Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Postmodernism and the work-concept

The central insight of postmodernism is that there is no privileged standpoint from which we can know any subject perfectly. All of our perceptions are coloured by our individual perceptual habits, our particular life experiences, our everyday heuristic routines, and the value judgments of our society. When I claim to have access to objective knowledge about some subject, therefore, my readers ought to look more closely - is he really stating a universal truth, or is his perspective coloured by some bias, or some attempt to serve his own interests?
All of this, of course, can be accepted without capitulating fully to the postmodern philosophical picture. Indeed, a version of what I describe above was known long before the twentieth century, under names such as "critical thinking" and "common sense." Where postmodern thought goes astray is in its extension of this principle, via a breathtaking leap of illogic, to the idea that our individual worldviews prevent us from ever knowing the ultimate reality (if any) beneath our subjective perceptions. This argument, described by Australian philosopher David Stove as "the worst argument in the world," can be roughly summarized thus:

"We can know things only as they are related to us/under our forms of perception and understanding/in so far as they fall under our perceptual schemes, etc.":


"We cannot know things as they are in themselves."
which is roughly analogous to the following:

"We can see objects only as they appear to us with our eyes":


"We cannot see objects as they really are."
In other words, much of contemporary philosophy, including the debased form of philosophical language we use in everyday conversation, is based on the presupposition that having any particular means of perceiving the world utterly prevents us from perceiving it. I don't know who first conceived this little argument, or why no-one picked up on the problem with it, but you have him to thank every time you hear someone say "Well, that's only your opinion" about a matter that should be subject to external verification.

Note also that this philosophy is impossible to apply consistently. If you believe that another person is so locked in his perceptual cage that he is incapable of perceiving or responding to an external reality, why would you try to change his mind about some topic? (Indeed, what makes you so sure that your own perceptual apparatus reports accurately that he is disagreeing with you?) Likewise, if you think that the following caveat is necessary in an introductory book on the philosophy of music:

[T]here are two habits of thought which are deeply ingrained in Western culture as a whole and which largely determine the way we think about music . . . [One is] the tendency to think of language and other forms of cultural representation, including music, as if they depicted an external reality.
Nicholas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction, 50.

Now, if Cook actually believed that language, as a mere "form of cultural representation," cannot really "depict an external reality," no task could be more futile than writing a book to tell us this. If language had no relation to external reality, Cook's eventual readers would be just as likely to conclude that the book is a study of the mating habits of the flamingo or a collection of Indian recipes as to conclude that it is a critique of the classical work-concept. By expecting you to agree with him that language cannot represent reality, Cook affirms that language is, at bottom, a perfectly clear and comprehensible method of communicating meaning. One must simply remember that this meaning is composed not only of facts about the external world, but also of the subjective impressions of humans - not only the human who wrote the words, but also the human who read them. But then, is anything necessarily wrong with that? And would we want it to be otherwise?


Danielle said...

I take this post as an opportunity to tell you I have created a link on my blog to your blog, entitled "some light reading". I think some of my peeps would get a kick out of you. Let me know if you object.

Eleith Andjaparidze said...

Nicholas Cook!!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm in the middle of a university essay which goes like this..
"Of all the works in the mainstream repertory of Western music, the Ninth Symphony is most like a construction of mirrors, reflecting, refracting the values, hopes and fears of those who seek to understand and explain it.” Nicholas Cook Discuss
not the nicest of essay titles, but i stumbled across your blog and a few of the posts were very enlightening!
Many Thanks :)

Osbert Parsley said...

I think Cook is basically right about that, but it's worth pointing out that mirrors don't "refract" light - refraction only occurs when a wave passes from one medium into another with a different refractive index. Mirrors can only reflect, never refract, because they're opaque.