How Postmodernists Use Language as a Weapon

Daniel Dennett, the great American rationalist: “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.” (Source: The Guardian)

Excerpt from Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Expanded Edition), by Stephen Hicks (Ockham’s Razor, 2013). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 6: Postmodern Strategy

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.”[288] 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.”[289] 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.[290]

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.”[291]

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.[292] Andrea Dworkin calls all heterosexual males rapists[293] and repeatedly labels “Amerika” a fascist state.[294] 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.”[295]

Kierkegaardian postmodernism

In Chapter Four, I sketched one postmodern response to the problems of theory and evidence for socialism. For an intelligent, informed socialist confronted with the data of history, a crisis of belief has to occur. Socialism is to many a powerful vision of the beautiful society, one that envisages an ideal social world that will transcend all the ills of our current one. Any such deeply held vision comes to form part of the very identity of the believer, and any threat to the vision has to be experienced as a threat to the believer.

From the historical experience of other visions that have run into crises of theory and evidence, we know that there can be a powerful temptation to block out theoretical and evidentiary problems and simply to will oneself into continuing to believe. Religion, for example, has provided many such instances. “Ten thousand difficulties,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “do not make one doubt.”[296] Fyodor Dostoevsky made the point more starkly, in a letter to a woman benefactor: “If anyone had written to me that the truth was outside of Christ, I would rather remain with Christ than with the truth.”[297] We also know from historical experience that sophisticated epistemological strategies can be developed precisely for the purpose of attacking the reason and logic that have caused problems for the vision. Such were part of the explicit motivations of Kant’s first Critique, Schleiermacher’s On Religion, and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

Why not for the far Left? The modern histories of religion and socialism exhibit striking parallels in development.

  • Both religion and socialism started with a comprehensive vision that they believed to be true but not based on reason (various prophets; Rousseau).
  • Both visions were then challenged by visions based on rational epistemologies (early naturalist critics of religion; early liberal critics of socialism).
  • Both religion and socialism responded by saying that they could satisfy the criteria of reason (natural theology; scientific socialism).
  • Both religion and socialism then ran into serious problems of logic and evidence (Hume’s attacks on natural theology; Mises’s and Hayek’s attacks on socialist calculation).
  • Both then responded in turn by attacking reality and reason (Kant and Kierkegaard; postmodernists).

By the end of the eighteenth century, religious thinkers had available to them Kant’s sophisticated epistemology. Kant told them that reason was cut off from reality, and so many abandoned natural theology and gratefully used his epistemology to defend religion. By the middle of the twentieth century, Left thinkers had available to them sophisticated theories of epistemology and language that told them that truth is impossible—that evidence is theory-laden—that empirical evidence never adds up to proof—that logical proof is merely theoretical—that reason is artificial and dehumanizing—and that one’s feelings and passions are better guides than reason.

The prevailing skeptical and irrationalist epistemologies in academic philosophy thus provided the Left with a new strategy for responding to its crisis. Any attack on socialism in any form could be brushed aside, and the desire to believe in it reaffirmed. Those who adopted this strategy could always tell themselves that they were simply functioning as Kuhn said the scientists themselves function—by bracketing the anomalies, setting them aside, and then going with their feelings.

On this hypothesis, then, postmodernism is a symptom of the far Left’s crisis of faith. Postmodernism is a result of using skeptical epistemology to justify the personal leap of faith necessary to continue believing in socialism.

On this hypothesis, the prevalence of skeptical and irrationalist epistemologies in the middle of the twentieth century alone is not a sufficient explanation of postmodernism. A dead end of skepticism and irrationalism does not predict to what uses skepticism and irrationalism will be put. A desperate person or movement can appeal to those epistemologies as a defense mechanism, but who or what movement is desperate depends on other factors. In this case, socialism is the movement in trouble. But socialism’s troubles alone are not a sufficient explanation either. Unless the epistemological groundwork is laid, any movement that appeals to skeptical and irrationalist arguments will simply be laughed out of court. Therefore, it is a combination of the two factors—widespread skepticism about reason and socialism’s being in crisis—that is necessary to give rise to postmodernism.

Yet this Kierkegaardian explanation of postmodernism is incomplete as an account of postmodern strategy. For Left thinkers who are crushed by the failings of socialism, the Kierkegaardian option provides the justification needed for continuing to believe in socialism as a matter of personal faith. But for those who still want to carry on the battle against capitalism, the new epistemologies make other strategies possible.

Reversing Thrasymachus

So far my argument accounts for postmodernism’s subjectivism and relativism, its Left-wing politics, and the need to connect the two.

If this explanation is correct, then postmodernism is what I call Reverse Thrasymacheanism, alluding to the sophist Thrasymachus of Plato’s Republic. Some postmodernists see part of their project as rehabilitating the Sophists, and this makes perfect sense.

One could, after doing some philosophy, come to be a true believer in subjectivism and relativism. Accordingly, one could come to believe that reason is derivative, that will and desire rule, that society is a battle of competing wills, that words are merely tools in the power struggle for dominance, and that all is fair in love and war.

That is the position the Sophists argued 2400 years ago. The only difference, then, between the Sophists and the postmodernists is whose side they are on. Thrasymachus was representative of the second and cruder generation of Sophists, marshalling subjectivist and relativistic arguments in support of the political claim that justice is the interest of the stronger. The postmodernists—coming after two millennia of Christianity and two centuries of socialist theory—simply reverse that claim: Subjectivism and relativism are true, except that the postmodernists are on the side of the weaker and historically-oppressed groups. Justice, contrary to Thrasymachus, is the interest of the weaker.[298]

The connection to the Sophists moves postmodern strategy away from religious faith and toward realpolitik. The Sophists taught rhetoric not as a means of advancing truth and knowledge but as a means of winning debates in the rough-and-tumble world of day-to-day politics. Day-to-day politics is not a place where faithfully blinding oneself to the data leads to practical success. Rather it requires an openness to new realities and the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Extending that flexibility to include not being concerned for truth or consistency in argument can and often has been seen as part of a strategy for achieving political success. Here it is useful to recall Lentricchia: Postmodernism “seeks not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.”[299]

Excerpted from Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks. Copyright © Stephen Hicks, 2004, 2011, 2014. All rights reserved.

Part II: The Machiavellian Politics of Postmodernism


[288] Derrida 1978, 37.

[289] Rorty 1989, 6, 4-5.

[290] Rorty 1989, 9.

[291] Rorty 1991, 29.

[292] Fish 1994, 68-69.

[293] Dworkin 1987, 123, 126.

[294] Dworkin 1987, 123, 126, 47.

[295] Rorty 1998.

[296] Newman, Position of My Mind Since 1845.

[297] With his unparalleled capacity for confession, Rousseau generalized this point to all philosophers: “Each knows well that his system is no better founded than the others. But he maintains it because it is his. There is not a single one of them who, if he came to know the true and the false, would not prefer the lie he has found to the truth discovered by another” (1762a, 268-269).

[298] Placing pain and suffering at the center of morality is a recurring theme among the leading postmodernists. Lyotard, expressing agreement with Foucault, states that one has to “bear witness” to the “dissonance,” especially that of others (Lyotard 1988, xiii, 140-141). Rorty believes that “solidarity” is achieved by the “imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people” (Rorty 1989).

[299] Lentricchia 1983, 12.

Stephen HicksStephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and the Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (2010), and he is the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W.W. Norton and Co., second edition, 1998). He has also published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including Review of Metaphysics, The Journal of Private Enterprise, Teaching Philosophy, and The Wall Street Journal. You can follow his work at StephenHicks.org, and on Twitter.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Such a valuable resource this book is. Stephen Hicks is an incredible scholar, and he makes the most complicated stuff just legible enough for normal folks like myself to understand it.

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