in philosophy •  last year

Traditionalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism: which will win out in the end?

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant." - Louis Brandeis. It will cleanse all bad ideas from our society. Image from Pixabay.

Patrick Lee Miller just published this important article on Quillette.com: The Impasse Between Modernism and Postmodernism, Part I. Part II is due out tomorrow.

Traditionalists... "do not like the direction in which modernity is headed, and so are looking to go back to an earlier time when they believe society was better." - Michael Aaron

Miller argues that traditionalists, however, are not a part of the academic discourse, where he believes the most important conversations about the future are occurring. The war of ideals, then, is between modernists and postmodernists.

"Postmodernists eschew any notion of objectivity, perceiving knowledge as a construct of power differentials." - Michael Aaron

Modernism, then, is rationality and objectivity, seemingly the clear winner of the three worldviews. But, Miller cautions, just because we assume both traditionalism and postmodernism have been "soundly eliminated" in academia, this does not mean modernism is the panacea.

Miller goes on to critique modernism, generally invoking the fact that many of its proponents (Jefferson, Kant, Locke, Voltaire, Hume) were racist and/or justified slavery. However, empirical skepticism discredited "scientific" racism, and thus:

With merit, scientists thus take pride in their rationality. However irrational they may be at times, especially when they speak outside their specialties, when they speak within them nowadays, they put aside their feelings, identities, and private ambitions to be objective, dispassionate, rational. Or so they feel.

There are a lot of problems with scientism, see, The Unbearable Asymmetry of B*******, another Quillette article, this time by Brian Earp. In this article, Earp outlines how the scientific method is misused, abused, and wholly biased. However, this does not discredit the scientific method itself, in my estimation. A tool misused by someone is not inherently a bad tool. Miller goes on to talk about confirmation bias, which is people seeking to *credit/ their beliefs and preconceived notions, not discredit them,antithetical to the scientific method. Julia Galef calls this the Warrior Mindset, specifically, only seeking out or seeing facts or anecdotes that confirm your biases. Her Scout Mindset is analogous to the scientific method first proposed by Karl Popper (Empirical Falsification, that we can only ever disprove things, we can never prove them). To Julia Galef, the scout seeks true knowledge, that is, what actually exists, as opposed to what we want to see. So if you're a warrior, you only see or seek evidence that supports your stance for or against GMOs, but if you're a scout, you only seek or see the evidence that exists, whether it's for or against GMOs. For a real-world Warrior Mindset example, see Stephen Crowder's "Change My Mind" YouTube videos, in which he asks other people to change his mind but is actually trying to change their minds.

Miller goes on to give the evolutionary benefits of "tribalism" or confirmation bias over rationality. Convincing others to follow along with your ideas meant that the group would stay together and move to a new hunting ground because the old one was depleted, for example. The postmodernists got something a little right; we perform tribalism and argue "rationally" for tribalism (by providing evidence that the old hunting ground is depleted: no one has killed anything in weeks) "in order to secure status and power." Of course, the postmodernists are immoderate and take their claims to far. Consider this anecdote:

I was in a literature class, and my professor claimed dentists were masochists (I think she meant sadists, and even then, I'm not sure she meant it with a sexual connotation). When I asked what on Earth she meant, she "rationalized" it by saying going to the dentist hurt, therefore they must be masochists (again, I believe she meant sadist). Although this was years ago and time has no doubt clouded my memory, I still don't know what her point was, and I still don't think dentists enjoy inflicting pain on others.

So, in the quest for power, people and the proponents of all three of these worldviews commit hypocrisy, acknowledging only the benefits of their ideas and the ills of the other worldviews, without acknowledging the ills of their own ideas and the benefits of others. This reminds me of this maxim:

ONLY A SITH DEALS IN ABSOLUTES, which is of course itself an absolute (hence the word "only"), but is still instructive. If you hear someone say "My worldview has no flaws and your worldview has no benefits" they are committing all sorts of logical fallacies, from confirmation (or myside) bias to the Sith fallacy.

Some gratuitous railings against postmodernism:

  1. Nietzsche proposed that war was healthy for a state, and slavery required for the state's greatness
  2. Foucault supported Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution

Miller calls for a reasoned assessment of the merits and liabilities of modernism and postmodernism (I'd add traditionalism into the mix just to make things interesting and because it still has many adherents). He balances his obvious favoritism of modernism thus:

Simply to call for reasoned assessment is to prejudice the contest against postmodernism. So be it. Does modernism thus win by default? Only if there are no other alternatives.

Miller next expounds on the limitations of science. Empirical science cannot, he says, prescribe a way to live, it can only describe the world in which we live. Thus the limitations, because we must know how to live in this world. This is at direct odds with E. O. Wilson's Consilience theory. He argues that the social and physical sciences must be united to present a coherent worldview, one that explains everything bounded in empirical science. Science, Wilson claims, can both describe and prescribe, if only we know enough. Of course, Wilson believes there is no Valinor, so science is the end all be all to him.

One of empirical science's severest drawbacks is that it is limited to the natural, observable world. Science cannot prove or disprove a human's right to life, liberty, or property, yet those are necessary tenets to debate. According to Miller:

Locke argued that European settlers had earned a right to their American properties by mixing their agricultural labor with the land in a way the native hunter-gatherers of that continent had not done. Marx saw such arguments as fixtures of capitalist ideology, the sort of fictions that bewitch the mind of the proletariat and keep them from simply taking what they need to achieve equality. Who was right: Locke or Marx? No scientist could decide such a question, let alone stake a claim anywhere in the debate. For it’s not question of empirical science. If you desire to maximize wealth, empirical science can help you achieve your desire. So likewise for the desire to achieve equality (between races, sexes, classes, etc.). But whether you should desire such things, and whether you should make them the goals of your political efforts—these are not scientific questions.

Miller leaves us with a cliffhanger: how can we objectively know anything when everything is sensory based? That is, the mountains appear blue in the distance but green up close. And although we can measure the wavelength of the light the mountains reflect, we see the results on a computer screen with our eyes, which we just proved to be fallible, or at the very least inconsistent (because who's to say the mountains aren't in reality blue from a distance and green up close?)


Miller seemingly does a good job of writing by one of my maxims: "Moderation in all things including moderation." After all, he points out both the sorrows and joys of modernism, pulling no punches when criticizing it. He repeatedly says it's the best only if there's nothing else beyond these three worldviews. I'm agog to read his Part II tomorrow.


Miller's twitter handle is @Plato4Now, and his bio reads: "A lover of wisdom concerned more with being than with having. Call that philosophy or kung fu; it's all One to me." This, along with his general thesis, made me think of Nassim Taleb's constant railings against Platonists. Consider here this excerpt from his "Black Swan:"

What I call Platonicity, after ideas (and personality) of the philosopher Plato, is our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defined "forms," whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias (societies built according to some blueprint of what "makes sense"), even nationalities... Platonicity is what makes us think that we understand more than we actually do. But this does not happen everywhere... Models and constructions, these intellectual maps of reality, are not always wrong; they are wrong only in some specific applications.

I recommend reading this whole excerpt on pages xxix and xxx of his prologue to get a better context (and the entire book for a full context of his criticisms of Platonicity.)

On the whole, though, I do not see Miller as being an extreme Platonist. He understands the limitations of the scientific method and even eager to acknowledge those limitations, which gives me hope for his Scout Mindset.

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