Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Postmodernism

This post is the first in a series that will run in the blog at weekly, or something like weekly, intervals, called ”Dilettantischer Dienstag” (dilettantish Tuesday). In it, I will develop ideas, topics and interests that are not in my field of expertise, but rather somewhere in my general reading or geeky special interests. Some may think that this is not limited to Tuesdays, but those will at least be the days when these pieces are posted. And, let me remind you that on Fridays, a more serious series called Forensic Fridays will include texts from my actual field of expertise (even if this is certainly no guarantee of infallibility). 

The first dilettantish post will address a somewhat controversial and not too easy subject: the term “postmodern” or “postmodernism”. I have noted that these are now commonly used to denominate a senseless relativism of knowledge, rooted in sloth and misguided egalitarianism. Maybe this has to do with a current faibelesse for "hypermodernism" that Gilles Lipovetsky has sharply described (more on that later). 

In several papers and speeches over the years, I have, however, used the term "postmodernism" to highlight specific aspects of epistemology or ethics (sometimes to the dismay of anonymous peer-reviewers) and often cited with great appreciation the works by Pat Bracken and Philip Thomas on “Postpsychiatry” or “Postmodern psychiatry” (http://www.bmj.com/content/322/7288/724, also a monograph in the Oxford series on Philosophy and Psychiatry, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Postpsychiatry-Postmodern-International-Perspectives-Philosophy/dp/0198526091). Therefore I will briefly try to remind you about its original and – I believe – still valid use. These texts come from a paper I published in Swedish in 2011 (the excerpts are not at all original of course, but hopefully of some educational value) and may be found here http://celam.gu.se/digitalAssets/1481/1481973_postmodern-psykiatri.pdf . 

In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard described his time as the ”postmodern condition”, not as a “movement” or a programmatic –“ism”, but as a condition characterized by skepticism towards “meta-narratives - sometimes ’grand narratives’, /…/ grand, large-scale theories and philosophies of the world, such as the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom”. 

Postmodernity therefore does not entail nihilism in relation to knowledge or relativism. Instead, awareness of epistemic frames (which questions can be answered by a certain method) leads to more rigorous science. “Grand narratives” form obstacles to understanding what new information really means and lure us into drawing conclusions that are not founded in the scientific data or into extrapolating interpretations to contexts where they are not relevant. They also create artifactual conflicts between different perspectives and make it more difficult to see that knowledge is generated in “cuts” through reality, dependent on the perspective from which a phenomenon is examined, and that different contributions, as long as they are, each and every one, rigorous and epistemologically consequent, can be used as complementary rather than excluding.

I will continue to use these terms and hope to elicit some further interest for the issues at stake. 

The original Swedish quotes from the paper:

År 1979 beskrev Jean-Francois Lyotard sin samtid som det ”postmoderna tillståndet”, alltså inte som en ”rörelse” eller ”-ism” med ett program, utan som ett tillstånd präglat av skepsis mot ”meta-narratives – sometimes ’grand narratives’, /…/ grand, large-scale theories and philosophies of the world, such as the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom”.

Postmodernitet behöver inte innebära kunskapsnihilism eller relativism. Medvetenhet om kunskapsteoretiska ramar (”vilka frågor kan denna metod besvara?”) leder istället till en mer rigorös tolkning av vetenskap. ”Stora berättelser” hindrar oss från att förstå vad ny information egentligen betyder och lockar oss att dra slutsatser utan stöd i det vetenskapliga underlaget eller att extrapolera tolkningar till sammanhang där de inte är relevanta. De skapar också artefaktiska motsättningar mellan olika perspektiv, och gör det svårare att se att kunskap genereras i olika ”snitt” genom verkligheten beroende på ur vilket perspektiv fenomen undersöks, och att olika bidrag, så länge vart och ett är rigoröst och kunskapsteoretiskt konsekvent, därför är komplementära istället för exkluderande.

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