Permalink Dr. Hicks, This book is by far the most helpful resource I have ever come across for understanding why the world is turning to a direction that I cannot comprehend. In fact I would say this is the most influential book I have ever read and yet you offer it up for free. There are so few philosophers in academia that defend rationality, you really are noble in your effort to promote reason.
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But Explaining Postmodernism has enjoyed a recent resurgence of popularity. Jordan Peterson has praised the book , and Hicks himself has become a well-known commentator on postmodernism , although he has more than his fair share of zealous critics. While I admire some of the postmodern authors discussed by Hicks, I have generally been critical of postmodernism as a whole. I fall into a category I have elsewhere called the post-postmodern Left.
Unfortunately, Explaining Postmodernism is full of misreadings, suppositions, rhetorical hyperbole and even flat out factual errors. It extends across much of the modern Western canon, and includes very crude characterizations of seminal thinkers such as Hume, Kant, Hegel, Popper, Wittgenstein and many others.
For Hicks, virtually the entire post-Descartes philosophical canon is apparently committed to irrationalist collectivism. These problems persist throughout the book. These interpretive problems immediately make one suspicious that this book may be less about explaining postmodernism in a liberal and charitable way and more about lumping together and dismissing all forms of left-wing criticism that may owe an intellectual debt to continental European thought.
Hicks claims that postmodernism is defined by four features. Third, it is methodologically collectivist, regarding human nature as primarily defined by group affiliations. And, fourth, postmodernism is politically committed to protecting those groups which postmodernists regard as victims. This is an admirably clear account of postmodernism, but it is also problematic.
Hicks talks about postmodernism as a whole, but seems uninterested in the thinking of individual authors, who might problematize his tidy narrative generalizations. For instance, you might call Michel Foucault a metaphysical anti-realist and an epistemological skeptic. But he was notably individualistic in his moral and aesthetic outlook, celebrating counterculture and anti-state movements, and had a mixed history of supporting political movements oriented around group identity.
Virtually any scholastic thinker of note, from Anselm to Avicenna, had complex thoughts on the relationship between reason and faith, the individual and society, and so on. Things get even worse when Hicks discusses the Enlightenment, which ironically seems to be the only period of Western philosophy for which he has any fondness.
Hicks argues that the characteristics of the Enlightenment include: metaphysical realism, epistemological concern with reason and experience, understanding the human being as a tabula rasa, ethical individualism, support for liberal capitalism, and so on. Of course John Locke is a seminal Enlightenment thinker, who argued that a human being was a tabula rasa and learned from experience, and who supported private property and individual rights.
Descartes, whom Hicks praises, certainly did not believe that reason was largely drawn from experience. Spinoza was not especially individualistic either: his Ethics is a manual on how to stoically accept that we are all a part of, and determined by, God. Even Adam Smith, the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, would have rejected the arguments that human beings are blank slates, and that it is an unquestionably good thing for all people to be individualistically self-interested.
Hicks claims that Counter-Enlightenment thinkers attacked the foundations of reason, therefore laying the intellectual foundations of postmodernism.
But his reading of many of these thinkers is very shoddy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his treatment of Immanuel Kant, whom Hicks argues is somehow a Counter-Enlightenment thinker. This is simply not true. This makes science possible—and, indeed, necessary. He begins with an interpretation of Rousseau: the second arch-villain of the book, alongside Kant. Hicks claims that, while Kant established the metaphysical and epistemological conditions for postmodernity, Rousseau laid the seeds of its methodological collectivism and political emphasis on victimization.
These chapters are less contentious, but still riddled with generalizations and errors. This is a misrepresentation of The Social Contract, in which Rousseau argues that the state must be the creation of free individuals, who will only consent to laws they have given themselves. However, much of their writings argue that society is still insufficiently rationalized and it is this that leads to the persistence of violence and social conflict.
Finally, in Chapter Six, Hicks turns to postmodernism, to which he dedicates only twenty-six scant pages. He argues that the scientific aspirations of earlier methodological collectivists, committed to a politics of emancipating victims, collapsed when it became apparent that liberal capitalism was both here to stay and was delivering a superior quality of life.
As a result, postmodern thinkers looked to the skeptical metaphysics and epistemology developed by Kant and Heidegger, in order to defend their political positions without having to appeal to reason. According to Hicks, this resulted in the strange internal contradictions of postmodern strategy and rhetoric, embodied in such claims as all truth is relative but postmodernism tells it like it really is and values are subjective—but sexism and racism are really evil.
There is some truth in this. Activists and militants do deploy such contradictions in support of their political positions. Moreover, these activists often appeal to postmodern authors to justify their ideas. Here he is on very shaky ground.
There are very few citations in the chapter—and, of the few there are, many reference nineteenth-century authors like Nietzsche; modern authors who do not fit into the postmodern tradition, such as the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin; and critics such as Thomas Sokal.
None of these figures is representative of postmodernism. In The Order of Things, Foucault argues that the concept of universal man is a relatively new way of conceptualizing human beings, and will eventually give way to a new conceptualization. Conclusion There are many important criticisms one could make of postmodern authors. Moreover, there is a good book to be written about the association of postmodern thinking with identity politics, growing skepticism about free speech and other social trends.
Outlets like Areo have made important contributions to this effort. He raises some valuable criticisms of left-wing activism and its strategic appeals to postmodern rhetoric.
But, as an intellectual guide to the development of postmodernism, or a primer on contemporary left-wing thought, it falls short of what is required.
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Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault
Mises Review 11, No. Stephen Hicks has written a trenchant and provocative book on a vital topic, but I undertake this review with reluctance. I may unleash against myself that direst of all fates for a reviewer—a profusion of critical letters. The reason for my fear will emerge later, but to preserve suspense I shall address some themes in the book out of the order in which the author has placed them. As befits a good philosopher, Hicks tells us exactly what he means by postmodernism: "Metaphysically, post-modernism is anti-realist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality. Epistemologically, having rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring direct knowledge of that reality.
Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks (Summary)
Some flaws but, in the end, an interesting read. In this way, it might be fair enough to say that Kant destroyed philosophy in order to save it, but to argue that everything was hunky-dory before Kant wrote the Critique is simply false. Also, there is an ever-present subtext of appeal to motive throughout the whole book. Kant sacrificed objectivity to save religion from empiricism.