Classroom, university
The dangerous union between postmodernism and nihilism.

If there is one thing we can confidently say about the benefits of the Jordan Peterson fetish online, it’s that it has brought into focus the university campus monomania called ‘postmodernism.’ I call it a monomania, but it would surely be more appropriate to label it an intellectual malady that is duping many impressionable students into attitudes of skepticism toward knowledge claims and value systems. This largely explains why Millennials see truth and morality as mere products of particular political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies.

The increasing discourse around postmodernism must surely be welcomed, as it’s doubtless the case that postmodernism’s dominion over students has resulted in an onslaught on the very ideals necessary for fundamental human rights and societal cohesion, causing too many young people to fall victim to nihilism – the belief life has no intrinsic value. However, afoul in the sermons of Peterson and numerous other online commentaries is an objection that can thwart the very postmodernist tenets themselves sufficiently.

What is Postmodernism?

“…It’s my hypothesis that the individual is not a pre-given entity which is seized on by the exercise of power. The individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces,” said French philosopher and crypto-normativist seducer of Postmodernism Michel Foucault in 1976.

Developed in the mid-to-late-20th century, postmodernism is an attitude of skepticism or rejection toward the meta-narratives and ideologies of our modern culture. Postmodernism also questions various assumptions of Enlightenment rationality. In this sense, postmodernism is a historical event introducing ideas that are sequential to enlightenment tenets. As philosopher Stephen Hicks put it, “Postmodernism is the first ruthlessly consistent statement of the consequences of rejecting reason, those consequences being necessary given the history of epistemology since Kant.”

In postmodernism, we typically find metaphysical anti-realism, which is the view that the structure of reality is a woven construction of mind-dependent factors inhering in lived contexts. Put simply, the things that exist are the projects and fabrics of lived contexts. Moreover, ‘epistemological subjectivity’ is canonical for a postmodernist, which is the favoring of feeling as the prime cause of value issues. All of this portends a wily relativism of knowledge and values and ushers in the subsequent devaluing of the scientific enterprise.

Of the various features of postmodernism, it is the degree to which truth is touted as ‘subjective’ and seen as under the service of power. In this sense, and contrary to the positions of the Enlightenment, reality doesn’t exist or is discovered in any objective sense. Still, truth is linked in a circular relation to the systems of power which promote it and to the effects of power which truth itself generates. Accordingly, society is seen as having its own ‘truth discourse’ (e.g. religion, science, etc.) that presupposes some social power relationship.

But why should all of this worry us? Seeing truth linked in a circular relation to systems of power, postmodernists argue that meaning and interpretation in political and cultural situations are always uncertain and arbitrary. They contend that conceptual categories, stable sets of values, or common-sense definitions are not fixed but are subjective. The postmodern social consequences immediately follow from the postmodern anti-realist metaphysics and anti-reason epistemology. Once truth is expunged, the long descent into ‘feelings’ commences.

Since collectivism is central to a postmodernist, identities are seen as correlates of group identities. Indeed, individuals are not seen as in control of their feelings: identities are a product of group membership, whether economic, racial, or sexual. Equally, propositions are either accepted or rejected with consideration of the emotions they evoke and the status of a group within a given society concerning power.

Pointing to the pervasive role that structural, hegemonic ‘power’ plays, not only nationally but transnationally, the postmodernist would argue that, for example, an illiterate, burqa-wearing woman living in the Western world is not oppressed by her religion per se but is in her position owing to the cultural and social implications around her. Put another way, the West is responsible because the primary power position it occupies across the globe creates the framework within which all people see themselves, making the boundaries of possible courses of action.

Postmodernism in University Campuses

Imagine, for a moment, that you are lecturing at a modern US university. Entitled ‘The Problem of Islamism in the West,’ you expect a chock-full lecture hall with the odd controvertible question or some wisenheimer babbling on during what should have been his brief remark. Instead, a large number of irritated and increasingly truculent students decide to protest outside the lecture room. Donning slogans such as ‘No Freedom for Hate Speech,’ ‘Down with White Privilege,’ and ‘White Colonialism No More,’ you turn up at the campus and are immediately set upon, and your lecture sabotaged for publicizing narratives that are claimed to shore up white structural hegemony.

If this hypothetical scenario sounds too fanciful, consider for one moment what is happening around US and UK universities. In the UK, 12 universities have outright banned “controversial” speakers, ten have banned publications, 11 have banned fancy dress, 23% of universities have safe-space policies, and a staggering 37% have ‘No Platform’ policies. Thumping for such censorious atmospheres at universities, student unions, and students typically point to power structures and the need to protect the most persecuted.

In the US, a fifth of all undergraduates claims that it’s acceptable to use physical force to silence a speaker who makes ‘offensive and hurtful statements.’ Often it’s the case that those condoning such contemptible, censorious approaches hail from the humanities subjects. For example, 12 of the 13 academics at U.C. Berkeley who added their names to a petition to the chancellor remonstrating controversial conservative commentator and professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos were from critical theory, gender studies, and post-colonial, and Postmodernist backgrounds.

American science writer Michael Shermer rightly notes that in universities, it is people’s skin color or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc., that are now the main criteria by which people are judged. Put another way, the power relations accorded to the identities people occupy have become the main factor by which someone is judged. Agreeing with Shermer that postmodernists have hijacked academia, academic Sumatra Maitra stresses in her article Methods Behind the Campus Madness that ‘Postmodernists have tried to hijack biology, have taken over large parts of political science, almost all of anthropology, history and English,’ and pointing to the fact they ‘have proliferated self-referential journals, citation circles, non-replicable research’ and curtailed the ‘nuanced debate through activism and marches, instigating a bunch of gullible students to intimidate any opposing ideas.’

If postmodernism’s popularity has become so far-flung in US and UK universities, amongst others, what are some of the more menacing consequences?

The Dangers of Postmodernism

As it’s no doubt apparent at this point, the result of postmodernism is nihilism, whereby postmodernism’s subscribers become suspicious of rudimentary truths (e.g. human rights) and increasingly see his world as appearing devoid of any intractable values. ‘It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism, and that’s another interview for another time, if you’re interested in it,’ as Al Gore put it. Moreover, once meaningless occurs, the nihilist will grow increasingly disillusioned about his very own identity and ultimate purpose in the world.

Nihilism as a philosophical concept was provided with its most definitive form by Nietzsche, for whom it’s seen as ‘the radical repudiation of value, meaning and desirability’. This nihilistic state often arises with noticeable symptoms: crippling boredom coupled with a misanthropic mentality, despair, longing for nothingness, and destructiveness. Nietzsche was correct in his diagnosis that, in its most culminating existential form, victims of nihilism begrudge life itself given the sense of meaninglessness.

The metaphysical anti-realism and epistemological subjectivism characteristic of his philosophy render the postmodernist devoid of any consistent criteria for determining knowledge claims, values, or preferable courses of action. This radical repudiation results in the postmodernist miring himself in a fusty moral relativism and adopting an anti-foundationalist position. This view is arguably most concerning for thumpers of social justice – if all beliefs are equally true or historically contingent, as the postmodernist argues, if the belief in reason is simply an ethnocentric Western prejudice, then there is no superior moral position from which to judge even the most abhorrent practices.

Showing how its sire is superior, Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo argues that the postmodernist narrative is more fragmented than modernity, with the latter having a coherent, unified narrative. For now, with modernity being the playwright of its narrative, the West stands unified and cohesive and is oriented towards a foundation or origin, namely the Age of Reason (17th century) and the Enlightenment (18th century). Its history is seen as developing through a logical progression. Conversely, by having no coherent narrative, Europe’s dalliance with postmodernism must coincide with nihilism. In what way can the West redress this fundamental disorientation?

Dispensing with Postmodernism

Postmodernism is an imbroglio that must be overcome in the West. Its menacing imposition of moral and epistemological relativism not only justifies expunging postmodernism, but there are also inherent errors that surely behove us to dispense with the pitiful system entirely. Not only do the tropes of ‘power structures’ go beyond evidence-based critical thinking and employ vague terminology to support obscurantist, boring and semi-literate theories, but postmodernism is also meaningless insofar as it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. Linguist Noam Chomsky points this out when enquiring into why intellectuals won’t respond like people in other fields when asked:

‘Seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc.? These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.’

There are six central reasons why postmodernism is defective:

  1. Postmodernism’s anti-theoretical position is primarily a theoretical stance;
  2. Although postmodernism stresses the irrational, instruments of reason are freely employed to advance its perspective;
  3. The postmodern prescription to focus on the marginal is itself an evaluative emphasis of precisely the sort that it otherwise attacks;
  4. Dogmatically rejecting modern criteria for discerning theory, postmodernists cannot argue that there are no valid criteria for judgment;
  5. Postmodernism lampoons the inconsistency of modernity, but the postmodernist shuns the norms of consistency itself;
  6. Postmodernists contradict themselves by relinquishing truth claims in their writings.

This last point is especially incisive. An argument drawing on the long-standing tradition of refuting skepticism, in rejecting privileging any position, the postmodernist cannot thus account for the alleged validity of itself, except by way of contradiction. As Jürgen Habermas stresses: ‘Whoever transposes the radical critique of reason into the domain of rhetoric to blunt the paradox of self-referentiality also dulls the sword of the critique of reason itself.’

The enlightenment ideas that did so well in fostering a sense of cohesion in the West are not ready to be dispensed with, yet the postmodernists are working onerously to ensure modernity’s disposal. Although many critics of postmodernism reject it as mere nonsense, postmodernism needs to be taken seriously. Postmodernism not only larrups truth into oblivion, but it also risks thwarting so much of the moral progress made since the dawning of modernity. It is this double danger that warrants us all to write off postmodernism as a reactionary pseudo-philosophy teeming with inconsistencies and inchoate doctrines.