After narrating our philosophical history and showing how we arrived here, Caputo brings us up to our current time. Regardless what one thinks of his reading of that history, in its general outline, in its general emphasis, in its general understanding, it is a fairly accepted reading and understanding by many philosophers and historians. The bottom line is that we cannot understand what is postmodern until we understand modernity—the modern. And one cannot understand the modern without understanding Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Additionally, each was working within a western cultural milieu entirely encompassed by the Christian narrative, thus each was also working out of theological moves that had been made before them, which also impacted their philosophy. One cannot understand the modern unless they understand the theological moves made, which opened up that very space, created it in fact. Caputo doesn’t address that area specifically in this book, but it is also an important aspect to understanding postmodernity.
My point is simply that many dismiss the postmodern because they take the “modern” for granted; it is assumed to the point of disappearing and it operates completely under the radar. Remember, many a womanizer is completely unaware he is such—he doesn’t “see” it! As to modernity, many are blind to its completely contingent and constructed nature. It is a social construct; a way of “seeing” and interpreting and is no more a necessary given or “factual” than any other social construct. It was never (like all narratives) an exact and direct, one-to-one correspondence, without remainder, understanding of the physical world and existence. And the way most social constructs are eventually seen as hollow, as imagined, as hanging in mid-air, and unmasked, is for there to be some cultural trauma or catastrophe. Caputo:
“In the twentieth century the wheels came off the bus of the Enlightenment. In a century that was witness to a series of genocides perpetrated by both the political left and the right—totalitarian politics keeps unnerving company with theories of Absolute Truth—and the lethal brinkmanship of the nuclear arms race, no one was in the mood to hear that history is the unfolding of Truth, of God’s life in space and time, or that things are guided by the rule of Pure Reason. That can’t be right. Anyone who has ever ventured past the front door knows that life is obviously a lot riskier than that, that there’s a lot more in play, and hence what we call truth is a more elusive thing.”
Caputo notes that the events of the twentieth century sent philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic back to the drawing boards. The shock of both world wars and the ensuing years caused every serious intellectual and the more reflective to reconsider everything. Not only was god dead, but reason and science were too. Science and technology not only gave us telephones and radios, but also atom bombs and efficient gas chambers. This was “progress”? What did “progress” even mean now? What is “progress” after the Holocaust? Now what? And it wasn’t churches or the supposed “superstitious” who were in charge during the carnage of the last century. It was the secular state, where “reason” had supposedly replaced silly beliefs and marched to a neutral scientific drummer. Well, so much for that. It didn’t take too many photographs of bodies stacked like cord wood or reduced to ash to unmask and reveal the Enlightenment as a failed myth. Thus, the postmodern. Here we are, like it or not. Like the maps at malls showing us, “You are here” with the arrow, Caputo has just done the same for us, philosophically and historically.
But is the postmodern the rejection of truth?
“Hereafter philosophers were a lot less likely to think of reality in terms of smoothly running trains on tracks [Kant], or the unfolding of a deeply lodged Truth, be it God’s or Reason’s rule [Hegel]. They became more attuned to the irregular than the to the rule, to the discontinuous rather than the linear, the hybrid instead of the pure, the singular rather than the universal, the marginal over the mainstream, the shadings and the mixtures instead of the clear and distinct, and a lot more willing to concede that things can, and do, go wrong all the time. This did not mean jettisoning the idea of truth, by any means. It meant complicating it, redescribing it in less wistful and idealizing terms, with a sharp appreciation for the twists and turns truth can take, and presenting it in ways that were often ironic, parodic and iconoclastic.”
And what, again, did this mean for the Enlightenment?
“The time had come to thank the old Enlightenment for its services, present it with a gold watch as a token of our gratitude, and bring in new blood. The tidy axioms of the Enlightenment had come unraveled, even as the axiom that God is truth had become confined to sermons. The time had come to look for an alternative to God and Pure Reason.”
One way at looking at the postmodern is as a weariness, a tiredness, with both Religion and Reason, or perhaps we should say “scientism” rather than reason (lest people misunderstand the common use of reason as opposed to Reason elevated to a universal metaphysical principle). We might say the postmodern is the child of two parents (Religion and Reason/scientism) who were constantly arguing and fighting over who was the more important and who was right about everything, and were always trying to get the child to take sides. Finally, the child threw up his/her hands and said, “I love you both, I will not choose, and I can’t live like this anymore, this is destructive—I have to leave.” The postmodern is a runaway then. The postmodern is a searching; it’s a journey, because home is now mostly twisted wreckage and certainly no longer home. Both religion and science/reason turned out to be abusive parents. So what is the alternative?
“The time had come to look for an alternative to God and Pure Reason. That alternative, as I proposed earlier, and with I am calling the postmodern view of truth, turns on the idea of the event. Events are disconcerting, but they do not spell pure chaos. The event allows for reinvention while the forces lined up against it aim at preventing the event. The event is what we are referring to every time we protest against being done in by a rule—‘but this time it is different’. The difference, the idiosyncrasy, the unprogammability, is the event. What is singular is not irrational; it requires discernment, not simply the application of a rule. A computer can apply a rule, but it takes judgment to decide what is demanded by the singularity of a situation.”
Something I think rather genius in Caputo’s approach here is that it privileges neither religion nor reason or science. This approach also denigrates neither. It makes both bend to the question at hand, in context, using judgment, wisdom, and recognizing a certain risk, in that we don’t know everything and our perspectives are limited. Regardless of where one is philosophically, other than both the secular and religious fundamentalist, who would object to this? But what about this “event” business. How should we think about this or envision what Caputo is getting at here? He notes:
“If the event is the core of the postmodern view of truth, as I have said, it needs to be fleshed out in more concrete terms to show how it is at work in everything from ethics to physics. From this larger story I will single out three highlights, in which I will try to distil the postmodern way.”
He then goes on to describe those three highlights. The first move will go under the title “hermeneutics”, which is the art and science of interpretation. This move was made by both French and German philosophers, with the most significant being Martin Heidegger. The second move is the idea of ‘language games’ given us by Ludwig Wittgenstein and the third is the notion of ‘paradigm shifts’ developed by Thomas Kuhn. Caputo believes these three areas or highlights encapsulate and give us a way to understand what is being said regarding the “postmodern way”, what it means, and how we should think about it. With our next post, we will turn to those influences and highlights.