Monday, July 31, 2006

In vino somnium

Simon Blackburn in the Financial Times:

Postmodernism emerged out of the idea that we see things through filters coloured by hidden dark forces of class, gender, culture or language. From this it travelled to the ironic, detached attitude of treating truth as no more than a narrative, facts as indefinitely elastic, and the world as a text open to multiple interpretations. It held that our cherished standards of reason were just a contingent historical deposit, that some kind of relativism was intellectually forced on us, or that truth itself was only a social construction.

I write in the past tense, since many argue that the events of September 11 2001 demolished these ideas. Those events reminded people that there are beliefs we need to affirm. We need truth, reason and objectivity - and we need them to be on our side. The academy has become less friendly to relaxed pluralisms. Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s a playful attitude that anything goes seized the weaker parts of the humanities, now a stern rectitude calls the tune. Ideas often reflect politics - and politically, postmodernism can be seen as a reflection of postcolonial guilt, meaning not only that we were wrong to force western rationality or western science down other people’s throats, but that their rationality or their science was every bit as good as ours. If that is right, then the current backlash may be the philosopher’s version of neo-conservatism, parallel to current historians’ tasteless celebrations of the virtues of empire.


Postmodernism is often billed as attacking truth and science. This is how it is presented in the valuable little book Why Truth Matters, by the editors of the sceptical website, Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom. They mount a spirited counterattack, reminding us - in the way that Cambridge philosopher GE Moore was famous for doing - that if it comes to a battle for hearts and minds, basic convictions of common sense and science beat philosophical subtleties hands down. … Benson and Stangroom reveal a rogues’ gallery of social constructivists, who look at how individuals and groups participate in the creation of their own perceived reality. These “rogues” include the feminist Sandra Harding and the neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty, but the doyen must surely be the French philosopher of science Bruno Latour. Latour’s confusion of words and things led him to the precipice of denying that there could have been dinosaurs before the term was invented. Presumably a similar argument would show that nobody before Crick and Watson had DNA.

I have noticed that if the topic of ‘philosophy’ comes up in conversation, particularly in slightly inebriated conversation, a surprisingly large number of people are keen to leap in with their own personal Big Theory.

Depressingly often, this amounts to a statement of absurd truth relativism. It is usually illustrated by an uttered ‘proof’ such as “But when everybody believed that the Earth was flat, then it was the truth that the Earth was flat”, while a knowing smile and raised eyebrow indicate the profundity of the insight.


Blogger Oroborous said...

I'm a little more forgiving of the less-than-profound amateur philosopher - after all, the Earth was flat when we all believed it to be so, in the sense that until we developed parabolic artillery and telescopes, it really didn't matter if it was flat or not. We could believe whatever we wanted, with no consequence. (Plus, I am a less-than-profound philosopher in my spare time, so I relate to the sometimes pitiful efforts of others).

"Truth" is undeniably in part a narrative, and we do see things through usually hidden and unrealized filters of class, gender, culture, and language. The world is open to multiple interpretations, and it's not uncommon for there to be several versions of "the truth" that are equally valid.

The problem comes when one leaps from seeing that "truth" is influenced by perception and interpretation, to believing that it's produced by perception and interpretation.
Then you get "visualize world peace" and "free Tibet !" bumper stickers.

We certainly were NOT wrong to force western rationality and western science down other people’s throats; indeed, we are guilty of not cramming nearly hard enough.

We have robots exploring Mars and eggnog-flavored coffee, while in various parts of Africa they still believe that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS, and that surviving an attack by a snake proves that you're a witch. It's enough to make me cry - an entire continent populated by morons, apparently content to remain so.

The only "postcolonial guilt" that the West should be feeling is over abandoning Africa. We tried the experiment, and the results are clear - the wogs mostly need The Man.
We should move to re-colonize most of Africa ASAP.

Incidently, the Butterflies & Wheels website mentioned in the piece is a favorite of our very own Skipper's.

July 31, 2006 11:26 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The whole eastern side of the island is feeble-minded that way and needs colonization at least as much as Africa.

However, I avoid being at parties where I might have to listen to them.

All the criticisms of postmodernism in the FT apply exactly and equally to religion, particularly the Christian religion, so I had a certain 'So, what's new?' reaction.

July 31, 2006 11:49 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

When people believed the earth was flat, people believed the earth was flat - no further claim need be made.

Just leave the word 'true' out of it, or it gets too Humpty-Dumpty.

August 01, 2006 3:35 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

But if we do that, then we miss the point that some things that we perceive as "truth" today will seem as quaint as a flat Earth to tomorrow's folk.

Another way to put it is that one should verify one's assumptions, even if, perhaps especially if, they seem to be simple common sense, or are widely held beliefs.

August 01, 2006 6:26 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

For instance, it's a widely held belief in America that the U.S. militaries were crucial to defeating Germany during WW II. I believed that myself.

However, although one might argue that American industry was crucially important to defeating Germany, it turns out that England and Russia did the lion's share, militarily, and that Russia was probably the most important actor in the European theatre.

August 01, 2006 6:33 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Then we simply don't know what the truth is yet, or we're wrong about the truth, or we're asking questions that are too simplistic.

August 01, 2006 6:37 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

But we don't know that, until afterwards.

If you don't want to use "true" for "a provisionally-accepted belief, subject to revision", then what word do you like ?

August 01, 2006 8:45 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I do want to use it for that. Everything we call 'true' might turn out not to be, but we can't help that.

If you'd been on a TV Quiz in the Days of Olde and answered the question "The Earth is flat, true or false?" with the answer "True", you would have been given a point.

But the Earth wasn't actually flat.

What I object to is the 'insight' at dinner parties that "it was true that the Earth was flat" has some deeper, significant meaning other than "people (incorrectly) thought it was true that the Earth was flat."

On a day to day basis, we call things that we believe to be the case, subject to revision, 'true'. It's shorthand. Really we hope our beliefs are true, with varying degrees of confidence. But the word 'true' technically refers to that which is the case regardless of what humans or anything else thinks.

The dinner party philosophers think the fact of the shorthand use affects the validity of the technical meaning, which it doesn't.

August 01, 2006 10:16 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

What people say they believe and what evidence shows they do believe are not particularly congruent.

To really appreciate the following story, you have to know that I got my current exile on Maui on account of because I insulted a chirapractor on my employer's letterhead. That's another story.

Anyhow, I was at a hearing about something or other, and a chiropractor was complaining that chiropractors were discriminated against because they were ineligible for some sort of government reimbursement, Medicaid I think.

The reason was, to be eligible, a medical facility had to have an around-the-clock emergency and there are no chiropractic emergency rooms.

And I thought, of course, nobody who's really sick is going to a chiropractor.


August 01, 2006 5:57 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

That sounds like an opportunity for a chiropractic group practice.
Just have a 24hr entrance, and rotate having a doctor of chiropractic sleep at the office.

Presto, government funds available.

August 02, 2006 6:15 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I've never been to a chiropractor, but I know a few people who have.

What seems to happen is that their backs ache, as most of our backs do, so every couple of months they go along, get twisted and wrenched about, suffer three or four days of exquisite agony, then steadily recover until they reach their normal levels of discomfort.

Then it's time to go back and do it all again.

I know three people for certain who've been going to their chiropractor for more than five years, without any noticeable signs of getting better.

August 02, 2006 6:44 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

PS. I'd like to hear Harry's story about the insult and the company letterhead.

August 02, 2006 6:45 AM  
Blogger David said...

First, whaddya mean "was."

Second, if I insult a chiropractor on my employer's stationary, will I be exiled to Maui?

August 02, 2006 7:58 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, sad to say, my story is not the nail-biter that Skipper's encounter with the law was, but perhaps I can finish the story in less than a month.

The story itself is kind of short and silly, but the scene takes some setting.

Around 1984, I was a very disgruntled employee, with even more disgruntled bosses. In fact, I told my wife and kids that I was going to quit as soon as I found another job.

My eldest, just started her senior year in high school, begged not to have to leave that, so I promised I would hang on one more year.

At this point, the executive editor had not spoken to me for four years, after he tried to show me up on a point of grammar and got shown up himself.

Also, the non-union newsroom was in the midst of a somewhat subterranean union organizing campaign, and the management was desperate to find out who was behind it. They suspected it was me, possibly because I had told the managing editor one night, 'Arnold, we really don't need you to get out the paper most days, you just get in the way. Why don't you go home and stay there? I promise we'll call if a policy decision has to be made.'

(As it happened, the man behind the union campaign was not me. It was a mousy reporter who was boiling inside. Later a suicide, I heard.)

A chiropractor wrote a letter to the editor about a combined abortion mill/women's clinic that had been in the news. I no longer remember exactly what irritated me about it, aside from the fact that I despise all chiropractors. (One in a nearby town had tortured a 13-year-old boy with cystic fibrosis and eventually electrocuted him. He got 3 years.) Something about how his wife had been well-treated there or something.

I remember even less about what I said back to him, but you guys have seen me in action, and it was fairly stiff.

Why did I do it on company letterhead? It was handy. Didn't care much one way or the other.

So they fired me. There was subsequently a great deal of argument in the newsroom about whether the letter was the real reason.

Most people thought it was a convenient lesson to the would-be unionists. If so, it worked.

Others thought it was retaliation for my (mythical) organizing.

Others thought it was petty revenge by the executive editor.

One or two may actually have thought it was for the stated reason.

I was out of work for 11 months, which was great for me. My youngest had just turned 2, and we had a wonderful time together. It was tough on my wife, though.

When you quit a newspaper, you have to leave town. Tricia, who never did get used to Iowa winters, said she didn't care where we went, as long as it was warm.

The Maui News, which had only graduated into being a daily a few years before, had always hired reporters from among a floating population of wannabes. In 1987, overwhelmed by a tide of yen, the paper decided it needed a full-time business reporter, and since there wasn't one anywhere in the state, for the first time in its history, it recruited on the Mainland (through Editor & Publisher).

I had been making ends meet, almost, by editing a business weekly, with the title of managing editor. I think the title probably was what tipped the selection in my favor. That and some pretty emphatic recommendations from former colleagues and the fact that in the meantime the Iowa paper had been taken over by Gannett, which has a policy of not revealing the reason an employee left.

Since then, the editor has tried to fire me twice, but -- guess what? -- we have a union here and he couldn't.

Had it not been for dumb Japanese investors, I'd probably have ended up in Bay City, Texas. It's always better to be lucky than smart.

August 03, 2006 12:37 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

A great story, which just goes to show once again that life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. As John Lennon said in one of his two great statements of universal human truth (the other one being: "I think I know I mean, ah yes but it's all wrong/That is I think I disagree.").

I don’t know what it’s like in the States, but you’d never get fired for that in the UK these days. These days it seems you pretty much have to go on a murderous rampage and wipe out the entire admin team with a sawn-off shotgun (or worse, crack a sexist joke) before the HR wallahs dare to take action.

For two years my department was terrorised by the moodiest, mardiest, miserablest designer who ever used a Mac (and that’s saying something, if you know any designers). Theoretically my subordinate, she pushed very boundary of acceptable behaviour but knew her rights (a proper sea lawyer, in O’Brian-speak) and in practice answered to nobody.

There was nary a man in the business she hadn’t provoked to silent, barely-contained fury, nor a woman she hadn’t reduced to tears at one time or another. But could we sack her? We could not, due to lily-livered but justified fear of expensive litigation that could cripple a small business.

We were effectively told by the HR department: tough it out or leave. We toughed it out until she eventually left. The change in the whole mood of the business was instant and remarkable.

August 03, 2006 2:38 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

mardiest isn't in my dictionaries. What does it mean? Is it mardy, mardier, mardiest?

August 03, 2006 1:03 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


Good north-west English word meaning moody, bad-tempered, sour-faced, grumpy. Southern English equivalent is 'lairy'. Nearest US word would probably be 'grouch', but it lacks the essential Mancunian quality.

Big hit by a pop band from Sheffield called the Arctic Monkeys recently, magnificently entitled "Mardy Bum".

August 03, 2006 4:09 PM  

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