Ayatollah Khomeini, Graham Priest, J.L. Austin, Jacques Derrida, John Caputo, Martin Luther King Jr., Michel Foucault, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Paul Feyerabend, Plato, postmodernism, relativism, Socrates, Stanley Fish, Thrasymachus
The term “postmodernism” (or “poststructuralism”) is notoriously elusive; it’s sometimes said that if you think you know what it is, you don’t. But that doesn’t stop its practitioners from talking about it, and I don’t think it should stop anyone else either. I will use “postmodernism” to refer to a set of ideas, widely held among academics in the past 30 years, which takes inspiration from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and denies the worth of claims to truth. One will frequently find postmodernists (John Caputo is one of the more explicit about this) claiming that “the truth is that there is no truth.”
The claim that there is no truth is false. It contains a contradiction that cannot be resolved unless one takes it to mean something very different from what it appears to mean. Nor is this one of that narrow group of paradoxes which could be taken as true on the grounds of Graham Priest’s dialetheism. Priest tries to argue that most of the problems with contradiction stem not from accepting some contradictions, but from accepting all; but if one accepts “there is no truth,” one comes much closer to allowing all contradictions in. Indeed postmodernists often approvingly quote the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend in telling us that “anything goes.”
It is not true that there is no truth. What is crucial about this and other postmodern claims, however, is that its truth value is not the point. Like Stanley Fish, postmodernists shift our attention away from contradiction and truth entirely, claiming they’re not the important thing. (Caputo at one point approves one of his opponent’s moves because “it drops the stuff about contradiction and actually addresses the issues.”) Drawing on J.L. Austin’s theory of speech acts, postmodernists will argue that the reason to make such a claim against truth is its performative dimension. The point, that is, is not what the sentence says, but what it does.
It is on this last point, however, that the evidence against postmodernism seems strongest. What, exactly, has postmodernism accomplished? I have previously mentioned cognitive dissonance and spiritual transformation as reason to be concerned about contradictions. But these are typically not at the forefront of postmodern concern. Rather, most postmodern writers express some sort of concern for marginalized political groups – women, gays, transgendered people, the poorer or working classes, people in nonwhite racial groups, people from colonized societies. But what has postmodernism actually done to improve their situation?