Searle v. Postmodernism: Searle 1, Straw-man 0; Postmodernism Still Standing

A correspondent asked me to comment on this, which is philosopher John Searle’s review of a book on relativism and constructivism. This is somehow supposed to reveal to us the problems with the postmodern turn. Instead, what this piece by Searle reveals is how easy it is to tear down straw-men rather than actually deal with the arguments one opposes.

Here is the straw-man constructed by Searle: “The Postmodern turn means there is no true objective mind-independent reality, but rather that we construct or create reality based upon our own cultural, experiential, and preconceived ideas and notions—much of it created by the very language we use.” Or, some basic variant of this sort of take on postmodernity.

Now, I will grant that there are some out there who believe stuff like this or something similar, but so what? Anyone familiar with the actual literature knows this isn’t representative of what the great majority of legitimate postmodern philosophers/theologians are trying to communicate.

Jamie Smith makes the same point here. The bottom line is that Searle and others like him clearly do not know what they are talking about as far as what the postmodern turn means and they do not understand the best and legitimate thinkers who have articulated its contours and meaning.

Let’s be clear: A legitimate Postmodernism HAS NOTHING to do with the idea that there is no true objective mind-independent reality or that we create our own reality or “facts.” It DOES NOT mean that what is true for the American Indians as far as believing their ancestors came from the earth is as true as the theory those same ancestors migrated across the Bering Strait. Postmodernism DOES NOT mean what’s true for me might not be true for you when we are speaking of matters like distance to the sun or 2+2=4.

Here and here are relatively good, although cursory, takes on postmodernism–both its strengths and weaknesses.

Who knows, maybe one of these days Searle and others like him will actually try to understand postmodernism and quit flailing at straw-men.

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2 Responses to Searle v. Postmodernism: Searle 1, Straw-man 0; Postmodernism Still Standing

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Thanks for presenting even a little bit of a case, rather than the usual teen-age “you just don't get it!”.

    Responding to your last two links:

    Since modernism might be represented as skepticism towards the reigning narrative of its time, (religion), it is hard to see how postmodernism differs in offering slightly more skepticism vs the religio-political narratives of more recent time (communism, fascism). Modernism would have (and did) do the same in its day. As for science, the only truly modern narrative, being essentially composed of skepticism, it remains perfectly functional in its sphere. But at the same time it is not a normative narrative that attempts to politically re-order society or power-relations, so its role is less totalizing and political than the other narratives which were each essentially legitimating narratives of power. The remaining political narratives of popular sovereignty and individual intellectual and moral freedom remain the quite active legacy of enlightnment/modernity.

    Thus postmodernism, in the sense presented, is a classic case of .. what is useful is not new, and what is new is not useful.

    “It is also critical of any view that claims to be neutral, unbiased, or rational.”

    This is mixing apples and oranges. You youself have no problem with rational views and statements, in the main. You only want to protect your theistic beliefs from their critique. There may be no neutral views in politics, which seems to be the locus of interest of the postmodernism being discussed, but politics is not everything.

    “Postmoderns also maintain that texts-historical, literary, or otherwise-have no inherent authority or objectivity in revealing the author's intent, nor can they tell us “what really happened.””

    Well, if you and other theists / bibliophiles could take that view to heart, the world would be quite a bit better off.

    As for perspectivism, no absolute truth, etc. Hume and science had been there long, long before, even while you freely agree that numerous aspects of the scientific corpus are indeed objective after all. Evidence is what lets us assign probabilities to our models of reality.

    The second piece was very nice..

    “Postmodernism rightly sees the danger of optimistic utopianianism; postmoderns remind us of our great capacity to fail”

    I completely agree. But this is a political / historical lesson, not so much a philosophical one. One also has to point directly to the dangers of community and mass movements- therein lies the seed of group identity and thus also xenophobia and anti-other sentiment. One of the most important loci of skepticism is of communities, given our psychological prediliction for membership bias and suggestibility in group settings.

    “The majority of postmodern philosophers simply presume atheism rather than defend it.

    I hope this not mysterious to you. Theism is the mother of all metanarratives, and so completely exploded by modern philosophy, science, reason, that there is nothing left to hang onto but pure sentiment, as detailed by William James and countless others. Atheism is assumed because there is simply nothing else to do. Indeed, the whole discussion we are having- the god debate as it were, is trivial in strictly philosophical terms.

    “Communicate authentically and relationally, genuinely living out the truth. Though not perfect, Christians should be real about their struggles. They can also show how their worldview-with Christ's power and a supportive community – can help them grapple with these issues.”

    Christ's “power” and “truth” don't belong in the same topic, sorry. Oxymoron. As mentioned above, modernism had already killed off god, and postmodernism is not bringing her back- far, far from. Pretensions to sophistication through postmodern citations and the like can not hide the ultimate regressiveness and atavism of the project.


  2. Darrell says:

    Wow…not only do you not understand postmodernism, I don't think you even understand modernity.

    “As mentioned above, modernism had already killed off god, and postmodernism is not bringing her back- far, far from.”

    Talk about “teen-age” responses…


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