Thursday, March 6, 2008

Who started this?

It seems that everyone is lamenting. We lament the state of political corruption and abuse of role. If you bring up someone's character, people look at you blankly. There are injustices everywhere and it's ho-hum. You think you have a point and can demonstrate it. Who cares? It's all beside the point. Who started all of this?

Depending on how far you want to go back, you can pick your starting point. I pick the point after the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution had gotten started and their successes were rubbing against the traditions and institutions of the past. The Enlightenment was centered in England. France got on board to some extent. But German intellectuals hated it. They liked faith, duty and ethnic identity. And that is where the problem started - particularly with the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Philosophers were wondering how we actually could know reality, the basic premise of the enlightenment. Hume, the empiricist, and the rationalists had raised questions. Kant was smart enough to see the opportunity in this, so he point blank stated that we could never know reality. He then erected a philosophical system to support his thesis.

But what does Kant have to do with us, you ask? "We live in a postmodern philosophical era. Just as the Enlightenment re-shaped the entire world, postmodernism hopes to do the same. Forming such an ambition and developing the arguments capable of mobilizing a movement to realize that ambition is the work of many individuals over several generations. Contemporary second-tier postmodernists, when looking for philosophical support, cite Rorty, Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida. Those figures in turn, when looking for heavy-duty philosophical support, cite Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wiggenstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx -- the modern world's most trenchant critics and its most prophetic voices about the new direction. Those figures in turn cite Georg Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Immanuel Kant, and to a lesser extent David Hume. The roots and initial impetus of postmodernism thus run deep. The battle between modernism and the philosophies that led to postmodernism was joined at the height of the Enlightenment. Knowing the history of that battle is essential to understanding postmodernism." (Explaining Postmodernism: skepticism and socialism from Rousseau to Foucault by Stephen R. C. Hicks, 2004, p.21-22.)

Hicks, cited above, explores why Kant is the turning point away from the Enlightenment. Here is his explanation: "Kant was the decisive break with the Enlightenment and the first major step toward postmodernism. Contrary to the Enlightenment account of reason, Kant held that the mind is not a response mechanism but a constitutive mechanism. (That is that we make it all up. SCB) He held that the mind -- and not reality -- sets the terms for knowledge. And he held that reality conforms to reason, not vice versa. In the history of philosophy, Kant marks a fundamental shift from objectivity as the standard to subjectivity as the standard.

"Wait a minute, a defender of Kant may reply. Kant was hardly opposed to reason. After all, he favored rational consistency and he believed in universal principles. So what is anti-reason about that? The answer is that more fundamental to reason than consistency and universality is a connection to reality. Any thinker who concludes that in principle reason cannot know reality is not fundamentally an advocate of reason. That Kant was in favor of consistency and universality is of derivative and ultimately inconsequential significance. Consistency with no connection to reality is a game based on subjective rules. If the rules of the game have nothing to do with reality, then why should everyone play by the same rules? These were precisely the implications the postmodernists were to draw eventually.

"Kant was thus different from previous skeptics and religious apologists. Many earlier skeptics had denied that we can know anything, and many earlier religious apoplogists had subordinated reason to faith. But earlier skeptics had never been as sweeping in their conclusions. Earlier skeptics would identify particular cognitive operations and raise problems for them. Maybe a given experience is a perceptual illusion - thus undermining our confidence in our generalizations; and so on. But the conclusion of those skeptical arguments would be merely that we cannot be sure that we are right about the way reality is. We might be, but we cannot guarantee it, the skeptics would conclude. Kant's point was deeper, arguing that in principle any conclusion reached by any of our faculties must necessarily not be about reality. Any form of cognition, because it must operate a certain way, cannot put us in contact with reality. On principle, because our minds' faculties are structured in a certain way, we cannot say what reality is. We can only say how our minds have structured the subjective reality we perceive. This thesis had been implicit in the works of some earlier thinkers, including Aristotle's, but Kant made it explicit and drew the conclusion systematically.

"Kant is a landmark in a second respect. Earlier skeptics had despite their negative conclusions, continued to conceive of truth as correspondence to reality. Kant went a step further and redefined truth on subjective grounds. ... If our minds are in principle disconnected from reality, then to speak of truth as an external relationship between mind and reality is nonsense. Truth must be solely an internal relationship of consistency." (Hicks, pp39-41.)

This is as clear a statement as to what is going on in the postmodern world and when the shift ocurred as I've read. Now we can see why people don't care whether something is true or not. We don't have to prove anything. All we have to do is enroll others into our point of view and go from there. Never mind whether it corresponds to reality or whether it will produce the result that you want. It's all beside the point. This captures the great cynicism of our age.

This blog is about exploring this, among other related topics, and being a force for transforming this point of view.

You are real. The world is real and there is a lot of it out here. Figure out what is going on. Strap on your wings and fly. Take what you want and pay for it.

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