Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Dennett vs postmodernism

Daniel Dennett is getting some stick at the Daily Nous (and on Twitter too, I could have sworn, but now I can't find any evidence of that) because of these remarks:
Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.
Justin W. replies, in part:
I’m skeptical that post-modernism had much to do with Trump’s victory. It is not even on the radar of most Trump voters, ...
The main criticisms of Dennett seem to be that he wildly exaggerates the importance of philosophy and that he has misunderstood the philosophers in question. But I take him to be saying that postmodern philosophers, or perhaps merely the philosophers who gave rise to postmodernism, have done something that had very bad consequences. He isn't, that is to say, suggesting that Trump or the people behind Fox News have read Derrida, Foucault, or Lyotard and, based on a sound understanding of their work, become Thrasymachean liars. (If he is saying that then he has lost touch with reality.)

So what could he mean that might be true? Most people (in the US) don't study philosophy at all, either because they don't go to college (and philosophy isn't taught in high school or before) or else because they go to a college or university where philosophy is not mandatory. What philosophy they get--and enough people get some exposure to philosophy for opposition to philosophy to be part of the basis of a popular film--comes from other courses. In some educational systems this philosophy might be Thomism, or something like it, but more commonly I think it will be what I call postmodernism. I work in an English department and a high percentage of my friends teach in English departments at other schools. Postmodernism is common among these people. One even said that relativism, including the explicit rejection of belief in truth, was the basic dogma (they didn't use that word) of the discipline of rhetoric and composition. And almost every student studies composition, including in high school.

This is not the fault of Foucault et al., but they have a role to play in the history of the phenomenon. I don't know how ideas like postmodernism get into other subjects, but in English graduate students typically used to have to take a theory course (perhaps they still do) in which they would learn about various kinds of critical theory. I think these courses are often based on Terry Eagleton's book Literary Theory, on which Wikipedia is interesting:
Eagleton's approach to literary criticism remains firmly rooted in the Marxian tradition though he has also incorporated techniques and ideas from more recent modes of thought as structuralismLacanian analysis and deconstruction. [...]
After Theory (2003) represents a kind of about-face: an indictment of current cultural and literary theory, and what Eagleton regards as the bastardisation of both. [...] His indictment [...] centres on "relativism"...  
In other words, it looks as though Eagleton might be (in part) both the cause of and the insufficiently-used cure for the problem that Dennett complains about. I wouldn't blame Eagleton for this any more than I would blame Lacan, but it's a reminder that bastardisation happens and happens predictably. Bastardized versions of various kinds of philosophy (Dewey is frequently misquoted and misapplied too) are widespread. I blame the bastardizers first and foremost, but philosophers themselves could almost certainly do more to combat it.


  1. anyone hawking "memes" is throwing rocks from his glassy tower home when it comes to these matters.

  2. Replies
    1. he, and by extension Latour (Bruno is making a living overselling the powers/reach of his philo-theology, ironically in the name of pragmatism), are wrong about what's happening, might as well blame Rashomon. This has much more to do with new media tech and political machinations like the creation of Fox News amping up (and broadcasting) our always-already cognitive-biases, the "paranoid" style of politics isn't new it's as old as the species, read up on the battles over Evolution and the like in this country.

    2. Could be, although it's an interesting question what made it "respectable to be cynical about truth and facts" (Dennett's words, my emphasis). I suspect it has at least something to do with intellectual fads trickling down in bastardized form into middle school, high school, and some college teaching. I'm pretty sure I know people who see it as part of their job to actively discourage belief in truth. Of course there have been skeptics and sophists and Pontius "What is truth?" Pilates around forever, but children haven't always been encouraged to think they are right (and to be ashamed to think otherwise). Fox News and co. are far more to blame, of course, than their academic enablers. I'm not a consequentialist, as I take it Dennett is. But, whatever caused what, it's worth being aware of bastardization and maybe doing more to combat it. Or so it seems to me.

    3. but this "respectable to be cynical about truth and facts" isn't a popular opinion, what is popular is to know that people who oppose you have the wrong facts and or are incapable of rational/reality-based thinking. I'm afraid that Rorty was right that philosophy is no fix for this and the best we can hope for is that our liberal institutions and civic organizations can hold enough political sway.

    4. I agree that philosophy won't fix the problem, and I doubt it really caused the problem in the first place. But I don't think it has done as much as it could to speak out against it and/or make it unrespectable. Or, to get away from all causal or historical speculation, I think that philosophers should be careful to point out that likely or common misunderstandings of philosophy are indeed misundertandings. And to try to anticipate such misunderstandings of their own work and head them off. I also think that non-philosophers should be more careful when trying to use philosophical work that they might not understand very well.

    5. "I think that philosophers should be careful to point out that likely or common misunderstandings of philosophy are indeed misundertandings. And to try to anticipate such misunderstandings of their own work and head them off. I also think that non-philosophers should be more careful when trying to use philosophical work that they might not understand very well" good pragmatist wish list, most of the popularizing of pomo for ill where/are a mix of pc identity-politics and the opposing rightwing christianists (ministers, politicians,etc) demonizing liberal ed/arts and liberal elites, it meant not christian. One could hope (sadly in vain) for a bit of cynicism about their feelings of certainty, or as you suggest a mote of fallibilism...

  3. The problem is that people imagine there's either relativism or objectivity, as if the two were mutually exclusive, metaphysically incompatible conditions. But there is no deep reason to think that (though it looks superficially to be the case).

    Objectivity can be understood as the condition in which we share access to the world (those public spaces of observation and discourse) without imagining it represents some kind of bottom line foundational reality (even if there is something like that -- because, in fact, THAT is never what we have access to in any case since the objective we recognize as such is merely the shared).

    Yet this is a hard notion to get hold of and so arguments for relativity (in ethics, knowledge, etc.) quickly get confused in ordinary discourse with claims of ultimate relativity. If what we know is always just a function of what we can access and having knowledge hinges on the success of the conceptual terms in which we do access our world, then there is a relativism at work at some level. But it's not a metaphysical question but a practical one. There are facts because there being these is just a condition of how we interrelate with our world. And being a fact is a function of both public observability and shared conceptualizations (the emphasis on these two dimensions of knowledge being dependent on the kind of fact at issue). But post-modernist rejection of the possibility of objectivity in fact assertion seems to me to just miss the point.

    Dennett seems to be losing his sharpness in recent talks he has given by the way. Perhaps it is the aging process at work. Brains age out like everything else. Or perhaps he has just exhausted the bulk of what he was equipped to say.

    I am finding renewed interest in John Dewey by the way. I gave him short shrift in my college years. Perhaps it's time to make amends.

    1. Good stuff in Dewey, sadly our times are ruled by the disciples of Lipmann and their minions:

    2. I've never been a huge fan of Dennett, but he's a smart guy. No idea whether he's less smart now than before.

    3. Perhaps the issue isn't "less smart" but less clear, less articulate, or that he has less that's fresh to say and what he's left saying is stuff that doesn't have the same resonance. Unlike you, I have been somewhat of a fan of the guy. I think he offered the best and most comprehensive account of consciousness as system that I've ever come across, completely undermining the Searlean case that consciousness is just some kind of bottom line phenomenon that happens to emerge from brains somehow, as if full blown, Athena from the head of Zeus! Dennett made the case that it is a complex of systems on top of systems roughly analogous to programming on computers. His model was taken by many as wrong because of the intuition we tend to have, and which Searle relies on, that consciousness is a unitary, self-justifying phenomenon. Dennett showed how that view breaks down.

      I know he has become something of a crusader for atheism since but I don't pay too much attention to that stuff. Religiosity and the beliefs that sort of thing entail don't interest me from a philosophical perspective though they are interesting sociologically and psychologically, I think. The one area where such things matter in philosophy, though, would be in regard to questions of ethics and there Dennett never seems to get involved much. So I part company with him on the metaphysical question of God or no God, I guess. But his work on consciousness was, in my view, very sharp and certainly clarifying. His more recent stuff, though, seems to be much less perspicacious. Not sure to what to ascribe that. It was just a passing thought since he provided the jumping off point for your post above.

    4. Fair enough. It wouldn't be surprising if he had less that is fresh to say now that he has already said so much.