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«Abstract: Many of the philosophical doctrines purveyed by postmodernists have been roundly refuted, yet people continue to be taken in by the ...»

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The Vacuity of Postmodernist


Nicholas Shackel

This paper appears in Metaphilosophy. Vol. 36 April 2005 pps. 295-320.


Abstract: Many of the philosophical doctrines purveyed by postmodernists

have been roundly refuted, yet people continue to be taken in by the

dishonest devices used in proselytizing for postmodernism. I exhibit, name

and analyse five favourite rhetorical manoeuvres: Troll’s Truisms, Motte

and Bailey Doctrines, Equivocating Fulcra, the Postmodernist Fox-trot and Rankly Relativising Fields. Anyone familiar with postmodernist writing will recognise their pervasive hold on the dialectic of postmodernism, and come to judge that dialectic as it ought to be judged.

Keywords: Postmodernism; rationality; alogosia; fallacy; rhetoric; methodology; Troll’s Truisms, Motte and Bailey Doctrines, Equivocating Fulcra, the Postmodernist Fox-trot;

Rankly Relativising Fields..

Many of the philosophical doctrines purveyed by postmodernists have been roundly refuted, yet people continue to be taken in by a set of dishonest devices used in proselytizing for postmodernism. It is getting tiring to repeat refutations of the same type for each new appearance of these various manoeuvres. For this reason, then, rather than yet another set of specific refutations, I offer you instead my little museum of their rhetorical manoeuvres, each exhibit neatly labelled, each label inscribed with a name, each name adding to a vocabulary of dismissal.

By “postmodernists” I mean not just self appellating postmodernists such as Lyotard and Rorty, but also post-structuralists, deconstructivists, exponents of the strong programme in the sociology of knowledge, and feminist anti-rationalists. I unite them under the term because, philosophically, they are united by a sceptical doctrine about rationality (which they mistake for a profound discovery): namely, that rationality cannot be an objective constraint on us, but is just whatever we make it, and what we make it depends on what we value. Opponents are held to disguise their self-interested construction of rationality behind a metaphysically inflated view of rationality in which Reason-with-a-capital-R is supposed to transcend the merely empirical selves of rational beings.

Let us name this sceptical doctrine. How about “logophobia”? It has much to recommend it. Patronising, question-begging, pre-emptive of further thought, ensuring easy evasion of the merely Gradgrindian question of the truth or falsity of the doctrine, so permitting us to move on swiftly to the fun of abusing logophobics. What more could one want from a term?

Alas, I am a dogged rationalist, and have renounced the pleasures of sophistical trickery. Instead I have named the doctrine “alogosia” to convey its denial of reason’s objectivity, and its purveyors “alogosists”, of which postmodernists are only the most recent. I am not going to discuss that doctrine here, but I may exploit some of its absurdities.

One way I might have exploited it is to make use of ad hominem argument. Although tu quoque ad hominem can be a legitimate objection, merely abusive ad hominem is fallacious, for which reason rationalists are required to reject it. But if you are a rationalist you are already among the converted, and I think I will give you enough in terms that you (and I) accept.

If, however, you are an alogosist, the situation is quite different. For the alogosist sophistry is no less valid than sound argument, indeed, there is no such distinction to be made. I am happy to speak to postmodernists in their own terms. A good rhetorical trouncing of postmodernism, however sophistical, is something a postmodernist should be persuaded by. Indeed, in the face of such a trouncing they would then be impaled on the horns of a dilemma: If they reject it for being sophistry they acknowledge that their position is ill founded, for such complaints can only be made from a prior acceptance of precisely the robust rationality which it is my wider purpose to defend from their scepticism. If they accept it, its conclusion is that postmodernism should be renounced.

Either way, they reject postmodernism.

What remains, then, is absolute irrationalism, which I discuss later, or a rejection on aesthetic grounds: the trouncing is perhaps insufficiently amusingly rude, insufficiently cleverly sophistical. Here, I think, is the origin of the literary snobbery one finds in postmodernism. It is a concession that adherence to postmodernism is more a matter of taste than anything else, a matter of the rejection of the rude, the unsophisticated, in short, a rejection of the peasant. I do not mind being condescended to in these terms by those postmodernists who have so bravely sought to enlighten me from my dull rationalism – although I will endeavour in future to be more cleverly sophistical, or perhaps just being ruder will do. In the meantime, I think it will be clear to the reader which passages are written in a liberatory postmodern spirit and which are written by means of malicious and oppressive uses of rationality.

OK. Enough of such fun. Let’s turn to my manoeuvres about their manoeuvres.

Troll’s Truisms.

The first exhibit is the use of what I shall call “Troll’s Truisms”. A Troll’s Truism is a mildly ambiguous statement by which an exciting falsehood may trade on a trivial truth.

A typical example of a Troll’s Truism is the statement that anything constructed could be constructed differently. This particular truism I think of as being, for postmodernists, the ur-truism from the ur-troll. On this postmodernists have built what they have taken to be a radical critique of rationality. The exciting falsehoods that can trade here are the notions that what we know, what the truth is, and how the world is, are constructed by us and so arbitrary: the trivial truths merely that we construct our beliefs, we construct meaning and act on the world on the basis of our beliefs. Prescinding from the question of truth bearers, obviously, which statements are true depends on what the sentence used in an utterance means, which in turn depends on how we have constructed meaning. As postmodernists have proved, there is plenty of room for manipulating meaning tendentiously, but we are not thereby manipulating the world. There also comes the point at which having constructed a meaning differently we have no longer constructed the same thing. Of course, we can use the same word, but we are no longer speaking of the same thing. We shall see an example of this shortly.

When used thus to assert social constructivism the truism insinuates the notion that there is no objectivity without ever arguing for it, yet permits a retreat to the trivial truth whenever pressed by an opponent on the exciting falsehood. A beautiful example of this is Stanley Fish’s defence to the exposure of postmodernist nonsense in the Sokal affair. In his paper Sokal asserted explicitly a number of standard doctrines of postmodernism.

Social constructivism denies that there is “an external world, whose properties are independent of any human being and indeed of humanity as a whole” (Sokal 1996). In the book “The Sokal Hoax” Stanley Fish performs the retreat to the trivial truth as follows What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed – fashioned by human beings – which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing. (Fish 1996) One of the first examples of exactly this move is the title of Berger and Luckmann The Social Construction of Reality (1967) contrasted with their early remark in the book that of course, what they mean is not the social construction of reality but of belief.

Motte and Bailey Doctrines.

Troll’s Truisms are used to insinuate an exciting falsehood, which is a desired doctrine, yet permit retreat to the trivial truth when pressed by an opponent. In so doing they exhibit a property which makes them the simplest possible case of what I shall call a Motte and Bailey Doctrine(since a doctrine can single belief or an entire body of beliefs).

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of land (the Bailey) which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible and so neither is the Bailey. Rather one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.

For my purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed. I think it is evident that Troll’s Truisms have the Motte and Bailey property, since the exciting falsehoods constitute the desired but indefensible region within the ditch whilst the trivial truth constitutes the defensible but dank Motte to which one may retreat when pressed.

An entire doctrine or theory may be a Motte and Bailey Doctrine just by virtue of having a central core of defensible but not terribly interesting or original doctrines surrounded by a region of exciting but only lightly defensible doctrines. Just as the medieval Motte was often constructed by the stonemasons art from stone in the surrounding land, the Motte of dull but defensible doctrines is often constructed by the use of the sophists art from the desired but indefensible doctrines lying within the ditch.

Diagnosis of a philosophical doctrine as being a Motte and Bailey Doctrine is invariably fatal. Once made it is relatively obvious to those familiar with the doctrine that the doctrine’s survival required a systematic vacillation between exploiting the desired territory and retreating to the Motte when pressed.

The dialectic between many refutations of specific postmodernist doctrines and the postmodernist defences correspond exactly to the dynamics of Motte and Bailey Doctrines. When pressed with refutation the postmodernists retreat to their Mottes, only to venture out and repossess the desired territory when the refutation is not in immediate evidence. For these reasons, I think the proper diagnosis of postmodernism is precisely that it is a Motte and Bailey Doctrine. I do not have time to defend that rather large claim in detail here. Rather, we are going to look at some examples. I hope that for those familiar with postmodernism as a whole, seeing the mechanism laid bare in a few cases will suffice to make evident the larger truth.

Foucault as Humpty Dumpty So a Motte and Bailey Doctrine is a Troll’s Truism writ large: indeed, Motte and Bailey Doctrines are often constructed out of nothing more than a set of Troll’s Truisms; but that need not be the case. They can be established by the use of a very simple device: arbitrary redefinition, which manoeuvre, after Lewis Carroll, is often called Humpty Dumptying.

Much as I would enjoy quoting the entire passage, since it seems to me that in Humpty Dumpty’s remarks and demeanour Carroll captures perfectly the mode of discourse of postmodernists when engaged in this manoeuvre, I shall confine myself to the strictly relevant parts.

“I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’” “But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knockdown argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” (Carroll 1962, 74-5) And of course, we are the masters, only we can’t pretend that having redefined “glory” to mean “a nice knockdown argument” that we are continuing to speak of glory when using the word. But that is precisely what arbitrary redefinition permits.

Let us now turn to Foucault’s theory identifying truth and power. Here is an example of

the exciting ground lying within the Bailey:

In societies like ours, the “political economy” of truth is characterised by five important traits. Truth is centred on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions which produce it; it is subject to constant economic and political incitement. (Foucault 1972, 131) The essential political problem for the intellectual is not to criticise the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that his own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology, but that of ascertaining the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth. The problem is not changing people’s consciousnesses – or what’s in their heads – but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth….

It’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.

The political question, to sum up, is not error, illusion, alienated consciousness or ideology; it is truth itself. Hence the importance of Nietzsche.

(Foucault 1972, 133) And here is Foucault’s Humpty Dumptying by which the Motte may be constructed from the material in the Bailey.

“Truth” is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.

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