Postmodernist Theses

Postmodernist Theses

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Already in the early parts of the twentieth century there were currents against modernism, especially in art and architecture and music. But a new mode of thinking began to emerge in philosophy, social sciences, and science in the second half of the twentieth century. Most importantly post-modernist thought came into the international political scene. One of its extreme expressions was as follows: True enough, science and industry had made the West militarily strong, but just because there is a gun-toting bully in the neighborhood, it doesn’t make him superior to everyone. Just because Western material strength subjugated cultures which were physically relatively weaker, it does not make the latter in any way less valid. Given that human civilization is more than six thousand years old, what gives this four hundred year old upstart to push its values and worldviews on the rest of the world? Humankind has derived as much, if not more enrichment with less negative impacts on our environment, through art and poetry and religion than through the science and technology of the West. So how can science claim superiority over other expressions of human culture? Condescending attitudes towards other modes of knowledge than science as of a lower category arises from the narrowness of scientism rather than from any rational argument, and the marginalization of Non-Western cultures and religions came as much from unconscionable arrogance as from utter ignorance of others.

One of the influential writers on this theme was Edward SaÔd who described himself as a “Christian wrapped in a Muslim culture.” His classic book Orientalism lashes out at Western scholarship of the Non-West. The book argues that the whole field of Oriental studies has a hidden self-serving agenda which is to oppress the Non-West. Though the book condemns Western scholars of imagining there is one amorphous Orient, rather than a complex of cultures, its own criticisms are directed primarily at Western imperialism’s treatment of the Arab world. SaÔd also put forward the thesis that it was through Orientalism that Western culture (by which he meant primarily Anglo and French cultures – another generalization of which he accuses the West -) defined itself as superior.  Most of all, he complained, Orientalism has created a distorted image of Arab and Islamic culture in the Western mind. Though one might say that the book lacks the objectivity that it rightly says is lacking in the writings of Western scholars, it has instigated a whole new branch of scholarship called colonial studies. From the postmodernist perspective, every culture and every worldview is significant, and has a place in the world community as an equal partner.

Paul Feyerabend, one of the more provocative postmodernist critics of science, wrote in his devastating book, Against method: “Science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favor of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without ever having examined its advantages and its limits. And as the accepting and rejecting of ideologies should be left to the individual it follows that the separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution. Such a separation may be our only chance to achieve a humanity we are capable of, but have never fully realized.”

As to the claim that scientific knowledge is more reliable, as early as in 1963, even before postmodernism became a word or in fashion in science, Philip H. Abelson, editor of Science,  wrote: “One of the most astonishing characteristics of scientists is that some of them are plain, old-fashioned bigots. Their zeal has a fanatical, egocentric quality characterized by disdain and intolerance for anyone or any value not associated with a special area of intellectual activity.”

Another important thesis of postmodernism is that though science may be interesting in its own way, so are other modes of arriving at knowledge. Bert Thompson expressed the postmodernist view succinctly when he wrote: “To suggest that knowledge can be acquired solely on the basis of naturalism, and that empirical observation is the ‘court of ultimate appeal,’ is to err. Such an attitude ignores other numerous, significant avenues of human endeavor, as well as additional means of coming to knowledge and truth. It also misuses and abuses the scientific method which, as great as it is, never was intended to be a panacea.”

Some postmodernists in the Non-West  hold that the West has erected its own knowledge system, which has no absolute validity. For purely political reasons it brandishes this as superior to others. If anything, it is the West that has much to learn from other cultures. The universality of scientific knowledge and the so-called Enlightenment values touted by the West are just myths propagated by the oppressive West. If there is anything good in the Enlightenment, it had its counterparts in the conceptual framework of the Non-West also.