Connecting epistemology to politics
We are now in a position to address the question posed at the end of Chapter One: Why has a leading segment of the political Left adopted skeptical and relativist epistemological strategies? Language is the center of postmodern epistemology. Moderns and postmoderns differ not only about content when arguing particular issues in philosophy, literature, and law; they also differ in the methods by which they employ language. Epistemology drives those differences.
Epistemology asks two questions about language: What is language’s connection to reality, and what is its connection to action? Epistemological questions about language are a subset of epistemological questions about consciousness in general: What is consciousness’s connection to reality, and what is its connection to action? Moderns and postmoderns have radically different answers to those questions.
For the modern realists, consciousness is both cognitive and functional, and those two traits are integrated. The primary purpose of consciousness is to be aware of reality. The complementary purpose of consciousness is to use its awareness of reality as a guide to acting in that reality. For the postmodern antirealists, by contrast, consciousness is functional—but it is not cognitive, so its functionality has nothing to do with cognition. Two key concepts in the postmodern lexicon, ‚unmasking‛ and ‚rhetoric,‛ illustrate the significance of the differences.
Unmasking and rhetoric To the modernist, the ‚mask‛ metaphor is a recognition of the fact that words are not always to be taken literally or as directly stating a fact—that people can use language elliptically, metaphorically, or to state falsehoods, that language can be textured with layers of meaning, and that it can be used to cover hypocrisies or to rationalize. Accordingly, unmasking means interpreting or investigating to get to a literal meaning or fact of the matter. The process of unmasking is cognitive, guided by objective standards, with the purpose of coming to an awareness of reality. For the postmodernist, by contrast, interpretation and investigation never terminate with reality. Language connects only with more language, never with a non-linguistic reality. In Jacques Derrida’s words, ‚[t]he fact of language is probably the only fact ultimately to resist all parenthization.‛
That is to say, we cannot get outside of language. Language is an ‚internal,‛ self-referential system, and there is no way to get ‚external‛ to it—although even to speak of ‚internal‛ and ‚external‛ is also meaningless on postmodern grounds. There is no non-linguistic standard to which to relate language, so there can be no standard by which to distinguish between the literal and the metaphorical, the true and the false. Deconstruction is therefore in principle an unending process. Unmasking does not even terminate in ‚subjective‛ beliefs and interests/ for ‚subjective‛ contrasts to ‚objective/‛ and that too is a distinction that postmodernism denies. A ‚subject’s beliefs and interests‛ are themselves socio-linguistic constructions, so unmasking one piece of language to reveal an underlying subjective interest is only to reveal more language. And that language in turn can be unmasked to reveal more language, and so on. Language is masks all the way down.
At any given time, however, a subject is a particular construction with a particular set of beliefs and interests, and the subject uses language to express and further those beliefs and interests. Language is thus functional, and this brings us to rhetoric. For the modernist, the functionality of language is complementary to its being cognitive. An individual observes reality perceptually, forms conceptual beliefs about reality on the basis of those perceptions, and then acts in reality on the basis of those perceptual and conceptual cognitive states. Some of those actions in the world are social interactions, and in some of those social interactions language assumes a communicatory function. In communicating with each other, individuals narrate, argue, or otherwise attempt to pass on their cognitive beliefs about the world. Rhetoric, then, is an aspect of language’s communicatory function, referring to those methods of using language that aid in the effectiveness of cognition during linguistic communication.
For the postmodernist, language cannot be cognitive because it does not connect to reality, whether to an external nature or an underlying self. Language is not about being aware of the world, or about distinguishing the true from the false, or even about argument in the traditional sense of validity, soundness, and probability. Accordingly, postmodernism recasts the nature of rhetoric: Rhetoric is persuasion in the absence of cognition.
Richard Rorty makes this point clear in his essay/ ‚The Contingency of Language.‛ The failure of the realist position, Rorty argues, has shown that ‚the world does not tell us what language games to play‛ and that ‚human languages are human creations.‛ The purpose of language is therefore not to argue in an attempt to prove or disprove anything. Accordingly, Rorty concludes, that is not what he is doing when he uses language to try to persuade us of his version of ‚solidarity.‛ Conforming to my own precepts, I am not going to offer arguments against the vocabulary I want to replace. Instead, I am going to try to make the vocabulary I favor look attractive by showing how it may be used to describe a variety of topics.
The language here is of ‚attractiveness‛ in the absence of cognition, truth, or argument. By temperament and in the content of his politics, Rorty is the least extreme of the leading postmodernists. This is apparent in the kind of language he uses in his political discourse. Language is a tool of social interaction, and one’s model of social interaction dictates what kind of tool language is used as. Rorty sees a great deal of pain and suffering in the world and much conflict between groups, so language is to him primarily a tool of conflict resolution. To that end/ his language pushes ‚empathy/‛ ‚sensitivity/‛ and ‚toleration‛—although he also suggests that those virtues may apply only within the range of our ‚ethnocentric‛ predicament: ‚we must, in practice, privilege our own group,‛ he writes/ which implies that ‚there are lots of views which we simply cannot take seriously.‛ Most other postmodernists, however, see the conflicts between groups as more brutal and our prospects for empathy as more severely limited than does Rorty. Using language as a tool of conflict resolution is therefore not on their horizon. In a conflict that cannot reach peaceful resolution, the kind of tool that one wants is a weapon. And so given the conflict models of social relations that dominate postmodern discourse, it makes perfect sense that to most postmodernists language is primarily a weapon.
This explains the harsh nature of much postmodern rhetoric. The regular deployments of ad hominem, the setting up of straw men, and the regular attempts to silence opposing voices are all logical consequences of the postmodern epistemology of language. Stanley Fish, as noted in Chapter Four, calls all opponents of racial preferences bigots and lumps them in with the Ku Klux Klan. Andrea Dworkin calls all heterosexual males rapists and repeatedly labels ‚Amerika‛ a fascist state. With such rhetoric, truth or falsity is not the issue: what matters primarily is the language’s effectiveness.
If we now add to the postmodern epistemology of language the far Left politics of the leading postmodernists and their firsthand awareness of the crises of socialist thought and practice, then the verbal weaponry has to become explosive. When theory clashes with fact In the past two centuries, many strategies have been pursued by socialists the world over. Socialists have tried waiting for the masses to achieve socialism from the bottom up, and they have tried imposing socialism from the top down. They have tried to achieve it by evolution and by revolution. They have tried versions of socialism that emphasize industrialization, and they have tried those that are agrarian. They have waited for capitalism to collapse by itself, and when that did not happen they have tried to destroy capitalism by peaceful means. And when that did not work some tried to destroy it by terrorism.
But capitalism continues to do well and socialism has been a disaster. In modern times there have been over two centuries of socialist theory and practice, and the preponderance of logic and evidence has gone against socialism. There is accordingly a choice about what lesson to learn from history.
If one is interested in truth, then one’s rational response to a failing theory is as follows: One breaks the theory down to its constituent premises. One questions its premises vigorously and checks the logic that integrates them. One seeks out alternatives to the most questionable premises. One accepts moral responsibility for any bad consequences of putting the false theory into practice. This is not what we find in postmodern reflections on contemporary politics. Truth and rationality are subjected to attack, and the prevailing attitude about moral responsibility is again best stated by Rorty: ‚I think that a good Left is a party that always thinks about the future and doesn’t care much about our past sins.‛
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