Stephen R. C. Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault: A Discussion. Steven M. Sanders. Bridgewater State. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault Beyond Postmodern Politics: Lyotard, Rorty, Fern Haber. Book Title: Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Author: Stephen R. C. Hicks. Published: Tempe, Ariz.: Scholargy.
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Stephen Hicks has written a trenchant and provocative book on a vital topic, but I undertake this review with reluctance. I may unleash against myself that direst of all fates for a reviewer—a profusion of critical letters.
The reason for my fear will emerge later, but to preserve suspense I shall address some themes in the book out of the order in which the author has placed them. As befits a good philosopher, Hicks tells us exactly what he means by postmodernism: Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality.
Epistemologicallyhaving rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring direct knowledge of that reality.
Who advocates this assortment of strange views?
Hicks tells us that the “names of the postmodern vanguard are now familiar: They are its leading strategists” p. Hicks also mentions another group of “familiar and often infamous names” that aids the vanguard. He rightly includes on his list the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray; but, contrary to our author, her specialty is not “the criticism of science” p. Hicks does not devote much space to a detailed account of the various postmodernists he mentions; he devotes his principal attention to a general portrayal of the movement and an account of its philosophical genealogy.
He does give an excellent brief discussion of Derrida, for whom there is nothing beyond language. Behind Derrida lies Martin Heidegger, and Hicks offers a superb analysis of this vastly influential thinker. Do not think objectsHeidegger counsels, think fields.
Do not think subjectthink experience ” pp. This new sort of thinking challenged standard logic and reasoning “as merely one superficial way of thinking—one that the Greeks had established fatefully for all subsequent Western thought” pp.
Instead, we must seek Being through “an explainng letting go into the revelatory emotions of foucautl, fear, guilt, and dread” p. As will be already apparent, Hicks does not believe in understatement; and at one point in his discussion of Skfpticism, he goes too far.
He claims that “Foucault extends his desire for effacement to the entire human species. At the end of The Order of Thingshe speaks almost longingly about the coming erasure of mankind. Hicks has fouxault read Foucault uncharitably. When Foucault foresees “the end of man,” he does not mean that all human beings will soon face extermination. Rather, he predicts the end of a certain skfpticism of man—roughly, a conception based on a universal human nature.
He proceeds to ask an insightful question: In response, he calls attention to a key aspect of contemporary history. Leftist intellectuals during most of the twentieth century looked to socialism as a secular equivalent of salvation. Such views can no longer rationally be maintained. Sjepticism of The Gulag Archipelago learned that the Stalinist regime rested on mass murder; and Mao, long a favorite among radicals, was even more bloodthirsty. Nor can socialists comfort themselves by responding that Stalin and Mao were historical aberrations whose failings leave the socialist project unscathed.
Mises and Hayek demonstrated incontrovertibly that a socialist economy cannot work; to make matters worse, the attempt to establish such an economy makes likely the onset of a totalitarian order. The socialist intellectuals were in a quandary. They ought rationally to have abandoned their views, since their doctrine was socialjsm in theory and disastrous in practice; but rationality is not a trait much in evidence foucaullt the socialistically inclined.
If reason speaks against socialism, is not the solution obvious: If reason provides roussesu access to reality, but is rather a mask for power, the critique of socialism is disabled. How, though, can socialists claim that reason soclalism relative and at the same time aver an absolute belief in socialist politics?
Are they not here caught in a contradiction that even they cannot dismiss?
Hicks finds plausible two explanations of the contradiction. On one account, expkaining politics are primary, while the relativism is a rhetorical strategy that is used to advance that postmdoernism on the other, “both the relativism and the absolutism coexist in postmodernism, but the contradictions between them simply do not matter psychologically to those who hold them” p.
Hicks rejects the view that relativism is primary and the politics secondary. If it were true, “then postmodernists would be adopting political positions across the spectrum, and that is simply not happening” p. Hicks devotes considerable attention to the intellectual origins of the contemporary trends he finds so deplorable. Crom draws attention to the malign influence of Rousseau, whom he terms a proponent of the Counter-Enlightenment that opposed untrammeled reason, individualism, and capitalism.
He did not celebrate civilization, but deplored its onset. Culture does generate much learning, luxury, and sophistication—but learning, luxury, and sophistication all cause moral degradation” p. The unfortunate rise of reason drove humans from their simple, primitive life. Reason, once awakened, cannot be expunged; and, we cannot, Rousseau held, return from civilization to primitivism. But society must be tightly controlled.
Hicks rightly calls attention to the influence of Rousseau on the Jacobins during the French Revolution, with all of its appalling destruction and massacres. But his discussion contains one minor slip, though I perhaps read him unfairly. The king was executed some ten months before the queen, not in the same act. The main source of intellectual corruption, in his view, lies in the skepticism and subjectivism of Immanuel Kant.
I have to confess that he has not persuaded me, and here is where I fear for the worst. Perhaps as a result, Hicks never fdom Ominous Parallelsthough he lists it in his bibliography [p.
But this is by the way. I did not hear the end of it for years afterwards; an ex cathedra dismissal of my objections from a writer for whom the letter to the editor is an art form remains vivid in my mind.
The vital core of his interpretation is that Kant denied that we rousesau reality. Is reason capable of knowing reality—or is it not?. Kant is crystal clear about his answer. Reality—real, noumenal reality—is forever closed off to reason, and reason is limited to awareness and understanding of its own subjective products” p. He rightly says that Kant denies that human beings grasp the noumenal world. It does not follow from this, though, that Kant denies that reason is capable of knowing reality, unless “reality” is equated with the “noumenal world.
Concerning the noumenal almost nothing can be said: But the view needs much more defense than Hicks gives it.
On one point, Hicks seems to me not only disputable but altogether mistaken. Quite the contrary, Kant denies reason access to the noumenal self: One might counter my main objection in this way. Despite what Kant may “really” have meant, his successors among the German Idealists took him as just the sort of subjectivist that Hicks portrays and, accordingly, followed him in succumbing to skepticism.
But this defense also fails. As Hicks himself rightly notes, Hegel “was dissatisfied with the principled separation of subject and object. He offers no evidence that these neo-Kantian followers took the position he attributes to them. Putting this aside, in order to show that Kant lies at the source of modern skepticism about reason, he would need to establish a line of continuity between these “closest followers” and modern developments. His endeavor to do so rests on the very non-standard view, offered without support, that structuralism and phenomenology are varieties of neo-Kantianism.
Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault by Stephen R.C. Hicks
He displays an extreme hostility to religion, and this often biases his historical claims. Thus, he portrays the Middle Ages as dominated by Augustinian “mysticism” and faith. He acknowledges that in “the later medieval era,” matters changed somewhat. What is one frpm make of Anselm on this view? For that matter, did not Augustine himself argue to the same conclusion? Hicks operates with a simpleminded dichotomy between faith and reason that does not do justice to medieval pistmodernism.
He condemns Kierke-gaard for his “panegyric to Abraham, a hero of the Hebrew Scriptures who in defiance of all reason and morality was willing to turn off his mind and kill his son Isaac. Because God ordered him to. How could that be—would a good God make such a demand of a man? That makes God incomprehensibly cruel. Postmodrenism he even question? He shuts down his mind and obeys” p. Kant held that Abraham should have realized that since God is good, no instructions to kill his innocent son could have come from God.
He should thus have ignored the alleged divine command. I do not suggest that only a Kantian view of ethics makes plausible the position Hicks adopts.
But it is difficult to see how he would justify his stance on the ethical egoist view that I assume that he, as an Objectivist, adopts. He of course can deny, on metaphysical grounds, that an all-powerful divine being exists. My question involves a different issue. If such a being did exist, and issued a command of the type Hicks challenges, on what ethical grounds could he refuse obedience? Surely it would best promote his own survival or flourishing to obey rather than rebel. On this account, logical and mathematical propositions are merely a function of how we have decided to use words and which combinations of words we have decided to privilege” p.
Did not Quine write a famous essay, “Truth by Convention,” challenging the view here attributed to rousseak On another matter, Hicks deserves great praise. Breaking with much contemporary scholarship, he reaffirms the older view that Hegel completely subordinated the individual to the state. The consequence of this, morally, is that the individual is of less significance than the state.
Though I have at times disagreed with Hicks, he has an excellent eye for essential issues and his views always repay careful consideration.