A Small Sample from Essays on Illogic and Unreason
on The Thinking Man's CDROM
(* Essays used here by permission of the authors *)
Postmodernism and New Age Unreason
by George Englebretsen
(Department of Philosophy, Bishop's University, Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada)
In Book Gamma of Metaphysics, Aristotle considers the possibility that one might deny the universal logical constraints on rational discourse. In particular, he is concerned with those who might deny the law of noncontradiction ("A statement and its negation cannot both be true at the same time"). His conclusion is that such a speaker could not be counted on to say what he or she means (or mean what is said). And his advice to us is not to attempt conversation with such people.
Postmodern thinkers claim to have broken the fetters of logic (inter alia) that have characterized the modern notion of rational discourse. The result, it is claimed, is a new freedom of communication. Rationally, in the sense of allegiance to universal logical constraints, is no longer the only, or even major, "communicative virtue." Social, psychological, political, historical considerations must all take precedence over logic. Judging the rational success of a piece of discourse (or "text") is now a matter to be dealt with by social scientists and literary critics rather than by logicians (the ones in whom moderns and premoderns had invested the task of defining rationality). Freed from the confines of logic, discourse can now become open, honest, sincere, politically sensitive, historically conditioned. Premoderns and moderns based their willingness to accept or reject a speaker's claim on their judgment of how well it seemed to fit the facts of the case and to what extent it was logically consistent with the speaker's other claims or assumptions. By contrast, postmoderns "play the believing game," accepting the speaker's claim according to the degree of sincerity the speaker exhibits. Truth and coherence are no longer allowed to bully us in our communicative efforts. Expertise and authority are no longer the possession of only an elite few. We all share expertise and authority equally. Communication, finally, is democratic. The premodern and modern informed and rational despots have been overthrown. We are all informed; we are all rational.
As a consequence of this newfound communicative democracy, none of us is in a privileged position relative to another when it comes to imparting knowledge and understanding. Anyone can teach anything to anyone else. Thus, no sin is greater in these postmodern times than the sin of "sub-dialogic discourse," i.e., monologue (lecturing, instructing, etc.) or null discourse (silence, closing conversation). As that guru of American postmodernism, Richard Rorty, has said, our only task is to "keep the conversation going." Aristotle's refusal even to converse with those who would reject the constraints of logic might well be considered now as Adam's Fall with respect to the "ethics of conversation."
So there is no truth. Or, to be fair, there is no Truth.
There are lots of little truths, all of which are relative to the social, psychological, historical, political, etc., contexts of their utterances. Consequently, there can be no disagreement. A says "X" while B says "Not X." But by postmodern lights they do not contradict one another. (Indeed, today Whitman could not even contradict himself!) A says what she says as a woman, or as an oriental, or as an unemployed person, or as a mother, and so on and so on. B says what he says as a male, or as an Hispanic, or as an artist, and so on and so on. One man's (or woman's) "X" is another's "Not X," depending on who ( = where, when, what gender, race, age, etc.) they are.
A new age of communicative democracy has now dawned, so the cant goes. And this new age has helped foster the New Age. Now there is a strong temptation to simply ignore nonsense, unreason, irrationality. The rationalist often, and understandably, wants to say that those who live in ignorance deserve the consequences. But the simple fact is that all of us suffer the consequences of willful stupidity. When reason is under attack, as it certainly is today, there are many victims. In particular, science and education are compromised, contorted, denigrated, denied. And when the war against reason is backed by a large cadre of articulate sophists (e.g., the postmodern philosophers and literary critics) the results are even more insidious. Postmoderns conjure a vision of science, viewed as "no more than the handmaiden of technology," according to Rorty, which is virtually evil itself. Science, from this point of view, is to blame for most of today's economic, environmental, and medical ills. Antiscience, pseudoscience, and literature constitute a new trivium. The latter is the "presiding discipline" of postmodern culture. Education, at all levels, is seen as contributing to the advance of this evil science. Moreover, the whole idea of education as it has been practiced since the Enlightenment is rejected on moral grounds. There can be no separation of teacher (master) and student (slave) when there are no universal standards of truth.
Postmoderns are fond of their universal tolerance of all ideas. After all, by postmodern lights all ideas are equal (ie, equally true). My idea that the reason Clinton is having political troubles is because he committed a series of hurtful acts during one of his previous lives and your idea that his troubles are due to a complex array of personal and political factors are on a par with each other. Each deserves the same consideration. Each is to be tolerated. The irony here is that this universal tolerance for ideas (reasonable and unreasonable alike) is coupled with a disturbing intolerance for people. The philosophy that sees only "local" truths rather than universal truths not only repudiates science (the attempt to know the truth), but divides people according to their locality, according to who, where, when, what color, gender, etc., they are. The natural result of such division is an intolerance that, in the long run at least, tends to manifest itself in racism, nationalism, sexism, and the like. When my truth and your truth are different depending on the differences between us, then the differences between us cannot be ignored - they matter too much.
If a new Dark Age is about to descend upon us, as many believe, it will be the result of a variety of factors (just as with the last Dark Age). But surely one important factor will be the kind of thinking advocated by postmoderns and New Agers, the kind of thinking that scorns and abjures reason. If we are to keep away the darkness of ignorance and intolerance, philosophers, scientists, and educators who honor the universal benefits of modern science, liberal education, and rational discourse must cast light on today's advocates of nonsense wherever they are found. For, as Goethe said, humans fear reason, but they ought to fear stupidity - for reason can be hard, but stupidity can be fatal.
Intolerable Level of Doublethink
by Michael James
(Editor of Agenda, the quarterly journal of the Faculty of Economics & Commerce at the Australian National University.)
For a few decades after World War II, intelligent undergraduates read George Orwell's novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty- Four and thus became immunised against the totalitarian thought control exercised by the Nazis and the communists. But since serious novel reading has fallen out of favour among undergraduates, what Orwell called "newspeak" has returned, notoriously, in the form of politically correct language. However, the re-emergence of another feature of totalitarian thought that Orwell identified has received less attention. This is "doublethink" - the ability to subscribe simultaneously to contradictory beliefs.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, some of the ruling party's slogans - War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery - were pure doublethink. Much fashionable moral thinking is equally, if less obviously, characterised by contradiction. Take the dispute about the resignation of Victoria's Director of Public Prosecutions. Bernard Bongiorno, in 1994. The issue, we are told, concerns the "independence" of the judiciary. Yet when male judges make an apparently sexist or otherwise politically incorrect remark, we hear nothing about his independence but much about the need to "re-educate" him.
We are told that Australia is a successful, tolerant, multi- cultural society - but we are also told that racial vilification is so serious in Australia that we need new laws to combat it. We are supposed to be completely unconscious of gender and ethnicity in the way we deal with people, but also hyper- conscious of them in the pursuit of "balance" and "diversity". Support for individual property rights is generally dismissed as part of the ideological baggage of economic rationalism - but not when the intellectual property rights of artists are at stake.
Foreign investment is frowned upon as reducing Australia's sovereignty, yet reducing that sovereignty by adherence to international treaties on the environment, human rights and the labour market is welcomed. Moreover, opposition to foreign investment - an acceptable form of xenophobia - contradicts opposition to racism and support for multiculturalism.
We subscribe to sociological and psychological doctrines that teach us that our behaviour is caused by factors outside our control, so we cannot be held responsible for what we do, but that never stops us looking for people to blame when things go wrong.
But the biggest modern contradiction is that between cultural relativism and political correctness. Modern moral thought is strongly influenced by the doctrine that different moral beliefs are equally valid by reference to the different cultures to which they belong. But modern moral thought is equally dominated by references to absolute and intolerable evils like sexism, racism and elitism, and absolute goods like compassion.
Belief in relativism is often thought to lead to the conclusion that, as no moral belief has absolute validity, we should be "tolerant" of cultural differences. But if it's true that moral values are relative, then tolerance itself must be a relative value with no absolute validity. It's just as logical to argue, as the Nazis did, that as morality has no absolute foundation, there can be no valid barrier to the unrestrained exercise of power: might is right.
How to explain the modern tendency towards doublethink? It seems to serve political cynicism and opportunism, since it means that, whatever your opponents might say, you always have a way of scoring points against them. But many people probably sincerely believe both sides of many contradictions. Although they doubt that moral beliefs have secure foundations, they find it impossible to live without such beliefs. After all, we recognise people who have no moral values as psychopaths.
A common response to modern moral confusion is to blame the decline of religion, which no doubt has weakened the hold of traditional morality. But it is a mistake to think that morality, to be valid, must rest on unquestionable foundations.
Another view of morality sees it as consisting of conventions or rules of conduct that have evolved to make social co-operation possible. Perhaps we cannot prove that the rule of keeping promises is absolutely morally right but we know that if we break it then the benefits we all receive from society are much reduced. This conservative notion of morality is relativist in that it recognises that different conventions suit different societies, but it's also true that most societies share some basic, necessary rules, like truth telling and rights to property.
The trouble is that, for many people, good behaviour is not enough; they want morality to do the job that religion used to do, by teaching them how to save their souls. Nowadays, we are encouraged to judge people's moral credentials in terms of how "concerned" and "caring" they are rather than whether they can be relied on to fulfil their humble duties. But professions of contempt for "mere" rules and conventions, and sentimental emphasis on good intentions and motives rather than actual conduct and outcomes, can mask a lot of moral vanity and fecklessness.
Doublethink in public debate is a reflection of the moral confusions and doubts that afflict modern Western society. Exposing it is the first step towards bringing people back into contact with their own true values.
The widespread support for tolerance - as an absolute, not relative, value - suggests that we are, after all, creatures of Western civilisation which, unlike any other civilisation, offers a secure place for people who don't spring from it. But if tolerance is to have any value, there must be limits to it, otherwise it becomes mere nihilism, the absence of any values.
Trying to agree where those limits should be set could be more productive than lurching, as we do now, from indiscriminate tolerance to intolerant, paranoid political correctness, getting nowhere.