I get the postmodernist label a lot, and I'm not at all sure why, or what people mean by the term.Philip Blosser:
Well, somewhere you refer to yourself, playfully no doubt, as an "orthodox postmodernist." Playful or not, the label may fit. We're probably ALL "postmodernist" in certain respects, just like we're all in some respects "post-Western" and "post-Christian," even those of us who still claim Christianity in some way. James Sire's book, The Universe Next Door: A Worldview Catalog (pictured left) has an interesting way of linking worldviews diachronically and logically, seeing DEISM as subsequent to THEISM, and NATURALISM as a subsequent and logical consequence of DEISM, which, in turn issues into NIHILISM, which EXISTENTIALISM is one attempt to overcome, and of which NEW AGE and POSTMODERNISM are alternate attempts, if they can be called that. All generalizations fail at some point; but most are helpful in some ways as well.Interlocutor:
It's true that I published an essay using the term in the title once, long ago, but I don't suppose many people know that. In preparing that article, I read a book by Lyotard that you probably know, and I found it useful. The book was entitled "The Postmodern Condition," and for him, as I recall, postmodernism is precisely that: a condition. It's always been that in my thinking, at least, even if I'm wrong about Lyotard. A condition, not an ideology, so I never know what people mean when they assume that I'm a postmodernist--it feels like they're calling me an Edwardian or something.Philip Blosser:
I think I understand. Sometimes I call EXISTENTIALISM an "atmosphere" more than anything else, sort of like Anglicanism is an "atmosphere" more than anything else (at least, according to Thomas Merton, anyway, whose Seven Story Mountain (pictured right) I consider a classic and think you would probably like if you haven't read it yet). But if postmodernism is a CONDITION, that probably doesn't prevent it from also having some ideological components, whether we like that notion or not. Or maybe "distinctive DISCOURSE" would be a better way of putting it. For ex., if one does not believe that "all meta-narratives fail" or that "all meta-narratives have failed," he is probably not a card carrying postmodernist.Interlocutor:
Now, I may be a postmodernist--I don't know. I will confess that I am generally not worried by the collapse of grand narratives.Philip Blosser:
... which may be precisely what betokens your postmodernism, in this case ...Interlocutor:
If I were a modernist, the way that Lyotard uses the term, I'd be toiling strenuously to revive a dying grand narrative, to coax the phoenix from the ashes, as Joyce I think tried to do (and, one might argue, did). That's not my style, though--it reminds me too much of my father. I see grand narratives dying or dead all around me, and I mourn few of them.Philip Blosser:
... like the dying grand narrative that grand narratives are dying all around us?Interlocutor:
I was touched by your remarks in our conversation the other day about your father when you were back in college and he was a professor where you were attending. I have many questions, of course, about what it all means and meant-- for example, that you called your father a good "scholar" but not an "intellectual." These words call for definition too, of course. But after reading Paul Johnson's book, Intellectuals (pictured left), the last thing I would want to be is an "intellectual." Just like aftr reading Michael Jones' book, Degenerate Moderns (pictured right). But anyway, all of these things require definitions to begin making real sense, I suppose.
From what you've told me, however, I wonder why you would have found yourself apparently more sympathetic with your father's tacit critics than with your father himself. C.S. Lewis's inauguration lecture as professor of medieval and renaissance literature at Cambridge, after he left Oxford, is fantastically interesting in terms of this sort of discussion. (I wish I had it before me). Anyway, he caricatures himself as a dinosaur, the last of the "OLD WESTERN MEN" (with echoes of Nietzsche's "last man" and anticipations of Harold Berman's "post-Western" man). "Study me as a specimen while you can," he seems to say, "because our geno-type isn't going to be around much longer." The lecture is brilliant, at points. His Abolition of Man (pictured above, left) is also, in my opinion, incisively prescient. B.F. Skinner calls it a "dangerous" book in his Beyond Freedom and Dignity (above, right) Imagine that!
But my point would be that, as far as I can see, the only future lies with some of these "dinosaurs," since there's clearly no future in NIHILISM or any of its varieties. No oasis in the desert there. And, well, "postmodernism" -- whatever the hell that is-- does it offer a future? I have yet to see it. The book Boethius wrote in prison awaiting his death has more consolation to offer, I should think. I don't know your dad, but perhaps he's a greater man than his sophisticate colleagues will ever know.
... But I haven't killed any of them, and I am not interested in their death for its own sake. So I don't know if I'm a postmodernist or not, or what that would mean, or how one becomes one, not have I ever met one except perhaps among the ranks of pretentious newbie grad-students, who were only trying to impress others. And I suppose all this writing is unnecessary: people think I'm a postmodernist because I read Derrida, right?Philip Blosser:
That may be a clue, but I don't think we have to look to Derrida to define postmodernism, even if he's an exemplary postmodernist. Roughly, I would distinguish between the epistemologically self-conscious postmodernist and the naive (or MTV) postmodernist. The former I would define as anyone devoted to taking the commitments of modernity seriously. In that sense, postmodernism isn't "post" anything, but is the last move of modernity, a critical self-examination of the underpinnings or first-principles of modernity, revealing that it fails to stand the test of analysis, as Sire says. The latter (MTV postmodernist) catches his postmodernism the way a kid catches a cold, simply by breathing in the environment. For the MTV postmodernists, it's not so much a question of "rejecting" the great meta-narratives like Christianity, because they usually haven't the foggiest notion of what these things are, and the more ignorant they are of them the more vociferously they condemn them.Interlocutor:
But only in the vaguest and least useful or interesting sense could Derrida be called a postmodernist, though I guess he influenced those who would bear the tile more willingly and misread him, and he has publicly ridiculed the term, so I don't know--again, I'm at a loss. I do think it makes sense to speak of a postmodern condition, though perhaps not a lot of sense, and I think it makes no sense at all to make "postmodernism" into a grand and threatening ideology, a spectre like communism or McCarthyism. Unless you take "postmodernism" as secular late capitalism, but I'd rather call it that, first, and then on that definition I'm not at all a postmodernist. In fact, I can't really remember the last time I heard the term--it's been a while. Students used to ask me what it meant, but I guess they've stopped hearing it too, because they've stopped asking.Philip Blosser:
What people call themselves is hardly decisive, in my humble opinion. I met an Indian in Switzerland who talked about how much he loved Jesus as we walked together back to the ski resort where our hotels were, because, he said, Jesus brought this incredibly sexy babe into his life who was waiting for him back at the hotel so that he could get his rocks off. Em ... yeah. Sure. Words are cheap and mean little these days.Interlocutor:
No, I wouldn't define postmodernism in terms of a threatening political conspiracy or bourgeois capitalism. Epistemologically self-conscious postmodernism, in my view performs one major service-- that of exposing the fact that the Emperor (=the Enlightenment Project) has no clothes. Here a Christian traditionalist and dinosaur like C.S. Lewis (or Alasdair MacIntyre, for that matter) makes a great ally. Naturally, however, the epistemologically self-conscious dinosaur is going to point out that the postmodernist hasn't quite made his case when he presumes that his deconstructive enterprise has not only exposed the nakedness of the grand narrative of the Enlightenment Project but of Catholic Tradition and the whole Christian story as well.
James Sire manages to farret out some of the key features of epistemologically self-conscious postmodernism, I think, in his listing of things such as the following:
- a shift from the primacy of being (ancient & medieval) and knowing (modern) to meaning (post-modern) with a focus on the constitution of meaning in language.
- the substitution of narratives (stories) for truth.
- the assumption that all narratives conceal a play for power, and the assumption that any one narrative used as a meta-narrative is oppressive.
- the assumption that human beings construct themselves and their identities exclusvely through their narratives.
- the assumption that ethics, like knowledge, is a linguistic construct, so that social good is whatever society takes it to be.
- the assumption, then, that literary theory is the most foundational discipline, displacing the ancient role of philosophy and the medieval role of theology.
I was thinking of a hypothesis as a statement the truth of which remains to be determined and which it is the duty of the Popperian scientist to assail, whereas I was thinking of discourse as something like the spirit of the dialogue around and vis-a-vis said hypothesis. If that helps--I don't know.Philip Blosser:
Yeah, that works somewhat.Interlocutor:
Possibly a difference here: you say, "But it is quite another thing to suppose that the Church (or Church history, or the Bible) doesn't set forth a worldview containing implications for the discourses we find in mathematics, or jurisprudence, or psychology, or anything else. It clearly does, it seems to me." Or prior to my finally owning up to a difference, and to my taking a firm position (which we postmodernists are loathe to do, of course), a question: what does it mean for a "worldview" to have "implications" for a discourse? What are these implications, and how are you thinking of this all working. Certainly faith can't oblige us to hold as true something that is demonstrably not. Are the implications rather to do with whether it matters that the thing is true, or what one ought to do with it? I guess I'm not sure what you were saying here. I am probably not interested in a faith or religion that would limit my access to the truth--rather, I have of course, as I hastily tried to imply, been assuming heretofore that faith is a relationship to or response to the truth, and one that yields more and greater truths. But forget all that--just tell me what you mean about implications.Philip Blosser:
Holy cow, you raise more questions in a paragraph than I could hope to address in a lifetime!!! Your reluctance to "own up to a difference" is charming. But since you've backed away from that difference, whatever it is, I move on to the next question: "implications." Certainly faith can't oblige us to hold as true something we think is not true. St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that it would be a sin for anyone to remain in the Catholic Church who believed Catholicism wasn't true. The maxim that "the argument from authority is the weakest of arguments" was a MEDIEVAL, not modern, maxim. Medieval thinkers-- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim-- were rational to a fault, while most modern philosophers since the Enlightenment have attacked reason in dozens of ways and exaulted authority instead-- the authority of ideology, or politics, or passions, or power, or pragmatism, or positivism, or Romanticism, or Marxism, or Freudianism, or Existentialism, or even Deconstructionism in the hands of certain writers. So, no, the "implications" of a worldview (specifically Christianity) for a discourse, as I understand them, are not in any way "heavy-handed." Persuasion pressupposes and respects in the other the divine gift of free will. In fact, C.S. Lewis would say that God respects the same in us when he says that there are, in the final analysis, only two kinds of people: Those who say to God "Thy will be done"; and those to whom God says "Thy will be done." The residents of Hell are not sent there against their wishes: hell is getting our way, where that choice turns us in on ourselves in ways that make us miserable.Interlocutor:
What are the "implications" of a worldview for discourse, then? Well, as a matter of intellectual integrity, I would say that a Christian faithful to the Faith ("Santa Fe") could not in good faith utter the following proposition: "There is only one God and Mohammed is his prophet"; any more than a confirmed Platonist could in good faith utter the proposition of La Mettrie: "Man is a machine"; or an orthodox Skinnerian could utter the proposition of Sartre: "existence [utter unconditioned freedom of choice] precedes essence." So, in the first place, I would say the worldviews have "implications" for what it makes sense or doesn't make sense to say or believe.
And on postmodernism: if pressed, I would have to say that I am not terribly interested in religion as a modifier of my or anyone's behavior--I am, I guess, actually utterly bored by the notion of not doing something I would otherwise do, or doing something I would otherwise not, because religious folk say I should not, or because of what it says in the "bible"--that would probably earn me the postmodernist label, I guess.Philip Blosser:
I trust you will forgive me if I say, not only that I all-too-well understand such an outlook, but if I go on to say that such an outlook altogether misses the point of what the Church, following the Apostles' and Jesus' instruction, enjoins on us in the way of behavior. The trouble is not merely that such a view misses what G.M. Hopkins calls the "inscape" of things, but that it misses particularly the phenomenon of the human condition that lies in our being divided from ourselves. We don't really know who we are or what we want. The trouble with Frank Sinatra's "I wanna be ME" is that we don't know what that is. If I examine myself and my desires, I see that I want conflicting things: I want to be noble and selfless and loving to others, but then I also want to be greedy and satisfy my lusts regardless of those around me. Which 'me' do I want to be? You're doubtless familiar with Augustine's locus classicus in the Confessions on the two wills and the divided will, and certainly St. Paul's statement of self-conflictedness ..."that which I would not do, I do; and that which I would do, I do not," etc.Interlocutor:
I recently addressed this phenomenon in respect of what we think we want sexually in my blog called Musings of a Pertinacious Papist:
Sure, we prefer ice-cream to peas and potatoes when we're kids. But shouldn't we grow up? Of course part of growing up entails learning WHY our parents (or the Church or the Bible) told us what we "should" do. But discovering that involves getting over our assumptions that the Church and Bible have nothing to tell us that we don't already know. Forgive me, but in my not-always-so-humble opinion we moderns (or postmoderns) are such IGNORANT twits.
But I suppose you might agree with me in seeing not bald scripture but correct interpretation of scripture as authoritative (though of course everyone differs when it comes to what the correct interpretation is). It continues to be interesting to me to think of listening for that interpretation, not arguing for it. (Alasdair [the dude in the bar] was, I think, drawing his listening metaphor from the notebooks of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet we both love. Beyond that, I can't say.)Philip Blosser:
Alasdair? Ye-gads!! You couldn't have been talking to MacIntyre !!Interlocutor:
There is no way of adjudicating between conflicting interpretations of a text that are each consistent with the text unless you have access to authorial intent, either by direct access to it, or by mediate access through a trusted intermediary, a possiblity that postmodern writers seem to think impossible. This is why Protestantism, which rejects the possibility of a trusted intermediary has fractured into over 300 major denominatins: "sola scriptura" has become a wax nose. And this is why Catholicism, which insists that apostolic succession provides precisely such a trusted intermediary in the Church, is so unpopular-- because authority (which, for it, means "author's rights") has been pervasively deconstructed to mean only one thing: oppressive "power."
I love the [C.S.] Lewis poem ["The Country of the Blind" from C.S. Lewis' collection, Poems]--it's amazing. And I like what you wrote after that, about the professor in Ohio, and agree completely with you, though I wasn't sure whether that was related to the Lewis poem. It reads to me (I read it only quickly) as a poem lamenting the loss of a discourse, or that discourse's transformation into mere verbiage, or the supplanting of a superior one by an inferior one. (If we're sticking with the notion of discourse as not the words you use but the structures that orient the way you evaluate the things you use words to talk about.) I suppose that, in talking about blind people who have, with the delicious irony that Lewis captures, elevated a rather vulgar symbolism of light for abstract thoughts, he's basically lamenting the "enlightenment" in a rather interesting way.Philip Blosser:
Yes, which my friend, Peter Kreeft at Boston College, likes to call, more fittingly in my view, the "Endarkenment."Interlocutor:
And not that I'd defend the enlightenment, really--I got that out of my system in grad school. But what new and splendid truths has this oft-parodied enlightenment yielded? I think it's robbed countless undergraduates, myself included, of a true education, but on the other hand it's enlightenment thinking, in all its grand vulgarity and nastiness, that led to the discovery of insulin in Toronto in '26. It's an amazing story--doctors would apparently buy stolen pet dogs from dog-nappers, remove their pancreases, and see what happened--a perfect metaphor for the enlightenment. Hardly a Christian value or doctrine that is not stomped on in it. And yet you should see the before and after pictures of the people who then started taking pork insulin. They no longer weigh 50 pounds. They can get out of bed again, after years. They can eat something besides eggs.Philip Blosser:
The Enlightenment paradigm is really a secularized and naturalistic version of the Christian theistic one. That's why modern science has been so successful. As Robert Oppenheimer and others have argued, modern science could not have been born in a non-theistic milieu. I've also blogged an extensive comment on this point, for what it's worth on my blog called "Scripture and Catholic Tradition." The assumption of universality of cause and effect in a closed system as a regulative ideal of modern science (Kant talks about this) comes from the same ideal assumed (in an open system) by traditional theism.Interlocutor:
I don't know--there's scientific-method thinking, and there's theological thinking, and analytical thinking, and deconstructive thinking, and psychoanalytic thinking, and semiotic thinking--and to me, the question is this: you're all listening, but are you hearing anything? I dismiss none of these out of hand, even "postmodern" thinking, which to me is more a child's cry than a mature discourse. Still, it's real, and we may hear something. I would uphold peoples' right to listen and the freedom of access to all discourses, which is why I cannot be "pro-life" or support the death penalty or lament homosexuality. I guess that all locates me pretty near the bulls eye of the postmodernist target, doesn't it, but still, I'd rather not be labeled, even if people have gone to all the trouble of tailoring a label to fit me. I could say that the label "Christian" fits me just as snuggly.Philip Blosser:
My, my, how reluctant you are to take a position! Yet, a little reflection shows you, I'm sure, what a popular position you've taken-- one widespread among liberal academic types and also pervasive in much of popular culture. John Kerry, who slips past the Vatican's excommunications to take communion while supporting abortion rights and speaking at the "March for Women's Lies" ("Kill 'em Young") Ralley in DC in April 2004, would salute you.Interlocutor:
I had an African American guy in class a year ago who, as a class project, created and performed a rap song about the origin of Planned Parenthood in Margaret Sanger's eugenics program called "The Negro Project." If you're interested, read more on my website her genocidal racism here:
Taking positions is as unavoidable as having a point of view when our eyes are open. There's nothing wrong, however, I think you would agree, in arguing about what it is that we think we're looking at.
I suppose you'll again remind me that I don't write like a philosopher--at this point, I'm old, and can perhaps hope one day to attain the virtue of writing unphilosophically well, but it's unlikely I'll ever write philosophically, well or otherwise. But I do like our exchanges, and you seem never to have resented me in the past for eventually getting bogged down and having to let the conversation drop. You're always willing to keep on talking, and I appreciate that.Philip Blosser:
No, you DO write like a philosopher-- like most contemporary philosophers of the Continental (as opposed to the Anglo-American "analytic") variety. I think that's good insofar as that branch comes out of the tradition of world philosophy that allows us to ask the big questions worth talking about-- what are we doing here? where are we going? what are human beings? what is the good life? what is happiness and how do we get it? etc.Interlocutor:
I enjoy our exhanges too, and hope they continue, as possible.
But now I forget what we were talking about. Christianity and the disciplines, wasn't it? Interesting word, "discipline"--whatever sense of academic disciplines that once led to them being called "disciplines" seems to have long fallen by the wayside, at least in the humanities, and Custer and I celebrated that in our course. I would vote for us calling them not academic disciplines but academic discourses, and I suppose Custer would not see the point. What's your view? You and I need to talk about this if we're to work together. This is interesting--have you ever taught LRC101? Keim, in Chapter 15 of _The Education of Character_, says that students shouldn't be career-driven as they choose their majors. Instead, they should leaf through the course catalogue, make a list of all the courses that seem fun and interesting, and choose the major that involves the most of them and the fewest other ones. Nice idea, well intentioned, never work. Why? Because when you get to history, or math, or nursing, you'll find not only "content" but discourse. You get to my HEL class, and you'll find not only that it's difficult but that you have entered a community that finds that difficulty welcoming and valuable, to a certain extent, or comforting at least, for its own sake, and also a community that embraces history and science as antidotes to dogma, and a course that is both the foundation of the English major and its conscience and watchdog, and you'll think, hey, wait a minute--that's all too weird--I just wanted the content--but you can't have it. I think that's true of any course, and doubly true in an interdisciplinary inquiry, in which everything is provisional and on the table for discussion. I love that, personally.Philip Blosser:
Academic "discourses" is fine. Yes, I've taught LRC 101 several times. Didn't use Keim's book. I see what you mean about content and discourse, and I agree they're inseparable. Different "disciplines" or "regions" of experience have differenet "language games," as Wittgenstein might call them. These overlap at points, but have their unique flavors as well. Some of the most profitable discussions occur where they are allowed to interact. In my experience, for example, I think it's interesting and profitable when those familiar with the scientific discourses about origins can talk with those familiar with the biblical-theological discourse about the days of creation, etc. But there are many more such examples. One really very exciting development in the second half of the last century was a school of thought that came out of the Free University of Amsterdam, which envisioned specialists interacting with one another across the "disciplines" with philosophy as sort of a general clearing house.
But 'nuff said.