I enjoy reading Dennett. I also enjoy reading Foucault. Youtube knows this. And so it drew my attention to a video entitled: ‘why Postmodernism is a Fraud’, featuring an interview with Dennett:
All of this would not have been worth mentioning, were it not for the fact that this video is linked to several others which have a – I would argue – ‘toxic’ nature. For instance, Youtube immediately connects this video with videos on ‘Social Justice Warrior Fails’ and ‘Lefties get schooled’. Right.
Now I don’t get the alt-right (surely it would be totally bananas to morally disapprove of someone taking an active interest in social justice?). In this sense I’m not yet completely up to date with the current political ideological landscape. But I do get why this video is linked with this agenda. It is because of the guy Dennett is talking to. This guy is trying to do something (just look at the ‘pinned’ top-comment).
Of course Dennett should fend for himself. But it seems to me that the valid points Dennett makes about postmodern philosophy, are not necessarily connected with these (apparently) toxic remarks, and a division needs to be made.
So let’s make a list of statements made by Dennett and the respondent.
Postmodernists are a fraud (0:29): this is a bit of a polarizing remark, but Dennetts draws attention to the idea that postmodernist philosophers tend to not be what they should be, namely men of science and truth. Instead, they just talk without content. Empty words.
Comment: it always makes sense to be skeptical, and I think this is basically what Dennett’s general attitude towards postmodernist philosophers is. It is good to be wary of speaking nonsense (Kant, Hegel, Cassirer, Heidegger, and Derrida were particularly so). This on its own doesn’t justify a disqualification however, until the opposing party is understood on its own terms. Dennett doesn’t publish on postmodern philosophy, so I think he wisely does not consider himself to be in a position to take a stance. Or: he saves his time to read ‘useful’ books. That seems sensible, even if postmodern philosophy on the long run turns out to be great and make a lot of sense.
Postmodernism=Continental philosophy=Literary Science: during the interview, Dennett (though not to the same extreme extent as the respondent) is identifying philosophy in France and Germany both with postmodernism and literary studies and social sciences. He also seems to imply all of this is basically identical with the humanities.
Comment: I consider this to be a risky generalization. Foucault is not continental philosophy. Continental philosophy is not literary studies. Literary studies is not deconstruction. Deconstruction is not the humanities. Etc.
Furthermore, the reception of the word ‘postmodernist’ in America has been heavily influenced by student uprisings and identity-political groups. Postmodernism doesn’t mean the same in Europe as it does in America. And Foucault is a European.
Intentionally obscure way of talking (1:19): continental philosophers write in an obscure way, without any good reason.
Comment: studying continental philosophy, this is highly relatable and seems to be true at least to some extent. Dennett mentions that Foucault supposedly said that: “to be taken serious in France, you have to put in 25% bullshit”. This anecdote is debated between Searle and Derrida, in their later conflict over the work of Austin. Yet two points: 1. being obscure doesn’t mean, as Dennett seems to note, that there might not be interesting and important points being made by someone like Foucault. Perhaps 25% of all that Einstein said was nonsense, but this doesn’t necessarily decrease the importance of the other 75%. 2. secondly, not appreciated by Dennett, the mode of presentation might itself be part of what is being said, and might in this sense be rational. In the analytical tradition this is recognized by Graham Priest en Jay Garfield. (But surely Dennett would not care much about their work anyway).
French obscurity (6:51): Dennett diagnoses the cause of obscure language in: 1. the freedom ‘continental professors’ supposedly have to profess without any objections by students; 2. The fashion in France; 3. The desire to have an own particular field of study.
Comment: this is an interesting analysis by someone working in philosophy for a long time. Yet, concerning 1., I doubt Dennett’s social fact on university culture in Europe is true. Living in the Netherlands, I don’t experience this supposed infallibility of philosophy professors during their lectures. (Although it seems necessary that any place in which a grading system is in place will risk producing a culture in which critique doesn’t thrive). 2. Using hyperbolical words like ‘Love’, ‘Death’, etc. is typical of French philosophy, and is highly fashionable. Yet the supposed obscurity should not be overestimated (Foucault’s ‘Archeology of Knowledge’ is admirably clear, even reflectively mapping out the way in which it wants to be interpreted, and the same goes for the work of Lyotard), 3. This is a difficult topic. At least Dennett’s critique seems to be connected with the work of Bourdieu.
Harvard obscurity (7:41): Dennett also states that being a professor, and being constantly harassed by students, can easily result in a desire to write obscure, just to silence the continuous questions. This is something he also noticed at Harvard.
Comment: so be it.
The Rorty factor (3:58): now it also seems Dennett thinks at least some good might come from continental philosophy. He mentions Richard Rorty, and appreciates the clarity with which Rorty presents French Philosophy (I guess Dennett is thinking of Rorty’s concern with Heidegger and Derrida). Only he also thinks that whatever is happening in France is what is happening in a meaningful way in Rorty’s work, but ‘multiplied by .6(6?)79’.
Comment: Rorty is indeed highly recommendable for providing a sort of bridge between analytic and continental philosophy. He seems to have been open to the ideas of French philosophy, while at the same time being grounded to such an extent in the analytical tradition, that he could provide a sort of translation into terms which Anglo-saxon philosophers could appreciate. This sometimes improved the clarity of the author Rorty discussed significantly.
We’ve castigated the postmodernists enough (2:45)
Comment: interesting statement. Perhaps Dennett does not intend, like his respondent, to write a narrative in which heroic and scientific minded analytical philosophers are facing the every immanent threat of continental obscure and dangerous figures, and everyone should take up arms?
Tsunami of bullshit (2:00): the respondent wonders whether the ‘movement’ of humanities=social sciences=continental philosophy=postmodernism is still going strong with its tsunami of bullshit or not.
Comment: let’s just note that a branch of philosophy is called ‘a movement’, and that words like ‘tsunami’ are also used to describe foreign immigrants or refugees. A tsunami is not a wave, but is something dangerous. Is this a normative claim? Could the ‘movement of physicist provide a tsunami of well-grounded facts?’
Postmodernists suffer from physics envy and want to get all the pretty women (05:21): postmodernists are supposedly driven by a desire to be more like physics. This drives them to talk in a weird way.
Comment: there is surely bound to be a relation of rivalry between physics and any branch of philosophy. Physics is a universal science, it represents all things (and even seems to define what a ‘thing’ is). Surely Dennett would agree that there is a lot in physics to be envious about if you’re a philosopher. Just like arguably there is a lot in philosophy which physicists might miss out on. The relation is not necessarily one of envy. Unless perhaps we’re talking about financial matters and funding. Furthermore: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/30
Driven by pride which is a sin (6:29): supposedly continental philosophers don’t only speak profound sounding empty words, but they also do this out of a feeling of pride. And by the way, pride is one of the seven deadly sins.
Comments: okay. So formal considerations of the value and truthfulness of a claim or argument cannot be settled by pointing towards motivating factors. Something is not false just because I want to make a good impression saying it. It doesn’t add much to an ad hominem argument to state that pride is a sin.
Blinded by normative thought (5:39): continental philosophers are supposedly trying to present a new sort of language out of the desire to speak normatively
Comment: this is a typical complaint made by alt-right ideologists, when they state that ‘lefties’ are blinded by idealism and are ignoring the facts that the ‘common man’ will surely appreciate. This is a sort of mythical fabrication which oversimplifies what is going on, and can be used to polarize society. Often the actual point made by these ‘lefties’ is misunderstood, and perhaps willfully misrepresented.
A parallel example: in the Netherlands there have been some instances in which progressive writers have complained about the explicit essentialist way in which a government-sponsored campaign stated the difference between boys and girls, and women and motherhood. ‘Alt-Righties’ replied that these concerns were per se ‘unscientific’ and furthermore ‘merely normatively motivated’, since all the facts backed up their statements.
Yet surely everyone, left and right, can agree that the status quo has certain features. The progressive authors argued that it might be undesirable that the status quo is reproduced as it is, and this campaign actively risks reproducing a standing definition of what it is to be a boy which is too narrow and not desirable. Or put a bit awkwardly: the facts could change, but a campaign based on the current fact of the matter will not do so.
And at that point, there is room for argument. Muddying the water with ad-hominem arguments doesn’t add anything to the clarity of the discussions. The statement that things might change due to action is an empirical one. This is a factual claim, and when operationalized even one open to falsification. It does no good to wánt to misrepresent the other party and dispose of them.