Logical positivism and countless similar philosophies have all eventually passed. Thus, it seems, that postmodernism will likely suffer the same fate. However, until that day arrives, let us be Cheerful Soldiers, emboldened by the knowledge of just how temporary those foundations are upon which philosophical fashions are rested…
“The vogue of each particular maxim of theirs was necessarily brief.” —C.S. Peirce 
Logical positivism, also known as verificationism, was once very much in vogue within the Anglophone academic sphere. Brought to the British Isles primarily through the work of A.J. Ayer (typified in his Language, Truth, and Logic), the movement peaked in its intellectual prominence during the 1920s and 1930s. Characterized by a staunch empiricism, and an almost overweening faith in the explanatory power of science, logical positivism claimed to remove the “wooliness” from philosophical discourse, and deemed much of previous philosophizing to be “nonsense.”
The main idea was this: The meaning of a sentence is given by the procedures which would establish its truth. If no such procedures were forthcoming, the sentence was supposedly meaningless. Thus, what previous philosophers had thought the proper domain and scope of Metaphysics, Theology, and the like, such as is exemplified in works like F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality, was to be snatched away; such speculation was supposed to be idle and empty in light of the positivist theory of meaning, undergirded as it supposedly was by the then-emerging new logic and science.
This movement, whatever its merits, was undoubtedly responsible for some genuinely original and insightful thinking, and it has exerted a considerable impact on Western thought (its legacy is still felt today). What follows, however, is not to be a commentary on the merits of positivism, but rather a comparison with a philosophical movement which is now in vogue intellectually in a way not altogether dissimilar from that which positivism enjoyed in its own day: This is the movement of so-called “postmodernism.”
Rather than offering a direct critique of postmodernism itself (although this shall inevitably creep in), the following will, hopefully, act as a timely reminder of the fleeting evanescence of ideas and highlight the instability of the grounds upon which philosophical fashions are rested. In so doing, this essay hopes to bolster the spirits of those critics currently outlining the excesses and inadequacies of the postmodern movement, a process which is indispensable to the proper development of thought and knowledge.
To accurately capture postmodernism would be to understand it, and given that the movement proves so elusive to the understanding, providing a truly comprehensive definition becomes practically impossible. Therefore, rather than straying too far afield in search of such a definition, let us rely on an intuitive understanding: postmodernism is that movement associated with thinkers such as Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, etc.; ironic, convoluted, and self-referential in style, and largely contemptuous and irreverent in the face of those previously sacred notions of truth, reason, human nature, and objective reality.
For several decades (but especially in the past few years), there has been increasing concern raised about the influence of postmodernism within the academy (and the resulting effect this has on society at large). This influence has been most recently brought to the public attention by both the exhortations of the Canadian academic (and now turned public intellectual) Jordan Peterson and the troubling events at American universities, such as the free speech debate that led to violence at U.C. Berkeley (for, it often seems, these events grow out of a postmodern intellectual milieu).
Indeed, whilst the postmodern philosophy has had rather little effect on the major “analytic” philosophy departments of at least the Anglophonic world (although this is becoming less true, if only because such thought is increasingly in the very air they breathe), the movement has continued to weave its way throughout the subjects of the humanities, to such an extent that it has even begun to approach the seemingly irreproachable domain of the so-called “hard sciences.”
For those who think both the impetus of this intellectual movement wrongheaded, and its consequences for the real world pernicious (resulting, as it most often does, in a particularly violent left-wing radicalism), the only question is: Will it prove stoppable? For it may look, to both those in and outside of the university, like postmodern thought is becomingly evermore cemented. Some even speculate that (along with the advent of online learning), these developments will spell the destruction of the university as the true repository of genuine knowledge.
This is where the long-view of historical comparison is needed. Rather than despair, let us consider its likeness to the movement of logical positivism mentioned above, a once dominant philosophical movement which now seems no more than the peculiar echo of a bygone age. Let us consider the following:
Firstly, both movements (considered as movements) get the greater part of their energy from the sense that what they offer is fresh and exciting; they claim to offer a new way; a new method for answering old questions. For logical positivism, this freshness was especially notable against the background of a philosophical establishment which had been dry and arid, too focused on the commentaries of those like Aristotle, reluctant to advance any genuinely original thinking of its own. Similarly, it may be that the increasingly specialized world of analytic philosophy, in drifting so far away from the humane aspects of the discipline, has left a void to be filled by the more radical suppositions of the postmodernists.
In claiming to “question the questions,” postmodernism is able not only to provide a novel spin on a wide array of issues, but can also attempt to confirm the suspicion often prompted by the dry and dislocated manner which permeates contemporary academic philosophy: Is there really any point to these questions, and could we ever answer them? In fact, can they even be asked at all? Human beings (owing to their pride) naturally wish to change the world, and the detached questions of the philosophers can sometimes appear no more than a barrier to action. In poking fun at the seriousness of such questions, and undermining the motives for asking them, the postmodernist can project an air of mystic-like profundity: He has seen something that all those previous to him, squirreling around as they have after notions of “truth” and “reason,” have been blind to; he, unlike them, no longer labors in the depths of intellectual illusion.
Secondly, the two movements are effective because they both involve a political aspect. In their day, the logical positivists were remarkable for conducting themselves more like a political party than a school of philosophy, and it is due to this the movement was able to spread so rapidly. In particular, the group of Austrian intellectuals known as the “Vienna Circle” was notable for its holding of regular meetings and conferences; its publishing of a manifesto alongside its reviews, and the almost evangelistic way in which it attempted to spread its new philosophy (there is more than a little zeal in Ayer’s Language, Truth, and Logic). One mark of their efficacy in this regard is that logical positivism was ultimately proscribed by both the fascist and the communist regimes.
Whilst perhaps not organized in quite this way, postmodernist ideas have been helped in gaining traction due to their collapsing of philosophy into politics: The two are viewed as indistinct and interwoven. There is a large range of examples of this, most of which seem to terminate with some variety of neo-Marxist suggestion. For just one example, take the classical nominalist position that there is no more to universals (i.e. those things instantiated by particulars, such as properties, relations, etc.) than the general terms we use to describe them. For the postmodernist (such as Foucault), this stance goes beyond simply the intellectual question of how the concepts employed by language users shape their reality, and becomes a question of who decides which concepts are used, and whether we might liberate ourselves from the concepts imposed on us by others.
Indeed, one may think this a perfectly legitimate movement of thought. What is striking, however, is the result that advocacy of the philosophical stance now becomes quite directly the impulse for a form of political activism. If one denies that a position is correct (in our example, the nominalist one), the postmodernist is now able to ask the question: “Where are you coming from?” Though you claim your objection is based in reason, this might just be a veiled attempt by you to maintain your position of hegemony, power, or whatever else it might be. While this kind of argument might fail to convince hardened philosophers, it is the sort of reasoning which appeals to those on the edge of such discussion; for whilst they might not understand the philosophical aspect, they readily grasp the political one. Therefore, by latching onto political sentiments, the philosophical ideals of the postmodernists can spread without having to overcome the barrier of truly reasoned argument or discussion.
The above two similarities should already give the opponent of postmodernism hope. For while both excitement and politics are wonderful tools for capturing the passions of man, they advance their cause effectively for only as long as they last. Thus, being tied as they are to what is ephemeral and fleeting, the two impetuses soon exhaust themselves, and what they once supported is left exposed to the tribunal of the ages: to dispassionate debate, considered reason, and cool moral judgement. As happened to logical positivism before it, it is likely the same shall happen to postmodernism also. However, before concluding, let us consider two further similarities.
Firstly, opponents of postmodernism often despair because they see the case against it as having been decisively prosecuted, and failing to secure its downfall as a result. However, this is not new in the history of ideas, the same being true of logical positivism, which rose to prominence regardless of its foretold inadequacies. For example, C.S. Peirce astutely noted many of the shortcomings of the positivist movement some forty years before it reached its peak. In fact, Richard Rorty (himself a kind of postmodernist) went as far as to remark that he “envisaged, and repudiated in advance, the stages in the development of empiricism which logical positivism represented.” Despite this, it was not until positivism had passed its peak success, and suffered several more devastating critiques at the hands of those like Quine and Popper, that its fashionability finally came to an end.
In a similar vein, postmodernism will likely have to advance to a similar stage of saturation before the arguments against it are also to be considered conclusive. This is not to say that the case against it should stop being made. For here is perhaps the most important similarity of all, and the most important point to take from this essay: Just as people were willing to be convinced about the falsity of positivism through the use of non-positivist assumptions, so too are people willing to be convinced about the falsity of postmodernism through the use of non-postmodern assumptions.
However, it may seem, at first, that by repudiating concepts like “reason” and “truth,” the postmodernist has constructed an impenetrable fortress: He has taken away the tools which might be used to defeat him. In fact, those who oppose postmodernism have the home advantage, as it were, because their arguments can both defend, and utilize, those notions of truth, reason, etc. that the postmodernist has done away with. For the most part, people (including undergraduates and adults alike) do not go around entertaining anything like the main assumptions which the postmodernists contend. They might agree with some of the conclusions drawn there from, but would likely find the premisses themselves confounding. This is because not only do we naturally hold the notions they undermine as part of our “common sense,” but, on a deeper level, it seems we can’t help but employ such notions in how we conceptualize the world around us. It is this fact that those attempting to repudiate the core of postmodern philosophy will do best to highlight.
Lastly, although it may seem from the standpoint of methodology that the philosophies of logical positivism and postmodernism are antipodal, the upshot of the two is remarkably similar. This is important because it indicates that at least one of the reasons for disillusionment with the former might prove true for the latter as well. Both schools are ultimately ones of repudiation: The positivists notably rejected ethics, aesthetics, and religion, as meaningless, whilst the postmodernists go further in earmarking truth and reason themselves as fit for abolition. There is displayed here a characteristic “snatching away”: What was once thought the proper domain of man’s speculation is smugly cordoned-off. At this point, the non-philosophical layman should ask himself: “Is this vision of life really so appealing? Could such an empty world ever be really be considered the true one?”
This response, of course, is not a strictly philosophical one; it might be considered no better than a kind of excuse, a mere sop to our emotional fragility. However, it does underpin a very significant intuition we have about ourselves, and our relation to the world; one which we should be wary to ignore. For, to come back to C.S. Peirce, it appears the shared result of both of the philosophical movements we have here discussed is to “not bestow a single smile upon beauty, upon moral virtue, or upon abstract truth—the three things that alone raise Humanity above Animality.” This is simply a restatement of the indispensability of the three transcendentals: Those properties of being which originate in Plato, find a grander realization in the Trinity, and reverberate down the ages thereafter. Indeed, these transcendentals are those things which could almost be termed the necessities of human life, quite immovable in the face of philosophical contingencies. For in their absence our very existence itself is at risk of being reduced to that ephemeral meaninglessness which characterizes Burke’s “flies of summer.” Indeed, if we can capture this truth in our response to the postmodernists, we might have found that redoubt from which we might successfully stifle their advance.
In summation, whilst we should always be prepared to fight bad ideas (indeed, it is our responsibility to be actively engaged in fighting against them), one should not become disheartened by the seeming dominance of a philosophical fashion. The example of one such fashion used above was that of logical positivism, but countless others abound, and all have eventually passed in like manner. Thus, it seems, that postmodernism will likely suffer the same fate. However, until that day arrives, let us be Cheerful Soldiers, emboldened by the knowledge of just how temporary those foundations are upon which philosophical fashions are rested.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now