Right Answer…Wrong Question

Even during the reign of modern epistemology, there were many anticipations that all was not well. Yet for convenience we may accept the common assessment that postmodern epistemology came to prominence in much of the Western world about 1970. It is usefully analyzed with reference to its rejection or modification of all six of the elements of modern epistemology.

1. Postmodern epistemology continues to fasten on the finite “I”-or, more corporately, on the finite group, the “we.” But it draws very different inferences from this axiom than modern epistemology did. Because all human knowers-or groups of knowers-are finite, they think and reason out of a specific and limited cultural framework, some specific “interpretive community.” I am a white, middle-aged, European Canadian, with a reasonable amount of Western education behind me, and a white-collar job. Surely it is not surprising if I look at things differently than, say, a sub-Saharan African scholar or a twelve-year-old illiterate street prostitute in Bangkok.

2. Reflect deeply on the first point, postmodernism insists, and absolute certainty will no longer be assumed to be possible. To be frank, it is mere illusion, the product of disreputable arrogance. Moreover, absolute certainty is not even desirable. It engenders a narrow outlook and cascading self-righteousness. Surely it is better, postmoderns tell us, to encourage insights that flow from many different perspectives, including different religions and diverse moral codes.

3. Because the “foundations” that we erect are produced by finite human thought, we should abandon the comfortable illusion that they are secure. Postmodernism is profoundly anti-foundationalist.

4. Similarly, as finite human beings we invent our methods, which are themselves shaped by particular languages and cultures and social groupings. Consequently, no method has any deeper significance than the preference or convenience of some particular group. To hold, as modernists did, that to build on a firm foundation with rigorous methods would enable us to uncover truth was self-delusion, for neither our foundations nor our methods transcend our limitations.

5. From these first four points we must infer that whatever “truth” we discover cannot possibly enjoy “ahistorical universality.” It will be true for one culture, but not another; it will be true in one language, but not in another; it will be true for this social grouping, but not for that one. Even in the scientific domain, it is argued, we are learning that large theories are not infrequently overthrown by later theories, that Western medicine has its triumphs and failures while Chinese medicine can make similar claims, and so on. Any claim to have achieved “ahistorical universality” is just one more form of modernist hubris.

6. Many postmodern voices still speak out of the assumptions of philosophical naturalism that are common among late modernist thinkers. Yet substantial numbers of postmoderns are now convinced that there are many, many ways to “knowledge” and “truth”-i.e., to “knowledge” and “truth” that are helpful to you or your “interpretive community.” They will happily applaud traditional science, while anticipating the breakthroughs that will come by “feeling” rather than thinking (“Feel, Luke, feel!”). They accept both astrology and religious claims because they do not take them to be different in kind. Anecdotal evidence is as persuasive to such people as controlled, double-blind scientific experiments. Consequently, many postmoderns think of themselves as more “spiritual” and less “naturalistic” than their modernist forebears.

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