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Academia’s latest fashion: postmodern irrationalism.

Deception has had its proponents in the past. In the “Republic,” Plato made an exception for a “noble lie” in the service of the collective good. Machiavelli left out the “noble” part. However, these moments are footnotes in history. Truth was power, it was believed, or for those less sanguine, duty. Today, however, there is a complete and unabashed acceptance of lies, deception, and irrationality, and without any fear to one’s reputation. Columnists, politicians, academics – all regurgitate the party line without embarrassment or fear to their careers. Just the opposite, Moore has demonstrated you can make millions and stay in the spotlight by popularizing the New Lie. It’s the latest in leftist fashion, and it’s hot off the academic runway.
To the average American it still seems incredible that intellectuals and writers could be doing what we think they are doing: embracing lies on principle. How can they justify this? This is a story that unfolds behind the walls of academia, slowly simmering for some time, and finally reaching a boil in a self-consciously anti-rational creed that’s sweeping our colleges and universities: Postmodernism. This snake-oil unleashes the inhibitions that limit deception and underwrites the policy of the lie. Stephen R. C. Hicks2 has written a scathing expose called “Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.” To appreciate the story we have to step back a few centuries and see how this descent has unfolded.
It was during the 18th century Enlightenment that reason reaches the pinnacle of respect in modern times. Flush with confidence that reason could make sense of reality and mediate human contentions, men of the Enlightenment embrace reason as the key to knowledge and human well being. There is a profound sense of optimism and confidence that the power of reason can conquer ignorance, superstition, bigotry, strife and suffering. The founding of America is suffused with the spirit of the Enlightenment. England’s benign neglect allows the colonialists to order their affairs guided by the philosophical spirit of the times and when that tolerance wanes we confidently create a new nation.
On the European Continent, the Enlightenment spirit, exemplified by Diderot, Voltaire, and Montesquieu, would soon be eclipsed by the most influential of all: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. By attacking key planks of the liberal paradigm, he effectively launches the Counter-Enlightenment. Rousseau disparages civilization as a corrupting influence, charges that rational progress undermines morality, and damns private property as socially destructive. Reason and progress, in his view, brings inequities, oppression, insensitivity, superficiality, and degeneration. Science, he declares, is “vain curiosity” harmful to society. Rousseau’s collectivism – submission to the general will, by force if necessary – is an inspiration to the Jacobin fraction of the French Revolution. 3
The Enlightenment’s nominal defenders often did more damage than its detractors. In one way or another both Rationalists and Empiricists took the primary object of awareness as mental in nature. This made reality inferential and empirical knowledge problematic. Since the purpose of knowledge is to grasp objective reality, the philosophers’ flawed formulations of reason’s ability to achieve certainty in this matter lead to the skepticism. Kant, however, saw this analysis as an opportunity. The mind, according to Kant is what gives the properties and regularities we previously associated with the object-in-itself. Thus, it is consciousness itself that contributes the important properties of our experience. As Hicks writes, “Kant’s significance in the history of philosophy is that he absorbed the lessons of the rationalists and empiricists and, agreeing with the central assumptions of both sides, transformed radically the terms of the relationship between reason and reality.” 4
The assault on reason accelerates through out the 19th century. Hegel explicitly embraces contradictions and identifies consciousness with object. Kierkegaard learns “to relinquish his understanding and his thinking, and to keep his soul fixed upon the absurd.” 5 In the 20th century, Heidegger finds that “[t]he entire Western tradition of philosophy – whether Platonic, Aristotelian, Lockean, or Cartesian – based as it is on the law of non-contradiction and the subject/object distinction, is the enemy to be overcome.” 6 Postmodernists will even surpass Heidegger and abandon metaphysics and truth all together.
The Anglo-American analytical tradition never seriously challenges the Kantian turn. Instead we see the reduction of reason to the merely formal, conventional, tautological, or nominal. The emaciation of rationalism to an internal tool of mental housekeeping underscores the divorce of reason from reality and removes it as a tool of scientific truth. Ayer announces that “the principles of logic and mathematics are true universally simply because we never allow them to be anything else.” 7 “By the 1950s, these conclusions were commonplace. Language and logic were seen as conventional, internal systems – and not as objective, reality-based tools of consciousness.” 8 “Consequently, by the 1960s, the pro-objectivity, pro-science spirit had collapsed in the Anglo-American tradition.” 9 Rorty concludes “’[t]he nature of truth’ is an unprofitable topic.” 10
The combined effect of the direct assault on reason by continental irrationalists and the trivialization of reason by nominal proponents of the analytical tradition set the stage for the overt and belligerent anti-realist, subjectivist, and nihilistic postmodern movement. But why have these academic foundational issues become so important to the modern left? It is here that Hicks provides a powerful and compelling narrative.