What is "postmodernism"? Postmodernism began as a theory of literature and literary criticism, concerned with the properties of the literary text, meaning, and reading. It focusses on the role of language. Concern with language quickly led postmodernists to deal with human nature, explaining what being human is and what it means to be human. As a theory, postmodernism claims, speaking of human beings, that "language is our home." Language here refers to spoken discursive language. According to postmodernism, it is our possession of language that makes us human. Language distinguishes us absolutely from animals. Everything human about us is contained within language. Consciousness, thinking, and behavior are based in language and have no source outside language.
Postmodernism arose after World War II in Europe. By the 1980s, it became the dominant paradigm for academic studies in the humanities and a powerful influence in the social sciences. It has eclipsed Marxism as a creative force in American academic circles. It is largely derided by the natural sciences. Natural scientists who pay any attention to it largely dismiss postmodernism as an academic fraud. It's major sources are the writings and classroom teaching of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, after 1933. Since World War II, postmodernism has become the major philosophical vehicle for secular humanism in the West.
Before I explain why postmodern is wrong, I want to mention what postmodernism opposes. Postmodernism was created as a philosophy by thinkers who knew and argued with the Western philosophical and intellectual traditions that preceded them. Postmodernism opposes (a) Christianity, (b) natural science, and (c) all philosophies that give priority to natural science as a system of knowledge (including positivism and Marxism). Christianity states that human nature and the human situation precede the gift of language. Kierkegaard, for example, strongly insisted that human nature defines language, rather than - as postmodernism claims - language defining human nature. Natural science states that human nature exists, is biological, and is a product of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Language, as an advance over vocal signalling and gesturing used by other mammals, is a recent biological development, evolving in its present form as recently as 70,000 years ago, based upon genetic mutations that gave the jaw, tongue, and vocal structure their modern arrangement. Positive philosophies assert that science is the only valid investigatory procedure for determining objective truth. Postmodernism denies the existence of "truth" in any sense that would fit the preceding sentence.
Why is postmodernism wrong? It is wrong for factual reasons.
First, logic precedes language. Logical relations (i.e., inference: x is bigger than y; f is not the same as g; x is not both x and not-x at the same time; m is inside, n is outside) are based in our biological species' sensory perception. This bodily perception precedes the development of language in the growth of the individual. Logical relations are based on perceptions that precede manipulation by language as a system of symbols and signs. If I have two sheets of paper of different sizes in front of me and I see them, I perceive, understand, and can act on the knowledge that one is larger than the other without the use of language.
Second, arithmetic precedes language. Natural arithmetic is based on biological functions that work without using language. For instance, I run along a street. I see a pothole ahead of me. Using vision and the rhythm of running, I imaginatively (but not consciously) pace out the strides that I must take to avoid stepping into the pothole. I adjust my strides to accomplish this objective. I do all this without thinking or using language; the behavior is prelinguistic.
Third, postmodernist theory requires that consciousness and experience be unitary and congruent phenomena; but they are not. Consciousness is almost certainly not unitary. The human brain is actually three brains piled by evolution one on top of the other--the reptilian brain, the old mammalian brain, and the human brain, the neocortex. (See Wikipedia on the triune brain.) The reptilian brain has consciousness (that is, reptiles were/are conscious), as does the mammalian brain (that is, mammals were/are conscious). In humans, the two older brains, in evolutionary terms, continue to operate and express consciousnesses. Both prehuman brains generate cognitive activity and behavior on their own without our neocortex being aware of what they are doing. How these separate consciousnesses are knitted (or fail to be knitted) together is an area of current research.
There are many mental functions; nearly all of them work without our being aware of them. Nearly all of them would not work at all if we were aware of them and talked with language about them. The experience I accumulate on the basis of the performance of those functions is accumulated largely without language activity. Experience also is not unitary. "Experience" exists intermittently as a loosely related, occasionally expressed, aggregation of memories, meanings, behaviors, mentalized language statements, and so on, that are actualized as behaviors (including language behaviors) in different situations. Language does not contain all experience; language is only one kind of experience.
I am (speaking here of all human beings) most of the time not conscious of what I am doing, for example, when I drive a car. I do hundreds of different mental functions without being aware of them - determining distance and motion of other cars, judging intent of other drivers to speed up or slow down, signaling my intent to change lanes, remembering what a yellow flashing light means and changing my driving according to the memory; and so on. If I tried to talk about any of this as it happened, or tried to use language mentally in my mind, by "talking to myself," or engaged in a conversation with a passenger about the state motor vehicle code, I would quickly be unable to drive at all: the mental processes involving language and the connections of language to decision and physical action are so slow and imprecise that I would quickly have an accident and be killed on the highway.
Fourth, animals use logic and arithmetic in thinking, for instance, primates and dogs; this evidence demonstrates that logic is not language based, pre-exists language, and is biologically more fundamental than language. Scientists have demonstrated that apes and dogs can use deductive logic. Horses measure and calculate strides when they approach jumps. They do this, of course, without possessing discursive language.
Fifth, the possession of discursive language is not an absolute distinction between human and animal. Animals with neurological systems with distal receptors have gestural sign systems they use to communicate. Higher mammals exhibit behavior that appears to involve elements of discursive oral language. Postmodernists simply assume, without any investigation as to the facts, that discursive language is uniquely human; biologists and anthropologists have demonstrated that assumption to be wrong. Human beings are not unique; "humanness" is not unique. We are animals. Our "humanness" is shared with the higher mammals to whom we are evolutionarily related, who differ from us only by having less of it.
To all of this, academic postmodernists will respond, those instances are not examples of thinking. But their reasoning is fallacious; it is based on a tautology. They define thinking to be what they want it to be, then claim that any mental processing and behavior that does not fit their definition is not thinking. They have no test against reality for their specious definition. They illustrate why philosophy of literature was discarded by science as a useless intellectual enterprise four hundred years ago.
So postmodernism is wrong - so what? It's just academic fashion. Why should we care about a theory of poetry or fiction or philosophy?
We should care because postmodernism has corrupted higher education and infects all intellectual discussion in which postmodernists participate - journalism, law, politics, policy (for instance). Consider what might be the effect on college students' view of the world when the following propositions are taught to them as "true". There is no objective truth (all knowledge, even formal knowledge, is relative to language systems); there are no universal values shared by all human groups; there is no predetermined human nature or human constants (gender, for example, is a existential language system construction); subjectivity (thinking, feeling, self-conception) is the measure of all worth; personal confusion is the result of power of other persons over you (rather than, for instance, the result of invalid reasoning or factual misinformation). The result of such teachings would be pernicious. Indeed! Such teaching has been the basis for wholesale assault on Western principles of justice as embodied in the law in the U.S. and the European free democracies. The individual is responsible for her own behavior; intentional killing is to be distinguished from accidental killing; punishment is based on a person's actions rather than their status - these principles, among others, are denied by postmodernism.
Why would intellectuals espouse a philosophy, postmodernism, that disregards and opposes science and has such pernicious intellectual effects? If we look at the principal theoretician of postmodernism, the answer seems to be that postmodernism is a useful philosophy for hiding something - a crime - or for denying that something is a serious menace (as good people would otherwise think). In the case of Heidegger, the grandfather of postmodernism, postmodern philosophy both hid his Nazism and denied the seriousness of the Holocaust. To see the effect of postmodernism as evasion and denial, then, one should follow Heidegger's influence through European and American thinkers, as critics of postmodernism have been doing for twenty years. What old crimes are being hidden? What new crimes are being committed and covered up?
Revised. March 1, 2008.
Update October 21, 2004.
Science, the journal of the AAAS, has several articles that oppose post-modern philosophy regarding the functioning of language and thought and support the positions expressed above. See:
Rochel Gelman and C. R. Gallistel, "Language and the Origin of Numerical Concepts," Science, 306 (15 October 2004), 441-443. Useful quotation:
These findings strengthen the evidence that humans share with nonverbal animals a language-independent representation of number, with limited, scale-invariant precision, which supports simple arithmetic computation and which plays an important role in elementary human numerical reasoning, whether verbalized or not. Contrary to ... reports in the secondary media, the results do not support the strong Whorfian view that a concept of number is dependent upon natural language for its development. Indeed, they are evidence against it.
Yasushi Miyashita, "Cognitive Memory: Cellular and Network Machineries and Their Top-Down Control," Science, 306 (15 October 2004), 435-440. Humans, monkeys, rats, and mice share a similar, complex, memory structures at the cellular level, which involves cognitive processes using coordination of fact memories and (what the author calls) semantic memories. These structures are pre-language.
Update. February 4, 2006.
Science has published a second report on native intellectual (cognitive) faculties not based on language.
Stanislas Dahaene, Veronique Izard, Pierre Pica, Elizabeth Spelke, "Core Knowledge of Geometry in an Amazonian Indigene Group," Science, 311 (20 January 2006) p. 381 ff.
The investigators conclude that elementary Euclidean geometry is part of the human brain, not a product of language.
"Beneath this fringe of cultural variability, however, the spontaneous understanding of geometrical concepts and maps by this remote human community provides evidence that core geometrical knowledge, like basic arithmetic, is a universal constituent of the human mind." (p. 384.)
I have no doubt at all that the basic human abilities for (what we shall call) natural logic (deduction and induction), natural arithmetic, and natural geometry are (a) based in the sensory/neurological apparatus of human biology, (b) that this apparatus arose in the course of evolution through natural selection for its functional usefulness in survival, and (c) that these human cognitive abilities are shared with higher mammalian species and other primates to some degree, such that the Darwinian assumption (humans are only different from animals by differences of degree, not differences in kind) must be true.
Update. May 14, 2006.
Science* has published a report about stunning research on the rat brain by two Norwegian neuophysiologists, Edvard and May-Britt Moser. In research on rats, the Mosers found the brain cell link between rat behavior and rat brain structure and activity. The Mosers fitted rats with small caps with probes into their hippocampus. The experimental rats were put into a large enclosure, free to wander around. The Mosers discovered and demonstrated that, as the rats wandered, individual cells fired in a layer of cells (in a four layer structure in the hippocampus) exactly spatially as they wandered. The layer of cells was organized as a column and row grid. The grid of cells corresponded to the experimental enclosure; that is, the layer mapped the enclosure surface on which the experimental rat walked. It is just as if the enclosure were a checkerboard and the cellular grid corresponded to the checkerboard, cell for square. As the rats moved from one enclosure place to another, the cell (in the appropriate relative location in the grid to correspond to the enclosure location) would fire. At the same time, the cell in the location the rat had left would de-activate.
This cellular grid is a flat Euclidian geometric universe. So the rat inhabits, by virtue of its brain structure and neurophysiology, a Euclidean world. There is little reason to doubt that human brains contain similar structures and physiology, though presumably more complex. Scientists are now scrambling to determine whether this is so.
Once they prove that human beings' brains also structurally create a Euclidean geometric world, we will have anchored another branch of mathematics into the human hard-wiring, the human constitution (an eighteenth century term that is apt here), so to speak. This advances us considerably in our understanding of geometric cognition. It has been assumed for a long time that the ancient Greek Euclidean geometry corresponded to optical perception of the world. Our mental representation of a Euclidean geometric world is physiologically constructed in the sensory organs. With the Mosers' discovery, we now know that the geometical world we construct is in the brain itself. It is, of course, not a product of language or propositional logic. It is not an artifact of culture.
*Karen Heyman, "The Map in the Brain: Grid Cells May Help Us Navigate," Science 312 (5 May 2006), 680-681.
Update. November 26, 2006.
Update. January 15, 2008
"At the extreme, some embodied-cognition thinkers say that the form of the human body has shaped some apparently abstract concepts. Linguist George Lakoff of the University of California, Berkeley, believes that the number system has its root in humans' ability to walk upright, which makes it possible to measure distances in discrete steps. If humans 'moved along the ground on our belies like snakes, math might be quite different,' says Mr. Kakoff."
"Science: Human Cognition May Rely on Body as Much as Brains," The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, January 15, 2008), B12. Summary of an article in The Boston Globe of January 13.
Update. March 1, 2008.
Jim Holt, "Annals of Science: Numbers Guy; Are our brains wired for math?" The New Yorker (March 3, 2008, p. 42 ff.) profiles the French cognitive psychologist, Stanislas Dehaene. Dr. Dehaene has experimentally established that human beings are born with brain structures that perform elementary mathematic operations, such as comparison of size of several quantities and roughly numbering small numbers of perceived objects. These arthimetical operations are done without language and unconsciously. The sequence of small natural numbers, 1 ... 2... 3 ... 4... 5, are apparently mapped by the brain on a line in ascending size, so that even an infant can intuitively determine that 2 is "larger" than 1 and 5 is "larger" than 4. Multiplication is not a natural arthimetic operation. Writes Holt,
"By now, it is generally agreed that infants come equipped with rudimentary ability to perceive and represent number. (The same appears to be true for many kinds of animals, including salamanders, pigeons, raccoons, dolphins, parrots, and monkeys.)" (P. 45.)
See Stanislas Dahaene, Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics (1999).
Update. June 1, 2008.
See my Values Journal article no. 36.
Update. August 18, 2008. Anthropologists have determined, by studying several tribes of Australian aboriginals, that humans have an innate capacity to count without using words. The aboriginals do not have words for all the lower natural numbers. Children, even without numbers, were able to use enumeration accurately for social tasks, such as dividing up goods for sharing among members of a group.
Update. December 20, 2009.
"ScienceNOW.org", Science, vol. 326, 11 December 2009, p. 1467:
An Introduction to Monkey Grammar?
It's not quite Shakespearean wordplay, buta species of African monkey can modify individual warning calls to produce novel meanings, according to new research. And because the wild monkeys tack the same sound onto the end of their calls, the authors speculate that they could resemble suffixes. But it's debatable whether the sounds serve a grammatical purpose like that in human language. http://bit.ly/monkeygrammar
Chomsky's assumption, that the semantic central in humans, that generates grammatical linguistic structure, is unique to humans, is an undarwinian conceit. Granting that human language abilities required dramatic genetic mutations, forebrain development, and structural changes in human vocalization anatomy, granting that todays higher primates do not have all of these necessary structures and processes for true human language, and granting that neither the ancestors of humans or primate had such structures, it nonetheless contradicts the process of evolution, genetic change, and natural selection, that underlay all biology, to think that higher primates and our ancestors possessed none of these capabilities.
There has, on Darwinian principles, to be a continuum between the ancestors of humans and primates and between humans and primates today that diminishes the leap between primate vocalization and human language. The discovery that monkeys have standard atoms of vocalization they can attach to calls to inflect them and that they can assign new meanings to calls on the basis of inflection indicates that the discovery of rudimentary grammatical operations is not far away.