How to be Post-Modern —

How to be Post-Modern — Stanley Fish is giving lessons. Check out his Don't Blame Relativism (.pdf) for a bit of a master class. Here Fish says that the essence of post-modernism is the recognition that there is no common language in which truths can be couched, grasped, and agreed upon by all. But this is just wrong. Fish writes:
[It is claimed that] no post-modernist could possibly retain his or her views and acknowledge the reality of a plane hitting a tower. But no postmodernist would deny this or any other reality. What would be denied is the possibility of describing, and thereby evaluating, the event in a language that all reasonable observers would accept. That language, if it were available, would be hostage to no point of view and just report things as they are, and many postmodernists do hold that no such language will ever be found.
I found this passage confusing on several levels. First, Fish seems to concede a certain independence to reality (realities?) such that it makes no sense to deny them, but then straightaway proceeds to deny the possibility of a description of reality that just anyone could accept. But to acknowledge or accept some aspect of reality (beyond a purely perceptual report), it has to be acknowledged or accepted under some description or other. If there is no possibility of a universally acceptable description, then there is no possibility of the universal acceptance of the aspect of reality (e.g., the event of a plane hitting a tower) one is seeking to describe. So either the postmodernist has to concede there there is a way of describing the event such that “no postmodernist would deny” it, or he has to admit that postmodernists do in fact deny “realities” that are couched in alien languages.
Second, it's just queer to deny the possibility of describing things in a language that all reasonable observers would accept. Anyway, you don't need one language. Take any language you want. How about English, or Arabic? Those are perfectly good languages. Anything you can describe in one, you can describe in the other. Now, of course, it's true that everyone won't agree on the correct description no matter what language you pick. But that just means that some folks have got it wrong. Or maybe everybody does. Everybody doesn't have the same evidence. Everybody doesn't use the same standards for evaluating the evidence. That's just obvious and trivial. However, that hardly bears on the possibility of true description of the evidence, or the possibility of a standard for evaluating the evidence that tends to track the honest-to-god truth. I don't understand Fish at all!
Last, Fish implicitly makes the following claim: If there was a universally acceptable description, then it would come from no point of view. That's just a stunning non-sequitur. How about this, in English: 'Hydrogen has an atomic weight of 1.00794'. Now, this proposition describes hydrogen atoms. When I express this proposition in writing or speech, it is certainly captive to my point of view (my context of evidence, my native language, etc.), and also to the point of view of the theory of atoms and atomic weights. Yet, the very same thought could be expressed in any language whatsoever! And it would be true in all of them! It's not so hard to “just report things as they are,” and you can do it in any language you want. Just watch me! “My pants are green!” It's true! It's true for everybody. Will's pants are green! And you could see that it's true from all sorts of points of views — through glasses, through a telescope, from the left, the right, above, below. Say it in French. Say it in Latin. Whatever! Anyone who denied it would be plain wrong. It's not so hard!
Suppose the proposition expressed by “Killing thousands of innocent civilians by crashing an jetliner into a building is evil” is true. Then it's true no matter what language you express it in. Whether it's universally true, and whether people universally accept it as true, are two entirely distinct matters. The first matter is metaphysical, having to do with the nature of truth itself. The second is epistemological, having to do with our grounds for believing things to be true. Maybe Fish is worried that we don't have any good way of knowing for certain which propositions express the universal truths. Fair enough. That's the core question of epistemology. But he seems to be after something else — like covering his ass.
Post-modernism is not the doctrine that it's really hard to get people to agree on questions of value, or that it's nice to walk in somebody else's shoes once in a while. It's a development of Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche. Kant said we don't have access to the way the world really is because we have minds, not passive mirrors, and the structure of the mind get in the way. But at least all of our minds get in the way in the same way. Hegel said that, well, not exactly, the way our minds get in the way changes over time. It's relative to where you are in history. Nietzsche said our minds get in the way because of the way our languages reflect systems of values. So values are just a matter of what language you're speaking, and argument about value isn't about reason and evidence, but about raw power — about over who owns the language and the way it structures the experienced world. PoMos extended the reasoning to race, gender, class, and so forth. All these things get in our way of accessing an independent reality. There is no objective truth. Every assertion of truth is a power play. And that's why PoMos are so nasty. And that's why Fish is so busy defending his vocabulary. Because, by his own lights, if he loses the war of words, he's screwed.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center