What is postmodernism, really? And how does it relate to libertarian thought?

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Akiva Malamet is an MA student in Philosophy and the program in Political and Legal Thought at Queen’s University, Kingston. He holds a BA in Government from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. His writing has appeared in Liberal Currents, Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, and other publications. He was a winner of the 2018 ‘Carl Menger Undergraduate Essay Contest’ from the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics.

People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief that makes things happen.

― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Postmodernism is in the news—from its role as a boogeyman for conservative critics of the left, to attacks on it from multiple quarters as a central problem with academia, to the claim that it is a contributor to our fractured discourse and epistemically uncertain media landscape. It has also drifted into contemporary pop culture via television shows that explore meta‐​textual spaces like Community, Rick and Morty, and Bojack Horseman. Never has this relatively obscure academic school of thought gathered so much public attention.

Unfortunately, use of the term often brings far more heat than light. Postmodernism is a serious view with important implications. Postmodernism can be used to think through questions about nature of morality, science, and social institutions—yielding answers that both challenge and help advance libertarianism and the case for a free society.

What Is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism is not one view; it reflects the work of thinkers across intellectual traditions. However, in the simplest terms, postmodernism is the consistent application of the idea that what we think we know about the world around us is mediated by our consciousness and the subjective nature of our experience, as well as our less than perfect attempts to communicate and concretize that subjectivity. Or, as Jean‐​Francois Lyotard put it, postmodernism is “an incredulity towards metanarratives.”

Postmodernism is skepticism, specifically about “big stories.” Such stories come in many forms. The modern natural and social sciences are stories. Religious traditions are stories. Political ideologies, from anarcho‐​capitalism to fascism, are as well. All are perspectives about the world and how it works. None of them can fully establish themselves as objective and direct descriptions of what is going on, or why things happen. Each is an attempt at framing and explaining the multitude of things we see and what they might indicate about reality.

In the history of ideas, postmodernism emerges out of an important epistemological distinction made by Immanuel Kant between what he called “phenomena” and “noumena.” The former refers to what occurs in our heads, the latter, the world beyond us. Phenomena is how we perceive the external world. Noumena, or what Kant calls “the thing‐​in‐​itself,” is everything that exists independent of us. Humans are limited. Our physical and mental tools for experiencing are imperfect. We are intelligent, but we cannot fully grasp every aspect of the world with clear and holistic comprehension. Rather, our minds and senses filter and reproduce aspects of our environment to which we can refer.

The Kantian tradition evolved and influenced the approach known as phenomenology, or the study of how our consciousness and our experience relate to each other. The subjective qualities of experience later lead to the full‐​fledged questioning of all strong truth commitments. This is a direct response to the Enlightenment “modernist” idea that we can, simply by applying our reason and looking at the world around us, comprehend what is true. Kant himself, while not confident about empiricism, was confident in the power of reason. Later, both reason and perception were questioned, resulting in post‐modernism.

To compensate for the limitations I’ve described, human beings use systems of belief–frameworks, paradigms, perspectives, ideologies, and theories–to unpack what is happening, and why. Crucially, all frameworks are discursive–that is, they are made from and constructed through language. We use language to bridge the gaps between ourselves as separate individuals, and to concretize mental abstractions. This process is not straightforward. The way that we talk about things and describe them to ourselves and to others establishes and shapes a certain way of seeing them. A worldview is also a discourse, and discourses likewise communicate points of view. Thus, frameworks are not only mechanisms for seeing and understanding the world, but they also shape what we can see and how. This is because we don’t just use frameworks to understand the world around us, but to understand ourselves in the world, to establish a sense of identity. In this sense, frameworks are bridges between ourselves, the world around us, and each other.

As Charles Taylor writes in Sources of the Self :

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made significant contributions to this idea through his work on “language games.” For Wittgenstein, the words that we use are not direct descriptions of things around us. Rather, words are points of common cultural and social reference. The language people use is a framework which shapes their view of an idea or phenomenon, words with which they also “play” in their attempts to better characterize their world. Consider the very notion of games themselves. While American football and Dungeons & Dragons are both games, they have very little in common. Nevertheless, our social context influences us toward mentally sorting them into the same category and calling them “games.” In this way, our notion of games influences the way we see different forms of behavior and expression, and reciprocally, different forms of expression seek out a mental and social category they can inhabit.

Postmodernism and Social Construction

Another aspect of postmodernism is the related idea of social construction. This is the recognition that a great deal of what composes a society are not simply products of the natural world. Rather, they are ways in which our minds assign value and meaning to how we live and behave. We create systems and categories to express those meanings. This helps bridge the gap between each individual person with their own perspective, with the perspectives of others. Constructs, in this sense, are another way of talking about how social institutions are not inevitable and immutable, but contingent upon the way that people in a society see the world. Institutions are conventions, meant to address common practical and ethical concerns, not truths written into the fabric of the universe.

The fact that social constructs are made from our interactions and our mental assignments doesn’t mean that they are simply imaginary or arbitrary. Social constructs exist because our minds exist and are seeking ways to translate and understand the world and our relationship to it. Furthermore, they are enforced by groups “buying in” to a way of assigning meaning and enforcing that method’s existence through that shared belief and in how they behave. Property rights are constructs. So are governments, money, and legal systems. So are sports, organized religion, art, race, gender (as opposed to sex), and some aspects of sexuality. Property rights exist because a group of individuals all think they serve some purpose in demonstrating which space is mine and which is yours and in giving recognition to individuals trying to pursue their separate projects. Social constructs are not “mind independent,” but they are as real as we are. As Virgil Storr writes, paraphrasing F.A Hayek, “The facts of the social sciences are what people believe and think.” Likewise, John Searle distinguishes between “natural facts”, which exist regardless of what humans believe, and “institutional facts,” which exist within the context of a community.

However, postmodern theorists have emphasized that the mere fact social constructs exist does not imply they are always morally justified, nor that they and cannot evolve or be changed. Importantly, theorists have tried to show ways in which we can and should alter our constructions towards better ends, often in service of expanding individual dignity and freedom. We can find these efforts in movements for feminism, LGBTQIA rights, mental health accommodations, racial equality, and criminal justice reform. Constructs encompass a host of areas, in which the way that society thinks about a population has had severe and often horrifying consequences for the way they are treated, both via informal norms and formal state institutions. The works of theorists such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have had significant impacts on these debates. Foucault is especially responsible for pioneering demonstrations of how ideas about social deviancy have been used in the West to maintain disparate power relations and exclude people from society.

Foucault’s work ought to be of interest to libertarians, since he analyzes how notions of “deviancy” have been weaponized by states and communities alike to justify social control, and violently harming people and violating their rights. His work on mental illness is, in this regard, strikingly similar to that of the libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. Even more intriguingly, Foucault became increasingly attracted to classical liberalism towards the end of his life, and criticized his fellow leftists for being extremely inattentive towards the inherent inequalities and power imbalances between individuals and the state.

Postmodernism and Liberty

Postmodernism challenges our notions of what the twin tools of reason and empirical observation can accomplish. It also challenges the idea of a universal, clearly demonstrable, and binding morality. In this regard, postmodernism might be an issue for libertarians, who frequently view ourselves as heirs to the Enlightenment, which is often understood as claiming to establish all of these.

Postmodernism upends moral theories by situating them in social contexts, or as a person’s point of view. It argues that either deontology, or consequentialism, or virtue ethics–any all‐​encompassing theory of moral truth and obligation–is yet another set of metanarratives. Libertarians base their politics on universal ethical claims as well as social science, and so this problem is a significant one. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to fully address this challenge in proper depth, but I’d like to suggest a few important ideas.

One point to consider is that morality, even if real and objective in some limited sense, is both more difficult and far more pluralistic than it may appear. We can’t identify liberty as a strict absolute that always acts as our directive on moral questions, because figuring out the right thing to do and how to treat people correctly is really hard. It’s just as hard as, if not harder than, any of the scientific, cultural, and religious questions people ask. Thus, we should strive to identify liberty as an extremely important value within a larger discourse about what our moral intuitions say. These intuitions will point to many things as being significant, and identifying how best to evaluate them, and weigh them off against each other is a complex task. On this view, the endless libertarian conversation about rights and consequences is an eristic squabble between competing metanarratives that tend to overemphasize different pieces of the larger ethical puzzle.

However, a postmodern approach should push us to recognize that moral pluralism is itself a narrative about the nature of ethics. Although a postmodern approach makes ethical claims highly contingent, I do think it is possible to endorse an ethical framework through a process of asking, “What does this accomplish?”. When we consider any approach to morality, we can evaluate to what extent it is critical and self‐​reflective, and whether it resolves important dilemmas of value and action that other approaches do not. No moral theory will be able to pierce the veil of human subjectivity, but a worthy theory should give us reason to believe that it has gotten closer to the truth than competitors. In this regard, intuition‐​guided pluralism is, by its nature, focused on the limitations we face in identifying moral truths, and emphasizes the diversity of value commitments and ways of seeing moral obligations, aspects which are lacking from its alternatives.

Additionally, postmodernism gives us reason to see ethics as constructivist. Meta‐​ethical constructivism argues that morality does not exist as a truth independent from the human communities in which it exists. However, that does not make morality relative or nonobjective. Instead, we need to ask what morality is for. Morality is a way of responding to the question of how to live with and act towards other people. It asks us to identify how best to recognize the concerns and requirements of interaction that the facts about humans demand. People care about how they and others are engaged with and share a common moral sense that allows our cares and concerns to be intelligible to others. Moral values are not mere preferences, but feelings with prescriptions and arguments interwoven about what we owe and are owed.

As David Schmidtz argues, moral theories are maps. Morality is a “territory” all humans share but they find different “right” paths through that territory in different legitimate ways. Importantly, as Charles Taylor points out, the horizon of our normative vision helps us to define that which is important, but also to see how others see differently. Recognizing that morality is a discourse, a way of talking and thinking about how to behave and how to treat one another, should point us towards being more tolerant. It should motivate us to work hard in giving each other compelling reasons to value things in alternative ways. We need to treat our interlocutors as reflective agents capable of weighing values in a reasonable fashion, and our differing commitments need not leave us at an impasse; they often help us to arrive at places of agreement, or at least understanding. K.A Appiah argues that recognizing difference can help us to learn and think more deeply about our values, while Gerald Gaus suggests that undergoing some degree of civil strife better enables cooperation. In this regard, perhaps moral knowledge, like many other kinds, relies on processes of discovery and evolution.

Additionally, postmodernism presents a challenge to the high esteem in which many libertarians hold reason and modern science. Libertarians see ourselves as defenders of modernity and scientific progress, of economic growth and innovation, all views which would seem to be in conflict with postmodernism. Max Weber famously argued that modernity is distinguished by “disenchantment,” the view that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation”. For Weber, to be a modern is to believe in the idea that reason, applied to calculation, measurement, and empirical observation, is the best way to unpack and decode the facts about the world. This contrasts with the premodern era of religion, in which tradition and mysticism were primary sources for truth. Weber paired this claim about modern thinking with one about modern institutions. In his essay on politics, Weber distinguished between three types of authority. There is traditional authority, which rests on past history and habitual norms; charismatic authority, based on heroism and leadership qualities along with special claims to knowledge or divine revelation; and legal‐​rational authority, based on organizational compliance and expertise and claims to legitimacy under a set of general rules. Modern life is characterized by legal‐​rational authority. Our institutional frameworks mirror our mental frameworks, abandoning tradition and religion for secular systems of procedure and technical ability.

These aspects of modernism all seem like ideas that libertarians would endorse. A dedication to science and to institutions based on rules and not people are common libertarian commitments. After all, libertarians use social science heavily in defense of their preferred policies and institutions, especially (though not exclusively) economics. They also strongly defend ideas like the rule of law and the importance of expertise in making policy.

However, I argue that these aspects of modernity, while often extremely valuable, have a dark side, one which libertarians are especially well‐​equipped to recognize. Weber himself argued that modern political and social institutions have the danger of being locked into what he called an “iron cage.” This describes the phenomenon of institutions turning more and more to processes of technical efficiency conducted through bureaucracy, standardization, and “rationalization”—actions based on abstract calculation rather than the individual imbuing of meaning. The institutions become bound or trapped by their reliance on the “rationalistic” procedures upon which they were founded and by which they are sustained. Agencies are frequently constrained in deviating from the logic of technocratic social control which underlies them.

Weber’s notion of the iron cage connects directly to critiques of state action offered by thinkers that libertarians appreciate and champion. These include Austrian economists and social theorists like Ludwig von Mises, F.A Hayek, Don Lavoie, and the Austrian‐​school affiliated philosopher Michael Polanyi. It also includes Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like Adam Smith, David Hume, and Adam Ferguson. What all these thinkers have in common is a strong recognition that while reason and empirical observation are extremely powerful, they also have severe limitations. We should be extremely humble about what we think we know and understand. People simply do not have the ability to easily systematize and direct complex systems using the tools of measurement and calculation.

Complex systems frequently function well because they accommodate and take seriously that people have limited cognitive capacities, and that we navigate the world by imbuing our lives and decisions with meaning. In contrast with the narrative of scientific planning, the track record of human progress and freedom has been built on individuals making subjective interpretations of their world in a heavily decentralized fashion, guided by very general “rules of the game” and by restrained governing institutions. This cumulative and emergent process is successful precisely because it limits the power of technocrats to “scientifically” control individuals. This is the argument we find in the Austrian critiques of central planning, in the ideas of the knowledge problem and spontaneous order, and in defenses of prices, private property and free exchange. We likewise find it in Smith’s invisible hand metaphor and his critique of the “man of the system,” who falsely believes he has sufficient knowledge and ability to plan out and direct the activities of millions of others according to his design.

Furthermore, works such as James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State demonstrate the ways in which the “iron cage” has led to domestic tyrannies and social disaster, wrapped in the guise of better policy. In cases ranging from economic development to foreign policy, expert theories and attempts at engineering social outcomes from the top down have wrecked whole countries and regions. This is a function of what Roger Koppl labels “expert failure,” a relative of the better‐​known concepts of market and government failure. Likewise, work by Michel Foucault and others amply demonstrates the massive harms done by imposing society’s supposedly “scientific” will on individuals who are different from the mainstream. Casey Given has aptly observed that the state itself is a metanarrative, one cloaked in romanticism and capable of incredible destruction.

Thus, libertarians, like postmodernists, are rightly skeptical of certain approaches to science, particularly versions which make totalizing epistemological claims. Libertarians and classical liberals have also made important contributions in how to think about and do science that mirror postmodern critiques. We recognize that truth claims, as both Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn argued, are not independent of the individuals and the communities that make them, particularly those with power. Science cannot be a wholly neutral enterprise. Or as Thomas Nagel puts it, there is no such thing as the “view from nowhere.”

Overall, I think that postmodernism is an extremely important perspective, one from which libertarians can learn a great deal, and reciprocally, one to which we can make great contributions. Rather than being afraid of the claim that we can’t easily access objective truth, we should embrace it, and take our limitations seriously. It’s by recognizing our limits that we can have greater confidence in our attempts at truly making a better world, and a society that is more prosperous, more rights‐​respecting, more inclusive, more open, more diverse, and more free.