July 26, 2006

Epistemological nihilism

Can Humanists Talk to Postmodernists? Mark Goldblatt Academia's Version of the Tower of Babel
Indeed, the postmodern rejection of the law of non-contradiction constitutes, from a humanist standpoint, not merely a rejection of logic but of the rational element in human nature. The humanist does not view logic as a cultural construct, a pattern of thinking inculcated by years of repetition; rather, he views it as the way in which the rational mind has always worked. To operate rationally is, instinctively, to rely on logical reasoning.
There is, for the humanist, no getting around the laws of thought. The claim, often advanced (See, for example, Gayatri Spivak's introduction to Derrida's Of Grammatology, especially xvii-xviii.) that the project of postmodernism involves suspending logic in order to call it into question skims over this crucial point: Nothing can be called into question unless it can be affirmed or denied. But to affirm or deny, as we’ve seen, is to invoke logic, to invoke the laws of thought.
Just as you cannot suspend the rules of arithmetic in order to do calculus, you cannot suspend the laws of thought in order to do analysis--for these laws precede every rational epistemology.
  • Descartes's "I think: therefore I am" presupposes that he cannot be and not be simultaneously.
  • Husserl's phenomenological reduction relies on being able to distinguish that which can be doubted from that which cannot be doubted--and furthermore presupposes that certitude is a more valid ground on which to build knowledge than doubt.
  • Even Wittgenstein's verifiability principle must take as axiomatic the law of non-contradiction (which itself is not verifiable) in order for the process of verification to proceed.

That a thing is what it is; that a thing cannot be and not be simultaneously; that a cause exists for every effect--no culture has ever existed which did not, explicitly or implicitly, reason in accordance with these laws. Our remotest ancestors reasoned in this way. They built their mud huts--and perhaps observed that one of the huts collapsed. Whereas we would now attribute the collapse to bad geometry, they perhaps attributed the collapse to the displeasure of a god.

Regardless of whose interpretation is correct, the laws of thought remain the same. The hut did not collapse without a cause. (That is the law of causality.) To build the same hut, in the same place, under the same conditions, will bring the same result. (That is the law of identity.) The next hut will either collapse or not collapse. (That is the law of excluded middle.) But it cannot do both simultaneously. (That is the law of non-contradiction.) The rational inklings that inspired Cro-Magnons out of their caves became, in the course of time, the methodology of Aristotle: it became, simply, logic. What Cro-Magnon Man intuited, Postmodern Man has come to disavow. The schism is not merely academic but evolutionary.

Postmodernism, in fact, constitutes an explicit rejection of the element of sapientia in homo sapiens, as evidenced by the epistemological nihilism in the literary critic Jane Tompkins’s remark that "there really are no facts except as they are embedded in some particular way of seeing the world" (577). Such a claim denies the facticity of facts, reduces facts to the status of received beliefs. This would be mere relativism except that a paragraph later, Tompkins insists, "This doesn’t mean that you have to accept just anybody’s facts. You can show that what someone else asserts to be a fact is false."
The obvious question, though, is: How? With no independently existing reality against which assertions of fact can be measured, how can you "show" that a "fact" is "false"? Even if a humanist were to overlook the pragmatic difficulties of Tompkins’s position, he would still be compelled to inquire how exactly she arrived at her conclusion of the cultural embeddedness of facts. She cannot have deduced it from a fact that is not culturally embedded--since she states that no such facts exist.
Nor can she have induced it from her own experience since she would have to know the factual validity of the laws of thought, of observation and inference, of inductive reasoning. Tompkins’s claim, from a humanist perspective, must therefore be taken as mystical--a conclusion she reached despite evidence rather than because of it. But mystics cannot be rationally engaged. Their testimonies are not subject to verification or falsification. There is no marketplace of ideas among rival faiths. Author e-mail: Ducts.Org

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