Postmodernism, truth, and bullshit

I must say I had been flirting with postmodern philosophy in recent years –with the idea that objective truth is unattainable, that generalizations are impossible, and that all I have is my own perception of reality, which need not, and cannot, match yours. But although it’s a compelling stance in theory (and a cool one, especially when compared to geeky positivist squareness!), I’ve never figured out how to make it work in practice: in its extreme form, it implies that scientific research is worthless, since all its generalizations are fundamentally and inescapably flawed; the physical arguments postmodernists use -such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle– are, deliberately or not, misunderstood by them; and the scientific results and benefits they show for their efforts are overwhelmingly weak.

So now, after a long inner debate, I’m kissing academic postmodernism goodbye. My disappointment started when I found out about the Sokal Affair (you really need to read that link if you haven’t heard of it), and deepened when I realized postmodernism gives an escape clause to creationists, global warming skeptics, the Bush administration, and yes, Stephen Colbert, to disregard facts and the reality-based community in favour of their own wishful thinking. But the nail in the coffin came recently from two very short, but very powerful and refreshing books: Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” and “On Truth“, both of them accessible philosophical essays. In the first, Frankfurt explains how bullshitters, so prevalent among marketers and politicians, are not really liars -they simply don’t care about whether their statements are true or false, only about what they make us believe. In the second book, he explains why this disregard for truth is such a big problem –because without a concern for truth there is no progress. “On Truth”, in particular, is very critical of postmodernism, and although the criticism is distilled and simplified, it was the little nudge I needed to make up my mind on the matter.

I’ll keep recognizing that truth is always more nuanced than it appears, and that achieving objectivity and rationality is tremendously hard. I’ll keep reading Foucault, Derrida, and the others, since there’s much to learn from them. I’ll keep making the point that, for any scientific finding, context is essential. But I can’t fool myself –there is a reality and I have the duty and the capability to strive to understand it, however clumsily, and to be objective about it.


About Jorge Aranda

I'm currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the SEGAL and CHISEL labs in the Department of Computer Science of the University of Victoria.
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9 Responses to Postmodernism, truth, and bullshit

  1. leo says:

    I have to say that I do not believe that marketers and politicians are more bullshitters than the average Joe. Their proffessions, however, show the worst out of most of them. The marketers control the media and the politicians have the power and will try to keep it, but pick a random guy and give this person control or power and the amount of bullshit coming out of he/she will be the same.

  2. Jorge says:

    True. I didn’t mean to imply -and neither did Frankfurt, I think- that marketers or politicians are inherently worse than the rest of us. Only that their professions consist largely of trying to convince the public of something (“we care about the environment”, “all the cool people buy our stuff”) without any consideration of whether their statements are true or false. And they are only examples of a problem endemic in society: just about every occupation deals in bullshit at times, some evidently (CEOs, PR firms, salesmen) and some not. But marketers and politicians are easily available punchbags to communicate the concept.

  3. Gasca says:

    The big and small lies don’t exist, is the big and small consequences, the effects and the reach, where the problem is. I see Postmodernism like a cultural behavior pretending to simplify any paradigm, trying to discard unpractical principles. The problem inside, weak fundamentation. We need to destroy paradigms of course, but I see more relevant to drive people to rationalization, even if it appears to be unpractical. Just being nihilistic because it’s fashion don’t help to anybody, and that’s the way taked by most postmodernists I know.

  4. Jorge says:

    I get the impression that even when one is serious and committed to the postmodern approach, the resulting critique always leaves one empty-handed. It’s a deconstruction task that does not build anything instead –like pointing the flaws in another’s views without having anything better to offer.

  5. Yoni says:

    I was at a book store yesterday and run across “On Bullshit”, so I bought it. It is indeed a nice read, although I think it loses some of its charm in the translation to Hebrew.
    I couldn’t find “On Truth” anywhere. The stores don’t keep them together 😦

    It’s a deconstruction task that does not build anything instead –like pointing the flaws in another’s views without having anything better to offer.

    Isn’t that what replies and talkbacks on blogs are all about? 😉

  6. Jorge says:

    Glad you liked the book! “On Truth” is more recent –perhaps a Hebrew translation will be available soon?

    And yeah, blog replies are often attempts at deconstruction! The only difference is they’re actually fun to read 😉

  7. Fakt says:

    Thank you. Its so good to see the pseudo-intellectual and the flawed philosophy of nihilistic and confused men to lose its grip upon your neck. Don’t be fooled by the faulty and foundationless assumptions of a few disaffected academics who perhaps did not get enough attention as youngsters and decide to ‘debunk notions of truth’. Unlimited semiosis, Derrida’s “(non)claim” is merely overinterpretation of non-existent meaning. “Their”, the extreme relativists strongest argument is perhaps thetotal abstraction they suffer from anything concrete in their contemplation, which can make me wonder how people can be so absurd.”Take care not to let anyone cheat you with his philosophizings, with empty phantasies drawn from human tradition, from worldly principles.” (Col. 2:8) Philosophers are to be feared only in their errors. It is a sad fact that even when they have come to know the existence of God, philosophers have not adored and thanked him as they ought; thus, their wisdom has been turned to folly. Clearly it is the assault and self-willed disconnection from God, the ultimate truth, that leads them down the dark road and to their detriment, the minds of others who are unaware of timeless truth. “To see what is front of our noses requires a constant struggle” – George Orwell.

  8. Jorge says:

    Thanks for your comment, Fakt.

    But I fear we’re on opposite ideological ends. I’m not writing against philosophers, only against postmodernists. And when you believe in God and see it as the ultimate, timeless truth, I see that belief as one of the worst mistakes a philosopher can make: a complete surrender in the human quest for truth and understanding.

  9. JC says:

    Why continue to read Derrida and Foucault?

    It’s like listening to a drunk, rambling Harvard English grad. Complicated intellectual sounding stuff, that’s hard to understand because there’s no content (a good description of most philosophy).

    Words break down when examined too closely. That statement kills 99% or what passes in that field.

    And you missed the headshot to postmodernism earlier: If they don’t believe in science, how could they use quantum mechanics to justify their beliefs?

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