The short answer to the short question
posed by my short title (bereft of postcolonial discourse since
it has no colon) is no. Humanists cannot talk to postmodernists.
This might seem paradoxical at first since people who consider themselves
humanists do, in fact, talk to people who consider themselves postmodernists
every day. They meet, for example, in faculty dining rooms and on
payroll lines, and they discuss, for example, whether the cafeteria
chili should be avoided or whether their health plans cover anti-depressants.
So it is necessary at the outset to define the three key terms:
humanist, postmodernist, and talk. By a "humanist,"
I mean a person who believes that human beings can formulate true
or false opinions about a reality that exists independently of their
thoughts and language--and that the truth or falsehood of such opinions
is gauged by their correspondence with empirical evidence analyzed
in light of fundamental rational principles. By a "postmodernist,"
I mean a person who believes that the perception of a reality existing
independently of thought and language is illusory, that what the
humanist perceives as reality is in fact a linguistic construct
of the phenomena of subjective experience that is continually adjusted
in response to a fluid social consensus. Finally, by "talk" I mean
to put forward opinions, or sets of opinions, in such a way that
they may be either verified or falsified. Of the two possibilities,
verification and falsification, I would lay particular emphasis
on falsification since it is less provisional. (Falsification, in
other words, is less contingent on evidentiary standards. For example,
it only takes one black dove to falsify the proposition "All doves
are white"; whereas, the standards of support required to verify
the proposition inevitably vary.) To talk, by my definition, is
to risk one's continued avowal of an intellectual position, to enter
willingly into the so-called "marketplace of ideas" in which logical
demonstration is recognized as the final arbiter between opposing
viewpoints. My thesis, then, is that no such marketplace of ideas
can ever truly exist between humanists and postmodernists because
postmodernists neither pursue verification nor risk falsification
in their exchanges.
To proceed, therefore, we must first ask: What
is the necessary framework for a marketplace of ideas? What conditions
must be agreed on in order for the processes of verification and
falsification to occur? This is an issue addressed by Aristotle
in the Metaphysics in his discussion of "the starting-points
[B]y the starting points of demonstration
I mean the common beliefs on which all men base their proofs;
e.g. that everything must be either affirmed or denied, and
that a thing cannot at the same time be and not be, and all
other such premises. (Metaph. III.2.996b.28-30).
Aristotle's "starting-points of demonstration" are familiar nowadays
to logicians as the Laws of Thought. In modern configurations, they
are expressed as the law of excluded middle (that anything
must be either A or not-A); the law of non-contradiction
(that nothing can be both A and not-A); and, implicit
in the first two, the law of identity (that if a thing is
A, then it is in fact A). Whats critical to
recognize, from a humanist viewpoint, is that these laws comprise
more than a particular methodological option, for they are invoked
whenever a predicate is attached to a subject; the consequences
of their rejection, in humanist terms, would be absolute cognitive
silence--since the decision to reject the laws could not itself
sensibly be uttered except by invoking them. For example, the assertion
"I do reject the law of non-contradiction" amounts to an
implicit denial of its contradictory, namely, "I do not reject
the law of non-contradiction"--or else the predicate of the initial
assertion hasn't been asserted of the subject. Indeed, the laws
of thought are so basic that humanists take them for granted in
meaningful discourse. So, again, if I affirm a grotesque proposition
such as "Hitler was a man who promoted the well being of all people,"
the humanist's natural response will be to cite the genocidal persecutions
of the Jews, Slavs and homosexuals; these instances are cited in
order to establish the denial, or contradictory, of the initial
proposition, in other words "Hitler was not a man who promoted
the well being of all people." The humanist will seek to establish
the denial because he knows instinctively that the two propositions,
the affirmation and the denial, cannot be held simultaneously; hence,
the moment he can convince me that Hitler was not a man who
promoted the well being of all people, Ill be compelled to
abandon the proposition that Hitler was a man who promoted
the well being of all people. This is the height of self-evidentiality--at
least to a humanist.
By contrast, from the perspective of several
conspicuous postmodernists, the law of non-contradiction is by no
means self-evident. Jacques Derrida, in Of Grammatology,
describes one of the signal concepts of his deconstructive methodology,
the arche-trace, as "contradictory and not acceptable within
the logic of identity" (61). Yet the particular "logic of identity"
to which Derrida refers is, from the humanist standpoint, simply
logic; its not one logic among many. Furthermore, since
"the logic of identity" is contingent on acceptance of the laws
of thought, Derrida's insistence that his concept is unacceptable
within that logic amounts to a declaration of nonsense--nonsense
being a pejorative term only from a humanist point of view.
In fact, a reasonable paraphrase of Derrida's words might be: The
concept of the arche-trace is indeed nonsensical, but play along
anyway. (Derrida's disciples often point to the sense of "play"
in his work.) To be sure, Derrida himself embraces the senselessness
of the concept: "The trace is in fact the absolute origin of sense
in general. Which amounts to saying once again that there is no
absolute origin of sense in general" (65).
It would perhaps be credible to read Derrida's
remarks about the arche-trace as mere rhetorical flourishes, or
even burlesques of traditional reasoning, except the context belies
such a reading: he builds--which is itself a humanist enterprise--on
the concept of the arche-trace. Nor are his remarks in Of Grammatology
isolated instances. In Dissémination Derrida states:
It is thus not simply false to say that
Mallarmé is a Platonist or a Hegelian. But it is
above all not true.
And vice versa. (207)
As the logician-critic John M. Ellis has pointed
out, the key to the passage surely lies in the final sentence, in
the apparent throwaway "vice versa." The humanist, trying to make
sense of Derrida's words, might allow a distinction between saying
that a proposition is "simply false" and "not true": a proposition
that is meaningless or absurd ("The invisible ostrich looks purple.")
might be deemed "not true" yet not "simply false." Still, the "vice
versa" undermines any attempt to get at what Derrida's means. (The
postmodernist critic Barbara Johnson illustrates the danger of attempting
to paraphrase Derrida's meaning in coherent humanist terms: "Instead
of a simple either/or structure, deconstruction attempts to elaborate
a discourse that says neither 'either/or,' nor 'both/and' nor even
'neither/nor,' while at the same time not totally abandoning these
logics either."--cited by Ellis, p. 6)
The problem of intelligible meaning in Derrida's
writing arises again in his book Positions. He begins with
a typically bizarre checklist of "undecidables": "supplement," "hymen,"
"spacing," "incision," etc. These spooky-sounding concepts, he declares,
"can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition,
but which, however, inhabit philosophical opposition, resisting
and disorganizing it" (43). Thus, for example, "the supplement is
neither a plus nor a minus, neither an outside nor the compliment
of an inside, neither accident nor essence" (ibid). How any
of this, even theoretically, resists and disorganizes "philosophical
opposition" is never made clear since the phrase itself is never
defined. If the "philosophical opposition," Derrida seeks to resist
and disorganize is comprised of the laws of thought, it must be
noted that he has not set up logical contradictories in his pairings--as
would be the case if the "supplement" were neither accident nor
non-accident. That would indeed resist and disorganize logic;
it would overthrow the law of excluded middle. Still, a humanist
will necessarily inquire on what grounds Derrida bases his pronouncements
in the first place. His method, insofar as it can be delineated,
is to free-associate with a given word until he is able to tease
out a connotation that belies the sense of the original word; but
does this mean that he has undermined traditional logic? Whence,
the humanist will ask, the "is" in Derrida's declaration "the supplement
is . . . "? Finally, however, none of these questions matter.
For Derrida winds up his analysis with another logical throwaway:
"Neither/nor, that is, simultaneously either or" (ibid).
In other words, whatever Derrida is affirming, he is also simultaneously
denying. From a humanist perspective, the only way to read Derrida
on his own terms is mentally to insert the phrase "or not" after
every one of his statements.
If Derrida attempts to dance around the law
of non-contradiction, a number of his postmodernist cohorts seem
determined to stomp it into the ground. Roland Barthes, for instance,
opens his book The Pleasure of the Text with an invitation
to imagine the ideal reader as someone
who abolishes within himself all barriers,
all classes, all exclusions . . . by simple discard of that
old specter: logical contradiction; who mixes every language,
even those said to be incompatible; who silently accepts every
charge of illogicality, of incongruity; who remains passive
in the face of Socratic irony (leading the interlocutor to the
supreme disgrace: self-contradiction) and legal terrorism (how
much penal evidence is based on a psychology of consistency!)
This kind of reader, for Barthes, is ideal because
he is uniquely capable of taking pleasure in a text. Yet even if
a humanist were to allow Barthes his premise that a reader is often
conflicted at the same moment that hes enjoying a text (John
Keats, indeed, had a similar notion and called it "negative capability"
a century and a half before Barthes.), the humanist will insist
that the reader's inner turmoil doesnt comprise a logical
contradiction--which is simply a simultaneous affirmation and
denial of a predicate. (As well see later, slippery usage
of the term "contradiction" is a key to postmodernist rhetoric.)
A given reader, for example, may feel both sympathy and contempt
for Othello; but he wont feel sympathy and no sympathy
for Othello at the same time and in respect to the same action.
Moreover, from the humanist standpoint, the "pleasure of the text"
often comes in the attempt to resolve these conflicted feelings,
perhaps even to arrive at a judgment--aesthetic, moral, or otherwise--concerning
characters, actions, and even structures. But Barthes has conflated
the ideas of conflict and contradiction and concluded
that the existence of a conflicted reader who is enjoying himself
somehow shows that the law of non-contradiction deters the pursuit
of pleasure. Even more disturbing, from the humanist perspective,
is the nastiness of the final passage--Barthes's suggestion that
"penal evidence based on a psychology of consistency" constitutes
"legal terrorism." Hence the rapist, convicted because he contradicted
himself in testifying, is a victim of "legal terrorism" because
he has not been allowed to maintain that while he was at
the crime scene he also was not at the crime scene.
As with Derrida, Barthes's rejection of the
laws of thought is no isolated instance. In "On the Fashion System
and the Structural Analysis of Fiction," Barthes states,
The revolutionary task of writing is not to
supplant but to transgress. Now, to destroy is both to recognize
and to reverse; the object to be destroyed must be presented
and denied at the same time; writing is precisely what
permits this logical contradiction. (47)
If Barthes is equating "denied" in the passage
with "not presented," he is saying nothing; a thing cannot be presented
and not presented at the same time. True, you can write the
sentence: "The object is presented and not presented." It's just
that the predicate, which is both affirmed and denied, nullifies
itself and becomes meaningless. "Writing" does not permit logical
contradiction--notwithstanding Barthes's claim--any more than rational
thought permits it. Perhaps, though, I should qualify that: Writing
that can be read and understood by a humanist doesnt
permit logical contradiction.
That Barthes is untroubled by laws of thought
is evident. When asked by an interviewer about inconsistencies in
his writings, Barthes replies, "I explained in my preface why I
didn't wish to give a retrospective unity to texts written at different
times: I do not feel the need to arrange the uncertainties
or contradictions of the past" ("I Don't Believe in Influences"
26). This is perhaps just as well--since he goes on in the same
interview to declare: "I don't classify books in such a cut-and-dried
manner, according to some literary Good and Bad." Whereas, in "On
the Fashion System . . . " he states: "Fashion literature is bad
literature, but it's still writing" (47). The point, however, isnt
the fact that he does indeed contradict himself--sooner or later,
I suspect, most philosophers do. But when philosophers in the humanist
tradition do, they feel compelled either to show how the apparent
contradiction isnt one, or else to renounce one of the statements.
But in the case of Barthes, the position he has staked out is one
in which logical contradictions are embraced. It is therefore an
invincible position; yet it is, once again, a nonsensical one.
Another notable postmodernist who, presumably,
would be untroubled by the charge of nonsense is Michel Foucault--who
invokes a "new metaphysical ellipse" (171). But what exactly
is this new metaphysics? According to Foucault, it is the metaphysics
of the "phantasm" behind which "it is useless to seek a more substantial
truth" (ibid). Common sense is the enemy for Foucault because
it carries "the tyranny of goodwill, the obligation to think 'in
common' with others, the domination of a pedagogical model, and
most importantly--the exclusion of stupidity" (181). Because a metaphysics
based on common sense and goodwill--in other words, a humanist metaphysics--excludes
stupidity, Foucault argues, "we must liberate ourselves from these
constraints; and in perverting this morality, philosophy itself
is disoriented" (ibid). How, then, do we get with the new
metaphysical ellipse and thereby become fashionably stupid? According
to Foucault, stupidity
requires thought without contradiction, without
dialectics, without negation; thought that accepts divergence;
affirmative thought whose instrument is disjunction . . . What
is the answer to the question? The problem. How is the problem
resolved? By displacing the question (185).
This strikes me as rather close to a working definition of postmodern
argumentation. Yet it is, in humanist terms, once again nonsensical.
Foucault calls for "affirmative thought" that "accepts divergence."
Non-affirmative thought, thus, must be thought that does not accept
divergence. It is non-affirmative thought that he wants to avoid.
But this distinction itself, between affirmative and non-affirmative
thought, is contingent on the law of non-contradiction. As he distinguishes
the kind of thought he likes from the kind he doesn't like, Foucault
underscores the logical necessity of the kind he doesn't like: the
very act of distinguishing invokes thought with contradiction
and negation. Still, he insists that traditional humanist logic
in general, and the law of non-contradiction in particular, must
be abandoned as part of a heroic intellectual movement, a counter-counterreformation,
in which accusations of stupidity become badges of courage.
Such passages beg the question: why would postmodernists
reject such a fundamental logical rule? The answer returns us to
the thesis of this essay--that humanists cannot talk to postmodernists.
For I believe that the postmodern rejection of the law of non-contradiction
is strategic: Without the law of non-contradiction, no one can
ever demonstrate that you're wrong. In an argument on any topic
between a postmodernist and a humanist, each party will attempt
to discover a logical contradiction in his opponent's case. For
the humanist, the discovery of a actual contradiction is deadly;
he must abandon, or at minimum clarify, his position. But for the
postmodernist, a contradiction is only a contradiction--a
sign, perhaps, of the depth of his thought. The postmodernist's
position, in other words, becomes unfalsifiable.
For a humanist, however, it is only the potential
falsifiability of a given position that makes an argument meaningful.
In the Hitler example cited earlier, if an evidentiary proof that
Hitler was not a man who benefited all people does not undermine
the position that Hitler was a man who benefited all people,
then the argument was pointless in the first place.
Indeed, the postmodern rejection of the law
of non-contradiction constitutes, from a humanist standpoint, not
merely a rejection of logic but of the rational element in human
nature. The humanist does not view logic as a cultural construct,
a pattern of thinking inculcated by years of repetition; rather,
he views it as the way in which the rational mind has always worked.
To operate rationally is, instinctively, to rely on logical reasoning.
There is, for the humanist, no getting around the laws of
thought. The claim, often advanced (See, for example, Gayatri Spivak's
introduction to Derrida's Of Grammatology, especially xvii-xviii.)
that the project of postmodernism involves suspending logic
in order to call it into question skims over this crucial point:
Nothing can be called into question unless it can be affirmed
or denied. But to affirm or deny, as weve seen, is to invoke
logic, to invoke the laws of thought. Just as you cannot suspend
the rules of arithmetic in order to do calculus, you cannot suspend
the laws of thought in order to do analysis--for these laws precede
every rational epistemology. Descartes's "I think: therefore I am"
presupposes that he cannot be and not be simultaneously. Husserl's
phenomenological reduction relies on being able to distinguish that
which can be doubted from that which cannot be doubted--and
furthermore presupposes that certitude is a more valid ground on
which to build knowledge than doubt. Even Wittgenstein's verifiability
principle must take as axiomatic the law of non-contradiction (which
itself is not verifiable) in order for the process of verification
to proceed. That a thing is what it is; that a thing cannot be and
not be simultaneously; that a cause exists for every effect--no
culture has ever existed which did not, explicitly or implicitly,
reason in accordance with these laws. Our remotest ancestors reasoned
in this way. They built their mud huts--and perhaps observed that
one of the huts collapsed. Whereas we would now attribute the collapse
to bad geometry, they perhaps attributed the collapse to the displeasure
of a god. Regardless of whose interpretation is correct, the laws
of thought remain the same. The hut did not collapse without a cause.
(That is the law of causality.) To build the same hut, in the same
place, under the same conditions, will bring the same result. (That
is the law of identity.) The next hut will either collapse or not
collapse. (That is the law of excluded middle.) But it cannot do
both simultaneously. (That is the law of non-contradiction.) The
rational inklings that inspired Cro-Magnons out of their caves became,
in the course of time, the methodology of Aristotle: it became,
simply, logic. What Cro-Magnon Man intuited, Postmodern Man
has come to disavow. The schism is not merely academic but evolutionary.
Postmodernism, in fact, constitutes an explicit
rejection of the element of sapientia in homo sapiens,
as evidenced by the epistemological nihilism in the literary
critic Jane Tompkinss remark that "there really are no
facts except as they are embedded in some particular way of seeing
the world" (577). Such a claim denies the facticity of facts,
reduces facts to the status of received beliefs. This would be mere
relativism except that a paragraph later, Tompkins insists, "This
doesnt mean that you have to accept just anybodys facts.
You can show that what someone else asserts to be a fact is false."
The obvious question, though, is: How? With no independently
existing reality against which assertions of fact can be measured,
how can you "show" that a "fact" is "false"?
Even if a humanist were to overlook the pragmatic difficulties of
Tompkinss position, he would still be compelled to inquire
how exactly she arrived at her conclusion of the cultural embeddedness
of facts. She cannot have deduced it from a fact that is not
culturally embedded--since she states that no such facts exist.
Nor can she have induced it from her own experience since she would
have to know the factual validity of the laws of thought, of observation
and inference, of inductive reasoning. Tompkinss claim, from
a humanist perspective, must therefore be taken as mystical--a conclusion
she reached despite evidence rather than because of
it. But mystics cannot be rationally engaged. Their testimonies
are not subject to verification or falsification. There is no marketplace
of ideas among rival faiths.
Then again the very distinction between an
article of faith and an article of rational knowledge is, for the
Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, an instance of "binary opposition"
that postmodernists can "deconstruct" (132-133). Eagleton demonstrates
such a deconstruction:
Thus, for male-dominated society, man is
the founding principle and woman the excluded opposite of
this. . . . the 'other' of man: she is non-man, defective
man, assigned a chiefly negative value in relation to the
male first principle. But equally man is what he is only
by virtue of ceaselessly shutting out this other or opposite,
defining himself in antithesis to it, and his whole identity
is therefore caught up and put at risk in the very gesture
by which he seeks to assert his unique, autonomous existence.
Eagleton's cynical use of politically-charged rhetoric
again highlights the reason humanists cannot talk to postmodernists.
What might seem, on the surface, a traditional humanist mode of
argumentation turns out to be an illusion of logic, a game of bait
and switch. Eagleton at first equates "woman" with "non-man"--the
binary opposite (the more accurate term would be logical contradictory)
of "man"--thereby, allegedly, showing how man requires the repression
of woman in order to retain his definition of himself. But Eagleton's
usages have become slippery. Terms like "non-man," "excluded opposite"
and "identity" indicate he is operating within the vocabulary of
Aristotelian logic. Yet terms like "antithesis" and "negative value"
invoke Hegelian dialectics. This is critical since the Hegelian
sense of contradiction as an inner tension (for example,
between man and woman), upon which the passage is based, has been
conveniently muddled with the Aristotelian sense of contradiction
as a binary opposition (for example, between man and non-man).
Eagleton's implication is clear: Logic itself is implicated in the
subjugation of women, for man must continue "parasitically" to exclude
and subordinate woman so as to preserve his own identity (133).
Except that in the binary opposition of "man" and "non-man,"
the second term does not equate with "woman." The category "non-man"
encompasses all things that are not male and human; it includes
mandrakes and mannequins, black holes and blond wigs, coyotes and
road runners. Does man, thus, also subjugate a peanut butter sandwich
in order to preserve his own identity? Does a shoehorn, like a woman,
stand "as a sign of something in man himself which he needs to repress,
expel beyond his own being" (ibid)? Why not? Both a peanut
butter sandwich and a shoehorn are as much members of the category
"non-man" as a woman.
What Eagleton is doing, in other words, is
feigning logical analysis, utilizing sly terminological shifts to
obscure a calculated series of non sequiturs, thus allowing the
impression that he is still working within the standard humanist
framework--a framework wherein premises must be constantly examined
for hidden biases and logical rules rigorously followed to produce
defensible conclusions. Yet he is risking nothing. He need not disown
the passage cited above--despite its undeniable inconsistencies--for
the valuation of logical consistency, of fixed definitions and linear
deductions, is itself, from a postmodern standpoint, no more than
a humanist fetish. "What you choose and reject theoretically," Eagleton
contends, "depends on what you are practically trying to do" (211).
Since, moreover, Eagleton himself happens to reject the ideology
of capitalism, the notion of competing within a marketplace of ideas--a
capitalist metaphor if ever there was one--is inimical to what hes
trying to do. Eagleton has, strategically and self-consciously,
liberated himself from the "tyranny of goodwill" to which Foucault
refers. Yet it is that very goodwill, argumentative goodwill, characterized
by common sense rules of evidence and strict uses of language, upon
which humanists depend in their intellectual exchanges.
That is why humanists, in the end, cannot talk
to postmodernists. If acceptance or rejection of an idea is, for
the postmodernist, contingent on what he is trying to do, then the
humanist pursuit of logical demonstration becomes futile. What is
logic, the postmodernist asks, except another form of practical
expediency? Even the law of non-contradiction, for the humanist
the sine qua non of rational thought, does not bind the postmodernist.
There is, therefore, no final arbiter between the humanist and postmodernist
Nor can there be.
Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle.
Richard McKeon, ed. New York: Random House, 1941.
Barthes, Roland. "On the Fashion System and
the Structural Analysis of Fiction" from The Grain of the
Voice. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1985.
Barthes, Roland. "I Don't Believe in Influences"
from The Grain of the Voice. New York: Farrar Straus
and Giroux, 1985.
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text.
New York: The Noonday Press of Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1975.
Derrida, Jacques. Dissémination.
Barbara Johnson, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak, trans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Derrida, Jacques. Positions. Allan Bass,
trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Ellis, John M. Against Deconstruction.
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory,
Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1977.
Tompkins, Jane. "Indians" taken from
Ways of Reading. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky,
eds. Boston: Bedford Books-St. Martins Press, 1990.
Author e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org