ambitions. In Plato’s view, Socrates’ death occurred because Socrates mocked and contradicted the Heroic wannabes; and, Athens’ military and colonial adventures originated in the same source. His answer, and the subsequent philosophical schools’ answers were to address Heroic wannabes’ false premises and invalid arguments based on feeling inducing premises. This project, deliberatively controlling the Heroic wannabes, turned our tradition mostly to οὐσίας, intelligible, categorical, meaning, and rather naturally from that to scientific method.

    By 200 AD, Plato, his followers, and other schools like the Stoics, completed the project of assembling the same thirteen or so valid inferences we use today, and they began the infinite description of formal and informal fallacies. But this is the path of οὐσίας, intelligible being, and we never went back to ἐπέκεινα (though some of the Neoplatonists did), always trying to find meaning in intelligible terms.

    In this view, the view of many post-Mondernists, error of the Western Tradition is not that it got ontology wrong, it did not. But but that our continued narrowing of meaning into ontology alone, and into, even, a perpetually narrowing version of ontology, into some kind epistemology (deliberation, then formal logic, then disputation using the ancients as premises, the scientific method), while eminently useful, giving us wealth and the power to go to other planets, covers over the most important meaning, that of ethics, “The Good,” which is what gives motivates us to create intelligible being, οὐσίας, in an attempt to effect justice.

    If you doubt this critique, look to the analytics’ overt failures. YUou need only think of Wittgenstein, who more or less started the 20th century analytic movement, and his eventual conclusion that meaning of terms is determined within the text, a completely postmodern conclusion. Or, look at Edmund Gettier’s counterexamples to justified true belief.

    You can find this attempt to do justice outside being in places in Kant or Descartes (his letter to Marseilles offers a phenomenology of infinity rather than a definition). Hume appears to have set about phenomenology but was misunderstood as a skeptic. Husserl and Heidegger set about showing how the Western Tradition had narrowed the scope of “being.”

    But, famously, Heidegger could find no way from ontology to ethics. Jordan Peterson makes a noble and really interesting attempt to find a way back to ethics, but his solution is ultimately unsatisfying, a version, as he admits himself of pragmatism, ultimately understood as a struggle of forces for intellectual and material survival, easily turned into fascism or Marxism by the incrdualous or evil.

    SO, what Levinas does is attempt to reclaim ἐπέκεινα for the Western Tradition, he never rejects the tradition as powerful or useful, or “true,” in the objective sense, but argues forcefully that it ontology cannot resolve itself into ethics, which motivates expression in ontological terms, because its terms are “totalized” and exclude meaning that is not expressed within intelligible limits of category, class, characteristic, inference. Rather, meaning also comes from contact with the infinite, another consciousness, which cannot be bound to the same, either absorbed into us, or encompassed by us as we cast out our consciousness in terms that are intelligible to us.

    “Totality and Infinity” and “Otherwise Than Being” are Levinas’ phenomenological argument and description.

    I think you can make the argument that most other post-Modernists and postmodernists, like Foucault and Lyotard do the same. They do not reject the Western Tradition, or ontology, rather they reject its exclusive claim for meaning, and reject, in ontological terms that “deconstruct” ontological attempts at metanarrative using their own terms.

    None of the postmodernists propose nihilism or that we reject science, only that we will never find ethics there, and that ontology’s Modern, exclusive claim to truth, is not sustainable.

  14. Greg says:

    The other side to post modernism is fascism. You can read Dugin to geta feel for what that looks like. For those like myself who might consider that a very bad path, well, other intellectual trajectories are more promising ways to invest our time.

  15. Tim says:

    Fear postmodernism? Some conservatives have embraced it with gusto, as when a peon in the most recent Bush administration claimed that reality could be made manifest from the desire of his superiors to invade Iraq (or words to that effect). Guess they neglected the follow-through and aftermath until it was too late. Wish I could remember the name, or at least where I read about that claim, but it seemed worth mentioning, lest anyone get the impression that conservatism – at least as practiced in some quarters 15 years ago – was out of step with current trends.

  16. Mel Profit says:

    Just the tip of the iceberg. The guy who understood the whole picture–the kulturkampf onslaught on every front–was Philip Rieff. There is nothing happening today that Rieff did not anticipate more than a decade ago–especially in his book “My Life with the Deathworks”, a veritable eulogy for the civilization born of Jerusalem and Athens.

    Indeed, if only our collapse were solely, or even mainly, due to the French lunatics. But alas, they had “parents” and siblings whose collective influence, along with theirs, has been devastating.

  17. Connecticut Farmer says:

    “…but many streams of it ( meaning the scientific method) have been co-opted by power structures…”

    Ahh, there go those mischievous “power structures” again! Like cockroaches, ya can’t get rid of ’em.

  18. EliteCommInc. says:

    I didn’t want to tackle this article because post modern thought is useful dependent on the construct one is examining.

    My favorite, is Dr. Foucault, whose examination or critique is based on tangible constructs: prisons, politics, poverty/class, etc. He was not a fan of the haphazard political and social protests of the 1960’s and 1970’s. His critiques were not meant to devalue the established order, but rather diffuse that established power more equitably. His goal was to expand the value of the human being beyond the established order. In short, he wanted the prison system to be more humane, he did not seek its abolition. He would not argue that there is no truth or objective reality.

    I am going to step back for a minute and say that what I learned by way of poet modern thought is that it is useful in developing critical thinking. That in the intellectual exercise of learning to think critically, post modern analysis is helpful in stretching that skill and tool. And that in turn would is helpful in comprehending the world around us and our place in it. Not a single instructor in this area ever charged me with,

    “Go ye therefore and dismantle the social order.”

    If anything these theorists were to treated with a certain level of caution, because of the implications. That in uncareful hands these theoretical concepts could lead to a kind of chaos. And that where I think Dr. Foucault has some real practical objective salience. Because he does not seek to dismantle the order, but empower it to more of the requisite population.

  19. EliteCommInc. says:

    “She was using standpoint epistemology.”

    Like its cousin, phenomenology, it is a meta-narrative of post modern theory. And it is among and from women, that post modern theory has been successfully(?) advanced into every field including the hard sciences. Those who have chosen same relational dynamics and feminists (women in general, in my view) have been the prime movers and shakers.

    One might say that standpoint is purely deconstructive by design and application.

  20. TR says:

    jon–a thousand thanks for the Levinas comments. They are very helpful.

    Connecticut Farmer: Indeed you can’t get rid of power structures. Admittedly, hearing people too sure of themselves go on about something they don’t really understand is annoying, but that’s the price you have to pay when a concept catches on.

  21. beyondculturewars says:

    “There is nothing beyond the text.” Ludicrous.

    Show me the social construct when a loved one dies or there are shots fired in your neighborhood or nightclub.

    Show me the social construct of nature, especially when the crops fail or the forest burns,or the rains keep coming. How many post-modern students have died of exposure to a social construct in this Polar Vortex??

  22. Darryl Matthew De Marzio says:

    Look, I’m not that big of a fan of Foucault, though I do devote a chapter of my dissertation on him. But I have to say I’m getting somewhat annoyed by the very limited reading of Foucault in order to make the “postmodernism=bad” argument. It has become a very bad habit in the U.S., both on the left and right. Foucault clearly revised his thinking over time. For one, notice the enormous gap between, on the one hand, Volume I of the History of Sexuality (1976) and Volumes II & III (1984). In the later work, he clearly takes seriously the thought of the ancients and early Christians and attempts to map out the possibility of an ethics that actually retrieves much of ancient outlook. Later on in his career he begins to disavow much of the leftism en vogue in France and, and pretty much dismantled the welfare state. Some writers even suggest there is an implicit endorsement of neoliberalism in his later writings. I am not sure why American academics stop reading Foucault at Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality Volume I. The later work, really from 1982-1984 is clear, faithful to original sources, and pretty much a decent history of Western philosophy.

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