Reified Postmodernism


Mika Baumeister: Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (Unsplash)

From Eurozine:

Alan Sokal: Pluckrose and Lindsay explore the intersection between some philosophical ideas and identity politics. They argue that the first, classical phase of postmodernism in the 1960s and 1970s was explicitly relativist and aimed at deconstructing any claim to objective knowledge. But this kind of extreme relativism was not politically very useful. Anyone who is politically committed wants to advocate for something, rather than suggest that all concepts are equally valid. So relativist ideas came to be used in a selective and convoluted way to support specific social and political positions. This approach subsequently gave rise to postcolonial theory, postmodernist versions of critical race theory and feminist theory, and queer theory.

Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book illustrates how these postmodernist ideas coalesced into a new ‘applied postmodernism’. It shows that the postmodernist knowledge principle (the view that there is no such thing as objective knowledge of natural and social reality) merged with the postmodern political principle (the idea that society is structured by forms of domination that control and reproduce certain ways of thought, and that any claim to objective knowledge is no more than an assertion of power).  By 2010 these principles had taken on the status of unquestionable truths: a phase that Pluckrose and Lindsay call ‘reified postmodernism’. Consequently – and ironically – relativist ideas come to be employed in the service of dogmatic absolutism when issues such as social oppression, and how to combat it, are addressed.

Reified postmodernism has become the dominant philosophy behind movements associated with Critical Social Justice, or ‘woke’. The Pluckrose-Lindsay book challenges this mindset. It argues that social justice is better served by an epistemology founded on evidence and reason, alongside a social philosophy based on classical liberalism that emphasizes universal human rights, the protection of individual liberty, and respect for free expression and open debate.

Péter Krekó: How does all this affect the political environment?

Alan Sokal: A relativism metamorphosed into dogmatic absolutism is obviously logically incoherent, but the most significant danger is that anyone can play the game, including the pseudo-populist extreme right. Postmodernism is no longer the domain of the left.  That wonderful phrase ‘alternative facts’ was after all invented for political purposes by Donald Trump’s press secretary.

To challenge this appalling state of affairs, Pluckrose, Lindsay and I are seeking to defend two main ideas. First, that there is such a thing as objective reality in society and the natural world. Second, that human beings can obtain reasonably reliable objective knowledge about natural and social reality by using observation, evidence and reason.

Obtaining reasonably reliable objective knowledge is, of course, much more difficult in the social sciences than the natural sciences. But it is nevertheless extremely important to strive for it.

At the same time, we want to defend fundamental liberal values from attacks coming from the so-called woke ‘left’ as well as from the pseudo-populist ‘right’. I say ‘so-called’ because a lot of what I see on the woke ‘left’ is very far from what I meant by the left 25-30 years ago, when I considered myself a leftist – as I still do.

The same is true of the right, however.

“In defence of the objective world”, Péter Krekó and Alan Sokal, Eurozine

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