Review of Explaining postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault by Stephen Hicks
My attention was directed to this book by Jordan Peterson but I had first heard about ‘postmodernism’ listening to Ravi Zacharius on YouTube.
Although Stephen is not shy letting the reader know what he thinks of postmodernism from his ‘rational’ philosophical perspective I think that he is even handed in articulating at least where it comes from and its basic tenants.
The book is technical but comprehensible by anyone that has heard about postmodernism and wants to know more about it knowing on the outset that the author doesn’t support it.
If you are a Western, non-marginalized product of the enlightenment you will probably agree with him. If not then you will probably write a review saying something like ‘no that is not what Derrida and Foucault meant’ but then you would have to use reason to prove your point which will be difficult and you will then instead resort to colorful language to express your resentment and ad hominem points.
Having said that, I was particularly interested in Stephen Hicks analyses of postmodernism’s roots in Kant, Hegel and even Kierkegaard.
The reformation created this idea that man doesn’t need an intermediary (pope, priest, etc..) to talk with God. Through both revelation and reason the Bible could be understood and applied by anyone who took the time to apply themselves – that every person can have an individual relationship with God. This simple idea arguably gave birth to the enlightenment and as Hicks points out many of the ‘enlightened’ minds in the height of the enlightenment were card carrying Christians (Newton, Liebnez) or at the very least deists (Bacon).
Exposing everything to the light of reason brought many advances scientifically which positively affected the common man but also had its own negative side affects. Nietzsche points this out. He realized that since Darwin used enlightens reason to give an alternate understanding of how we all came about besides being created, essentially ‘killed God’ and even though he was by no means a fan of religion, he recognized that this was not a good thing for humanity.
The child that was birthed by the Reformation grew up and killed its Father in the Enlightenment.
The problem was that a big black abyss of darkness filled where the Father used to be. This was called Nihilism and everyone who is ‘reasonable’ has to deal with it and what everyone since then has been trying desperately to neutralize.
The reality is that it caused an existential crisis in the child because of the paradox that if your father never existed how can you exist?
It is the nuclear waste that is a direct result of reason.
I understood this before I read this book but what I didn’t know, and that Hicks points out, is that many of the philosophers of the enlightenment still had deep religious convictions and faith (of the Christian kind) and they all realized the threat reason posed on their faith but more importantly they became aware of this abyss called nihilism. This can be summed up on the Dostoevsky quote Hick’s mentions “Even if I find out Christ is not real I would still believe in Him” The alternative at least for Dostoevsky was too dire (and stressful).
It became obvious that ones reason when pitted against ones beliefs caused anxiety. Kierargaard realized this and pointed it out. Hence, he became known as the first existential philosopher in that he reformulated Christian faith as an answer to the existential paradox reason created.
In their attempts to subvert reasons strangle hold on reality, the philosophers of old used their reasoning power to try and fight reason back and give a little room for faith or non-reason again (seems very ironic).
So, weirdly, according to Hicks, postmodernism’s long lost cousin, in a way, is Christian doctrine.
Hick’s even goes as far to connect the two in the present day using the example of creationists wanting to ‘irrationally’ set up their theory as truth and silence all others (not sure if this is totally fair) with postmodern ideology of not listening to any rational argument against it since reason itself is the source of the problem.
Another historical observation that he makes that I found very interesting was when he juxtaposed the two paths enlightenments reason took and the two very different outcomes it produced in Britain first (and later America) and France. The question that while they were cut from the same cloth of the Enlightenment, as it were, why did they have such different outcomes? The bloody French revolution and the relatively bloodless British and American revolutions.
He traces this back to the two philosophers Voltaire and Locke and how really reason itself took two paths.
Almost like the child that was birthed as reason mentioned above was actually a set of twins and like all Biblical stories of twins – one is bad.
Locke embraced the reason of the enlightenment but did not throw out the ‘reasonable’ Christian ideals from the reformation (the good twin that didn’t kill the Father). He did make a point out of using reason to chop off
the dead wood that the reformation started chopping, though, hence ‘separation of church and state’. He did this not as a matter of hating religion and religious thought, though, as it is used most frequently today.
He did it rather as a reasonable conclusion that true belief has to be belief that has the liberty to not believe.
Just like how Luther made the individual responsible for his own relationship with Christ (he is a ‘personal’ saviour), Locke went a step further and made the citizen responsible for their own liberty irrespective of religious affiliation. He did, however, go through great pains to show everyone that he really did believe that Christianity was a reasonable guide for the individual and key to a just, civilized society.
Just read the last of his three books (The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures, A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity, A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity). Maybe he wrote them to sell his brand of enlightenment rational to the Puritans and Quakers or maybe he actually believed it – only God knows.
So, what did Locke keep that Voltaire threw out? Reasonable Irrationality I would call it. Others call it religion. Still others would say that there are some laws that are deeper than reason and that were set up as the very foundation upon which reason rests. These ‘truths’ are across all cultures and people’s and are detailed out very well in CS Lewis’ Book ‘The Abolition of Man’. These truths must be the foundations of any religion for that religion to have any validity. These truths are the ‘light’ and only where they are absent is the ‘darkness’.
The best example of this is the infamous line in the Declaration of Independence copied almost verbatim from Locke by Jefferson.
The original unedited Jefferson version goes:
We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness;
This idea of human equality and subsequent human rights is not a rational idea. The idea that all are ‘created’ equal does not drop out with reason. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that people are not born equal.
Some have higher and lower intelligence. Some are stronger. Some are born with diseases. Obviously, we are not equal. This was and is an irrational statement. Yet, all human rights pivot on this fulcrum. Where you do not have it you have atrocities and inequalities way worse than where you do have it. Where it is the foundation of the laws of a land you have liberty, freedom and unrivalled success.
It is important to note that at the time it was implemented it was an experiment. No civilization had ever tried this before. But, if it didn’t come from reason where did it come from?
Sounds a lot like Romans 14, possibly?
Or as Tolstoy put it in War and Peace:
“And it occurs to no one that to admit a greatness not commensurable with the standard of right and wrong is merely to admit one’s own nothingness and immeasurable meanness.
For us with the standard of good and evil given us by Christ, no human actions are incommensurable. And there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness, and truth are absent.”
The Reformation’s affect on Locke is corroborated by Francis Schaefer in his book How Should We Then Live?
This combination of reason and reasonable irrationality unleashed an incredible amount of good and human advancement. It gave room for the ideas of universities and hospitals to flourish and almost all of them were religious (reasonably irrational) institutions to start with.
Like Hick’s points out, the average life of every person at least in the countries that adopted Locke’s brand of reason has become unthinkably better. What used to take a whole legion of slaves to keep a house warm and well supplied is available to pretty much everyone in the Western world (not using slave labor of course). There are exceptions, but the mass majority have more food, faster and more comfortable transportation (even if you are just using the bus), fresh water, heat or AC that only kings and nobles could have had less than 150 years ago (and most times even better). Refrigeration alone completely transformed food for society. Now you can eat meat and fruit all year long. Can you imagine 200 years ago telling someone this? They would think you were nuts or a magician.
That alone should make you happy whatever situation you find yourself in. Go to your local McDonalds and have a Big Mac – just because you can.
The other path? Reason only. Well, like Hicks suggests, this is what Voltaire advocated for and led to the bloody French Revolution and Marxism led to communism (socialism based on the state) and national socialism (socialism based on race).
Both of these nihilistic philosophies tried to eradicate any reasonable irrationality and both brought unprecedented suffering and spilled blood like never before in the history of the world. So much so, that it was ironically irrational.
When Nietzsche said “God is Dead” what he really said was:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Nietzsche almost had it right. There will always be lots of blood. The question is just whose blood.
It is true that God’s blood was spilt by humanity but way before Nietzsche wrote this. Was it not of the same motivation, though? That eternal blood that was spilt was enough for all humanity and when embraced by the Lockean’s was enough to pay the price. Juxtapose that with the 100’s of millions of gallons of blood that were spilt under nihilistic regimes and anyone with a shred of ‘reasonableness’ has to admit that reason alone – Simply – Doesn’t – Work. The sacrifice just was not enough to pay the price of paradise.
You need to choose which twin to follow and in that regard Hicks speaks well when he states postmodernism is nihilistic.
Postmodernism is the reincarnation of the resentful twin-brother. Resentful because God didn’t die forever. He survived in liberty and freedom of choice (belief) and the world is a better place because of it. He wants to poison everyone, to make them turn on their liberty and accuse it for any problem that has ever happened to them rather than their own responsibility. He is only a skeptic, though, with no real answers. He is the Grand Inquisitor saying that the weight of liberty is too heavy for the average person to bear.
He is irrational like his brother but not reasonable. He is Cain and his sacrifice was not worthy and we are watching with our very own eyes as he tries to kill Abel.
The good news is that there is a wave of new philosophers that have room for reasonable irrationality of faith claims again and you see it in folks such as William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantiga and Ravi Zacharias. The unfortunate thing is that their contempories, the so called ‘New Atheists’ sound a lot like the postmodernists.
I am filled with hope with folks like Jordan Peterson, though. Liberal folks who recognize the beauty and value in the traditional beliefs and work to synthesize them into arguments palatable to the hopefully post-post-modern mind.