Heaven forfend! I'm a Postmodernist!

Before I begin this, my first foray into the forum, let me introduce myself. I am a student at a liberal arts college, and I am a philosophy major. I’ve been planning this (coming here and majoring in philosophy) for around three years now.

Prior to coming here, I was studying what amounts to the most analytic of analytic philosophy (think Allan Bloom,) and was remarkably set against the “European types.” I confess that was of the sort that snickered at Derrida’s obituaries and would’ve written snide letters if possible. I adored Alan Sokal and loved characterizing those “pomos” as a bunch of pernicious, pretentious nihilists.

(Since then, I’ve been roundly disabused of the notion that “continental” and “analytic” or “anglophone” is a binary opposition - I’ve even come to think of Strauss as a bit continental.)

I’ve been here only two weeks, and am taking fairly rudimentary classes (Logic, and something on Kant.) Despite that, I’ve taken a sudden, strong interest in continental philosophers, particularly so-called postmodernists.

As I’ve said, this was a great change for me, and one I’m not sure I can really explain. Is it that being in a new situation has made me more open-minded? Is it the clove cigarettes? Yesterday, I spent two hours with some people in the basement of the library with a bag of popcorn and a soda, watching the documentary Derrida. For whatever reason, I’ve got a sudden urge to read Heidegger; I even tried to get into a 400-level class on the man, but it was full, and now I’m just trying to read Being and Time on my own.

I think I’m even beginning to think a little like a postmodernist, if that’s an acceptable way of putting it. Here’s an example. Yesterday, some friends and I were sitting around working on homework together, namely a paper we were all supposed to write. The prof. had given us an essay on how to write clearly, and we were to read it, presumably applying what we’d learned to our own work. The essay gave several bits of advice, such as “Avoid cliches.”

I seized upon the idea that, since they were commonplace, all the grammer and stylistic rules mentioned in the essay were, in fact, cliche, and therefore, the “Avoid cliches.” line in the essay negates the rest in some fashion. Everyone who was with me just loved the idea, and we really took off on it (not getting much else done.) Eventually, it got to the point where we concluded that, “Coherence is the ultimate cliche,” and decided that the essay didn’t want us to write clearly after all.

Was that postmodern of me? I mentioned the incident to my mother later (who also has an avid interest in philosophy,) and she commented that it seemed very postmodernist, or even deconstructionist. Ack. I’ve only been at college two weeks - have I joined the proverbial “dark side?”

But, in all seriousness, I’m rather enjoying my sudden, new interests and perspectives. Anyone else ever done this? Completely isolated oneself from diametrically-opposed viewpoints, then thrown oneself headfirst into said viewpoints, ultimately deciding that there’s really no such thing as “diametrically-opposed?”

Perhaps try Introduction to Metaphysics first… (the Polt translation, I have been told, is the best)



two points.

first the practical : a rule is not a cliche. this can be explained in a few ways. firstly, a cliche behaves like a rule, except people stick to it not because it is according with what can be experimentally found (in the sense quantum mechanics is a rule), but because it accords with their “oppinion” of what can be found .if we considered a law for instance, we could have said people stick with it because it is enforced. the fact that rules, laws and cliches tend to band together doesn;t make analysis any easier. the professor most certainly ment avoid according with those of less cultivated oppinions, but thats another matter.

secondly, we could argue a rule has to be anterior to a cliche, for the cliche to even be possible (relegating the cliche to a shorthand, cheap attempt at formalizing the rule). it is most certainly difficult to argue you could still recognize a cliche if there were no rule underpinning it.

secondly (secondly secondly, actually) the entire coherence is cliche has been copiously exhausted on the continent, mostly by artists (you probably heard of some of the schools of painting, and possibly of the dada movement). the teacher will shrug yet another uninformd prank that replicates milimetrically older pranks… it’s surprising how original thought can be so very predictable.

lastly, to my own heart, the ultimate postmodernist in the US is really RP Feynman. unfortunately he couldn’t stand philosophy, so he never put his points into anything people who don’t understand math and can’t stand phisics are likely to read. but nonetheless…

finally, a quote from pascal. people commonly have an angle of view. when that angle narrows to becoming but a single point, the person proudly announces : this is my point of view. soon thereafter, he finds at least one diametrically opposed.

Whistle while you work
Sokal is a jerk
He’s so barmy, so’s his army…

There’s no such thing as ‘being a postmodernist’. I spent about 2 years telling people I was a postmodernist before I understood that the terms means too many different things to be nailed down to one tag. Derrida is very different from Foucault in certain key regards, Cixous is not Beardsworth.

I’ve yet to meet an earnest critic of postmodern thought, most of them are simply going on reputation.

What is more there has always been a postmodernism in philosophy - essentially Derrida isn’t saying anything not implied by the ancient Greeks.

Good luck with your reading, but be careful with the tag ‘postmodern’. It’s a slippery fish at the best of times and carrys a whole series of connotations with it.

Also, don’t confuse postmodern thinking with relativism. That’s a common mistake.

Kids these days…

Pro, take in a football game. Find yourself a cute co-ed (preferrable one who’s never even heard of Derrida) and take a romantic stroll around campus. Go to a kegger. It’s a fast 4 years, believe me.

I would distinguish between rules and cliches in a different way from Zenofeller.

Someone is sitting at a keyboard, thinking “I have this thought, now what is the best way to express it?”

An answer that draws on rules will be of the form “Avoid jargon, prefer the active voice to the passive, …”. Such an answer will not supply specific words to use. It will also not be specific to the content of the thought to be expressed.

An answer that draws on cliches will suggest specific words to use - cliches in the sense of hackneyed expressions - or it will suggest ideas that are specific to the content of the thought to be expressed - cliches in the sense of hackneyed ideas.

One thread in postmodernism challenges the notion that we can set up our basic conceptions first and then work freely within them. Everything we think is in the context of, and influeneced by, our basic conceptions, so we must interrogate those conceptions rather than just let them sit in the background.

That attitude would prevent me from making the above distinction between rules and cliches. I want the rules to sit there as impartial background, impartial because they are not specific to the content and safe from the accusation that they are cliches themselves.

We should sometimes examine our background assumptions. But sometimes we want to get things done. Then I think it is legitimate to ignore postmodernist concerns. I am safe in the knowledge that on their own terms, they can hardly tell me that I am wrong. But that does not guarantee that I am right.

In terms of ‘getting things done’ we can presume anything we like and get on with it. In terms of philosophy postmodernism is saying nothing new.


obviously, your voice comes from some sort of professional endeavour or other that is however not concerned with sitting around dreaming things up (which is what made up derrida’s entire life). which doesn’t make your experience, context or thought any less respectable, but also accounts for your counting postmodernism as impractical. you might want things done, sometimes, but you must allow that some people never have anything to get done other than this sort of inquiry.

your distinction between rules and cliches is perfectly alright, except sadly it is an outstretch of the form-essence difference, and i would have looked really silly proposing that so close to hardcore contextualism.


Hi Zenofeller

My voice actually comes from the endeavour of philosophy. While I agree that any truth can be undermined if you hammer away hard enough at its context (cf Quine’s fabric of belief in Two Dogmas of Empiricism), I do think that there are plenty of straightforward truths where it is ludicrous to hammer away at the context. I also think that philosophy should aspire to that level of straightforward truth, even if it has little hope of getting there and even if the notion of truth has to change somewhat when you are using a Kantian transcendental method and arguing about the conditions for the possibility of our thoughts or of a given class of thoughts.

Form-essence? Form-content yes, but to equate content with essence strikes me as a further step. Content might be form at a lower level (the form of the next layer down, and so on, if you do not want to allow a form that is not a form of anything in particular).

i am sure that there are plenty of straightforward truths where it is ludicrous to hammer away at the context. however i would note all fallacies without exception have been in that cathegory at one point or other.

your proposed hierarchy of form, content so forth still does not solve the problem. post modern thought does not admit the possibility of such hierarchy, and therefore using it to discuss it is still out of place.

Regarding the Postmodernism = Relativism assumption, I was disabused of that notion awhile ago, though for awhile would’ve been much in agreement with it. Even now, I can’t quite define the difference between the two, but it’s definitely there. I have friends who swear up and down that they’re one in the same, though. They’ll “refute” postmodernism by refuting relativism, but they fail to realize that 1) relativism and postmodernism aren’t the same, and 2) postmodernism isn’t something one can really “refute,” anyways.

On the subject of my attending “keggers” and hanging out with “co-eds,” I’m afraid you’re too late - I’ve been doing plenty of that, though, I confess, the co-eds in question have all heard of Derrida and Heidegger (and lots of others, too). That’s what happens when you hang out with philosophy/sociology/linguistics majors, I suppose. This is good, because it gives us something to talk about since none of us really get to see much good television. Oh, and football matches? That’s so not going to happen.

What’s this about Sokal having an army? I don’t recall him being that popular.

My faith in students is at least partially restored. Thanks.

Hi Zenofeller

I would dispute that absolutely all fallacies have been in that category, though some have been. And I would argue that a great many non-fallacies are in that category too. To me the most extreme examples of ludicrous hammering away at the context are provided by philosophers who, desperate for a bit of media attention, say silly things like “9/11 didn’t happen”.

The fact that a body of thought does not recognise a particular idea does not preclude us from using the idea in discussing the body of thought. Likewise we could use evoluntionary science in discussing the claims of a religion which admitted no source of information on the origin of species apart from the Bible.

One cannot refute them because they are not actually saying anything. They are offering us a way of approaching texts, which can sometimes be stimulating and useful, but they choose not to argue for a position and enter into a debate which might conclude that their position was mistaken. So they are not to be taken seriously. Borrow their method when you think that it might help to advance your thoughts, but keep it within the context of discovery and don’t expect it to do anything useful in the context of justification.

One example from Derrida’s work is that he says he isn’t opposed to authority per se, to structure and hierarchy per se, but that we need to be open to new authorities, new things on which to base our beliefs. A relativist would say it makes no difference either way.

Since it is a cultural movement it cannot be refuted. Cultural movements happen, they aren’t an issue of logic. One can fight postmodernism, one can seek to overcome it (post-postmodernism), one can criticise all sorts of claims made by those purporting to be postmodernists, but one cannot logically refute it. It’s just not that sort of game.

Try finding some historians, particularly film historians. Reading theory is all well and good but without culture, without art, it’s all a bit of a waste. Also, it’s good to have as wide a range of interesting conversation as possible.

He’s part of the whole anti-postmodernist group. They are hilarious. Mainly because they themselves are a symptom of the postmodern condition, of a certain critical scepticism. If they weren’t then they wouldn’t do what they do, they’d get on with what they are meant to be doing.

hi richard.

i can’t say that all fallacies have always been in one particular zone. as you well know, they are always everywhere. thus i will introduce the concept of painfull falacies, as those fallacies that are most painfull/unbearable [to me] are always in that cathegory. i am sure you can’t disagree, now :smiley: i’m not sure you should care to anymore, either.

you equivocate on the second point however. we can use the scientific method as applied to anything we can experiment with. to say we actually apply it to a religion is really missing the point. we are in fact not. we are applying it to the same phenomena that the religion discusses. that does not in fact say anything about the religion outside of how it stands within the framework of the scientific method, which isnt really much. nobody seriously interested in analytic phylosophy will think the way analytic phylosophy stands in the framework of african traditional lore is relevant to anything above said lore. they are definitely not going to shape their shiny analytic models to conform with dusty african beliefs.

on the last point you are absolutely correct. they are strictly a method to think about thinks, to “feed the cookpot of ideas”. they are not a way to actually prove anything, nor do they claim to be. however, when used properly (ie as they were intended) they WILL help you see things from a different perspective, which, often enough, is all the break you need.

Hi Zenofeller

As I do not know which fallacies you find painful, I am indeed unable to disagree with you. But I trust that there is some mark of a painful fallacy that you can communicate to others, otherwise painful fallacies may be like Wittgenstein’s beetle.

I did not propose to apply the scientific method to a religion, but to the claims that it makes. However, I do think that if a doctrine produces a lot of dubious claims, that casts serious doubt on the doctrine itself. And I have no hesitation in applying the standards of science (and, to a lesser extent, the standards of analytic philosophy) to help to identify claims as dubious.

This is not a point against postmodernism of course, since we are agreed that it makes no claims.

but you see, claims are only dubious if taken outside of the respective religion (context). sort of like going around with a machete, hacking a guy, removing his liver and then saying… you know ? i don’t think this bit of flesh here really supports life, look at how dead he is.