January 04, 2008


Why is this supposed to be distinctively postmodern? I imagine that postmodernists would level exactly the same accusation at analytic philosophers.

Posted by Matt Weiner at January 4, 2008 08:03 PM

That was my thought...

Posted by: Kenny Easwaran at January 5, 2008 06:05 PM

Out of curiosity, why would a postmodernist make this accusation at analytic philosophy....?

Posted by: Thom Brooks at January 6, 2008 08:57 AM

Well, I'm not a postmodernist, but analytic philosophers aren't exactly known for refraining from inventing terms, and often those terms are pretty close to existing concepts. To pick two examples, Grice's "implicate" is very much like ordinary language "imply," and "explanandum" simply means "what is explained." So they seem to me to fall under Kant's proscription. Analytic philosophy has its own jargon.

Now, I think both these terms were good inventions. It's good to have a term that means "implication, of this kind and not that kind (logical entailment)," and it's a lot easier to write about explanation if you have single words for explanandum and explanans. Jargon can be helpful. Which may be to say that, though w can all profit from Kant's advice about how to do philosophy, we might not take him as a model for how to write up our philosophy.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at January 6, 2008 12:00 PM

Because postmodernism is bad, and therefore anything that is bad is postmodernist.

Lots of things get called "postmodernism." What people usually mean when they say that, especially pejoratively, is not David Foster Wallace, but one or all of a variety of methodologies that are derived from something called "post-structuralism." That itself was a perfectly legitimate critical development that arose after and both in homage to and rebellion against, you guessed it, structuralism. (Barthes, an avatar of structuralism, was also one of the pillars of post-structuralism. That's post-structuralism for you!)

My point is that once upon a time, people who understood this stuff, even people who didn't like it, understood the distinction between: the postmodern, which is originally a term for a historical moment, a style of art (visual, novelistic, etc.); and post-structuralism, which is a critical movement that sometimes but not always talks about the postmodern. For example, "The Postmodern Condition," which is one of the founding texts, is an analysis of philosophical narratives at this historical moment. On the other hand, if you look at "The Political Unconscious," which is certainly a post-structuralist book, the authors whose work Jameson analyzes are 19thC vets such as Balzac and Gissing, not David Foster Wallace (who was barely alive when the book was written anyway).

But here we are, some years after, and post-modernism is a name that has stuck (Jameson even more or less adopted it), although the critical tendencies I'm talking about have been around so long that they're not even trendy anymore. I'll be the first to admit that they're sometimes pretty dense. However, making up names for stuff is hardly unique to post-structuralism. Everybody has jargon; one theorist's jargon is another's specialized technical language. A true post-structuralist would say that insisting on using ordinary words for specialized meanings doesn't make your project more transparent or universal; it just creates the illusory feeling that your project is transparent.

Incidentally, I don't think postmodernists, whoever or wherever they are, would lob an accusation of making up meaningless words at analytic philosophers. There is the possibility that they just wouldn't care what words philosophers make up. Also possibly, they might suggest that analytic philosophers are exercising themselves in a logic-game at a time when the underlying methodology or master narrative of constructing a theory of knowledge has been called into question. (See Lyotard, perhaps, or many others - even Kuhn, although he wouldn't have put it in those terms.)

Posted by: Ben at January 7, 2008 12:44 AM

I think I knew what postmodernism (Po-mo) meant in architecture, and by extension in art. In architecture it meant the return of the repressed: historical references and decorative elements that modernism had swept away, frequently used ironically/selfconsciously/wittily. The archetype for me is the New York skyscraper with the Chippendale top; I think it was Edward Durrell Stone's. I think modernism had an organizing moral program: form follows function, integrity is important, truth is beauty.

In philosophy, psychology, and literary studies, post-modernism seems to be characterized not only by the invention of terms (all schools do that) but also by its deployment of punctuation. Slashes and parentheses are pressed into the service of -- what? indecision, ambiguity, irony?

Posted by: Matt's mom at January 7, 2008 11:20 AM

I don't agree. I think postmodernism (whatever it is) is something that is by and large rejected by the vast majority of philosophers and taken seriously by a decreasing number of people in non-philosophy departments.

The uses and abuses of language are surely much worse with postmodernists (again, whatever it is) than analytic philosophers, with the latter's greater premium on clarity of argument.

Posted by: Thom Brooks at January 7, 2008 02:27 PM

Thom, I think if you're going to criticize postmodernism for making up jargon, it is incumbent on you to demonstrate that you (and many others; I'm not accusing you of being the original sinner here) haven't ginned up "postmodernism" as shorthand for something that also goes by other names. To be more clear on what discipline(s) it is that you're talking about, and who you're accusing.

It does no good to say that the uses and abuses of language are "surely" much worse with postmodernists than analytic philosophers. By whose standard? Is there some metric for abused language that we're supposed to be applying? I suspect that an issue of Physical Review Letters is even harder to comprehend than an MLA panel. (I don't know if an MLA panel is harder to comprehend than an APA panel, or if it's possible to define an objective observer who could fairly decide that question.) That doesn't mean PRL is vacuous. You speak jargon, and I speak a refined technical language; or vice versa.

Posted by: Ben at January 7, 2008 04:47 PM

Well, let me preface this by saying that I feel sort of bad about picking on statements in blogs and comments, which aren't supposed to be very precise or well argued. But that said, I think that if analytic philosophers are going to cite our clarity of argument as our primary virtue, we need to be clear in our arguments against postmodernism as well. If we don't even know what postmodernism is, we can't give a very clear argument against it, or that it commits certain sins. So, if you're going to say that postmodernism gratuitously invents words, you should give examples. Then we might be able to judge whether there's something worse going on than just possibly unnecessary jargon.

Not that I think you're really obliged to make an argument here -- if you can't make an offhand expression of your opinion on a blog, where can you make it? But to make your remark into an argument against postmodernism, we'd need to do much more to come to grips with what it is and what it's doing.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at January 7, 2008 08:14 PM

The skyscraper with the Chippendale top was Philip Johnson. FWIW, I hated that from the first picture I saw of it. It would have made a great drawing, but a lousy skyline. You might be thinking of Edward Durrell Stone's building at 2 Columbus Circle, the white building with the faux-Arabic blank facade. Stone was more of a pre-postmodern architect - in the sense that he was a modernist who then went off the reservation and started adding decoration, for which he was widely decried. Then when Philip Johnson took a similar path later, it was en vogue. Go figure.

The Ur-texts of revolution against modernist architecture are probably Robert Venturi's "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture" and Venturi/Scott-Brown/Izenour's "Learning from Las Vegas." These are both very interesting, more so than many ticky tack postmodern skyscrapers.

Incidentally, "Urtexte" is a German word whose use in English I associate with (in recent use) a piece of pomo or post-structuralist lit crit jargon. But it's very useful!

Posted by: Ben at January 7, 2008 10:03 PM

Wow, this seems a lot more analysis than a glib bit of attempted snark can bear!

What I find interesting is that even as a high-toned put-down, it seems to misfire. If the only sin of "post-modernist" theory were that it dressed up ordinary concepts in fancy jargon, then it could be held pretentious, but it would at least be meaningful. Perhaps that is what the poster intended. But I suspect he aimed to align himself with the critical line that, underneath the jargon, there is really no meaning to be found in it at all.

Posted by: Anders Weinstein at January 16, 2008 01:12 PM

...and so let me understand the latest post. If we agreed (for argument's sake) that postmodernism (whatever else it is) is dressing "up ordinary concepts in fancy jargon," then what is the importance of the "it would at least be meaningful" bit?

Ockham's razor offers us great guidance. If you have a more direct and at least as satisfactory argument, then this trumps a less direct argument even if it is satisfactory. In other words (and at its most charitable), postmodernists "beat around the bush" instead of "getting to the point."

I would want to defend stronger arguments against postmodernism, but why? This alone gives us good reason to stick with analytic philosophy, rather than postmodern pomobabble.

Posted by: Thom Brooks at January 18, 2008 02:11 AM

Well, that would be decisive if we agreed that:

(1) Postmodernism dressed up ordinary concepts in fancy jargon;
(2) Analytic philosophy did not dress up ordinary concepts in fancy jargon, at least not to the same extent;
(3) For every piece of postmodernism, there was a piece of analytic philosophy saying the same thing.

Then we should reject all postmodernism in favor of the corresponding piece of analytic philosophy. But (3) is a very strong claim, and its full strength is needed.

(1) basically says that postmodernism has a certain presentational flaw. But much valuable philosophy has certain presentational flaws. For instance, much analytic philosophers is written in pedestrian prose. (I do not except myself.) It would be better if it were not written in pedestrian prose. But this is not a reason to reject it out of hand, because if we restricted our attention to well-written prose we would miss out on some valuable stuff that hadn't (yet) been expressed well. Similarly, unless there is jargon-free piece corresponding to every jargony piece, if we reject jargon entirely we may miss out on some valuable insights that have been expressed using jargon and that haven't been expressed without jargon.

Anyway, as Ben said above we haven't seen a good argument for (2), and I don't think that (1) is even meaningful, given our lack of a satisfactory definition for "postmodernism" or even clear examples of what we're talking about. I'd also add that if postmodernism includes Foucault, as seems to be suggested by the link Anders gave, then the charge that postmodernism is meaningless is false -- I've read (a little) Foucault, and his writings aren't meaningless. I think they may be radically wrong in certain ways, but they aren't meaningless.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at January 18, 2008 09:54 PM
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