Tuesday, January 06, 2015

An Age of Superstition

Peter Watson:

What the French thinkers (and Habermas) produced was essentially a postmodern form of Marxism. Some of the authors seem reluctant to abandon Marx, others are keen to update him, but no one seems willing to jettison him entirely. It is not so much his economic determinism or his class-based motivations that are retained as his idea of 'false consciousness', expressed through the idea that knowledge, and reason, must always be forged or mediated by the power relations of any society — that knowledge, hermeneutics, and understanding all serve a purpose. Just as Kant said there is no pure reason, so, we are told from the Continent, there is no pure knowledge, and understanding this is emancipatory. While it would not be true to say that these writers are anti-scientific (Piaget, Foucault and Habermas are too well-informed to be so crude), there is among them a feeling that science is by no means the only form of knowledge worth having, that it is seriously inadequate to explain much, if not most, of what we know. These authors do not exactly ignore evolution, but they show little awareness of how their theories fit — or do not fit — into the proliferation of genetic and ethological studies. It is also noticeable that almost all of them accept, and enlist as support, evidence from psychoanalysis. There is, for anglophone readers, something rather unreal about this late continental focus on Freud, as many critics have pointed out. Finally, there is also a feeling that Foucault, Lacan and Derrida have done little more than elevate small-scale observations, the undoubted misuses of criminals or the insane in the past, or in Lacan's case vagaries in the use of language, into entire edifices of philosophy. Ultimately, the answer here must lie in how convincing others find their arguments. None has found universal acceptance. At the same time, the ways in which they have subverted the idea that there is a general canon, or one way of looking at man, and telling his story, has undoubtedly had an effect.

This is from a chapter on the French intellectuals of the late twentieth century. Most of the time, when you hear someone disparaging postmodernists, these are the people whom they have in mind. (Lacan's most famous disciple, of course, is the grotesque caricature-wrapped-in-a-parody-inside-a-bullshit-farce, Slavoj Žižek.) Anyway, banalities elevated into profundities aside, false consciousness has indeed proved to be one of Marx's most enduring ideas. You hear its echoes when people are said to be "voting against their own interests", as if the speaker knows better than them what they really want or need, or when, say, minorities and women feel that their individual perspective trumps the imperatives of their race or gender (as dictated to them by the self-appointed intelligentsia). The truism that there is no such thing as knowledge outside of perspective becomes, in practice, Foucault's "genealogical method", where the aim of an argument is not to rebut specific assertions, but to identify the supposed wellspring of your opponent's thought and declare it hopelessly polluted, thus implying, without needing to openly assert, that everything downstream is likewise poisoned.

It wasn't just the French, though; the Frankfurt School is noted earlier in the book for being preoccupied with "the attempted marriage of Freudianism and Marxism." Watson also quoted Friedrich Hayek: "I believe men will look back on our age as an age of superstition, chiefly connected with the names of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud." It's funny because it's true! In an age in which science was quickly colonizing all forms of human experience, almost the entire intellectual class of Europe and America was captivated by two systems of thought which look increasingly ridiculous the further they appear in hindsight. And so I still wonder: what will our descendants think about the water in which we're swimming now? Why should we assume that we aren't living under the spell of superstitious nonsense while priding ourselves on our cutting-edge scientific awareness just as much as people in the last century were?