Thursday, March 15, 2007

What is Postmodernism?

Since Postmodernism is an emerging topic here at The Barefoot Bum, I thought I would contribute a definition of 'postmodern' from the The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1995):
Postmodern philosophy is therefore usefully regarded as a complex cluster concept that includes the following elements: an anti-(or post-) epistemological standpoint; anti-essentialism; antirealism; anti-foundationalism; opposition to transcendental arguments and transcendental standpoints; rejection of the picture of knowledge as accurate representation; rejection of truth as correspondence to reality; rejection of the very idea of canonical descriptions; rejection of final vocabularies, i.e., rejection of principles, distinctions, and categories that are thought to be unconditionally binding for all times, persons, and places; and a suspicion of metanarratives of the sort perhaps best illustrated by dialectical materialism... one often finds the following themes: a critique of the neutrality and sovereignty of reason -- included insistence on its pervasively gendered, historical, and ethnocentric character; a conception of the social construction of word-world mappings; a tendency to embrace historicism; a critique of any ultimate contrast between epistemology and sociology of knowledge; dissolution of an autonomous subject; insistence on the merely historical status of divisions of labor in knowledge acquisition and production; an ambivalence about the Enlightenment and its ideology.
To be sure, this is a very large, technical rubric for what might be considered 'postmodern'. Many different thinkers might be thought to march under the banner of postmodernism: Dewey, Kuhn, Wittgenstein, Sellars, Davidson, Quine, Heidegger, Saussure, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and Nussbaum. Thus, under this definition, one can be postmodern in some ways, but not in others. I, for example, am skeptical with Quine about foundationalism as an adequate account of how we can be justified in our beliefs, but I am not in the least ambivalent about Reason or the Enlightenment.

While there are many philosophical strands that might be considered "postmodern", we can reasonably ask what the heart of postmodernism is -- what makes a thinker a true-blue, full-blooded postmodernist? I understand postmodernism to be primarily a critical reaction to Enlightenment values, and its esteem for Reason as an impartial judge of facts. Postmodernists reject the optimistic view that the development of science and the cultivation of Reason improves human life, and rejects the notion of sustained progress towards an objective truth about the world through rational and scientific thinking.

This is a fine opportunity to begin a short series here at The Barefoot Bum on various postmodernist thinkers. I will try to give a fair and accurate overview of what I take to be their most important postmodern views -- perhaps you, dear reader, can make sense of the whirlwind of thought dubbed 'postmodernism'.

[Timmo is the proprietor of The Remarks of a Fish. This essay is original to The Barefoot Bum. --ed.]


  1. I don't think one can talk about postmodernism without mentioning one of its most significant aspects: what I call radical materialism.

    Deleuze (sometimes called a neomaterialist) comes to mind (perhaps Hume was the 'first' postmodernist) and of course Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature).

  2. Phil,

    It would help if you could explain what you mean by "radical materialism". It is important you are clear about this since David Hume was not a materialist in any traditional sense (he was a phenomenalist), and Richard Rorty would object to being classified as a "materialist". In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, he contends that categories like "mind" and "matter" are a confused product of what he calls the mirror of nature. Because Rorty seeks to shatter the mirror of nature, he would not happily accept the title "materialist". So, it would help if you explained radical materialism and how it differs from the views that Hume and Rorty famously reject.

  3. I'm going for popcorn: This should be interesting!

  4. Rorty's Antipodeans ("Ooh! Stimulated C-fibers!" - they feel exactly what we feel when we say "Pain!") and his 'Brains are hardware, Culture is the software' sounds like 'materialism' to me. And in Kevin Hart's Postmodernism he notes: [Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, a book that discusses desiring machines and genes, evoke "becoming animal" and "the body without organs" - The book points us beyond humanism] are radical empiricists, true heirs of [...] David Hume.

    Quine wrote that protons and electrons were merely "cultural posits" but I would still call him a 'materialist'.

    (Matter and Nature are the same thing, so one could say 'naturalist' and mean the same thing.)

  5. Phil,

    Again, I ask that you describe in clear the main thesis of radical materialism. Unless you are explicit in this way, it will be largely impossible to evaluate your contention that radical materialism is a key element in postmodern thought.

    For reasons I have already adduced, I suspect that no definition which is faithful to typical understandings of materialism will be a view which Rorty, Quine, or Hume would accept. Materialism, (or physicalism, as it is called these days) is traditionally understood to be the view that whatever exists or occurs is ultimately constituted out of physical entities. (This sometimes takes the stronger form that everything that exists or occurs can be described in the language of physics.) The cornerstone of materialism, then, is the contention that the world really is, at bottom, comprised only of physical objects, independently of our conception of them.

    In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty tries to deflate the choice between physicalism and non-physicalism. He thinks this choice lays on the confusion that there really exists anything independently of our conception of them. Thus, it makes no sense to ask whether the things really out there or physical or not! This is why he means to throw away the mirror of nature -- the images in mirrors are reflections of objects totally external to them. But, according to Rorty, the things in the world are not independent of our notions of them in the way that objects are independent of their reflections in mirrors. In a sense, the question of physicalism does not arise; it is not a legitimate question.

    Quine has similar things to say. Quine is an ontological relativist. According to Quine,

    He does, as you say, refer to physical objects in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" as cultural posits. What this means, however, is that our idea of physical objects is useful for systematizing and navigating the world we experience. However, in other writings, he acknowledges that there may be other conceptual/ontological schemes which are just as effective (such as a phenomenalist one). Quine does not think that there really are physical objects in the way required by physicalism: it is just useful to speak that way. Other conceptual schemes which are just as useful are just as correct. So, again, there is no dispute about what the world is made of.
    Lastly, despite the fact that Hume is an empiricist, he is not a physicalist. For Hume, the objects of experience -- the only things we can know about or form concepts of -- are the private sense-data of our minds. These are not physical objects; they are sensations.

  6. As I read Rorty, there is no distinction between "brain processes" and "mind processes" - they are just the same thing. Psychology (and phenomenal experience) is just nerve firings.

    If one doesn't call that 'materialism' what is a better word for it?

    Perhaps a better way to express 'radical materialism' is this way: it is materialism without confusing its 'objects' or models (whether nerves or electrons or quarks or ...) with material reality itself.

  7. Phil,

    Unfortunately, Rorty is not a clear writer (or, it often seems, a clear thinker). It sounds like you are reading Rorty to be a reductive materialist, but Rorty, to my recollection, nowhere describes himself in this fashion. It (reductive materialism) would be, according to him, just another symptom of the analytic philosopher's obsession with the mirror of nature.

    Perhaps a better way to express 'radical materialism' is this way: it is materialism without confusing its 'objects' or models (whether nerves or electrons or quarks or ...) with material reality itself.

    I do not understand what this means. To be sure, there is a distinction between natural phenomena and explanatory models we construct about them. But, this is an obvious distinction that everyone would draw. So, again, I ask, would you offer a clear statement of radical materialism?

  8. I think I would call Rorty an eliminative, not a reductive, materialist. So he would be a nonreductive materialist, like Quine.

    In any case, the material is just what is left when the mythical (science, culture, religion, etc.) is removed.

  9. I think I would call Rorty an eliminative, not a reductive, materialist. So he would be a nonreductive materialist, like Quine.

    This is not the way this terminology is used. Eliminative materialism, the view espoused by Patricia and Paul Churchland, denies that there exist mental phenomena at all. Rorty definitely does not have this view.

    Non-reductive materialism, on the other hand, is the view that every substance is wholly made up of physical particles, however mental capacities and properties emerge from, and do not reduce to, physical capacities and properties. Donald Davidson espouses a view like this (and I happen to find non-reductive materialism highly attractive).

    Quine is not a non-reductive materialist: he's behaviorist (there is nothing psychological to explain over and above behavior).

    In any case, the material is just what is left when the mythical (science, culture, religion, etc.) is removed.

    What is the "mythical"? And what is left when it is "removed"? This is the kind of clarity I'm asking for. (If the mythical includes things like physical objects, then, at the end of the day, you are not a materialist.)

  10. Ah, this is why philosophy is so much fun.

    I could very easily be wrong, but I'm not sure that there's any difference of actual opinion between you two, merely a difference of how you use terminology. That's the trouble sometimes with referencing existing philosophy: Everyone knows what other philosophers say, but it's often difficult to agree on what they mean.

  11. Non-reductive materialism... [entails that] mental capacities and properties emerge from, and do not reduce to, physical capacities and properties.

    That smells like a distinction without a difference. Searle seems to make such a distinction in The Rediscovery of the Mind, but I'm not at all convinced by his argument.

  12. Larry,

    The main issue is whether or not Phil's "radical materialism" is somehow important to postmodernism. However, Phil has not yet stated just what this is. I have been conforming to established, standard philosophical terminology which can be found in various philosophical dictionaries or other sources. I do this in order to make myself understood. (I am happy to explain the terminology in case someone does not happen to know it, or finds my use of it peculiar.)

    The distinction between reductive and non-reductive materialism is really important to mapping out the intellectual landscape when it comes to the mind.

    Reductive materalists hold that every psychological property, event, or process is identical to some conjunction of physical properties, events, or processes. So, a reductive materialist will want to assert that pain just is C-fiber stimulation, completely identifying them.

    On the other hand, non-reductive materialists reject that we can simply identify mental properties with physical properties. Instead, they are thought to emerge from them. A property P of a complex physical system S is emergent just in case: (1) property P is not identical with any property Q had by any parts of system S; and (2) system S does not have property P simply in virtue of the fact property P is the result of a "sum" of properties had by parts of system S. Someone who thinks there are such properties sees the world as comprised of layers, or levels, of objects based on increasingly complexity. As one moves up through the levels, the new, emergent properties are novel in the sense they are not identical with any properties had by things at a lower level. (So, yes, Searle is a non-reductive materialist.) Admittedly, emergence is a slippery notion.

    But, this does not mean there are no key differences between reductive and non-reductive materialists. They disagree about whether mental states are multiply realizable. We can imagine meeting an alien whose constitution was completely different from our own. A reductive materialist would assert that because the alien has a totally different biochemistry from us, it could not experience pain (remember: pain is C-fiber stimulation). A non-reductive materialist could hold that the alien could have pain, since the property of being in pain is not identical with a specific set of physical properties, but instead emerges from them.

    So, it is a distinction with a difference -- but that does not mean the difference is easy to understand!

  13. Timmo,

    This is where I think you (and a lot of the other philosophers of consciousness) go wrong:

    So, a reductive materialist will want to assert that pain just is C-fiber stimulation, completely identifying them.

    C-fibers (and I assume you mean sensory neurons; my biology is not strong) are the wrong place to look for any sort of materialist account of pain, just as the rock is the wrong place to look for a materialist account of water waves.

    I suspect Searle mistakes science's idealistic reduction of looking at the objective causes of experience for a necessary component of ontological reductionism in general. I think such necessity is insupportable.

    If we want to understand the experience of pain, it's not going to do any good to reduce pain to sensory neurons--or even hot stoves--we must, rather, reduce it to properties of the brain itself: How does the brain as a physical entity characteristically respond to different kinds of sensory neurons?

    It seems pretty obvious that "pain" is an abstraction that's going to supervene, not just on the external causes of pain, but more directly on the particular characteristics of how the brain physically responds to those causes.

  14. Larry,

    C-fiber stimulation (in the somatosensory cortex, I believe) is the response of the brain to certain stimuli, namely the ones we consider painful. The issues here get really complex because cognitive science and neuroscience describe the brain, brain processes, and mental processes in complex ways. I tread lightly here because my scientific training is not in either one of those disciplines.

    I do not think it is at all obvious that pain supervenes on brain processes. Indeed, this is what is at issue between reductive and non-reductive materialists. A reductive materialist does not think mental properties supervene on the brain; a non-reductive materialist does.

    To reiterate: a reductive materialist sees the relation between mental properties and physical objects as being one of identity with one of its physical properties, while the non-reductive materialist sees the relationship between mental properties and physical objects as being one of supervenience.

  15. I don't know: If some abstraction directly supervenes on some physical entity, then one has still ontologically reduced the abstraction to the physical property--and that abstraction can carry over to different physical properties precisely to the extent that one eliminatively reduces irrelevant details of the physical entities out of the account.

    In just the same sense, the reduction of waves of water to water molecules eliminates many of the chemical and quantum mechanical properties of the actual water molecules, making waves in water in some sense the same thing as waves in gasoline, or computing pi by a brain or a computer still in a sense the same thing.

  16. Larry,

    Permit me to insist.

    A property P reduces to property Q if the properties are identical P = Q. Reductive materialism is the view that for every property P and any object x, if x is P, then there exists a property Q such that Q is a physical property and P = Q. That is the understanding of reduction that champions of reductive materialism, like J.J.C. Smart, advance.

    A property P supervenes on a set of properties Q1, ... , Qn if and only if for every object x, x is P if and only if x has the properties Q1, ... , Qn. The idea is that a property P supervenes on a set of properties if and only if there can be no changes in that set of properties without there being a change in P. Mental events are thought to supervene in the sense that two things cannot be alike in all physical respects, but different in some mental respect. That is, a physical duplicate of me is also at the same time a duplicate of me simpliciter.

    My main point is that supervenience is a weaker relation that reduction.

  17. To get back to radical materialism and postmodernism, I hope I did a better connection here.

    (which also points to the contrast between reductive and eliminative materialism, which had its origins in postmodern thought)

  18. Timmo

    Can you give me an example from something well-understood (i.e. specifically not from the philosophy of mind) of the difference between identity reduction and supervenience?

  19. Phil,

    Thanks for putting a post up. I do like your blogs, and it is good to see someone interested in formal logic (so keep writing about it!) I made some comments there in case you what to elaborate further.


    Sure. The definitions that I offered might seem somewhat opaque given the form I gave them. I'll try to give some examples. I will be stealing them from here.

    Remember: a property P supervenes on some set of properties whenever there can be no change in that set without there being some change in P. The acceleration of a particle supervenes on its velocity, since there can be no change in acceleration without there being some corresponding change in the velocity of the particle. Acceleration supervenes on velocity, but it is not identical to it.

    The concept of a wave does not supervene -- it reduces directly to the relational properties of the objects which are waving. A wave just is a set of spatial relations of a certain kind (namely, ones that satisfy what is called the wave equation).

    Do those examples help?

  20. If one has mind things M and brain things B then one can talk about supervenience, identity or even emergence, but one still has M and B as existing things.

    But for the eliminative materialist, M are fictional or folk-lore things, so in sense B exists but M doesn't.

  21. Phil,

    What about abstract entities or properties? The Earth is (roughly) spherical? But there's no sphericalness that one can look at independently of something that is spherical. Should we consider the property of being spherical to be fictional or folk-loreish?

  22. I'm extremely resistant to defining anything in terms of the philosophy and science of something as poorly understood as minds and consciousness.

  23. Should we consider the property of being spherical to be fictional or folk-loreish?

    I do. Like many (many?) radical materialists, I am a naturally a nominalist.

  24. Larry,

    Perhaps you'll laugh, but I'm again on a different side of the fence than Phil. A nominalist typically rejects the idea that when we talking about abstract objects like numbers, propositions, or properties that we are talking about an extra-linguistic reality. There is no property of redness over and above red things like apples and ink blots to talk about. I do not know what form of nominalism Phil ascribes to, and I do not mean to put words in his mouth.

    On the other hand, I am a realist about abstract objects. I take our talk about abstract objects at face value: we are talking about language-independent, non-concrete entities. In particular, I am a Meinongian (not a popular thing to be!). So, while abstract objects are objective, language independent entities, I take them to also be
    nonexistent objects

    This thread has spun off some interesting metaphysical discussion, and I hope future posts on postmodernism inspire the same!

  25. Well, I think I can add at least reductionism and supervenience to my ever growing list of philosophical words that mean different things to different philosophers.

    It would probably be easier to maintain the shorter list of words that tend to have a common meaning, but all I have now is "a" and "the"... and I'm sure some clever philosopher is just waiting to pounce on even those.

  26. Timmo,

    Remember: a property P supervenes on some set of properties whenever there can be no change in that set without there being some change in P. The acceleration of a particle supervenes on its velocity, since there can be no change in acceleration without there being some corresponding change in the velocity of the particle. Acceleration supervenes on velocity, but it is not identical to it.

    The concept of a wave does not supervene -- it reduces directly to the relational properties of the objects which are waving. A wave just is a set of spatial relations of a certain kind (namely, ones that satisfy what is called the wave equation).

    Do those examples help?

    Nope. Acceleration isn't anything, it's just a relationship between velocities. Velocity isn't anything, it's just a relationship between positions. And even position isn't anything; there are only relative distances, not positions. And relative distance isn't anything, it's a hypothetical construct to account experimental results.

    So it looks to me like supervenience and reduction has more to do with one's prejudices about the phenomena in question than about any principled relationship.

  27. Nonexistent objects? I tried to kill (at least some of) them off here.

    Like God, they keep coming back.

  28. Larry,

    Neither acceleration nor velocity are relations; they are properties. Acceleration is just the second-time derivative of a particle's position (expressed as a function of time). For that reason, acceleration at any moment in time is just a number. Full stop. Having a certain acceleration (being described by a certain number) is a property of an object, not a relation between velocities.

    Even if you do not like that example, that does not mean that there is no real distinction -- it is just a bad example. If you are interested, you can find more examples here.

    Moreover, one can lay out technical definitions without any examples so long as one employs the canonical notion of formal loic. Here are some technical definitions of supervenience.


    When it comes to the natural world, I am inclined towards non-reductive physicalism (though I do not know if it is really correct). If we understand physicalism to the the view that everything which exists (in Nature) to be physical, then a belief in non-existent objects is compatible with physicalism. While non-existent objects like numbers are not physical objects, they also do not exist!.

  29. numbers are not physical objects

    I would just add (when confronted with this exact question) that what I say is: all numbers are physical objects - otherwise one has sort of mathematical Platonism, which I reject.

    Mycielski's view (mathematical intentionalism), stated in his Meaning of Pure Mathematics paper, is close I think, but in any case, numbers (if not in nature outside the brain) exist in the brain.

  30. is just a bad example.

    It's hard to understand a concept from a bad example. Do you have a better example?

    Moreover, one can lay out technical definitions without any examples...

    Even in mathematics, concepts are often borrowed and redefined; even "addition" has a different meaning in, say, ordinary arithmetic vs. modulo arithmetic.

    I'm not that much interested in mathematics anyway; I can do arithmetic, but I'm an engineer, not a mathematician: I want to know what the mathematics mean in terms of the real world.

  31. Phil,

    Would you call your view a kind of conceptualism, rather than nominalism? The former takes the subject matter of mathematics to be ideas formed in people's minds, where the latter takes it to be somehow linguistic.


    I pointed to some internet sources pertaining to the distinction. Here's a quote lifted from here:

    Not every hurricane or every infectious disease, let alone every devaluation of the currency or every coup d'etat has the same constitutive structure. These states are defined more by what they do than by their composition or structure. Their names are classified as functional terms rather than natural kind terms. It goes with this that such kinds of state are multiply realizable; that is, they may be constituted by different kinds of physical structures under different circumstances. Because of this, unlike in the case of water and H2O, one could not replace these terms by some more basic physical description and still convey the same information. There is no particular description, using the language of physics or chemistry, that would do the work of the word ‘hurricane’, in the way that ‘H2O’ would do the work of ‘water’.

  32. Actually I don't understand what the difference is between 'conceptual' and 'linguistic'. (Does that sound a bit Wittgensteinian?)

    But to get back to the question itself: What is postmodernism? here it is in a nutshell:

    Nietzsche: God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. (The Gay Science, 125)

    Postmodernist: Platonism is dead. Platonism remains dead. And we have killed it.

  33. Timmo,

    I haven't had a chance to look at your examples in-depth. Yesterday was very busy (marathon training in the morning, CPR/First Aid training in the afternoon); today isn't looking good either (housecleaning).

    Hence my response was only addressed at a superficial reading of your comments.

    Regardless, we're really getting down to some of the subtle nubs of philosophy, and we're not going to work everything out in a few comments.

  34. I agree with the nominalism (i.e. opposing platonism, whether in terms of metaphysics, mathematics, or "theology"), yet I question the term "materialism" itself. Is it accurate to refer to electricity as "materialist", or say elecrtomagnetic waves, really (or even terms from traditonal physics---light, kinetic energy, etc)? Is the Rhine River "material"--How about the sun? The term connotes stasis--yet reality is not static........(and wave/particle duality also seems to challenge materialist views)...

    Perhaps trivial, yet terminology often leads to conceptual mistakes. Indeed, some of the Vienna Circle figures refused to offer statements about "absolute" reality, whether metaphysical or scientific: Carnap suggested that even saying "we are empiricists" (materialists, physicalists, idealists, etc) sort of committed one to a pont of view that may not apply in all circumstances: do astronomers investigating solar flares start by saying "we are reductive materialists"? Ich weiss nicht: yes, they agree that their perceptions correspond to the object "out there" (tho' perceptions filtered by human's own cognitive/visual apparatus), and so one might say they uphold empiricism, but I do not think they are necessarily upholding "materialism" in traditional sense.

  35. I object to the categorizing together tendency of some philosophers, postmod or otherwise: Quine does not sit happily with Derrida or the rest on that list (including madking Ludwig W.). Nor would Kuhn be too comfortable.

    A Quinean type of analysis is sorely lacking in blogland. I don't know what Quine's politics were (he may have been a bit too right for some of us), but implementing a synthetic a posteriori "truth criteria", and holding to Quine's more naturalist (and nominalist) suggestions would seem to be in the interests of secularists of all types, in terms of confirming economic or political theories and concepts (and Green issues as well, of course). Some writers hold that Quine denies verificationism (as well as analyticity); but ah hold that Two Dogmas merely expands upon verificationism---empiricism is, per TD, subject to verification across the entire domain of science and research, right. In terms of local politics or economic reforms, that doesn't necessarily mean democracy: a sort of Quinean socialism might be quite justifiable. The point is that the formality of the best analytical philosophers--Quine, Russell, Carnap---ought to be implemented on a political and economic level (and yeah that "ought" may be established). Perhaps that is Galbraithianism or something like that--it is not however marxism (or monarchy)......

  36. (hasty edit. 'scuzi)


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