Postmodernism’s Dangerous Assault on Reason

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) (Image: Bandan / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

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 1: What Postmodernism Is

Modernism and the Enlightenment

In philosophy, modernism’s essentials are located in the formative figures of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and René Descartes (1596-1650), for their influence upon epistemology, and more comprehensively in John Locke (1632-1704), for his influence upon all aspects of philosophy.

Bacon, Descartes, and Locke are modern because of their philosophical naturalism, their profound confidence in reason, and, especially in the case of Locke, their individualism. Modern thinkers start from nature—instead of starting with some form of the supernatural, which had been the characteristic starting point of pre-modern, Medieval philosophy. Modern thinkers stress that perception and reason are the human means of knowing nature—in contrast to the pre-modern reliance upon tradition, faith, and mysticism. Modern thinkers stress human autonomy and the human capacity for forming one’s own character—in contrast to the pre-modern emphasis upon dependence and original sin. Modern thinkers emphasize the individual, seeing the individual as the unit of reality, holding that the individual’s mind is sovereign, and that the individual is the unit of value—in contrast to the pre-modernist, feudal subordination of the individual to higher political, social, or religious realities and authorities.[13]

Modern philosophy came to maturity in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment philosophes quite rightly saw themselves as radical. The pre-modern Medieval worldview and the modern Enlightenment worldview were coherent, comprehensive—and entirely opposed—accounts of reality and the place of human beings within it. Medievalism had dominated the West for 1000 years, from roughly 400 CE to 1400 CE. In a centuries-long transition period, the thinkers of the Renaissance, with some unintended help from the major Reformation figures, undermined the Medieval worldview and paved the way for the revolutionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the eighteenth century, the pre-modern philosophy of Medieval era had been routed intellectually, and the philosophes were moving quickly to transform society on the basis of the new, modern philosophy.

The modern philosophers disagreed among themselves about many issues, but their core agreements outweighed the disagreements. Descartes’s account of reason, for example, is rationalist while Bacon’s and Locke’s are empiricist, thus placing them at the heads of competing schools. But what is fundamental to all three is the central status of reason as objective and competent—in contrast to the faith, mysticism, and intellectual authoritarianism of earlier ages. Once reason is given pride of place, the entire Enlightenment project follows.

If one emphasizes that reason is a faculty of the individual, then individualism becomes a key theme in ethics. Locke’s A Letter concerning Toleration (1689) and Two Treatises of Government (1690) are landmark texts in the modern history of individualism. Both link the human capacity for reason to ethical individualism and its social consequences: the prohibition of force against another’s independent judgment or action, individual rights, political equality, limiting the power of government, and religious toleration.

If one emphasizes that reason is the faculty of understanding nature, then that epistemology systematically applied yields science. Enlightenment thinkers laid the foundations of all the major branches of science. In mathematics, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz independently developed the calculus, Newton developing his version in 1666 and Leibniz publishing his in 1675. The most monumental publication in the history of modern physics, Newton’s Principia Mathematica, appeared in 1687. A century of unprecedented investigation and achievement led to the production of Carolus Linnaeus’s Systema naturae in 1735 and Philosophia Botanica in 1751, jointly presenting a comprehensive biological taxonomy, and to the production of Antoine Lavoisier’s Traité élémentaire de chimie (Treatise on Chemical Elements) in 1789, the landmark text in the foundations of chemistry.

Individualism and science are thus consequences of an epistemology of reason. Both applied systematically have enormous consequences.

Individualism applied to politics yields liberal democracy. Liberalism is the principle of individual freedom, and democracy is the principle of decentralizing political power to individuals. As individualism rose in the modern world, feudalism declined. England’s liberal revolution in 1688 began the trend. Modern political principles spread to America and France in the eighteenth century, leading to liberal revolutions there in 1776 and 1789. The weakening and overthrow of the feudal regimes then made possible the practical extension of liberal individualist ideas to all human beings. Racism and sexism are obvious affronts to individualism and so had been increasingly on the defensive as the eighteenth century progressed. For the first time ever in history, societies were formed for the elimination of slavery—in America in 1784, in England in 1787, and a year later in France; and 1791 and 1792 saw the publication of Olympe de Gouges’s Declaration of the Rights of Women and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, landmarks in the push for women’s liberty and equality.[14]

Individualism applied to economics yields free markets and capitalism. Capitalist economics is based on the principle that individuals should be left free to make their own decisions about production, consumption, and trade. As individualism rose in the eighteenth century, feudal and mercantilist arguments and institutions declined. With the development of free markets came a theoretical grasp of the productive impact of the division of labor and specialization and of the retarding impact of protectionism and other restrictive regulations. Capturing and extending those insights, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is the landmark text in the history of modern economics. Theory and practice developed in tandem, and as markets became freer and more international the amount of wealth available increased dramatically. For example, N. F. R. Crafts’s estimates of British average annual income, accepted by both pro- and anti-capitalist historians, show a historically unprecedented rise, from $333 in 1700 to $399 in 1760, to $427 in 1800, to $498 in 1830, and then a big jump to $804 in 1860.[15]

Science applied systematically to material production yields engineering and technology. The new culture of reasoning, experimenting, entrepreneurship, and the free exchange of ideas and wealth meant that by the mid-1700s scientists and engineers were discovering knowledge and creating technologies on a historically unprecedented scale. The outstanding consequence of this was the Industrial Revolution, which was metaphorically picking up steam by 1750s, and literally picking up steam with the success of James Watt’s engine after 1769. Thomas Arkwright’s water-frame (1769), James Hargreaves’s spinning-jenny (c. 1769), and Samuel Crompton’s mule (1779) all revolutionized spinning and weaving. Between 1760-80, for example, British consumption of raw cotton went up 540 percent, from 1.2 to 6.5 million pounds. The rich stuck to their hand-made goods for awhile, so the first things to be mass-produced in the new factories were cheap goods for the masses: soap, cotton clothes and linens, shoes, Wedgwood china, iron pots, and so on.

Science applied to the understanding of human beings yields medicine. The new approaches to understanding the human being as a naturalistic organism drew upon new studies, begun in the Renaissance, of human physiology and anatomy. Supernaturalistic and other pre-modern accounts of human ailments were swept aside as, by the second half of the eighteenth century, medicine put itself increasingly on a scientific footing. The outstanding consequence was that, combined with the rise in wealth, modern medicine increased human longevity dramatically. Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine in 1796, for example, both provided a protection against a major killer of the eighteenth century and established the science of immunization. Advances in obstetrics both established it as a separate branch of medicine and, more strikingly, contributed to the significant decline of infant mortality rates. In London, for example, the death rate for children before the age of five fell from 74.5 percent in 1730-49 to 31.8 percent in 1810-29.[16]

Modern philosophy matured in the 1700s until the dominant set of views of the era were naturalism, reason and science, tabula rasa, individualism, and liberalism. The Enlightenment was both the dominance of those ideas in intellectual circles and their translation into practice. As a result, individuals were becoming freer, wealthier, living longer, and enjoying more material comfort than at any point before in history.

Postmodernism versus the Enlightenment

Postmodernism rejects the entire Enlightenment project. It holds that the modernist premises of the Enlightenment were untenable from the beginning and that their cultural manifestations have now reached their nadir. While the modern world continues to speak of reason, freedom, and progress, its pathologies tell another story. The postmodern critique of those pathologies is offered as the death knell of modernism: “The deepest strata of Western culture” have been exposed, Foucault argues, and are “once more stirring under our feet.”[17] Accordingly, states Rorty, the postmodern task is to figure out what to do “now that both the Age of Faith and the Enlightenment seem beyond recovery.”[18]

Postmodernism rejects the Enlightenment project in the most fundamental way possible—by attacking its essential philosophical themes. Postmodernism rejects the reason and the individualism that the entire Enlightenment world depends upon. And so it ends up attacking all of the consequences of the Enlightenment philosophy, from capitalism and liberal forms of government to science and technology.

Postmodernism’s essentials are the opposite of modernism’s. Instead of natural reality—anti-realism. Instead of experience and reason—linguistic social subjectivism. Instead of individual identity and autonomy—various race, sex, and class group-isms. Instead of human interests as fundamentally harmonious and tending toward mutually-beneficial interaction—conflict and oppression. Instead of valuing individualism in values, markets, and politics—calls for communalism, solidarity, and egalitarian restraints. Instead of prizing the achievements of science and technology—suspicion tending toward outright hostility.

That comprehensive philosophical opposition informs the more specific postmodern themes in the various academic and cultural debates.

Postmodern academic themes

Postmodern literary criticism rejects the notion that literary texts have objective meanings and true interpretations. All such claims to objectivity and truth can be deconstructed. In one version of deconstruction, represented by those who agree with the quotation from Fish on page 2 above, literary criticism becomes a form of subjective play in which the reader pours subjective associations into the text. In another version, objectivity is replaced by the view that an author’s race, sex, or other group membership most deeply shapes the author’s views and feelings. The task of the literary critic, accordingly, is to deconstruct the text to reveal the author’s race, sex, or class interests. Authors and characters who least embody the correct attitudes are naturally subject to the greatest amount of deconstruction. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, in The Scarlet Letter seems at least ambivalent about Hester Prynne’s moral status—and this ambivalence reveals that he has sold out to an authoritarian, conformist, and repressive masculine religious establishment.[19] Or: Herman Melville in Moby Dick may have thought that he was exploring universal themes of personal and social ambition, man and nature—but what Captain Ahab really represents is the exploitative authoritarianism of imperialistic patriarchalism and the insane drive of technology to conquer nature.[20]

In law, versions of Legal Pragmatism and Critical Legal Theory embody the new wave. For the pragmatist version of postmodernism, any abstract and universal theory of the law is to be distrusted. Theories are worthwhile only to the extent that they provide the lawyer or judge with useful verbal tools.[21] Standards for usefulness, however, are subjective and variable, so the legal world becomes a postmodernist battleground. As there are no universally valid legal principles of justice, arguments become rhetorical battles of wills. The Critical Legal Theorists represent the race, class, and sex version of legal postmodernism. According to the Crits, legal constitutions and precedents are essentially indeterminate, and the so-called objectivity and neutrality of legal reasoning are frauds. All decisions are inherently subjective and driven by preference and politics. The law is a weapon to be used in the social arena of subjective conflict, an arena driven by competing wills and the coercive assertion of one group’s interests over those of other groups. In the West, for too long the law has been a cover for the assertion of white male interests. The only antidote to that poison is the equally forceful assertion of the subjective interests of historically oppressed groups. Stanley Fish marries the pragmatist and Crit approaches in arguing that if lawyers and judges come to think of themselves as “supplementers” rather than “textualists,” they “will thereby be marginally more free than they otherwise would be to infuse into constitutional law their current interpretations of our society’s values.”[22]

In education, postmodernism rejects the notion that the purpose of education is primarily to train a child’s cognitive capacity for reason in order to produce an adult capable of functioning independently in the world. That view of education is replaced with the view that education is to take an essentially indeterminate being and give it a social identity.[23] Education’s method of molding is linguistic, and so the language to be used is that which will create a human being sensitive to its racial, sexual, and class identity. Our current social context, however, is characterized by oppression that benefits whites, males, and the rich at the expense of everyone else. That oppression in turn leads to an educational system that reflects only or primarily the interests of those in positions of power. To counteract that bias, educational practice must be recast totally. Postmodern education should emphasize works not in the canon; it should focus on the achievements of non-whites, females, and the poor; it should highlight the historical crimes of whites, males, and the rich; and it should teach students that science’s method has no better claim to yielding truth than any other method and, accordingly, that students should be equally receptive to alternative ways of knowing.[24]

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

[13] “Pre-modernism,” as here used, excludes the classical Greek and Roman traditions and takes as its referent the dominant intellectual framework from roughly 400 CE to 1300 CE. Augustinian Christianity was pre-modernism’s intellectual center of gravity. In the later medieval era, Thomism was an attempt to marry Christianity with a naturalistic Aristotelian philosophy. Accordingly, Thomistic philosophy undermined the pre-modern synthesis and helped open the door to the Renaissance and modernity.

On the use of “modernism” here, see also White (1991, 2-3) for a similar linking of reason, individualism, liberalism, capitalism, and progress as constituting the heart of the modern project.

[14] The application of reason and individualism to religion led to a decline of faith, mysticism, and superstition. As a result, the religious wars finally cooled off until, for example, after the 1780s no more witches were burned in Europe (Kors and Peters 1972, 15).

[15] Measured in 1970 U.S. dollars; Nardinelli, 1993.

[16] Hessen 1962, 14; see also Nardinelli 1990, 76-79.

[17] Foucault 1966/1973, xxiv.

[18] Rorty 1982, 175. Also John Gray: “We live today amid the dim ruins of the Enlightenment project, which was the ruling project of the modern period” (1995, 145).

[19] Hoffman 1990,14-15, 28.

[20] Schultz 1988, 52, 55-57.

[21] Luban 1998, 275; Grey 1998.

[22] Fish quoting Thomas Grey (Fish 1985, 445).

[23] Golden 1996, 381-382.

[24] Mohanty 1980, 185.

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, and on Twitter.

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