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Stephen Hicks on Postmodernism

Stephen Hicks on Postmodernism

12 Mins
February 1, 1999

Currently, Stephen R.C. Hicks, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University and the executive director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.

He received his honours B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Guelph, Canada, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Indiana University, Bloomington. Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004; expanded edition 2011), the documentary Nietzsche and the Nazis (Ockham's Razor, 2010), and the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W. W. Norton & Co., 1998). He's also the author of numerous essays and articles, including: "Ayn Rand and Contemporary Business Ethics," "Defending Shylock," and "Business Ethics."

To IOS [now known as the Atlas Society] members, Hicks is perhaps best known as a popular and insightful speaker at institute events, most recently speaking at the 2015 Atlas Summit on "The Three Best Arguments against Liberal Capitalism." Hicks also spoke at the 1998 IOS Summer Seminar at which he discussed the phenomenon of postmodernism. The two-session summer talk in 1998 is the basis of this interview.

[Editor's note: the above biography has been updated from the original article printed in 1998.]

Navigator: The conventional Objectivist history of philosophy holds that the Enlightenment was destroyed by the philosophies that were put forward during the later years of the Enlightenment, in particular, the work of Hume (1711–1776), Rousseau (1712–1778), and Kant (1724–1804). Could you discuss the respective roles that those three gentlemen had in putting paid to the Enlightenment?

Hicks: I don't know that conventional Objectivist history of philosophy holds that the Enlightenment was destroyed. Certainly the wind was partly taken out of its philosophical sails, and certainly there was a counter-Enlightenment that has come to dominate in the humanities. But the Enlightenment continued along briskly, and still does, in significant parts of our culture.

That said, Hume, Rousseau, and Kant were enormously destructive.

Hume, the Scottish philosopher, drew British empiricist philosophy to its skeptical conclusions. Empiricist philosophy in Britain had, as part of its package, representationalist and nominalist accounts of perception and concepts. Hume ruthlessly showed the skeptical dead end these lead to. Since it was Locke's empiricism that had been one of the primary motors of the Enlightenment, this was devastating.

The story of Rousseau, the Swiss-French social thinker, is more nauseating. He too is anti-reason, arguing that man's reason is his original sin and the cause of all his misfortunes, and Rousseau is more explicitly an advocate of emotionalism. In his politics one finds a mix of egalitarian primitivism, philistine attitudes toward art and theatre, and straightforward authoritarianism. Much of the New Left's egalitarian authoritarianism is an echo of Rousseau, and half of the time one reads him, he sounds like Plato.

Kant drew inspiration from both Hume and Rousseau. Hume's epistemology shook him out of his old-fashioned rationalism, leading him to conceive the strategy of the Critique of Pure Reason, while Rousseau fascinated Kant and influenced powerfully his social an political thought.

Navigator: In your lectures, you made the point that Kant was hardly the first skeptic regarding reason. Certainly, Hume seems skeptical enough. But Kant, you said, was distinguished by two theses. Could you elaborate on what those are and how they are original in the history pf philosophy?

Hicks: Hume certainly is a skeptic, though an unhappy one. He wants to live in the world, but keeps running into dead ends in trying to use reason to get there. His strategy is a divide-and-conquer approach: Let's pick this or that cognitive method (sense-impressions, concepts, induction), and investigate it. And in each case he reaches skeptical conclusions. At that point he says, "Well, we have to live in the real world, and reason doesn't seem to have the answers, so let's forget the word games, follow our passions, and get on with life."

Kant's skeptical argument is, in the first place, more general and, in the second place, on that leads him to reject the real world. Kant does not merely raise problems for this or that particular cognitive operation; he argues that, on principle, any kind of cognitive operation, because it operates a certain way, must necessarily not yield results that are about reality. And so our cognitive operations are by their very natures precluded from putting us in contact with reality. It's not simply a matter of enumerating puzzles and problems for particular cognitive operations, as earlier skeptics had done. Kant is original in the universality and fundamentality of his skepticism. Cognition is ruled out on principle as a means of knowing reality.

The depth of his skepticism is relevant to understand the second way he's original. Earlier skeptics would retain a correspondence approach to truth; they may have believed that we can't know the way reality really is, but they would nonetheless still conceive of truth as a matter of a relationship between the contents of our minds and the way the world really is. Truth is correspondence, they would say, but unfortunately we can't be sure we have established a correspondence. Kant rejects the correspondence standard. Since our ideas on principle don't correspond, it makes no sense to speak of truth as correspondence, so he recasts the truth on subjective grounds, as a matter of internal consistency.

Navigator: In tracing the two philosophical lines that connect Kant to Postmodernism, you mention that the first began with Hegel. Could you elaborate on the doctrines of this school?

Hicks: Hegel's philosophy is a partly secularized version of Christian cosmology. The Christian history of the world begins with a creation or projection from God, and the world goes through a grand drama of struggle and conflict before ultimately being reunited with God. Hegel's task was to make this intellectually respectable again after the Enlightenment. For God he substitutes the Absolute, which is an impersonal mind or spirit, and it is the Absolute's development that is the history of the world. The Absolute develops by alienating part of itself in projecting the world we know. The world develops through a series of struggles and conflicts, which are successively resolved in the direction of the Absolute's increasingly coming to know itself. History ends when the Absolute achieves full self-consciousness, that is, when it is fully reunited with itself.

Navigator: The second line that you discussed grew out of a reaction to Hegel and denied is belief that a person becomes more real as he subsumes himself into the universal. The earliest representative of this line that you mentioned was Kierkegaard, although I guess he drew at least nominal inspiration from Schelling's criticism's of Hegel. Could you elaborate on this line and particularly on its culmination on Nietzsche?

Hicks: With Kierkegaard one gets a more individualistic and more explicitly irrationalist post-Kantian philosophy. The leap that connects one to God is individual and direct; it is not mediated by absorbing oneself into one's social group, and it is not that one's social group constructs one. Reason is definitely the enemy, since reason leads to atheism. So it's an irrational, individual leap of faith into a belief system one knows is absurd but which one feels one's ultimate destiny depends upon.

Nietzsche is a more complex mix of individualist and collectivist elements. His ultimate goal is collectivistic—the creation of a nobler species beyond man; individuals have value only to the extend they are bringing forth the overman. He's also collectivistic in that he sees exploitation of other humans as necessary to achieving that end. So one is to see oneself and others as means to an end beyond ourselves. Nietzsche is individualistic in that he exhorts individuals to choose this "holy" and "noble" end, and seems mostly to see individuals as the agents that will bring it about. Though if you push him, Nietzsche ultimately doesn't believe the individuals exist. Here he sounds Heraclitean: the individual is only an arbitrary time-slice of a whole biological line, merely the latest biological package emerging temporarily out of an evolving biological soup.

That is to speak of Nietzsche's metaphysics and ethics. In his epistemology he is irrationalist, urging us to rely on instinct and to laugh at reason, which he sees as a tool that wimps use to construct fantasies in which to hide from the world.

Navigator: What did Heidegger (1889–1976) take from each side of the Kierkegaard-Hegel divide, and what did he synthesize out of it?

Hicks: From the Kierkegaard-Nietzsche side, he took the individual's sense of an existential crisis, the priority of the non-rational over the rational, and the sense of needing to make a leap of commitment. From the Hegelian side, he took the view of the dialectic of contradictory elements, and the view of the group's heritage and future development as that which one should immerse oneself in.

Navigator: In your lecture, you put forward a twofold line of questioning—concerning the existence—that you said led to the conclusion that existence is absurd, regardless of which horn of the dilemma one chooses. Could you set forth that line of reasoning and say where it is found in Heidegger?

Hicks: The simplest way to put the dilemma is this. Existence exists for no reason or it exists for a reason. If it exists for no reason, that makes it absurd—it has no purpose or source; it's just a brute, meaningless fact. Or it exists for a reason, but to find that reason we'd have to step outside of existence into nothingness—but then we're trying to explain existence from nothing, and that's absurd.

A 1935 version of the argument is in his An Introduction to Metaphysics. In Ralph Manheim's translation (Yale University Press, 1959), Heidegger sets the question, "Why are there essents rather than nothing?" on page 1, speaks around the question for twenty-two pages, then on page 23 establishes its paradoxical nature, and finally, on page 25 concludes that in order to answer it we must reject logic.

An earlier version can be found in his 1929 lecture "What is Metaphysics?" which is anthologized in Walter Kallmann's Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. On page 245 of that book, Heidegger raises the question "What is Nothing?"; points out that any answer to the question is absurd; and immediately rejects logic as the highest court of appeal in asking metaphysical questions.

Navigator: In the figure below, you set down "social subjectivism" as the epistemological position of postmodernism. As applied to Heidegger, does that refer to his habit of finding truth in etymology? Or to something else?

Hicks: I don't consider Heidegger to be a complete postmodernism, but rather as the thinker who is the last step in the transition to postmodernism. That is because he is not yet anti-realist the way postmodernists are; he is still trying to do metaphysics. Also his politics and social thinking aren't as explicitly connected to the rest of his philosophy, at least as far as I've read in him; all the major postmodernists thinkers, by contrast, are upfront about making their politics part of the package.

Navigator: Among the postmodernists, you mention Foucault (1926–1984), Lyotard (1924–), Derrida (1930–), and Rorty (1931–). Did Heidegger influence each of these? And: Can you say, briefly, in what ways they differ philosophically (or in philosophical emphasis) from each other?

Hicks: Heidegger most definitely influenced Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty. I can't recall any place where Lyotard refers to Heidegger. His route to postmodernism seems to me more directly from the failure of old-style left politics.

The other three figures acknowledge explicitly Heidegger's influence. Rorty's route is through analytic philosophy and its failure to find any sort of a foundation for knowledge. In this emphasis on language and broadly epistemological issues, he is similar to Derrida, though Derrida's approach is more through continental philosophy of language and literary criticism. Both are way left politically, Derrida further than Rorty and much more dogmatic and harsh in tone.

Foucault's approach is more historical—through what he calls "archaeology"—unearthing the ways language has historically been used and manipulated by those in power to advance their own ends and to subjugate others. In this, I sometimes find myself feeling sympathy with his particular examples. What makes him postmodern is his overall framework that sees language always as a political tool of the strong over the weak.

Lyotard strikes me as a kind of pragmatist with a clear-eyed and playful streak. His recent writing is particularly fictional, partly cultural commentary, taking for granted a postmodernist framework and style. In his pre-postmodern days, he was a left thinker who thought strategically. By that I mean he tried to come up with a true picture of the world that explained everything (a "meta-narrative") so that one could strategize how to transform the current world into the politically ideal one. But of course things have not gone well for left-wing philosophies, and Lyotard concluded that no philosophy can succeed. But instead of falling into despair and whining, his new approach is to be a tactical left thinker. One doesn't use words and ideas in the old grand manner of big-picture truths and ideals and revolution; one uses them rhetorically for specific, narrower ends and against smaller capitalist targets.

Navigator: In the figure below, the first two items in the Postmodernist column are "antirealism" and "social subjectivism," terms that are not popular use. Could you please explicate them?

Hicks: Realism is the position that there is a reality that exists independently of our minds. Both physicalists and idealists agree with that. The physicalists hold that what exists independently of our minds is a physical world of matter and energy, and that physical things do not depend on minds for their existence. Idealists hold that what's outside of our minds is ultimately ideal or mental and depends for its existence upon a mind or minds—perhaps God's, or a collective Self's. Anti-realists reject the premise common to both—the notion of an externally existing reality. As consistent skeptics, they point out the absurdity in saying there's an external reality but we can't know what it's like. Another way to put it is historical, in terms of the criticism often made of Kant—that he didn't carry his skepticism far enough, given his premises. Kant would say that noumena exist but are unknowable to us. But of course that is to speak of noumena.

Social subjectivism is a consequence of this skepticism. Subjectivists can be individualistic, holding that all that exists is one's own mind and its projected contents. Social subjectivists hold that one's mind and its contents are themselves social products. For example, those versions that emphasize language will argue that language is a social product and that language shapes thought, so in the process of learning a language, the individual's mind and its thoughts are constructed socially.

Among postmodernists, the social constructing is held to take place along race, class, and sex lines, and so it is differing racial or sexual societies that construct and live in their own subjective realities.

Navigator: In discussing postmodernist collectivism, and specifically egalitarianism, you laid out some difficult reasoning about a "third-person perspective" versus a "first-person perspective," and how one ends up in interest-group warfare. Could you expand on those terms and that reasoning?

Hicks: This is a variation on the typical paradox of any skepticism or relativism. A third-person perspective is a perspective that purports to be objective and universal. It says: This is the way things really are. Skeptics and relativists adopt this perspective when arguing philosophically to their conclusions—and then they confront the standard problem of concluding that it's true that there is no truth; or that it's true of all truth that all truth is relative; or some such variation. Postmodernists are no exception to this. Half or more of the time they write in third-person objectivist and universalist mode about the postmodern condition we are in, but then realize they are claiming to tell it as it really is. And the logic of their position drives them to retreat to a first-person. "This is how it seems to me or my group."

This ends up in interest-group warfare because if each group has its own interests and ways of seeing things and there's no objective court of appeal, then there's no objective way to settle differences. If males and females, for example, really do have conflicting interests and visions and no way to think outside of them, then the conflicts won't be settled by reason.

Another way to put it is this: attempting to speak universally, postmodernists may start down the following road: We all have different perspectives, so let's just recognize and tolerate our differences. But of course that is to make toleration a universal value, and there's no way to make that compatible with relativism. So the relativism has to retreat to a first-person "Toleration is a value for me or my group," without being able to say that it should be a value for others. And so others who aren't tolerant initiate the force, and the rest have to follow suit to protect themselves.

Navigator: You mention several thinkers who destroyed the ideal of science in the minds of philosophers, most notably Thomas Kuhn. Did they come to their views under the influence of the later Wittgenstein, or did they come to their conclusions independently, or what was the process involved? And what dates would you put on the process?

Hicks: I have never been able to see the later Wittgenstein as being as important as many people do. Certainly Wittgenstein contributed, but the loss of the ideal of science that is captured in Kuhn results as much or more from mainstream Logical Positivism: Karl Popper, and the pragmatists such as W. V. O. Quine and Ernest Nagel.

Navigator: You say that Richard Rorty takes the trend to its ultimate conclusion: What is that "ultimate conclusion?"

Hicks: Kuhn's 1962 book is only about science. Rorty applies the antirealism and social subjectivist arguments more broadly: any field of inquiry, whether it is science or theology or philosophy or literary criticism, is subject to those same arguments. By applying the arguments universally, Rorty takes the trend to its ultimate.

Navigator: At the end of your first lecture, you posed "as a homework problem" the following challenge to the "Kantian explanation of postmodernism." That explanation says that (Humean) skepticism yields (Kantian and post-Kantian) subjectivism, which yields (postmodernist) relativism. Your challenge was: If all values (including political values) are relative, one would expect a random distribution of postmodernism thinkers across the political spectrum. In fact, they are all far Leftists. What is your litmus test for "leftism" here? The terms of your agreement seem to presuppose a Left-Right spectrum that runs from socialism to capitalism. Is that correct?

Hicks: By "Leftist" here I mean anyone opposed to free markets; or to put it positively, anyone who draws their inspiration from the Rousseauian or Marxist traditions, and who consistently favors using government to manage society, traditionally with emphasis on economic management. That characterization captures all the major postmodernists.

Generally I avoid using the Left-Right political spectrum. Usually it's clear what's meant by the Left on such spectrums, but I've never known what the Right is. For example, I heard all through college that communism is on the far Left and fascism on the Right, and that just is crazy. Does that mean free markets are a compromise between Lenin and Hitler? Or does it mean that Hitler was a capitalist?

So I like to ask first, What is the dimension we're going to measure? Is it measuring to what extent society is about maximizing individual versus collective goals? If so, the spectrum runs from individualism to collectivism. Is it about measuring the extent to which individuals run their lives? If so, then the spectrum runs from liberalism to authoritarianism.

The politics of postmodernists is collectivist and tends strongly toward authoritarianism, and that's consistent with saying "Left."

Navigator: You say that socialism was traditionally defended with economic and moral arguments. Socialism is productive; capitalism is unproductive and subject to depressions. Socialism is humane and peaceful; capitalism is exploitative and warlike. You then say that the socialist arguments have been thoroughly discredited. But doesn't that rely on equating socialism solely with a Soviet-style nationalization of industry? Didn't the Asian tigers (not to mention Deng's China) grow rapidly as a result of state planning? And as for humane Wouldn't many Leftists say the welfarist states of continental Europe are fare more humane than the United States?

Hicks: On the economic front, all the clearly socialistic experiments from industrial ones in the Soviet Union to agrarian ones in Cambodia have failed economically.

About the mixed cases in the Far East: Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong have been impressive, and as far as I know all except possibly Hong Kong have more state economic management than the United States. I'm not enough of an economist to judge and I'm not up to speed on the details of these cases. But whatever the story, these are not places socialists get excited about and use as support for the productivity of socialism.

For my explanation of postmodernism's origins, the key fact is that from the socialists' perspective, socialism has failed to deliver. Because of that crisis, many have changed their tune and now say economic improvement is not a value, that living simply is good, and that the problem with capitalism is that it is too productive.

As for humanity, of course, leftists say that places with more welfare are more humane than places with less. But again, note that none of the flagship socialist experiments in Cuba or Albania or China or Vietnam or the Soviet Union are being held up as models of morality. Instead, the Left has fallen back to places where the mix is tilted more in a welfare state direction. That is a major retreat.

Navigator: You make an analogy between the socialists of today and the theists of the 1700s. The latter, you say, suffered a "crisis of faith" when confronted with the fact that their beliefs were not sustainable through rational argument. They either had to accept evidence and logic (and reject theism) or reject logic an evidence as the ultimate court of appeal. As two who took the latter course, you cite Kant and Kierkegaard. How would you respond to this rebuttal of your analogy: (a) In his Navigator interview, Alan Kors says it was Enlightenment atheists who were seen as embracing the more improbable position, (b) Science did not create serious problems for believers prior to the mid-1800s, i.e., Darwin, (c) Kant and Kierkegaard came out of the tradition of Germanic Protestantism, which had never had much use for reason, (d) When Darwinian science confronted Anglo-American Christianity with serious problems, most sects watered down their doctrines, e.g., They said, "God created man, but He did so by natural processes."

Hicks: That is a good series of points. They all involve judgments of weighting factors in the overall mix we call the Enlightenment.

My analogy compares the anti-Enlightenment Left of today with the anti-Enlightenment theists of the late eighteenth century. Both bought partially into the Enlightenment epistemology of believing one should be able to justify one's philosophy by evidence and argument—but came to a crisis in doing so, and so moved strongly in an anti-reason direction.

So your series of points in effect asks, Did the religious thinkers really have such a crisis?

I agree with Professor Kors that the Enlightenment atheists were a minority, and in the absence of an evolutionary theory, they had an uphill argument. Most Enlightenment thinkers were deists, seeing God roughly along the lines of a supreme mathematician who had aeons ago designed the universe in terms of those beautiful equations Kepler and Newton presented.

Deism is a middle position between atheism and traditional theism, and it is traditional theism that is experiencing the crisis. Deism does two things: it accepts a rational epistemology and turns God into a distant architect. Both of those things are huge problems for traditional theism.

A distant architect is a far cry from a personal God who's there looking after you or checking up on you day to day—he's not someone you pray to or look to comfort from or fear the wrath of. The deist's god is a bloodless abstraction, not something that's going to get people fired up in church on Sunday morning and give them a sense of meaning and moral guidance in their lives.

But even more important is the loss of faith. To the extend reason is the standard, faith loses, and the theists knew that. And to the extend science develops, supernaturalistic religious answers to questions are going to be replaced with naturalistic scientific ones. Everyone had spotted that trend by the eighteenth century and everyone knew where it was headed.

Now you mention the Germans, and so I have to say something about the different forms the Enlightenment took in the different nations. You are quite right that the German tradition had little use for reason. I am leaning strongly right now toward the view that there was no Enlightenment in the German states. There was a vigorous upswing in intellectual life in Germany from the generation of Kant onwards, and many Enlightenment themes are present, but the bulk of the activity strikes me as being directed toward putting up walls against the encroachment of the Enlightenment.

But the point of mentioning Kierkegaard is: They are tow major figures from this era who desperately want to retain a theistic God and who explicitly go on the offensive against Enlightenment reason.

In England and France, the crisis for theism took different forms. The politically radical part of the Enlightenment came in England in the seventeenth century with the Glorious Revolution and Locke, while its religiously radical consequences weren't felt there strongly until the nineteenth century with Darwin. In England, the religious radicalism was more muted, I think, because England's two supreme geniuses of the Enlightenment, Locke and Newton, while radical in their politics and science, were mostly traditional in their theology.

In France, the situation was different: both the political and the religious radicalism burst onto the scene in the eighteenth century. This meant that for the political and religious conservatives in France, the Enlightenment was a double affront and so a double crisis. And so the English Enlightenment was, in typical English fashion, a more drawn-out and polite affair, while the French Enlightenment was, in typical French fashion, a pyrotechnical one.

Navigator: At any rate, your "crisis of faith" analogy leads you to put forward what you call "the Kierkegaardian hypothesis" regarding postmodernism. Would you please explain that?

Hicks: Kierkegaard believed that Christianity was absurd—but he believed. He felt in his heart of hearts that his dream of personal meaning, immorality, and ultimate purpose in the universe depended on the truth of Christianity. But he saw that, rationally, Christianity was full of paradoxes and contradictions—for example, Abraham's being told to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac by a supposedly moral God. So Kierkegaard experienced a great crisis of choice, and resolved it by attacking reason in order to continue to believe.

The parallel is to the socialist intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s. Socialism is a philosophy that gives deep personal meaning to a socialist's life—it gives one a sense of idealism, of being involved in a great struggle to create a beautiful and decent world, and so on. But like Christianity, a socialist theory has consistently failed and contradicted fact. This generates a personal crisis within a well-informed and committed socialist.

My hypothesis, then, is that postmodernism's anti-reason strategy performs the same function Kierkegaard's did: it enables one to continue to believe in the dream while rejecting rational counter-arguments.

Navigator: You have also put forward a thesis that you call "Reverse Thrasymacheanism." Would you explain what that means, in historical context and in a contemporary context?

Hicks: Thrasymachus was a Greek sophist who appeared as a character in Plato's Republic. He represents a socially rougher version of Sophism—that there is no objectivity, that in the social arena everything is competing interests, and that might makes right. In his words, "justice is the interest of the stronger." I called contemporary postmodernism "reverse Thrasymacheanism" because like the Sophists, the postmodernists agree that there is no objectivity, that everything is competing interests, and the only difference is that their sympathies are against the stronger and with the weaker. That's what we call "political correctness": They are willing to use their might, whenever they have it, to advance the interests of those they see as weaker.

Navigator: In your lecture, you posed three options for understanding postmodernism. (1) Relativism is the deepest element for postmodernists; their absolutist politics is secondary. (2) Their absolutist politics is the deepest element; their relativism is secondary. (3) Their relativism and absolutism co-exist, but the contradiction does not bother them. You also said that you find it hard to believe the postmodernist leap of faith goes down very far, because the contradictions they embrace are so obvious: "All cultures are equal, but the West is uniquely evil. Values are subjective, but sexism and racism are really evil. Technology is bad, but it's unfair the West has more of it." Does this mean that you rule out Option 3?

Hicks: No, I think Option 3 is a psychological possibility, and that is when one is driven not by a desire to discover or advance truth but primarily by the desire to hurt the enemy. If all you want to do is destroy, it doesn't matter to you if the words you use contradict each other.

I sometimes think of an analogy here to a stereotypically unscrupulous lawyer who will use any argument, even one that contradicts one he's already made, if he thinks it will be rhetorically useful in convincing a jury.

If one is driven by anti-capitalism, then one knows that attacking technology harms capitalism and one knows that attacking unequal distribution harms capitalism. So who cares if those two arguments contradict each other? You're harming capitalism!

Navigator: As I understand it, you conclude that the second option is fundamentally true. That the relativism of postmodernism is a Machiavellian pose, similar to the Creationists' assertion that they just want creationism and evolution both taught as "hypotheses"? Is that right?

Hicks: I think the second option is most often true of postmodernists. Most postmodernists think their political views really are true (just as the Creationists think the Bible is true) and the relativistic argumentation is a Johnny-come-lately overlay. When postmodernist thinkers speak philosophically of the postmodernist predicament, they speak as objectivists accurately describing reality, and when they argue their politics, there's rarely attached any relativistic qualifiers. The relativism and subjectivism are used most often in the context of polemics against capitalism or any position that is not P.C.

That suggests that the relativism does not go all the way down in the postmodernist's psyche—that it's primarily part of a rhetorical strategy for destabilizing the opposition, and that makes it a Machiavellian pose.

The crisis of faith is another postmodernist option serving a different function. If one is a left thinker grappling with the continued disappointments of socialism, there are three options to the crisis, and anti-reason epistemologies play a role in all three.

Option 1 is purely personal: in the face of an evidential crisis, anti-reason epistemologies legitimate your setting aside troublesome evidence and continuing to believe. That's what I called the "Kierkegaardian" option, and all it does is soothe a troubled psyche.

Option 2 is for those who are not willing to give up the fight, and who are looking for a new strategy to continue the battle against the opposition. Anti reason epistemologies provide a rhetorical strategy in that subjectivist and relativist arguments destabilize any of your opponents who are still committing to defending their views on the basis of evidence and logic. That's what I called the "Machiavellian" option, and it is for those who want a calculated strategy to carry on the war.

Option 3 is for those who are so crushed by and angered by the failure of their ideals that they want to lash out. Anti-reason epistemologies provide a veneer of respectability to those whose goal is to destroy. That's what I called the "Nihilist" option, and it is for those driven by resentment and who, therefore, won't necessarily notice or care if they're using contradictory arguments.

Any individual postmodernist could adopt one or two or all of the three options.

Navigator: Regarding Options 2 and 3: You are not disputing, are you, the traditional Objectivist view that more basic departments of philosophy tend to govern less basic departments? If someone who truly believed in socialism on rational grounds was confronted with a massive disproof of socialism, there would be little chance that he would hold on to the socialism and junk his belief in reason, right? You are saying, are you not, that it is only because reason had given way to relativism that late twentieth century philosophers (and other intellectuals) stayed with their belief in socialism? Being relativist there was no "push" from more basic philosophy to change their political beliefs in the face of contrary evidence?

Hicks: Now there's a leading question! I am challenging some overly mechanical interpretations of the Objectivist philosophy of history.

But I like how you put it toward the end of your question. Given that there was no significant culture of reason and individualism in intellectual life, the crisis of evidence the socialist thinkers faced  did not force them to abandon their socialism.

The hard part is when we say the more basic parts of philosophy tend to rule the less basic ones. Characterizing the "tend to" part accurately is the challenge.

Navigator: Does your analysis of postmodernism as Machiavellian mean Objectivists should not concern themselves with the philosophical problems put forward by postmodernists?

Hicks: Definitely not. All those problems are crucial and must be solved. Subjectivist and relativistic strategies, even if they are used only rhetorically, have effectiveness only to the extent the opposition is weak.

Consider any scientific community now. Suppose there is a hypothesis and the experimental results repeatedly go dead against it. In the current scientific culture, it is not possible for the proponent of the hypothesis to announce publicly, "Well, all those experimental results are phallocentric and we can set them aside." The culture of science is still objective, and that culture of objectivity functions as an immune system helping the scientific community get on with its business.

That culture of objectivity has been largely lost in the humanities, and because of that opportunistic destructive philosophies like postmodernism have a chance.

Navigator: You described the two questions that Objectivists should ask themselves when arguing with others. Could you tell us what those are, why you think they are important, and how they might work in practice?

Hicks: The two questions I suggested are procedural questions to focus one's efforts fruitfully. One is a response to a common problem we have when discussing with others: the other person is going through the motions or arguing for the sake of arguing and isn't really open to challenging his own beliefs or changing his mind. And so you discuss and raise good points, but the discussion goes nowhere or is constantly diverted.

So the question I suggest asking oneself explicitly is: Is this person open to reason? Or: Is this person intellectually honest—i.e., in this discussion, is he using his intellect to attempt to learn or discover the truth? If the answer seems no, then it's a waste of time discussing unless your goal is simply to practice your discussion skills.

The other person is a response to a problem that comes up a lot in discussing politics, and that is that since politics connects easily to every other topic, it's easy for the discussion to wander to history and epistemology and so on, and you never resolve the political issue you started out talking about. I think this problem is especially acute in the case of postmodernism, because the epistemology and politics are so intimately related there.

And so the question I suggest asking oneself explicitly is: What issue really matters most to the person I'm arguing with? If you can identify that soon in the discussion and flag it to both of you explicitly, it will help keep the discussion focused.

For example, if you're arguing whether the government should fund the arts, that's a political issue. But the discussion could easily go from there to the narrower question of whether we want bureaucrats deciding what counts as art worthy of funding, and from there to the question of whether anyone's standard of worthiness is better than anyone else's, which is now an epistemological question. One could easily spend a lot of time on those fun, related questions, but if they are not your primary concern, having flagged your primary concern will keep your focus.

Navigator: We are heirs to the Enlightenment—to Modernism. Not to be ungrateful, but, fundamentally speaking, where did the Enlightenment fail us, such that we are surrounded by the irrationalism of postmodernism only two hundred years later?

Hicks: Let me recast the question, if I may. The Enlightenment has been an amazing success and is still going strong in many parts of our culture. The rise of science, technology, and business are huge parts of the Enlightenment story. The fact that we believe we can make the world a better place, that progress is possible, and that we're in charge of our destinies—those psychological attitudes are major Enlightenment successes that are still with us. And so too are the lessening of racism, sexism, and religious persecution. We live in a largely thriving Enlightenment culture.

The irrationalist postmodernists know it too. If you want to see the psychology of siege mentality, of people feeling like a minority surrounded by an alien culture, look at postmodernist writings.

But, of course, the problem is that the postmoderns are dominant in the world of the humanities, and given the fundamental importance of the humanities, and especially philosophy, to a culture, that gives the postmoderns a great deal of cultural power.

So the question as I would ask it is narrower: How did the irrationalists come to dominate the humanities, and why were the Enlightenment intellectuals unable to prevent that?

That is exactly what I will be speaking on at the summer seminar. So how can I respond with just the right amount of dramatic suspense for marketing purposes?

The decisive shift took place between 1790 and 1815, and the two places it took place in are France and the German states. Before 1790, the Enlightenment is in full swing, and its most brilliant intellectuals are in France. By 1815, France is intellectually dead, and the world's most vigorous intellectuals are German. At that point the battle lines as we now know them were drawn and the war engaged. What happened? Find out in July.

Navigator: Do you think that a New Enlightenment, based on Objectivism, could in principle give way to a New Postmodernism? That is, do you believe anti-Objectivists could find chinks in a culturally dominant Objectivism such that they would bring on skepticism, subjectivism, and relativism? Or do you believe that, so long as a New Enlightenment held to Objectivism, it would necessarily be immune from such destructive counter-arguments?

Hicks: Any philosophy, no matter how true and well established, has to be defended articulately in each generation. A philosophy exists in the minds of individuals: it is always individuals who grasp it, apply it to their lives, build institutions on the basis of it, and pass it on to the next generation.

And since individuals have free will, they can always misunderstand, misapply, and miscommunicate it. So it's not the case that once Objectivism is all worked out and becomes culturally dominant that everything then will proceed an automatic pilot.

I don't worry too much about chinks developing in Objectivism. If there are some, Objectivism certainly has the resources to locate and fill them. And since philosophy is difficult, there will always be people with different philosophies, and so the debates will go on with all sides pointing out the others' chinks. That too will help keep Objectivism healthy. As John Stuart Mill put it, having an enemy in the filed keeps one vigorous and alert.

So a New Enlightenment would never be immune. It might develop chinks. It might become complacent and fail to pass itself on or respond strongly to its opponents.

That said, Objectivism has a much better chance than any other philosophy. Being so ruthlessly reality-oriented, it has a greater built-in check against error. And being true, it gives those of us who live it the guidance we need to live successfully. So I'm optimistic.

About the author:
History of Philosophy