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Pomo and the Humanist Platform: Why Postmodernism is Essential to Freethinking


This article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 11 - The SSA Around the World.

Campus Organizer discusses the Postmodern movement in terms of its relevance to the skeptical inquiry and critical evaluation we all value.

Not before my appointment as Campus Organizer have I spent so much time defending my postmodernist proclivities. It seems that there is a rampant hostility towards the affectionately dubbed 'pomo' in the freethought movement. But why? This whole-sale write off of postmodernism seems contradictory to the tenets of freethinking, and please forgive my appeal to authority, but I am not alone. I intend to draw on the work of philosopher Tim Clark, and Stanley Fish, a postmodern literary theorist to articulate my stance that postmodernism is consistent with and necessary to the essence of 'free thinking.'

The cry I've heard from self-avowed 'humanists' and 'freethinkers' is that their beliefs are rooted in rationality and reason. Maybe these others are better informed, but I didn't realize we had established a definition of 'rationality' and 'reason.' If such objective definitions exist, I would sure like to be apprised of the respective denotations. There is also a popular tendency to cite science as a basis for freethinking. So it seems that science has become the new religion. If we are truly skeptical and critical of dogma, should not scientific explanations undergo the same scrutiny? Why are freethinkers blindly yoking the scientific paradigm? Likely this is in an attempt to find terra firma; some concrete basis on which to stand. But the true spirit of critical inquiry demands that we continually question, thus negating the need for objective markers of legitimacy. As Clark states: "I want to say that as humanists, we don't need to invoke Reason or Science to justify our preferences for a democratic, tolerant, and caring society, within which individuals are free to pursue their private projects. Instead, we are better served by the realization that these preferences are all the foundation we could ever have, or need"[1]. We should abandon the desire to turn our beliefs into absolutist doctrine where allegiance to God is merely replaced with adherence to Science. It seems that "secular humanists often resort to rather simplistic appeals to reason, science, and human nature to buttress their case against religion. It's as if to counter the sectarian rallying cry of "God, Country, and the Immortal Soul!" the humanist felt obligated to retort "Reason, Science, and the Individual![2]

Postmodernism is often castigated for its relativist credo. The line of thinking is that if all is relative, all is permissible, and nothing is reproachable. In the relativist perspective, how can we possibly censure Nazism and the torture of kitty cats? Clark recognizes this and claims: "The relativist implications of seeing both cognitive and ethical systems as strictly historical, cultural, and contingent are unpalatable to many, including some humanists, who believe that without secure foundations their views become untenable.[3]" While we should approach the notion of relativism with furrowed brow, this tenet by no means discredits postmodernist theory. Stanley Fish points out that our convictions may be culturally gotten, but this in no way suggests that they are apocryphal beliefs. Fish articulates that "even if one is convinced ... that the world he sees and the values he espouses are constructions, or as some say, 'effects of discourse,' that conviction will in no way render the world any less perspicuous or those values any less compelling. It is thus the condition of human life always to be operating as an extension of beliefs and assumptions that are historically contingent, and yet to be holding those beliefs and assumptions with an absoluteness that is the necessary consequence of the absoluteness with which they hold-inform, shape, constitute-us.[4]" Perhaps my ethical predilections are the result of my lived experience, but so what? Admitting that does not devalue my beliefs or my lived reality, it merely admits my truth. Such an admission allows varying views to be weighed against one another in a milieu of honest intellectual interplay, rather than pitting one 'objective' notion against another. If we adhere to the 'objective,' we clandestinely lambaste the 'subjective,' if we esteem the 'rational,' deviations from this ideal are written off before they are heard. If we laud 'science' than we will upbraid intellectual contributions that are not in line with the preexisting scientific standard. Is that what freethinking exists to foster?

Freethinkers and humanists could benefit from turning all their anti-religious perspicacity toward their own valued tenets. Before impulsively invoking 'science' we should remember that "the human dialect of science is one attempt, through us, that nature makes at introspection, but due to the recursive limits of self-knowledge, nature can never fully objectify itself for itself.[5]" Before we unabashedly pledge allegiance to 'reason' and 'rationality,' we should ask ourselves what this nomenclature implies; what perspectives it overlooks, and what narratives it silences.

Where does this leave us postmodernist freethinkers? With little to say for sure the argument goes, and that is just fine. Our search for concrete and objective claims are at the expense of legitimate questioning and thinking. So "things aren't so bleak as those who fear relativism might imagine.[6]" Bereft of citing 'reason, science, and the individual' we will learn that our tendencies are more alike than different. For "if we accept the fact, adduced within a naturalistic postmodern framework, that humanism is a political project concerned with advancing a contingent but widely shared set of preferences, then philosophical disagreements about the basis of those preferences will come to seem fairly innocuous.[7]" The postmodernist humanist will continue to question, in pursuit of actual, narrative-based understanding, rather than stopping at corroborated benchmarks of intellectual integrity. Postmodernism is not a detriment to freethought and humanist ideals, but is rooted in the fundamental principles that genuine freethinking exists to advance.

[1] http://www.naturalism.org/Humanism.htm
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid

This article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 11 - The SSA Around the World.

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