Saturday, February 26, 2005

 

Making peace with postmodern thought

Julian Garcia links to the Postmodernism Generator, a site that uses AI techniques to generate sensibly insensible postmodernist essays. Scientists find this kind of thing enormously amusing since Alan Sokal's famous hoax, but I wonder if the joke isn't on us. The joke apparently is that postmodern argumentation has an involved set of semantic conventions and intricate theoretical constructs that look strange to the uninitiated, and the Sokal hoax showed that even the initiated have difficulty identifying the real thing.

But the essence of postmodernism (if such a thing can be said to exist) isn't really all that weird. It seems to me that the core of postmodernism is the acceptance of the principle that key facts of life are socially determined (little things like language, money, political and social institutions, that sort of thing) and our agreement (or disagreement) about their constitution is an integral part of their reality.

Of course, if this sort of thing is taken too far, it is a slippery and unacceptable slope toward solipsism, and from the point of view of an engineer or scientist, physics seems pretty darn real irrespective of the observer (Thomas Kuhn and his paradigm shifts notwithstanding). So what's a nice postmodern engineer to do in making peace with the postmodern world?

It seems to me that one sensible thing to do is to go read John Searle's account of all this in The Construction of Social Reality. Searle's brilliant argument preserves physics (brute facts) and delineates them from social facts in a rigorous manner. As with many philosophers, Searle's argumentation is not for the weak of heart, and it is not a light book to be read at the beach. Nonetheless, it seems like just the right antidote for those who might be tempted to take the postmodernism-as-joke thesis a bit too far.

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