A better understanding of postmodernism will help us counter this enigmatic enemy of liberal democracy, writes Professor Brad Bowden.
Our society, along with other Western liberal democracies, is suffering a crisis of purpose and intellectual understanding. Work and wealth creation are no longer seen—as they were by every preceding generation—as key social touchstones; the glue that directs economic activity in commonly valued ways. Rather than perceived as solutions to poverty and injustice, modern forms of economic endeavour are regarded as causal to such problems.
Growing numbers share the view of French post-structuralist Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), who declared in 1993 that the “inequality of [modern] techno-scientific, military, and economic development” is more monstrous than that found at any previous point in the history of humanity.
The intellectual foundations of our world—the belief that societal progress is based on rationality, science and the search for explanatory laws—are also denounced. We thus read in the Academy of Management Review—arguably the most prestigious journal in business academia—that all scientific writing is in large part fictive.
Everywhere, opposition to the intellectual foundations of our liberal democratic world is informed by postmodernism in its various hues. Yet, despite its diffusion into almost every pore of our society, postmodernism is poorly understood. Many wrongly dismiss postmodernists as cultural Marxists.
Yes, it is true, that postmodernism shares common ground with so-called Frankfurt School Marxists (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas) who advocated the overthrow of capitalism via a cultural rather than political revolution. Yes, it is true, Michel Foucault (1926-1984), the leading French postmodernist, was a youthful member of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, postmodernism is far removed from Marxism.
Unlike the Marxists—who believed societal outcomes are primarily determined by economic structures—postmodernists are philosophic idealists. They believe every problem can be overcome through consciousness and will. What counts is not economics but rather understandings of language and discourse; understandings that lead to the deconstruction of existing beliefs and discourses of resistance. It is inconceivable that any postmodernist would today endorse the view expressed by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, that capitalism has produced “during its rule … more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together”.
By undermining conventions of language, ‘discourse’ and knowledge, postmodernists seek the destruction of societies resting upon these conventions
If postmodernism’s relationship with Marxism confuses, it is also the case that its philosophic relativism and abstraction causes even more consternation. Most, when confronted with postmodernist abstraction, are likely to find favour with the opinion of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), who observed in his Treatise on Human Nature that the best judge of the difference between fact and fiction is common sense. In consequence, they are likely to refute postmodernism in the same way Samuel Johnson rejected the philosophic idealism of English cleric George Berkeley (1685-1753): by pointing to the physical nature of evidence.
In Johnson’s case, this famously involved him kicking a stone whilst proclaiming, “I refute it thus”. (This has since been classified as a logical fallacy, Argumentum ad lapidem.) Unfortunately for advocates of common sense, their counters to postmodernist canon are typically misguided. For in assessing evidence humans rely on reason over direct observation, knowing a tree will appear differently when observed in day or night.
Scientific and intellectual advances are thus achieved not through simple observation but rather through the testing of hypotheses— which are necessarily generalisations (for example, increased spending on capital equipment will lower my production costs)— against evidence. Such principles apply in big matters as well as small: whether I am assessing the best way to beat the peak-hour traffic or whether we are analysing the subatomic structure of physical existence.
An even greater problem in relying solely on empirical observation is that it leaves no place for abstractions that are the cornerstones of our society: freedom, democracy, productivity, etc. Concepts such as democracy and freedom cannot be physically kicked, and thus either confirmed or refuted. We cannot, therefore, deny the validity of postmodernism by simply rejecting its predilection for abstraction. Instead, we best oppose postmodernist abstraction (discourse, deconstruction, etc) with abstractions of our own; abstractions linking our beliefs with our social purpose: reason, critical inquiry, respect for individual rights, freedom of economic endeavour, protections for private property.
In that short list I have moved effortlessly from abstractions relating to knowledge (epistemology) to matters relating to social purpose. Only by linking understanding and purpose will postmodernism be rolled back.
MANY POSTMODERNISTS ARE CHARLATANS
There is an understandable tendency to dismiss postmodernism as indecipherable nonsense, a collection of opaque catchphrases mouthed by intellectual charlatans.
Now there are certainly many postmodernists, if not a majority, who are charlatans; people who espouse a quarter-digested collection of postmodernist tenets. It is also the case postmodernism itself is composed of discordant elements.
Foucault, who believed every form of power was maintained by self-interested discourse, viewed with scorn the literary deconstruction of Derrida, his one-time student. In Foucault’s opinion, Derrida was part of a failed pedagogy which, “in its waning light”, wrongly “teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text”. For his part, Derrida ridiculed Foucault’s Madness and Civilization—wherein Foucault claimed to speak on behalf of the mad—as itself an act of madness.
For postmodernists in their various hues, everything comes down to power, and the ways in which power is entrenched and supported by knowledge
Composed of discordant elements, postmodernism is nevertheless rooted deep within Western traditions of philosophic idealism; traditions that place emphasis on consciousness, human will, and the inherently subjective nature of knowledge.
In the case of post-structuralism, which found its pre-eminent spokesperson in Derrida, its proponents draw on traditions of German idealism in a line that stretches back through Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) to Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Johann Fichte (1762-1814); traditions that identify essence or being in all forms of reality.
Foucauldian postmodernism gains inspiration from Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), who believed rationalist thinking dulled the spirit.
Postmodernism of every kind owes a debt to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). For Nietzsche, as with postmodernism in all its hues, consciousness and will are the only things of note in determining social outcomes. The only useful endeavours are those that strengthen human will. What therefore counts is not whether purported accounts are composed of lies but rather, as Nietzsche declared in The Anti-Christ, “to what end the lie is told”.
The discordant elements of postmodernism also find common ground in hostility to the entire Western socio-economic endeavour. In the opinion of Derrida, an Algerian-born Jew who witnessed the authoritarianism of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime (1940-1944) at close hand, Western ethnocentrism was the root cause of 20th century totalitarianism. And the cause of Western ethnocentrism, Derrida concluded, was “four thousand years of linear writing”. According to Derrida, phonetic-based writing not only repressed the imagination, it also supported the technical and scientific economy that he opposed.
In the opinion of Foucault, by contrast, the problem is not language per se but rather the ways in which modern societies surround humanity with “institutions of repression, rejection, exclusion”, each supported by its own discourse. The homosexual suffering exclusion is thus in a similar position to the dissident subject to imprisonment. In each case, moreover, oppression is primarily enforced not by the courts—or economic circumstance—but through acceptance of the oppressor’s discourse. Break this imprisoning discourse, and freedom beckons.
For postmodernists in their various hues, everything comes down to power, and the ways in which power is entrenched and supported by knowledge—be it in the form of language (Derrida) or discourse (Foucault). Economics, wealth creation, work, and productivity are inconsequential; all that matters is power and inequality. It is thus hardly a surprise that, as postmodernist modes of thinking become all pervasive, even organisations such as the Australian Council of Trade Unions no longer speak of industry policy and employment. Instead, inequality and resistance to the powerful are the only matters of concern.
Although to most it is postmodernism’s abstract idealism that appears its weakest link, in fact its emphasis on consciousness and will is its strongest weapon. Matters relating to human spirit and the moral value of every person are, after all, deeply embedded in our Judeo-Christian culture. We repudiate such values at our peril. How then can we counter postmodernism and yet maintain our commitment to these principles?
Abstractions relevant to our social purpose include: reason, critical inquiry, individual rights, freedom of economic endeavour, and private property
Among opponents of postmodernism there is an understandable temptation to be drawn to the British empiricist tradition, with its focus on material reality and common sense. Seen from this perspective, as English political theorist and philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), explained in his Leviathan, “there is no conception … that hath not at first, totally or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense”. It thus follows that science rests on the “dependence of one fact upon another”. One does not, however, need to be a postmodernist to see the flaws in such an approach. As the great Austro-English philosopher and political theorist Karl Popper (1902-1994) noted in his Logic of Human Discovery, the key problems of existence “must remain invisible to those who confine themselves to analysing ordinary or commonsense knowledge”; the problem being that humans constantly deal in abstractions that are only indirectly related to sensory experiences. Indeed, it is only by turning our sensory experiences into abstractions that we resolve the problems of social existence.
In Popper’s opinion, the key to understanding the nature of human knowledge is found in the Critique of Practical Reason—one of the two great works (the other being the Critique of Pure Reason) of the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)—which argued we deduce causal relationships not through direct observations but via theories based upon empirical observation. If, for example, I wish to determine whether my business is running at a profit or a loss I cannot make such a determination based simply on observation. Rather, I must assign my activities a monetary value (itself an abstraction), and then group them into two columns: income and expenses.
Only by so marshalling the evidence can I answer the question: Am I operating a profitable venture?
POPPER SAYS NO YOU KANT
If Popper praised Kant he also emphasised the profound differences that existed between Kant’s thinking and his own distinctive method. Kant had developed inductive logic—where one goes from observation to a theoretical conclusion—but Popper believed the superior approach was his conception of logical deduction, in which a theoretical hypothesis is developed and then subjected to rigorous testing.
Popper’s rejection of Kant’s induction arose from two critical observations of the latter’s system of thought. First, he noted the inductive logic developed by Kant led—in the hands of Hegel and Marx—to what he referred to as historicism, whereby inductive logic was used to justify outcomes deemed to be historically pre-ordained, such as that the crises of capitalism inevitably lead to revolutions and communism.
Second, Popper reasoned that conclusions based upon inductive logic were of dubious utility as they could never be either definitively verified or rejected. The rationale behind Popper’s reasoning can be ascertained if we consider the statement, “Charismatic leaders inspire followers to take action without thought of reward”. The problem with such statements is that the relationship between evidence and thesis is circular. (Hence, Popper’s insistence on falsifiability, the idea that the most scientifically valid approach is not to seek to prove what one already tentatively believes, but rather to design experiments that would allow one to disprove the hypothesis).
THEY SEEK SOCIETY’S DESTRUCTION
Popper’s rejection of inductive logic was well-reasoned, but nevertheless misguided. As the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) accurately noted in 1904, “the more ‘general’ the problem … the less subject it is to a single unambiguous answer on the basis of the data of empirical sciences”. Most of us will, for example, accept there are charismatic leaders even if each differs in some fundamental way from others of like designation.
Weber’s sensible solution to the problems involved in using inductive logic was to develop ideal types that enabled one to understand social phenomena by associating it with certain characteristics.
That we construct ideal types on the basis of observable evidence—such as a market economy, a charismatic leader, or an efficient producer—does not necessarily entail, as postmodernists will suggest, a denial of individuality. For as Weber noted, the unique individual character of any phenomenon is found in the ways it diverges from the norm.
For postmodernists, the connection between matters of understanding and purpose are clear. By undermining conventions of language, discourse and knowledge, they seek the destruction of societies resting upon these conventions. As Dutch postmodernist Frank Ankersmit declared, “The postmodernists’ aim is to pull the carpet from under the feet of science and modernism.”
One of the reasons postmodernism has been so successful is because its opponents have typically failed to defend their own social purpose. How then are we to best mount such a defence? On this front, the foundational ideas of British political theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Burke) are most useful. For arguably the greatest contribution of British empiricism is found not in its insights into the process of intellectual inquiry (which were inferior to those made by Kant and other European philosophers), but rather in its assessments of the linkages between critical inquiry and societal practice.
Three insights stand out. First, rather than placing a general good at the centre of their thinking, the founding figures of British empiricism gave pride of place to individual right and self-interest, David Hume observing “Men being naturally selfish … they are not easily induc’d to perform any action … except with a view to some reciprocal advantage.” Only by allowing reign to this self-interest, Hume concluded, “commerce … begins to take place”; an understanding famously taken up by Hume’s friend, Adam Smith.
The second key insight of the British empiricist tradition is its understanding that self-interest could only advance when individuals are protected from arbitrary authority, be it in the form of a more powerful neighbour or an oppressive government.
As Hobbes famously observed, without guarantees for individual right and property there can be “no place for industry”; and without industry the circumstances of life are “solitary, poor, nasty, short and brutish”.
It is also the case that freedom of expression is only meaningful when property is also protected, for without property rights any dissident is rendered powerless and penurious. What happens when such protections are absent is well demonstrated in today’s People’s Republic of China; a society where Nobel Laureates die in prison hospitals, and where people can be all-powerful billionaires one day and imprisoned paupers the next.
The third insight bequeathed to us by the founders of British empiricism is the understanding that progress—be it intellectual or societal—is best assured when inquiry is tempered by caution. As Edmund Burke (17291797), the greatest political thinker that Britain has produced, advised, “The characteristics of nature are legible … but they are not plain enough to enable those who run to read them.”
In all things—in scholarship and public life—caution needs to be our guiding star. Yes, we need to subject all matters of existence to critical inquiry. It is, however, folly to throw away the intellectual heritage of the ages in favour of temporary fads, just as it is folly to throw away constitutional guarantees of due process and individual right. Accordingly, when confronted by the postmodernist challenge, we need to begin by reaffirming our commitment to democracy, freedom of economic endeavour and protection of property, and ask of the postmodernist: “Which of these do you not agree with, for they are guarantors of intellectual advancement?”
We can do no other.
Bradley Bowden is a management historian, immediate Past Chair of the Management History division of the (American) Academy of Management, Professor of Employment Relations at Griffith University, Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Management History (Australian Council of Business Deans), and author of Work, Wealth & Postmodernism: The Intellectual Conflict at the Heart of Business Endeavour (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).