Thursday, January 26, 2017

The new modernism

It has been interesting to see the backlash against the Trump administrations presentation of 'alternative facts'.  Given the obviously propagandistic use of such 'facts', it is not at all surprising that people have been unhappy.  But the reaction has gone beyond this, to an outright repudiation of the postmodern project, and an assertion of some pretty old school values: truth is truth, and is clearly perceived.  Or as someone else has put it:
For those of us - say, orthodox Christians - who have been upholding the objectivity of truth for a long time, this is fairly ironic.  But it's not something I think we ought to be particularly cheering for.  Instead, I think this may be the time to spring to the defence of the genuine and valuable insights of postmodern epistemology.

For starters, we need to recognise that the current trend in liberal thinkers particularly is not in any sense a move in the direction of a Christian epistemology.  Rather, the move is back to an Enlightenment view of truth, which could basically be summarised like this: truth is available to anyone who makes right use of their reason and who is educated in the basic uninterpreted facts of the world.  This is the very foundation of the Enlightenment project: that we have access to the truth, and that the access which everyone has is basically the same.  This is the liberation which the Enlightenment declares from all mere authority: we don't need anyone to tell us the truth, because we can work it out for ourselves.  This is a million miles away from a Christian epistemology which recognises the fallen state of humanity, and the inherent limitations of the creature, and which looks to divine revelation for the ultimate truth.  Let's not get too excited about the apparent resurrection of objective truth: it's actually just Zombie Kant, staggering from his grave to once again trouble the world.

Then again, it is useful to realise that postmodern thinkers helpfully underlined the fact that we human beings have no access to uninterpreted facts.  Every 'fact' is part of a story, and carries different force if transplanted into a different story.  Seeing the world (as even Kant saw, if he didn't quite follow through on the insight) is an active thing, not a mere passive receptivity.  We Christians ought to hold on to this as both an essential part of epistemic humility, and as an apologetic.  Just because liberal thinkers seem to be suddenly convinced (in theory; in practice they have been convinced of this for many years) that their view of the world is the view of the world, self-evident to anyone who just thinks straight, we must point out that no view of the world except God's own view is straightforwardly true in that way.

The question to be asking of the new modernists is: what possible justification do you have for thinking that your view of the world is the right one?  What reason do you have to believe that you have access to objective, uninterpreted truth?  In other words: justify your belief.  And I will wager whatever you choose that this cannot be done without a leap of blind faith.  And perhaps a follow up question, which has a more positive spin: like you, I want to contest the anti-truth stance of the Trumps of this world.  May I not humbly suggest that this is the cause of God, and must be fought under his banner or not at all?


  1. Is Kant truly an 'unreconstructed positivist' and a modernist, or is the massive wedge he drove between the noumenal and phenomenal precisely the seed of postmodernism?

    1. Well, 'yes' and 'yes', or perhaps 'yes' and 'sort of' - at least on my reading of Kant. It is certainly objective, universal knowledge which Kant thinks he has rescued in the Critique of Pure Reason - the categories of the understanding or not subjective. I think the way from Kant to po-mo is not through the noumenal/phenomenal 'split' (which is never really a split per se), but via his recognition that much of our knowledge is shaped by our faculties and does not just arrive with us entirely passive. Once you add to that the late modern insight that our perspectives dramatically affect the way we shape our knowledge, you're well on your way to po-mo. But Kant wouldn't be pleased with the direction of travel at all.