In class tonight my professor made an interesting observation regarding the “postmodern movement.”

 His point was that postmodernism isn’t necessarily a “shift” but rather a strain, albeit a radical one, within modernity.

To illustrate this point he pointed us to one of Johnny-Dee’s favorite philosophers, Rene Descartes.  Descartes is widely believed to have ushered in the enlightenment/modernity with his famous rationalistic approach to understand reality.  He attemped to raze his entire belief system down in order to begin again on a sure foundation.  His famous dictum “I think, therefore i am,” came in part from the belief he had found an undeniably certain foundation to begin on, that of the belief that he couldn’t refute the fact that he was a thinking creature.  From this basic belief Descartes built from the ground up (hence his association with strong foundationalist epistemology).

While my professor readily affirmed that the postmodern person would find Descartes trust in his reason to find truth seriously misguided and naive at best, the postmodern actually bases this critique on the father of the Enlightenment’s methodology. 

Like Descartes, the consistent postmodern person use a “methodology of doubt” when evaluating truth.  That is to say that Descartes and the postmodern believe that it is doubtful whether anything their beliefs are true or can be justified. 

Their is an obvious difference between the two when it comes to applying this methodology.  Descartes answer is to begin again, hopeful that through reason he can find “something to believe in.”  The postmodern however takes this methodology to its extreme conclusion, elieving that ultimately nothing, not even reason can save them from drowning in relativism. 

So while there are differences in application, the method in both camps is (roughly) the same.  Maybe the postmodern is more consistent, or maybe too cynical.  So while in some ways “postmodernism” is different in how it understands epistemology than modernity, they both are branches growing off the trunk of skepticism that fueled the “age of reason.”  So really instead of being a completely new monster or “shift,” maybe it is just a further outgrowth of the ideals of modernity.

I’m sure many will disagree with my professor’s assessment.  This was only a comment he in passing; i’m sure he has much more to say than this.  I for one see alot of truth in what he says.  Any thoughts?

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  1. I think the relevant issue is whether our knowledge is founded upon an arbitrary or non-arbitrary basis (or perhaps bases). Foundationalists of all stripes insist that knowledge have a non-arbitrary grounding. My primary concern with so-called “post-modern” epistemology is that it makes the fundamental grounds of knowledge arbitrary. Unless the post-modern epistemologist has a good answer for the regress argument (which is a powerful argument for foundationalism), I suspect that post-modern epistemology is not going to free its use of concepts like justification and knowledge from arbitrariness. Once one ditches the requirement for non-arbitrary grounding of knowledge, you’re not too far away from epistemic relativism.

  2. Johnny,

    good points i think. However, how would you answer the post modern that your properly basic belief is not arbitrary?

    It seems that the strong foundationalist can somtimes run into question-begging. My question to you is this: How can you justify having a properly basic belief without introducing some form of evidence? If you do that however, haven’t you just undermined your position? I suppose one could say that such a belief doesn’t need (evidential) justification, but doesn’ t that just beg the question?

    I think to the postmodern epistemologist the circus “house-of receding mirrors” can’t be avoided. They wouldn’t have an answer for the regress argument, and wouldn’t see the need to have one. They would say that this argument reflects reality and should be embraced, rather than explained away.

    I think that to a degree the postmodern’s insistence on personal preference has some merit. It has some merit only in the sense that i think the postmodern is honest about the role that peronal commitment to one’s belief’s plays in their perception of truth. None of us (including myself) can form our opinions about such matters completely apart from emotional ties to beliefs, some of which we don’t know we have. So as to not be misunderstood, let me also say that i believe that the postmodern takes things way too far in that direction.

    In the end however, no one can live out the postmodern arbitrariness. In the end most people end up having a hard core of beliefs (ie “foundations) that they base their lives on. It seems to me that since no one can live their lives apart from some conceptual foundation, so we all should just “fess up to it” and seek to understand what our bases are, examine them, and as best as we can decide if we must rid themselves of them.

    To me it seems that if nothing else can be said about strong foundationalists, they “practice what they preach.” Some beliefs are necessary in order to function, and i believe the foundationalists have a piece of that (although i doubt that they have the corner on this one).

    Peace,

    derek

  3. Hey Derek, that’s quite a long response, and right now I don’t have the time to give the kind of response your thoughtful comment deserves. For now I’ll hit a few points. First, I want to point any readers to this essay, which gives a terrific defense of strong foundationalism including many of the points to which you allude.

    Next, let me try to address some of your concerns (your words in bold italics).

    how would you answer the post modern that your properly basic belief is not arbitrary?
    The strong foundationalist doesn’t talk about “properly basic beliefs” (that’s moderate foundationalist talk!). The strong foundationalist appeals to “basic beliefs.” Basic beliefs are non-arbitrary because they are incorrigibly formed. A basic belief is infallible. For example, the belief that “I exist” or “I have a headache” or “I am in pain” or “I seem to see a tree” are all infallible—to have these beliefs is just what it means for them to be true.

    It seems that the strong foundationalist can somtimes run into question-begging. My question to you is this: How can you justify having a properly basic belief without introducing some form of evidence? If you do that however, haven’t you just undermined your position? I suppose one could say that such a belief doesn’t need (evidential) justification, but doesn’ t that just beg the question?
    You’ve raised some good points, and I won’t be able to give a satisfactory answer here. But let me try to say a few things to assuage some of these worries. Evidence isn’t going to be a problem with basic beliefs. The evidence for a basic belief (e.g., having the headache) and the basic belief itself (e.g., believing that I have a headache) do not come apart. Evidence for other beliefs inferred from basic beliefs is exactly what the old-fashioned foundationalist (such as myself) wants. Rationality is proportioning belief to evidence. One of my concerns is that the postmodernist is not being rational in this sense.

    I think to the postmodern epistemologist the circus “house-of receding mirrors” can’t be avoided. They wouldn’t have an answer for the regress argument, and wouldn’t see the need to have one. They would say that this argument reflects reality and should be embraced, rather than explained away.
    If the regress argument cannot be avoided, most would say that is a capitulation into skepticism. The point of the regress is to see whether one has any justifying reasons for one’s beliefs. If the answer to the regress is that there are no non-arbitrary reasons that ultimately justify one’s beliefs, then it is hard to see how “embracing” this conclusion is going to help establish a rational basis for one’s beliefs. (Perhaps the postmodernist is claiming that we cannot be rational, which is the same as skepticism.)

    Like I said, there’s still plenty in your comment to which I would like to respond, but I’m a little pressed for time. Until next time…

  4. Johnny,

    Thanks for your response. I think that the postmodern would deny the ability of having true objective knowledge, but this is only in the theoretical sense. Whether they wanted to admit it or not, they assume that the world is rational in some sense, proving that they do have “foundations” so to speak.

    I guess i’m still a little fuzzy regarding how some beliefs are infallible in the epistemic sense, but i’ll leave that to you show as it certainly sounds like you have given this plenty of thought!

    Peace,

    Derek

  5. I would like to see a continuation of the topic

  6. Proopy

    Hi all. Cool site Google
    Thank.




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