So someone from the UK asked me a question about postmodernism’s relationship to metaethics. I probed a little more deeply, and the question ultimately turned on the assertion that postmodernism denies the existence of truth, including moral truth. When that was probed, it turned out that this person had been listening to reporting people had been doing lately on Aleksandr Dugin.
Dugin is a former journalist, former political activist, former professor, and current, contemptible “public intellectual”. He is also a philosopher, and is almost certainly much more widely read than I am. He has a vast amount of knowledge accessible from memory which makes contradicting him feel dangerously intimidating when in-person. Given that so much of his work is inaccessible to me, and nearly all of the rest would require me to be familiar with a vast variety of sources in order to effectively challenge his interpretations and conclusions, I’m not really the one to debunk this man’s output.
But on the other hand, it’s clear that we don’t need another Dugin to carefully debunk all of Dugin’s work: he effectively discredits it all on his own. According to multiple sources, including Ricochet, The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, Reason.com and Salvage.zone, Dugin has made various remarks inciting the indiscriminate killing of all Ukranians.*2 You don’t have to take their word that the comments were made, however. If you speak Russian, you can simply go to youtube and see Dugin say something I am told includes words that translate to, “We must kill all Ukranians,” “kill, kill, kill,” and “I say this to you as a professor” or, perhaps, “”To kill, kill, kill. There should be no more conversations. As a professor, I think so”.*3 Indeed according to Salvage.zone and other sources (the Interpreter being perhaps the most credible), his malicious and savage calls to genocide were directly responsible for the loss of his professorship at MSU in 2014.*4
However self-discrediting such genocidal rhetoric might seem, Putin and others in the Russian government take him seriously and his views and writings clearly influence their government’s policies. Indeed the Russian government uses many statements by Dugin either directly or indirectly in defense of their war of aggression against the Ukraine. The racist, sexist, anti-semitic, anti-muslim “alt-right” also takes inspiration from Dugin and has invited him to lecture in many locations around Europe and even in North America. But how in the world could any well-read philosopher, one who clearly has more than the basics of an ethics education, justify calls to genocide?
And thus the question that was posed to me: when called upon to defend his ethics, and in particular the ethics of his calls to genocide, Dugin falls back on postmodernism as a defense. So what does postmodernism say that can be used by Dugin in defense of genocide? This BBC interview with Gabriel Gatehouse from 2016 will serve up our examples, but his assertions of what postmodernism says will not go over so well for him with those who are actually aware of postmodernism, postmodernist epistemology, and postmodernist ethics:
Dugin: We have our Russian special truth that you need to accept, something that maybe is not your truth.
Gatehouse: Even if it’s not true.
Dugin: But if the truth is relative, that doesn’t mean that truth doesn’t exist. It means that absolute truth, one for all, doesn’t exist.
But this is not actually a contention of any serious postmodernism. The fundamental observation of the postmodernist critique is that access to absolute truth is imperfect, and so absolute certainty about what the truth is impossible to achieve for the vast majority of facts. At any given moment, there is a true and accurate answer to the question, “What is the distance from the nearest point on earth’s solid surface to the nearest point on mars’ solid surface, rounded to the nearest kilometer?” I sure as hell don’t know that answer, but that answer exists, and it is true “one for all”. Postmodernism would have us question those who claim access to this absolute truth – if the answer was actually important, postmodernism would encourage us not to meekly accept claims from authority, but to acknowledge that human fallibility may build in sources of errors to our measuring instruments and also corrupt any actually correct answers those instruments might provide during the communication of those answers to others. But this is not a claim that the truth doesn’t exist.
Dugin: The truth is the question of belief, and postmodernity shows that every so-called truth is the matter of belief. We believe in what we do, and we believe in what we say, and that is the only way to define the truth.
No. Any serious postmodernism allows us to separate categories of knowledge. Some truths are directly dependent on definitions. Once you define the number “one” and the mathematical operation “addition”, then 1 + 1 = 2, and this is independent of belief. One doesn’t have to believe the definitions of “one” and “addition” to know for a fact that according to those definitions 1 + 1 = 2. Indeed, postmodernism resists definitions and oversimplification to such a degree that to say postmodernism asserts that there is only one way to do anything, including to define the truth, is simply false. Postmodernism has much better (and more accurate) critiques of the important human enterprise of mathematics than simply “1 + 1 = 2 is a matter of belief”.
Dugin: The truth is a matter of belief, and that is not only our position. Because what I see in Western media, I ask myself how the people could lie in such a way. They lie about everything in the world. But after that I say, I say to myself, “Stop. This is not lie. That is their truth.” [crosstalk] they are completely convinced that they’re true.
Gatehouse: I work in the Western media. I’m a reporter. I go out on the ground; I report what I see. Nobody tells me from on high…
Dugin: No, no. There is no such things: the fact’s … it’s always interpretation.
Here Dugin is much closer to the postmodernist position. In fact that last bit is something that postmodernists might routinely say, and does accurately reflect mainstream postmodern thought. The truth of 5* (1 + 1) = 10 may not be a matter of belief, but the people who say that 5 * (1 + 1) = 10 aren’t necessarily people who have ever gone back to first principles to review definitions and work out a logical proof that the statement must be true. In practice, people assert as true those things that they believe as true, regardless of whether or not those things are in fact true. But this is a statement about human behavior and about human communication. Depending on your epistemology, it need not be a statement about the nature of truth at all.
We’ve often discussed “dictionary atheism” on FreethoughtBlogs.com. As a side conversation, we have discussed the difference between descriptive definitions and proscriptive definitions. (If you watch The Atheist Experience’s shows, there’s a good chance you’ll have seen those folks discuss exactly this.) In short, descriptive definitions are just descriptions of what people probably mean when they use a particular word. They don’t mean that the word can’t be used another way, or that if used another way the speaker or writer is in error. The definitions simply provide information to help you interpret another’s communications. Proscriptive definitions are definitions that do imply rigid boundaries, where the use of such a word to communicate something other than the meaning provided by the definition is an error.
Both exist, and both are useful. When I teach a class, I might provide a definition for the purposes of the class. This is helpful because then as I grade a test or paper, I know that the word or phrase defined can be used wrongly. This provides a method for increasing fairness in grading. You don’t have to restrict your use of the word or phrase I defined once you leave my class, but it is much harder for me to evaluate what you have learned and are learning without such definitions.
Outside of such structured environments, however, definitions are generally descriptive. Postmodernism is right to observe that the way the word “true” is used in everyday life is synonymous with the phrase “believed to be true”. But that provides us with two definitions: “true” can mean something that accurately states a fact or it can mean something that a speaker/communicator believes accurately states a fact. It is useful to be aware that it is often hard for the target of communication to differentiate between these two different uses. Postmodernism is correct to encourage skepticism based on the ambiguity created by these two different uses. But in the end, postmodernism is useful because it critiques this ambiguity. Read this statement by Dugin again:
every so-called truth is the matter of belief
and this one
it’s always interpretation
Dugin has rid himself of the ambiguity. There are no underlying facts. There is no truth. It’s all interpretation. But in denying the ambiguity, in denying the differing (and both relevant!) definition of truth as things that are true and things that are believed to be true, Dugin is denying postmodernism itself.
Dugin repeatedly – in that interview and elsewhere – uses postmodernist questions of access to absolute truth as a defeater to any claims of moral responsibility. It’s here where some people begin to believe that postmodernism does have a corrosive effect on morality, on ethics. It’s here where some people begin to believe that a postmodernist metaethics leads directly to a nihilist form of relativism where nothing can be critiqued from an ethical standpoint. But this isn’t the actual legacy of postmodernism.
In critiquing the claims of special access to truth, especially (but not only) claims of special access to truth through authority founded on tribal membership, religious status, political position, and money, postmodernism is not a shield against ethical inquiry. Rather, authentic postmodernism is an attempt to update Socrates’ critique of Euthyphro for our modern gods.
Without doubt postmodernism can be used as a shield against certain accusations, but it’s a shield that Dugin himself has no ability to wield, and no one watching him, or watching the alt-right and Christian right blowhards that attack the same non-existent postmodernism Dugin uses as a defense, should be at all concerned that they must contend with his assertions as a serious postmodern critique of ethics.
*1: at Moscow State University – the Russian Federation’s Harvard, Stanford, University of Toronto, or Oxford
*2: I go out of my way to list multiple sources reporting different comments in part because none of those sources are particularly well known to me, and KHRPG and Salvage.zone are entirely new to me, so it’s hard to judge their reliability.
*3: The youtube page is linked from different articles who use different english quotes in the links or adjacent to them. It’s hard for me to know the exact nature of what’s being said, being entirely without any understanding of Russian language. I still feel confident that either all these translations are reasonable or, and perhaps more likely, the many different times Dugin has called for indiscriminate killings of Ukrainian people are being differently reported by different outlets, but with many writers choosing to bolster the credibility of their claims by linking to a single video that isn’t necessarily the particular call for violence being reported in that article.
*4: Terribly, the university didn’t act until being called out publicly: Dugin’s language was called out in a petition to fire him that was signed by over 10,000 persons, many of them influential Russian academics, and many of those at MSU itself. Only after this petition got significant journalistic attention did MSU rid itself of Dugin. Worse: they apparently got rid of Dugin by not rehiring him, rather than firing him and standing publicly by the action as well-deserved.