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Random thoughts and views of Tim Young

Postmodernism: Nothing New Under the Sun

with 6 comments

An insightful quote from Frederick Copleston:

The earlier Greek Philosophers had been chiefly interested in the Object, trying to determine the ultimate principle of all things. Their success, however, did not equal their philosophic sincerity, and the successive hypotheses that they advanced easily led to a certain scepticism as to the possibility of attaining any certain knowledge concerning the ultimate nature of the world. [1]

The early Greek philosophers proposed many theories about the nature of reality. Some of them were monists and thought the world was made of one substance. Problem was, they couldn’t agree on what that one substance was. Thales, for example, thought it was water and Anaximines thought it was air. Anaximander, on the other hand, was sure that it was some indeterminate substance he called the aperion. Then you had guys like Heraclitus who thought everything was in a constant state of change and flux, while guys like Parmenides and Zeno argued for the absurdity of there being any type of change whatsoever. In a nutshell, there was a hodgepodge of contradictory theories for the masses to digest.

Copleston mentions that this diversity of opinion, lack of general agreement, and the overall “bankruptcy of older Greek philosophy” [2] lead to a distrust of metaphysical speculation, and skepticism of the possibility of true knowledge. The embodiment of this skeptical attitude was the Sophist; folk who didn’t regard “truth” as knowable. They were moral and epistemic relativists. “Postmodernism” was prevalent even in those days some 2,500 years ago.

So there were relativist then, and there are “postmodern” folk now. The interesting thing is if you ask a postmodernist why she believes there is no truth, her answer will probably reveal that she is fed up with all the religious folk with their differing views claiming THEIR religion is the one true religion, and all the scientific folk with their competing theories claiming THEY have a monopoly on truth. Rather then sorting through the truth-claims, it’s easier for her to throw her hands in the air and say, “Nobody really knows anything!” BUT, not only is her relativistic claim a pretentious and arrogant one, (what right does she have to throw the towel in on a fight she really knows nothing about?), her claim is itself a truth-claim. Namely, she knows it’s true that nobody knows any truth. And that, my friends, is what we call a self-defeating statement.

Well in anycase, if there is a lesson to be learned from history, it’s that there really is nothing new under the Sun!

—-

Notes

[1] Copleston, F. (1946). History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Paulist Press.

[2] ibid

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6 Responses

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  1. I’ve noticed a trend lately (I think it’s just me) of people criticising statements like your “Namely, she knows it’s true that nobody knows any truth.”

    I think there is an issue with that criticism, because you’re making an assumption that she thinks she “knows” it. because you’re turning the lack of objectivity problem into a sentence that is easy for you to destroy

    I think a more correct way to say what she is saying would be “we can only experience subjective reality” which achieves the same goal, but doesn’t introduce that cyclical problem.

    I could be wrong

    have you heard of the principle of charity? which is when debating a topic, to not attack it at it’s weakest, but build up what you’re attacking so when you do attack it and break it, you’re not breaking a strawman or a weakened version of the argument but you know you’re truly breaking it

    ophalm

    February 16, 2009 at 1:00 am

  2. On the one hand I think you are correct, people tend not to be charitable with their opponent’s arguments. They want to make their opponent’s position look as weak as possible so that they can easily defeat it. It’s annoying, I know.

    But on the other hand, I’m not too sure my treatment of the epistemic relativist was that far off. I’ve talked with people who have flat out told me that “Nobody really knows the truth” or even “there is no absolute truth.” Sure there are more sophisticated positions, but my post really wasn’t aimed at those. It was aimed at a common position put forth by common street folk.

    The tendency to sum up positions in a few clear sentences is probably an outworking of the Anglo-American analytic philosophical tradition. Again it’s annoying if you don’t follow the traditional.

    You say, “I think a more correct way to say what she is saying would be ‘we can only experience subjective reality’ which achieves the same goal, but doesn’t introduce that cyclical problem.”

    It actually doesn’t achieve the same goal. What I’m critiquing is something stronger than your statement. In addition to what you’ve said you’d have to argue that all knowledge comes by way of “experience,” i.e., that we cannot know things a prior. It may be the case that I can only experience subjective reality, but it doesn’t follow from that that I cannot know analytic or objective truths like “1 + 1 = 2” or “all bachelors are unmarried males.”

    In addition, if you were to argue that all knowledge has its basis in experience, you’d fall into the same self-defeating trap the “postmodernist” fell into in my last post. You can’t know via experience that *ALL* knowledge has it’s basis in experience.

    Set aside from that, you would be committing yourself to at least one objective, knowable truth, viz., objective reality cannot be known via experience.

    Tim

    February 16, 2009 at 7:29 pm

  3. “But on the other hand, I’m not too sure my treatment of the epistemic relativist was that far off. I’ve talked with people who have flat out told me that “Nobody really knows the truth” or even “there is no absolute truth.” Sure there are more sophisticated positions, but my post really wasn’t aimed at those. It was aimed at a common position put forth by common street folk.”

    that’s what I mean, you’re not arguing against postmodernism as much as you’re arguing against a simple understanding of it. Maybe I have you wrong though and if all you’re doing is arguing against the simple understanding then I apologise for the confusion!

    I’ll have to spend some time thinking about the rest of your post, but “objective reality cannot be known via experience” I would say that I don’t claim that, what I am doing is claiming a hypothesis on my experience thus far. I am not trying to rule out what can and can’t happen as much as I am stating what has happened

    ophalm

    February 16, 2009 at 9:52 pm

  4. Well no, I wasn’t trying to criticize the whole of postmodernism. That would be far to big a feat for one person (particularly for someone who hasn’t read nearly enough of the “postmodern” thinkers)! I was simply criticizing the relativism that falls under the postmodern umbrella. That’s all. That’s how I’m using the term “postmodernism,” and that’s probably the popular meaning of the word. Sorry for the confusion.

    YOU SAY: “I’ll have to spend some time thinking about the rest of your post, but “objective reality cannot be known via experience” I would say that I don’t claim that, what I am doing is claiming a hypothesis on my experience thus far. I am not trying to rule out what can and can’t happen as much as I am stating what has happened”

    So you’d be saying that given your personal experience up until this point it is very probable that you can only know your own subjective reality? And likewise it is very probable that objective reality cannot be known? If so, I still see a few problems:

    1.When I talk to someone about, say, Christ and Christianity and they say to me, “Well it’s nice that you believe that way, but I don’t really think that anyone can really know the truth. You can believe what you want, and I will believe what I want,” I don’t think he REALLY means, “Given my experience until this point it is a likely hypotheses that I can only know my own subjective reality, therefore it is likely that neither I nor you can really know any objective truth, therefore it is likely that Christianity is not true and I shouldn’t accept it.” No, I think he means what he plainly says, viz., no one can know the truth. I get the feeling that most people who say this to me, believe it because they are fed up with all the “smart” people who cannot agree on anything (religion, theories, etc.). They’ll say stuff like “they’re all just guessing but nobody really knows anything.” If you go through “postmodern” literature you really will find people who deny things like propositional truth. This isn’t something I’m just making up.

    2.Even though you say it is a hypotheses depending on your experience up until this point, it still does not say what you want it to say. Essentially you’re depending on rule of induction which, again, must be taken as objective. That’s certainly not the same as saying “there is no truth” or “no one can know any truth.”

    Tim

    February 17, 2009 at 12:17 am

  5. I think I see your point, and am going to have to go away and think about this. Like I mentioned in my first post I’ve come across a few questions of epistemology lately and would like to understand it more..

    I do have a problem with the “no way to know the truth” statement, but it’s more like you say, it’s the attitude behind it and it’s just an excuse to not consider other points of view for a lot of people.

    Thanks for the enlightenment and I look forward to further discussions!

    ophalm

    February 17, 2009 at 1:14 am

  6. Thanks for reading and taking the time to respond!

    Tim

    February 19, 2009 at 3:37 pm


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