Below is the full talk. I've marked the part where the new material picks up. I put in a sports analogy (from Stanley Fish) to make it more accessible.
"Realism and the Reality Based Community: A Retrospective Look at Postmodernism"
The ideas behind postmodernism have been lurking in western philosophy since the beginning, and were advocated in the last couple centuries by big name philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger. But I am more interested in the history of the idea as a buzzword and battleground in the US culture wars. So my focus is going to be on the growth and reception of these ideas in starting in the post WWII era, a time when American universities grew rapidly in size and prestige because of the GI bill and the reaction to Sputnik.
The ideas I am introducing here were a part of a skeptical reaction to the European Enlightenment and the revolution in modern science. The Enlightenment (for simplicity's sake, lets take it as running from 1600 to 1800) was generally perceived as a time of great advance in human knowledge, especially scientific knowledge. Not coincidentally, it also saw the rise of capitalism and the political en economic domination of Europe over the rest of the world. Enlightenment philosophers were concerned with systematizing and legitimizing the advances in science and technology that they saw, but many were also concerned with explaining and justifying the social order that was emerging including the power of European governments and the mechanisms of capital. All these efforts involved making assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the nature of meaning, which later thinkers would come to reject.
Since the beginning, the Enlightenment had skeptics, but prior to the postmodern era I am concerned with, such skepticism had always been associated with conservative and right wing politics. Skeptics of the Enlightenment were openly fascist, like Heidegger, quasi fascists like Nietzsche, or at least reactionary defenders of monarchy like Edmund Burke. The association between skepticism and conservatism is natural. If you doubt the human ability to know reality, than simply sticking with tried and true institutions like the church or the kingdom is the safest bet. Champions of the Enlightenment were people like John Stuart Mill, working to promote democracy, freedom of speech, and the rights of women.
Somehow, in the second half of the 20th century in America, these images became reversed. As the United States came to dominate the world politically, and American universities came to be the centers of production for knowledge worldwide, it became fashionable for defenders of oppressed people to be skeptical of the knowledge claims of the enlightenment and to challenge the assumptions about knowledge and meaning that underpinned those claims. I’ve been charged to talk about “postmodernism”, but really the movement went under a large number of names, including “relativism,” “constructivism,” “social constructivism,” “post-structuralism” and “post colonial thought.”
All these isms shared certain skeptical claims about meaning and knowledge. Knowledge was always in some way relativized to culture, so that it was possible to talk about many “equally valid ways of knowing” of which enlightenment science was only one. For some parts of science, this can be straightforward enough. For instance, contemporary biologists say that the cassowary (an ostrich-like creature) is a bird, albeit one that cannot fly. The Karam people of New Guinea, who live alongside the cassowary, say that the cassowary does not belong in the same category as the birds (which they call yakt) but bats do belong to that category. So who’s to say that the biologists are right and the Karam are wrong? Well it is easy enough to say that this is true for things like naming systems, but harder to generalize to things like thermodynamics. Nevertheless that is just what relativists about scientific knowledge tried to do.
Claims to knowledge were also always in some way “constructed” or “socially constructed” in the postmodernist movements. This meant that they had less to do with grasping the way the world actually works and more to do with creating social structures that advanced the interests of the people who claimed to have knowledge. The science of thermodynamics was not really a description of the properties of heat. It was about convincing people to buy steam engines and arranging society so that they would be happy when they bought one. The idea of the social construction of knowledge caught on, in part because it gave scholars an easy way to quickly generate work that would be published. You simply pick an idea that everyone takes for granted, say, gravity, discuss the history of the idea in a way that emphasizes political interests, and title your book The Social Construction of Gravity.
New Material Begins Here
If the idea that gravity is a social construct seems wildly implausible, consider an analogy to baseball, proposed by Stanley Fish in a New York Times article from May 21st 1996. Balls and strikes are real features of the world. Nevertheless, they only exist because they are instituted by human beings, who decide what counts as a ball and a strike. Importantly for Fish, “established facts” play a role in the creation of the rules of baseball. The laws of gravity make it impossible to put the pitcher’s mound five miles from home plate. Nevertheless, we say that things in a baseball game like balls and strikes are human products. Fish believes that science works the same way, while already established facts may constrain our theorizing, we ultimately decide what goes into our theories based on what suites our practical needs.
All this leads to another famous baseball analogy, the analogy of the three umpires, also attributed to Fish. The pre modern umpire says “I call them as they are.” This umpire is the medieval theologian speaking with the authority of the church. The modern umpire, the umpire of the scientific revolution, is an empiricist, he says “I call them as I see them.” The postmodern umpire, he claims more authority than either of the earlier two. He says “They ain’t nothin’ until I call them.”
Skeptical claims about meaning were just as important to the postmodernist movement as skeptical claims about knowledge, but I don’t have time to explicate them here. Basically what happened though is that postmodern thinkers exploited the slippery and ambiguous nature of human language to make it seem as though words could mean anything the interpreter wanted them to mean. Thus the art of “deconstruction” caught on at American universities. Someone skilled in the lingo could make any text say the opposite of what you thought it said, and doing that to a work was an easy way to get something published. Books called Deconstructing X become as popular as books called The Social Construction of Y. Tied to this movement was a kind of creeping textism. In the preferred language of the postmodernist, books, poems newspapers, etc., were all “texts” to be interpreted. Soon, though, lots of other things came to be texts, like pictures, TV shows, human beings. The net result was that everything seemed to be a text, and texts themselves didn’t seem to mean anything.
I am really describing the most extreme views here, and I am simplifying the ideas of individual thinkers quite a bit, but when you look the overall effect of the movement on academic thinking, this is basically what you saw: a proliferation of books that were skeptical of established thinking on grounds that were designed to make one skeptical of all thinking in general. And this caught on throughout the all humanities and social sciences, except interestingly philosophy itself. As the philosopher Ian Hacking points out, relativist and social constructivist ideas caught on because they were liberating. The existing social order is often presented as a god-given, unalterable fact. “Men work and women raise babies” has been presented as both a social norm and a biological fact. If motherhood is a social construct, it is at least thinkable that we can change things.
There is serious danger in postmodern thinking, though. Postmodernism can devolve into genuine voluntarism about reality, and you can see this in the careers of the two most postmodern leaders in the last hundred years, Mao Zedong and George W. Bush. I first saw the word “volunturism” used in this sense reading histories of the Mao era in China. Mao basically believed that if he could mobilize enough of the peasants’ political power, he could transcend the laws of biology and physics. This came out in his crazy mega engineering projects, like his dam building efforts. Engineers and hydrologists told Mao that he couldn’t effectively damn the Yellow River. The same crud that makes the river yellow will quickly silt up any dam and make it useless for power generation and flood control. Mao’s response to this was to send the engineers and hydrologists to reeducation camps, most notably Huang Wanli, and build the dam anyway. It was the first of hundred of dams to go up across China with no scientific planning. Mao simply commanded the peasants to fill rivers with rocks, and believed that their revolutionary fervor would make the project work. Needless to say, these dams never did work.
There was a famous incident written described by Ron Suskind in the New York Times in which a staffer for our current president exhibited a similar voluntarism about reality.
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
I think history has now shown that Bush’s attempt to control reality was as successful as Mao’s
“Voluntarism about reality” seems like a great term to describe this megalomaniacal worldview. To my knowledge, no one in philosophy uses the word “voluntarism” in this sense. Ian Hacking once labeled as similar view “linguistic idealism” and said the only person who actually believed it was Richard Nixon, but “linguistic idealism” doesn’t actually capture the disdain for real language embodied by irrationalists like Mao. For the most part, no one in philosophy or the postmodern movement has thought about voluntarism about reality because no one can imagine having the kind of power that makes the idea seem plausible. College professors can be full of themselves, but we also all see the limits of our power whenever we leave the classroom.
I see the extreme versions of postmodernism on the decline, in part because of the political implications of the view and in part because the extreme versions of the view are just untenable. Postmodern philosophies are being replaced by pragmatic philosophies, which resemble the postmodern views, but make enough allowances for reality that we can go back to the business of getting things done. In this sense, you see progressive thinking returning, actually to its Enlightenment roots. The Enlightenment began, after all, with skepticism about the received religious ideas of the medieval era, but it added to that skepticism and attempt to rebuild our belief systems in a way that would actually be more liberating and useful for people.
There are a lot of examples of this retreat from postmodernism, but in the minutes remaining I can only focus on one, and that is the retreat from the “science wars” of the 1990s. The social construction of science was an important part of the postmodern movement. Although the bulk of the movement was absorbed with deconstruction of literary texts and ideas of meaning skepticism, it was the skepticism about science that really stuck in the craw of philosophers. Thus began the Science Wars of the 90s. A group of sociologists, including Andrew Pickering, David Bloor, Bruno Latour, and Steve Fuller. Although there were differences amongst their approaches, they all basically sought to explain the acceptance of scientific theories using only facts about sociology, and not the physical world the scientists were studying. To make the story short, they failed. Pickering was the first and most prominent defection. He was trained as a physicist, and ultimately he realized that he couldn’t prove what he set out to prove. Bloor and Latour have not done such a public turn around, but they have managed to back away from the extreme claims. Bloor basically got out of the science studies business to work on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, thus avoiding the issues that caused trouble. Latour is an odd case, because although his rhetoric was often the most bombastic, when you pay attention to what he is saying, you see that he was a moderate who acknowledged that the physical world plays a role in the development of scientific theories all along. (A lot of the misunderstanding of his views comes I think from the different role intellectuals play in France, where Latour has spent most of his career.) I any case, Latour has expressed regret that his ideas about science have been used to promote skepticism about global warming , thus illustrating the political dimension of the retreat from postmodernism. Steve Fuller also illustrates the political dimension of the issue, but in a different fashion. Rather than retreat from his skepticism about knowledge, he has gone to work for people who profit from skepticism about science. He has written articles and testified in court on behalf of the Discovery Institute, a political group which promotes creationism and intelligent design and in general attempts to insert dogmatic Christianity into science. Fuller’s work with the Discovery Institute has been condemned by many sociologists working in science studies.
So what next after postmodernism? No one wants to be a post-postmodernist. Typically constructivist views of knowledge get contrasted with “realist” views of knowledge, but I think that too many legitimate concerns have been raised about realist views of knowledge to return to that old viewpoint. A common move by postmodernists wanting to moderate their excess has been to embrace pragmatism, a philosophy that flourished in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that shares many ideas with postmodernism, but has always been perceived as pro science. The late philosopher Richard Rorty started calling himself a pragmatist in the later half of his career. But Rorty never abandoned his fundamental skepticism about reality, including his belief that the English language would be better off without the word “real.” This lead Simon Blackburn to note in Slate Magazine that Rorty never learned the fundamental lessons of American pragmatists, that reality has its uses. If you want to have a practical working philosophy, you have to have the concept “real” in your vocabulary.
I suggest that in the aftermath of postmodernism we embrace the name used by the Bush staffer to describe writers like Ron Suskind, “reality based community,” There are three things I like about the name “reality based community”: the word “reality”, the word “community”, and the word “based”. I think it manages to capture much of what was true about social constructivism, while still allowing us to make the sort of scientific truth claims that we need to actually go about improving people’s lives. The word “reality” lets us admit that there is more to the world than our representations of it. In fact, the world will always outstrip and outwit our representations of it, foiling our plans to build dams and invade oil rich nations. I’d say something about the part of reality that runs past our representations, but reality would just slip beyond that, too. The word “community” allows us to acknowledge some of the facts that the social constructivists reminded us of. We don’t just meet up with reality as a prepackaged comprehensible unit. We encounter it as a group and carry with us all the baggage of that group. The word “based” is also important--it is not just an empty connective. When we attempt to develop knowledge as a community, we can’t dwell in our own baggage. We must be open to the ways reality can surprise us. We have to base what we are doing on the signals from outside. We have to call them as we see them.