Archives for category: Philosophy

To understand postmodernism, one must first have a basic understanding of modernism. Luckily, modernism is far less complex than postmodernism, which hopefully makes understanding postmodernism easier as well. Modernism is a paradigm that says that we’ve figured everything out, science has won, our current institutions never need to change again, and any form of progress will only be the refinement of things that we currently have got going for us right now. It’s the paradigm of Fukuyama’s “End of History.” There’s no point in talking about things anymore; this is it.

Postmodernism is the reply to that which says, “Wellllllll….. I mean…. really? Literally everyone in the past has said that their way of thinking is irrefutably true, but you’re super sure that you’ve got it this time?”

This of course is completely reasonable. Modernists give primacy to science; science is about the refutation of existing theories (except apparently when it comes to the primacy of science and other modernist principles which can never possibly be refuted), so why is there such blowback against attempts to refute existing theories? Postmodernism is applying rational skepticism to firmly entrenched ideas and values. This is usually done by looking at an idea that is taken for granted as true, analyzing its history, and then pointing out flaws that have been imbued in that idea since its inception. Postmodernists usually leave it up to us to decide what to do with their criticism, but it’s generally assumed that a revaluation of that idea is the implied minimum.

For a couple of examples, capitalism is an economic system founded in colonialism and slavery. Tracing its history to today, one can see threads of that continuing in the exploitation of third world countries for first world profits. Postmodernism stops there. It has never been big on solutions, just pointing out the problems. I’ve also outlined the general thesis of Foucault’s evolution of punishment here. This blog is essentially a postmodern analysis of contemporary justice. Basically if you’re criticizing something by looking at how its history has shaped its current incarnation, you’re doing postmodernism. Nietzsche was actually one of the first postmodernists. In The Genealogy of Morals, he takes the firmly established Christian way of life, and then deconstructs it as the “slave morality” response to the Roman “master morality”, thus leading to the insipidness of his time. The difference I guess is that Nietzsche offered a solution.

Here’s the thing: nobody likes postmodernists. Which is weird because skepticism has been around for a looonnnng time. Postmodernists are attacked for not liking science and reason; David Hume posited that causality is unknowable; Renee Descartes suggested that mathematical truths could be the deception of an evil demon, and thus could not be held self-evident; Sextus Empiricus, one of the most famous Greek skeptics, provided proofs both for and against the gods; Socrates denied traditional piety, values, language, epistemology, justice… so many things. Much like Socrates, postmodernists get a lot of grief because they attack the paradigm of those in power. They are the gadflies of modernity.

If you watch any video on postmodernism, you’ll probably see somewhere in the comments advice from helpful Youtubers to check out Jordan Peterson, because he knows about postmodernism, and he says it’s bad. Let’s look at some of his criticisms:

It’s an attack on rationality/empiricism/science: That’s one way of framing it, sure, but that isn’t unprecedented even in the most enlightened of circles, and it’s not actually the case. Postmodernism appreciates other ways of knowing, rather than baldly accepting the deification of reason. Maybe beauty has some truth worth knowing, or empathy might reveal something about the universe. Ask yourself, “How can I prove that reason is the ultimate way of knowing?” You can answer either with reason, which would lead to an infinite regress (proving reason with reason would require further reason to prove the second reason), or with some other way of knowing, which shows the value of an alternative. It’s not that science is wrong or bad, it’s that it’s not alone.

It suggests multiple viewpoints, which means there can be no true viewpoint. The only reason we have an agreed upon viewpoint is because it belongs to those in power: Well, yeah. Read a book. History belongs to the victors, right? Those with the most power are going to organize things so that they keep winning. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Everyone knows politicians are corrupt because they do everything to keep their power, but nobody can make the leap to other facets of our society functioning on the same premise? Please.

Next would be the relativism implied in the criticism: the difficulty we have with truth does not mean that there cannot be a best viewpoint, and deciding which is best is a lot more complicated than accepting the current system simply because that’s the way it has always been. Perhaps with a postmodern lens, we can better understand which viewpoint has the greatest benefit.

There is no individual in postmodernism, just identity. It splits people into an oppressor and oppressed class: Again, yes. Economists and statisticians split people into identifiable variables all the time. It makes measuring trends easier. It’s a way of analyzing social phenomena. If one group is lumped together into an oppressor class, that’s because historically that group has tended to behave in that pattern and now benefits from that history, even if you don’t accept that that practice continues today. It’s not complicated.

Postmodernists are all Marxists. They don’t engage in dialogue. They want to destroy everything: To sum up, postmodernism corrupts the youth. Peterson is famous for wanting to shut down university courses that he believes perpetuate postmodern ideas and “cultural Marxism.” This is the exact charge the Athenians levied against Socrates. There is a lot of propaganda against postmodernists by those who stand to lose under their dissecting eye. Peterson is a buffoon.

There are some valid criticisms of postmodernism, even in this blog. You may have noticed I repeatedly pointed out that it doesn’t offer solutions. Beyond this, it denies any Grand Narrative, which in theory could be used to unify people even if today they are mostly used for jingoist purposes. When people call postmodernism a philosophy I usually cringe because I see it more as sociology rather than philosophy. A postmodernist is more likely to criticize bourgeois philosophy than participate within it, and fair enough.

The true skeptic holds that every belief must be questioned, including the belief that every belief must be questioned. Postmodernism is not beyond criticism, and nobody says it should be. It’s just that too much of its criticism has been coming from people who lump it in with “Cultural Marxism“, and those people are just so, so dumb and are ruining things for everyone. I just want to go back to writing about how empathy isn’t real and the Marxist implications of Facebook, but NOOOOooooo! I have to write out entire blogs explaining why alt-right talking points are wrong.

Post-script: In that Jordan Peterson video, he says that he read Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, and then says that its theme is that the presentation of mental illness is shaped by the conditions of its surrounding environment. That’s… not what the book is about at all. The book is about showing how mental illness is framed in moral terms, as a manifestation of an unreason contrasting the social norms of its environment. Kind of like how being transgender is seen as morally deviant because it flies in the face of the traditional understandings of gender. It’s actually exactly like that. Peterson either never actually read the book and is posturing (so smugly) to seem smart to his followers, or he’s just really, really dumb and didn’t pick up what Foucault wrote out explicitly like, a bunch of times throughout the book. It really seems to me that Jordan Peterson learned about postmodernism from a Jordan Peterson video, and didn’t investigate further because whatever, he gets to be famous for being the stupid man’s smart person.

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If you’ve ever taken a philosophy course, or at least had the misfortune to talk to someone who has, it’s likely you’ve heard of the trolley problem. It poses us this moral dilemma:

A trolley carrying five people is barreling towards a barrier erected by the dastardly Snidely Whiplash. You, our intrepid hero, can save these five people from certain doom by pushing a button that reroutes the train onto a different track, but alas! Snidely Whiplash has tied someone else to that track, and in rerouting the train, you will be killing that one person. What do you doooooooo?

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That mustache is so prominent, it really distracts from the fact that Snidely Whiplash wears a dress.

Most people’s first thoughts are going to be utilitarian. Morality can be reduced to a simple mathematical formula: five people is more people than one; you should press the button. Here’s the problem: first impressions are wrong; utilitarianism is wrong; you are wrong. Consider this second example:

You are a brilliant surgeon. Snidely Whiplash has been at it again, and has, through some dastardly plot, caused organ failure in five separate individuals who are now in your operating room. Their situation is dire: their deaths are imminent. Just at this moment, a box arrives with a note that says, “Each patient has a separate failing organ, and your assistant is compatible with every single one of them.” In the box is a gun. As a brilliant surgeon, you can save those five people by killing your assistant and using his organs to save their lives, or you can do nothing and allow them to die. What do you doooooooo?

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Come now, Utilitarians! T’is simple maths, m’yessss?

Despite the framing, both problems are identical in content. In both cases, you can either passively allow five people to die, or actively kill one person in order to save them. I expect that most people’s first impression of the second example is to not murder their assistant, even if they would push the button in the first one, but what causes that discrepancy?

Lt. David Grossman analyzes the nature of killing in his book On Killing, and part of what allows regular human beings to kill, who otherwise wouldn’t, is a distance from the target. It’s easier to kill someone at range than it is up close. It’s easier to kill someone through a scope than it is through your bare eyes. It’s easier to kill someone with the press of a button than it is with a gun. The consequences of our actions become diluted the further we get from our deeds. If we consider life in the abstract, life becomes worth measurably less.

Part of the reason that a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima was that nobody wanted to send in ground troops. It’s easier to kill from far away, and the horrors of a nuclear blast became justified. We care more about being ghosted by somebody off Tinder than we do about the collective deaths of the entire Syrian civil war because what happens to us up close will always matter more, no matter how ridiculous the comparison might be. We don’t want to kill our assistant because we assume that we have a relationship with that person, but we’re fine with killing a stranger tied to some train tracks, never stopping to wonder if that person might be someone else’s medical assistant.

Ethics is obviously an ongoing conversation, but the importance of the trolley and surgeon questions are what we as human beings are capable of. Are we killers? I mean killers in the sense of killing people, regardless of how far away (literally and figuratively) from the victim we are, or how little we value their lives. We are in control of our actions; that’s what we must decide.

When considering the trolley problem, think to yourself. What would Batman do? He would obviously swoop over to the train and work some kind of bat-strategy to save everyone, but he would never push that button. Know why? Because Batman is a God damn hero.

You ever notice how incredibly stupid the idea of individualism is? It’s essentially saying, “I’m going to make it on my own in this crazy world, and I’m going to do it wholly dependent on literally everyone around me.” We depend on our bus drivers to get us from point A to point B, and if we drive, we depend on our car manufacturer to provide that same function. We depend on our grocers to sell us food, who in turn depend on wholesalers, truck drivers, farmers, and so on, in order for them to get the food to sell us in the first place. We depend on strangers on the street to not stab us for no reason as we go about our day. We depend on our roommates to cover their share of rent. We depend on our actors to provide us entertainment. We depend on our athletes to provide vicarious exercise for our slovenly lifestyles.

But wait, you might say! I make my own money, and I use that money to induce others to perform those tasks for me! I am independent! But alas, no, you’re not. You depend on someone to pay you. It is perfectly conceivable to imagine a world where your employer decides not to pay you, or pays you insufficiently for what you’re worth, and then you become dependent on lawyers, judges, and the legal system in order to obtain redress. It’s also quite reasonable to suppose that there could be those you induce to take your money who do not then provide their service at all, or do an insufficient job. I suppose you could say that you could induce fair labour treatment using only the threat of the violence you personally could commit, but I can’t imagine a society like that ever thriving.

We depend on loved ones for comfort. We depend on our mentors for guidance. We depend on strangers for security. Like I said, we depend on literally everyone around us for literally everything we do. Others too depend on us in turn. You can’t criticize collectivism on the basis that it eliminates human individuality because human society is a collective. It can’t function otherwise! Certainly people are individuals with their own unique traits, but they exist in a collective within which they depend on others for absolutely everything. Individuality only serves to add colour and diversity within the collective, but it cannot possibly act as a substitute or civilization would crumble into dust.

So why do people so ravenously defend this ludicrous idea? Well, if you look at every movie, you’ll see a lone figure who abides by (his) own rules because society could not exist without (him) to keep it afloat. Sometimes it will be a small group, but generally even then there will be one (male) who stands above the rest who is the most individual of them all. We see it as social progress when that one individual is black, or female, or even a black female, though there are those who decry even that, as God forbid a woman be a lone heroine who stands outside the common rules of society to show how inadequate they are. Now I kind of want Hollywood to remake a bunch of John Wayne movies with a female protagonist. Sure it’s hypocritical of me because I’m calling it individualist propaganda in this very paragraph, but just imagine how many people it would piss off. Totally worth it.

It’s why we focus on Martin Luther King Jr. alone, despite the massive community organizing that propped him up. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t an individual, it was a collective (a movement is, by definition, a collective), but that is a narrative rarely heard. Gandhi had millions of people alongside of him, and he didn’t do all that work on his own. We love our generals, despite them being completely worthless without a collective surrounding them functioning smoothly and efficiently.

This leads us to our next question: why would nearly every piece of media perpetuate asinine individualist propaganda that doesn’t make any sense when given two seconds of casual thought? The answer, as always, is capitalism. People will be less inclined to complain if we can blame them as individuals for not pulling up their bootstraps hard enough to get out of poverty, even though, again by definition, the collective is responsible for that very situation. If we disconnect people from the intrinsic connection of human community, they won’t band together in support of that very community. Keep people distanced from one another, and they’ll be more likely to connect to things rather than to each other.

If we recognized the basic structure of civil society as a collective, we would be guided toward a more democratic method of organizing the mechanisms within it. Compassion would replace greed, as greed is individual whereas compassion necessitates an other. Communities would be measured by the success of the whole, not the success of its smallest minority. I’m not advocating a Utopian ideal, just an inclination toward a more natural social order.

Post-script: There will be those who criticize collectivism as willing to sacrifice the individual for the sake of the group. You have to keep in mind that we already do sacrifice individuals for the sake of the group; it’s called the justice system. We put people in jail who disrupt civil order. It’s not uncontroversial. The bigger concern, from what I’ve witnessed in individualist philosophies, is the willingness to sacrifice groups for the sake of the individual.