U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On (Philosophical) Materialism & Postmodernism

Usually I’m very suspicious of the sensibility that assumes that the truth is most likely to be found halfway between two propositions. Most of the time this stance is associated with an anti-left liberalism that, while it can be rather progressive, nonetheless defines socialism or anarchism as necessarily irrational and therefore “extreme” or dogmatic. However, usually does not mean always. One dynamic where something roughly conceived as “the middle” seems to me the position that gets us closest to reality is the intellectual conflict that often plays out between materialism (in the scientific, not historical sense) and postmodernism. The somewhat funky path my personal intellectual biography took me on placed me in a position to appreciate how often each of these predilections could use a sprinkle or two of the other.

When I used to be active in what members somewhat awkwardly refer to as “the atheist community,” my training as a historian and someone interested in the social sciences in general provided me with a perspective not terribly common in those circles. Many a time I sat with my hand raised, impatiently hoping to intervene in the direction of the conversation with a reminder that ideas are not received or created in a vacuum and just because Isaac Newton was right about gravity does not mean that all critiques of the Enlightenment are driven by a wild eyed anti-science bias.

At the same time, my sense is that I am more interested in science, of pretty much all branches save maybe chemistry, than your average humanities PhD. In particular, no field inspires more sublimity for me than physical anthropology, a reverence connected largely to my love for animals and sense of the differences between us and them being, contrary to popular assumptions, rather slight indeed. Consequently, while I hardly gravitate towards essentialist notions of either gender or human nature in general, I do believe that the best work of historians and other social scientists should keep in mind the relevance of the organic basis, and therefore material commonality, of all human beings.

There is no reason for these two sources of knowledge to be contradictory. The conflict between proponents of each is often based in misunderstanding or, as with the famous Sokal Hoax, straight up caricature. Nonetheless, politics are nothing but priorities, so those who identify as skeptics or indulge in scientism and those who embrace postmodernism do end up clashing more often than not, as their ideology of choice usually reflects political projects inflected with sympathies and biases they may or may not be aware of but are rarely exactly the same as each other. Consequently, some scholarship apparently disconnected from anyone’s lived reality gets written and consequently, Michael Shermer says super stupid stuff like “science is apolitical.”

But to my eyes, there is no conflict; and contrary to my opening thoughts, my position, I suppose, is not so much that in-between these two positions we usually find the truth but rather, that they are entirely compatible. Here’s why: according to materialism, there is nothing else other than matter or, natural phenomena, if you will – there are things we certainly don’t understand, but that just means we do not understand the natural dynamics behind them. So, no souls, no God, no greater plan, no spirit of love or goodness: in short, no moral order to the universe. And if that’s the case, then it is up to animal consciousness to determine the values we embrace. A moral truth, in this sense, is always a decision, a construction – and this claim, I think it’s fair to say, rests at the heart of postmodernism. Most commonly, such truths are decisions people inherit from an organic and collective process, passed down socially rather than determined individually. However, maybe there is no better definition of an intellectual than someone who has thought critically about values and made some conscious decisions about them and therefore has made, as Nietzsche might describe it, a personal commitment.[1]

Consistent with postmodernism, this means there is no final standard with which to argue with; if someone doesn’t value egalitarianism or, the reduction of suffering, for example, and you can’t find a shared value with which to convince them of their value, well you’re fucked, at least as far as they go. So you do have to own it, and come to terms with the reality that ultimately, there is nothing “else” out there stamping your vision with supernatural validation. This is also the problem (among many) with attempts by some, such as the absolutely vile Sam Harris, to construct a “scientific” basis for ethics, as he wrongly assumes that all human beings value the reduction of suffering as their primary value or, can be made to by sheer reason.

This is a difficult knot for some; surely if only everyone understood love, or science, or how ideology works, etc, we would all be free to find the true ethical standard floating around out there somewhere in the Platonic ectoplasm. For some, the idea that this is not so may always be troubling; but for others, myself included, it can be empowering. It means that it is up to us – best to go ahead and declare our values, shamelessly and without having to justify ourselves to those who, ultimately, we recognize as committed to drastically different projects. After all, if enough people join us, we can create a human and humane world rooted in justice, equality, and chilling on the beach.

[1] Not that Nietzsche would find most modern “moralities” – including scientism, Christianity, and socialism – at all sufficiently detached from the larger hegemonic framework, but a teacher of mine once described Nietzsche’s challenge to his readers as daring them to take 100 percent responsibility for their own ethics, relying on no outside authority to validate them or provide enforcement, and that seemed spot on, to me.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Per the first graf, you should be suspicious!

    “To ‘see both sides’ of a problem is the surest way to prevent its complete solution. Because there are always more than two sides.” —Idries Shah

    • Oh my Peter, this essay appears to be very long and over my head; I haven’t read the book nor is literary analysis my strong suit. Could I bother you to summarize the argument?

      • Seriously? Why would I know that? I was curious what you make of it. I mean, I read some of those books in there, but that was no joke. It takes serious armature to put “magical realism” to bed. If you really want an honest summary, I need another year or two of reading at least. So, I’ll get back to you, okay?

    • PK,

      If I am reading Jameson correctly, which is rare, one point of his essay that might relate here is to understand our world in material terms is to invite a certain kind of awestruck attitude to our understanding. No magic, just psyche. And that understanding is often incomplete, constantly challenged by the banal flattening of capitalism/Western modernity, and by the awful slipperiness of the past’s Truth because memories fail us and our attempts to explain them are rich with contradictions and potential anachronisms.

      But I’m not totally satisfied with that. I’m not quite certain where the connections are between this lovely post and Jameson’s essay.

      You see, you do this, Pete. Toss a grenade in our laps and run off winking. I’m onto your game!


  2. *lol* ok sorry; I meant as simple as “putting magical realism to bed,” so thanks. Take the absurdity of my request as an indication of my high opinion of and admiration for your intellect 🙂

  3. Hell to the yes! I’ve been thinking about this stuff in some fashion or another for a bit now, too! It’s always nice to see someone else’s thoughts on the matter.

    My interests have been on teleology in modern political discourse, and the basis (or perhaps ground?) for human solidarity. Suffering certainly plays a big role in this thinking, too.

    I wonder, what is the adhesive that bonds these folk together to chill on the beach? Like-minded social imaginaries? If so, how do you see the beach goers interacting with, say, disparate groups? Certainly this “new” way of thinking engenders a paradigmatic shift, or fracture, with the status quo, so how does this interaction play out?

    I realize this might be a larger conversation, I’m happy to take it off-blog to email if you care: [email protected]

    Apologies in advance if this is untoward in the eyes of the SUSIH blog bylaws.

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