Sunday, March 22, 2009

Unpacking Postmodernism

A big hat tip goes out to Dan Collins at PwPub. Dan links to David Thompson's interview with Stephen Hicks, the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Thompson asks Hicks if "postmodernism marks a crisis of faith and a retreat from reality among the academic left"?

It is striking that the major postmodernists - Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Richard Rorty - are of the far left politically. And it is striking that all four are Philosophy Ph.D.s who reached deeply skeptical conclusions about our ability to come to know reality. So one of my four theses about postmodernism is that it develops from a double crisis - a crisis within philosophy about knowledge and a crisis within left politics about socialism.
If you read all the way through the interview, Hicks evinces optimism that postmodernism, after a counter-movement in the academy, is "on the defensive."

I can't say outside of my field, but I'm not optimistic that postmodernism is in retreat in political science. Sure, some of the top scholarship remains firmly ground in positivist epistemology. Yet, it's becoming increasingly the case that top, mainstream works of academic political science are grounded in the radical ontology associated with the hardine postmodernist political agenda (see my recent essay, for example, "
Violent Patriarchy in International Security"); and there's apparently a consensus in international relations that the largely postmodern "constructivist" paradigm has emerged as the main (legitimate) contender to the field's dominant approaches of the last 35 years, neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism. It's a complicated story, but at the most basic level constructivism represents the current "radicalist" paradigm in the field, drawing eclectically on a range of post-structuralist influences. As Stephen Walt has argued, constructivism "has largely replaced marxism as the preeminent radical perspective on international affairs." (Note: I hesitate to cite Stephen Walt, for between him and Michael Desch, the realist paradigm they champion is becoming almost a mirror image to the political praxis offered by postmodernists in political science, especially with regards to Israel and U.S. foreign policy. For more on that, see my recent essay, "America's Academic Tragedy.")

3 comments:

smitty1e said...

And what is the effective difference between a Post-modernist and a Sophist?
In Sophistry, man deceives man: in Post-modernism, it's the other way around.

Donald Douglas said...

Hey Smitty1: I like that: Man deceives man ...

Rodger A. Payne said...

Most mainstream American constructivists (think Barnett, Checkel, Finnemore, Sikkink, etc.) are positivists, not postmoderns. Some European constructivists are also positivists (Risse, most prominently).

As Ted Hopf, Chris Reus Smit and others have explained, many remaining constructivists might best be considered "critical constructivists." Critical theorists may well be radicals, but they are not universally postmodern. Indeed, Habermasians like me are trying to salvage the enlightenment and rationality, not slay it.