Postmodernism and the Assault on Truth

Logic. I began with a look at the history of logic. The ancient Greek philosophers known as Sophists would argue for or against any case for money. Socrates questioned whether people really understood what they were saying, by asking them to define what they meant by a particular concept and then showing that their assumptions led to unwelcome conclusions. Aristotle was the first to develop definite principles of logic. They depend on words having definite meanings.

One of the great achievements of the ancient Greeks was Euclid's Elements which synthesised the geometrical knowledge of the time by stating clear initial assumptions and deducing complex geometrical theorems by simple logical steps. This was an important advance in science. Archimedes to some extent added the further element of experiment, needed for scientific progress, in his engineering work. This however, with power shifting to the Romans who were not theoretically minded, and with the rise of Christian and Islamic religion, was not followed up until the Renaissance some 1500 years later.

The scientific revolution associated with such figures as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and Newton depended on Aristotelian logic and Euclidean geometry, enhanced by new mathematical methods, like coordinates and calculus and was very sucessful in physics.

Dialectic. However, there were problems applying the same methods to people and society. Philosophers such as Fichter and Hegel, working around 1800, developed a new scheme of logic known as Dialectic for this purpose. Dialectic is supposed to proceed by a process of analysis into thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis. This way of thinking was influential on Marx, Engels and others.

In the twentieth century something seems to have gone wrong with the dialectic approach. Philosophers lost sight of the pursuit of truth. Perhaps it is inherent in the idea of dialectic itself.

Public Relations and Propaganda. The first world war saw the development of PR and propaganda. Woodrow Wilson who had promised not to get the US involved in the war was forced to change his mind, and set up a panel (the Creel Committee) involving journalists Walter Lippmann and Ivy Lee, to explain this turn-abount to the electorate. These people developed the ideas of Public Relations. Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, wrote two influential books The Engineering of Consent which sought to use insights from psychology and sociology to manipulate public opinion, and Propaganda which saw the conscious manipulation of information as an important element in government. Needless to say this was a significant influence on Joseph Goebbels, among many others. National Socialism (ostensibly left-wing) was also fascism (right-wing). George Orwell's 'Newspeak' in his novel 1984 satirised the soviet communist propaganda methods of Stalin.

Postmodernism. Based on the German philosophers Friedrich Nietsche (1844 - 1900), Max Weber (1864 - 1920) and Martin Heidegger (1889 - 1970), postmodernism and other related isms such as Social Constructivism, were developed mainly by a series of French writers: Paul Ricoeur (1913 - ), Roland Barthes (1913 - 1980), Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 - 1998), Jean Baudrillard (1929 - ) and Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004). They raised the supposed difficulty of finding a 'privileged position' from which the 'real meaning' of a text or culture can be discovered. Social constructivism holds that truth is constructed by social processes, and is in part shaped by the power struggles within a community. It is believed that concepts like race, sexuality and gender are socially constructed.

Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004) is associated with the idea of deconstruction. When asked to define it he stated (1983): "I have no simple and formalisable response to this question. All my essays are attempts to have it out with this formidable question". The University of Cambridge (1992) awarded Derrida an honorary doctorate, despite opposition from members of its philosophy faculty and a letter of protest signed by 18 professors from other institutions. They claimed Derrida's work "does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour" and described it as being composed of "tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists". He tries to give an appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical (Searl 1994).

The Sokal Hoax. In 1996 Alan Sokal, professor of physics at New York University, submitted a paper to the postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text published by Duke University. It's title was "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". On the day of publication Sokal announced in another magazine that the article was a hoax, calling his paper "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense" which was "structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics" made by humanities academics. This publication won the journal the 1996 IgNobel Prize for literature.

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont subsequently (1998) published a book on Intellectual Impostures. It was memorably reviewed by Richard Dawkins (reprinted in A Devil's Chaplain). In that he wrote (p.147): "You can buy any number of books on 'quantum healing', not to mention quantum psychology, quantum responsibility, quantum morality, quantum aesthetics, quantum immortality and quantum theology. I heven't found a book on quantum feminism, quantum financial management or Afro-quantum theory, but give it time." Lo and behold! Carolyn G. Guertin, Senior McLuhan Fellow, University of Toronto, duly obliged with "Quantum Feminist Mnemotechnics: The Archival Text, Digital Narrative and the Limits of Memory". Another book attacking postmodernism is Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom.

The Postmodernism Generator. Sokal noted that, in addition to numerous half-truths, falsehoods and non sequiturs, his original article contained some "syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever". He regretted not having the knack of writing more of these. Thanks to Andrew C. Bulhak who programmed a postmodernism generator he could now use a computer to generate such sentences at will. Every time you visit the site it will generate for you a new postmodern discourse.

Enemies of Truth. Another current practitioner of postmodernism is Steve Fuller, Professor of Social Science at Warwick University, who has used it to support claims of 'intelligent design' to be scientific. Alan Munslow says "The past is not discovered or found. It is created and represented by the historian as text". Keith Jenkins believes that "history is just ideology". Hans Kellner complains that historians "routinely behave as though their researches were into the past. ... The past is unknowable; all we can know about is historians' writings". Of course it is right to say that we can never know the whole truth about anything in the past, but it does not follow that there is no such thing as the truth at all.


World Socialists
Stephen Hicks
Richard Evans
History of Postmodernism
Postmodernism generator/a>
Quantum feminism
Dawkins comment
Guertin's teaching philosophy
Onion: Heroic computer tale
David Thompson
Terry Heaton

This essay is based on introductory notes I made for the Leicester Secular Society IDEAS Group meeting held on 20 September 2007.