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? Does postmodernism deny objective reality? How did Kant influence postmodernism? What is consciousness and what is the nature of our experience?
00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: And joining us today is Akiva Malamet, he’s an MA student in Philosophy and in the Program in Political and Legal Thought at Queen’s University Kingston. Today we’re talking with him about postmodernism and libertarianism. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Akiva.
00:24 Akiva Malamet: Thanks for having me, guys.
00:26 Aaron Ross Powell: What makes something postmodern?
00:28 Akiva Malamet: That’s a good question. I would say that what makes something postmodern is the extent to which it focuses on the subjective qualities of an experience and talks about the degree to which an experience is, or a point of view is contextual and is based on one way of looking at the world. So you can see this in pop cultural kind of contexts. My favorite definition of postmodernism comes from the Big Lebowski, which I think if anyone wanted to understand postmodernism, it’s a really easy way to absorb it as a movie. And that’s when Jeff Bridges’ character, the dude says, “Well, that’s just kind of your opinion, man.” And that sums up what postmodernism is about, which is that things exist in subjective perspectives, everyone has a particular point of view and that the way that we try to pull the world together is by forming some kind of structure or process to pull together.
01:37 Akiva Malamet: So the philosopher Jean‐François Lyotard says that postmodernism is what he calls an incredulity towards metanarratives, and in less fancy language that means being skeptical about big stories. And big stories are the kinds of things that we use to make sense of the world given that we are not directly able to access all the pieces of information. We exist as separate beings and agents, and the big stories can range across a variety of types of things, it could be religion or political ideologies or science, and these are frameworks that we use to solve the puzzle of having a lot of information that we’re exposed to and a lot of different pieces of data and experience and trying to have it all make sense.
02:33 Trevor Burrus: Does it deny objective reality though as like as kind of a… If you keep going down that rabbit hole, which I guess is an interesting metaphor ’cause there’s some interesting elements in Alice in Wonderland, but does it end up saying, Well, it’s all opinion, man, and therefore there’s no such thing as objective reality.
02:49 Akiva Malamet: So I guess, as you might expect with something less postmodernism, it depends on the theorist. I sometimes distinguish between what I call hard postmodernism and soft postmodernism. Hard postmodernism is represented by theorists like Jacques Derrida or maybe Michel Foucault, and that says that there’s no such thing as reality, there’s no such thing as truth, there’s just perceptions and what people make of it, and it’s pointless to talk about. The softer version of postmodernism is just that reality exists but because we exist as subjective agents within our own minds and we don’t access the world directly, it’s really, really hard to get at it. And so we need process, intermediary processes to try and get at whatever is out there, and I tend to subscribe to the softer version.
03:44 Aaron Ross Powell: That sounds awfully Kantian in a way and you tie postmodernism originating to Kant or growing out of his ideas. So can you tell us a bit about what Kant thought and how that eventually turned over the years into what we today call postmodernism?
04:06 Akiva Malamet: Sure. So in the age of enlightenment, of which Kant is the main philosophical exemplar, one of the primary figures, you have a whole bunch of people talking about, “What does it mean to think rationally? What does it mean to be able to observe and experience the world?” Because you have this whole response in the enlightenment to the notion that the way that we understand the world is through religion, through systems of authority and mysticism, and so there’s this emphasis on actually what we should be doing is looking at the world through processes of logic and reason by doing experiments, the rise of science, that kind of thing. But inevitably within that, once you start examining the role of reason, the role of empirical examination, you start uncovering what its limits are; what people, as beings, are capable of thinking through and of understanding and experiencing. And Kant famously argued that although we have a tremendous capacity for rationality, and he’s famous for thinking of reason in incredibly strong ideal terms, he thought that our ability to experience the external world is highly limited. And he distinguishes between two realms, what he calls noumena and phenomena. So noumena is everything that’s going on outside of us, what he calls the thing‐in‐itself, what it actually is. And phenomena is what’s going on in your head, the kind of representations that you get.
05:42 Akiva Malamet: So when you look at an object, you’re not really seeing that object. You’re seeing the combination of light as it bounces off it and then goes through your cornea, and then your brain receptors have to process it. That would be like a more cognitive science way of talking about it, but for Kant it’s more like that our processes of thought, our minds as these agents, as these things that think and process are not in direct relationship to other things, it’s a self‐contained unit. So the way that this arrives at postmodernism is by people following the Kantian trajectory of being skeptical about what we can directly experience and then going beyond Kant about how much we can logically reason, how good we are at pulling different facts and pieces of information together, and sequencing them in a way that’s accurate or makes the most sense.
06:39 Akiva Malamet: And so what happens is, you develop a tradition in what’s known as continental philosophy, and we can talk about the different streams of philosophy if it becomes important, called phenomenology and what phenomenology does, is try to examine the way that our experience of the world and our consciousness relate to the world that it is. And so, it’s a lot of examination of what is consciousness, what is the nature of experience, what does that tell us about the world around us? And emerging out of that is the concept of postmodernism, which is that what we do in order to make sense of the world around us is construct systems of belief, narratives, stories to try and pull all these different things together.
07:24 Trevor Burrus: How does this work ’cause you hear of postmodernism often, and you brought up a little bit, but you here described in an artistic sense, like some very strange piece of art, and say, “Well, that’s really postmodern and… ” Actually, Aaron and I met in a class that was pretty much a postmodernism class about science fiction and fantasy, and I remember the professor brought up what you had brought up with Lyotard’s incredulity toward the metanarrative, but as a literary device that, like in modernism, you have situations where saying the Great Gatsby you may not believe the narrator, Nick, is that his name in the Great Gat… You may not believe the narrator, but postmodernism, you may not believe the narrator’s entire backstory and viewpoint and class and ideology. The narrator himself may think he’s telling the truth, but his entire life and system is a lie, is that an accurate way of how it would be put on to literary and other types of artistic things?
08:29 Akiva Malamet: Yeah, so if you think about artistic movements, they tend to reflect certain ways that people in a culture are processing things. So literary modernism tends to think about… First of all, the idea of narratives as focused on individuals and individuals telling their stories rather than as part of a group and that’s what distinguishes something like novels from Greek mythology or other things that are about people that are swept up by fate kind of situations. And then the movement in later period of modernism, and you see this of Gatsby and James Joyce and other people and then proceeding into postmodern fiction like David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon is that these narrators, not only when we focus on these particular individuals, but that these individuals are biased and they see things from a particular point of view, and you get this concept of the unreliable narrator. And they may have psychological biases or class biases, or gender biases, or whatever it happens to be. So it’s kind of an artistic reflection of a way that people experience the world in their culture, and I think the way that society has evolved in, particularly the developing world, but probably the world over.
09:45 Akiva Malamet: But I think there’s also a kind of interplay between the literary component of postmodernism and us as real people experiencing the world, because the focus within literature on the nature of stories and on the idea that what something is or what a series of events is, is a story or is some kind of narrative, is something that we’re telling, creates a point of view in which it’s possible that it’s not something as it is, but it’s a way that something is being described or was being told. And so I think that’s probably also why you see greater appreciation for postmodernism in, let’s say, English departments than you do in certain kinds of philosophy departments, what we call analytic philosophy versus continental philosophy.
10:36 Aaron Ross Powell: On the one hand, a lot of what you’re describing seems almost mundane, and what I mean by that is, yes, of course, our experiences are mediated by our senses, and yes, of course, we are influenced by the beliefs and values that we were brought up in, we didn’t have control over those, we’re products of our environment and our social circles and the ideas that dominate those. But postmodernism often feels like it goes a step beyond that and brings this same sort of skepticism about narratives and discourse to the very nature of reason itself, and that seems to me to be one of the real jumping off points for a lot of people who reject postmodernism is they see it as anti‐reason. So, is postmodernism anti‐reason?
11:38 Akiva Malamet: No, I don’t think so. I think postmodernism is just taking the idea of subjectivity really, really seriously. I think a lot of people who will admit that they have biases or that they come at things from a particular perspective still basically feel like they know what’s what and what’s happening and what postmodernism does, it say, “Let’s think about how extensive the process is of your subjectivity, of the way that you’re situated, of the way that you’re looking at the world,” and so that is going to inherently constrain the way that you process information and the way that you make connections. But it’s not inherently anti‐reason per se, it just points out the limitations of reason. And I think this is actually something that a lot of libertarians can appreciate, at least libertarians of a certain type, especially in the Austrian tradition, following in the work of people like F A Hayek or Michael Polanyi, or the late Don Lavoie who recognized that we exist in a cultural context and that cultural context evolves and shapes the way that we understand our lives and the institutions within which we’re embedded, and not all of that can be easily parsed out in a rational manner and it can be very complicated and can have a lot of information that we are not able to access. So it’s less about whether we’re capable of reasoning period, and more about how much can that reasoning process accomplish.
13:12 Trevor Burrus: There’s one thing that you hear a lot when you sometimes in a mocking manner, but I’ve heard people say it seriously, but the idea of social construction, everything is socially constructed, the social construction of… I mean, you could probably go to a library at a university and find the social construction of X for almost anything, science, obviously gender, you could… It goes down. I think I did that one time in Boulder. What does that general concept of social construction mean?
13:43 Akiva Malamet: So social construction is an idea that’s often linked to postmodernism, although I wouldn’t say they’re identical, but it’s something that postmodernism… If you accept postmodernism as an epistemological worldview, a theory of knowledge then it arises naturally, which is that a lot of the things that we think are true about the world are things that we made up, they’re socially constructed, they’re created by society, rather than being natural to the world as it is. So you can talk about this in a couple of ways that each of which I think are slightly different, but there’s certainly a through line. And one is the natural world and the processes of things like science and the laws of science, and the others are how people relate to each other in society. So social categories like gender, or class, or race. And all of those have to do with the idea that in order to understand the world, whether it’s our natural world or our social world, we create categories, we create ideas or concepts that help us navigate it.
14:54 Akiva Malamet: But that doesn’t necessarily mean… So this is one of the big misconstruance is that the idea that because people made something up, that it’s not true or it’s just the world of our imaginations. And I don’t think this is actually a particularly fair reading. Because if you think about the world that we live in, systems of law, systems of property rights, the concept of money, these all have a tangible reality for us in our daily lives in the way that we interact. When we think about the scientific process, this is a process that someone invented, having a hypothesis and testing it and so on and so forth. So we made these things up, but they obviously provide value to us and they obviously contribute a great deal to what makes our world function but they’re just not independent of human societies.
15:48 Aaron Ross Powell: Can you give an example of the kind of thing… I mean, of course, money is a social construction and our laws are a social construction, property rights, all of that but can you give an example of the kind of thing that most people would not think of as a social construction, that they would think of as real and objective in the world but that a postmodernist would say no, is in fact socially constructed. And what that would mean in practice.
16:17 Akiva Malamet: So I think it depends on your vantage point. I think even the statement that property rights are socially constructed would be controversial to a natural rights theorist. Or the notion that gender is socially constructed especially within the whole kind of cultural back and forth about the trans community and their role and whether they should have rights and all that stuff, is a major political issue and is basically a debate about, “Do the social meanings, the constructs that we apply to people, can those be meaningful and real in some sense?” I don’t think there’s one thing that everyone is going to find very controversial or not, it just depends on the perspective. One thing that might be more controversial than say, gender is science. So a postmodernist would argue that science is not an objective process of measuring the world but is a process of doing observations, observations and experiments on the basis of certain basic set of assumptions. So you have the systems of Newtonian physics or Einsteinian physics, or you have the notions of the basic laws of motion and matter, and that different physical things interact with each other. These are all basic assumptions that we make in order for scientific experiments to happen. And that’s a framework that we created, it’s not something that is just obvious from looking at the world.
17:51 Akiva Malamet: So for example, if I drop a pen and I want to explain why it fell, I could easily say that the reason it fell is because when I let go of it, a bunch of invisible fairies grabbed it and pulled it to the ground. Or I could say it’s because there’s this thing called gravity, and it’s this kind of force that has to do with the interaction of different objects moving away from each other or in different angles to each other, and that creates pressure for things to move in particular directions. And both of those are just abstract assumptions and we don’t know per se that they’re correct, but what we do is say that gravity helps us explain… Gravity as connected to this larger notion of the laws of motion and physical laws helps us explain much more of the universe than positive intervention of invisible fairies.
18:49 Trevor Burrus: Is this all morally nihilistic? In some level you see that some postmodern thought, maybe some earlier stuff that could be proto‐postmodern, on the moral side could be rebelling against the very, very Western ethnocentric morality of say, the 19th and 18th century that there were savages in the jungles and white men were doing the correct thing, and there’s one right way of doing things. But then people will say, “Well, you have to take into account the cultural viewpoint and where they’re coming from and not make these proclamations,” but eventually you keep doing that and you get to saying something like, “Well, female genital mutilation is just your opinion, man.” Or, “Nazism is just your opinion, man” and no real ability to critique it and say, “No, it’s actually wrong.”
19:40 Akiva Malamet: Right. So this is one of the classic worries about postmodernism, more so than the scientific or epistemic stuff, it’s the moral question. And I think to some extent, postmodernism casts important doubt on clear objectivity of certain assumptions about ways of behaving. If you think about the ways that Europeans decided arbitrarily that native people were savages and forced them to adopt various norms and customs, when you think about the way that we used to treat gay people or trans people, those are all reflective of the notion that we know that there is one correct way to be and behave and that obviously ends up imposing a lot of harm and violence and rights violations on people in a way that’s obviously pretty horrific, but in a way that there is obviously some end point in which that amount of relativizing, which is I think the primary process that postmodernism does has an end point. And when you think about how to arrive in a set of ethical judgements within postmodernism, I think like with all other questions, you need to ask, “What am I trying to accomplish with this enterprise?”
21:07 Akiva Malamet: So if you’re thinking, “What am I doing in science?” You wanna ask, “How does this help me understand the world and connect different natural processes?” And when you think about morality you wanna ask, “How does this give me guidance on understanding my values, the range of my values, where they apply and how should I treat other people?” Because ultimately I think morality is about how other people should be treated, and you can see that in really any ethical framework, whether that’s consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, really any ethical system is about how other people should be treated. And so you wanna ask, “Does an ethical system address the kinds of problems or questions that we have about morality and about how people should be treated that line up with the set of values and the discourse that exists within human communities.”
22:04 Aaron Ross Powell: How does rights fit into this? Because that seems like the real worry is that if we’re asking questions about what morality is for and what we’re hoping to get out of it, that introduces a level of ambiguity that rights become… Or not rights, morality becomes a means to an end. But rights exist as, as Nozick called them, side‐constraints, they’re saying, “No matter what our ends we’re pursuing, there are certain things that you simply can’t do, there are certain means that you simply can’t undertake to get there.” Is there a tension there? Or is there a way to ground or permit strong notions of individual rights within a postmodern framework?
22:54 Akiva Malamet: So this is a really good question and I think you have to go back to… Before you talk about just, “What is morality for?” You have to ask, “In what way does morality exist?” So if you think about why is it that I can say the word morality or ethics and you and Trevor know what I’m talking about is because we have a common set of feelings or intuitions that people should be treated in a particular way. We have the sense, this moral sense that you find all over. Adam Smith talks about it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and lots of other people, and when we examine that moral sense we find that there are certain recurring concerns, like for example, respecting other people, giving them their due, giving them their space. We have this notion that people are not arbitrated, that they deserve something like dignity or respect, these are words that we use to talk about the notion that they’re not just objects, this is a sense that we have.
23:57 Akiva Malamet: And so when you talk about rights, I tend to think about them as ways of formalizing the intuition that people deserve consideration, they deserve consideration in allowing them to be expressive in their speech, in controlling the objects in their environments or property, in who they associate with, what religion they follow, all those kinds of things. So you start with intuition that people are not objects and people are sentient and that matters to us, and because that matters to us we need to have a way of talking about how that respect is concretized in all kinds of domains, whether that’s mutual property or anything else.
24:42 Trevor Burrus: Now, people listening up to this point who maybe have never heard of postmodernism say, “Well, this sounds at least interesting and something that should be on the table and things I thought of before,” and then they might be thinking, “So why is it so damn left‐wing? Why does it seem like postmodernism is almost a branch or handmaiden of left‐wing, if not radical left‐wing philosophy?” Is there a necessary connection there?
25:10 Akiva Malamet: So I don’t think there’s a necessary connection at all, and I think there’s actually been some fantastic work especially in the libertarian spaces with postmodernism. I mentioned the work of Hayek before, although he’s not an explicit postmodernist, I think his view of reason and empiricism has a lot of overlap and I think you see this also in the work of people like Deirdre McCloskey who talks about the ways that culture and rhetoric shape our world views. She’s also applied this to the actual practices of economics in her book, “The Rhetoric of Economics” and the work of Michael Polanyi. There are lots of people, particularly in the Austrian tradition who have used this kind of framework to great effect. So I don’t think there’s any necessary connection because postmodernism is not a view about politics, it’s a view about what we can know, and that can apply any number of things about politics. That’s why it’s associated with the left, I think part of this is a branding thing. So, postmodernism happened to be invented by certain people in the academy, and many of whom were leftists or socialists and thereby got associated with Marxism and feminism and all this other stuff.
26:32 Akiva Malamet: And there’s this kind of tribal thing where postmodernism is part of this package of those things that those lefty academic radical types are advocating for and it all gets squashed together, even though if you break down what these different ideas are, they don’t necessarily have a lot of consonants. So for example, you hear this phrase that I think originated with Jordan Peterson, but it’s pretty common on the internet right, which is postmodern Neo‐Marxism is supposedly prevalent in the academy, which if you think about it is kind of a nonsensical phrase, because Marxism is a very specific view that society functions in a very particular way. There’s a hierarchy of classes, and there’s people, the capitalists, that own means of production and they oppress the workers, the bourgeoisie, but there’s a very specific structure to society and postmodernism questions whether that explanation is actually true.
27:32 Akiva Malamet: So pairing them together doesn’t really make sense. So some of it is about branding, but to some extent it is also because the people who came up with postmodernism used it as a tool to question certain structures within society that they were concerned about as leftists. So the work of people like Judith Butler on gender, or Michel Foucault on things like sexuality and the prison system and mental health issues are all ways of using the methods of postmodernism and social construction to talk about the role of power in human societies. And to ask if things are potentially constructed or made up by people, or is a narrative that we’ve developed, it’s also very possible that they’re being used in order to perpetuate oppression. This isn’t inherently true. It’s possible that it’s not. But I think they demonstrated a number of instances, particularly in instances that libertarians are confirming to, that these kinds of frameworks can be used to violate people’s rights and to stigmatize people, to label people as deviant. So, you actually see a lot of crossover between the work of someone like Thomas Szasz on mental health and someone like Michel Foucault, who both think that a lot of the things that we label as “mental illnesses” are stigmatization of people who are different rather than real science.
29:05 Trevor Burrus: But I mean, there is something to be said about postmodern Neo‐Marxism in the sense. And I like that you brought up Szasz and Foucault ’cause I’ve spoken on that before, but that Marxism can fit into postmodernism as being the predominant way by which the metanarrative is explained and analyzed, and that seems to be quite common in the academy and maybe they learn them in different classes, they learn postmodernism in their English or literary criticism class or they learned Marxism in their political theory class, but then you combine them together and say that, “Oh, the reason why this metanarrative of gender is something we should not trust is because of sort of Marxian‐type forces.” But I do think that you were right that you could put in libertarianism and say, “Well, no, the real power structure that you should be concerned with that helped create this narrative and framework is actually the government rather than the bourgeoisie.” But there does seem to be some connection between Marxism and postmodernism. Maybe not necessary, but at least in terms of socially or just observed connection.
30:13 Akiva Malamet: Yeah, sociologically, I think there’s a lot of connection. So the book I’m about to mention, I think is actually a pretty bad book and doesn’t do service to postmodernism at all, but Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism, argues that postmodernism happened because there were a bunch of socialist intellectuals who were traumatized by Stalin and the purges and failures of the Soviet Union and decided, “Well, if this narrative turned out to be a failure, then screw narratives. Let’s give up on them.” And so as a sociological explanation, I think that actually makes a lot of sense. And certainly people who are concerned about power are going to then be congenial and then develop a way that power can be manipulated through narratives and so forth, but it really depends on the view that you adopt, ’cause orthodox Marxism is not postmodern, but people who are postmodern can then later conclude that the way that the world functions is through this struggle between classes, and certainly I think the focus on power is significant.
31:29 Akiva Malamet: I’ll do a small self‐plug, one of my more recent essays for libertarianism.org was talking about the connections between how leftists see power and how libertarians see power. And I think what unites both of these groups, between us libertarians and people on the left is that we care about power, we care about people controlling other people, whether people being morally equal, and being able to make their own independent choices. Now, we might conclude different things about the roles of markets or property, but there’s a shared moral intuition about not using people as means to an end.
32:10 Aaron Ross Powell: How does argument work within a postmodern framework? And what I mean by that is, if everything is a narrative and our world is reduces to competing narratives, it’s hard to see how you convince people. So Trevor and I for 20 years have been having voluminous and heated arguments about the merits of Batman versus Daredevil. The narrative of Batman versus the narrative of Daredevil.
32:38 Trevor Burrus: We can’t both be right, Aaron. [chuckle]
32:39 Aaron Ross Powell: And one of us is obviously right. It’s me. But it’s hard to speak in terms of like, “Well, the narrative of Batman is true, and the narrative of Daredevil is false,” but if everything is narratives, when we get out into the world into subjects that matter more than comic book superheroes, how do I, as someone who thinks that we ought to structure government in this way versus that way, how do I engage in an argument with someone who disagrees with me in an effort to try to make the world better, if that person’s response can be, “Look, you’ve got your narrative and I’ve got mine.”
33:19 Trevor Burrus: First, Akiva. Batman or Daredevil?
33:21 Akiva Malamet: Oh, Batman for sure.
33:23 Trevor Burrus: Oh, gosh. Okay.
33:23 Akiva Malamet: Like by a mile so, you know…
33:25 Trevor Burrus: [chuckle] It’s okay.
33:28 Akiva Malamet: If I’m the only truly objective one, let’s pretend, then Batman, for sure.
33:36 Trevor Burrus: Okay. [chuckle]
33:38 Akiva Malamet: I think the amount of emotional depth and psychological issues that get raised in Batman, especially by the ‘80s gritty revival by all the Brits is superior to most of what has been published in Daredevil comics.
33:56 Trevor Burrus: Okay. Well, anyway. [chuckle] We’ll agree to disagree. But on Aaron’s question, you could be wrong about that, then right about the next thing you say.
34:04 Akiva Malamet: Well, if postmodernism is true, I might be wrong about everything. So, who knows?
34:08 Trevor Burrus: Exactly. So how do we debate this?
34:11 Akiva Malamet: It’s just my opinion, man. So I think Aaron’s question is a really great one, and is like the tragic aspect. If you adopt the postmodern worldview, which is that there are going to be situations in which the worldviews that we have, the narratives that we have are so different that it’s gonna be really, really hard to come to terms. Aaron and I had talked about this in a previous conversation. The amount of distance between someone like me and someone like Patrick Dinneen or Adrian Vermeule is enormous, and it would be really, really hard for us to come to an agreement. But it will be easier for us to have a conversation about politics than it will about Batman versus Daredevil, because the criteria for Batman versus Daredevil’s just an aesthetic experience, and doesn’t have a lot of reasons that can be translated beyond preference. It’s just, “I like this thing,” in the narrative. Whereas, arguments about how government should be structured engage with A] Facts about social science, the extent that those can be objective. But to the extent that we have any facts at all, they engage with that. And secondly, they engage with the process of moral reasoning, and what I think distinguishes morality from something like aesthetic preferences is that you can offer arguments.
35:38 Akiva Malamet: If I like chocolate ice cream, I just like it. I can’t really argue about why it’s good. But if I think it’s wrong to kill someone, and that certain things constitute murder and certain things don’t, I have to give you an argument about that, and we can have a conversation, and I convince you to see things in a particular way. And the same can apply to government. So if you think about what I would consider to be one of the better forms of libertarian argument is asking people to rely on their common sense intuitions about how we ought to treat other people, and then apply that to government. And this is something that the philosopher, Michael Huemer, does to great effect in his book, The Problem of Political Authority, which is just that if people did any of the things that government does, we would call that horrendous and immoral. And certainly, you see that play out in real time as agents of the state are literally kidnapping people off the streets of Portland.
36:37 Akiva Malamet: So I think that what allows us to have a conversation about political, social, moral issues is that we can… First of all, we have a shared set of intuitions, and then we can have arguments about them, and then in some way we can come to bridges of some kind, and they’re not going to be perfect, they never will be. But the process of what postmodern theorists call intersubjectivity, which is that each of us puts forward our perspective, and together we fuse something out of that and something happens. And there is a certain amount that can be created. So, for all the polarization that’s happening, and the fighting between Republicans of Democrats, they all still agree on this thing called The United States of America in some way, and that there’s a government, and there’s this system of laws, and there’s a Constitution, no matter how many violations that Constitution we might complain about. So there are meaningful concepts in our conversations that then serve as building blocks for creating a society, and talking about what we should be doing.
37:49 Trevor Burrus: That sounds theoretically nice. I’ve had debates with many postmodernists, and I have many affinities for postmodern thought, but at the end, it’s difficult for me to call myself just a postmodernist because I do think that ultimately it’s difficult to find some sort of truth that is not purely subjective. And so you said we have these beliefs about the Constitution and things, but of course right now, the Constitution is quite under attack from people, some of them had learned a lot of this stuff in universities being taught that everything is narrative. So when you say, “We hold these truths to be self‐evident that all men are created equal,” the response is, “Well, that was said by rich, white men in the 18th century with their own narrative, and therefore I don’t have to listen to it,” as opposed to actually dealing with whether or not that is true. And maybe this is just a communication problem, and a problem with our schismatic environment, but it’s very, very hard, ultimately to get many, if not most postmodernists who have been trained at many of these universities to have a discussion about whether something like that is something we should all believe in.
39:05 Akiva Malamet: Right. So I should say… And I wanna push back a little bit. I don’t think all of those people are postmodernists. I think some of them are critical theorists, which is a form of Marxism applied to culture, and different kinds of theories of gender and power, which can overlap with postmodernism but they’re not the same.
39:20 Trevor Burrus: Good point.
39:21 Akiva Malamet: ‘Cause those theories conclude that certain systems must inherently be a system of power. Postmodernism just raises it as a possibility, whereas something like critical theory says, “Everything in the world that you think is true is just a product of the capitalist class,” and postmodernism just says, “This is a possible explanation.” But to the extent that they are postmodernists, and here I’m gonna be, I guess, a little bit harsh, some of this is just lazy thinking. These are people who have just decided that because something emerges from a particular context, that means I don’t actually have to think about the idea.
40:00 Akiva Malamet: So Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. He raped his slave, Sally Hemings. Those are bad things, I’m not a fan of them, but that doesn’t mean that the concept of human rights that he puts in the Declaration of Independence isn’t a concept that we can then discuss independently of Thomas Jefferson. I don’t think that it relies on Thomas Jefferson’s behavior in order to be thought about. So to some extent, this is about seeing that people are morally inconsistent or problematic or concluding that because people did thing X then thing Y, must also be a product of that thing, and to me, this is just a kind of tribalism that everything that someone produces must inherently be a product of power, and certainly as a libertarian and as a postmodernist highly Foucauldian, I sometimes call myself, I’m attuned to that, but not everything is, and certainly just because some things are doesn’t mean everything is.
41:04 Aaron Ross Powell: I’m gonna pick up quickly on something you just mentioned, which was that a lot of the people that get branded as postmodernists aren’t in fact postmodernists and so, in this case, some of them are critical theorists. If postmodernism from the perspective of conservative America and people like Jordan Peterson or places, publications like Colette, you would get the sense that everyone in academia is a hardcore, specifically postmodernist. And that it’s, instead, it seems like postmodernism is largely limited, there’s not that many postmodernists in philosophy departments, there’s certainly not many in economics departments, history departments and so on, you mostly are gonna find them in English departments and it’s not even gonna be most of the people in English departments, and as you’re describing it, postmodernism is a powerful tool but also not as universally corrosive as it sometimes is made out to be. So why does postmodernism specifically act as such a boogie man for the right, for intellectual dark web sorts? Why that specifically, why are they so terrified of it, and why does it get made out to be the driving force, certainly among the left in America?
42:35 Akiva Malamet: Right. So I think that, like I mentioned earlier, some of this is about tribal affiliation, they’re not really thinking about ideas, they’re thinking about the people who hold them. So all these posts, these lefties are postmodern and they have these leftie ideas and they’re get lumped together, so that’s the most basic kind of lazy level thinking, but I do actually think is at least some percentage of people who operate this way. But I think a more substantive reason is that postmodernism and attendant theories of social construction and of power, question whether some of the elements of society that people on the right take as natural are in fact natural. So people on the right may believe that gender is a binary and that the only thing we can talk about is biological sex and we can’t talk about a sex gender distinction, or more radically that both of those things are socially constructed about sex and gender, although I’m more agnostic about that question, or whether there is some kind of process of racial discrimination and structures of power where white people oppress black people and categories that people are in that are created by society, like the concept of phrase, which is also socially constructed and are then utilized on behalf of power.
44:06 Akiva Malamet: So I think some of it has to do with the questioning that things that they think are natural may not actually be natural according to postmodernism, and the other is that not only might they not be natural, but they might be a tool of oppression, and because right‐wingers tend to be critical of views that talk about power relations and tend to be defenders of social hierarchy, defenders of traditional systems, they naturally see postmodernism as supplying that intellectual background, but I don’t even think that’s necessarily true because you see right‐wingers criticize things that are put forward by the mainstream left or by libertarians as radical leftie postmodernism, like being tolerant to gay people or inclusive of gay people or Black Lives Matter support as some kind of crazy radical Marxist thing. And that I think all has to do with the perception that anything that is not a rather dogmatic view of society and of the structures that we exist inside and is critical of the possibility of power relations sees any critique of that as kind of a radical, left‐wing takeover and then get smeared in a kind of McCarthy‐ist way as communists, like literally.
45:39 Trevor Burrus: Why should or should libertarians be more postmodern or learn from postmodern or read postmodern thought?
45:47 Akiva Malamet: I think the main reason that we should be friendlier to postmodernism… I don’t think postmodernism is a pre‐requisite for libertarianism by any means, but I think that libertarians can benefit a lot from postmodernism because postmodernism questions whether when someone tells you something it really is like that and whether they are trying to control social systems by offering that story. So there’s a really nice short piece by Casey Given, which I linked to in my article about postmodernism called The State as a Metanarrative, and it has a lot of overlap, I think with your concept of the state [46:24] ____, Trevor, which is that there’s this kind of all‐encompassing idea that everything needs to be solved by government and we encourage that the steady growth of this machine until it takes over not just our lives but our consciousness. And so, what postmodernism does is allow us to ask whether this A] to point out that this is a narrative, that this is a worldview assumption that we are framing as essential for society, and then to question whether it’s necessary.
46:58 Akiva Malamet: And I think that’s true, not just in terms of government per se, but any expression of power where some people try to control what other people are doing. And in general, whether society can be managed as easily as we think it has been, and I think a lot of the things that libertarians raise about the limits of knowledge, about how well bureaucrats in Washington can understand all the different things that are going on in America let alone the world, the failure of state building in our foreign interventions, all kinds of things are things that postmodernism is very useful for understanding because it helps us really unpack the ways in which people don’t know as much as they think they do, and in fact are not capable of understanding all of those things and rationally planning and systematizing and organizing society, and offers us a way to be skeptical of the kind of technocracy and tendencies towards control and authoritarianism that you see in governments, institutions and in a lot of policies that people advocate for.
48:28 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcast or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres, and if you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.