This post is a continuation of my reflections on postmodernism and premodernism.
“We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” So if modernism made a wrong turning somewhere, then by being negative, postmodernism is probably moving in the right direction.
So what is it that postmodernism is rejecting when it rejects modernism? Well usually I hear postmodernists talk about rejecting modern assumptions about reason and knowing things. Along with several other modernist pemises, postmodernism usually claims to reject the modern claim to know things. And certainly, knowing is a subject that modernism was (is?) intensely interested in.
I was reminded recently that one of the major differences between the enlightenment and all the western philosophy that came before it was an enormous shift in priority from metaphysics (questions about being) to epistemology (questions about knowing). Before the enlightenment, people certainly thought about epistemology but most of the time they answered their epistemological questions through the lens of their metaphysical answers. Really this was (at least initially) a shift in priority. Before the enlightenment, most thinkers would have said that you needed to have a good understanding of metaphysics if you wanted to really get a handle on epistemology. Thus metaphysics was prior to epistemology. The enlightenment, starting mostly with Bacon and Descartes, switched the formula around and started claiming that before we can get anywhere with metaphysics we need to have a handle on epistemology. Thus modernism sees epistemology as prior to metaphysics.
So what does all of this have to do with postmodernism? Quite a bit. I am beginning to suspect that many of the problems I tend to have with postmodernism stem from its failure to go far enough in rejecting this modernist assumption. Two weeks ago I might have said it goes to far; now I'm thinking it doesn't go far enough. Specifically, it seems to me that postmodernism accepts modernism's premise that epistemology is prior to metaphysics. Given that postmodernists generally want to define the movement as a rejection of modernist assumptions, this strikes me as odd and on reflection as extremely problematic.
Postmodern scholars seem to spend a great deal of time looking at language and cultural biases and various mental limitations in order to create arguments that the modernists were being pie eyed, foolish idealists when they went around making the audacious claim that we can know things. They focus a great deal of effort "debunking" the epistemological theories of the important modernist thinkers in order to build their own epistemological theories. In fact, epistemology is so big in postmodern circles that a number of people have reflected that metaphysics seems to be dead.
So postmodernism does not actually reject modernist assumptions; it just rejects modernist conclusions. In the place of those conclusions, some postmoderm thinkers have concluded that we have to find different ways of knowing (others have said that we just can't know things but I'm not going to focus on them here). Knowing though experience, emotion, narrative and instinct have all been suggested as alternate epistemological solutions to the problems that arrive when we think of epistemology as prior to metaphysics. The biggest of these problems is that post modern epistemologies are almost always too limited. They will offer some incredibly valuable way of knowing which the modernists rejected, but then they go and reject the modernist way of knowing (reason). So they tend to end up with less rather than more. Or sometimes they will accept reason as one way of knowing things but then they will make this odd suggestion that all the different ways people go about knowing are completely distinct and that as a result, contradictions aren't important.
Let me be really clear here. Premodernism did not make this mistake. Actually, premodernism didn't make either of these mistakes. Where the modernist says that reason is the only way to know things and the postmodernist says that there are many ways of knowing but none of those ways can influence one another; the premodern understood that knowing is like a rope with multiple strands and that each strand needed to work with each other strand in order to build an accurate picture of the truth.
I suspect that postmodernism is making this mistake because it is working from the "bottom up" rather than from the "top down". By asking about epistemology first, by failing to reject enough of modernisms assumptions, postmodernism limits itself to the how without a what. May I suggest that if we started talking about what life actually is, it would make questions of how a lot easier to handle.