by William J. Matthews, Ph.D.
Radical social constructivism and its equivalencies of cultural constructivism, deconstructivism, feminist discourse, post-structuralism, post-modernism and the like have become, in my opinion, a serious blight on the American intellectual landscape. The argument, which I will refer to in general terms as post-modernism, is, as I will show, logically fallacious and with only reasonably close inspection falls under its own nihilistic weight.
In essence, the post-modernist position is that truth is only relative and has no general application given that said truth is a mere construction created by a given social context. As Fox (1996) points out, such a statement even under the most cursory inspection is paradoxical and falls prey to the same problem as that of our ancient Cretan friend (whom you will remember told us that all Cretans are liars). Since truth is only relative and subject to various prejudices, the statement that “all truths are relative and have no generalizability” is itself simultaneously relative and absolute.
As such it offers us no reason to accept it. Relativism makes no distinction (because for such folks there is none) between objective verifiable knowledge and superstition (astrology, creationism, “flat-earthers,” to name but a few) . It is deeply flawed as an epistemology. It is, by definition, a direct attack on science, scientific method, and critical rationality. This view would offer us no way to distinguish between superstition and verifiable knowledge and as such is both nonsensical and intellectually dangerous.
Philosopher John Searle points out that the anti-realist (anti-realism being the epistemological underpinning of the post-modernist position) confuses the epistemological with the ontological. Ontological realism is a position virtually everyone takes automatically, while anti-realism is incoherent. Levitt (1997) simply state that realism is not so much a formal doctrine as it is the unspoken ground of all discourse, all attempts at communication (p.81), Any sincere declarative utterance is an attempt to give a true account of something assumed to be real.
Thus, when the post-modernist says that science is just one of many narratives (there implying science to be no more value than a superstitious belief) he is absolutely stating that science, scientists, narratives, logical positivism and superstition exit (i.e. have a stable reality independent of any particular knower). As such, the post-modernist is, malgre lui, as much an ontological realist as any logical positivist. This is not an insignificant point to be lightly considered and dismissed.
It speaks to the heart of the matter. Now, I am not saying that therefore we all share the same epistemology or the same hierarchy of categories. Of course, we do not. Post-modernist and the like, when not pretending to be anti-realists, believe that the socially really is the really real while science is just another “narrative”. Post-modernists are realists, albeit confused ones (Levitt, 1997).
Joseph Carroll’s (1996) recent book, Evolution and Literary Theory, provides an elegant and straightforward discussion of the incoherence of post-modernism in discussing evolutionary theory. Carroll logically refutes the two fundamental doctrines of post-modernist thought:
(1)Textuality (language does not represent experience but constructs it according to its own internal principles) and;
(2) Indeterminacy (language is fraught with gaps that render all text void of specific contingent and/or causal meaning). He observes that the chief problem with these principles is in fact, their short sighted anti-realism. As stated by Carroll “textuality and indeterminacy eliminate the two criteria of truth: the correspondence of propositions to their objects and the internal coherence of propositions” (p. 4). Caroll observes that if there is no correspondence between literature and one’s experience of the world then there is no value to, or need of, literature or certainly literary scholarship. Such a conclusion would not be happily received in most English departments.
Trapped by their own premise
He concludes by noting the internal logic (i.e. the lack thereof) of postmodern thought thus renders its own principles incapable of validation, conveniently relieving its practitioners of all intellectual responsibility for their pronouncements. In adopting such a position, literary criticism (a wholly owned subsidiary of post-modernism) negates its own effort at legitimization.
Simply stated, post-modernists are suggesting theory X (post-modernism) is a more useful way of understanding the world than theory Y (critical rationality) but can offer no compelling evidence (because there is no such thing as verifiable evidence, given that everything is textual and indeterminate) to accept theory X over theory Y. Given the logical inconsistency of its argument and no possibility of verifiability, on what basis should one accept this alternative explanation of the world?
Meanwhile back in the therapy session
In therapy, all stories are not equal (observing any experienced therapist discarding various hypotheses will confirm this notion). For example, a woman whom we shall call Nicole, says her husband beat her up. Her husband, a charming public persona, says he did not. She produces photographic evidence, witnesses, and a police report to substantiate her claim / theory / explanation.
Few reasonable folks would believe the charming husband. To continue this example, Nicole then comes into therapy and tells a different narrative about the battering, saying that it really was not battering and anyway it is not continuing (while showing bruises consistent with previous batterings). What therapist would believe that narrative? It is a narrative that directly contradicts the physical evidence which by definition has at least some stability over time and space independent of Nicole’s narrative.
Ultimately post-modernism and its equivalencies (social constructivism, deconstructivism, etc.) offer nothing. Such a belief system is nihilistic and not radically dissimilar to that which gave rise in the past to unpleasant behaviors (e.g., Nazi mythohistorical notions, Aryan science, etc.) and to current unpleasantness such as Holocaust deniers (i.e., “since there is no historical fact, the Holocaust is a (Jewish conspiratorial) narrative” (Crews 1996).
While most folks who would subscribe to post-modernist thought would not be given to such extremism, the underlying principle of nihilism remains. Science does not suggest an absolute paradigm, if offers paradigms and shifts as described by Thomas Kuhn based on internally consistent theories and falisifiable hypotheses subject to public experience (empirical data).
Caroll, J. (1997) Evolution and literary theory. University of Missouri Press.
Crews,F. (1996) The consolation of Theosophy. New York Review of Books, September.
Gross, P. & Levitt, N. (1994) Higher superstition: The academic left and its quarrel with science. Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore.
Levitt, N (1997) More higher superstitions: Knowledge, knowingness, and reality. Skeptic Magazine, vol. 4, #4.
Sugiyama, M. (1997) Review of J. Carroll’s Evolution and literary theory. Skeptic Magazine, Vol. 4, #4.