What Is Post-Modernism?

Comments at Andrew Gelman:

* “Postmodernism” in the humanities and humanistic social sciences arose out of the failure of the mid-century modernist idea that you could treat human beings and their behavior like classical-physics particles–categorizing them, modeling them, and predicting them, all according to stable rules. It turned out that people are more complicated than that, and also that the very terms of your categories and models (your language, your political institutions) shape the human beings you’re supposedly analyzing at a remove. Things are a lot less stable than modernists hoped. So all the theories that get lumped together as “postmodernism” are basically an attempt to say, “now what?”

Like many other sets of academic ideas or theories, they share powerful insights and also some pretty big problems, and like every other idea or theory, sometimes they are applied well and usefully, and sometimes they degenerate into self-parody. There is definitely nonsense among the humanities, and on the margin humanists could probably be a little more active in clearing it out. What the humanities aren’t, despite their critics, is **indifferent** to truth, as you suggest they are. Even if postmodernists do think that we need to think harder about what “truth” means and how we as imperfect human observers can ever access it, they aren’t callous about it.

In fact, that humility towards knowledge is an area where you and the “postmodernists” you’re criticizing might well have something to talk about! It’s no good when lazy humanists criticize social science as “the approach of saying nonsense using a bunch of technical-sounding jargon,” and it’s not any more constructive the other way around. We all have a lot to learn from each other!

* About the (death of the) author. It’s been a while since I was interested in these issues, but the point is a subtle one. Take films (which might make the idea sound more intuitive). We talk about a Stanley Kubrick film, even though we realize there are a host of other creators involved in in the production of a movie (screenwriters, actors, etc). If you say the “director” is dead, you’re not saying a film has no director. You’re basically saying that a “director” can’t serve the purpose of saying that there is only “one” guiding voice that defines the only way to determine something as the director-function or the myth of the “Director” in the 20th century, would imply. Again, it’s not to say that directors as individuals don’t play a role, its just that the particular cultural/ideological idea of the director has changed.

* The death of the author is more about understanding that authors are grounded in context like all “truth”. That’s the over-arching postmodern message—truth isn’t “out there” X-files or Plato style. The world is out there, though, so things aren’t as ungrounded as the anti-postmodernist caricature might have you believe. The problem is that “truth” is a human construction grounded in vague and intertwined natural language. One has to start by asking what the unit of truth-bearing is. It’s certainly not the sentence, because sentences like “It is raining” have no meaning outside of the context in which they’re used.


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions…may be the most influential treatise ever written on how science does (or does not) proceed. It is notable for having spawned the trendy term “paradigm.” It also fomented the now trite idea that personalities and politics play a large role in science. The book’s most profound argument was less obvious: scientists can never truly understand the “real world” or even each other.

…He nonetheless traced his view of science to an epiphany he experienced in 1947, when he was working toward a doctorate in physics at Harvard. While reading Aristotle’s Physics, Kuhn had become astonished at how “wrong” it was. How could someone who wrote so brilliantly on so many topics be so misguided when it came to physics?

Kuhn was pondering this mystery, staring out his dormitory window (“I can still see the vines and the shade two thirds of the way down”), when suddenly Aristotle “made sense.” Kuhn realized that Aristotle invested basic concepts with different meanings than modern physicists did. Aristotle used the term “motion,” for example, to refer not just to change in position but to change in general—the reddening of the sun as well as its descent toward the horizon. Aristotle’s physics, understood on its own terms, was simply different from rather than inferior to Newtonian physics.

Kuhn left physics for philosophy, and he struggled for 15 years to transform his epiphany into the theory set forth in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The keystone of his model was the concept of a paradigm. Paradigm, pre-Kuhn, referred merely to an example that serves an educational purpose; amo, amas, amat, for instance, is a paradigm for teaching conjugations in Latin. Kuhn used the term to refer to a collection of procedures or ideas that instruct scientists, implicitly, what to believe and how to work. Most scientists never question the paradigm. They solve “puzzles,” problems whose solutions reinforce and extend the scope of the paradigm rather than challenging it. Kuhn called this “mopping up,” or “normal science.” There are always anomalies, phenomena that that the paradigm cannot account for or that even contradict it. Anomalies are often ignored, but if they accumulate they may trigger a revolution (also called a paradigm shift, although not originally by Kuhn), in which scientists abandon the old paradigm for a new one.

Denying the view of science as a continual building process, Kuhn held that a revolution is a destructive as well as a creative act. The proposer of a new paradigm stands on the shoulders of giants (to borrow Newton’s phrase) and then bashes them over the head. He or she is often young or new to the field, that is, not fully indoctrinated. Most scientists yield to a new paradigm reluctantly. They often do not understand it, and they have no objective rules by which to judge it. Different paradigms have no common standard for comparison; they are “incommensurable,” to use Kuhn’s term. Proponents of different paradigms can argue forever without resolving their basic differences because they invest basic terms—motion, particle, space, time—with different meanings. The conversion of scientists is thus both a subjective and political process. It may involve sudden, intuitive understanding—like that finally achieved by Kuhn as he pondered Aristotle. Yet scientists often adopt a paradigm simply because it is backed by others with strong reputations or by a majority of the community.

Kuhn’s view diverged in several important respects from the philosophy of Karl Popper, who held that theories can never be proved but only disproved, or “falsified.” Like other critics of Popper, Kuhn argued that falsification is no more possible than verification; each process wrongly implies the existence of absolute standards of evidence, which transcend any individual paradigm. A new paradigm may solve puzzles better than the old one does, and it may yield more practical applications. “But you cannot simply describe the other science as false,” Kuhn said. Just because modern physics has spawned computers, nuclear power and CD players, he suggested, does not mean it is truer, in an absolute sense, than Aristotle’s physics. Similarly, Kuhn denied that science is constantly approaching the truth. At the end of Structure he asserted that science, like life on earth, does not evolve toward anything but only away from something…

“Different groups, and the same group at different times,” Kuhn told me, “can have different experiences and therefore in some sense live in different worlds.” Obviously all humans share some responses to experience, simply because of their shared biological heritage, Kuhn added. But whatever is universal in human experience, whatever transcends culture and history, is also “ineffable,” beyond the reach of language. Language, Kuhn said, “is not a universal tool. It’s not the case that you can say anything in one language that you can say in another.”

But isn’t mathematics a kind of universal language? I asked. Not really, Kuhn replied, since it has no meaning; it consists of syntactical rules without any semantic content.

…I said, the hypothesis that AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus is either right or wrong; language and metaphysics are beside the point. Kuhn shook his head. “Whenever you get two people interpreting the same data in different ways,” he said, “that’s metaphysics.”

* He had a painful memory of sitting in on a seminar and trying to explain that the concepts of truth and falsity are perfectly valid, and even necessary—within a paradigm. “The professor finally looked at me and said, ‘Look, you don’t know how radical this book is.'” Kuhn was also upset to find that he had become the patron saint of all would-be scientific revolutionaries.

…Some fields, such as economics and other social sciences, never adhere to a paradigm because they address questions for which no paradigm will suffice. Fields that achieve consensus, or normalcy, to borrow Kuhn’s term, do so because their paradigms, or at least certain components of them, correspond to something real in nature. These paradigms—a few that come to mind are heliocentrism, the new synthesis, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, the germ theory of infectious disease—rest not on transient, culturally constructed suppositions or inventions but on irrevocable discoveries. Why not call them true?

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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