Review: Hicks, Postmodernism

Not a long or profound review here but I put it up because the topic has come up a lot lately on various philosophy forums. One can trace the development of postmodernism all the way from the Greeks, but in our era, it all begins with Kant and the question of “what we can know?”. It is an epistemological position, about truth and what we can know of it. There are both Anglo-analytic and continental expressions of it, but the dominant thread runs through continental antirealist philosophy. As the history of Western philosophy progressed the notion of what we could know, how we could recognize truth became narrower and narrower. Eventually someone thought: “well if there is nothing we can know for sure, no truth that we can be absolutely sure of, perhaps there isn’t any such thing as truth that can be known at all”. From there it was but a small step for the next philosopher to add: “It doesn’t matter that we try to approach truth. Since we cannot know what it is, or even in what direction it lies, we can call anything we want ‘truth'” and with this, postmodernism was born. If you don’t like postmodernism (I don’t). If you think it leads down a dangerous path; “getting what you want matters, truth does not, any lie is justified and the ends always justify the means” (I do), then this is a book for you. Hicks skewers postmodernism with both humor and philosophical rigor.

Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Kindle Edition 2010) by Stephen Hicks

Not often I get to say of a non-fiction book that I didn’t want to put it down and was sad when I reached the end. Except for a sense of the movement’s nihilism, I didn’t know much about Postmodernism, but Dr. Hicks has covered the ground. He begins with a broad brush of what postmodernism stands for metaphysically (anti-realism), epistemologically (skepticism), ethically (collectivism in the social, educational and political sphere) and aesthetically (the meaninglessness of art and criticism). One gets the impression that he knows the subject well. His attention to detail is that of the scholar and even the true believer, but he hints slyly at the movement’s absurdity even here. From his review he goes backwards and traces the roots of the movement beginning with Kant’s response to the Enlightenment in an attempt to shore up the authority of the Church, and up through Rousseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Fichte, Nietzsche, Marx, and then Heidegger to the later 20th century with Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty. There are many other voices mentioned along the way (Kierkegaard plays a role as does Freud). Besides philosophers he traces political movements of the left and the right in opposition to the Enlightenment’s development of capitalism resting on individualism.

In the last chapter HIcks returns to Postmodernism proper and its absurdity from the metaphysical and epistemological to the political and aesthetic. In 200 hundred years every political and social consequence of anti-Enlightenment philosophy, every prediction and political hope has singularly failed. Postmodernism is the response to this failure by philosophers who come to the conclusion that if the foundation and development of the anti-Enlightenment movement over 200 years is rotten the only thing left to do, besides admit that you are wrong, is attack and destroy what the Enlightenment produced. Even Nietzsche (who Hicks returns to illustratively at the end) presciently suggests that one can take anti-realism and nihilism too far leaving the postmodernists to “quote Nietzsche less and Rousseau more”. Not only is Postmodernism nihilistic, it is destructively so, the bitter fruits of jealousy over the failure of collectivist anti-realism and seeming political, economic, and social success of Enlightenment realism, rationalism, and individualism.

An excellent review, through, scholarly, and easy to read. I find Hick’s style both serious and humerous at the same time. Superb!