Socratic Dialogue on Postmodernism

Elliott Crozat

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October 23, 2019

Preface

As Nicholas Rescher notes in Chapter 3 of Metaphilosophy: Philosophy in Philosophical Perspective, philosophy can be articulated in several ways, including the essay, the medieval scholastic treatise, and the dialogue format. In what follows, I provide a philosophical evaluation of postmodernism using the dialogue format. In honor of the first masters of dialogue – the expert dialecticians Socrates and Plato – I use Socrates as the main character of this dialogue, which is written in the Platonic fashion.

Dialogue

Narrator: John! Long time!

John: It’s been a while! What’s up?

N: I’m just back from the city. Socrates and I went downtown to visit the art museum. We got into an interesting conversation!

J: He gets into some doozies! How’d it go?

N: You want the gist or the long version?

J: The latter.

N: Alright. Socrates was viewing a painting and noted its symmetry. Then he made a point about symmetrical relations in logic. You know how he likes to get into philosophy, right?

J: I’ve experienced it myself.

N: Anyway, he mentioned the view that truth is a relation of correspondence between thought and reality. In other words, a thought, belief, or claim is true if and only if its propositional content matches the relevant facts – and in this sense matches reality.[1] The word ‘truth’ got the attention of a bystander. A conversation started. Here’s how it went:

—–

First Postmodernist: Truth? There is no truth. It’s all subjective!

Socrates: Is that your view, my friend?

FP: Yes.

S: Why do you hold it?

FP: We’re free to invent our own realities!

S: Your view seems to attract a lot of people these days.

FP: That’s the beauty of postmodernism!

S: It’s as if reality is a canvas and you’re the painter. I can see how one might be thrilled by it.

FP: Isn’t it great?

S: That remains to be seen.

FP: What’s the problem? Get with it!

S: Before I can get with it, I must understand it.

FP: What’s to understand?

S: Well, I might be confused. Maybe you can help.

FP: Of course!

S: You said that there is no truth?

FP: Right.

S: But is your claim an accurate description of the world?

FP: You bet!

S: So your claim is true?

FP: That’s right!

S: But you said there is no truth. So how is your view true?

FP: Uh, well, it just is.

S: Goodness! I hope that’s not your argument.

FP: Well, I just say that there’s no truth. And I think I’m right.

S: So your position is that there is no truth, but that there is truth?

FP: Um, I guess so.

S: Are you saying it’s true that there is no truth?

FP: Uh, I, yes, I’m saying that.

S: What does that mean?

FP: It’s, you see, it’s difficult to explain.

S: It seems that you haven’t sufficiently thought through your position. Hence the explanatory difficulty.

FP: Well, it’s my view.

S: That much is clear.

FP: Good.

S: And interestingly, your assertion that this is in fact your view sounds like a claim to truth. You’re saying it’s true that this is your view?

FP: Uh, yeah.

S: My good man, I don’t mean to be impolite, but it seems your view boils down to a contradictory combination of words. Let’s talk about this. Maybe we can iron out your thinking.

FP: Maybe it’s true that my ideas are contradictory. I don’t see why it matters.

S: Do you agree that my evaluation of your postmodernism is true?

FP: I, uh, don’t know.

S: At least it could be true?

FP: You ask too many questions.

S: I’ve been told.

FP: Don’t you get tired?

S: No. And I’ve been at this for years. Ask Protagoras.

FP: Who?

S: Never mind. But you see that your position appears contradictory?

FP: Should that concern me?

S: Aren’t you concerned about holding an irrational belief?

FP: Who says what’s irrational and what isn’t? Besides, it’s my moral right to say, do, and believe whatever I want.

S: That’s questionable. But even if you’re right, it doesn’t follow that anyone should accept your claim.

FP: I think people should accept my claim.

S: That’s far from clear. But let’s return to your claim about moral rights.

FP: What about it?

S: You’re assuming it’s true that moral rights exist.

FP: Of course they exist.

S: You’re also assuming it’s true that you have rights.

FP: Are you questioning my rights?

S: No. I’m only noting the assumptions upon which your claim about

rights rests. I mean no offense.

FP: Alright. I’m glad we can get along.

S: Me too.

FP: It’s hard to be friendly with people who disagree with me.

S: Perhaps you take offense too easily, my friend. But to get back on track: you take it to be true that you have rights?

FP: Another question? How you keep going on and on! Of course I do!

S: Then you admit there is truth after all?

FP: I’m getting tired of your inquisition!

S: Perhaps you also tire too easily. We’ve only just started.

FP: If I’d known you’d keep distracting me with questions, I wouldn’t have approached you.

S: Why not?

FP: You make the things I say seem like things I shouldn’t say as soon as I say them. You’re like a mirror that shows all the blemishes on my face. I want a mirror that makes me look good!

S: I only want to understand your view. Besides, there’s no harm in recognizing that you’ve spoken too quickly. Now, about you admitting that there is truth.

FP: I still say there is no truth. It’s all subjective.

S: Let’s look at the matter in another way. Do you believe in education?

FP: Of course.

S: But why? If all truth were subjective, wouldn’t the student’s opinion be just as correct as the teacher’s?

FP: Well, I don’t know about that.

S: And how about medicine?

FP: What about it?

S: Do you see a physician when you’re sick?

FP: Yes.

S: I’ll take that answer as true! But why pay a doctor if his subjective view is no better than yours? Doctors sure are making a load of cash for their merely subjective beliefs, on your worldview. Why not save the money and answer your own medical questions by the light of your own subjective beliefs?

FP: I, well, I gotta go. I just remembered an appointment.

S: I hope it’s not a doctor’s appointment!

FP: It’s just, uh, a meeting on my schedule.

S: Now? You’re leaving right when things are getting interesting?

Second Postmodernist: Excuse me, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation with the gentleman who just left.

S: Things were heating up, but the conversation ended in a hasty escape. Are you pro-conversation?

SP: I am today.

S: Good! I was asking our runaway friend about truth. What say you?

SP: There’s no truth. We construct our own reality.

S: You too?

SP: It’s the ultimate freedom.

S: That’s an interesting perspective.

SP: But not one you hold, I gather.

S: It faces too many problems.

SP: What problems?

S: Consider one.

SP: Alright.

S: You said that there is no truth?

SP: Right.

S: Is it true that there is no truth?

SP: Of course not. If it were true, my claim would be nonsense.

S: I’m glad you see that.

SP: It’s a simple matter of logical consistency.

S: So, you believe your claim isn’t true?

SP: Correct.

S: Which raises another problem.

SP: What is it?

S: Why should people believe a person who makes claims that he himself thinks are not true?

SP: I don’t say that anyone should believe my claims.

S: Why do you assert them?

SP: Because in a world without truth, all one can do is appeal to power.

S: You’re interested in power?

SP: Yes. I’m using rhetoric as a means to power.

S: That’s quite an admission, although I’m not surprised to hear it. Some ancient Greek rhetoricians and sophists used to talk this way. Power is a means, too. Do you agree?

SP: Yes.

S: Suppose you achieve the power you seek. How would you use it?

SP: To get whatever I want.

S: Whatever you want?

SP: Yes, and whenever I want it.

S: I appreciate your honesty, insofar as there can be such a thing in a “world without truth,” as you call it. One would think that truth is a necessary condition for honesty.

SP: We’re engaged in an interesting game here!

S: I don’t take it as a game.

SP: It’s an intriguing encounter nonetheless.

S: I’ll agree with you there. But may I ask: is it fair to say your postmodern project reduces to a rhetorical attempt at power for the sake of desire gratification?

SP: That’s a fair point.

S: It’s quite probable that others have desires which conflict with yours.

SP: Clearly.

S: How would you manage the conflicts?

SP: By brute force.

S: Brute force? Thrasymachus used to say something like that![2]

SP: Who?

S: Never mind. So it’s about power?

SP: Right. Whoever has the most power wins.

S: Wins what?

SP: The gratification of desire without limit.

S: My goodness! Your goal is get what you want without constraint?

SP: That’s right. Ditch the restraints! Although it’s not rhetorically effective to say it quite like that.

S: Solomon is an influential person of history and an effective communicator, too. He wrote that people who lack vision cast off restraint.[3] And he was rhetorically effective. But your view seems to be that there are no restraints, or that if there are, they should be ditched.

SP: That was his opinion. I have a different one. Let the strongest rhetorician win.

S: You believe that it all comes down to a contest of rhetorical power?

SP: Yes.

S: Suppose you get whatever you want without limit and every one of your desires is satisfied. Then what? Do you have any further ends?

SP: Further ends? What else is there?

S: Desire satisfaction is your ultimate goal?

SP: If there is no truth to seek, and if power is just a tool for obtaining other things, what else is there to get but the pleasure that comes with desire satisfaction?

S: So your ultimate purpose is to get pleasure? You’re a hedonist?[4]

SP: I guess that’s right.

S: It seems an examination of your postmodernism shows that it leads to a form of hedonism. If this is right, then it seems your postmodernism is inconsistent with your hedonism.

SP: How?

S: You claimed that there is no truth. Do you believe that hedonism is a true theory of morality?

SP: I guess I can’t consistently believe that.

S: Do you hold that it’s true that we ought to seek pleasure as the ultimate end of human life?

SP: Again, I can’t consistently claim that.

S: Is it true that you’re a hedonist?

SP: I don’t really care if it’s true or not. I want to get whatever I want whenever I want it, and that’s it.

—–

N: And that’s how the discussion ended. The second postmodernist left with his tour group. Socrates and I left soon thereafter. And here we are.

J: Well, that conversation certainly was a doozie!

N: Tell me about it. And we’re planning to attend the speech tomorrow at the university.

J: The one by the guy who claims that the mind is identical to the brain?

N: That’s the one.

J: I foresee more questions from Socrates.

N: Naturally. You know how he’s skeptical of purely materialistic explanations of mind, ones that appeal to bones, sinews, and the like.[5]

J: I think he’ll be skeptical of a materialistic appeal to neurons, too.

N: Right!

J: Well, I look forward to your report!

N: Until next time, then!

Notes

*Photo by Jonathan Sharp on Unsplash

[1] For more on the correspondence theory of truth, see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth-correspondence/ and https://www.iep.utm.edu/truth/#H3

[2] See Plato’s Republic, Book I, 338c.

[3] Proverbs 29:18

[4] For more on hedonism, see https://www.iep.utm.edu/hedonism/ and https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hedonism/

[5] See Plato’s Phaedo, 97c-99b.

 

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About the Author

Elliott Crozat

Elliott R. Crozat is a full-time professor of philosophy and the humanities in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department at Purdue University Global. His philosophical interests include metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, ethics, and the meaning of life. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

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