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Posted by on Mar 20, 2018 in Canada, Featured | 11 comments

In Defence of Post-Modernism: A Reply to Jordan Peterson

In Defence of Post-Modernism: A Reply to Jordan Peterson

There has recently been a furious debate in the public sphere about post-modernism, or post-modern neo-Marxism as it is sometimes called.  Recently, Canada’s Jordan Peterson has made headlines for attacking it, blaming post-modernism for declining beliefs in truth and objectivity. While there are some virtues to what Peterson says, his general attacks on post-modernism have tended to operate at the level of caricature rather than serious analysis.

The Idea of Truth

 For Plato, truth is famously found in the world of the most real world of ideal form.  This conception still carries weight for modern Platonists like Kurt Godel and Roger Penrose, usually because it grants tremendous importance to mathematics.  For others like Immanuel Kant—putting it crudely—truth is correspondence between the ideas in our head and what is actually occurring in the empirical.  For others, most notably the Cambridge empiricists and their intellectual descendants such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, truth is what the best science tells us is true at any given period of time.  Things get even trickier, as one would expect, when looking at attempts to say what is morally true.  Some philosophers, notably Edmund Burke and Michael Oakshott, argue that moral value comes from norms forged by shared history and sense of community within which individuals both find meaning in tradition and express their individuality through creative innovation. This is pretty close to Peterson’s own position in Maps of Meaning.  Others such as Theodor Adorno have pessimistically argued that ideological morality is not only deeply flawed, but lends itself to irrationalism and egocentrism. These are all widely divergent positions, each with substantive points to them, on what is “true” about the world and about morals.

Professor Jordan B. Peterson speaks at a TEDx event at the University of Toronto

This suggests that simply railing against relativism and its dismissal of the whole idea of truth might be less constructive than we think. There is little accomplished in appealing to the truth if we do not know what the truth is. Of course, the mere existence of disagreement doesn’t itself suggest there is no such thing as truth, but noting the existence of disagreement is a good starting place to analyze what makes post-modernism’s so-called attack on the very existence of truth novel and important.

Post-Modernism’s Two Characteristic Positions

Giving a non-controversial account of what constitutes post-modernism would be impossible, since there are as many summaries as there are post-modern authors. Perhaps the most canonical position was that taken by Jean Francois Lyotard in his 1979 book The Post-Modern Condition. Written to give a general overview about the intellectual landscape in France during the 1970s, Lyotard makes a striking analytical distinction between the past and the present era:

“In contemporary society and culture – post-industrial society, postmodern culture – the question of the legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms.  The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.”

This is a somewhat complex claim that warrants some clarification. What Lyotard is saying is that intellectuals no longer believe in “grand narratives,” which could be summarized as comprehensive systems of knowledge that tell us a great deal, both about how the world is and what one should do within it. In other words, they give us a strong account of what the “truth” is. Characteristic examples would be the grand narratives of most religions, where some Divine being accounts for both the origins of the world and human morality within it.

Generally speaking, I find it helpful to divide post-modern authors into two respective categories. The first are those, like Lyotard, who see post-modernism as an epoch or period in the history of Western thinking and culture.  The second group of authors, who are the main targets of Peterson’s attacks, are those who offer strong philosophical reasons to reject the idea of truth in both description and morality.

Post-Modernism as an Epoch

Authors who regard post-modernism as an epoch don’t necessarily believe that the idea of truth should be abandoned. Some of these authors, notably Badiou, insist that we must actually work to recover our believe in truth, but they believe that social and historical conditions have emerged in society which problematize or destabilize the grand narratives that once accounted for our strong belief in truth. This leads to the emergence of philosophies and ideologies, including those we will look at in the next section, which hold that truth should be abandoned or even simply regarded as irrelevant.  It also leads to the development of novel social features which are unique to the post-modern epoch.

Representative authors in this category include Frederic Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virillio, David Harvey, and Lyotard himself. They give numerous reasons why belief in grand narratives and, consequently, truth have collapsed.  Some feel that the Second World War deeply undermined Western faith in old narratives about progress, such as Christianity and Marxism. Other authors argue that neo-liberal capitalism provoked the development of post-modern thought. As the world economy grew ever more connected, capital continued to upend traditional forms of life and systems of social organization, which led to a greater sense of alienation from the past. Finally, there are some authors who take a more technological approach.  The development of new media, from the internet to cell phones and television, has transformed our society at a fundamental level. New media make ideas accessible. But they also render them in an increasingly simplistic way, down to the 21st century where policy decisions can hinge on a tweet boiling issues down to a few hundred characters.  This relativizes the idea of truth, since people increasingly are driven by a need for entertainment and group conformity rather than an appreciation for complexity.

Post-Modernism as an “Attack” on Truth

The two authors Peterson most takes issue with are Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Both were French thinkers who apparently reject the idea of truth.  They were also highly influential in academic circles, not to mention in provoking the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s, the precursor to today’s attacks.  Their acolytes are apparently now legion, and heartily at work spreading the false creed that all knowledge is context dependent, all mores are relative to their cultural situatedness, and of course, that capitalism remains evil and must be destroyed. This is where Peterson argues that there remains a strong commitment to normative Marxism underneath the commitment of post-modern authors to absolute relativism. However, as we shall see, the story is much more complex.

Foucault never wholesale rejected the very idea of truth. Instead, it is more accurate to claim he was sceptical that the history of human knowledge gave us much cause for optimism that we would ever arrive at complete truth. Foucault’s account of knowledge is actually much closer to that of Thomas Kuhn, who is invoked with approval by Peterson in Maps of Meaning, than to some arch skeptic.  Foucault essentially argues throughout history we have seen immense changes in what is taken to be true and what is taken to be thought. What he calls “discourse” can be vaguely summarized as a system of knowledge which provides an explanatory matrix, provoking those who accept the truth of the discourse to act in a certain way. This includes organizing institutions around this discourse, developing techniques which conform to its broad confines, and of course suppressing the untruth of potentially contradictory discourses. The last reason is why Foucault always connected knowledge to power.

Derrida is a somewhat more enigmatic thinker who always rejected any attempt to summarize, let alone label, his work. However, the characterization of his work as deeply committed to relativism and dogmatically anti-truth is also something of a caricature. In works like Of Grammatology and Margins of Philosophy, Derrida actually engages primarily with the philosophy of language and the history of language analysis in philosophy. He argues that many philosophers have held to a phonocentric understanding of language. This means that language is fundamentally about a speaker, or author, who determines the strict meaning of what he or she is going to say and then utters it as propositions about objects in the world. To the extent the content of our propositions conforms to the actual objects out there in the world, we usually say a proposition is true. He takes this—somewhat unfairly I think—to be characteristic of the positivistic thinking he sees as being at the basis of modern rationalism. Derrida never took issue with the use of such ways of thinking about language, but he wanted to point out that this was inadequate to observing everything that language did.

Thus, neither of the two authors invoked by Peterson actually hold to the views they are accused of holding. Neither wholesale reject the idea of truth. Foucault often thinks truth is best found in history. Derrida is more ambiguous, but largely seems to think there are multiple kinds of truth that can be seen from a variety of directions.

Conclusion

The deepest irony in Peterson’s attacks on post-modern authors: he is about 30 years behind the times. Most of the hip Leftist thinkers today are people like Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Wendy Brown, and so on. They firmly believe in truth, argue against post-modern authors while drawing insights from them, and often are more closely affiliated with Marx. This just goes to show how complex and ironic the history of these movements can be. To appreciate that, we need to engage with them in depth. That will not be accomplished by dealing with caricatures.


Matthew McManus recently completed his graduate work on democracy and human rights at York University. He is currently writing a book on international law for the University of Wales Press. He can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca

Edited by Benjamin Aloi

11 Comments

  1. 12 RULES FOR A HEALTHY SOCIETY (Inspired by Jordan Peterson’s YouTube Lectures.)

    1) Free speech for all citizens is the key foundational right of Western culture. To speak freely one must be able to risk being offensive to others with opposing views. We reject “forced speech” (i.e. mandatory use of gender-neutral pronouns, etc) by governments against the will of citizens who do not agree with the validity of these words. We regard legislated forced speech as the verbal equivalent of rape.

    2) We reject the radical Alt-Right notions advocating for racial purity, fascism, and anti-semitism.

    3) We reject the radical Alt-Left notions of cultural marxism based “identity politics” as a viable means of achieving social justice. Identity politics perpetuates an “us vs. them” mentality which aims to create polarization, division, animosity and ultimately hatred in society. We, therefore, deem the doctrines of identity politics to be a form of left-wing “hate speech” and advocate that it being called out as such. Accordingly, we reject narratives of “Privilege”, “Intersectionality”, “Patriarchy” etc. We note here that identity politics has proven to be a murderous ideology repeatedly throughout the twentieth century. (Witness Stalinist Russia and Maoist China among others with tens of millions dead.)

    4) We support “equality of opportunity” for all citizens. We do not support quota-based “equality of outcome”. (i.e. “equity”) This position is based on the rationale that the key institutions in our private and public sectors must be based on hierarchies of competence (not power) in order to function properly. These hierarchies must be free of government interference.

    5) We reject suggestions that masculinity is in any way “toxic” and seek to promote educational policies to encourage boys to cultivate and celebrate their masculinity for the benefit of society. We reject notions of rampant “rape culture” on university campuses and the underlying implication that all young men are inherently inclined to commit sexual assault.

    6) We reject “Third Wave Feminism” because of its union with identity politics. We unequivocally do support equal opportunity, rights, and responsibilities for both men and women in society.

    7) We reject social constructivism over biology. Notably, we reject the notion that there are more than two genders, that gender exists on a spectrum, or that gender is a social construct. Likewise, we reject the notion that there are no biological differences in the neurology of the brain between men and women . This statement does not imply that either gender is superior to the other.

    8) We recognize that transgender people exist and respect their rights and responsibilities within society. We seek legislation which will make it illegal to transition a child prior to the age of eighteen. This statement is based on the rationale that children are too susceptible to suggestion, social fads or the desires of activist adult authority figures while lacking the life experience and maturity necessary to make such a critical decision themselves. We reject any suggestion that this statement makes us “transphobic”.

    9) We believe that rights and social responsibility must be accepted by all individuals in equal measure for society to succeed. This includes both majority and minority groups without exception.

    10) We believe that the traditional nuclear family is the cornerstone of all healthy societies. We reject the notion that marriage is an “outdated patriarchal institution”. We believe that men and women should strive to cultivate successful marriages working as equal partners towards the common goal of supporting each other’s physical and mental health. We believe that such unions are the optimal arrangement for raising children to achieve their full potential. We accept the right of homosexuals to legally marry for those who do not seek an opposite-sex life partner.

    11) We call for the following changes at public universities:

    – All universities must be legally required to adopt the so-called “Chicago Principles” on free speech as a pre-requisite to receiving continued public taxpayer funding.
    – Severe funding penalties for those universities which fail to protect free speech on campus.
    – Immediate cessation of all programs at universities where the discipline advocates for identity politics based political indoctrination.
    – Elimination of mandatory funding for student unions by the forced collection of student union dues.
    – Elimination of “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings” and resources set aside specifically for the benefit of single group(s) of students based on racial, gender or ethnic background.

    12) We support the belief that all citizens should have the right to a fair trial and that anyone accused of a crime must be deemed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

    • . Great summary of JBP principles!

    • Why is this connected to the arguments I presented on post-modernism specifically?

    • Even though most of these positions are classically liberal, in today’s rhetoric they are considered “right-wing”

  2. There are a large number of problems with your statement.

    1) There has never been any evidence than individuals are being forced to use specific gender pronouns. Indeed, rights against this are enshrined in Sec 2 A and B of the Charter. Jordan Peterson was never under legal threat for his refusal to use the preferred pronouns of his students; he was under pressure by his employer-the University-who eventually backed down.

    2) Identity politics is very distinct from Marxism, and for that matter from Stalinism and Maoism. While Marxism did employ class rhetoric, it was oriented around a campaign of universal emancipation that was going to gradually efface distinct social identities. This is why the proletariat (or peasants in the Maoist case) were the “universal” identity. If anything that is the root of its totalitarian impulses.

    3) Discussions of “toxic” masculinity is in no way an affront to men specifically. They are meant to help us observe that for a long period of time norms which were (rightly or wrongly) traditionally associated exclusively with men-rationality, selfishness, ambition-were valued over equally worth while qualities which (again rightly or wrongly) were traditionally ascribed to women. The argument is that it is wrong to excessively value these qualities, and we should discuss their negative impact in more detail.

    4) If you unequivocally support men and women equally, then you would be concerned that 1 out of 6 women are the victims of sexual assault. If we ascribe equal consideration to their interests, effacing a culture which enables that might be a step in the right direction.

    https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem

    5) Equal responsibility is predicated on the idea that everyone starts from the same standpoint of initial advantage. One of the problems is that his is simply not the case. If you want a good example, take Harvard (where JBP taught). Roughly 80 per cent of the students there came from the 25 per cent most affluent families. About 3 per cent came from the bottom 25 per cent. This is a stark difference, and from the standpoint of each individual student, is arbitrary from a moral point of view. Someone who gets a A average but cannot attend Harvard because they come from the bottom 5 per cent is not less worthy than someone who gets an A average but can because their parents are wealthy.

    These kinds of differences about across the board. If you want, you can check out the association between being an ethnic minority or from a low income family and your decreased chance of graduating from high school.

    http://fortune.com/2017/05/03/high-school-graduation-rates-minorities/

    6) No credible person has ever said that marriage should not be allowed. In fact, most advocates of gay and trans marriage support it as a social institution. There are a wide variety of reasons for this.

    Moreover, most couples, regardless of sexual orientation, still get married.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/03/incredible-everlasting-institution-marriage/555320/

    7) Canada and most Western states are highly respected for their court systems, and there is little comprehensive evidence that they are unfair.

    8) If you believe in liberalism-classical or otherwise-you should believe that people ought to succeed and be judged based on their accomplishments, not unfair advantages. Therefore you ought to be concerned to ameliorate social conditions that arbitrarily advantage some over others.

    https://www.iep.utm.edu/rawls/

  3. Finally, I would again like to say that none of this has anything to do with my initial essay.

    • You didn’t make any specific claims. It was a bowl of mush. Case in point, in your conclusion, you deride Peterson for being behind the times, yet, in the same breath, you ally newer post-modern thinkers with Marx. That’s not a refutation of anything Peterson has said. Rather, you prove him right.

      • No I deride him for mistakenly aligning post modern thinkers with Marx, which is quite inaccurate. The latest generation of left wing thinkers have returned to Marx in no small part as a reaction against post modernism’s rejection of him.

        • Also in what sense are any of the figures I listed at the end post-modern? Firstly they say they are not. Secondly there is good reason to take them at their word. Badiou is a mathematician who supports “militant truths.” Zizek sees post modern thinking as for the most part allied to bad political and economic practices. Wendy Brown cautions against an ideology of victimhood and a politics of resentment. She wants to reassess the universal value of Marxism. You seem to be looking at the left as a fairly homogenous entity based on what are now fairly old fashioned ideas.

          • Matt, Badiou is NOT a mathematician. His father was one though. Sure, he does know a bit of mathematics — a wee bit of Set Theory, Category theory and Topos theory. Real mathematicians who are aware of his musings in the aforementioned fields deride his work. It’s simply farcical.

          • Lloyd; sure I can accept that characterization. Personally I don’t like Badiou at all since I do find he fits the stereotype of the pretentious intellectual who doesn’t have much to really say (you can read my articles on him at critical legal thinking if you want). My point is just that he is a very famous left wing thinker and doesn’t fit most of the stereotypes Peterson is discussing. Most contemporary “radical” leftists in vogue don’t.

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