Monday, August 25, 2008

Postmodernists, RSVP!

As I noted in my previous post, I hoped to engage further in the question of the relationship between pragmatism and postmodernism raised by Larry Hickman in his book Pragmatism as Post-postmodernism. Hickman's overall theme is that classical pragmatism is beyond post-modernism. It addresses the same issues that concern the postmodernists--that is, the failing of modernism. However, in being beyond postmodernism, Hickman means to indicate that pragmatism offers a way forward, something he doesn't believe postmodernism to do.

I fancy myself no expert regarding postmodernism. In the few attempts I have made to read and understand texts in this tradition, I have found them nearly impenetrable. I am willing, however, to say that this may well be due to the authors, both literally and figuratively, speaking a language I don't understand. (Pragmatists, I suspect, just tend to think and write in ways compatible with my particular cerebral furrows. Some days I suspect all philosophical allegiances are thus.) Some of the writers--Derrida being just one example--are clearly intelligent beyond any measure I can comprehend. It therefore dismays me when people, particularly "analytical philosophers" that I hang out with from time to time, reflexively dismiss them as worthless crap (often in exactly those words) without giving the texts more than a cursory glance, and seldom less.

So I ask those who do either consider themselves postmodernists, or at least well-versed in and sympathetic to this tradition, if postmodernism offers as few resources for constructive forward movement as Hickman (and many others) represent.

Rorty is interestingly Janus-faced in this conversation. Hickman offers the following (by now famous) quote from Rorty:
"On my view, James and Dewey were not only waiting at the end of the dialectical road which analytic philosophy traveled, but are waiting at the end of the road which, for example, Foucault and Deleuze are currently traveling." (Hickman, p. 13)
Yet the approach of neo-pragmatism, with Rorty seen as its leading advocate, is represented by Hickman as another form of postmodernism (and not necessarily a faithful continuation of the tradition of classical pragmatism), and thus subject to its same failings.

Hickman notes that Dewey, not the postmodernists, help us develop a "sound philosophical ecology":
"Against the modernists, Dewey therefore proposes that we cease our attempts to attain certain knowledge of Being in general, and proceed instead with an investigation of the generic traits of existence. Against the postmodernists, he argues that these traits are empirically available, that they are assumed by science, and that they include such items as 'structure and process, substance and accident, matter and energy,' to name a few." (p. 24)

Deweyan pragmatism offers us empirical investigation of experience in a post(post)modern frame. Postmodernism, on the other hand, has nothing to offer beyond irony, the endless play of signs, and vague thus empty hope. Perhaps more sympathetically put: where postmodernism has cleared out old brush, pragmatism will build new, resplendent structures.

I know a lot of people, and I suspect there are at least a few following this blog, who have found in postmodern thought inspiration for positive action in their classroom and public and community engagements. So far I don't understand what that inspiration consists in, but unlike the "analyticals" (or "analysts"?) I know, I'm interested in learning. So, postmodernists--do you feel yourselves guilty as charged, or what can you share with us not versed in the tradition's particular jargon?

1 comment:

Aaron Schutz said...

If you are interested, I wrote an article a few years ago where I tried (mostly) to write in readable English about a series of different ways that postmodern thought could inform efforts to concretely foster individual and collective agency and empowerment.

"Teaching Freedom? Postmodern Perspectives," Review of Educational Research:

Making it even more postmodern, some of the authors I used wouldn't necessarily consider themselves postmodern.