Confessions Of A Post-Modernist

It’s true. I’m a post-modernist. We walk amongst you! OOOoooOOOooo! *spooky fingers*

Okay, but seriously…

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot this week is the difficulty of having a set of values, beliefs or personal identifications that don’t always comfortably intersect, and that finding a safe space for one aspect of who you are or what you believe will often leave you vulnerable to having other aspects attacked or demonized. Like feminists who dislike trans women and skeptics, trans women who dislike feminists and atheists, and atheists who dislike trans women and feminists.

Well, it’s not exactly a big secret that the skeptic community really isn’t keen on post-modernism and post-modernists, and like to treat them as a bit of a universal punching bag, to the extent that simply describing something as “pomo” is enough to theoretically discredit it. Within this community I frequently see post-modernism straw-manned as some kind of airy-headed, woo-supporting, pseudo-intellectual nonsense that is so wholly committed to radical relativism that it is completely unable to bother taking a stand on anything at all.

That’s a pretty piss-poor, and not very educated or skeptical, understanding of what post-modernism is or is about. Post-modernism was where and how I learned to think, and to do so critically. It taught me to value questioning assumptions, to understand the difference between what I want to believe and what I ought to believe, to understand how perceptions can be distorted and how the process by which we come about our beliefs and conclusions is not always as neat and tidy as it appears, and to look for the unconscious or implicit motives and biases of whomever or whatever is making a claim. In other words, it taught me skepticism.

First, let’s get some things straight, principally our definitions. Because as a general thing, most people who like to throw around the words “post-modern” and “post-modernism” have little to no idea what those words actually mean (whether using them in a negative OR positive light), and there is even less in the way of a general consensus on the matter. In skepticism, as said, it seems to mean some kind of straw-man hyper-relativism mixed in with identity politics and the whole “different ways of knowing” thing, mostly just sort of haphazardly associated with Derrida, Lacan and Foucault. Maybe Baudrillard and Paglia too if they have a bit of actual education in the matter. In art circles it’s often similarly haphazardly associated with either a general “death of the author” / “I can say it means whatever the hell someone cleverer than me says it means, even if the clever folk contradict each other or are totally off the mark from my intent” thing, or with the principle of deliberate obfuscation or dada-esque “weird for the sake of weird” (which aren’t necessarily bad things). In media theory it has a lot to do with McLuhan and the “medium is the message”, the transition from a culture in which text had fixed meaning and was understood as a tool for the transmission of information that could impact a culture into a culture in which the media and structures by which we transmit information modifies the information and becomes more of a socio-cultural factor than whatever the information is or whatever we’re technically “saying” (and now we’re transitioning to something new, and even weirder, that McLuhan might have described as “the consumer is the product is the medium is the message is the consumer”). There are even more definitions in the fields of sociology, information theory, history, gender studies, race studies, literary theory, etc.

It makes things very confusing, and at first glance one’s impulse might be “Fuck it. Too many differing definitions is as good as no definition at all. This word is useless. Let’s move on.” But these all have a basic commonality, which is not in conflict with any individual interpretation of the word, and from which we can salvage the ability to speak usefully on the subject. It’s also very simply contained in the word itself.

Post-modernism is just that which follows, and moves on from, modernism: the inadequacies and failures of modernism, the critique of modernism, or the expansion of modernism.

It’s best understood through historical context. We had the enlightenment, with all it’s enlightenment virtues. Noble is man, knowable is truth, knowledge is virtue, truth is beauty, beauty is truth. Enlightenment proceeds to modernism, which was largely about rejecting the trappings of tradition, the elite, the old ways and old structures, old rules, moving fiercely towards the future, a future filled with utopian promise if we can successfully rid ourselves of all the weaknesses holding us back. Modernism is Nietzsche and “The Rite Of Spring” and Guernica and Artaud and Marienetti and The First World War (to end all wars!) with it’s innovative mustard gas, u-boats and aerial warfare.

The Second World War, proving that the first one did not end anything, amongst other terrible truths about who and what we are as a species, terminated the capacity for our culture to collectively believe uncritically in the values of modernism, and the underlying enlightenment principles on which modernism was based.

There were a whole bunch of things that happened then that really put us in our place, that collectively humbled the ever living shit out of humanity. Nazism, along with forever casting a shadow over nationalism, called into doubt whether there was any virtue at all in ideology and utopian thought (and for many, and at least as a touchstone for me, suggests the incredible darkness and capacity for atrocity that can come from certainty in one’s beliefs). The Holocaust, along with raising difficult questions about the meaning of race, ethnicity and bloodlines, also suddenly offered a glimpse at the terrible horror of dehumanization, and what systematic efficiency, unquestioningly following orders, and seeking “final solutions” for social problems can lead to.  The rise of Stalinism and the corruption of Communism into brutal autocracy demonstrated how you can’t depend on Hegelian dialectics to work themselves out into utopian “synthesis”, that you can’t impose scientific and philosophical structures and abstract solutions onto human behaviour and expect it to solve everything. The atomic bomb raised grave questions about scientific and technological progress, and whether these are to be considered virtues in and of themselves, or whether they need to forever remain tethered to acute awareness of consequence. Its use raised the question of whether the ends ever truly justify the means, and if sacrificing a “few” innocents to save millions of soldiers is an ethical answer to such a problem, and whether any such answer could ever be ethical. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité had been used as justification for colonialism, foreign occupation and racism. The aristocracy was long since dead. Avante Garde and it’s military undertones now felt very suspect. Millions upon millions had been killed in what historically constitutes a single flash in time because a few Great Men had Great Visions. Genius meant destruction as easily as it meant progress. We’d rejected our stuffy old traditions because it was holding us back, only to find the future we were eagerly anticipating and proudly driving towards to be just as dark as the past we’d left behind, and found that there was nothing whatsoever inherently noble about a human being. At least not in the sense we’d previously understood.

In short, the whole of human ambition and value had been exhausted. We had nothing left but a partially ruined world and deeply uncomfortable questions. We were back to the drawing board.

Post-modernism, as simply as it can possibly be explained, was just the attempt to figure out where to go from there. How to build a new humanity and new values in the wake of what we could no longer uncritically accept.

That’s all.

An interesting way of putting it is the “Exhaustion / Replenishment” dynamic articulated by John Barth in the context of literary theory. If existentialism and Samuel Beckett represent the exhaustion of the previous values, and no longer having any certainties to cling to in our post-war, post-modern world, only this desolate bleak emptied literary landscape (as Adorno famously put it: “After Auschwitz, all poetry is barbarism”), then Jorge Luis Borges is the answer. When you have no certainty left as to where to go, you can either wallow in the paralysis, or you can revel in the plurality. A beautiful garden of forking paths. You can’t know which way is the right way to go, but that offers you the freedom to choose any path, or choose them all.

This process was reflected in the post-modern philosophical tradition. While we had people like the existentialists examining that wasteland of lost values, and contemplating the total absence of certainty and certain meaning, and how to cope, we also had people like Foucault trying to find new ways of understanding and reasoning, of dealing with acceptance of the fact that all positions are inherently subject positions, and conditioned by a context. To survey the plurality of positions and understand The Truth not as a singular goal but as a process and dialogue, a discourse.

This is not the same thing as absolute relativism. Nor is it incompatible with skepticism. They are, in my mind at least, easily harmonized, and deeply so. Although certain individual post-modern thinkers did indeed assume a position of absolute relativism, or the idea that there is no truth at all, that’s not the position of post-modern thought in a general sense. Post-modern thought simply teaches you to be careful to acknowledge the biases and assumptions you’re bringing to the situation, how the context will affect your interpretation, awareness that there may be unconsidered variables at work, that other perspectives are worth considering, and to recognize the risk and danger in certainty, or losing sight of the possibility you’ve got things wrong.

None of that teaches us to abandon critical thought, or stop thinking there’s any point in weighing one argument above another. It’s only the shallowest, most unsophisticated readings that would interpret the overall thrust of existential and post-modern thought to be “well, everyone’s, like, you know, entitled to their, like, opinion and stuff, dude”. Instead, the questions post-modernism encourages us to ask are of deep importance to being able to develop as truly critical thinkers. It teaches us to consider factors most people miss, and to be able to apply skepticism and critical inquiry inwardly, as well as to the overall context, instead of limiting it to the analysis of a particular presented idea. Consider the presentation of the idea as well, and who is doing the presenting, and your own interpretation. It creates a much stronger and healthier skepticism, not a “but on the other hand, but on the other hand, but on the other hand” paralyzed octopus. At no point does post-modernism, as a movement, definitively assert that one hand can’t be more right than the others.

The way I think of it is that at the very least we can all agree that something is going on. Let’s call it “the world”. In order to think about it and talk about it, we carve it up into little discrete conceptual pieces and assign representative signs and language to those pieces, so we can arrange and rearrange them in ways so as to look at all kinds of different possibilities and angles, and compare and contrast our interpretations with those of other people. Sometimes one person’s perspective will clash with another’s. And sometimes other people will have carved it up differently. Sometimes people will be using entirely different sets of signs, and entirely different structures of thought, in order to work with it and figure out what the something that is going on is, and how it’s going on. None of us are quite in the position to assert absolutely that the way we’ve got it figured is definitely, totally the best and right way (and sometimes doing that leads to bad, nasty things), but we can get close, we can figure some stuff out, and striving towards understanding it and getting some idea of what’s going on, even if we’ll never quite know for sure, is still totally, completely worth it. And still, at the end of the day, no matter how much difference lies between people’s views on what’s going on, there’s still something going on. There’s still a world.

Acknowledging a multiplicity of perspectives, and learning to apply the same doubts to your own as you do to others, does not mean abandoning the ability to think or to talk or to question. It just means refining our means so we don’t prematurely or accidentally decide we’re “right” about stuff we could be very, deeply wrong about. Accepting that you might be wrong when you’re very probably right is a bit inconvenient and annoying, but believing you’re totally right when you’re actually wrong is fucking dangerous.

Now, sometimes post-modernism and certain interpretations of post-modern theory are used to shut down dialogue and thought and questions. I’m not going to “no true scotsman” this and claim that’s not real post-modernism. But I can rightly point out that it isn’t the whole of a massive and multifaceted entire era of thought and art, and that it is very possible to critique and reject that form of post-modernism without turning post-modernism itself into a whipping boy. Hell, I do it all the time.

Take for instance my recent run-in with Be Scofield. Be’s argument, more or less, was that it makes me an awful, imperialist, ethnocentric, evil person, colonizing the beliefs and perspectives of others, if I hold the religious beliefs of other cultures to the same standard of critique I hold my own (or critique a principle that occurs across diverse cultural contexts, such as faith). At this point, post-modernism ceases being a tool for critical inquiry, ceases encouraging thought, questions and dialogue, and instead is used as a means of shutting all those things down, a cudgel with which to force people to shut up. But here’s the thing: while I accept and embrace the teachings of post-modern thought in terms of the danger of certainty, and the importance of turning critical inquiry towards your own beliefs and assumptions and the socio-cultural context in which they occur or were formed, I do not accept being told that that is the only thing towards which I can direct critical inquiry. As I’ve mentioned before, my atheism is not about any special criticism of religion. It is about holding religious beliefs to the same principles to which I hold all beliefs. I will not uncritically accept (or offer deference to) any idea or concept, regardless of the cultural context in which it occurs (“self” OR “other”).

In fact, it is the post-modern principle of understanding the danger of certainty that is the underlying foundation on which I base my criticism of religion. Religion is not “another way of knowing” or “another way of thinking”. It is beliefs insulated from thought and critique, and based upon faith. Faith is really just a particular form of certainty, but worse, is one that claims itself above ALL question. Not just that you think you have all the answers, but that everyone else doesn’t even get to ask questions.

When we take post-modern principles such as that we need to be wary of our position, our context, and question our values and assumptions, and not imperialistically reject other perspectives or coerce others into ours, and avoid assuming the rightness and supremacy and rationality of our position just because it’s the one that happens to make the most immediate sense for us… when we take these principles and start using them as a means of defending the “right” of others to not bother employing them themselves, shutting down our capacity to engage in critical dialogue and oppose other dangerous “certainties”, to start using it all as a means not of remembering to question things but as a means of deciding some things are off limits for questioning, that is to lose sight of why any of this was valuable in the first place, or why it was needed. That’s when post-modernist thought stops being thought.

If people like Be were alive when the tragedies that forced us into post-modernity first occurred, do you suppose they’d defend the right of “other cultural perspectives” like Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany to not be “imperialistically” challenged or questioned by The Allies? That their “way of knowing” was just as valid as those who would question their dangerous imperialism?

There’s no question religious ideas are imperialistic in nature. They have evolved to propagate, convert others, and remain entrenched- by offering comforts and psychological rewards for belief, and exacting sacrifices and psychological costs for rejection.

But this is a defense of post-modernism, not a critique. My point is that the kind of relativism we’ll encounter where people insist that we can’t question religion or woo on the basis that our “Western” scientific principles are merely biased cultural constructs is, while legitimately being a particular interpretation of post-modern ideas and values, is not necessarily representative of the principles on which post-modernism itself was based, or what many of us value about it, and do not reflect the whole. Post-modernism itself has always been about critical thought and skepticism. A genuine, educated understanding of post-modernism, and analysis of the ideas and motives behind it, makes that clear.

Yes, there are defenders of alt-med and religion and woo who use silly, shallow interpretations of post-modernism to shut down dialogue and thought. But there are also skeptics who use equally silly, shallow interpretations of post-modernism to reject a highly important and valuable set of philosophical principles and traditions that have been extremely important in the lives of many people, and their intellectual development. There are alleged skeptics who use silly, shallow interpretations of post-modernism to avoid questioning their entrenched and irrational biases and assumptions

A little piece of me gets a little more angry and bitter at the skeptic movement every time I see someone who clearly doesn’t know much about the subject dismiss post-modernism as being all about  fluffy “all ideas are equal” nonsense like Scofield’s. Because for me, post-modernism is exactly why I’m here in the first place. Not all of us are skeptics because of science and rationalism and enlightenment principles. And frankly, some of you could benefit from a little less dismissal of this school of thought, and a little more time learning about it, and learning to question and recognize the flaws in your own intellectual processes.

The occasional over-zealous relativist no more invalidates post-modern theory and the importance of questioning your own perspective and cultural context than did 18th century imperialism invalidate the value of rationality and reason. All human ideas can lead to fuck-ups when accepted uncritically. It doesn’t mean those ideas are innately without value, only that we need to be careful. And knowing all human ideas can lead to fuck-ups when accepted uncritically is a big part of what post-modernism is all about.

I could be wrong, though.

But don’t you imperialistically tell me so! 😛


  1. Dunc says

    Very well said. I’ve attempted to make similar arguments many times myself, but I’ve never achieved such clarity and eloquence.

    Post-modernism: it doesn’t just mean whatever you want it to mean. 😉

  2. says

    I have no background in post-modernism (aside from the occasional gibe on SGU), and i appreciate the context you’ve provided and find your defense of its core principles quite reasonable.

    Meanwhile, i have a problem with the case being made here. The case is largely for compatibility, with a touch of inspiration: “Post-modernism is compatible with skepticism and can even inspire it.” This sounds suspiciously similar to apologetics to the effect that religion is compatible with science, and can even inspire it. Perhaps, in certain people’s heads, religion can inspire creativity and original thinking and skepticism and so on, but as a cultural phenomenon it is a demonstrable failure in this respect. Analogously (or not, if i’m misguided), by what metric can post-modernism be said to advance the cause of skepticism on the ground (as Greta Christina might put it)?

    Compatibility with reality is not an argument for anything; in order to be respectable post-modernism must be necessary — and accordingly you argue that it helps us recognize our own cultural and personal biases (including the bias of immediacy). But is the failure of certain skeptics (especially many champions of atheism) to properly account for our own cultural baggage really a deficiency of skepticism, or an expected consequence of human beings practicing it? Would one rôle of post-modernism then be a first-order correction to skepticism?

    Perhaps i’m just clamoring for a tangible example of how post-modernism got you thinking critically in a way that skeptical principles (again, as they’re practiced on the ground) might not have.

    Also, recommended first readings?

    • John Horstman says

      But is the failure of certain skeptics (especially many champions of atheism) to properly account for our own cultural baggage really a deficiency of skepticism, or an expected consequence of human beings practicing it? Would one rôle of post-modernism then be a first-order correction to skepticism?

      Yes, I think that is a fine role for postmodern thought. In my own multidisciplinary field of study, postmodernism simply refers to an acknowledgement that context matters (and in the extreme, it’s the only thing that matters, as it defines the content). ‘True’ skepticism, or perhaps ‘strong skepticism’ would be better, requires being critical of one’s own biases, and in order to do so, one must be aware of the way that one’s historical-cultural context shapes how one engages with and creates meaning. Natalie says this, at length. “This is true in my experience” does not *automatically* mean that it’s true in all cases, but this also doesn’t mean that we can’t evaluate different ideas as more likely to be True or better predictive or representational models. The main purpose of the scientific method, especially repeated experimentation, is an attempt to address this issue – if we perform the same experiment multiple times in multiple historical-cultural contexts and the results are interpreted by many different scientists, we can be much more certain that what we’ve discovered is ‘true’ if all of the results from different positionalities are in agreement. Strong skepticism IS postmodernist, by necessity, because modernism and naturalism, as enacted, were heavily biased to a specific historical-cultural perspective (European exceptionalism and industrial society).

      As for woo-justifying applications of postmodern theory, I look at them like the application of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection to construct or justify social hierarchies. As Natalie says, it doesn’t invalidate the underlying theory, it just means someone’s not using it very well. Postmodernism doesn’t mean we cant critique these uncritical applications of postmodern theory – in fact, part of the point of postmodern analytical models it to give us tools to critique ideas once we understand that our own perceptions are inherently biased and unreliable. It doesn’t stop us from criticizing e.g. Be Scofield, it allows us to do so in spite of the relative nature of meaning.

      • says

        That elaboration is helpful, thanks!

        As for woo-justifying applications of postmodern theory, I look at them like the application of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection to construct or justify social hierarchies.

        There does seem to be a stark difference between the way evolution by natural selection is misused by social Darwinists (i.e. incorrectly) and the way, at least in Natalie’s description, post-modernism is misused by absolute relativists (uncritically). Social Darwinism is not evolutionary biology, but this brand of absolute relativism is (it seems) a form of post-modernism. Is that unfair?

  3. says

    You know, from now on I will simply wait on explaining my opinions until you wrote a post about it. Where you say it better than I ever could. Or, similarly, you wrote a post which makes me think and reconsider.

    You should get a He-Man-like moment where you hold a keyboard up and shout, »by the power of argument«!

  4. jamessweet says

    Great post. I must confess myself to having been guilty of the same straw-manning of post modernism that you object to — though in my defense, I have a feeling that it would not be difficult to find a number of strong proponents of post-modernism who would read this post and say, “No no no, Natalie, you have it all wrong!” 😀

    This paragraph struck me:

    There’s no question religious ideas are imperialistic in nature. They have evolved to propagate, convert others, and remain entrenched- by offering comforts and psychological rewards for belief, and exacting sacrifices and psychological costs for rejection.

    So I suppose one could argue that even tribal shamanistic religions are inherently imperialistic (though granted their “empires” have for a number of reasons remained rather small) in the way in which they seek to colonize minds…?

    • HP says

      James, just to clarify, shamanism is not generally considered to be a form of religion. Supernaturalism, sure. But it has no orthodoxy, no devotions, no set rituals, no liturgy, no hierarchy, no priestly caste, no calender, none of the usual trappings of religion. Shamanism is a precursor to religion, and most religions retain shamanistic elements (“healing,” magic, prophecy, visions, etc.), but shamanism per se is not religious.

      • says

        It has set faith in certain beliefs, which are then held as “just known” and therefore “cannot” be questioned or interrogated through “conventional means”, which is good enough for me to call it religion and consider it dangerous and potentially harmful.

      • jamessweet says

        Even before I posted my comment, I thought a bit about the aspect that HP points out, that shamanism does not tend to have the rigidity of dogma that makes religion-as-we-know-it such a bulldozer running ragged over free inquiry — but I also think that, as Natalie says, it has that “just because, that’s why” (she said “just known”) feature which is very much shared with western religion.

        Don’t get me wrong, if given the choice between, say, the elaborate hierarchy and arbitrary rules of Catholicism vs. the intuitive, randomly insightful ramblings of some ayahuasca-tripping shaman, I’ll take the latter in a heartbeat! But to the extent that misplaced reverence/cultural relativism prevents me from questioning this hard-partying shaman’s insights, that’s of the same kind (if perhaps a different degree) as the smothering of inquiry that Big Religion has engaged in for millennia.

    • says

      In that sense, yes, In the effort at propagation, and conversion through emotional manipulation rather than open discourse. Just become an empire ultimately gets trounced by a bigger, meaner empire doesn’t mean it wasn’t an empire.

      • jamessweet says

        Loved this, by the way:

        Just become an empire ultimately gets trounced by a bigger, meaner empire doesn’t mean it wasn’t an empire.

        With the caveat that of course the bigger, meaner empire has more to answer for than the one it trounced… YES!!! This is exactly the point where I tend to part ways with what I have typically associated with “post-modernism” or “post-colonialism”. Acknowledging our own ancestors’ atrocities ought not to compel us to deny the atrocities committed by those our ancestors, um, atrocitized.

        In a reversal of Orwell, the past, sadly, can pretty much be summed up as a boot stamping on a human face forever. The unspeakable horrors of European and American colonialism were simply the logical extension of how the human race had been behaving for millennia. Not that this absolves us of responsibility… but primitive/tribal societies are just as fucked up as we are, it’s just that through certain geographical, botanical, geological and historical accidents, Western civilization happened to acquire the tools to show off just how fucked up H. sapiens can get.

        Postmodernism as you describe it in this post, Natalie, is very appealing. Rather than a devaluation of science, it is a recognition of both inherent epistemic limits, as well as an acknowledgment that H. sapiens as a whole are pretty piss poor at figuring out the nature of reality. That I can buy into.

  5. Sebor says

    Very interesting article. Your paragraph on “the world” made me realize that I’m a closeted post-modernist without even knowing it and inspired me to write a small piece on a little something I like to call the scientific method. Maybe I’ll post more on that once I’m done.
    Until then, consider this my provisional coming out as a post-modernist.

  6. says

    Stop being so much smarter than me all of you people!
    I kid, good article… I have a good friend with a PHD in English Lit who has a very postmodern bent. I too bristle at the dismissive way it is treated.

  7. Anders says

    Hmm… I’m reminded of skepticism (the philosophical school) which arose from the Hellenistic era showing everyone that the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle was, at least, not universally applicable. Maybe not applicable at all. That school did ultimately degenerate into complete relativism but they had some interesting works on different degrees of certainty before that. We will have to see if postmodernism can escape that fate.

    Regarding the garden of many paths: not knowing which path is right doesn’t mean we can’t know some paths are wrong. Is this acknowledged in postmodernist thought, or should all paths be explored? Including the old paths that led to Hitler and Stalin? They’re still there, after all.

    Finally, if we reject Modernism because it gave rise to Hitler and Stalin, what would be needed to reject Post-Modernism? Something similarly titanic? Or something similar in quality but not in quantity? What are all of y’all’s perspective on that?

    • Anders says

      Forgot something – do you think that your own wrestling with your gender identity (something most of us take for granted) has something to do with your attraction to a philosophy that teaches us to question everything? (I would argue that that’s just as much a part of the Enlightenment tradition, but that’s another matter).

      • says

        Not really. Post-modernism attracted me not initially through the philosophy, but through the art and literature, which I found much more exciting and fun than other things.

  8. John Horstman says

    This is not the same thing as absolute relativism. Nor is it incompatible with skepticism. They are, in my mind at least, easily harmonized, and deeply so.

    Post-modern thought simply teaches you to be careful to acknowledge the biases and assumptions you’re bringing to the situation, how the context will affect your interpretation, awareness that there may be unconsidered variables at work, that other perspectives are worth considering, and to recognize the risk and danger in certainty, or losing sight of the possibility you’ve got things wrong.

    Instead, the questions post-modernism encourages us to ask are of deep importance to being able to develop as truly critical thinkers. It teaches us to consider factors most people miss, and to be able to apply skepticism and critical inquiry inwardly, as well as to the overall context, instead of limiting it to the analysis of a particular presented idea. Consider the presentation of the idea as well, and who is doing the presenting, and your own interpretation. It creates a much stronger and healthier skepticism, not a “but on the other hand, but on the other hand, but on the other hand” paralyzed octopus. At no point does post-modernism, as a movement, definitively assert that one hand can’t be more right than the others.

    Great post Natalie! And very much needed: I was frankly shocked at the casual disdain with which “postmodernism” is frequently treated at FtB, especially since strong skepticism requires the kind of critical positional and contextual analysis (or self-analysis for one’s own ideas and one’s own interpretations of others’ ideas) that postmodern analysis demands. It drives me crazy that otherwise intelligent, skeptical people frequently fail to recognize the distinction between saying that one cannot be 100% certain about anything and saying that all ideas are equally valid. We can know things to very high degrees of certainty, and in the absence of any other models for understanding various extant phenomena that approach the same level of certainty, we can round those up to True. And, of course, the fact that cognitive biases can and do thrive in our ‘community’ should be obvious from the repeated push-back against efforts to exorcise sexism that have been blatant and highly public for the past year at least.

  9. Sour Tomato Sand says

    This whole thing puts me in mind of when Richard Dawkins asked for a definition of post-modernism and the shitstorm that ensued. Quite frankly, I haven’t wanted to hear anything about it, for or against, since, but you make some very good points here.

    The occasional over-zealous relativist no more invalidates post-modern theory and the importance of questioning your own perspective and cultural context than did 18th century imperialism invalidate the value of rationality and reason.

    I find it difficult to remember this sometimes. Like when I have a post-modernist sociology professor who uses an entire period to show What the Bleep Do We Know?. Things like that are so infuriating that I tend to forget that a sample size of 1 is not sufficient to draw conclusions.

    • jamessweet says

      Heh, I was skimming that thread over at, and this comment from the beleaguered Ballardian gave me a bit of a chuckle, one which I might not have caught onto were it not for Natalie’s lucid explanation of what postmodernism is ideally all about:

      It’s ironic that Richard seems to doubt whether postmodernism means anything, because to communicate this idea he uses an online discussion thread, quoting a comment that I made on a news story under an online alias, leaving me in the situation of being in indirect communication with one of the world’s most famous science professors, through digital means, in a realm where no one knows anything about me outside of what I type.

      It’s a very postmodern situation.

      “Medium is the message” indeed. Wow, I think I like actually got it there for a minute..

      • says

        Yeah, exactly! The means of communication itself is what suggests the changing realities we live in, for which terms like “post-modern” provide a meaningful frame of reference. Dawkins asserting the supposed non-existence of post-modernity through post-modern systems of communication and inter-textual reference, all bound up with the influence of things like aliases and celebrity, is hilarious.

        Only thing, though, is that the digital age / social-networking stuff is not what I’d describe as post-modern. I don’t think we have a good word for it yet (I’d be loathe to use “post-post-modern”), but it’s definitely something very new, which doesn’t quite fit in to the framework of post-modernity. Like I said in the post, the post-modern age of media and communication was “the medium is the message”, but the age we’re entering into is more like “the consumer is the product”, or “the consumer is the medium is the message is the product is the consumer”.

        Like if we consider blogging… take this blog as an example. I’m not quite a celebrity, nor am I quite a nobody. I’m both famous and not famous. I’m not quite a critic, or a digest, or a reader, nor am I quite a writer or creator either. Am I a consumer, or am I the product? Am I the producer of the content, am I the content, or do I just communicate and offer the content? Where’s the boundary between the form and the content, between the medium and the message? Am the start-point, the end-point, or a middle-man? The readers: you’re apparently the consumers, but you’re also producers of content via the comments, and the comments themselves influence me and what I create and write. I also comment on other blogs, and link them, and they link me. This definitely isn’t a classic didactic situation like a journal or newspaper or book, where I communicate my ideas to you through the medium. So is it a dialogue between us, via the blog as a medium? Or is the blog the product, being the thing that’s being offered and “sold” (the whole situation -maybe event- that is the blog)? How do the ads play into this, in terms of how the income works and what the product is or isn’t? And if the income is generated by you, the readers, seeing the ads, are you the product, that I’m selling to the advertisers? Is the content just the bait? Or am I just the bait, and the advertisers are buying me as a means of attracting you? Etc.

        We could ask those questions forever, because basically, in the current situation we’ve got… blogging, social networking, and so forth, all those old categories and terms don’t quite work properly anymore, and our old frames of reference don’t work anymore. Concepts like celebrity, writer, creator, content, consumer, producer, product, medium, message, form, etc. don’t quite fit into what we’re currently dealing with.

        So we need to come up with new frames of reference, new ideas, new concepts, new words. That’s why I think we’re now in a cultural situation just as much past the post-modern age as it was past the modern age.

  10. Berior says

    I wish labels were unecessery. Postmodernist, trans, feminist, gay, atheist and Cthulhu knows how many more. I dislike any and all label because I think they promote, at least for some peoples, a sense of tribalism. Us Vs them.
    I know that labels and groups are important, especialy since it allows minorities to band together and make themselves heard and recognised. I just wish it were unecessery.
    Why should I care that you are black, gay, atheist, trans, or what have you ? Those terms are mere reduction, labels used to categorise something that should never be categorised. We ara all peoples, we are all different and a complex mix of values.

    I very much dislike some specific labels because they turn ideas into identities. I’m all for criticising ideas, doesn’t mean I’m criticising the person holding such ideas.

    Other labels, that are a matter of identity shouldn’t even need to exist. We should never criticise identities, merely avoid discriminating against them. So you’re gay or trans or straight or asexual or countless other variations ? Good for you, it shouldn’t matter at all what you like in term of sexuality or how you identify your sexual identity. You are a person first, everything else should come second.

    I also very much dislike racial identifiers. Why should I care what your skin color or general morphology is like ? You are a person, just like everyone else. Phenotypical variation due to tiny genetic difference shouldn’t matter in how I treat you.

    When I read one of Natalie’s post. I don’t read the post of a series of label, I’m reading about the thought of a person who has gone through some specific events in life that have led her to a certain point of view.

    It is too easy and all too common to conflate labels with the peoples they are assigned to.

    Post modernism thaught you how to think ? Good, but I believe it’s time we all moved beyond that, beyond the labels, beyond the names we assign. I don’t like to use quotes but this one strike me as appropriate. A rose by any other name still smell the same.

    It doesn’t matter if you call it post modernism or skepticism or googlyduckism. The idea matter, the name or movement doesn’t. I’ve found out somewhat recently that I fall under the label of straight edge. I didn’t even know it was a thing. I just very intensly dislike lowering my inhibitions or instil dependency to substances.

    In Short, we all have our values, our beliefs, our identities and labels never ever fit us perfectly. Labels might be a useful shorthand to avoid having to re explain the same thing over and over again but it does lead to tribalism and misconception.

    Natalie assign plenty of labels to herself, so does everyone else. Does that tell me anything specific about her ? No, at best it gives me a very blurry frame of references to spot the differences between what she truly is and what the labels supposedly stand for.

    And that is why I find her blog interesting, she doesn’t merely claim a label, she take the time to explain what meaning the label has to her.

    • Dunc says

      Why should I care that you are black, gay, atheist, trans, or what have you ?

      The problem is that, whether you like it or not, many people (and society at large) do care. How far do you think Barack Obama would get if he said to some of the more extreme racist teabaggers “Oh, just think of me as a man, not a black man”? Not very far, I’ll wager.

      The point is that these are not just labels that people choose for themselves, they’re labels that society attaches to people whether they like it or not.

      • Berior says

        I recognise that society does it.
        Doesn’t mean I have to do it myself or agree with it. My point is that in a better world labels shouldn’t be needed.

        • says

          A more serious objection to this position is that people aren’t always aware of their biases, especially when it comes to race and gender, where overt prejudice is frowned upon and “colorblindness” is seen as a virtue. The idealistic idea that we can foreswear our prejudices without any work is often central to anti–welfare and anti–affirmative action arguments.

          • Berior says

            Ah but I’m not colorblind, if I was unclear what I mean is this, in the best of world race or any other identity label should not matter. But we are far from the best of worlds. There is a history, an atmosphere of biases that do exist and need to be confronted.

            But it’s not a simple dualism, the choices aren’t either to be colorblind and ignore discrimination or to fully embrace labels that end up promoting a pack mentality.

            To me the answer is to work to reduce the discrimination whitout making the mistake of conflating labels with real peoples.

            Are black peoples facing more difficulties than whit peoples in a given situation due to society bias ? Yes. Are all black peoples facing the same difficulty ? No, they do not. So reducing the problems of blacks to those associated with the label is a disservice. Everyone has it’s own history and reducing it to a label doesn’t always help.

            The nuance is subtle and I’m not sure I can find the words to explain what I mean. I can be aware and fight against the biases that society put upon some labels and take that into account when dealing with peoples that fit under said label. But it doesn’t mean that I reduce these peoples to the label.

            John and Marty are both black, they both face discriminations because of it. Does it mean that they both face the exact same discrimination and react to it in the exact same way because they are both black ? Of course not.

            Fighting to stop bias against labels should not make us lose sight that everyone fitting under said label is different and need to be dealt with differently. Losing sight of that is in itself a huge bias.

          • says


            I can be aware and fight against the biases that society put upon some labels and take that into account when dealing with peoples that fit under said label. But it doesn’t mean that I reduce these peoples to the label.

            Sure, fair distinction. Thanks for clarifying. I suspect that enough of us here take this for granted that we more readily notice unintended implications of the word choice. : )

      • Berior says

        Are you even aware of the irony of making assumption about someone in reply to this post ?

        I never claimed that “there was no need for labels” In fact I clearly said that I understood the need for labels, what I said was that focusing too much on the label leads someone to make wrong assumption about a person, which in itself is a problem.

        Yes I am a straight white male. Does that make my identity dead center in society ? No it doesn’t. Identity is much more than just sexual identity or race so making an assumption that I never had any troubles with labels because of it is highly insulting. It implies that only the peoples with a sexual identity that society doesn’t see as normal or who are of another race have it hard.

        Don’t get me wrong, I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult being in that situation must be and I am not arrogant enough to claim that my own problems were worse. But implying that I’ve had it easy because of my sex/race is insulting.

        It’s not so much the implied claim that trans/coloured peoples have it worse that bother me, I’m not in a position to judge whether this particular type of issue is easier or worse than other. What bothers me is that rather than try to understand what I typed, asking questions about what I mean, you jump to conclusion and make baseless assumption of your own.

        And that is exactly what I meant in my post. I’ve, perhaps unclearly, expressed an opinion that matches one of your label “straight white male” and suddenly I’m not a person anymore, I’m just a typical straight white male who doesn’t understand crap.

        And that in a post about post modernism, the question every assumption philosophy. Irony meter, blown.

        • says

          Um, while i’m sorry your irony meter broke, it seems to have been in need of some recalibration. From one straight, white, cis (evidently?) male to another:

          First off, i don’t see that anyone assumed anything about you — someone made an educated (and spot-on) guess, and explained how.

          Second, what does “I believe it’s time we all moved beyond that, beyond the labels, beyond the names we assign.” mean if not that labels are outdated? You seem to be confusing the foreseeable future (in which there’s no hint of this being the case) with a utopian dream.

          Third, we may perceive ourselves however we like, but our society does perceive us as dead-center default, at least with respect to these demographics (which was the claim above). This isn’t “implying that [we]’ve had it easy because of [our] sex/race”; it’s recognizing that we would have had it harder had our sex/race(/gender/orientation) been otherwise. Who’s “worse off” is irrelevant to the fact that several highly influential scales are tipped in our favor.

          Fourth, your original post does suggest a conspicuous lack of understanding. It is our default status, and the lack of imposition or contestation of our identities that comes with it, that allows us to be so oblivious to them. Natalie addressed this — and the importance of not imposing our own obliviousness onto our readings of people without that luxury — in her FAQ. (A close friend has also directed me here, though i won’t speak for the author.)

          Fifth, no one so much as hinted at denying your humanity or personhood, or even your individuality. When that actually happens, the objection will be totally warranted.

    • Anders says

      I don’t think our consciousness would even work without labels. Take the term ‘lesbian’. Our working memory can only hold 6-8 items at a time. To think about lesbians, we can either use the label – that’s one item. Or we can think about all lesbians who live, ever lived, ever will live, ever figured in any work of fiction, etc., etc. I can’t say how many items that is, but it’s definitely more than 6-8. So living without labels – we’re not made for that.

  11. Besomyka says

    Wow. Reading this post and the comments made me flash back to my late-night college days. In a good way!

    I’m not as well read on the subject as Natalie or some of the other posters, but the question Anders posed @6 did get me thinking. As our methods of sussing out the best representations of the world (truth, I suppose), by verifying it though various contextual biases, we will ever increasingly have a body of knowledge that is mostly unassailable, and strongly resistant to post-modernist criticism.

    What then? A sort of new modernism? A modernism with a post-modernist gate keeper? Or maybe a refocusing from the facts and tools to the social factors that affect their use in the world?

    • Robert B. says

      I rather think that if we ever get done with post-modernism, we’ll just move on to critiquing the next thing we’re doing wrong, which we don’t even realize we’re doing yet. Remember that we already have a sizable body of stable knowledge that post-modernism can’t dispute (the shape of the world, germ theory of disease, slavery is wrong, etc.) but that doesn’t remove the need for post-modernism now. If post-modernism critiques everything it can critique and thus creates an even larger body of stable knowledge, that doesn’t mean we’re now perfect and know everything. It means we say “okay, what’s the next problem?”

      • Anders says

        I think the danger would be something like this – tolerance is a virtue in postmodernism. If taken to its extreme, than it will allow what I can only describe as evil to grow and thrive in our midst. And if that leads to unacceptable consequences, people may turn on tolerance itself. The pendulum might swing back into legitimizing intolerance. Finding a balance between the two is difficult, and any balance we find is likely to be valid only under certain external circumstances.

        • Robert B. says

          Ah, yes, there’s that, too. But I was thinking of a new movement, after post-modernism, that criticizes a problematic way of thought that we don’t yet look critically at, in the way that bias and cultural perspective weren’t seriously interrogated until post-modernism.

          • Anders says

            What the hell… I’ll bite. I can’t be more than horribly wrong and that wouldn’t be the first time.

            With advancements in neuroscience and computer technology, it becomes feasible to look at the world through the eyes of a pig or the ears of a bat. This will lead to people questioning whether the human perspective is more accurate than other perspectives and in what way we even can talk of a superior perspective. From an evolutionary standpoint it could certainly be plausibly argued that every animal has the perspective that best suits its way of life (to a first approximation, anyway).

  12. Robert B. says

    Hm. Apparently I’m a post-modernist, too. Whoda thunk?

    The ideas you explain here are ones I recognize as underlying diversity studies and the research into cognitive bias. And I’m totally down with the idea of generalizing this principle of questioning the perspectives and premises from which people think and act, and making sure we’ve considered alternate perspectives.

    Can you recommend me a book on post-modernism? I’m looking for its practice, how to do it, not its history.

  13. Arminius says

    That’s quite a useful article. I never really understood postmodernism before I read this, myself. I always thought it was just some random buzzword people liked to throw about when they had no idea what they were talking about, similar to words like “synergy” in business and so forth.

    Perhaps the reason for this is because every article I’ve read so far that tried to define postmodernism was all wishy-washy and didn’t really seem to say anything. Take the Wikipedia article on postmodernism, for instance: For someone who doesn’t already know what it is, it’s a really hard to read article, and I know I always gave up before I finished the introduction to that article. I guess I can’t claim to have tried hard, but then again, most people probably don’t.

    With that in mind, I really like this article of yours in that it actually presents a clear and concise explanation of what postmodernism is about. Perhaps there should be more texts explaining postmodernism like that, or they should become easier to find (again, most people probably don’t look much further than Wikipedia’s introduction).

    • Rasmus says

      I was gonna second that, based on my memory of how the Wikipedia article was when I tried to sort of casually read it a couple of years ago, you know, as someone who knows absolutely nothing about post modernism and only the bare minimum high-school passing grade stuff about modernism…

      But the article as it stands today actually looks pretty clear and structured to me. It could be a complete mischaracterization for all I know, but in that case it’s at least a clear and readable mischaracterization. 🙂

      Nice blog post anyway.

  14. says

    it should be noted that science has it’s own “post-modernism”, too. The philosophy of science evolved from positivism (i.e. the belief that we can know and understand and find objective truth by objectively observing it) with its ideas of verification, to Popper’s post-positivism, which altered positivism by putting a strong emphasis on the various forms of human bias, as well as the very nature of looking for knowledge. so now, instead of verification, we have falsification, because it’s acknowledged that science can tell you when an idea is definitely wrong, but it can’t tell you that an idea not falsified isn’t wrong, or less-than-fully-true, or something like (i.e., we do or do not reject hypotheses, we don’t declare them true if we fail to disconfirm them).

    most scientists I know (admittedly a somewhat limited sample) haven’t read Popper, and simply accept post-positivism as the natural state of science, but that’s not quite how it worked :-p

    • Anders says

      From what I’ve read, positivism was never very popular in the natural sciences. There are things that go against the positivist mode of thinking – such as Newton’s force of gravity – that were just too useful to give up.

  15. Mel says

    I have been lurking and reading your posts (here and at Queereka) and now I’ve finally found the post on which to comment.

    Thank you for this, because I am a post-modernist as well and I also learned sceptcism and critical thought through post-modernist thought with Foucault, Butler, Zizek and Kristeva among others. These thinkers and their associated writing enabled me to be critical of the religion I grew up in, the religions I explored as a teen and come to the conclusion that while our personal realities are different, they are part of a concrete and material world which can be changed and that our actions have consequences in the here and now and that is what matters.

    I will be commenting more now, because there aren’t ‘t enough feminist, queer and critical voices out there.

    Thank you, again.

  16. ashleybone says

    Nice to see a post in the skeptical world that doesn’t strawman postmodernism as consisting of the Sokal Affair and the three craziest things Luce Irigaray wrote.

    • 'Tis Himself, OM says

      The problem with the Sokal Hoax is it was accepted by a post-modernist journal. You post-modernist fans ended up with egg on your face so you pretend it was an aberration. Sorry but you can’t play No True Scotsman when confronted with the dumb crap many post-modernists exhude. Derrida spouted dadaist sophistry and folks like Foucault were astounded at how profound he was. Heiddiger wrote existential and phenomenological explorations of the “Question of Being.” But he was still a Nazi, fascinated with authoritarianism. Richard Rorty said, more than once, that the truth of beliefs does not consist in their correspondence with reality, but in their efficacy. Here’s a post-modernist philosopher specifically rejecting reality.

      Maybe, if it’s lucky, and the wind’s blowing in the right direction, post-modernism isn’t pure bullshit. But the field has more than its fair share of bullshit.

          • Anders says

            Lee Smolin describes (in the Trouble with Physics) a paper on string theory that was sheer gibberish but which passed all referees with flying colors and printed in a not-insignificant french (I think, it was a long time ago). Anyway, any professor of the natural sciences will be able to tell you of papers (by competing professors) that were rubbish and were published anyway.

            Read this article to discover why most published research papers are false:

          • says

            @Anders, could you make a more specific case for relevance? Regarding Smolin’s article, which i have no reason to doubt played out as you describe, was it written by an outsider to the main discipline of the journal in which it was published (seems not to have been), and was it chock full of jokes that any expert on one of its secondary subjects should have caught (as Sokal’s was)?

            Regarding Ioannidis’s article (which i skimmed and plan to read later), note that the article itself is making an argument for the proposition that “most current published research findings are false” based on simulations with their own assumptions, while it’s title presents this proposition as a fact. (Why didn’t Ioannidis use “probably” in the title?) More seriously, what is the relevance of an article examining problematic biases in research methodology and publishing culture — which, by the way, still appear in the aggregate to do a phenomenally good job of distinguishing fact from fiction — to the failure of expert editors to notice a complete fabrication written by someone with negligible background in the field? Are you really suggesting, for instance, that a literary theorist would be able to sneak a practical joke past the editorial board of even a lesser physics journal?

            I can’t help but betray my dismissive reaction to this comment, but i’ll be glad to take heed if the case is clarified.

          • says

            The point is just that empiricists make mistakes too, so pointing to the Sokal thing isn’t some magic silver bullet for discrediting post-modernism anymore than pointing to any fraudulent results published in any scientific journal would immediately annihilate the case for science and mean we needn’t take it seriously. All Sokal successfully points out is that post-modernism and aesthetic theory has less rigors than hard science, which we already knew and nobody was hiding.

          • says

            (Oh, and to be clear: I didn’t mean to disparage literary theory as a discipline in that comment, and certainly not post-modernism specifically; i was just turning the tables. Replace “literary theorist” with “cultural anthropologist” or “evolutionary biologist” if it suits you.)

          • says

            That reasoning is totally sound, and i also object to the notion that the Sokal affair discredits post-modernism in its entirety. Anders, however, appeared to be responding to julian’s request for a “list of the bullshit” done “by” [fill in the blank] (empiricism in this case) comparable to that done “by” post-modernism. I don’t think that ‘Tis Himself, OM made a strong case against post-modernism, but i also don’t think that Anders made a strong case that post-modernism and empiricism have comparable records of bullshit.

            All Sokal successfully points out is that post-modernism and aesthetic theory has less rigors than hard science, which we already knew and nobody was hiding.

            This, however, i object to. Either Sokal discredited an editorial board (and some reviewers) or he demonstrated profound shortcomings in a discipline. I lean toward the former, though admittedly “softer” disciplines might be more prone to this sort of thing than “harder” ones. But to the extent that one defends the editorial board and reviewers as representative of post-modernism, i can’t help but see them defending a pseudodiscipline.

          • says

            (Again apologizing for any unclarity in the rush: To the extent that Social Text was at fault, Sokal’s piece shouldn’t be interpreted as saying much about the discipline as a whole; asserting that it does suggests that Social Text is representative of the discipline. If this reasoning doesn’t hold up then i withdraw my objection.)

        • julian says

          Adding to my last reply, as we’ve seen throughout this thread and in other discussions, atheists are fond of the No True Scotsman when it comes to the short comings of science and other ideas we hold dear. No doubt you’d see the same in a list of shortcomings but it would at least make a good spring board from which to argue.

  17. Morgan says

    Thanks for this, Natalie. I’ve been aware for a while that I don’t know enough about post-modernism, and haven’t known where to start investigating it without driving myself up the wall. The perspective of a skeptical writer I trust is very valuable.

    Are there any resources, introductions or overviews you’d recommend which are more likely to produce the healthy frustration of challenging assumptions than the fruitless frustration of thinking the writer’s an ass?

  18. Inflection says

    Thanks for the discussion of this issue. Certainly if someone had asked me an hour ago what postmodernism was, I’d have probably given the “there is no truth, everybody can be right” answer, or something like that. I’ll do my best to remember this explanation when encountering such characterizations in the future, and try to avoid using them myself.

  19. Sour Tomato Sand says

    I think it’s worth noting that there is a science that studies cognitive biases and other such issues that are addressed by postmodernism, and that is Social Psychology. There is actually a considerable amount of crossover if you take post-modernism here to be as Natalie has described it. And that field helps us explain how the Hitler/Stalin paths worked (which, I feel worth noting, are two very different paths– Stalin’s wasn’t a “great vision,” it was a successful attempt to cling desperately to power), and why they lead to what they lead to.

  20. abbietreis says

    This is the first coherent defended of postmodernism I’ve ever read. From an outsiders POV the nutty extremes really overshadow this core philosophy. Perhaps some rebranding is in order…

  21. phrankeaufyl says

    This is the first text on post-modernism that I could even begin to comprehend. Thank you!

    Could you do deconstruction next?

    • says

      Clearly your comment represents the anxiety of a post-cold-war society in which the threat of nuclear war looms even more terrible in that it has become a subconscious shadow rather than an overt consideration.


  22. julian says

    Having been one of the worst offenders of push button thinking and arguing, thanks for this. Since I started reading feminist books I’ve started to realize how foolish and uncritically I had been behaving with regards to post-modernism.

    Book marking this post for my wife who’s still where I was.

  23. says

    I’ve tried to defend postmodernism to skeptics, never with much success. I just don’t know enough about it. Postmodernism is something you’d probably learn a lot about if you studied art, music, or other humanities. But I study physics.

    In physics, I think the closest thing to a modern-to-postmodern shift is when Lord Kelvin supposedly declared physics nearly finished. And then relativity and quantum mechanics showed up, and later the atom bomb… well, shit. But that’s all old news now.

    If most skeptics are into the sciences, I suspect that’s why they don’t think much of postmodernism.

  24. says

    I think the problem has to do with usefulness of different kinds of wrong beliefs. An “extremist” on the postmodern side is likely to be the type that thinks knowledge is impossible and that there is no truth, and to shut down discussions in the way Be Scofield does. An “extremist” on the analytic side is likely to be an active scientist who perhaps doesn’t have the best understanding of the nuances of philosophy of science (perhaps he’s a strict positivist or Popperian), but can nevertheless make valid contributions to society and science even while not clearly understanding what he’s doing on a philosophical level.

    I come from a background in literary theory, and I acknowledge that I owe a lot to it. Without literary theory, I never would have become so interested in philosophy and philosophy of science, most likely. However, I have to say that I tend to find post-modernist philosophers to be incredibly dense and difficult to interpret (although who can blame philosophers who think meaning is always underdetermined for not spending a lot of time on clarity?), whereas analytic philosophy tends to be much more clear and less open to misinterpretation (though still difficult, obviously).

    In short, if I had to choose between someone endorsing scientism and the radical unknowability of the subaltern’s otherness engendered by the rise of phallocentric logic, I’m going with the scientism.

  25. crowepps says

    This is the first explanation I’ve ever read of what post-modernism means that makes sense to me. Thank you!

  26. Jake Jaramillo says

    Just reading Sarah Bakewell’s life of Montaigne, and struck by the way you end your essay “…I could be wrong…” Very Montaigne-ian. So maybe Montaigne wasn’t the first “modern man” after all, but the first postmodern person!

  27. says

    Natalie, what do you mean by certainty here? 100% certainty? Any high degree of confidence in a belief? What?

    Either way, I think it’s better to be certain that the Earth is roughly spherical than to think God probably wants us to kill sodomites and infidels.

    And I think failure to see this may be somewhat harmful, give how reluctant some religious believers are to see the dangers of particular religious beliefs, and how eager they are to denounce atheists for being “so certain.”

    • says

      We can be very confident while still leaving a window open for new evidence. Our confidence can and should decrease in accordance with less compelling evidence.

      You talk about certainty that the Earth is roughly spherical. What would you say of all those millions of people who are CERTAIN it is exactly spherical?

        • says

          I do. I think it’s not just association. I think the holocaust was able to happen thanks to the whole following orders thing, extreme faith in the rightness of their cause, effective dehumanization of an “outgroup”, frighteningly efficient systematization, overzealous belief in the ability to “solve” social issues, and too few people involved stopping to question whether what they were doing was wrong and whether the nazi ideals weren’t going to create a better, stronger Germany.

          • Anders says

            Natalie Reed wrote

            I do. I think it’s not just association. I think the holocaust was able to happen thanks to the whole following orders thing, extreme faith in the rightness of their cause, effective dehumanization of an “outgroup”, frighteningly efficient systematization, overzealous belief in the ability to “solve” social issues, and too few people involved stopping to question whether what they were doing was wrong and whether the nazi ideals weren’t going to create a better, stronger Germany.

            Yes. And? These are not Enlightenment values.

            I may not know much about post-modernism, but I suspect you don’t know that much about the Enlightenment. A little history lesson may be in order.

            The Enlightenment can be said to begin with Descartes. He wrote in an era when the old Scholastic system had collapsed under the weight of new evidence and new continents, when Europe was being torn asunder by a war that was in some aspects worse than the Second World War. There were areas of Germany that were ravaged so badly during the 30-years war that they hadn’t recovered when Napoleon came marching on the horizon.

            Descartes swept away all that and said that the thing to do was to start with no preconceptions. The old buildings had collapsed – it was time to build new ones. Sound familiar?

            His method was the systematical doubt. He reinvents St. Augustine’s “I think therefore I am” and builds a new philosophy on it. This does not accomplish much – because he is just as willing to commit logical mistakes as the Scholastics when it serves him – but it teaches people that it’s possible to doubt. To question authority. That idea can be said to be central to the Enlightenment, from Descartes via Locke (who questions the divine right of kings), Hume (who questions empiricism and morals grounded in fact) to Kant (who questions the apparatus with which we see the world). I can assure you that Hitler did not have much use for it.

            The Enlightenment is about the individual. Even Hobbes, who is something of an odd bird, fundamentally bases his state on the right of the individual to not be killed. The sovereign is not allowed to kill his subjects, nor is he allowed to draft them into war. In that sense, if in no other sense, Hobbes is an individualist. This is the old Greek ideal that Pericles talks about when he talks of Athens: “we are not suspicious of one another, and do not nag at our neighbor if he chooses to go his own way… We are free to live exactly as we please…” Where were the rights of individual citizens in Nazi Germany? How do these ideals fit in with the Führerprinzip?

            The counter-enlightenment begins with Rousseau and continues with Hegel. Rousseau talks about “the People’s Will” and sets that above the will of the people. He has no business with intellectual proofs for God – he feels that it’s true and that’s good enough for him and for the Savoyard priest (he also believes that it is possible to educate an ape to become a man, but apparently sees no such hope for women…)

            Hegel makes explicit much of what Rousseau implied. He shows that the greatest good is to obey the King of whatever nation happens to be animated by the World Spirit. In his time it happened to be Prussia, where he was a professor. The old, tired nations of France and Britain merely exist, they do not live. They are corrupted by mercantile ideals and do not understand the warrior spirit that emanates from the… and on, and on, and on.

            Marx takes over the Hegelian dialectics, although he tries to make it slightly more plausible by basing it on the means of production rather than in some spirit world. He combines this with Adam Smith’s conception of economic stages (slavery – feudalism – industrialism) and adds a fourth stage – the classless society. I don’t know where he got that (pious hope?) and it doesn’t matter. His economics is based on the labor theory of value and that’s as dead as Aristotelian physics.

            Anyway, the virtues of the counter-enlightenment movement (intimately bound up with Romanticism) are conformity, obedience and the value of the mass over the value of the individual. And I think Hitler would fit much more easily into this camp.

            Not to leave you hanging, there was a conference a few years ago that was called Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0. Among the speakers were Darrin McMahon, author of Enemies of the Enlightenment, and you can hear his 21-minute speech here:
            Also Margaret Jacob, an authority on the scientific roots of the Enlightenment. You can hear her 16-minute speech here:
            And even a 7-minute impromptu speech from some obscure person called PZ Myers (they apparently let anyone in).
            The entire conference is yours for the taking here:
            I highly recommend it.

            Final footnote – the Left prides itself on its anti-colonialism, but this is a relatively new feature. Marx and Engels were both most contemptuous of the Slavic liberation ideals of the 19th century. The Fabian society was emphatically on the side of the government during the Boer war. It is really only in the 30’s and 40’s that a more systematic counter-colonialism is developed. That’s 100 years after the libertarians Cobden and Bright stood up in the British parliament and demanded that the Empire should be dismantled…

          • says

            Right. I didn’t say Nazism, specifically, was connected to Enlightenment values. I said Nazism is connected to certainty and utopian ideals, and to modernism. Enlightenment I connected to colonialism and imperialism.

          • says

            Okay, so how would you respond to someone telling you, “You never seem to question whether what you’re doing in doing [insert thing you care a lot about] is wrong. You should do that more often. Because if you don’t… well look what happened with the Nazis!”

            To be very clear, I’m not endorsing anything resembling that argument, but I’m anticipating getting it from apologists and accomodationists. That’s a major reason I’m uneasy with this post. So I want to hear how you respond to it. Who knows, maybe your response will be better than anything I’d come up with.

          • says

            I’d respond the way I always do when people go to that space, like Scofield did, as described in the OP. That’s the point at which these ideas are used as a means of shutting down dialogue, thought, not as a means of encouraging it. It seems you’re taking this in a very black/white way. The point is understanding the value of awareness of how subject position and cultural context influence perceptions, interpretations, etc., to take that into consideration, to be cautious in our “certainties”, and to allow room for alternate interpretations. We can do this while still weighting some ideas or concepts stronger than others, in accordance with evidence or good argument. There’s an infinite number of middle-positions between certainty and total relativism. Honestly, I’d recommend just re-reading the original post, as it feels like you may have missed some things I already addressed.

          • says

            We *do* seem to be talking past each other, though I understand that there’s a spectrum of in-between possibilities, so that’s not the source of the issue. Should have a post up on this later this (American time) morning.

  28. says

    I think my problem with post modernism is that the problems with modernism weren’t exactly the product of the Enlightenment, and certainly not the product of the Scottish Enlightenment, which is the one that has produced better results over time.

    Nazism and the nationalism, the causes of the two world wars, were the product of counter-enlightenment thinking. They were not a result of enlightenment thought, but rather of an explicit rejection of them.

    Even communism, which is an intellectual descendant of the French Enlightenment, only represent one part of enlightenment thought, and the part that produced questionable results from the very beginning. Adam Smith (a foundation thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment) warned about the dangers of imposing a utopian ideology on humanity without proper regard to the way people actually think more than 100 years before Das Kapital was even written.

    So rather than trying to move past modernism, I think we just need to forget 19th Century philosophy ever happened and go back to Scottish Enlightenment values, the principles on which modern civilisation is based. Sure, some of the advocates of those ideas didn’t apply them as broadly as they should (see Jefferson and slavery), but that where we should focus our attention – on making the Scottish Enlightenment truly universal.

    Having said that I’m very glad exposure to post-modernism taught you critical thinking. It’s good to have you as part of our community Natalie.

        • says

          Yes. Because virtually all ideologies have been used for stupid, awful shit.

          Enlightenment values were clearly tied to colonialism and imperialism, and used to justify all kinds of racism and stuff. Communism is a direct offshoot of Hegelianism. I don’t think “but those were the wrong particular sub-branch of the enlightenment” is a very good defense against my argument that maintaining conviction in these kinds of utopian ideals is dangerous.

          • says

            Colonialism and racism pre-dated the Enlightenment. The first New World colonies were started back in the 16th Century, and racism is as old as humanity. It was the Enlightenment that led to racism first being questioned, along with such ideas as the primacy of religion and hereditary monarchs.

            Furthermore, the reason why I think the distinction between the Scottish and French Enlightenments is because they were distinct intellectual movements. For one thing, the Scottish Enlightenment was anti-utopian. They thought they could make the world better, but that’s not the same as thinking you can make it perfect.

            Could Scottish Enlightenment ideas be used for nefarious purposes? Of course, any idea can be misused. But I think the odds of Scottish Enlightenment ideas supporting tyranny are much lower than for other ideas – this is a philosophy that stresses limiting the power of the state precisely because people cannot be trusted with absolute power.

  29. says

    Interesting post.

    I am not a student of philosophy. I was afraid reading the title I would not be able to make heads or tails of this whatsoever. I have found that people are never quite able to explain postmodernism to me in a cohesive manner. I feel like you have brought the idea together in a easy to understand way that displays the underlying theme of postmodernism.

    That being said, I still don’t know where I would rate on any sort of “how pomo are you scale.” In some ways I am highly relativistic. In other ways I am not. I certainly am not so in the uber accommodationist manner of giving all ideas equal footing simply on the basis that you can’t actually know truth. I abandoned that idea once I stepped down from the fence of agnosticism. I do however understand how your skepticism was born out of postmodern principles. It makes sense.

    Lots to think about here and I might actually find myself researching more about postmodernism soon.

    PS. I will have to send Jarreg to read this one. He always groans when he hears the word postmodernism.

  30. says

    Good points about what postmodernism really is about. In your take, it seems to be about critical thinking applied to all domains, both to one’s own thoughts and to the thoughts of others.

    The question left unanswered is on what such a criticism could be based on? Having accepted that there are multiple perspectives on ‘the world’ what should a postmodernist use as a criteria to choose between these different perspectives?

    In here, the philosophical tradition of pragmatism could be useful. It argues that we most certainly have different perspectives on the world and we should never commit ourselves totally to any one perspective but should always remain open to reconsider our beliefs. ‘The quest for certainty’, as John Dewey calls it, is what human beings engage in for psychological reasons – in order to feel safe – and that’s why they are so easy targets for religions and other prophets who promise them absolute truths. Instead one should embrace fallibilism, the conviction that “our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy”, as Charles Peirce puts it.

    What pragmatism offers as a standard through which to evaluate different forms of knowledge is the practical usefulness of the beliefs. Some ways of understanding ‘the world’ are simply better maps in navigating in this world towards those things we see as valuable. So in the end those perspectives are better that are best able to guide us towards the fulfillment of our personal values and goals.

  31. Gra-gra says

    This was a superb post and like a few people have said already, explained post-modernism to me in a way I understand, so thank you, I think I get it. You should package this as a talk at TAM or one of the other skeptical conferences. It would give people something to really think about rather than another talk about the religious right. We know they are assholes already!

      • Anders says

        Why not borrow a page from the Skepchicks? Do a ‘tastefully nude’ calendar with trans women and one with trans men. All profits would go to sending Canadian trans people to TAM. It would

        a) maybe get you to TAM

        b) show that you are not ashamed of your bodies and that being a trans person is nothing to be ashamed from

        c) possibly create a shit-storm in the media, making trans people more visible

        That last one may not be all good – not all publicity is good – but the first two? Why not?

  32. says

    Natalie, thanks so much for this post. I have also noticed the frequent strawmanning of postmodern thought in the Skeptical community, and I hope that a link to this post becomes the default remedy to this problem in on blogs/fora/etc.

    That said, there is a very high correlation between postmodernism and anti-rationalist and anti-science attitudes, especially among academic types in the humanities and social sciences. I say this not because I devalue those disciplines (I am in the humanities myself), but because in my experience it is overwhelmingly the case that colleagues with a postmodern bent will buy into woo or pseudoscience and use postmodern reasoning to justify their beliefs when they are called into question.

    I’m planning on writing something about this in the near future to explain in more detail, but I think that to a large extent this is the product of a few related issues:

    1) The questioning of received wisdom, bias, and authority that is central to postmodern thought can easily become an uncritical “skepticism” (i.e. denialism) of any knowledge that comes from authoritative sources, especially for those with contrarian attitudes or who get kicks out of being seen as “subversive” or “anti-establishment.”

    2) Using postmodern ideas about knowledge production to denigrate the scientific process helps them to feel better about scientific knowledge generally having more cultural prestige than other kinds of knowledge (such as that produced in the humanities).

    3) Ironically, it can allow people to justify their biases, assumptions, or political opinions by claiming all challenges to these are a result of uncritiqued biases or assumptions on the part of those challenging them.

    The result of this mixture is often striking, like the colleague of mine who insisted that the recent case of conversion disorder in New York couldn’t be real because a historian of medicine has shown in a book (written 20 years ago) that diagnoses of hysteria in the distant past (pre-1930) were often incorrect and pathologised women. This was considered sufficient to discount all the research in the field by neurologists and psychologists, with which she refused to engage (presumably because they can’t be trusted). Pointing out the fallacy here led only to an angry Courtier’s Reply, accusations of having dismissive attitude rooted in blind scientism, and an abrupt end to the discussion.

    • says

      Oops! It seems the definition I linked to misses the crucial point that the Courtier’s Reply isn’t just an accusation of ignorance, but rather an attempt to evade defending a claim by misdirection. This includes citing sources that assume the claim’s truth or those that are only superficially related. PZ’s original post here.

  33. says

    Awesome, awesome post as always, Natalie.

    I’ve noticed at FtB not just post-modernism, but actually philosophy itself, as an entire discipline, being tossed aside as unneeded by quite a few commenters here, particularly over at Dan Fincke’s blog during Eric Steinhardt’s investigations into Wicca and atheism. As a philosophy major, I’m obviously biased, but it legitimately boggles my mind how quick some “skeptics” or “rationalists” are to discount entire disciplines/people/etc based on one point or another. But, then again, perhaps I’m asking too much for such self-identified people to act as they proclaim.

  34. Anders says

    There are many roads to Damascus. I’m glad you found yours and proud to be fighting on the same team as you.

  35. alvalindvall says

    Thank You.

    Next time I get into the never-ending discussion about how being slightly post modern in my approach makes a a pseudo-intellectual, delusional femi-nazi, I’ll just link them here.

  36. Davros says

    I admit to not being a fan of certain aspects of post-modernism (applied to science, at least). You’ve addressed, in a very nice article, the ways that post-modernism is very useful, and even implicitly and unconsciously accepted, in science and skepticism.

    The problem is that you are an educated, thoughtful, curious skeptic who has taken the time to truly understand the subject. The vast majority of people in daily life who use the term post-modern took a philosophy 101 class and a lit crit class in college, and now think they are post-modernists. I think the skeptical frustration with post-modernism is with how it’s employed, rather than the basic tenants of the philosophy itself (though I admit there is a lot of ignorance within the skeptical community as well)

    It’s similar to when apologists point to some academic Christian and their well-constructed, thoughtful discussions of religion. Well, that’s nice, but the people we deal with on a daily basis are shouting “ADAM AND EVE, NOT ADAM AND STEVE.” It’s not exactly the same, since post-modernism can actually contribute something constructive, unlike religion. But most people I encounter who are “post-modernists” are big fans of “What the Bleep Do We Know.”

    All this said, thank you for this article, it was very interesting, and enlightening (ha) in places.

  37. says

    I agree with you that critics of post-modernism are often attacking a cartoon version which bundles together the work of a dozen different thinkers, but I think there’s a pretty understandable reason for that: the actual works are so fucking hard to read. Okay, so Foucault is pretty clear and Bourdieu can be as well. But Derrida was intentionally obtuse – playing games with his readers to prove his point, and Baudrillard often seems to use obscurantism to mask the poverty of his thought.

    As you point out, many of the ideas – specifically Derrida’s “deconstruction’ and Foucault’s thinking on discourse, normalization, and power/knowledge – have been translated and paraphrased into digestible nuggets and are now so ingrained in our critical thought that it’s impossible to see them, let alone remove them. But with that has come a willing ignorance of many to not read the original work or get a sense of the context and limitations within which these “precision tools” were being deployed, and instead become jackhammers of ignorance.

    I don’t see any conflict between the idea that science is simultaneously a discursive and political practice fraught with power relations and a thing which has generated fundamental truths about our universe. It’s because science is done by people, and people are complicated. They have egos and want prestige; they have different ethical boundaries; they are influenced by ideology and the society around them. What science pumps out, in the end, may be objectively True, but the actual practice of science – the search for these truths – can never claim such purity.

  38. ologies says

    Hi Natalie,

    I lurk and read your blog semi-frequently and I appreciate your take on issues from your unique perspective and experience. I just wanted to de-lurk and comment in the interest of total transparency (though I assumed you probably get notifications for pingbacks and links, that’s kind of the ding-dong-ditch of blogging, I think?) to say that I decided to write a response to this post in particular, which I had some disagreements on.

    You can find it here – please feel free to let me know if you’d like to contact me elsewhere or anything else. I’m not exactly seasoned about the etiquette for these things, sooo…Cheerio? Good day to you?

    • says

      Yeah, I got the pingback. I haven’t read your response, but I’ll get to it soon. Anyway, no worries about the disagreements. That’s fine. Hallquist disagreed a bunch too. Promoting discourse is a big part of what this whole blogging thing is all about, and just having people thinking and talking about the issue is a success in itself. 🙂

      And I’m DEFINITELY not always right about everything.

  39. supernova says

    I’m not convinced. Where you actually attempt to describe your post-modernism, you pick the parts which are really no different from skepticism. Since when did skepticism of social context and one’s own biases need a special name? Other than that you have a just-so historical interpretation and then some phrases you always see from post-modernist apologists “it helped me think critically” etc, phrases that describe some positive personal effect it had, without any explanation as to actually how that happened.

    I think the great irony at the centre of post-modernism is that while it attempts to analyze the social context of beliefs, it itself seems to be almost entirely determined by the preoccupations and culture of its adherents. Admittedly I have not read vast tracts of post-modern writing, but those I have always seem to make a lot of assertions without any justification, a lot is taken for granted and this is true of your historical tale as well.

    And while you claim not to no-true-scotsman the madder parts of post-modernism, this doesn’t stop you from saying that defenders of woo and religion using it are using a “silly, shallow” form of it. On what basis could you possibly make that judgement?

    You also only briefly mention deliberate obfuscation, yet this is one of the worst aspects of post-modernism, as it lets anyone mask a poverty of thought. Check that post on again. Can you, as a long-time post-modernist, understand the quote contained within? Why would anyone write like that other than if they didn’t really have anything to say? I’m sure they would claim that we mere mortals merely cannot comprehend what they have written, but we have no evidence this is the case.

    This has come off a little harsher than I intended, but I see no reason why post-modernism is anything better than redundant, since all the “good” bits of post-modernism you claim characterize your version are already contained in skepticism anyway, and I don’t see anything post-modernism adds except perhaps inclusion in a trendy clique. I would gladly change my opinion if I saw a post-modern text that actually served to clarify, rather than further obfuscate, ideas, or made an observation about reality that wasn’t made on the basis of tons of shaky assumptions.

    • says

      Admittedly I have not read vast tracts of post-modern writing, but those I have always seem to make a lot of assertions without any justification, a lot is taken for granted and this is true of your historical tale as well.

      I’m curious if you can give any examples of specific postmodern writing that you’ve read that makes a lot of assertions without any justification? I’m curious what field it comes from.

      An example of postmodernism that helps to clarify rather than obfuscate can be found in anthropology. Postmodernism has been hugely influential in the field by introducing reflexivity into ethnography. Before postmodernism, ethnographers generally thought of themselves as objective observers that had little effect on their fieldsite and that they were simply representing a culture. This is reflected in the authoritative manner in which most pre-pomo ethnography is written. Postmodernist critiques pushed anthropologists into what is known as the crisis of representation, forcing ethnographers to recognize their role in their fieldwork and their data. When this notion is taken to its extreme, it is known as “naval gazing,” and it makes for really shitty ethnography. But when it’s done right, it makes for a much richer, more nuanced, and more realistic ethnography because it’s not presented as some authoritative, objective, all-seeing account of an entirety of a culture.

  40. says

    The Second World War, … terminated the capacity for our culture to collectively believe uncritically in the values of modernism, and the underlying enlightenment principles on which modernism was based.

    Um…which principles of either modernism or the Enlightenment did WW-II disprove or invalidate, exactly? It sounds like you’re doing to modernism and the Enlightenment what you accuse others of doing to post-modernism: making strawmen of them.

    The atomic bomb raised grave questions about scientific and technological progress, and whether these are to be considered virtues in and of themselves, or whether they need to forever remain tethered to acute awareness of consequence.

    Nuclear weapons didn’t raise any questions that weren’t already raised multiple times, every single time some new invention or discovery threatens to rock our world. There’s always been, and probably always will be, people who get scared of new knowledge and inventions and want to “tether” progress to their fear of change. And the answer to these “grave questions” is always the same: science gives us progres that isn’t always 100% wonderful, but it also gives us the means to understand and control the consequences of progress.

    If postmodernism includes reactionary resistance to progress, and rejection of the Enlightenment for poorly-stated resaons, then that alone is good reason to scrap it.

  41. says

    In fact, it is the post-modern principle of understanding the danger of certainty…

    Is that really a “post-modern” priciple, or a principle of rational inquiry/methodological materialism?

  42. Zachary Stansfield says

    Having just caught this post now and given my minimal (conscious) exposure to post-modernist ideas I was definitely impressed by your defense of this “era” of thought, particularly this abbreviated paragraph which I think sums up the argument nicely:

    “When we take post-modern principles such as that we need to be wary of our position, our context, and question our values and assumptions…and start using them as a means of defending the “right” of others to not bother employing them themselves… as a means of deciding some things are off limits for questioning… That’s when post-modernist thought stops being thought.”

    I guess my question then would be how does post-modernism differ from just regular old critical thinking? The dictate to “question one’s assumptions” I think we can all agree is inherently valid when trying to formulate any good system of beliefs, but I don’t believe it is something that post-modernists can claim for themselves.

    Perhaps when skeptics “straw man” post-modernism they are simply using a different classification system than you are. Perhaps they don’t mean the “post-modernists” (who are also critical thinkers) that employ this technique in order to construct a set of ideas, but instead relegate only those post-modernists who question assumptions out of extreme relativism to this camp. This kind of classification would make sense to me (given my minimal knowledge of the topic), because if such a stark division does truly exist within the community of post-modernist thinkers that some hold legitimate philosophical positions and others promote extreme relativism, then one must ask whether the defining principle of this group is truly “to question assumptions” rather than something less valuable.


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