Postmodernism, a Failure of Nerve?

‘Postmodernists nearly all reject classical foundationalism; in this they concur with most Christian thinkers and most contemporary philosophers. Momentously enough, however, many postmodernists apparently believe that the demise of classical foundationalism implies something far more startling: that there is no such thing as truth at all, no way things really are. Why make that leap, when as a matter of logic it clearly doesn’t follow? For various reasons, no doubt. Prominent among those reasons is a sort of Promethean desire not to live in a world we have not ourselves constituted or structured. With the early Heidegger, a postmodern may refuse to feel at home in any world he hasn’t himself created.

 Now some of this may be a bit hard to take seriously (it may seem less Promethean defiance than foolish posturing); so here is another possible reason. As I pointed out, classical foundationalism arose out of uncertainty, conflict, and clamorous (and rancorous) disagreement; it emerged at a time when everyone did what was right (epistemically speaking) in his own eyes. Now life without sure and secure foundations is frightening and unnerving; hence Descartes’s fateful effort to find a sure and solid footing for the beliefs with which he found himself. (Hence also Kant’s similar effort to find an irrefragable foundation for science.)

Such Christian thinkers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Kuyper, however, recognize that there aren’t any certain foundations of the sort Descartes sought—or, if there are, they are exceedingly slim, and there is no way to transfer their certainty to our important non-foundational beliefs about material objects, the past, other persons, and the like. This is a stance that requires a certain epistemic hardihood: there is, indeed, such a thing as truth; the stakes are, indeed, very high (it matters greatly whether you believe the truth); but there is no way to be sure that you have the truth; there is no sure and certain method of attaining truth by starting from beliefs about which you can’t be mistaken and moving infallibly to the rest of your beliefs. Furthermore, many others reject what seems to you to be most important. This is life under uncertainty, life under epistemic risk and fallibility. I believe a thousand things, and many of them are things others—others of great acuity and seriousness—do not believe. Indeed, many of the beliefs that mean the most to me are of that sort. I realize I can be seriously, dreadfully, fatally wrong, and wrong about what it is enormously important to be right. That is simply the human condition: my response must be finally, “Here I stand; this is the way the world looks to me.”

There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony, or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida. So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’ (Alvin Plantinga, ‘Warranted Christian Belief)

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A Mess of Thoughts On Modernity, Christianity, and Presuppositionalism

Another blog post based on Facebook comments – no editing has been done here, so I’ll correct things piecemeal.

(1) Epistemology, or, more generally, knowing, is made the key ‘thing’, as it were – or, more precisely, between right and wrong ways of knowing. Knowledge tends to be (almost without fail) reduced to various forms of propositionalism and the right/wrong way to know them. Without the right presuppositions, one simply cannot know things. That’s a broad and sloppy sketch.

(2) The forms of knowing articulated by presuppositonalism fail to take seriously the critiques of knowledge leveled against it by the ‘modernity’, in particular Kant, who insisted that we cannot know from a position outside ourselves, ie objectively. There is no universal perspective, no non-contingent knowledge. This was something taken up by Wittgenstein in the context of language, and the it’s the same basic idea – knowledge is always something had in a particular context (this is Hegelian as well), at a particular time. Knowledge is contingent, not universal, timeless, etc – and these critiques are simply brushed aside. Similar differences can be seen in the disputes between continental and analytic philosophy/metaphysics. Are truths universal (analytic), or contingent/historicist (continental)?

I admire Van Til’s boldness but other than that see very little to be gained, past perhaps an initial ‘shock’ causing one to rethink just exactly how one knows. But this goes back to the modern critiques of knowledge – philosophy of the last 300 years or so has taught us that the ‘foundations of knowledge’ are far less important than were once thought. So to the insistence of the presuppositionalist that one cannot ‘account’ for various items of knowledge, I (along with the rest of the modern world) say, so what? While questions of warrant and justification do have a place in philosophy, they certainly don’t have the dominant place that they did throughout much of the history of philosophy. This makes epistemic methods like presuppositionalism much less powerful/attractive.

I doubt very much that any real analogy can be made between how we know and how God knows, for the very simple reason that God is uncreated, whereas we are created. As all our experience is with the created, we can’t really speculate on the uncreated, especially on something as specific as knowing.

It can be fairly difficult to really talk about postmodernism because it’s not really a school or movement. Most of the time postmodernism means relativism, deconstructionism, Rorty, Derrida, and seems to be more of a reaction to aspects of modernism and analytic philosophy. The major emphases is on things like contingency, non-universal truths, and the collapse of the metanarrative (that’s probably the biggest one). So in the sense that topics like contingency, metanarrative, the denial of absolute, universal categories for truth are important topics, I say it’s a good thing – postmodernism really called into question things like the universal perspective (there is one way that the world is) and brought into sharp relief the dynamic and contingent nature of the world, which is great. But in terms of the more fanciful ideas, like the lack of meaning in the world, nothing outside the text, its all interpretation (and these are fairly rough representations for brevitys sake), postmodernism has really hit a failure of nerve:

‘There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony,552 or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida.553 So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’

And in terms of wider culture, I don’t think pomo has been terribly helpful:

‘Fear of kitsch led to the routinisation of modernism. By posing as a modernist, the artist gives an easily perceivable sign of his authenticity. But the result is cliché of another kind. This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise that some call ‘postmodernism’ but which might be better described as ‘pre-emptive kitsch’.