Bryan Caplan  

Postmodernism: Private Vice, Public Virtue?

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I stumbled across an atypically insightful essay by Noam Chomsky, "What Is Wrong With Science and Rationality?," in the colorfully-named collection Market Killing. You can read a nearly complete version of the essay here. Chomsky pushes two theses in this essay.

First, postmodernism makes no sense:

[T]o take part in a discussion, one must understand the ground rules. In this case, I don't. In particular, I don't know the answers to such elementary questions as these: Are conclusions to be consistent with premises (maybe even follow from them)? Do facts matter? Or can we string together thoughts as we like, calling it an "argument," and make facts up as we please, taking one story to be as good as another? ... What seems to be under discussion here is whether we should abide by these ground rules at all (trying to improve them as we proceed). If the answer is that we are to abide by them, then the discussion is over: we've implicitly accepted the legitimacy of rational inquiry. If they are to be abandoned, then we cannot proceed until we learn what replaces the commitment to consistency, responsibility to fact, and other outdated notions. Short of some instruction on this matter, we are reduced to primal screams.

Second, postmodernist philosophy makes it hard to persuasively communicate your substantitive views to a broad audience:

And it is hard for me to see how friends and colleagues in the "non white world" will learn more from the advice given by "a handful of scientists" who inform then that they should not "move on the tracks of western science and technology," but should prefer other "stories" and "myths"--which ones, we are not told, though astrology is mentioned.

...

It strikes me as remarkable that their left counterparts today should seek to deprive oppressed people not only of the joys of understanding and insight, but also of tools of emancipation, informing us that the "project of the Enlightenment" is dead, that we must abandon the "illusions" of science and rationality--a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use.

I think Chomsky's basically right on both counts (though I see the radical left primarily as proponents of oppression!). Which puts me in a quandary. As long as postmodernism remains a delusion of the left, I'm afraid I've got to admit it has a socially useful function: It serves as a barricade between leftist intellectuals and their target audience. There is no surer way to turn off a crowd of anti-globlization protestors than to make them listen to some windbag go on and on about "What Derrida said Foucault should have said Sartre meant to say."

Admittedly, this is playing with fire. But the brief fascination of some Austrian economists with Continental philosophy, most prominently represented by Don Lavoie, seems to have petered out, and I don't expect it will have a comeback anytime soon.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Brad Hutchings writes:

Western Civilization lacks an academic confidence of what we got right, plain and simple. And it has a huge influence on our policies toward the so-called developing world. Whether it was the peacenicks and socialists during the Cold War who romanticized about the Soviet Union or the feminists who can't bring themselves to admit that women are better off in Afghanistan after we turned the place over. Or the opponents of the Iraq war who don't see the direct connection to the pro-democratic and pro-progress uprisings in Lebanon. Or the goofballs in Geneva who want to tax technology companies to fund technology purchases for Africa.

We have an academic attitude of "do not criticize these peoples, they are better than us", "do not posion them with our values", and then "take care of them like children". It is really disgusting. Fortunately, the whole world is moving toward Western style democracy and free market culture. Look at India, the Far East, and even (slowly) China. Some places like the Middle East may need a military nudge when they decide to be a threat. Some places like Mexico and North Africa (which are low cost labor pools for US and European industries, but also the most cursed "threats") need a welcome mat and a friendly, helpful neighbor. They don't want to be poor. They don't want to invade us. They want to be like us.

Duane Gran writes:

Brad Hutchings writes, They don't want to be poor. They don't want to invade us. They want to be like us.

That in itself doesn't mean that is the right or expedient thing to usher them to this conclusion. While I am fond of many things about western civilization, I try to respect that other cultures have depth as well. When intellectuals wring their hands about the exportation of Democracy it isn't because they prefer oppression to continue, but instead they see the potential disintegration of other cultures. It is hard for the third world, for lack of a better word, to simultaneously accept Democracy and to reject McDonalds. Certain institutions, like the IMF and World Bank, make this even more of an all or nothing proposition.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Well, I agree, Bryan.

I think the postmodern stuff is idiotic, and does in fact do damage to liberal causes, for the reason you provide and others.

Without reference to Chomsky's politics, but considering his scholarly achievements, however, I don't find it at all surprising that he is a fan of rational thought.

Mcwop writes:
Or the goofballs in Geneva who want to tax technology companies to fund technology purchases for Africa.

And the last thing we need is more Nigerian email scamsters. :-)

Brad Hutchings writes:

Duane, it might be seen by some as ironic that you are the one who introduced the term "third world" in presenting your opinion. That is a very outdated notion, where Europe is the first world, the US is the second world, and mark everything else as "uncivilized". India and Asia are developing themselves. Mexico, with the help of NAFTA is modernizing and liberalizing. Central and South American free trade agreements will take care of things there in the coming decade. Cuba is waiting for Fidel to break his other knee. Venezuala is a problem spot. On the other side of the world, the Middle Eastern dominoes are starting to fall of their own weight, much the same way Eastern Europe collapsed 15 years ago. Africa remains a huge challenge. But this is a much improved world from a decade or two decades ago.

Your McDonalds example is a convenient anti-globalist red herring. As our world becomes more connected through trade and (I say proudly) Western ideals of freedom and democracy, we have more interexchange of ideas of products. They get McDonalds. We're great at packaging things into exportable companies. We get all sorts of food, clothing, styles, etc. Chinese food, Thai food, Indian food, and Mexican food aren't even considered "ethnic" in my neighborhood!! At one point after the Afghanistan invasion, Overstock.com was the biggest private employer in the country. And that meant world markets for handmade goods from the people of that country! Western Civ may "conquer" with its dominant philosophical imperatives (freedom and democracy), but it definitely trades for goods, services, and ideas. Colonialism and spheres of influence are as passé as the French.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

It is certainly important to respect what other cultures have to teach us, and to respect the way they want to live. But it is much too easy to view their members as existing for our benefit, so we can observe their quaint customs, almost as though they were in a zoo.

Remember that "the way they want to live" does not necessarily, or even usually, mean clinging to traditional lifestyles. It can easily mean trying to move into a more western lifestyle. We should be willing to respect this also, and recognize that it is their choice to make.

Boonton writes:

"postmodern" oppression also exists on the right. Pat Buchannan, for one, has flirted with a racial-cultural view that basically says "dictatorships 'fit' people in the Middle East" while democracy is a better 'fit' for Western European culture. Recall he attacked Salmon Rushdie when the religious leaders of Iran were demanding that he be killed for 'offending Islam'.

David Thomson writes:

"While I am fond of many things about western civilization, I try to respect that other cultures have depth as well."

You seem to hold a most peculiar notion of Western Civilization. I personally agree with Matthew Arnold that it is nothing more than “the best that is known and thought in the world." It has nothing to do with a bunch of white dudes running around and telling everybody what to do. Do you even believe in objectively reality? Is everything supposedly relative?

Duane Gran writes:

Brad, thank you for the response. While I don't disagree historically about the rapid changes that are under way, I (and others) are concerned that our belief in exporting Democracy is not that much different from imperialism of old. I'm not suggesting that you believe this, but many who promote Democracy do so in such a self assured way that it seems almost colonial. Globalization may bring more trade, but dare I commit heresy and suggest that the measure of human interaction may not be reducible to a transaction of goods? To put this all another way, how can we be so certain that the values we export are an improvement, given a long view of time?

David Thomson, to clarify my peculiar notion of Western Civilization, I happen to think very highly of it. I'm also guarded not to claim too much credit, or comprehension of its greatness, as I've only been an active part of our civilization for the last several decades. The record of accomplishment is noble and I believe I share your disdain for those who characterize it as a culture of old white men. As for an objective reality, I think as long as our senses give us approximate and untranslatable (among persons, that is) information, our metaphysical condition is relative.

Bob Knaus writes:

Brad - this is probably one of the things that falls between the cracks of current events and history, but the US has always been 1st world!

Back in the day, US/Europe/Japan were 1st world, the communist nations were 2nd world, and the rest ("nonaligned" I believe they liked to be called) were 3rd world. To make a point, some said the very poor nations of sub-Saharan Africa were 4th world.

I agree, "3rd world" is passe!

Max Sawicky writes:

Left post-modernism (sic) is purely a bullsh*t academic phenomenon. It has nothing to do with left political activity.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Bob... Thanks for the correction. Couldn't you tell that I went to publik skuel?

bwanadik writes:

To Chomsky's credit, he's one of the few major modern left-anarchist thinkers to maintain classical anarchism's emphasis on science and rationality. Kropotkin would be appalled at the post-eco-gibberish that passes for much modern anarchist thought.

Marcus Welch writes:

Kropotkin would be appalled at the post-eco-gibberish that passes for much modern anarchist thought.

Post-modern gibberish is prefigured in the works of Proudhon, who made self-contradiction central to his thinking.

Marcus Welch writes:

Left post-modernism (sic) is purely a bullsh*t academic phenomenon. It has nothing to do with left political activity.

On the contrary.

The best-selling political titles of George Lakoff are the application of post-modern thought to politics.

Did not help Kerry win the White House or help Democrats win back the Senate, however.

The irony is that Democrats are likely to use Lakoff as a blueprint for picking up seats in the '06 elections. Since Democrats are due to pick up a few seats in the mid-term election cycle anyhow, it is likely that they will see this as a vindication of post-modernism.

can we string together thoughts as we like, calling it an "argument," and make facts up as we please

That's what they do in the comments sections of Semi-Daily Journal, Political Animal, Max Speak, and several others I read.

Max Sawicky writes:

Lakoff whatever his merits or demerits is not what you could call big on the left. There is a buzz about his work among some Internet and Democratic activists, and that's about it, as far as I can see. And I am on the left.

Wilson writes:

"Lakoff whatever his merits or demerits is not what you could call big on the left"

And your next argument will be that Thomas Frank and Jim Wallis are not big on the left?

Ann writes:

"our belief in exporting Democracy is not that much different from imperialism of old"

Let's do the math on democracy, dictatorship and imperialism. Dictatorships are bad because only one person in the country gets to control everything. Imperialism is bad because no one native to the country gets to control anything. In democracy, everyone jointly has power and control. By going from a dictatorship to a democracy, a country goes from approximately zero people having a say in how the country is run to 100% having a say. How is a move towards 100% kind of the same as going to zero? It's the opposite extreme.

"Globalization may bring more trade, but dare I commit heresy and suggest that the measure of human interaction may not be reducible to a transaction of goods? To put this all another way, how can we be so certain that the values we export are an improvement, given a long view of time?"

Globabilization helps people to feed and educate their children, get better medical care, build better houses and buy food that they prefer. The values - caring about their children and wanting to build a safer, better life - were already there, trade just helps them to achieve their goals.

People should be allowed to choose for themselves whether they want to eat at a McDonalds. If too few people in a country voluntarily choose McDonalds, of their own free will, then McDonalds will leave. And, to increase market share, it and other Western companies will have to cater to local tastes. When I used to order Hawaiian pizza from either Dominos or Pizza Hut in Hong Kong, it had ham, pineapple and corn on it, because local Chinese wanted corn on their Hawaiian pizza (plus Pizza Hut had a whole line of pizzas with Thousand Island dressing rather than tomato sauce - ugh! but it was their choice).

Competition means that Western businesses will either offer something locals want, or else they'll be unprofitable and leave. Thus, the only real question is whether people should be denied the right to choose for themselves because anti-globalization activists want to force their own preferences onto others. That, to me, sounds like imperialsim.

The Pragmatist writes:

While the "left" has been at this game for some time, the assault on the "project of the Enlightenment" has been a theme on the right of late. The lack of ground rules to the discussion equally benefits the proponents of revelatory culture who are claiming that their view of the world is either equally scientific or that revelation is as good as science. And the next time that someone uses the terms "people of faith," ponder whether they are seeking some sort of immunity for their claims from the traditions of rational discourse.

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