Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault
Stephen R.C. Hicks
Scholargy Publishing, 2004
v + 230 pgs.
Stephen Hicks has written a trenchant and provocative book on a vital topic, but I undertake this review with reluctance. I may unleash against myself that direst of all fates for a reviewer—a profusion of critical letters. The reason for my fear will emerge later, but to preserve suspense I shall address some themes in the book out of the order in which the author has placed them.
As befits a good philosopher, Hicks tells us exactly what he means by postmodernism: "Metaphysically, post-modernism is anti-realist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality. Epistemologically, having rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring direct knowledge of that reality. . . . Postmodern accounts of human nature are consistently collectivist, holding that individuals’ identities are constructed largely by the social-linguistic groups they are a part of . . . postmodern themes in ethics and politics are characterized by an identification with and sympathy for the groups perceived to be oppressed in the conflicts, and a willingness to enter the fray on their behalf" (pp. 6–7, emphasis in original).
Who advocates this assortment of strange views? Hicks tells us that the "names of the postmodern vanguard are now familiar: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty. They are its leading strategists" (p. 1). Hicks also mentions another group of "familiar and often infamous names" that aids the vanguard. He rightly includes on his list the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray; but, contrary to our author, her specialty is not "the criticism of science" (p. 2).
Hicks does not devote much space to a detailed account of the various postmodernists he mentions; he devotes his principal attention to a general portrayal of the movement and an account of its philosophical genealogy. He does give an excellent brief discussion of Derrida, for whom there is nothing beyond language. "Language connects only with more language, never with a non-linguistic reality. In Jacques Derrida’s words, ‘[t]he fact of language is probably the only fact to resist all parenthization.’ That is to say, we cannot get outside of language" (p. 175). Elsewhere he calls attention to "Derrida’s ‘crossing-out’ device of using a word but then the crossing it out to indicate that its use is ironical" (p. 73).
Behind Derrida lies Martin Heidegger, and Hicks offers a superb analysis of this vastly influential thinker. "[L]ike all good German philosophers, Heidegger agreed that when we get to the core of Being we will find conflict and contradiction at the heart of things. . . . Heidegger’s distinctiveness was his use of phenomenology . . . simply and clearly describing the phenomena of experience and change. On Heidegger’s account, what one finds when starting so is a sense of projection into a field of experience and change. Do not think objects, Heidegger counsels, think fields. Do not think subject, think experience" (pp. 59–60).
This new sort of thinking challenged standard logic and reasoning "as merely one superficial way of thinking—one that the Greeks had established fatefully for all subsequent Western thought" (pp. 62–63). Instead, we must seek Being through "an exploratory letting go into the revelatory emotions of boredom, fear, guilt, and dread" (p. 63).
As will be already apparent, Hicks does not believe in understatement; and at one point in his discussion of Foucault, he goes too far. He claims that "Foucault extends his desire for effacement to the entire human species. At the end of The Order of Things, he speaks almost longingly about the coming erasure of mankind. Man is ‘an invention of recent date’ that will soon ‘be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea’" (p. 195).
Hicks has here read Foucault uncharitably. When Foucault foresees "the end of man," he does not mean that all human beings will soon face extermination. Rather, he predicts the end of a certain conception of man—roughly, a conception based on a universal human nature. The conception in question had, in Foucault’s view, a definite origin in time; and, just as human beings long predated this conception, so they may be expected to continue afterwards.
Even if one quarrels with an occasional detail in Hicks’s account of the postmoderns, in broad outlines he is clearly right. He proceeds to ask an insightful question: what is the appeal of these irrational views to contemporary intellectuals? In response, he calls attention to a key aspect of contemporary history.
Leftist intellectuals during most of the twentieth century looked to socialism as a secular equivalent of salvation. To many, the Soviet Union was no brutal tyranny but rather a Worker’s Paradise. Such views can no longer rationally be maintained. Readers of The Gulag Archipelago learned that the Stalinist regime rested on mass murder; and Mao, long a favorite among radicals, was even more bloodthirsty. Nor can socialists comfort themselves by responding that Stalin and Mao were historical aberrations whose failings leave the socialist project unscathed. Mises and Hayek demonstrated incontrovertibly that a socialist economy cannot work; to make matters worse, the attempt to establish such an economy makes likely the onset of a totalitarian order.
The socialist intellectuals were in a quandary. They ought rationally to have abandoned their views, since their doctrine was fallacious in theory and disastrous in practice; but rationality is not a trait much in evidence among the socialistically inclined. If reason speaks against socialism, is not the solution obvious: out with reason! If reason provides no access to reality, but is rather a mask for power, the critique of socialism is disabled.
How, though, can socialists claim that reason is relative and at the same time aver an absolute belief in socialist politics? Are they not here caught in a contradiction that even they cannot dismiss? Hicks finds plausible two explanations of the contradiction. On one account, "absolutist politics are primary, while the relativism is a rhetorical strategy that is used to advance that politics"; on the other, "both the relativism and the absolutism coexist in postmodernism, but the contradictions between them simply do not matter psychologically to those who hold them" (p. 185). Hicks rejects the view that relativism is primary and the politics secondary. If it were true, "then postmodernists would be adopting political positions across the spectrum, and that is simply not happening" (p. 186).
Hicks devotes considerable attention to the intellectual origins of the contemporary trends he finds so deplorable. He draws attention to the malign influence of Rousseau, whom he terms a proponent of the Counter-Enlightenment that opposed untrammeled reason, individualism, and capitalism. "Name a dominant feature of the Enlightenment, and Rousseau was against it" (p. 92).
He did not celebrate civilization, but deplored its onset. "There is an inverse relationship between cultural and moral development: Culture does generate much learning, luxury, and sophistication—but learning, luxury, and sophistication all cause moral degradation" (p. 92). The unfortunate rise of reason drove humans from their simple, primitive life.
Reason, once awakened, cannot be expunged; and, we cannot, Rousseau held, return from civilization to primitivism. But society must be tightly controlled. "A society properly founded on natural passion and religion will override the self-centered individualism that reason leads to, making it possible for individuals to form a new, collectivized social organism" (p. 99).
Hicks rightly calls attention to the influence of Rousseau on the Jacobins during the French Revolution, with all of its appalling destruction and massacres. But his discussion contains one minor slip, though I perhaps read him unfairly. He says that "in an enormously symbolic act, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793" (p. 102). The king was executed some ten months before the queen, not in the same act.
Now comes trouble. Rousseau is not the principal villain in Hicks’s rogue’s gallery. The main source of intellectual corruption, in his view, lies in the skepticism and subjectivism of Immanuel Kant. I have to confess that he has not persuaded me, and here is where I fear for the worst. Many years ago, I reviewed Leonard Peikoff’s Ominous Parallels, a book that also located in Kant the chief source of modern irrationalism. (Hicks, like Peikoff, is an Objectivist, but he is an associate of David Kelley, once Peikoff’s colleague and now his bitter antagonist. Perhaps as a result, Hicks never cites Ominous Parallels, though he lists it in his bibliography [p. 211]. But this is by the way.)
I did not review Peikoff’s volume with much favor; in those days, I regret to say, I was sometimes prone to rather strong condemnations. This did not serve me well with Objectivists; Peikoff’s book, one was given to understand, not only had Ayn Rand’s approval but had in part been written by her. I did not hear the end of it for years afterwards; an ex cathedra dismissal of my objections from a writer for whom the letter to the editor is an art form remains vivid in my mind.
Though Hicks’s account is far more convincing than Peikoff’s, his presentation of Kant is open to challenge. The vital core of his interpretation is that Kant denied that we know reality. "The fundamental question of reason is its relationship to reality. Is reason capable of knowing reality—or is it not?. . . Kant is crystal clear about his answer. Reality—real, noumenal reality—is forever closed off to reason, and reason is limited to awareness and understanding of its own subjective products" (p. 28).
Hicks’s claim rests on a disputable premise. He rightly says that Kant denies that human beings grasp the noumenal world. It does not follow from this, though, that Kant denies that reason is capable of knowing reality, unless "reality" is equated with the "noumenal world." Why assume this? The world of ordinary reality seems very much closer to Kant’s phenomenal world than to the noumenal. It is the former, not the latter, after all, to which the category of causality applies; and the precise point of Kant’s massive efforts in the first Critique is to establish that reason does grasp the phenomenal world. Concerning the noumenal almost nothing can be said: why then is it the "real" world?
In brief, Hicks has very controversially assumed that Kant’s phenomenal world is a private realm of sense data, to be distinguished from the "real," noumenal world of ordinary objects. I do not contend that Hicks’s view of Kant is absurd on its face; distinguished commentators on Kant have adopted just this view. But the view needs much more defense than Hicks gives it. He ought at least to confront the account of Kant offered in Henry Allison’s magisterial Kant’s Transcendental Idealism.
On one point, Hicks seems to me not only disputable but altogether mistaken. He states: "While Kant was willing to give up the noumenal object, he held onto the belief in an underlying, noumenal self with a specific nature available to us for our investigation" (p. 59). Quite the contrary, Kant denies reason access to the noumenal self: our knowledge is confined to the phenomenal self.
One might counter my main objection in this way. Despite what Kant may "really" have meant, his successors among the German Idealists took him as just the sort of subjectivist that Hicks portrays and, accordingly, followed him in succumbing to skepticism. But this defense also fails. As Hicks himself rightly notes, Hegel "was dissatisfied with the principled separation of subject and object. This strain [represented by Hegel] granted Kant’s claim that the separation cannot be bridged epistemologically by reason, and so proposed to bridge it metaphysically by identifying the subject with the object" (p. 44).
How can Hicks claim that Kant inaugurated a fatal skeptical trend, when he admits that a central strand of Kant’s successors disclaimed skepticism? If he responds that "Kant’s closest followers decided to accept the gulf [between subject and object] and live with it" (p. 43), a new objection arises. He offers no evidence that these neo-Kantian followers took the position he attributes to them. Putting this aside, in order to show that Kant lies at the source of modern skepticism about reason, he would need to establish a line of continuity between these "closest followers" and modern developments. His endeavor to do so rests on the very non-standard view, offered without support, that structuralism and phenomenology are varieties of neo-Kantianism.
Another theme in Hicks’s gallop through the history of philosophy seems to me eminently questionable. He displays an extreme hostility to religion, and this often biases his historical claims. Thus, he portrays the Middle Ages as dominated by Augustinian "mysticism" and faith. (He acknowledges that in "the later medieval era," matters changed somewhat. "Thomism was an attempt to marry Christianity with a naturalistic Aristotelian philosophy" (p. 8). What is one to make of Anselm on this view? Did not this "Augustinian" claim that God’s existence can be rationally established? For that matter, did not Augustine himself argue to the same conclusion? Hicks operates with a simpleminded dichotomy between faith and reason that does not do justice to medieval thought.
At one point, Hicks’s repugnance for Kant and religion leads to an ironical outcome. He condemns Kierke-gaard for his "panegyric to Abraham, a hero of the Hebrew Scriptures who in defiance of all reason and morality was willing to turn off his mind and kill his son Isaac. Why? Because God ordered him to. How could that be—would a good God make such a demand of a man? That makes God incomprehensibly cruel. . . . Does Abraham rebel? No. Does he even question? No. He shuts down his mind and obeys" (p. 54).
Hicks’s eloquent remarks echo the views of Kant, the thinker he is most anxious to condemn. Kant held that Abraham should have realized that since God is good, no instructions to kill his innocent son could have come from God. He should thus have ignored the alleged divine command.
I do not suggest that only a Kantian view of ethics makes plausible the position Hicks adopts. But it is difficult to see how he would justify his stance on the ethical egoist view that I assume that he, as an Objectivist, adopts. He of course can deny, on metaphysical grounds, that an all-powerful divine being exists. My question involves a different issue. If such a being did exist, and issued a command of the type Hicks challenges, on what ethical grounds could he refuse obedience? Surely it would best promote his own survival or flourishing to obey rather than rebel.
Also questionable is Hicks’s surprising assertion that Quine was a conventionalist about logic and mathematics. "It was the neo-Humean option . . . emphasized by pragmatists such as Quine, Nelson Goodman, and Ernest Nagel that prevailed. On this account, logical and mathematical propositions are merely a function of how we have decided to use words and which combinations of words we have decided to privilege" (p. 76). Did not Quine write a famous essay, "Truth by Convention," challenging the view here attributed to him?
On another matter, Hicks deserves great praise. Breaking with much contemporary scholarship, he reaffirms the older view that Hegel completely subordinated the individual to the state. "The State, to the extent that it participates in the Absolute, is God’s instrument for achieving his purposes. . . . The consequence of this, morally, is that the individual is of less significance than the state . . . it is also true, Hegel granted, that in many cases the individual’s freedoms and interests will genuinely be set aside, overridden, and even smashed" (pp. 121–22).
Though I have at times disagreed with Hicks, he has an excellent eye for essential issues and his views always repay careful consideration.