We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

“In the past few decades there has been a movement sometimes described as the “postmodern movement.” There’s no single word that’s really adequate to describe it, but that’s one that the people [involved] typically accept. In many respects, they see themselves as challenging the Enlightenment vision that there is an independently existing reality, that we can have a language that refers in some clear and intelligible way to elements of that reality, and that we can obtain objective truth about that reality. They advance the view that what we think of as reality is largely a social construct, or that it’s a device designed to oppress the marginalized peoples of the world–the colonial peoples, women, racial minorities. They see the attempt to attain rationality and truth and knowledge as some kind of power play, and what they want instead is what they take to be more liberating–a rejection of the rationalist view.”

John Searle.

A philosopher who believes in reality, that humans have volition and can reason about things. Obviously some sort of dangerous maniac who is a menace to society.

30 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Alsadius

    Relevant to this discussion: http://arts.uwaterloo.ca/~kwesthue/regiftedxmas12.html

    Excellent column I came across last month, about the two major types of debating styles out there.

  • Paul Marks

    The denial of objective reality and objective truth goes back, at least, to the American “Pragmatists” of the late 19th and early 20th century.

    From William James (and the others) there is the idea that the right (and the objective reality) is just a matter of opinion – and if it works for you…….

    From this Sorel(and so on) got the idea of the importance of “myth” – of belief (especially strong, violent, belief) that did not rest on objective reality – because there was no objective reality.

    This was of vital impotance to both Fasist and National Sociaist thought, but it did not stop with them. As the objective truth claims of Marxism (such as the idea that employing someone is “exploiting” them) have been disproved (as was already happening in Marx’s own life time – hence his desperate misquoting of Gladstone and so on)so the international collectivists (as well as the national collectivists) have grasped for a subjective view of reality.

    There is no universal logic (reason) – just “Jewish logic” or “capitalist logic”, the product of a “race” or an “historical stage” which can be rejected by those who do not like it (the national socialists and the international socialists). There is no objective reality – so anything the collectivists want to be “true” is “true”.

    Thus we go from 19th century American “Pragmatism” and German “historicism” (with the “War of Methed” between it and the universalist “Austrian School” of economics led by Carl Menger) to modern “Post Modernism” and so on.

    However, why has “Enlightenment” objective truth and universal reason proved to be so easy to undermine?

    I would argue that there was a fundemental dishonesty at the heart of it – which later dishonest people were able to use undermine objective reality and universal reason.

    The Western world was NOT bogged down in a mental fog from the fall of the Roman Empire to the glourious Enlightenment.

    On the contrary the mainstream “Scholastic” thinkers stood for objective reality and unversal reason for a thousand years.

    Even the ideas of natural law and natural rights can be clearly see in the work of the Scholasitics – see Brian Tierney “The Idea of Natural Rights” (Emory University 1997).

    For a thousand years the Scholastics defended objective reality and universal reason.

    Yet some Enlightenment thinkers pretended (and still pretend) that whilst such things may have been known to the Greeks and Romans they had been destroyed – till they (the Enlightenment thinkers) rediscovered them.

    Were the Scholastics perfect – certainly NOT, but then neither were the Enlightenment thinkers.

    So why this disrespect, why this vast shining LIE that objective reality and reason were rejected from the fall of the Clasical World to the Enlightenment?

    The reason is a simple one – the Scholastics were Christians and most of them (although there were such things as “Protestant Scholastics” when there came to be such things as Protestants) were ROMAN CATHOLICS.

    And many (although certainly NOT all) of the Enlightenment thinkers hated Christians – especially Roman Catholics, so they wished to cut off any connection between them and objective reality and universal logic. Pretending that a thousand years of Christian thought was just a lot of “mumbo-jumbo”.

    To pretend that there had been no progress in the Western World for a THOUSAND YEARS, to pretend that the West was still in the “Dark Ages”.

    With the Enlightenment based (at least in the writings of some thinkers – then and now) on such a vast lie, is it a great wonder that the Enlightenment was, in turn, vunerable to the dishonest attacks of the “Pragmatists” and “Post Modernists”?

    By the way where did Carl Menger (founder of the Austrian School of economics) get his (Aristotelian) ideas of objective reality and universal reason from?

    He got them from Franz Brantino – a Scholastic in all but name.

    Certainly Franz B. shows the dark side of the Church (hence his run-ins with it over his disputes over Papal claims), but he also shows its light side – its devotion to objective truth (objective reality) and universal logic.

    By denying this the “Enlightenment project” CUTS ITSELF OFF FROM ITS OWN ROOTS and dooms itself.

    It undermines the West(leaves it open to its enemies – Rorty and co), by pretending that the West was the creation of a hanful of “Enlightenment thinkers” – which is just not true.

  • Paul Marks


    Of course the academic (and administrative) establishment are the enemies of free speech.

    Nor is it just the (Marxist) P.C. movement – the basic point of Richard Ely’s (Orwellian named) “academic freedom” campaign (a century ago) to get a “Progressive” stranglehold on universities.

    Take one of the specific examples you mention.

    The historian telling his class that a U.S. Senator had called Governor Nikki Hayley a “Fucking Raghead”.

    It was NOT just insanity to report the historian for “racist” language – there was an AGENDA at work.

    The Governor of South Carolinia is a conservative Republican – the Senator a “liberal” Democrat.

    Had it been the other way round it would have been fine for the historian to tell his class all about it.

    But we can not have students finding out that the brown skinned and female Goveror of South Carolinia is subjected to racist and sexist absuse.

    At least not till the “education” of the students has adavanced to such a stage that their minds just accept that someone is not female and is not brown – if they are a conservative.

    Because “race” and “gender” are a “social construct” of “exploitative big business capitalism”.

    And, even, that it is OK to direct racist and sexist insults at conservatives – as this is helping the “victims of capitalism” by “making the personal political” in the best Saul Alinsky “Rules For Radicals” way.

    So none of this is insane – there is thinking (evil thinking – but thinking) behind it.

  • Lee Moore

    The Senator was actually a Republican not a Democrat. Anyway….

    I think some of the success of the postmodernists in academia is down to physics. Pretty much any reasonably intelligent educated person can understand classical Newtonian physics, and believing that the world is as Newton had explained is very consistent with adopting the view that there is an external reality that we can learn to know. Postmodernists would have had a thin time of it in 1900.

    But relativity and quantum mechanics are way beyond almost everybody, and their message is that although yes, there is an external reality, it’s a lot more mysterious than most people can grasp, and beyond the ability of even the best teachers to explain in terms that a layman can follow. Plus according to relativity there’s no privileged observer whose perspective is more correct than anybody else’s.

    In a world filled with highly intelligent and educated people, but with no actual knowledge or understanding of higher mathematics and modern physics – ie pretty much everyone in academia who doesn’t teach something that depends on mathematics – it’s easy to see how relativism could be intellectually calved from half grasped notions of relativity. And easy to see how the defenders of actual reality could melt away, having had their well understood Newtonian universe pulled out from under them, and afraid of having their new ignorance exposed.

    I don’t say the political preferences of postmodernists were irrelevant – far from it – merely that social science acquires what respectability it has by association with real science, and if real science tells a story that non scientists cannot fathom, then the market for those selling a belief in goblins is bound to improve.

  • Paul Marks

    Why would a Republican United States Senator attack a Republican (conservative Repbublican) Governor?

    Anyway there are two Senators from South Carolina – Jim DeMint (now replaced by Tim Scott) and Lindsey Graham.

    Which is supposed to have attacked the Governor in this way? And why?

    By the way Lee – the enemies of objective truth were having things rather their own way in “1900”.

    The German “Historical School” was moving to dominate economics.

    And the American “Pragmatists” were going from strength to strenth in philosophy.

  • Lee Moore

    It was a Republican state senator called Jake Knotts, who was supporting one of Ms Haley’s (the “raghead” in question) opponents in the Republican primary for Governor.

    I agree there were enemies of objective truth alive and well in 1900. My suggestion is simply that their position in academia is now much more dominant than in t’olden days, and that, perhaps, modern physics is an (entirely innocent) contributory factor in establishing an intellectual environment in which charlatans can flourish.

  • Laird

    Lee Moore is correct that it was Jake Knotts, a Republican SC state senator, who said in a live broadcast “We already got one raghead in the White House, we don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.” This was during the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary (obviously, Knotts was supporting one of Haley’s opponents), and it ended up with a censure by his county party, calls for his expulsion by several other county parties, and a fine by the Senate Ethics Commission. It also contributed to his loss of the seat in the 2012 election to a petition candidate (who was herself a Republican but was kicked off the primary ballot by a politically-motivated state supreme court ruling, but let’s not go there). Knotts has always been a sleazeball and the state senate is improved by his departure (not that that’s saying much!).

    I alsp think Lee makes a very good point with his remark that “social science acquires what respectability it has by association with real science, and if real science tells a story that non scientists cannot fathom, then the market for those selling a belief in goblins is bound to improve.” (That would be my nominee for SQOTD.) It’s not that post-modernists don’t understand relativity and quantum physics (some might, although it’s doubtful), but that non-scientists don’t understand it and so are easy prey for those who would have us believe that there is no knowable external reality. It is a useful tool for achieving their political agenda.

  • brokky

    I have never really read postmodern theory as being a repudiation of objective reality but rather
    the observation that our subjective experience of reality is mediated by the social realm of language.

    I think this is problematic for those of an individualist persuasion because if, as the postmodernists such as Lacan and Derrida would have us believe, we think and perceive through the medium of language, then we think and perceive collectively and socially rather than individually.

    It also goes back to the Marxist idea of ‘false consciousness’ which holds that our perceptions of the real are something given to us by a particular ideological discourses.

  • Paul Marks

    A State Senator – now all becomes clear.

  • Roue le Jour

    It was when I first came across the idea that “income twenty shillings, outgoings twenty shillings and sixpence, result: misery” was “right wing” economics that I truly realised the depth of the hole the West was in.

  • RRS

    P M

    Your phrasing raises an interest about your views of objective truth.

    Would you go a bit further, if you care to, and cover your assay of the views of Michael Polonayi and Alisdair McIntyre (perhaps touching also on “universalism” or the universalist viewpoints).

  • PersonFromPorlock

    God is just man writ large and just as likely to exist as man is. And don’t tell me “I can’t see God,” because I can’t see you, just a bunch of molecules swanning around.

    So if man can create a sort of local reality, presumably God can create a universal one. In fact, God is necessary to a consistent description of a world which includes us as efficient actors.

    Subjective (man-based) and objective (God-based) realities aren’t incompatible at all, if we assume our power is delegated to us (that is, that God has given us free will). And I do love the thought of how that delegation would give the very irritating post-modernists hives, if they could comprehend it.

    I am, incidentally, not in the least religious. This line of thinking derives straightforwardly from the presumption that we are made of the same ‘stuff’ as everything else and therefore that the world is like us.

  • Paul Marks

    Roue le Jour – quite correct.

    RRS – you are a very naughty man (you know I could drown like a rat in such deep waters).

    Anyway – I do believe in objective truth. But, on scientific (as opposed to logical) questions, I also believe we can never be sure we have found it. In short I am so crude that (on this) I take Karl Popper’s postion.

    By the way Michael Polonayi was much better writing about science than about political economy – he once wrote on Keynes and …. (no I will not “go there”).

    Alisdair McIntrye – “After Virtue”?

    All I can remember from that book is an aside about him wargaming with his son – and winning the Battle of Gettysburg from Lee’s position. He seems to have thought that this proves the game was no good, but it could mean that General Lee was having an off day (or all sorts of other things).

    On the general moral position – going for the Aristotelian “virtues” view of morality does seem to be an interesting way of thinking about ethics. “But is it the correct way?” – well that is getting in deep…..

    brokky – private language argument.

    Many philosphers deny (very hottly) that there can be a language which only one person knows.

    However, many people have created such private languages. Of course the elite do not like such as simple empirical test so they……..

    As for “thinking collectivily” (and so on).

    Are the denial of the “I”.

    I wish that the Soviets had accepted Wittgenstein when he tried to go there – then they could have executed him as a follower of Trotsky (the man was such a dip-stick that he did not understand that praseing Trotsky would get him killed in the Soviet Union).

    “That is not very nice of you Paul” – when did I say I was nice?

    And Wittengenstein (and his gang) were not nice either. When he visited Oxford, Harold Prichard dragged himself off his death-bed to go and attend the Wittgenstein and ask some questions.

    Prichard did not get any real answers to his questions – just mockery and abuse from the goon squad academics. They knew the man was very ill – but they did not care (so blank them).

    I have no time for these “great philosophers” (they are only “great” because the goon-squad says they are and fails any student who says they are not great) – Cicero was right, “there is nothing so absurd that it has not been held to be true by a philosopher”.

    “Collective thinking”, – “we percieve everything collectively” and other Fairywebs and Pixiedust.

    “Combatiblism” is another.

    Either we make choices – or we are not morally responsible (indeed there can be no such thing as morality at all – if there is no such thing as a real choice between good and evil).

    Saying “all our actions are predetermined – but this is compatible with moral responbility” is just wrong.

    We are either agents (at least some of the time) – or we are not agents.


  • Paul Marks

    Person from Porlock

    There is no such thing as a man based “subjective reality”.

    Even if God does not exist – reality would be just as objective as if He did.

    As the Scholastics said….

    “Natural law is the law of God – but if God did not exist, natural law would be same”.

    This, of course, gets Islamic (and Calvinist?) theologians hot under the collar.

    As for free will.

    Nothing to do with subjective reality.

    If I make a choice to jump off the roof – I do not have a choice about whether I fall or not.

    As for the determinist argument that the agent is impossible without a soul (in the religious sense).

    Well I certainly hope that such an argument is correct (although I doubt that it is) – as the determinist would not (as they suppose) have refuted agency (free will) by such an argument – they would have refuted materialism (proved the existence of the soul – in the religous sense of that word).

    However, I repeat, I rather doubt that such an argument is correct.

    Sadly it is quite reasonable to say the following…..

    We are agents, we have free will. But we age and die – and then we are not agents anymore.

  • RRS

    P M
    Thank you for the direct answer on objective truth.

    Still, “Life” (at lest experiencing the living of it) has seemed to be pretty damned subjective so far. Perhaps the end will not be.

  • Paul Marks

    RRS – you are indeed a subject (in the sense of an agent) a person, not a thing.

    But that does not mean that the universe is subjective.

    Think really hard – make the world flat.

    Neither of us can do that.

    If we convince ourselves that the world is flat – that may indeed be our “subjective experience”, but it is also mistaken.

  • veryretired

    A marvelous discussion, and I only hope to add one point about the underlying cause for these disparate views of reality, which is an old and basic question—cui bono?

    Who benefits if there is no true logic? The man who wishes to live rationally in a comprehensible universe, or the one who relishes irrationality?

    Who benefits if there are no cause and effect relationships? The engineer who bases her calculations on experimental results of stress loading tests, or the statist stimulus planner who declares “We want this bridge built right here” because the political landscape demands it?

    The clear, concise writer, or the alleged scholar who’s obscure verbiage can never be pinned down to actually meaning anything specifically?

    The artist who creates beauty and value, or the one who proclaims himself to be an artist, so this pile of dirt is art?

    The person who tries to live in harmony with an observable reality, or the one who claims that one’s intentions are all that matter, and the final result doesn’t matter?

    The 20th century was a global laboratory experiment in every form of irrationality and subjectivity. I would not be surprised if future historians refer to it as the “Age of Slaughter”.

    The book speaks of god being a vengeful and jealous god, but it is reality, an independent and totally disinterested universe operating on the laws of mathematics and physics, which truly exacts the most serious vengeance upon anyone, individually and collectively, who allow their minds and their lives to become disconnected from it.

    There are some big and ugly chickens circling the globe, just looking for a place to roost. And how you feel about that won’t matter very much at all.

  • Paul Marks

    As so often, you have summed it up well veryretired.

  • Watchman

    What mystifies me is why on earth postmodernism has to be a left-wing construct. It opposes itself to modernism, which is the underlying philosophy of statism (there is a problem, here is a solution which in a rational real world would fix it, so lets do that – the seemingly harmless thought system behind all government intervention), by denying the existence of the reality on which government actions are based. So long as it is not denying the physical existence of material things, it is correct in this response, in that any concept, grouping or linguistic usage is a social construct – they are not real in the way the element normally described as Carbon (sorry – the name is a social construct though) can be establish to be.

    Where postmodernism tends to go wrong in left-wing hands is that postmodernists for some reason then accept the existence of classes of people such as the marginalised, women, racial groups or whatever without noting the inherent logical flaw that these groups are also purely social constructs, and that members of these groups are individual actors fully capable of creating their own realities (or, I suppose, living in the realities created for them by modernist and postmodernist thinkers…).

    So postmodernism is hardly an enemey of libertarian thought: used properly, it challenges and destroys the labels and identities with which people would wish to divide us; as a thought process it encourages people not to think ‘I must do this, because reality requires it’ and to instead consider what they want to do; and above all, it is a way of thinking, and if libertarians abandon thinking to the statists of the left (in the way anarchists seem to have done) then as a movement libertarianism becomes nothing but incoherent rage.

  • Lee Moore

    “in that any concept, grouping or linguistic usage is a social construct – they are not real in the way the element normally described as Carbon (sorry – the name is a social construct though) can be establish to be”

    I don’t follow you. It is true – trivially so – that knowledge of prior concepts assists in the discovery or invention of new concepts (standing on the shoulders of giants etc.) What society has thought up already may well channel the paths of further thought. It is also true, no doubt, that particular forms of linguistic usage or notation may assist or hinder thought. For example arithmetic using roman numerals is much more complicated than arithmetic using arabic numerals, and it is reasonable to doubt that there would have been much progress in arithmetic and algebra without the use of arabic numerals. And a particular linguistic usage or a particular notation is usually a matter of social convention. (But not always – Newton’s fluxions notation was invented by himself for himself. Society had nothing to do with it. Symbols do not have to be used in communication with other people, they can also be used to order a single individual’s thoughts.)

    Nor does the fact that language / notation is usually socially agreed imply that the concepts that are identified using such symbols have been created by the action of society. Aside from carbon; electricity and dandruff really do exist, and would exist even if there were no words to describe them. Fluxions exist too, even though they are not material objects. Fluxions would not operate differently if society had chosen that they should. (In fact even the words themselves are not created by the action of society – new words may be invented by a single mind, and accepted or rejected over time by the linguistic community. The action of society is on the survival of a new word, not on its creation.)

    If postmodernism’s claim is that pre-existing culture can influence the streams of further thought, then it is trivial. If its claim is that pre-existing culture absolutely constrains further thought, or that we cannot think about concepts for which there is no existing word, then it’s plain why such a sllly and obviously false idea has had to be disguised by obscurantism.

  • Watchman

    I would rather phrase it as that the concepts through which we interpret and communicate about physical things shape our understanding. The social aspect is no present consensus, although statists do try to associate certain labels with certain reactions in the listener, but the way we learn to interpret. Dandruff is real; but the name is clearly a social construction (it is not the same in other languages) and the fact it is a ‘bad thing’ is not a given, but is something which we have learnt (with the help of Proctor and Gamble no doubt). Dandruff could be constructed as ‘hairsnow’ and taken as a sign of wisdom easily enough – it’s about how we are taught to see by parents, peers, teachers and others.

    This realisation should be liberating, as it allows us to see beyond the label applied. We may never be able to see the reality without conceptual tools such as language, but as with numbers and notations, we can at least approach a description of reality where we can see whether it is being manipulated by others.

    This works best with things that are conceptual anyway, such as libertarianism. Here it is possible for those who seek to control thought to construct this as a label for self-centred, abusive of the weak, gun-toting survivalists (apologies if that happens to be you…), making it a term for an extremist rather than a sensible political position. The answer to this sort of framing is not to denigrate the underlying philosophy, but rather to take that philosophy to its ultimate logic and seek to show that those who use labels are seeking to control us by their manipulation of reality.

  • ErisGuy

    The belief that reality is socially constructed serves the purposes of all sorts of “rights” and “pride” groups that deny human nature, and, for example, praise mutilation as liberation.

    The connection of libertarianism to reality is tenuous: people simply do not behave as libertarians wish they would.

  • Watchman: I am absolutely with you substantively, but the substance you describe is not postmodernism as I understand it (IIUIC) – there’s a subtle but very important difference: what you seem to be saying is that social constructs are part of reality, and that is something I absolutely agree with. What PM is saying, OTOH, is that all reality is a social construct.

  • Lee Moore

    I entirely agree that “the concepts through which we interpret and communicate about physical things shape our understanding” so long as shape is understood (which is I think your meaning) as “often influence” rather than “determine”; After that I’m not quite sure where we agree and disagree.

    1. Labels – we can certainly see beyond the label – “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – though labels can of course be misleading. A hamburger is not made of ham. A white man is not white. But such misleadings need not detain any determined enquirer.
    2. Value judgements – we may be taught by society that stealing is morally wrong, and that teaching is a social construct. But that isn’t because our thoughts about stealing have been shaped by the language that we use, but because the subject under discussion – what is morally good or bad – is a value judgement, not a proposition about the physical world.
    3. Manipulation – certainly words and meanings can be used manipulatively and if successfully one can help the manipulators win political victories. But successful manipulation is does not prevent people from thinking about unwelcome concepts if they try a bit harder. If “liberty” is successfully manipulated so that it comes to be accepted as meaning “lots of government intervention on behalf of the poorer half of society” that doesn’t mean that the concept of “as little ordering about by the state as as possible” has ceased to be a concept that people can refer to and discuss. They may have to invent a new word for it, but the concept hasn’t been channelled out of existence. The fact that words can be successfully manipulated tells us something about politics, not about the limitations on our ability to explore reality.

    So if I apply these to dandruff, or as we now know it, “hairsnow.” If it is praised socially as a sign of wisdom, I can still investigate whether as a matter of fact it is correlated with wisdom (using whatever measure of wisdom that I choose) and I can support or deny the theory that society holds. I can also investigate whether it is in fact a form of snow or a form of skin. And I can also investigate whether it is associated with dry itchy scalps and whether dry itchy scalps pose any health risks. I can investigate whether hairsnow poses health risks to other people. There are all sorts of “real” concepts that can be explored even in your hairsnow world. My thoughts may be channelled to some extent by society’s usage and teachings, particularly if I’m not really paying attention, but there’s nothing very deep about this. I can escape the channel if I try.

  • Lee, not to disagree with what you are saying, but just to illustrate how language shapes the way we think and perceive the world. That, in turn, does change reality.

  • Lee Moore

    Oh I’m not denying at all that language shapes the way we think and perceive the world. To some extent*. And particularly when we are operating on mental autopilot, which is most of the time. And that this can affect social and political outcomes. But do the vase test, amongst speakers of a language where a subject is not assigned to an accident, and tell them in advance that their task is to identify the person who drops the vase, and they’ll be able to do it.

    *Pinker is quite good on the great limitations of the language shapes thought notion

  • Paul Marks

    Alisa does the way we think and percieve things change reality?

    For example, one of the library people I happened to see today (when I briefly visited the local library) was wearing “Batman” stuff.

    True this stuff only has meaning in our culture – given to someone from another culture the clothing would have no meaning.

    However, even if this young lady believes herself to be “Batgirl” (or whatever), does this really change reality?

    True the young lady (believeing herself to be Batgirl) might try to stop some thug stealing a library book. So the way she thinks has changed reality – she has gone into combat (when otherwise she would not have).

    But is the physical fact that the thug is bigger than her going to be changed?

  • Yes, Paul, I skipped a step as I thought it was obvious enough: the way we think influences the way we behave, and our behavior changes reality.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Alisa – someone thinking they are Batgirl (or even just being a bit more self confident) can change reality, if the lady then chooses to fight. Although it does not change the objective fact of her physical size (in this case – very small).

    ErisGuy – libertarians do not tend to claim that humans are all wise and/or moral.

    But we do claim (with Gladstone) that it is folly to expect moral improvement from the state.

    On the contrary – state intervention, and dependence, leaves people more and more intellectually and ethically crippled than they were before.

    No one can accuse me of having a positive view of my fellow human beings (or myself). But I have an even less positive view of force – whether used by the state or by private criminals.

  • Paul Marks

    The default Paul Marks view of the world is that of confused and horribly flawed human beings (including me), up against Demons-from-Hell.

    Although I do understand this is a bit unfair as regards some leftists.