The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Exploring ‘Explaining Postmodernism’ By Stephen Hicks 2: Counter-Enlightenment

Posted on | November 28, 2011 | 8 Comments

by Smitty

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:

  1. Reality is an entirely subjective creation;
  2. Contradictions are built into reason and reality;
  3. Since reality evolves contradictorily, truth is relative to time and place; and,
  4. 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.

Update: via PopinjayRose, here is a classic Dave Kopel column on the topic.


  1. Introduction


8 Responses to “Exploring ‘Explaining Postmodernism’ By Stephen Hicks 2: Counter-Enlightenment”

  1. Anonymous
    November 28th, 2011 @ 6:06 pm

    Kant was a one-hit wonder.  Then he kept at it, and introduced futility as the best we can expect.  Hegel seemed to double-down on it, but few can be sure, since he’s really difficult to stomach, let alone be certain of understanding.

    Naturally, that kind of futile-but-simultaneously-excusing-libertine-tendencies way of thinking was used to justify the finest tyrannies in history.

    We have but a fuzzy grasp on reality, but a thing must be what it is for the center to hold.  Anyone who’s ever loved a car that had to be constantly tuned understands this.  The big heads in politics don’t.

  2. Anonymous
    November 28th, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

    Hegel and Kant seem like nuts to me.  The questioning of reality in order to confuse the masses.  Post-modernism is the questioning of absolute truths – the denying of truths to soothe that guilty conscience.  

  3. Steve Burri
    November 28th, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

    Another excellent post, Smitty!

  4. Anonymous
    November 28th, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

    Hicks is teh man.  And I’ll brag that he’s a friend.  He won’t agree w/your conclusion re God, but he’s still one of the top philosophers in the country.

  5. smitty
    November 28th, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    I sincerely think Hicks is a great. So I hope that this series moves more copies of his excellent work. As for Christianity, the purpose for bringing that in is both:
    (a) station identification (serving notice that Christians, while not engaging much on philosophical ground, also needn’t feel ashamed to bring it up), and
    (b) to add something substantial, by way of justifying the post series. I wouldn’t want this to look like #OccupyWorkOfHicks.

  6. Anonymous
    November 28th, 2011 @ 10:15 pm

    Nor should you. The point of discussing philosophy is to analyze and apply it or critique it, not to parrot it blindly.

    I’ll make sure he gets wind of your series.

  7. Exploring ‘Explaining Postmodernism’ By Stephen Hicks 3: Reason Is Over-rated : The Other McCain
    November 29th, 2011 @ 8:41 am

    […] of society with lies, is somehow fashion their lies into a new truth.Previously:IntroductionCounter-EnlightenmentCategory: IntellectualsComments /*A Point of ViewAdrienne's CornerDaily PunditDaTechguyDon […]

  8. Bob Belvedere
    November 29th, 2011 @ 9:44 am

    Immanuel Kant is a real pissant [somebody had to say it].