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  • Well, I’m speaking today with Dr. Stephen Hicks, who is a professor of philosophy in

  • the Department of Philosophy at Rockford University in Illinois. Professor Hicks has written a

  • bookhe’s written several booksbut he’s written one in particular that I wanted

  • to talk to him about today called Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from

  • Rousseau to Foucault, which was published a fair while ago now, in 2004, but I think

  • has become even more pertinent and relevant today.

  • I have talked a lot to my viewers about your book, and so let’s talk about Postmodernism

  • and its relationship with Neo-Marxism. So maybe you could tell the viewers here a little

  • more about yourself and how you got interested in this.

  • Well, I finished graduate school in philosophy in the early 90s, originally from Canada,

  • born in Toronto. At that point Pittsburgh and Indiana had the two strongest philosophy

  • of science and logic programs, and that’s what I was interested in at the time. And

  • so upon a professor’s recommendation, I ended up at Indiana, and it worked out very

  • nicely for me.

  • So most of my graduate work was actually in epistemology, philosophy of science, logic,

  • some cognitive science issues as well. So a lot of the epistemological and philosophical/linguistic

  • issues that come up in Postmodernismthe groundwork so to speak was laid for that.

  • When I finished grad school and started teaching full-time, came to Rockford University. I

  • was teaching in an honors program, and the way that program worked wasit was essentially

  • a Great Books programand so it was like getting a second education, wonderfully. But

  • the way it was done was that each course was taught by two professors to our honor students.

  • So the professors would be from different departments, so I was paired with literature

  • professors, history professors, and so on. And this was now the middle of the 90s.

  • I started to hear about thinkers I had not read. I’d kind-of heard about them, but

  • now I was reading them more closely and finding that in history and literature and sociology

  • and anthropology, names like Derrida and Foucault and the others, if not omnipresent, were huge

  • names. So I realized I had a gap in my education to fill. So I started reading deeply in them.

  • My education in some ways was broad in the history of philosophy but narrow at the graduate

  • school level and I had focused mostly on Anglo-American philosophy, so my understanding of the Continental

  • traditions was quite limited. But by the time I got to the end of the 90s, I realized there

  • was something significant going on coming out of Continental philosophy. And that’s

  • where the book [published 2004] came out of. When you say significant, what do you mean

  • by that? Do you mean intellectually? Do you mean socially? Politically? There’s lots

  • of different variants ofsignificant.”When you say significant, what do you mean by that?

  • Do you mean intellectually? Do you mean socially? Politically? There’s lots of different variants

  • ofsignificant.” At that point, “intellectually.” This

  • was still in the 1990s so postmodernism was not yet (outside of, say, art) a cultural

  • force, but it was strongly an intellectual force in that. At that point, young Ph.D.s

  • coming out of sociology, literary criticism, some sub-disciplines in the law (if youre

  • getting Ph.D. in the law), historiography and so on, and certainly in departments in

  • philosophy still dominated by Continental traditional philosophy: almost all of them

  • are primarily being schooled in what we now call postmodern thinkers, so the leading gurus

  • are people like Derrida, Lyotard, from whom we get the label post-modern condition, Foucault

  • and the others. So maybe you could walk us through what you

  • learned, because people are unfamiliar ... I mean, you were advanced in your education,

  • including in philosophy, and still recognized your ignorance, say, with regards to postmodern

  • thinking, so that’s obviously a condition that is shared by a large number of people.

  • Postmodernism is one of those words like Existentialism that covers an awful lot of territory, and

  • so maybe we could zero in on exactly what that means, and who these thinkers were: Derrida,

  • Foucault, and Lyotard, and what you learned about them.

  • Fair enough. Well, all of the thinkers you just namedthey think broadly, they think

  • strategically, and they do have a very strong historical perspective on their disciplines,

  • and at the same time they are trying to assess where they think we are culturally, politically,

  • sociallyand all of them are making a very dramatic claim: that to some extent or in

  • some way Modernism has either ended or it has reached its nadir, or all of thekind

  • of the pathologies and negative traits within the modern world are reaching a culmination

  • in their generation, and so it’s time for us to both recognize that Modernism has come

  • to an end, and that we need some sort of new intellectual framework, a post-modern-like

  • framework. And the Modernism that theyre criticizing,

  • how would you characterize that? That’s Enlightenment values? Scientific rationalism?

  • How would you characterize it, exactly? All of those would be elements of it. But

  • then of course there are some discipline-specific differences: so literature people and philosophy

  • people and historians will use Modernism slightly differently. But the idea at core is that

  • if you look at the pre-modern worldessentially the world of the Middle Ages, saythat that

  • was itself broken up by a series of revolutions: the Renaissance, Reformation, Counter Reformation,

  • early scientific revolutionsand all of this is going on in historically short chunks

  • of time: 1500s and 1600s.

  • And so if you look at both the intellectual world and the social world, comparing, say,

  • the 1400s with the 1700s, culturally and intellectually youre in a different universe at that point.

  • So the features then of the modern worldnow I’m going to use my philosophical labels

  • hereare that we are now naturalistic in our thinking. We are no longer primarily supernaturalistic

  • in our thinking. So we might still be open to the idea that there’s a God or some sort

  • of supernatural dimension, the way Deists are, but first and foremost were taking

  • the natural world as a more or less self-contained, self-governing world that operates according

  • to cause and effect, and were going to study it in its terms.

  • Were not seeing the natural world as derivative of a “higherworld or that everything

  • that happens in the natural world is part ofGod’s planwhere we read omens

  • and so forth into everything.

  • So metaphysically then there’s been a revolution: Were naturalistic.

  • Epistemologicallyin terms of knowledgethere also has been a revolution. How do we know

  • the important truths? How do we acquire the beliefs that were fundamentally going to

  • commit our lives to? Well, by the time we become Moderns we take experience seriously,

  • personal experience. We do that more rigorously and were developing scientific method (the

  • way of organizing the data), were taking logic and all the sophisticated tools of rationality

  • and developing those increasingly ...

  • And so our opposition then is: Either you know something because you can experience

  • it and verify it for yourself, or we've done the really hard work of scientific method

  • and as a result of what comes out of that, that’s what we can call knowledge or our

  • best approximation to that.

  • And that’s also revolutionary because the prior intellectual framework was much more

  • intellectually authoritarian in its framework. You would accept in the Catholic tradition

  • the authority of the Church. And who are you to question the authority of the Church? And

  • who are you to mouth empirical-rational arguments against the authority of the Church?

  • Or, you take the authority of Scripture, or you accept on faith that you've had a mystical

  • revelation of some sort.

  • So, in all of those cases you have non-rational epistemologies that are dominating intellectual

  • discourse. That is all by and large swept away in the modern world.

  • Okay, so prior to the emergence of the modern world, well say, people are dominated essentially

  • by their willingness to adhere to a shared tradition and that shared tradition is somewhat

  • tyrannically enforced. But there’s no real alternative in terms of epistemology [epistemology:

  • the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity and scope: the investigation

  • of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion] let’s say. And then as the modern

  • world emerges, people discover the technologies of science and the value of rigorously applied

  • method and the comparison of shared experiences and that makes us technologically powerful

  • in a new way and philosophically different from what we were before. ]

  • Yes, the shared tradition phrase that you added there, that’s an important one. So

  • I’d say in the early modern world there’s not necessarily a skepticism about shared

  • traditionsso there would be an acceptance of shared traditionsbut the idea is that

  • you would not uncritically accept your tradition. You may accept your tradition, but only after

  • you've thought it through and made your own independent judgment.

  • Okay, okay, so youre elevated to the status of someone who’s capable of taking a stance

  • with regards to the tradition, and assessing its presuppositions and so forth.

  • Absolutely. So there’s an elevation of the individual

  • and the critical intellect along with the elaboration of the scientific method. Okay,

  • so then we might note, perhaps, that that’s a tremendously effective transformation, although

  • maybe it leads in a somewhat nihilistic direction metaphysicallywe can leave that to the

  • side. But it’s a very, very successful revolution, because by the time, at least the beginning

  • of the 20th century comes along, there’s this staggering (and of course before that,

  • the Industrial Revolution), there’s this staggering transformation of technology and

  • technological and conceptual power, and then a stunning increase in the standard of living.

  • And that starts at about 1890, to really move exponentially in the 1890s, or at least to

  • get to the really steep part of the exponential curve. Okay, so that seems to be going well.

  • So what is it that the postmodernists are objecting to precisely?

  • Just on those two issues: (1) the metaphysical naturalism, and then (2) the elevation of

  • kind of a critical empiricism and a belief that we can, through scienceeven not necessarily

  • a science, but social scientists and so onwe can come to understand powerful general principles

  • about humanity and social systems.

  • Those two revolutions both are then subjected to counter-attacks.

  • And again, what happens in this case is there is a revolution. Probably by the time we get

  • to 1800—the height of the Enlightenmentthere are the beginnings of more powerful skeptical

  • traditions that come to be developed, so thinkers are starting to say things like: Well, if

  • scientific method at root is based on the evidence of the senseswe observe the natural

  • world: that’s our first point of contactand then on the basis of that we form abstractions,

  • and then we put those abstractions into propositions, and then we take those propositions and put

  • them in networks that we call theories, and so onso we start to critically examine

  • each of the elements of scientific method, and over time, weaknesses in the existing

  • accounts of how all of thoserational operationswork come to be teased out, and philosophy

  • then starts to go down a more skeptical path.

  • So if, for example, you take perception as fundamentalit’s you know, the individual

  • subject’s first point of contact with the natural worldthen you have to immediately

  • deal with issues of perceptual illusions, or the possibility that people will have hallucinations,

  • or that the way you report your perceptual experience is at odds with how I report my

  • perceptual experience.

  • Tell me if I’ve got this right. So, with the dawning of theEmpirical Age,” let’s

  • say, there’s this idea that you can derive valid information from sense dataespecially

  • if you contrast that sense data rigorously with that of othersokay? So that’s sort

  • of the foundation for the scientific method in some sense.

  • But then—I think this is with Immanuel Kantthere’s an objection to that, which is that, Well,

  • you can’t make the presupposition that that sense data enters your cognitive apparatus,

  • your apparatus of understanding, without a priori structuring, and it seems to me that

  • that’s where the postmodernists really go after the modernists. It’s that, given that

  • you have to have a very complex perceptual structure (that modern people might say was

  • instantiated as a consequence of biological evolution), you can’t make the case that

  • what youre receiving from the external world is something likepure information”:

  • it’s always subjectto some very-difficult-to-delimit degreetointerpretation.”

  • And then you also have to take into account the fact of that a priori structure and what

  • it might mean for your concept ofobjective reality.” And that’s Kant, I think, if

  • I’ve got that right.

  • Right. Well, the postmodernists will use both of those strategies: (1) the anti-empiricist

  • strategy, and (2) the anti-rationalist strategy. And what’s important about Kant is that

  • Kant is integrating both of thoseantistrategies. So in the generations before Kant,

  • the skeptical arguments about perception which were directed against the empiriciststhe

  • empiricists want to say that everything is based on observational data, but then if you

  • don’t have good answers about hallucinations and relativity and illusions and so forth,

  • then it seems like your intellectual structure, whatever it seems to be, if it’s based on

  • probabilistic or possibly faulty perceptual datathen the whole thing is a tottering

  • mess. [Empiricism: the theory stating that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory

  • experience. Empirical research, including experiments and validated measurement tools,

  • guide the scientific method.]

  • And by the time we get to Kant, the Empiricist tradition is largely unable to respond to

  • those kinds of objections. And so Kant is recognizing and saying: All right, weve

  • been trying now for a couple of centuries, we haven’t been able to do so successfullywere

  • not going to be able to do so.

  • Now, you also nicely emphasized that one of the other responses had been on the Rationalist

  • side, which is to say, “Well, no you don’t start with pure empirical datainstead we

  • do have perhaps some innate a priori structures built into the human mindhow they got there,

  • maybe theyre put there by God, maybe theyre put there naturalistically or whateverbut

  • what enables us to have legitimate knowledge is that our empirical data comes in and it

  • is filtered and structured by these pre-existing cognitive structures as well.”

  • Now the problem with that side of the lineand this is also well worked out by the time you

  • get to the Kantiansis to say: Well, if youre starting with in-built cognitive

  • structures, and everything that comes in, so to speak, goes through this structuring

  • machine and youre aware of the outputsbecause that’s what is presented to your mindwell

  • how do you know those in-built structures have anything to do with the way reality actually

  • is out there?

  • It seems like then what you are stuck with is the end result of a subjective processing,

  • and there is no way for you, so to speak, tojump outside of your headto compare

  • the end result with the way the world actually is, independently of how your mind has structured

  • the awareness.

  • So once again, youre stuck in a rather subjective place.

  • And again, the importance of Kant here is then he’s also looking at this more Rationalist

  • tradition and he’s saying, Well look, again weve been trying now for a couple of centuries

  • to work these things out from Descartes to Spinoza, Leibniz and the others, and Rationalism

  • also has reached a dead end, so were not going to be able to do so.

  • So Kant is, in effect, standing at the end of these two traditions and saying, “You

  • know, the skeptics have it right on both sides: both the Empiricist and the Rationalist traditions

  • fail. There is no way for us to objectively come to know an external reality. Were

  • stuck in some sort of deep subjectivism.”

  • Okay, so I don’t know now whether to talk a little bit about the American Pragmatic

  • approach to that, or whether to ... Maybe we should go ahead and continue our discussion

  • of the postmodernists, because theyre developing these claims.

  • Absolutely, and some of the postmodernists do describe themselves as Neo-Pragmatists,

  • like Richard Rorty for example. So yes, that’s exactly a direction that’s worth going.

  • Okay, okay. So my understanding of that, if I was going to defend the Modernist tradition,

  • let’s say, I would say that we have instantiated within us an a priori perceptual structure

  • that’s a consequence of millionsbillions of years for that matterof biological evolution,

  • and it has emerged in tandem with continual correction of its presuppositions by the selection

  • process. But it’s still subject to error because we have a very limited viewpoint as

  • specific individuals, and not only are we limited, but we can also make, you might say,

  • moral errors, and I’ll get back to that, that cloud our judgment.

  • And so, in an attempt toexpand our purviewand rectify those errors, we do two things:

  • (1) We test our hypothesis practically against the world, which is to say, we say, “Here’s

  • a theory of reality.” We act it out. If the theory of reality is sufficiently correct,

  • when we act it out, we get what we want, and then that’s sufficient proof for the validity

  • of the theory. It’s not absolute proof, but it’s sufficient proof. And then the

  • other thing we do (and I think this has been paid attention to much less except by thinkers