Posted on | November 28, 2011 | 8 Comments
The Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationality quickly came under attack. Figuring that reality is mechanistic offend pietistic Germans, as it seemed to lead to Deism at best, and atheism at worst. The French absorbed the Enlightenment by way of Rousseau and arrived at the Terror, a.k.a. the French Revolution.
Immanuel Kant, if I may oversimplify, called the Enlightenment oversimplified.
Reality–real, noumenal reality–is forever closed off to reason, and reason is limited to awareness and understanding of its own subjective products. (Hicks, 28)
In other words, if you’re a German idealist, the fact that the five senses pick up a limited subset of the information known as reality, and transmit it to a fragile brain over lossy nerves means that we have to throw away the recipient of imperfect information, our reason, as a reliable tool.
Of those five features of reason–objectivity, competence, autonomy, universality, and being an individual faculty–Kant concluded that the sad experience of recent philosophy demonstrated that the most fundamental of them, objectivity, must be abandoned. The failures of empiricism and rationalism had shown that objectivity is impossible.
This is ‘the best is the enemy of good enough’ writ large. A modern Kant should never drive a car, for example, because of the impossibility of maintaining a precise, legal speed.
Kant’s essential argument
Kant was the decisive break with the Enlightenment and the firs major step toward postmodernism. Contrary to the Enlightenment account of reason, Kant held that the mind is not a response mechanism but a constitutive mechanism. He held that the mind–and not reality–sets the terms for knowledge. And he held that reality conforms to reason, nit vice versa. In the history of philosophy, Kant marks a fundamental shft from objectivity as the standart to subjectivity as the standard. (Hicks, 39)
Consider the number three. In the movie Inglorious Basterds, in the bar scene, the otherwise perfect disguise of the undercover Brit is blown when he raises a hand to order three shots of whiskey. A German considers the thumb a finger, and would thus hold up a thumb, index and middle finger to order the shots. The Brit puts the thumb across the pinky, and announces his un-Germanic nature. There is no universal way to represent three as a hand signal; three does not exist anywhere in reality. The notion of a whole number of objects in a collection with a count between two and four has to be implemented separately in every language and human head that can direct the throwing of a Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.
Heads that cannot comprehend numbers, e.g. politicians, are sadly commonplace.
Kant had made philosophy blink.
The main thread of Postmodern development after Kant runs through Hegel. Hegel tries to re-unite the individual head with the number three through metaphysical means, primarily to save religion. As though God, somehow, needs help from people. Heh.
Hegel’s place historically is to have institutionalized four theses in nineteenth-century metaphysics:
- Reality is an entirely subjective creation;
- Contradictions are built into reason and reality;
- Since reality evolves contradictorily, truth is relative to time and place; and,
- The collective, not the individual, is the operative unit. (Hicks, 50)
So, Hegel is an idiot. Reality is the sum of the matter in the universe. The inability of the human mind to grasp the fulness of the universe is not a sufficient argument to negate reality as an internally consistent entity. Having failed to show reality as inconsistent, attempts to place time and location tags on truth, while perhaps interesting, ultimately fail. And three wrong assertions do nothing to inform us on how a Rosseauian collective is somehow superior to the individual.
So where does that leave us?
God is absolute truth. Existence is less than that. Deal with it. The consciousness we employ to order our lives is something akin to the Central Limit Theorem. As we mature, we sort of make better, wiser guesses about questions of life. The data that inform the question all live in our head, with some spillover to the e-reader.
Philosophy, an intellectual task, has proven flaccid in the effort to offer answers about life’s ultimate questions. This has more to do with the mind being a tool, not a destination. Life’s ultimate questions are spiritual in nature, and unanswerable in an intellectual way. The best philosophy can do is help underscore the need for the individual to walk humbly before God and the rest of mankind.
The idea of the group being greater than the individual becomes a political temptation. But, like the number three, that political abstraction exists as information in the heads of those subscribing to the notion at hand. Americans, Virginians, Libras, Christians. Did I say Librans? Sure, my birthday is in early October, but do I really buy off on the idea that remote stars in some celestial arrangement have any influence over my life? Really?
No. Postmodernism is both a social construct and a joke. But it has been an expensive one.