Talk:Postmodernism

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The article does not name a single "postmodernist" thinker who has ever claimed that "Reality is a social construct." The article does not name such a writer because none exist. —The preceding unsigned comment was added by Van Pelt (talk)

Many people, however, do say truth is social construct. The article can be reworded for that. It is probably better said that the Existentialist or Nihilist would say that reality is a social construct. --Ymmotrojam 10:58, 23 March 2007 (EDT)
The postmodernist position is emphatically not “truth is a social construct” many people misunderstand postmodernism to make that claim, but no postmodernist philosopher has ever made that claim, or any claim that could reasonably be understood to imply it. What some postmodernists do say is that because we (humans) experience reality through the lens of a social construct (language) we are incapable reaching/describing/understanding truth—not that truth is a social construct, but that truth is inaccessible because we experience the world through the lens of our language which is a social construct.
The Existentialist position, also, is not that truth is a social construct—it is (roughly) that value/meaning must be provided by the person doing the valuing or looking for meaning. The Existentialist may (but need not) deny that there is value that is not socially constructed—but value is not synonymous with truth and many of the truths in the world are not truths about value.
The Nihilist also does not make this claim. The Nihilist says there is no value in the world, this is, in itself, a truth claim—the Nihilist actually makes a claim about truth, separate from social construction. --Reginod 14:10, 24 March 2007 (EDT)

The explanation above is absolutely wrong. No postmodernist has ever proposed that language keeps us from truth, as if language is some sort of screen that stands between ourselves and a determined Truth beyond language. That model, in fact, is precisely the one that poststructuralism (to use a more precise, if less comprehensive term) has dismantled.

Poststructuralists don't deny that there is truth as opposed to falsehood. The only thing they critique is the definition of Truth as something that exists as a determined iteration. There is a certain rhetoric that arises -- especially in relation to history and historiography -- where this mistake arises. For instance: Most historians, like poststructuralists, agree that the reality of the past is a kind of material continuum that we, as speakers of language, divide up into conceptual units like "events"; and we take portions of that continuum and create discrete entities out of it by assigning those portions Names. This is how history becomes intelligible to us: a historiographer creates a narrative out of Names and Events (the latter, strictly speaking, function as names as well: the Name of the Event).

Now, how do historians come to an agreement (more or less) about the Names and Events that will constitute a particular historical narrative? Broadly speaking, they come to a consensus based on the greatest agreement of Names and Events as articulated in witness testimonials, other documents, and other forms of evidence (e.g., archaeological).

A crucial point to remember is that Names and Events are wholly distinct from everything else that goes into history-writing: most significantly, interpretations as to motives of individuals, and interpretations as to causal relationships among events. Even the most conservative historian will tell you that these elements can only be the result of interpretation -- hopefully a judicious interpretation, but interpretation nonetheless.

No historian ever claims that there exists "out there" somewhere a "true" historiography where all of these Facts (Names and Events) and interpretations are already iterated -- i.e., where they are iterated, but no human has created that iteration. No historian believes that this kind of determined and iterated Truth exists.

But then, sometimes, confusion arises: it arises when the concept of "fiction" enters the scene. When Edmund Morris wrote a biography of Ronald Reagan that included obviously fictional episodes along with the normal facts and interpretations that a biography engages in, the New York Times Book Review asks, "But where's the Truth of him [Reagan]?" When the concept of fiction comes into the discourse, many historians make the mistake of forgetting the simple fact that historiography is created by a consensus about Names and Events, and interpretations about everything else: History, when contrasted with Fiction, is suddenly conceived as unadulterated "Truth". Fiction becomes a scapegoat, the single name for everything that keeps historical truth from view; it becomes a veil before history, and truth is now simply a matter of unveiling. When the category of fiction is then cast out, bearing all sins of falsehood and indeterminacy, the historiography that remains behind in the settling dust seems to emerge as unobscured truth. A rhetoric of history as revelation replaces history as production.

This kind of analysis is what poststructuralism does: It does not question the existence of truth, as long as we understand truth in the precise historicist definition of consensus-grounded Facts (names and events). Poststructuralism only critiques certain false rhetorics of Truth, as in the example above.

But this critique of certain rhetorics of truth is actually only a tiny epiphenomelal effect of what real poststructuralists do. If you really want to have an article that purports to talk about what famous "postmodernists" like Derrida and Foucault actually talk about, it would have to at least include the following:

The seminal tome of deconstruction is Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology. One of its major theses has to do with how writing and speech have been conceptualized in the Western philosophical tradition up to the present day. With detailed readings of Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau, Saussure, and many others, the book demonstrates that writing has always been conceived as something “secondary” to speech: writing is thought of as a kind of transcription of speech, whereas speech is thought of as a direct representation of consciousness. In other words, philosophers and linguists have assumed that speech is “closer” to one's “present consciousness” than writing. Hence the metaphors “living speech” versus “dead books”.

In reality, of course, speech and writing have the exact same relationship to any originating “consciousness”; although the one is composed of sound and the other ink, they both have the exact same status as physical signifiers, and neither one comes into being with any greater or lesser “distance” from consciousness, intention, etc. Derrida goes on in historical detail to explain why our philosophical tradition has maintained the faulty “metaphysics of presence,” as he puts it, within a whole array of conceptual oppositions, not just speech vs. writing.

Another example of what people call “postmodern” thought -- a hazy term that most of these philosophers do not, in fact, subscribe to, despite the insistence of journalists and other half-informed observers -- is in Michel Foucault's study of The History of Sexuality. In its archival research among various discourses in the human sciences, the book demonstrates that it wasn't until the 19th century that “sexuality” became so conceptually elevated it began to determine attributes of human “identity”. Earlier, if it had been discovered that a man, say, had had sexual encounters with other men, it would not be presumed-as it would later-that we have thereby discovered the essential, pre-existing “homosexuality” of his being. (Ever wonder why our sex acts are supposed to reveal a more fundamental “truth” about ourselves than, say, our exercise or dietary habits?) The book is essentially a history of the process by which we came to assign ourselves an ever more detailed array of sexual attributes -- and, in fact, Foucault's work as a whole is a history of the explosive “incitement to discourse” that hit new heights in the nineteenth century; a history of how and why we came to make ourselves knowable and “registerable” to certain disciplinary and institutional powers by articulating ourselves with unprecedentedly detailed units of intelligibility.

Clearly, these subjects have exactly nothing to do with any of the ideas attributed to "postmodernism" in this article.

I disagree with your analysis -- my recollection of Heidegger’s Being and Time was that our language traps/tricks us into making assumptions about the nature of being, that the truth of being was never inquired into as we, as language users, already thought we knew what it was. I would say that fits with my what I’ve said – but I spent my most recent years stuck in a department which focused far more heavily on the Analytic philosophers than on Continental philosophers, so it is entirely possible that my recollection of their points is mistaken.
Nonetheless, it is clear that we are in agreement that, whatever the postmodernists did say, what they did not say was truth is a social construct.--Reginod 13:48, 25 March 2007 (EDT)

Your description of Heidegger sounds fine, but let's not confuse the issue: you agree he's an existentialist, roughly speaking, not a "postmodernist," right? (I'm not sure why we're talking about existentialism in this entry...)

I’d call Heidegger a forerunner of postmodernism (with some existentialist leanings—but more postmodernist than existentialist if I had to put him in one category or the other), but we were talking existentialism because a previous commentator suggested that “reality is a social construct” was a claim that either existentialists or nihilists would make (and I’m not sure why those two got put together, but I wanted to make sure we didn’t wander down that odd path).--Reginod 13:20, 26 March 2007 (EDT)

Sokal

Sokal did not expose post-modern approaches to science as 'flawed', what he exposed was perhaps the incompetence of a small group of people working for the journal in question. Whilst Sokal was a critic of postmodernism in general, his paper did not expose any fundamental flaw. It should be noted that the journal in question was not actually peer reviewed at the time, so in actual fact even looking at how one might criticise the editors involved, what the publication of the paper actually proved is at best questionable. DWiggins 18:19, 3 November 2009 (EST)

most people though Sokal scored a coup. It shwed the leading journal in the field was incompetent. RJJensen 19:44, 3 November 2009 (EST)
Even though Sokal might have, ahem, "shwed" something about the editors of one particular journal in one particular instance, is that really enough to bolster an argument that an entire literary, intellectual and cultural movement has been, as the section heading reads, "discredited?" PeterF 20:00, 3 November 2009 (EST)
Social Text is not generally considered a leading journal in the field, in large part because of it not being peer-reviewed at the time of the Sokal Affair. Whilst Sokal has critiqued aspects of postmodernism, this is no more than has been done by many others and will continue to be done. It is also but another example of the criticism that is constantly thrown back and forth between proponents of different schools of thought. One essentially flawed paper that got through is not equal to stating that an entire of school of thought is fundamentally flawed, this was just his opinion and it said no more than others already had. The only real thing you could say came out of it was that it highlighted the debate, rather than being a winning move in it. And even to suggest the staff at Social Text were incompetent is going a bit far since the journal was not peer-reviewed at the time. The editors have even said they had their doubts about the article, but the purpose of the journal was to allow people to present their ideas. Some have even criticised Sokal, saying that him submitting his paper to such a journal was more a case of deceit on his part than an exposure of any significant flaws on the part of the editors. By all means the Sokal affair is worthy of mention here, but it has been attributed far more importance than it deserves. Postmodernism (a very loose term) still thrives to this day in a variety of fields. DWiggins 20:03, 3 November 2009 (EST)
yes Social text was a leading journal. the peer-reviewing seems to be besides the point: the humanities editor published a science article that was utter nonsense. As far as he was concerned, it met his criteria and truth evidently was not one of the criteria. Postmodernism does NOT thrive in science--in good part because of the Sokal affair. RJJensen 20:21, 3 November 2009 (EST)
I never said it thrived in science, perhaps one of the few fields where it has not caught on in any major way. Science relies on the idea of objectivity, the idea that there is a real world existing independent of human experience. Postmodernism has often questioned this view and indeed the idea that objectivity is anything other than an unattainable ideal. Science, as Karl Popper, hailed by many as the greatest philosopher of science, admits, acceptance of the scientific method relies upon the belief that objectivity is possible. The debate 'between' post-modernists and scientists is often one where people end up talking past each other. For one thing you will find few in the former group who would deny the value of the scientific method, an accusation which is often thrown their way. DWiggins 20:29, 3 November 2009 (EST)
Having read Sokal's paper and the book he wrote regarding postmodern gibberish (Intelletual Impostures), (and a bunch about the movement in general) I think it's fair to say that they are not talking past each other. Science is perhaps the greatest achievement of our civilization (on par with modern free-market democracy?) It is based on evidence and rigorous testing. Postmodern works contain mostly incomprehensible gibberish, are designed to be incomprehensible, abuse scientific terminology, offer no evidence, no proofs, no disproofs, and essentially exist only to foster the careers of leftist intellectuals who have nothing to say or add. Sokal proved that they know this to be true; anything will be published if it's sufficiently obscurantist and filled with terms like "privilege", "hermeneutic", and "hegemony." Ever read Derrida? It's unmitigated drivel. The insights he offers could be phrased lucidly in a fraction the space, but that wouldn't have given him a star career. DouglasA 00:04, 4 November 2009 (EST)

I can't and won't disagree with you about the importance of science and its achievements. However, to simply put postmodernism side-by-side with science and compare the two is completely missing the point. Science is marked out amongst the many ways of viewing the world in that in demands evidence and falsifiability. To criticise postmodernism for lacking this is to criticise it whilst imagining that it's supposed to be doing something that it never set out to do. Theories abound outside of science to try and explain a huge variety of things that science can't, those aspects of our existence that cannot be subjected to empirical testing. These theories, along with science, provide different ways of looking at the world, and they each provide different kinds of answers.

The Sokal affair is just one very specific example that undermined the credibility of a single journal and its editors, but you cannot simply extrapolate from that to say it undermined postmodernism full stop. There are numerous cases of 'bad science' and scandals with accusations aimed at some of entire careers built upon fraudulent work. In both fields, these are the very rare cases and cannot be taken as an indictment against everyone else. Yes, I would fully agree there are some works associated with postmodernism that are horrendous to read, at best simply overcomplicating matters, at worst perhaps making little sense at all. However, these are the minority, and the actual interpretation will of course depend on the expertise of the reader. I wouldn't necessarily expect an student of English literature to be able to understand a paper on quantum mechanics, nor would I necessarily expect a physics student to understand a paper on literary theory. At the end of the day, it comes down to a matter of opinion more than anything, you will find very few postmodernists who would disagree over the importance of the scientific method, what many are actually suggesting is that science must recognise the assumptions upon which it is based. DWiggins 00:27, 4 November 2009 (EST)

the pomos have very weird notions about "the assumptions" on which science is based. They think it's based on monopoly capitalism and government control--because they deny the reality of how scientists control science, and the deny the reality of how people control the government. They lack tools to detect reality, is their main problem. The CP article is rather better balanced, I suggest, than most pomo pieces themselves. DWiggins could be helpful by suggesting additions to the article. RJJensen 00:45, 4 November 2009 (EST)
Actually, what I meant by assumptions was nothing like what you've stated about 'monopoly capitalism' or anything like that. There are more fundamental assumptions, such as the one I referred to earlier, the assumption of a real world independent of human experience, something science cannot prove but has to assume else the method falls down. Consider for example the idea of objectivity. However, humans do not simply have unmediated access to 'reality' given how we experience it through our senses, and how our own values can influence our experiences. Science also has to recognise the idea of 'social constructs'. Of course, all language is to an extent a construct, the words we assign to phenomena were not pre-existing, and so it is not simply 'natural' how we categorise such phenomena. Take for example the concept of a 'species'. It was decided that reproductive ability was to be the basis for defining a species, yet there are numerous cases where the concept of a 'species' does not always hold up very well and has posed problems. It's when science, or any other means of producing knowledge about the world, begins to turn assumptions into facts that it poses problems. Postmodernist critique has simply emphasised the need for critical reflexivity. DWiggins 01:11, 4 November 2009 (EST)
the pomos have avoided science because they can't handle the complex information it generates, not the complex system science has for deciding what problems to study. Pomos have a standard all-purpose litany about how knowledge is produced that is not based on observation of scientists or of anyone. Large chunks are leftover Marxism. That makes them wide open for ridicule. RJJensen 07:30, 4 November 2009 (EST)
In response to the claim that Postmodernist critique has simply emphasised the need for critical reflexivity: Please show me a case where a postmodern critique has had any positive effect upon a scientific discourse. The vague notion of the "species" was not pointed out by postmodern literary theorists; it has been discussed and debated for over two centuries since Linnaeus. Curious anomalies such as ring species weren't examined in Social Text. And all scientists know that they don't "simply have unmediated access to 'reality'". This has been key to the scientific method since the 1600s, when Boyle et. al relied upon repetition and instruments to overcome subjective influence. What exactly has postmodernism contributed to this discourse, or any discourse of influence? DouglasA 10:40, 4 November 2009 (EST)

Tweaks to the "Ideas" section

I'm no fan of the postmodernists, but this page should at least represent the ideas as they really are, rather than constructing ahem, inventing convenient straw men. Some issues:

  • "Truth is a social construct." Sorry, there are no postmodern thinkers who say this. For one, they would never write in sentences shorter than 10 words!
  • "A society's choice of language..." Last I checked, societies don't choose what language they speak. Plus, there's more to this theory than political correctness, although a connection does exist.
  • A distinct lack of sources. I'm working on this one myself, but it should be incumbent on the person making a claim to back it up. "Truth is a social construct" went for too long without anyone actually bothering to find a postmodernist who sad that. I've yet to find one, so I changed it to reflect what postmodernists do actually say.

I've started this talk page discussion so that anyone who disagrees with how I tweaked the section can work out possible solutions here. JDWpianist 09:19, 25 January 2010 (EST)

"Truth is a social construct." You're right, this is a problematic, simplified expression--We want the article to reflect the view that "truth" is a concept whose construction needs to be interrogated in terms of the way in which it is imbricated in a whole series of uneven power relationships--and works to reproduce those relationships. Discuss.
"societies don't choose what language they speak." But the choice is made--think about how French became universalized and standardized across France (much of which was not "French-speking" before the Revolution). Think about the imposition of languages from the metropoles in the colonies. Think about N'gugi Wa Thiongo's campaign to get East African universities to get rid of English departments and to work in local languages, and his decision to write in Kikuyu. Think about the role of the French language in Quebec nationalism--or English only v. bilingual education issues in the US. Societies choose languages/have them chosen for them, nd this has everything to do with politics and power. AlexWD 14:53, 25 January 2010 (EST)
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