Postmodernism is not an inherently left wing ideology
By Scott Sumner
Gordon Hanson directed me to a brilliant 1992 essay by Richard Rorty, which refutes the claim that postmodern philosophy is an inherently left wing concept. Rorty describes “two cultural wars”—an important one between the left and the right, and an unimportant one within the left:
The second cultural war is . . . between those who see modern liberal society as vitally flawed (the people handily lumped together as ‘postmodernists’) and typical left-wing Democrat professors like myself, people who see ours as a society in which technology and democratic institutions can, with luck, collaborate to increase equality and decrease suffering. This war is not very important. Despite the conservative columnists who pretend to view with alarm a vast conspiracy (encompassing both the postmodernists and the pragmatists) to politicize the humanities and corrupt the youth, this war is just a tiny little dispute within what Hunter calls the ‘progressivist’ ranks.
People on the postmodernist side of this dispute tend to share Noam Chomsky’s view of the United States as run by a corrupt elite which aims at enriching itself by immiserating the Third World . From that perspective, our country is not so much in danger of slipping into fascism as it is a country which has always been quasi-fascist. These people typically think that nothing will change unless we get rid of ‘humanism’, ‘liberal individualism’, and ‘technologism’. People like me see nothing wrong with any of these -isms, nor with the political and moral heritage of the Enlightenment – with the least common denominator of Mill and Marx, Trotsky and Whitman, William James and Vaclav Havel. Typically, we Deweyans are sentimentally patriotic about America – willing to grant that it could slide into fascism at any time, but proud of its past and guardedly hopeful about its future.
Most people on my side of this second, tiny, upmarket cultural war have, in the light of the history of nationalized enterprises and central planning in central and eastern Europe, given up on socialism. We are willing to grant that welfare state capitalism is the best we can hope for. Most of us who were brought up Trotskyite now feel forced to admit that Lenin and Trotsky did more harm than good, and that Kerensky has gotten a bum rap for the past 70 years. But we see ourselves as still faithful to everything that was good in the socialist movement. Those on the other side, however, still insist that nothing will change unless there is some sort of total revolution. . . .
I am distrusted by both the ‘orthodox’ side in the important war and the ‘postmodern’ side in the unimportant one, because I think that the ‘postmoderns’ are philosophically right though politically silly, and that the ‘orthodox’ are philosophically wrong as well as politically dangerous. Unlike both the orthodox and the postmoderns, I do not think that you can tell much about the worth of a philosopher’s views on topics such as truth, objectivity and the possibility of a single vision by discovering his politics, or his irrelevance to politics. . . .
Both the orthodox and the postmoderns still want a tight connection between people’s politics and their views on large theoretical (theological, metaphysical, epistemological, metaphilosophical) matters. Some postmodernists who initially took my enthusiasm for Derrida to mean that I must be on their political side decided, after discovering that my politics were pretty much those of Hubert Humphrey, that I must have sold out. The orthodox tend to think that people who, like the postmodernists and me, believe neither in God nor in some suitable substitute, should think that everything is permitted, that everybody can do what they like. So they tell us that we are either inconsistent or self-deceptive in putting forward our moral or political views.
I take this near unanimity among my critics to show that most people – even a lot of purportedly liberated postmodernists – still hanker for something like what I wanted when I was 15: a way of holding reality and justice in a single vision. More specifically, they want to unite their sense of moral and political responsibility with a grasp of the ultimate determinants of our fate. They want to see love, power and justice as coming together deep down in the nature of things, or in the human soul, or in the structure of language, or somewhere. They want some sort of guarantee that their intellectual acuity, and those special ecstatic moments which that acuity sometimes affords, are of some relevance to their moral convictions. They still think that virtue and knowledge are somehow linked – that being right about philosophical matters is important for right action. I think this is important only occasionally and incidentally.
This is also my view; the postmoderns are philosophically right about truth and they are wrong about politics. When I discovered Rorty, I stopped wasting time looking for a grand unifying philosophical theory:
This means that the fact that you have obligations to other people (not to bully them, to join them in overthrowing tyrants, to feed them when they are hungry) does not entail that what you share with other people is more important than anything else. What you share with them, when you are aware of such moral obligations, is not, I argued in Contingency, ‘rationality’ or ‘human nature’ or ‘the fatherhood of God’ or ‘a knowledge of the Moral Law’, or anything other than ability to sympathize with the pain of others. There is no particular reason to expect that your sensitivity to that pain, and your idiosyncratic loves, are going to fit within one big overall account of how everything hangs together. There is, in short, not much reason to hope for the sort of single vision that I went to college hoping to get.
Rorty says that philosophers have interesting things to say, but:
. . . we are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is ‘rational and objective’ rather than ‘just’ a result of how you were brought up.
There are still, as C. S. Peirce put it, ‘philosophical slop-shops on every corner’ which will provide such confirmation. But there is a price. To pay the price you have to turn your back on intellectual history and on what Milan Kundera calls ‘the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood . . . the wisdom of the novel’. You risk losing the sense of finitude, and the tolerance, which result from realizing how very many synoptic visions there have been, and how little argument can do to help you choose among them. Despite my relatively early disillusionment with Platonism, I am very glad that I spent all those years reading philosophy books. For I learned something that still seems very important: to distrust the intellectual snobbery which originally led me to read them. If I had not read all those books, I might never have been able to stop looking for what Derrida calls ‘a full presence beyond the reach of play’, for a luminous, self-justifying, self-sufficient synoptic vision.
The entire essay is a beautifully written defense of philosophical pragmatism.