Hi Anthony,

Interesting response. I suppose I’ll begin my response to yours by citing a few definitions of postmodernism as a kind of preface and then proceed from there.

Some Definitions

Postmodernism: “Any style in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, etc., that reacts against an earlier modernist movement.”[1] (I should note that I find this definition quite broad and insufficient with regard to defining a particular movement)

“A late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art.”[2]

“Postmodernists believe that the West’s claims of freedom and prosperity continue to be nothing more than empty promises and have not met the needs of humanity. They believe that truth is relative and truth is up to each individual to determine for himself. Most believe nationalism builds walls, makes enemies, and destroys “Mother Earth,” while capitalism creates a “have and have not” society, and religion causes moral friction and division among people. “[3]

Philosopher Stephen Hicks:

Stephen Hicks on postmodernism: “It is striking that the major postmodernists — Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Richard Rorty — are of the far left politically. And it is striking that all four are Philosophy Ph.D.s who reached deeply skeptical conclusions about our ability to come to know reality. So one of my four theses about postmodernism is that it develops from a double crisis — a crisis within philosophy about knowledge and a crisis within left politics about socialism.”[4]

My Response

As a Classical humanist (deeply influenced by the renaissance humanists/philologists of the Italian Renaissance, I do take issue with the claim that the 20th century postmodernists brought a significant new understanding of interpretation and language to the forefront. Renaissance humanists such as Francesco Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, and Desiderius Erasmus were deeply interested in questions surrounding interpretation as it related to both Classical and Biblical texts. The philosophical tradition of hermeneutics developed out of Renaissance and Reformation debates (Biblical Hermeneutics). Renaissance humanist perspectives were grounded in an interest in the ancient (Pagan) world, coupled with a devout Christian (or Neo Platonism with a heavy Abrahamic influence) perspective. Figures like Valla directed skepticism toward very specific (often political) targets — most notably his proving the Donation of Constantine to be a forgery. The interest in language and translation was predicated on an interest in the metaphysical as well as the practical. This stands in stark contrast to the radical skepticism/nihilism, anti-Western centered approaches that postmodern thinkers often employ. Michel Foucault, while not entirely a postmodernist, focused heavily on power relations. Moreover, his thought was little more than a rehashing of earlier ideas (such as those of Erving Goffman) while adding little of value.

I tend to argue against top-down deconstructions because they are often based on little to no experience outside the ivory tower of academe. Francis Bacon wrote a wonderful essay called ‘Of Studies’ in which he argues for the necessity of balancing study and experience (“To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience.” -Bacon, Essays (1625)).

Jordan Peterson, Roger Scruton, Stephen Hicks, Camille Paglia, and many others have presented compelling arguments against postmodernism which I will not delineate here. While I am in general agreement with many of their objections (and mention some in the article to which you responded), my core problem with postmodern studies is that they tend toward the illiberal/deeply politicized and have no real basis in a humanities perspective based in primary sources. The purpose of the humanities is to promote the excellence of the individual through the study of great works while developing the core skills of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The pseudo-disciplines of the social sciences (the –“studies”) are very often ideologically-driven and have not developed organically as fields.

Lacan and Derrida seem to have more in common with the ancient Sophists in that they are interested in language games rather than any sort of ‘love of wisdom.’

“French intellectual life has, in my opinion, been turned into something cheap and meretricious by the ‘star’ system. It is like Hollywood. Thus we go from one absurdity to another — Stalinism, existentialism. Lacan, Derrida — some of them obscene ( Stalinism), some simply infantile and ridiculous ( Lacan, Derrida). What is striking, however, is the pomposity and self-importance, at each stage.” -Noam Chomsky

Having read texts in grad school inspired by the views of Jacques Lacan (including making the language unnecessarily difficult so that he reader has to ‘work’ to understand the text), I can say that there is little utility in this philosophy. Moreover, I would argue that the preference for unnecessarily complex texts puts the postmodernists in the same boat as the alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (c.721–815), an alchemist who wrote his alchemical texts in rather incomprehensible language (theories about that the word ‘gibberish’ originates from the Latinized version of his name, Geber). Obscurantism and the misuse of scientific terminology by the postmodernists were criticized by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in Fashionable Nonsense. Social science journal peddling these ideas have been the subject of numerous affairs and stings since Sokal in the 1990s (see the Conceptual Penis Hoax (2017) and Grievance Studies Affair (2018)).

One of the most pernicious aspects of postmodernism is the rejection of meta-narratives (though they often sneak in Neo-Marxist-inspired power relations). Meta-narratives, whether religious/mythological (Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) or historical (Ex: Leonardo Bruni’s tripartite view of history — ancient, medieval, modern) provide a necessary framework on which to build a greater understanding of the world around us. The postmodernists seem eager to smash what they perceive as idols (with as much zeal as those radical Protestants of 500 years ago) while offering little or nothing in return. Indeed, the only narratives many postmodernists seem to be able to offer are deeply politicized. Having encountered many postmodernists as a grad student, I can say that they often have little understanding of the Great Books of civilization (the works of Homer, Dostoyevsky, Lady Murasaki, Goethe, etc.) and lack a grounded understanding of human nature (or at least are unable to articulate a nuanced understanding of human nature revealing the many irrationalities and psychological complexities which reveal great insights into the human condition).

To be clear, there is much to critique in what Peterson and Shapiro (among others) say. For example, I maintain that the metaphysical substructure of the West is fundamentally Pagan, not Judeo-Christian as both Shapiro and Peterson repeatedly claim. I do think that Peterson has the correct lens of analysis (a Jungian psychological perspective informed by the works of great authors such as Dostoyevsky) but is misguided in that which he is analyzing (essentially an attempt by the Christian thinkers of late Antiquity to turn Abrahamic beliefs into a Neo-Platonic-inspired religion). As far as their critiques of postmodernism go, I would argue that Peterson and Shapiro are largely correct in their suspicion/rejection. I would further state that Jordan Peterson does not merely reject postmodernism blindly, he does present a nuanced case which shows a certain amount of familiarity with French postmodern authors including Derrida.


[1] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/postmodernism

[2] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/postmodernism

[3] https://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/postmodernism.htm

[4] https://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2009/03/postmodernism-unpeeled.html

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