Postmodernism: Private Vice, Public Virtue?
By Bryan Caplan
I stumbled across an atypically insightful essay by Noam Chomsky, “What Is Wrong With Science and Rationality?,” in the colorfully-named collection Market Killing. You can read a nearly complete version of the essay here. Chomsky pushes two theses in this essay.
First, postmodernism makes no sense:
[T]o take part in a discussion, one must understand the ground rules. In this case, I don’t. In particular, I don’t know the answers to such elementary questions as these: Are conclusions to be consistent with premises (maybe even follow from them)? Do facts matter? Or can we string together thoughts as we like, calling it an “argument,” and make facts up as we please, taking one story to be as good as another? … What seems to be under discussion here is whether we should abide by these ground rules at all (trying to improve them as we proceed). If the answer is that we are to abide by them, then the discussion is over: we’ve implicitly accepted the legitimacy of rational inquiry. If they are to be abandoned, then we cannot proceed until we learn what replaces the commitment to consistency, responsibility to fact, and other outdated notions. Short of some instruction on this matter, we are reduced to primal screams.
Second, postmodernist philosophy makes it hard to persuasively communicate your substantitive views to a broad audience:
And it is hard for me to see how friends and colleagues in the “non white world” will learn more from the advice given by “a handful of scientists” who inform then that they should not “move on the tracks of western science and technology,” but should prefer other “stories” and “myths”–which ones, we are not told, though astrology is mentioned.
It strikes me as remarkable that their left counterparts today should seek to deprive oppressed people not only of the joys of understanding and insight, but also of tools of emancipation, informing us that the “project of the Enlightenment” is dead, that we must abandon the “illusions” of science and rationality–a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use.
I think Chomsky’s basically right on both counts (though I see the radical left primarily as proponents of oppression!). Which puts me in a quandary. As long as postmodernism remains a delusion of the left, I’m afraid I’ve got to admit it has a socially useful function: It serves as a barricade between leftist intellectuals and their target audience. There is no surer way to turn off a crowd of anti-globlization protestors than to make them listen to some windbag go on and on about “What Derrida said Foucault should have said Sartre meant to say.”
Admittedly, this is playing with fire. But the brief fascination of some Austrian economists with Continental philosophy, most prominently represented by Don Lavoie, seems to have petered out, and I don’t expect it will have a comeback anytime soon.