Skepticism in the Postmodern Academy

Greg Goodrich


The Virtue of Postmodernism

Current divisions within American culture emphasize ongoing racial and political tensions. These tensions can be quite discouraging, but there is reason to hope. These tensions are merely symptoms of more basic disagreements about what is real and good.  If the knowledge sufficient to effect peace is possible but one’s culture exhibits lack of this knowledge, then it will be helpful to step back and ask whether there is a shared common ground among all humans to which we can appeal.

Perhaps the most basic elements of common ground are these: humans think, and there are laws that govern thought. Among all human institutions, the academy as an educational institution is best suited to affirm this common ground and work toward cultural transformation. This platform may be used for good or for evil. Students may be taught to think critically and test basic beliefs for meaning, or they may be indoctrinated through pseudo-argument which bypasses the meaning of basic propositions about reality. If America is concerned about racial and political tensions and desires peace through common understanding, educational institutions should be the primary concern. Can the presuppositions of our current academy heal us?

The current academic spirit is both skeptical and compassionate. This can be observed by understanding postmodernism, which is found in most humanities curricula and championed in the most elite American schools. Postmodernism is responding to fideistic claims which have not been rationally justified. Consider the context in which postmodernism has been cultivated. Humankind’s history is filled with many truth-claiming narratives, but at all times there is at least one meta-narrative which prevails over others and is embodied in the culture. This assumed meta-narrative may operate for three to four generations unchallenged, but eventually it is called into question. If it cannot rationally justify its claims to this new generation, it fails to provide that generation with meaning and so loses cultural significance. Another meta-narrative must take its place, or the culture will collapse. Historically, this has been expressed in power struggles, when the incumbent belief system is challenged by one or more other systems of belief and over time there is thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Postmodernism claims that there is no true meta-narrative. The many narratives competing for power are nothing more than that. The root presupposition that there is one knowable absolute is false. The emperor has no clothes.  

The borderline-nihilistic skepticism of postmodernism has a compassionate motivation.  Those who have most recently suffered under the internal and external oppression of these fideistic systems need justice. Postmodernism serves to deconstruct this antiquated absolutism and set the youth free. As expected, the academy has proved to be a well-positioned platform for this task.

Superficially, this is a noble task. False belief systems culminate in injustice and atrocities. Wherever there are claims about reality which cannot be rationally justified, the academy can and should expose them. This protects and nurtures the young and weak. The question is whether the task of the academy ends here.


What More Can Be Done?

Post-modernism results from an outworking of post-Enlightenment attitudes toward reason. As discussed above, it would be difficult to argue that the fomenting catalyst of such attitudes is located anywhere other than in the western academy, particularly within the humanities curriculum, with the philosophical curriculum being ground zero. Philosophers of ancient Greece sought for the unifying logos, and aimed to apply this understanding in “love of wisdom”. Should it be ironic that it is philosophy (so-called) which has given birth to the view that “all views are equally valid” (except absolutism, which denies this)?

Plato’s Academy originally sought to know reality, but in little more than a century it had declined into skepticism under the neo-Platonists. The current academies of the world mirror this decline. The humanities, which were intended to study the human world, currently offer very little consensus on what counts as knowledge and whether such a thing is possible. One may even wonder whether the humanities have been able to define the parameters of its studied specimen. The professed definition of ‘human’ has not been improved in time but rather dissolved, when we compare Plato’s definition of human[1] to that of postmodernism[2].  

With such little progress it should come as no surprise that the Western academy has been easily swayed by popular-level statements expressing the sentiments that (1) all beliefs are a matter of interpretation and (2) all belief systems and cultures are equally valid human expressions which are not to be subject to rational criticism. “Judge not that you be not judged” seems to be the best-known biblical verse among today’s youth, and this is followed up well with the expression made popular by Oprah et al, “Speak your truth.” One primary root for this skepticism may be found in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, particularly in his proposed antinomies by which he aims to show a conflict between pure reason and reality. There he argues that a great chasm exists between the world in itself (the Truth, or system of all truths) and the world as it appears (individual “truth”, self-contradictory claims to knowledge of reality). Kant proposed that reason in humankind is incapable of grasping the world as it exists in itself. For example, in his first antinomy he claims that reason can prove both sides of the contradiction between “the world has a beginning in time…” and “the world has no beginning…”.  Since Kant, this attempted skepticism toward reason has reached heights in various philosophies, from the French existentialists to such late 20th century American philosophers such as Richard Rorty and Nelson Goodman. The claim is this: the mind of man cannot know what is real.

The remainder of this article will not attempt to confront the particulars of Kant’s skepticism or the degree of its contributions to postmodernism. Let the reader be content to simply consider the popular-level statements mentioned above, (1) and (2). These are pseudo-intellectual in nature because they do not consider the meaning of the concepts to which they refer, and therefore demand nothing of an intellectual nature from its adherents. Instead, there is an emotional appeal to make peace, but then when peace is not had, volition comes to the fore as has been observed in current events in America.

Consider the meaning of (1) and (2). It should be evident that these ought not be conflated; they are not the same attitude. (1) is the mantra of post-modern humanities departments. It is believed that current generations have transcended the past errors of assumed western ideological imperialism. The idea that there is one knowable reality is called into question by appeals to personal “truths”, but (1) does not imply personal “truths”. Jones may have subjective elements of personality or experience, but Smith’s having a different shoe size from Jones is not a personal truth. This is a truth which exists as a feature of the external world, which each individual must observe and interpret.  

Consequently, the meaning of (1) may not be as open-minded and inclusive as it may seem. In fact, (1) is trivial. This is where critical thinking begins. To affirm (1) is not the rejection of truth, but a recognition of the conflict between reality, as the source of truth, and one’s failure to know it. Rather than promoting an alienating skepticism, where one must create one’s own truth that is incommensurable with the truth of others, (1) should inculcate humility. There is one knowable reality, and all disagreements are due to difference in interpretation. This doesn’t imply that belief is truth. Instead it heightens the need for self-examination. Consider (2). “All beliefs are equally valid” is plain enough. In this view truth is not what is according to an objective reality shared with others, but only what accords with one’s own individual perspective. Are the meaning of (1) and (2) logically equivalent? “All is interpretation” does not entail splintering notions of truth disconnected from an absolute. Taken in the weakest sense, (1) is a statement that all beliefs should be understood as a construction based upon interpretation of the world. (1) is neither a denial that there is a shared objective reality, nor a denial that the human mind can obtain certainty about it.  

(1) prepares humans to consider logical possibilities. This is the beginning of the philosophical enterprise in which the primary task is to understand the meaning of a statement before attempting to evaluate its truth. This should be no surprise, since philosophy, as the “love of wisdom”, assumes a distinction between wisdom and non-wisdom. Consequently, (1) cannot be conflated to (2) because it contradicts it.   Philosophical consideration of (1), with a love of wisdom in place, affirms that here is an interpretation about the real and the good which is more valid and accurate (wise) than others; that is, that not all views are equally valid.

         By establishing this distinction between (1) and (2), it follows that the academy need not be taken into skepticism by statements which emphasize the role of interpretation. Postmodernism aided the task of philosophy in showing that all is a matter of interpretation, but it has failed to motivate the academy because of how it has understood interpretation. Its proclamation that all views are equally valid leaves no rationally-justified parameters for how to think of human nature and human equality, and it is therefore unprepared to bring lasting social and political peace. Although it may emotionally or volitionally excite the young with its proclamations, it has not permitted entry into the door of knowledge. Its thought-leaders have kept from going in themselves and prevented the youth, with whom they’ve been entrusted, from entering also.  


The Solution

Those who are concerned about the role of the humanities in current racial and political struggles should call for reformation of the academy. The academy is the natural institution where all humans should expect to find an affirmation of the common ground necessary for human dialogue. One can hope that by recognizing the attitude of postmodernism, in a misuse of (1) and promotion of (2), the academy can begin its own level of self-examination. Only then can it begin again to prepare humans to critically evaluate competing interpretations of the one shared reality and find the hope to resolve disputes.

[1]  Plato is said to have defined humans as “featherless biped”.  Diogenes is said to have thereafter plucked a fowl and brought it to the Academy saying, “Here is Plato’s human.”  Plato then refined his definition by adding the quality of flat-nailed, culminating in humans as flat-nailed featherless bipeds.

[2] Postmodernism is widely understood to be nominalistic.  Nominalism denies that there are natures of things.  It is embodied in the existentialist claim that existence precedes essence; there is no referent for ‘human nature’ since one’s values define oneself and one’s values are self-determined.

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