Is Postmodernism Compatible With Liberalism? (2022)

When psychology professor and YouTube star Jordan Peterson or his fellow travelers use the adjective “postmodern,” they often join it to “neomarxism” and then mount some argument about how postmodernism is incompatible with “Western” values like liberty. Peterson aside, the notion that postmodernism is primarily a rebranding of socialist politics has been bandied about in some quarters for a number of years. Is there something to such notions? Could the liberal idea that people should all be free to live as they’d like with minimal interference from the state simply be incompatible with postmodernism? I don’t think so. The idea of a postmodern liberalism seems to me not only plausible but even sensible and desirable.

There are many ways to understand and interpret the world. I may be a convinced atheist who sees no chance of a God in the world, where you may be an equally convinced theist. I may believe that moral truths are objective and knowable, where you are a skeptic or relativist. I may believe that some sort of meritocracy is the just social order, where you believe in an egalitarian socialism.

When we disagree about these things, it is tempting for us to imagine that ours is the objectively correct stance and that if the other just listened to reason or saw the facts impartially, they would come to recognize that our view—the way things really are—is correct.

Postmodernism resists this flattering view of the individual’s ability to grasp Truth. It rejects what Jean Francois Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition called “metanarratives.” A person who puts forward a metanarrative is proposing to know of a universally applicable set of rules about what constitutes a legitimate story, and the postmodernist is one who doubts such a claim. The postmodern view is that when people disagree about The Way Things Really Are, it may just be that each has a different framework for interpreting the world, and each person’s argument may be convincing within that particular framework but not outside of its conventions. My way of seeing things, even if my views have internal consistency, is not certain to be the way things really are, though they are the way things really look from my vantage point. Different people may have different criteria for what makes an argument convincing, but no such set of criteria can justify itself; personal judgment is always involved.

To see what I mean, let’s examine an argument between two people who each believe that they are speaking The Truth and their interlocutor just doesn’t see it. Imagine that one is arguing for atheism and the other for the reality of God. It may be that one really is missing something about the other’s case. If the one just used the Objectively Persuasive argument, or the other received it dispassionately, they would end the debate in agreement. But, postmodernists point out, it may sometimes be that each side finds its own case so compelling and the other clearly wrong because the two are using different standards for and rules of argument that the other would not recognize as valid. Not only are they telling two different narratives (about whether God exists in the world), but they are using two different metanarratives.[1]

The atheist may only use the types of arguments a scientist or naturalist would accept—appealing only to the type of evidence that the scientific community would corroborate, attempting to use formal logic to show that certain ideas of God are in conflict with commonly held assumptions about the world, etc. The theist, on the other hand, may appeal to revelation or personal experience, may contend that God isn’t constrained by earthly parameters, and may enjoy noting that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. An atheist may seem, within some frameworks, to have argued successfully that a particular conception of God is internally incoherent. But from the postmodern perspective, an observer might grant that a believer in that conception could reject the idea that internal coherence is necessary for the conception to be viable. All things are possible with God.

The big problem with metanarratives is that there is just no neutral way to decide what set of rules is the correct one to use. Any adjudication between sets of rules has to be done by a deliberator who is already partial to and using some set of rules. While not a postmodernist, the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi illustrates this dilemma well:

Suppose you and I get into a debate. If you win and I lose, does that really mean you are right and I am wrong? If I win and you lose, does that really mean I’m right and you’re wrong? Must one of us be right and the other wrong? Or could both of us be right, or both of us wrong? If neither you nor I can know, a third person would be even more benighted. Whom should we have straighten out the matter? Someone who agrees with you? But since he already agrees with you, how can he straighten it out? Someone who agrees with me? But since, she already agrees with me, how can he straighten it out? Someone who disagrees with both of us? But if he already disagrees with both of us, how can he straighten it out? Someone who agrees with both of us? But since he already agrees with both of us, how can he straighten it out? So neither you nor I nor any third party can ever know how it is …

Postmodernism takes seriously the idea that there is no neutral way to describe the world or adjudicate disputes about what descriptions are correct. All arguments about what the truth is rely on some criteria for how to argue about truth (what types of arguments you can and can’t make, what moves make an argument “convincing,” etc.) This is what Michel Foucault means when he writes that the “problem is … this: what rules of right are implemented by the relations of power in the production of discourses of truth?” Where moderns asked the questions “What is true and how do we know what rules get us to truth?” postmoderns ask how we construct (not discover) the different sets of rules we use (which are never the Uniquely Correct set) for getting at truth.

To the uninitiated, this may well sound like reckless nihilism. And to be sure, it could be taken in that direction, though I do not think that “first gen” postmodernists—Foucault, Rorty, Lyotard, Derrida—took it to this extreme. These thinkers were addressing what we might say was an excess of “the Enlightenment.”[2] “The Enlightenment” was a reaction to the “Middle Ages,” and sought to supplant the latter’s idea that divine revelation and scriptural authority were the paths to truth with the idea that reason and science were. Yet postmodernists suggest that “the Enlightenment”—really, some of its more enthusiastic exponents—set up unrealistic ideas about what reason is and what it could do that came to be identified with how reason actually works. In a broad survey of “The Enlightenment’s” excesses, Isaiah Berlin puts it like this:

A wider thesis underlay this [“The Enlightenment”]: namely, that to all true questions there must be one true answer and one only, all the other answers being false, for otherwise the questions cannot be genuine questions. There must exist a path which leads clear thinkers to the correct answers to these questions, as much in the moral, social and political worlds as in that of the natural sciences, whether it is the same method or not; and once all the correct answers to the deepest moral, social and political questions that occupy (or should occupy) mankind are put together, the result will represent the final solution to all the problems of existence.

To be sure, these are best described as excesses of “the Enlightenment” and a good many “Enlightenment” thinkers did not hold anything this extreme. But these types of excessive views are the ones against which postmodernism is best positioned.

Postmodernism need not entail a nihilistic smashing of “Enlightenment values” like truth and reason. (After all, the prefix is “post” rather than “anti”!) Postmodern theologian/philosopher John Caputo argues that postmodernism should actually be seen as an extension of modernism. Just as the “Middle Ages” dogmatically set divine revelation of scripture as the only paths to truth which “the Enlightenment” shattered, he worries that “the Enlightenment” (or, as I’d argue, its excesses) set up reason and science as the only paths to truth. Postmodernism is not per se against science so much as for the idea that science, just like any other set of rules for talking about truth, sets up one set of rules among many possible alternative sets. Science is surely a formidable institution with a very good set of rules for generating truth claims. But, per Foucault, science’s rule set doesn’t work because it gets us to truth (which puts the cart before the horse). It produces its truth claims because the rules are set up as they are. (Think of it this way: there could be very useful statements we could imagine about the world that we could surely call true but that will never survive the scientific process simply because they don’t conform with the rules of science.) Nor is it even obvious—as Kuhn and Feyerabend most notably argued—that science really does proceed with a single method or set of rules.

How can all of this possibly connect with liberal philosophy? If postmodernism tells us—as I think it does—that reason will not produce the sort of consensus on truth that some within “the Enlightenment” promised, liberalism happens to be a great social philosophy for that type of pluralistic world. As Michel Foucault writes, “I believe the great fantasy is the idea of a social body constituted by the universality of wills. Now the phenomenon of the social body is the effect not of consensus but of the materiality of power operating on the very bodies of individuals.” Contra Peterson’s claim, that doesn’t sound like a recipe for Marxism to me. That is, given a diverse world that contains many ways to interpret and live in it, universal agreement on how best to live is a “great fantasy.” Worse, when such consensus seems to appear, it is often because a powerful group (usually a state) forces some to live by what it thinks the will of people is or should be.

Richard Rorty echoed the postmodern appreciation of diversity against attempts to coerce conformity by saying that in his view, “there is nothing sacred about universality which makes the shared automatically better than the unshared. There is no automatic privilege of what you can get everybody to agree to (the universal) over what you cannot (the idiosyncratic).” Similar statements can be found in Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, where he talks of the “splintering” of the social body, not in the mourning terms we might expect of a conservative, but as if to say: “Let’s not worry. That unity never really existed anyway except by appearance. We don’t need unity—especially coerced unity—to live with each other.”

If there is a through-line between a liberal and postmodern viewpoint, I think it may be found in the (classical) liberal Friedrich Hayek’s essay “Individualism: True and False”, where he wrote: “The true basis of his [the true individualist’s] argument is that nobody can know who knows best and that the only way by which we can find out is through a social process in which everybody is allowed to try and see what he can do.” I think that postmodernism affords us a vantage point on the world that shares this sort of respect for pluralism.

But doesn’t liberalism need absolutes, like a shared conception of what rights or impermissible infringements of them are? Like any political philosophy, liberalism needs shared “rules of the game.” But we need not see things like rights so much as absolutes as rules that we all need to abide by in order to stand the best shot of living amongst each other. I believe certain conceptions of, say, property rights are preferable not because we’ve discovered the Objectively True Rules of property in society, but because I’d bet that if we use them rather than other conceptions, we will probably all have the best shot of having and creating the kinds of lives we want.

But under a postmodernist perspective, doesn’t that just become an example of me and mine forcing our preferred (liberal) way of life onto others? In some sense, I must answer with an unfortunate yes. Since becoming persuaded to a postmodern outlook, I confess that I’ve had to give up the idea that since liberalism’s ground rules are the ones that are the most Objectively Just, they aren’t coercive in any way that could be problematic. Like all other political philosophies, liberal ones can only work by, on some level, restricting people to its ground rules, sometimes, against their will. Yet, in liberalism’s defense I will say that since all political philosophies will involve that sort of coercion at their margins, a liberalism that affords the widest latitude to individual freedom will involve the minimal possible coercion and the maximal freedom. One can, if one wants, have a socialist commune in a liberal social order, but one can’t have a liberal community in a socialist order.

There are many ways to understand, interpret, and live in, the world. Postmodernism offers us reasons to think poorly of that our chances of producing consensus on these issues. Liberalism sets up what I think is the best framework to live in such a world, where we don’t need consensus on how to live in order to live. This doesn’t mean that postmodernism leads to or is even the best way to “ground” a liberal framework. I believe, though, that it does mean that these two positions are compatible with each other; the one does not exclude one from holding the other.

[1] Postmodernism is on occasion mistakenly assumed to entail that agreement is impossible and hence that all argument is pointless. But certainly argument could lead parties to resolve misunderstandings, or even to shift frameworks, resulting in greater agreement, which could well be salutary.

[2]I use the “scare quotes” simply because, as a postmodernist would, I think there are significant problems with referring to “the Enlightenment” as a unified movement. Beyond a very general appreciation for reason and science (and different thinkers held different views on what that appreciation meant), there is not much commonality between, say, Saint-Simon, William Godwin, and Adam Smith.

Featured image is Caotchouc, by Francis Picabia.

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