Sunday, January 21, 2007

Some sources of enlightenment?

I was pointed to this website by a friend:
Postmodernism is not so much a theory as an attitude. It is an attitude of suspicion – suspicion about claims of truth. So if postmodernists are asked “Aren’t the claims of science just true, and some things objectively right and wrong?” the reaction is not so much “No, because…” but “They’re always doubtful, or relative to our paradigms, or just true for dominant groups in our society; and anyway, in whose interest is it to think science is true?”

Of course, it would appeal to me as it's written by a mathematician (James Franklin).
Here's some more:
Postmodernism in not only an attitude of suspicion, but one of unteachable suspicion. If one tries to give good arguments for some truth claim, the postmodernist will be ready to “deconstruct” the concept of good argument, as itself a historically-conditioned paradigm of patriarchal Enlightenment rationality.

Finally, the postmodernist congratulates her/himself morally on having unteachable suspicion. Being “transgressive” of established standards is taken to be good in itself and to position the transgressor as a fighter against “oppression”, prior to giving any reasons why established standards are wrong. In asking how to respond to postmodernism, it is especially important to understand that its motivation does not lie in argument but in the more primitive moral responses, resentment and indignation.

From further down the article:

(Let me make it clear that I have nothing against German transvestites. It is just the way they are being used as an excuse for bullshit that is a problem.)

The relentless assault of postmodernism on truth and its replacement of rational debate with resentful “deconstruction” has, so to speak, given permission for public intellectuals to lead with denunciations and rancour prior to getting their facts straight. The “History Wars” began when Keith Windschuttle wrote a book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, claiming on the basis of his archival research that the Tasmanian aboriginals were not massacred but mostly died of diseases. It is astounding how few of the replies to him bothered to examine his factual claims and the evidence he provided. Almost all of the ferocious attacks on him consisted of denunciations of his alleged racism, abuse about his supposed lack of imagination, comparisons with the Holocaust denier David Irving, and snide remarks about his not having a PhD. Though only one of his major opponents descended to any explicit postmodernist claims about the relativism of truth, the standard of the debate was extremely low, in a way that I believe would not have been tolerated forty years ago before the advent of postmodernism. Something of the same shallow moralism infects the debate on economic rationalism. According to its supporters, a free market is the best method of delivering prosperity to both rich and poor. That may or may not be so, but the way to debate it is to look at economic evidence. It is not to the point to try to short-circuit that difficult economic debate by abusing economic rationalists for “reducing humans to mere consumers” or for approving of “obscene” inequalities of income. Arguments on matters of fact need to be sorted out before moral judgments are made, not, as postmodernism would have it, the reverse.

The author moves on to methods to combat PoMo:

If it is agreed that postmodernism is a problem, what should be done about it?

There are four possible plans:
Plan A: Do nothing and hope it goes away

Plan B: Take political action in an effort to have postmodernists sacked and deprived of grants

Plan C: Refute postmodernism with arguments

Plan D: Provide a more exciting, positive alternative

Of course, it is plan D that Franklin eventually advocates, but not before he's taken a detour past David Stove:

How to rewrite the sentence: Cook discovered Cook Strait.

Cook `discovered' Cook Strait.

Among an infinity of equally impossible alternatives, one hypothesis which has been especially fruitful in suggesting problems for further research and critical discussion is the conjecture (first `confirmed' by the work of Cook) that a strait separates northern from southern New Zealand.

It would of course be a gross anachronism to call the flat-earth paradigm in geography mistaken. It is simply incommensurable with later paradigms: as is evident from the fact that, for example, problems of antipodean geography could not even be posed under it. Under the Magellanic paradigm, however, one of the problems posed, and solved in the negative, was that of whether New Zealand is a single land mass. That this problem was solved by Cook is, however, a vulgar error of whig historians, utterly discredited by recent historiography. Discovery of the Strait would have been impossible, or at least would not have been science, but for the presence of the Royal Society on board, in the person of Sir Joseph Banks. Much more research by my graduate students into the current sociology of the geographical profession will be needed, however, before it will be known whether, under present paradigms, the problem of the existence of Cook Strait remains solved, or has become unsolved again, or an un-problem.

and Raymond Tallis, who was featured in the Guardian:

Tallis says he wrote these books - Not Saussure and Theorrhoea and After - fuelled by rage: "I found it sickening that quite a lot of literary critics loathed literature, and saw it as their primary job to convey this loathing to their students. One of the most disgusting things I have ever read was the phrase 'reading literature against the grain'. In a sense the students were being robbed even before they had the chance to encounter these writers. In addition, students were exposed to totally opaque writers like Lacan, though I loathed him because I thought he was a wicked doctor as well."

And here's what Franklin says:
In the longer term, the answer to postmodernism, especially to its ethical appeal, must rely on Plan D: presenting a better alternative. If the youth are being corrupted by postmodernism through its appeal to their indignation and to their sense that there must be more to life than the pursuit of material gain, then they can only be rescued by presenting a more credible alternative moral vision.

So what vision? Unfortunately, there are a number of fundamentalisms available – Islamic, Sydney Anglican, Hillsong, Environmentalist and so on – which play well in the market. (I use “fundamentalism” here somewhat loosely, for any position that hands down a complete scripture and simply urges “have faith, take it or leave it”.) Fundamentalist leaders are always encouraged by the number of fourteen-year-olds joining up. What do you expect? It is fortunate that an Australian teenager who signs up is not as badly off as one in the Gaza strip who will soon find himself strapping on a bomb, but blind commitment is no way to find the meaning of life...

I have a plan. It is based on presenting the absolute basics of ethics in a way that shows their objectivity, but free from any religious commitment. I have come to that view from a perspective of Catholic natural law ethics, but there are other ways of seeing it – my closest collaborator in this area is Jean Curthoys, author of an excellent book attacking postmodernist feminist theory, Feminist Amnesia. She has a Marxist background and sees what we are doing as a continuation of the “liberation theory of the Sixties”.

The idea is that ethics is not fundamentally about what actions ought to be done, or about rights, or virtues, or divine commands. Ethics does indeed have something to say about those matters, but they are not basic. Where ethics should start is well explained in a page of Rai Gaita’s Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception. He asks us to consider a tutorial in which one of its members had suffered serious torture and that was known to all the others in the group. If the tutor then asked the group to consider whether our sense of good and evil might be an illusion, “everyone would be outraged if their tutor was not serious and struck by unbelieving horror if he was”. Scepticism about the objectivity of good and evil, Gaita says, is not only false but a moral offence against those who have suffered real evil.

Ethics should start, then, with a direct sense of what is good and what is evil. To what things can good and evil happen? The death of a human is a tragedy but the explosion of a lifeless galaxy is just a firework. Why the difference? There is something about humans, an irreducible worth or equal moral value, that means that what happens to them matters a great deal. That equal worth of persons, ..., is what ethics is fundamentally about. Other aspects of ethics follow from that. Why is murder wrong? Because it destroys a human life, something of immense intrinsic value. (And why is it arguable that capital punishment might nevertheless be possible in some extreme circumstances, although it takes a human life? – because there is a possibility that it might deter someone from taking many valuable lives.) Other rules ... follow from the worth of persons similarly ...
Rights? They follow in the same way as rules: the right to life is just the prohibition on murder... Virtues? The virtue of restraint or temperance, for example, is a disposition to act so as not to harm oneself and others, so it too is directly explicable in terms of the harm done (by drugs, for example) to humans. Divine commands? They must be in accordance with what is inherently right. In the Christian vision, God does support the value of all humans. “Look at the birds of the air”, says Jesus. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Any god or purported god who issues commands contrary to human worth, such as edicts to make war on unbelievers, must be resisted in the interests of humanity.

... It does not follow from the fact that the principles of ethics are simple that it is easy to decide on ethical questions. On the contrary, the fundamental equal worth of persons itself creates conflicts when there is tension between what different people need. Some of the issues are discussed further in my new book, Catholic Values and Australian Realities. But I hope enough has been said to indicate where to find an alternative, and more optimistic, vision of human life than the simplistic travesties foisted on the long-suffering youth of the world these past forty years by postmodernism.

Good stuff. Can I recommend reading it all and then getting the book?


Jim said...

You can recommend it, certainly. It sounds like your mathematical training has preserved your rationality - James Franklin

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