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The final dismantling of the great master narratives is itself a grand narrative ~ Brown and Szemán

Postmodernism is a movement in late-20th century philosophy and criticism typically defined by skepticism or distrust of grand narratives, ideologies, and Enlightenment rationality.

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  • At the end of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge Faust has to confess: "I now see that we can nothing know." That is the answer to a sum, it is the outcome of a long experience. But as Kierkegaard observed, it is quite a different thing when a freshman comes up to the university and uses the same sentiment to justify his indolence. As the answer to a sum it is perfectly true, but as the initial data it is a piece of self-deception.
  • The final dismantling of the great master narratives is itself a grand narrative—why else would people get so excited about it?
    • Nicholas Brown and Imre Szemán, “Twenty-five Theses on Philosophy in the Age of Finance Capital,” in Leftist Ontology, edited by Carsten Strathausen (2009), p. 34


  • Surely at least some of our logical principles … are far more evident and obvious to us than are any of the empirical generalizations we find in psychology, or in any other of the empirical sciences. Thus, to attempt to explain logic in terms of psychology is to explain the more certain by the less certain. It is, in short, to commit the fallacy of obscurum per obscurius.
    • David Detmer, Challenging Postmodernism (New York: 2003), p. 24
  • There is an obscurum per obscurius problem as well. In order to know whether or not giraffes are taller than ants we must first know (a) whether or not there is a consensus that giraffes are taller than ants, and (b) if there is, whether or not the communication that produces that consensus was free, open, and undistorted. But isn’t it obvious that it is easier to determine whether or not giraffes are taller than ants than it is to determine either (a) or (b)? Or, to put it another way, wouldn’t any skeptical doubts about our ability to determine even something so obvious as that giraffes are taller than ants also be more than sufficient to wipe out any hope of being able to know about the outcome, and degree of openness, of any process of public communication?
    • David Detmer, Challenging Postmodernism (New York: 2003), pp. 128-129
  • Is it easier to know what our culture’s epistemic norms are in terms of which it is to be determined whether or not giraffes are taller than ants than it is to know that giraffes are taller than ants? Is our knowledge concerning the identity of those norms to be construed on a realist model, or must we rather consult our culture’s epistemic norms in order to use them to figure out the identity of those norms? If the former, why is it that we can have objective knowledge concerning the identity of our culture’s epistemic norms when we can’t have it with regard to the relative height of giraffes and ants? And if the latter, how is an infinite regress to be avoided?
    • David Detmer, Challenging Postmodernism (New York: 2003), p. 130


  • Through a vicious circle of pure reason skepsis itself becomes dogma.
  • There are signs, these days, that the cultural hegemony of postmodernism is weakening in the West. When even the developers tell an architect like Moshe Safdie that they are tired of it, then can philosophical thinking be far behind?
    • David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), p. ix
  • Despite the best intentions, then, the postmodernist politics of difference not only is ineffective against but can even coincide with and support the functions and practices of imperial rule. The danger is that postmodernist theories focus their attention so resolutely on the old forms of power they are running from, with their heads turned backwards, that they tumble unwittingly into the welcoming arms of the new power.
  • Simplifying a great deal, one could argue that postmodernist discourses appeal primarily to the winners in the processes of globalization and fundamentalist discourses to the losers.
  • Whether the accused in a murder trial is or is not guilty depends on the assessment of old-fashioned positivist evidence, if such evidence is available. Any innocent readers who find themselves in the dock will do well to appeal to it. It is the lawyers for the guilty ones who fall back on postmodern lines of defence.


  • Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.


  • The collegiate young are being re-educated before they have been educated. From our collegiate ranks, the therapeutic will appear a re-educated man, one who can conquer even his subtler inhibitions; his final know-how will be to irrationalize his rationality and play games, however intellectualized, with all god-terms in order to be ruled by none. In their moral modestly therapeutics will be capable of anything; they will know that everything is possible because they will not be inhibited by any truth. Far more destructively than earlier interdict-burdened character types, the therapeutic will be the warring state writ small; he may be even cannier, less sentimental, stronger in ego, shifting about his principles and impulses like so many stage props.


  • The intellectual origins of literary theory in Europe were, I think it is accurate to say, insurrectionary. The traditional university, the hegemony of determinism and positivism, the reification of ideological bourgeois “humanism,” the rigid barriers between academic specialties: it was powerful responses to all these that linked together such influential progenitors of today’s literary theorist as Saussure, Lukács, Bataille, Lévi-Strauss, Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx. Theory proposed itself as a synthesis overriding the petty fiefdoms within the world of intellectual production, and it was manifestly to be hoped as a result that all the domains of human activity could be seen, and lived, as a unity. … Literary theory, whether of the Left or the Right, has turned its back on these things. This can be considered, I think, the triumph of the ethic of professionalism. But it is no accident that the emergence of so narrowly defined a philosophy of pure textuality and critical noninterference has coincided with the ascendancy of Reaganism.
    • Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), pp. 3-4


  • In former days the free-thinker was a man who had been brought up in ideas of religion, law, and morality, and only through conflict and struggle came to free-thought; but now there has sprung up a new type of born free-thinkers who grow up without even having heard of principles of morality or of religion, of the existence of authorities, who grow up directly in ideas of negation in everything, that is to say, savages.
    • Leo Tolstoy, Professor Golenishtchev in Anna Karenina, C. Garnett, trans. (New York: 2003), Part 5, Chapter 9, p. 434
  • In old times, you see, a man who wanted to educate himself—a Frenchman, for instance—would have set to work to study all the classics and theologians and tragedians and historians and philosophers, and, you know, all the intellectual work that came in his way. But in our day he goes straight for the literature of negation, very quickly assimilates all the extracts of the science of negation, and he's ready.
    • Leo Tolstoy, Professor Golenishtchev in Anna Karenina, C. Garnett, trans. (New York: 2003), Part 5, Chapter 9, p. 434


  • Those who say that all historical accounts are ideological constructs (which is one version of the idea that there is really no historical truth) rely on some story which must itself claim historical truth. They show that supposedly "objective" historians have tendentiously told their stories from some particular perspective; they describe, for example, the biasses that have gone into constructing various histories of the United States. Such an account, as a particular piece of history, may very well be true, but truth is a virtue that is embarrassingly unhelpful to a critic who wants not just to unmask past historians of America but to tell us that at the end of the line there is no historical truth. It is remarkable how complacent some "deconstructive" histories are about the status of the history that they deploy themselves.

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