Tuesday, February 24, 2015

David F. Ruccio — Varoufakis’s postmodernism

One rationality, embodied as much in the troika’s formula of austerity for Greece as in the lopsided economy recovery in the United States, is captured by neoclassical economics: everybody gets what they deserve, as long as free markets are unleashed on the world. The other rationality starts with the proposition that everyone should get what they deserve but they don’t—and can’t—within existing economic institutions. Those institutions—capitalist institutions—make “just deserts” impossible. 
That idea, that there’s a clash of rationalities within the world today, is precisely an effect of the postmodern questioning of metanarratives. Postmodernism, in this sense, represents a critique of a singular (humanist) rationality, just as it serves to undermine the neoclassical claim of a monopoly on scientific knowledge (indeed, the scientism that animates much of economic theory, mainstream as well as heterodox), the presumption of causal hierarchies within economic analysis (again, both mainstream and heterodox), and much else.
Is postmodernism just a destructive relativism that doubts and devalues so-called objectivity without replacing it with anything substantial? Not at all. It just wants to examine the foundations and criteria of putative objectivity to determine whether those foundations and criteria are themselves relative to point of view.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? The effects of the moves that we make, the demands we hold up, the criticisms we formulate depend on a specific context, on what is taken to be the existing common sense and how best to disrupt that common sense. The fact is, modernism (at least in economics) has long been associated with a humanist, universal, scientistic set of claims, and part of the task of carrying out a ruthless criticism of mainstream economics is to challenge and deconstruct those claims (including the idea that such claims are even possible). 
Is that all? No, of course not. In my view, the postmodern critique of mainstream economics needs to be supplemented by a Marxist critique. But, I want to be clear, it also goes in the other direction: that Marxist critique (traditionally formulated in terms of “laws of motion,” a hierarchy of base and superstructure, and so on) needs to be supplemented by postmodernism. 
In the end, the Varoufakises of the world may disagree. However, what I believe we can come to some agreement on is the need to continue to criticize “the inexorable devaluation of political goods, the vulgar commodification of human bodies and values, the impossibility of conceptualising freedom-from-the-market, the depiction of Central Banks as ‘independent’ only when under the thumb of financial capital, the confusion of liberty with the freedom to exploit and to demean and, above all else, the portrayal of coercion as tâtonnement.”
Occasional Links & Commentary
Varoufakis’s postmodernism
David F. Ruccio | Professor of Economics University of Notre Dame Notre Dame


Dan Kervick said...

It just wants to examine the foundations and criteria of putative objectivity to determine whether those foundations and criteria are themselves relative to point of view.

No, that's not postmodernism. That's just the ongoing critique of epistemic claims and principles, and is fully compatible with modernism.

Postmodernism is something else, and is mainly crap. If you want to understand the creeping intellectual and political enfeeblement of the left over the past several decades, look no further than postmodernism, which has substituted many flavors of vague, drippy bullshit for logically cogent thinking and empirically rigorous and accurate analysis across a broad swathe of disciplines and schools of thinking.

The left has accomplished virtually nothing in half a century, and a good reason why is that they have made themselves intellectually lazy and stupid by succumbing to these kinds of anti-intellectual fads.

Neil Wilson said...

It's probably a misnomer to categorise 'the left' as anything given how fragmented it is.

Tom Hickey said...

No, that's not postmodernism. That's just the ongoing critique of epistemic claims and principles, and is fully compatible with modernism.

I think that is is too restrictive.

A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.

Postmodernism is "post" because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody - a characterisitic of the so-called "modern" mind.


The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philosopher Richard Tarnas states, postmodernism "cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself."

This attacks a straw man. The underlying critique on which postmodernism is based is that there are no absolute criteria independent of a view. Meaning is contextual and there is no absolute context that can be shown to be compelling either on a logical pedigree (tautology and contradiction) or an empirical warrant.

A fundamental principle of the scientific method is that conclusions are tentative since affirmative general propositions that describe set all of whose members are known are subject to falsification by future finding of counterinstance.


Tom Hickey said...


In addition, a great deal of the modern structuralist view is based on generalization from personal experience or introspection, when it now known that human consciousness is broader and deeper than what you see is what you get and everyone sees essentially the same thing, the mind being a "blank slate" that mirrors objective reality. Postmodernism is based on the view that this assumption of homogeneity is too simplistic in light of evidence.

A great deal of the controversy over postmodernism stems from Anglo-Americans with their logical and positivistic approach, and it is leveled against Europeans, Freudians especially Lacanians, Jungians, feminists, LTGB, etc. That is thinkers whose approach is very different of the Anglo-American methodological assumptions that deeply Cartesian, e.g., based on "clear and distinct ideas" that can be formalized. The same is true the general Anglo-American attitude with respect to the history of philosophy. It is also true of the mainstream critiques of heterodox economics.

A good example is the "debate" between Chomsky and Derrida, who are just talking past each other since they are not arguing within the same point of view. All that is happening is that Chomsky is saying that Derrida doesn't know what he is talking about and that it is just nonsense, and Derrida is saying that Chomsky is naïve and superficial.

And this doesn't even get into the fundamental distinction between Western and Oriental ways of thinking, where the West favors a structural approach — postmodernism being based on it just qualifies it, while the East takes chiefly a functional approach.

Dan Kervick said...

But Tom, people were examining and critiquing various kinds of kinds of claims to objectivity long before postmodernism came along. And they were generally doing a better job of it.

In practice, what postmodernism has often come down to is an attitude of "I'm going to believe whatever feels subjectively good to me, because all supposed claims on my beliefs based on supposedly objective standards are just expressions of someone else's subjective preferences."

The result is a goofy, dilettante "left" that is now collectively dumb, easily distracted and massively incapable of fighting against more its intellectually disciplined and scientifically acute adversaries in the professionalized knowledge classes.

Tom Hickey said...

What is the criterion of "goofy"?

"I know it when I see it" — Justice Potter Stewart on pornography.

One person's porn is another person's art.

This doesn't mean that all arguments are on the same footing, but all views are in the sense that there is no criterion based on a view that can be shown to be universally true to the exclusion of rivals, let alone right. Arguments can only be settled to the degree that the criteria are accepted by the parties.

I know, I know, relativism. But the burden is on opponents to produce criteria that can be justified as inclusive. But that, of course, involves producing some criteria for those criteria.

Richard Tarnas (above) see this as inconsistent. Actually it is not inconsistent because it is not a claim. It is a request for the other produce what that position assumes, namely, universal objective criteria that are compelling for all human beings irrespective of conditions and qualifications.

So far, none have been produced, other than the most trivial one, which usually boil down to how to use terms in everyday language correctly, and that don't matter to any of the arguments that are non-trivial and interesting.

Cognitive science is now providing suggestions why this is necessarily the case. Brain function integrates the positive and normative to the degree that they are entangled. There appears to be no sword to cut the Gordian knot.

So it's running around in circles chasing tails, turtles all the way down, or stipulated stopping points.

A lot of philosophical argument is about this, and also "postmodernism."

I am what I consider a naturalist, humanist, universalist, and liberal in my own view, and I can argue for it from within that view or views that accept the same criteria. But many if not most other naturalists, humanists, universalists and liberals would regard my viewpoint as very different from theirs and would reject some of my criteria as well as some of my evidence as being evidence.

At a certain point, people espousing different viewpoints either agree to disagree, come into conflict over cherished norms, or view those holding opposing views as insincere, deluded, stupid or crazy. Or "goofy.":)

Anonymous said...

That's what's hard for people to understand: mind is a limited tool. Once that is realised you begin to look elsewhere for truth. The 'thing' that synthesises all viewpoints turns out to be within (not in the mind). The projector Light remains constant; what is displayed on the screen depends upon the film (mind) one runs. We write our own script and play out our parts – consciously or unconsciously (aware of the Light or unaware). Our being is simple – mind is a kaleidoscope until unified.

Well, that's my take :-) !

Tom Hickey said...

To be all-inclusive, the ultimate criterion must be absolute, and there is only one candidate that passes muster, but it is not obvious to everyone. That criterion is consciousness, which is the basis of experience, which is all that human beings can ever know. Those are the limits. Consciousness, which is ordinarily apprehended in terms of the dualism of subjective and objective poles,

However, according to perennial wisdom — the testimony of mystics and the teaching of sages worldwide from time immemorial, there is a non-ordinary apprehension also that is non-dual and unbounded. This is a hypothesis that can be tested by individuals through following the teaching of the sages that purport to lead to it.

The first scientific study or a fourth state of consciousness in addition to waking, dreaming and deep sleep was published by Robert Keith Wallace and Herbert Benson, "A wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state" in the American Journal of Physiology, 1971, 221:795-9; Reprinted in Scientific American.

According to perennial wisdom, the fourth state of consciousness is the basis for a fifth, sixth and seventy states. The fifth state is the simultaneity of the fourth state along with waking, dreaming and sleep, that is, the co-existence of apprehension of the unchanging state of the fourth state of consciousness along with the states that alternate and in which experience changes over time. The sixth state is a state of refinement of perception, and the seventh state is the state of non-duality.

Psychology and cognitive science are now turning attention to these states. See, for instance, Daniel Goleman, "Meditation As Meta-Therapy: Hypotheses Toward A Proposed Fifth State Of Consciousness," Harvard University.

So could there be an absolute foundation and criterion available? Perennial wisdom suggests so, and scientists are now beginning to investigate this claim.

The next frontier is not only outer space but also inner space.

Anonymous said...

One definition of Samadhi: ”When the body is asleep and the mind is completely awake ….” (aware of the One Self). Or in the above terms no 'real' picture falls upon the screen because the mind is still; Consciousness prevails, looking at what is above and what is below. Puzzling to the West because for them all knowledge is proven through mind.

Malmo's Ghost said...


Magpie said...

Frankly, with all due respect to those who are no doubt much more knowledgeable than me, I struggle to understand what postmodernism is all about.

My admittedly feeble attempts to get some light on this didn't help me much, either:

"That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning."

I do know something (and I admit I may be terribly unfair and may be only embarrassing myself): whatever it is, it makes little sense to me.

Tom Hickey said...

whatever it is, it makes little sense to me.

That's because Aussies are Anglos. :)

Magpie said...

No need for profanities :)