“Denunciations of reason’s inadequacies have an all-too-familiar ring: since the dawn of the Counter-Enlightenment, they have been the standard fare of the European Reaction.”
Richard Wolin (1952 – ) is an American historian and a prominent critic of postmodernism. He is probably best-known for The Seduction of Unreason (2004), a work of intellectual history aimed at a broad audience, which argued that postmodernism was politically dubious in both its origins and its implications.
For Wolin, postmodernism is best seen as a continuation of the “Counter-Enlightenment,” a concept first advanced by Isaiah Berlin in order to explain the rise of fascism. (Berlin’s argument was the subject of an earlier article, here: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1065370980144116&id=986713261343222&substory_index=0) The basic idea is that the Enlightenment was a left-leaning phenomena, which saw reason, progress, and freedom as natural allies, fighting the good fight against superstition, backwardness, and tyranny, and sought the reform of existing institutions, which were based on the latter, in accordance with the former. Its conservative opponents therefore attacked the Enlightenment as tending to stamp out tradition, community, and pluralism in the name of Universal Reason, which was, in practice, simply their own political aspirations and philosophical naivety writ large upon the cosmos. According to Berlin these have been the battle-lines of intellectual history since 1789, or thereabouts. Fascism was simply the latest manifestation of the perennial “revolt against reason.”
Wolin picked up this argument and applied it to postmodernism, by pointing to both conceptual affinities and actual “genealogical” links. In the first case, postmodernism does indeed, as we have seen, stress the importance of plurality, which it celebrates as intrinsically worthwhile. In that sense it is hostile to the universal aspirations of the Enlightenment, which declare that there is one truth, one standard of beauty, one morality, one human nature, etc. – a doctrine that postmodernism is determined, both in principle and in practice, to resist. The genealogical links begin with Nietzsche, whose stress on individuality and passion, and whose hatred of timid bourgeois conformity, are well-known, and progress from him to Heidegger, who may, or may not (depending on who you believe) have been a Nazi. (Without getting into the weeds on this topic, let’s just say that a lot of German intellectuals, like a lot of Germans, made poor choices in the 1930’s, and that Heidegger was one of them.) Heidegger in particular, and phenomenologists in general, were important for postmodernist philosophers because their stress on the irreducible variability of experience grounded their own critique of the totalizing aspirations of the Enlightenment. Foucault vocally supported the Iranian revolution of 1979 (on the grounds, it would seem, that it was anti-Western and therefore a good thing), and the revelation, in 1989, that Paul de Man (a postmodernist literary theorist who we haven’t been able to cover) worked for the Nazis during the war simply added to the fire. In short, Wolin argued that the political choices of postmodernists themselves showed that it was not actually a legitimate representative of the liberal tradition, as it claimed. It actually belonged, he insisted, on the reactionary right.
In a sense this was turning the weapons of postmodernism on itself, for Wolin’s critique amounts to (irony of ironies) a deconstruction of deconstruction. That is, it attacks postmodernism by revealing a questionable past, affiliations, and assumptions, rather than by way of a direct frontal assault on the central arguments. We’ve seen this strategy at work before, in Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism.
Wolin also criticized postmodernism on the grounds that it provided insufficient moral grounding for genuinely progressive or democratic reform, for if everyone is free to interpret the world just as they please, and if difference of opinion is something to be celebrated for its own sake, then presumably we will have to admit the right of bigots to their bigotry, plutocrats to their greed, criminals to their contempt for the law, and so on. It is, we have learned, their right as human beings. How, then, will they be compelled to live in peace with other people? Or, then again, how are we supposed to organize for reform, if we no longer believe that any one truth is common to all people? Effective political action is based on the things we have in common (truths derived from evidence, and accessible to all reasonable people), not the things that separate us. Obviously we aren’t going to be very effective, politically, if we’re all trapped in the random Brownian motion of independent subjectivity.
But the problem isn’t just suppressing anti-social elements – it’s resisting them ourselves. Postmodernism, Wolin argued, leaves people defenseless against the venom and empty promises of clever demagogues, who will surely lead us around by the nose unless we are equipped, morally and intellectually, to resist them. That is, unless we respect reason, evidence, truth, and the right of all people to live lives of freedom and dignity, which is what the Enlightenment was about all along. In short, postmodernism is not just wrong – it is immoral and dangerous. Resisting it is more than just a good idea – it’s a defense of civilization.
More on Isaiah Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment:
Berlin’s original essay (it’s short and highly readable): http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/counter-enlightenment.pdf
Paul de Man and Fascism:
More on Richard Wolin:
Part of a Series on Postmodernism (XV of XVII)