Sep 15, 2011
The plague of postmodernism
In the following text I will quote rather a lot of Susan Haack's 1997 essay "Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism" (*) that I found at the Skeptical Inquirer site, whence I was led this time because I found it linked on a site with articles about Charles Sanders Peirce, in whose philosophy Ms. Haack and I are both interested.
I'll have to sketch in some background first, before quoting and commenting some, and namely about why I am concerned with the subject and what I know about Susan Haack - who, as the Wikipedia link shows, is an English philosopher, who wrote well about logic in two books I owe (namely: Deviant logic and Philosophy of Logics), and who seems to be a quite rational and sensible person.
I have read a little more of her than the two books I mentioned, which is about the extent of my knowledge of her - but then I do not consider most academically tenured professors of philosophy that I know of, or have met, in this day and age, to be rational and sensible persons, and I really liked the books of her that I read.
Next by way of introduction, how and why I am concerned with the subject of postmodernism. As it happens, I have explained this quite a few times in English and in Dutch:
In fact, there is rather a lot more on the subject of postmodernism on this site, notably this, that summarizes a lot about it well:
In brief, I took postmodernism serious from the time I first became aware of it, in the late 1970ies, and always considered it dangerous bullshit - in which I was for over two decades nearly the only one in Holland, for this changed only somewhat, and then mostly in terms of public relations rather than change of personnel or ideas, after
Ms Haack's text that I shall
quote from dates from 1997, that is, after the Sokal affair and after
postmodernism had been gaining ground for some twenty years in
all Western universitities - which I say not to criticize Ms Haack, who
argued against it and against some of its notable proponents like Rorty
(**) earlier, but to fill in the
chronological background, including the fact that it had been going on
some two decades already in 1997.
They were "democratized" by law, mostly according to the wishes of the radical students, with one man, one vote - for the student, the professor, and the cleaner - for representatives in the parliaments in the various faculties of the university, and also for the University Parliament.
In fact, it worked out that the top jobs in the University of Amsterdam invariably went to prominent members of Dutch Labour, who ruled with the help of the various parliaments that were yearly elected, where most of the 20-plus years those elected were members of the Dutch Communist Party and/or feminists, who accordingly held the effective power in the universities.
This Soviet-style model of
running the Dutch universities - all of them, by law, since 1971 - made
the situation in higher education in Holland and in Amsterdam quite
different from that in other countries.
We are in danger of losing our grip
on the concepts of truth, evidence, objectivity, disinterested inquiry.
The preposterous environment in which academic work is presently
conducted is inhospitable to genuine inquiry, hospitable to the sham
and the fake. Encouraging both envy and resentment of the sciences, it
has fed an increasingly widespread and articulate irrationalism.
Quite so, except that I would not write "We" - as I will briefly explain in my Appendix - while by the year 1997 this "grip on the concepts of truth, evidence, objectivity, disinterested inquiry" had been lost or had been - gladly, proudly, and in the name of emancipation and academic freedom - given up by most of the academic staff of the university and by nearly all of the students already some 15 or 20 years earlier in the Dutch universities, where nearly everybody claimed ad nauseam for more than two decades that "everybody is equivalent", "everybody knows that truth doesn't exist" (this is what the world and I were told in the public academic lecture for all attendants that opened the academic year .... 1978), and furthemore, in the same lecture and elsewhere in the university, that "all morality is relative" - and, so my professors taught all students, in the Soviet Union, "that existing socialist society", there was an "equivalent attempt at constructing a social system at work":
The same sort of reasoning led in the University of Amsterdam, in nearly all faculties, to the Orwellian thesis, that was publicly maintained and taught, usually with great moral pride, that since all are equivalent, and truth doesn't exist, that therefore feminism, relativism, and socialism are best, and that those who disagree must be "fascists".
Ms. Haack quotes Barzun after her own epigraph, and then continues:
There is, to be sure, a lot of misinformation about, and that is, certainly, a problem. But what concerns me is a deeper and more disturbing development: a rising tide of irrationalism, a widespread and increasingly articulate loss of confidence in the very possibility of honest inquiry, scientific or otherwise.
Quite so - and in the University of Amsterdam, and indeed in other Dutch universities, this took the form, next to the Soviet-style University and Faculty Parliaments full of members of the Communist and Social-Democrat Parties, all eager for tenure and personal careers, of "five-year plans of university development", as under Stalinism, where the one that guided all of the actions of the University was, from 1982-1987 dedicated to the following general priorities for all of the university, and agreed to by majorities in all university parliaments (and I mostly quote):
furthering the interests of the Trade Unions
The very rare dissidents,
like me, who desired to study or work in a university that was
dedicated to furthering the interests of real science or who
desired an excellent education for the brightest minds of their
generation were descried publicly, as a matter of course, and with
great feelings of moral justification as "fascists". It happened to me,
and many times, for I have been unwise enough to become "a
studentleader" who attempted to stem the rising tides of irrationality,
politicization, and general levelling in the name of "democracy" and
A hundred years or so ago, C. S. Peirce, a working scientist as well as the greatest of American philosophers, distinguished genuine inquiry from “sham reasoning,” pseudo-inquiry aimed not at finding the truth but at making a case for some conclusion immovably believed in advance; and predicted that, when sham reasoning becomes commonplace, people will come “to look on reasoning as merely decorative,” and will "lose their conceptions of truth and of reason.”
I had created a student party to oppose the political rot that was destroying the universities in Holland, and was told by my opponent, from the much larger socialist/communist student association Asva, that I must be "a supporter of American imperialism, and therefore a fascist" because... I'd told him I considered Peirce a greater philosopher than Marx. (***)
Ms. Haack continued thus:
This is the very debacle taking place
before our eyes: genuine inquiry is so complex and difficult, and
advocacy “research” and politically-motivated “scholarship” have become
so commonplace, that our grip on the concepts of truth, evidence,
objectivity, inquiry has been loosened. I want to talk about how this
disaster came about (..)
As I said, in 1997 this had been happening in Holland for 20 years, and it had been done with great pride and in the name of - it was claimed, again and again - the highest moral values: Students and staff had decided in vast democratic majority, repeated year after year from 1972-1995, when the law changed, and the university parliaments were terminated, that what the university and Dutch society and the world urgently needed was for was furthering political interests: Trade Unionism, Environmentalism and Feminism.
And whereas this was perhaps, to an extent, the genuine conviction of many students, most of the tenured academics knew better but collaborated to keep their jobs - for all were in fact tenured as bureaucrats, which is another possibly typically Dutch detail:
In Holland, professors and academic staff all are tenured as bureaucrats of the state or of the city the university is in, and qua bureaucrats they could not possibly be dismissed for incompetence, laziness or doing politics rather than science, namely as long as they conformed politically, and then then they could have their academic position for life, for example, as happened to many of my generation, after having been elected as assistant of a professorial friend in their early twenties, often on political grounds.
These bureaucrats pretending to be academics (with a few exceptions, mostly in mathematics and physics, who really were in the university because of their scientific interests and talents) were all quite glad to give up science, civilization, higher education, and rational standards, and to replace them by what was effectively and stylistically stilted and pretentious moral doubletalk, where every nominal scientific issue, and every nominal educational issue, were perceived and discussed in terms of and also decided by standards derived from the political cant and fashion of the day, which were in the Dutch universities of those days marxism, feminism, and environmentalism, with from the middle 80-ies onwards, for good academic measure, queer studies thrown in: It was namely all "emancipation"; science was for "emancipation", and "therefore" this was what scientific institution ought to do, was the general line of thinking: (****)
Ms Haack continued:
A genuine inquirer aims to find out
the truth of some question, whatever the color of that truth. This is a
tautology (Webster’s: “inquiry: search for truth . . .”). A
pseudo-inquirer seeks to make a case for the truth of some
proposition(s) determined in advance. There are two kinds of
pseudo-inquirer, the sham and the fake. A sham reasoner is concerned,
not to find out how things really are, but to make a case for some
immovably-held preconceived conviction. A fake reasoner is concerned,
not to find out how things really are, but to advance himself by making
a case for some proposition to the truth-value of which he is
Quite so - but in the Dutch
university system, where the power in the universities anyway was from
1972-1995 firmly in the hands of extreme leftist students and academic
staff who nearly all were prominent members of the Dutch Labour Party
who pretended to be nearly as radical as the students whose majorities
guaranteed the positions and careers of these academic, all
considerations of rationality and science were, quite
consciously, with great moral pride, replaced
by moral and political prejudice that were propagandized as
"emancipatory" even if the only ones who got emancipated in
fact were all leading members of the Dutch Communist Party and of
the Dutch Labour Party, who got to be professors or lecturers in
sociology, in political science, in philosophy, in psychology, in
pedagogy, in theology, in literature and in literary criticism, all
essentially as rewards for being Good And Prominent Party members, and
quite as it happened in the Soviet Union, with this morally quite
relevant difference that in Amsterdam there was no Lubyanka for
dissenters: There was no fear, there just was eager and willing
corruption and careerism.
Ms Haack continued (with a link inserted by me, to text of Harry Frankfurt on my site):
Neither sham nor fake inquiry is
really inquiry; but we need to get beyond this tautology to understand
what is wrong with sham and fake reasoning. The sham inquirer tries to
make a case for the truth of a proposition his commitment to which is
already evidence- and argument-proof. The fake inquirer tries to make a
case for some proposition advancing which he thinks will enhance his
own reputation, but to the truth-value of which he is indifferent.
(Such indifference is, as Harry Frankfurt once shrewdly observed, the
characteristic attitude of the bullshitter.)
Both the sham and the fake inquirer, but especially the sham, are
motivated to avoid examining any apparently contrary evidence or
argument too closely, to play down its importance or impugn its
relevance, to contort themselves explaining it away. And, since people
often mistake the impressively obscure for the profound, both, but
especially the fake reasoner, are motivated to obfuscate.
Again: Quite so - except
that in Holland there was an added twist:
Also, it was all a matter of
deliberate free choice, at least on the part of the
academic staff, the lecturers and professors: They wanted to betray the founding ideas of high
civilization and rational science because this gave the power,
popularity and tenure for life in one of the best paid and least
demanding jobs - for nearly all of the academic staff at the time
did not publish, on the ground that publishing was "egoistic
Ms. Haack provides the contrast - and again I insist that for most Dutch academics the betrayal of high civilization and real science were deliberate and for their own private interest, with the added benefit of being completely Politically Correct both in their university and in their own leftist political parties, while everything was always presented in moral terms, as it was under Stalin, no doubt for the same sort of human-all-too-human totalitarian mind sets, namely - quite explictly also - as Emancipatory Ideals only fascists would want to oppose.
Back to Ms Haack's essay, who proceeds to explain what real science is about and for:
The genuine inquirer wants to get to
the truth of the matter that concerns him, whether or not that truth
comports with what he believed at the outset of his investigation, and
whether or not his acknowledgement of that truth is likely to get him
tenure, or to make him rich, famous, or popular. So he is motivated to
seek out and assess the worth of evidence and arguments thoroughly and
impartially. This doesn't just mean that he will be hard-working; it is
a matter, rather, of willingness to re-think, to re-appraise, to spend
as long as it takes on the detail that might be fatal, to give as much
thought to the last one percent as to the rest. The genuine inquirer
will be ready to acknowledge, to himself as well as others, where his
evidence and arguments seem shakiest, and his articulation of problem
or solution vaguest. He will be willing to go with the evidence even to
unpopular conclusions, and to welcome someone else’s having found the
truth he was seeking. And, far from having a motive to obfuscate, he
will try to see and explain things as clearly as he can.
In brief: "The genuine inquirer" is honest, as Feynman insisted
There are and were very few genuine inquirers, in Dutch universities, and most of them worked in fields that required real personal talent, such as mathematics or physics - but they collaborated as well, and namely - I asked them at the time! - for fear of loosing even more research funds (all supplied by the state from tax-money; all voted by the university parliament to go for the most part to PC ends) to queer studies or to feminist studies, which indeed was a rational fear then and there.
Ms Haack inquires
into motives and human weaknesses:
course, real human beings do not conform neatly to the three types I
have distinguished; their motives are generally pretty mixed, and they
are capable of many degrees and kinds of self-deception. A good
environment for intellectual work will encourage genuine inquiry and
discourage the sham and the fake; and will enable mutual scrutiny among
workers in a field, so that the contributions to knowledge that sham
and fake reasoners sometimes make despite their dubious motivation get
sifted from the dross.
Motives may have been mixed and doubletalk may have been rife - but in the end it was for most of them a clear choice between being a lazy or incompetent parasite for life, while helping to politicize, level and destroy the university, or leaving the university.
Very few left the university, and the few who did usually had a talent that helped employ them at good foreign universities (unlike nearly all that remained), or else - like the prominent Dutch writer W.F. Hermans - had a talent for writing or art - but altogether these were just a small handful among thousands of willing academic collaborators in completely politicized universities, where truth and science had been given up for propaganda and bullshit, all in the name of the highest emancipatory ideals, again as with Stalinism and Maoism (and especially the latter was admired by many Dutch academics then, as was Castro and other socialist dictators, whose dictatorships were generally denied or excused, as emancipatory or necessary).
Ms. Haack concludes the first section of her essay thus:
I don't see how to avoid the conclusion that the environment in which academic work is presently conducted is an inhospitable one. I think this is true for all disciplines; but I shall focus, henceforth, primarily on philosophy — the discipline I know best, and the discipline in which disillusionment with the very idea of inquiry has been most overtly articulated.
I agree, but will
skip that section, and turn to a passage further on in her text, in the
third section, where she describes what she experienced:
Now one begins to see why the revolutionary scientism
encountered in contemporary philosophy often manifests a peculiar
affinity with the anti-scientific attitudes which, as I conjecture, are
prompted by resentment, as scientism is prompted by envy, of the
sciences. Both parties have become disillusioned with the very idea of
honest inquiry, of truth-seeking. One hears from Paul Churchland, on
the scientistic side, that, since truth is not the primary aim of the
ceaseless cognitive activity of the ganglia of the sea-slug, it should
maybe cease to be a primary aim of science, and even that talk of truth
may make no sense; from Richard Rorty, on the anti-science side, that
truth is just what can survive all conversational objections, and that
the only sense in which science is exemplary is as a model of human
solidarity. One hears from Patricia Churchland, on the scientistic
side, that “truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost";
from Sandra Harding, on the anti-science side, that “the truth —
whatever that is! — will not set you free.” One hears from Steven
Stich, on the scientistic side, that truth is neither intrinsically nor
instrumentally valuable, and that a justified belief is one his holding
which conduces to whatever the believer values; from Steve Fuller, on
the anti-science side, that good scholarship is a matter simply of
“who[m] you are trying to court in your work.”
A little further on, Ms. Haack turns to Peirce, and quite justifiedly so:
Remember Peirce on what will happen if pseudo-inquiry becomes commonplace: “men come to look upon reasoning as mainly decorative. . . . The result of this state of things is, of course, a rapid deterioration of intellectual vigor. . . . [M]an loses his conceptions of truth and of reason. If he sees one man assert what another denies, he will, if he is concerned, choose his side and set to work . . . to silence his adversaries. The truth for him is that for which he fights.”
This is indeed precisely like the Dutch politicized academics presented it and wanted to present it: "There is no truth, there only is political or personal interest". As they themselves put it, ad nauseam and for decades: "everybody knows that truth does not exist", and the only thing that mattered to them is what they chose to call "social relevance", which means "politically correct by our norms and interests", which made everything else, and especially real science or a university education directed at the brightest instead of the below-average of the baby-boomer generation, "socially irrelevant" or rather - as they also much liked to say, "fascist".
Again, there also
was a lot of fashionable bullshitting, or as Ms Haack puts it:
When sham and fake reasoning are ubiquitous, people become uncomfortably aware, or half-aware, that reputations are made as often by clever championship of the indefensible or the incomprehensible as by serious intellectual work, as often by mutual promotion as by merit. Knowing, or half-knowing, this, they become increasingly leery of what they hear and read. Their confidence in what passes for true declines, and with it their willingness to use the words “truth,” “rationality,” etc., without the precaution of scare quotes. And as those scare quotes become ubiquitous, people’s confidence in the concepts of truth and reason falters, and one begins to hear (from Richard Rorty): “I do not have much use for notions like . . . ‘objective truth',” “‘true' [is] a word which applies to those beliefs upon which we are able to agree,” or (from Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar): “a fact is nothing but a statement with no modality . . . and no trace of authorship,” or (from Steve Fuller): “I don't see any clear distinction between ‘good scholarship' and ‘political relevance.'”
And there we have that "political relevance" as standard and norm for everything, again quite as in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China, but without threat of the Lubyanka or forced re-education with forceed manual labour for ten years or more, but instead with the lure of being a nominally "academic" parasite for decades, teaching bullshit or one's own political prejudice as if that were science, at a "democratized" institution that passed for "university", but hardly taught any real science outside the faculties for mathematics, physics and chemistry.
Also, the reasons why folks like Rorty, Latour and Fuller were so very much concerned with denying there was truth is that without truth they could not be refuted and did not need to do any work to try to find out what the facts might be: There is, for these folks, as for all religious and politica fanatics, no truth but only interest; no science, but only politics; no morals, but only what serves Us - and as said, as in the case of Stalin and Mao, with the blinding certitude (as they tried to propagandize it, at least) of being morally superior, of being on the side of The Good And The Brave, and of being Emancipatory for those who deserved emancipation (namely: feminist socialist women, marxist queers, and labour party transgenders, especially, at least in Holland, and provided these deserving females, gays, and deviants had the fashionable PC mindset or at least the PC public postures (*****)).
And what has happened is that over the course of three or four decades, my own generation and that of Ms Haack, that is, those born between 1945 and 1955, for the most part, succeeded in destroying the universities and the schools, and handing these over not to good teachers or bright minds, but to the laziest and least competent of educational bureaucrats and to the tenth, hundredth and thousandth raters that everywhere form "the democratic majority".
It may be that this is not quite what happened in the US, and if so, it didn't happen because their the universities are not funded by the state, nor are the professors and lecturers tenured as bureaucrats, but this is what happened in Holland:
The mediocre and the bad have succeeded in taking over the universities in the name of equality, and levelled them to institutes in which mostly bullshit, propaganda and pseudoscience is produced, and real science only survives in the few faculties where the staff must be really intellectually talented to function at all.
It is the death of real higher education, and has ended by its replacement by a falsification of it, where IQs of 110 can become Ph.D.s in media-studies, in European studies, in queer studies, in literary studies, in theological studies, in freedom studies, in black studies, in feminist studies, in literary studies, and indeed in philosophy and pseudosciences like sociology and pedagogy, and where real science is dead or a frowned upon as politically incorrect adjunct to the academic churches of PC-ness.
(*) I like the term preposterism for postmodernism, which indeed is quite preposterous, but unfortunately it also is the case that, even in the universities, the idea that postmodernism is preposterous at best is a minority opinion, at least publicly: Few academics are willing to risk their careers by criticizing academics not in their field of expertise. (Although a very good moral and intellectual case could be made that they are paid and tenured to do just that, as the best educated, and presumably the brightest of their generation.)
(**) Rorty, incidentally, is rather like many Dutch academics of my generation, in that he started as a marxist of sorts, then converted to a relativistic sort of linguistic philosopher, and who finally became a postmodernist. The truth about him and his fellow Dutch academics with a similar career - in Holland much helped from the Sixties onward by leftist radicalism among students - is that nearly all of them were far less talented than they pretended and ought to have been, but precisely therefore could hit the right notes with the democratic majority with similar talents and similar political prejudices.
(***) The Stalinist speaker was one Olaf McDaniel, who did not know that I come from a family of marxist heroes of the Dutch resistance against Nazism, and had given up marxism in 1970 because I could refute it intellectually, and found my generation of student-leaders, incidentally like McDaniel, posturing liars. (I did not tell any of this to McDaniel, because my parents were still alive, and I did not want them bothered or offended or scolded or threatened by quasi-revolutionary quasi-marxist moral freaks like McDaniel - who later made a career in the Dutch Ministry of Education, destroying all of education, namely by levelling everything to the lowest common denominator in the name of equality: For the yahoohist McDaniels of this world, all intellectual excellence is a great personal offense, and deserves levelling, discrimination and persecution.)
(****) If at this point you are reminded of Stalin or Orwell you are quite right: One of the things I learned, in the University of Amsterdam, in the late 1970ies and early 1980ies, that the vast majority of the students and professors functioned, thought, and spoke like totalitarian ideologies and religions do, and indeed the marxism, feminism, and environmentalism that were fashionable there and then were out and out totalitarian, also with great moral pride on the part of the believers - or at least: The pretenders, for it probably was partially pretense for many as well.
(*****) I am not joking: Especially the Dutch Labour Party has for decades now furthered the interests and concerns of "the gay and lesbian community", as the PC phrase is; persons who believe they are "in the wrong body" can easily get operations in Holland - on public health-insurance - to provide them with a different set of genitals etc. so as "to improve their quality of life". (People with legitimate diseases, like I have, in contrast, get no help whatsoever and are told they are merely imagining our diseases.)
I suppose some main reasons for this are: (1) A large proportion of the ideologists of postmodernism, starting with Foucault, is homosexual; (2) especially in Amsterdam, for various reasons, many prominent members of the political parties and bureaucracies are homosexual or feminist; (3) the basis of postmodernism is relativism, propaganda, and is propagandized in the name of moral ideals; (4) at least in Holland this gets easy and wide media-exposure; (5) it is fashionable among artists who again are good for making propaganda for politicians, on the principle "you scratch my back if I scratch yours"; (6) the groups involved are small, relatively speaking: it's financially much cheaper to help homosexuals than - say - the old or the poor; (7) there is a strong interest among postmodernists in deviance and perversion, probably because a considerable proportion of postmodernists are into these, at least as subjects of "academic research", pour epater les bourgeois and satisfy their own lust or curiosity, and also because again writing about this makes it much easier to get attention in the media.
Let me by way of appendix add the main reason why I never sought to be an academic or sought to publish in academic journals after 1981, when I had founded a student party to oppose the politicization and levelling of the Dutch universities, and had been told many times, by students and professors, that I must be "a fascist" and "an elitarian" for insisting on the importance of good universities and the existence of real truth - where the really interested reader should also consider my background as oldest son of communist heroes of the Dutch resistance against Nazism:
For me, almost all Dutch academics I have met, spoken with, seen or read were frauds, liars, deceivers, dissemblers and betrayers of civilization, science and morality, and were so for reasons of personal egoistic interest, without any threat of being persecuted or tortured if they had found the personal courage to disagree, while almost everyone I saw and heard in philosophy or psychology were clearly talentless liars and imposturers.
I simply did not
want to be an academic philosopher or a working psychologist in Holland
if healthy, and could not while being ill, nor could I emigrate, nor
did I read more than few living academic philosophers or psychologists
who I could regard as honest and talented academics.
Also, ever since the 1980ies I am convinced that most men (and women), academics or not, are totalitarian at heart, and neither as intelligent nor as interested in real science as I am, and that universities such as the Dutch universities that I attended, and know quite well, and indeed graduated from, with an M.A. in psychology and a B.A. in philosophy, should be terminated as universities, since they are not real universities, but politicized colleges at best, where truly intelligent persons (always a minority) are cheated out of their birthright and their human right ($) of an education commensurate with their talents and willingness to work.
Also, I do not think the Western universities can be saved or repaired without a major upheaval: The damage has been done, and the universities have been effectively destroyed as institutions were the most intelligent can get an education proportional to their talents in any field outside mathematics, physics, chemistry and computer sciences, that still more or less function. Almost all of the rest has been turned into educational facilities for future
which by now also are the democratic majority among "the academically educated" - and for these postmodern so-called intellectuals and academics, "love of power is the guide of life", and impression-management, posturing and lying its accepted tools (for "everyone knows there is no truth" and "all morals are relative" and "everybod is equal (or ought to be levelled":
P.S. Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.
As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):
Short descriptions of the above:
1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:
7. A space-
and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.
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