What Is Postmodernism? And Why Does It Matter for Science?

What Is Postmodernism? And Why Does It Matter for Science? January 23, 2019


Here we are, living in the “post-truth” era. Every day, the internet inundates us with alternative facts, fake news, doctored film footage, and bizarro anti-science conspiracies. No one seems to agree on what’s really real anymore. How did we, supposedly the most technologically and scientifically advanced civilization in history, get to this point? There are a lot of answers to that question, some of which, I’m sure, must involve fairly potent narcotics. But one of the most useful and informative answers has a lot to do with the social dimensions of cognition. Specifically, it has to do with how people create and then agree on social realities, or what some people call “social constructions.” In turn, the question of social construction drives straight to the heart of the so-called “science wars” – the conflict between postmodernism and science advocates – and evokes the fraught question of how religion relates to these mutual rivals. 

This essay won’t invoke your righteous anger at postmodernism, scientism, religion, or any other contemporary bogeyman. I only want to look at how our relationship to “truth” has changed over the past few decades, and to think about what that shift might imply. A lot of people, such as philosopher, public atheist, and Santa Claus impersonator Daniel Dennett, blame our post-truth era on “postmodernism.” Are these critics right? In many ways, I think they are indeed onto something. But I also think that postmodernists have some credible points to make, and science advocates should take seriously what their arguments might imply for real, actual small-s science, as well as for the ideology of scientific progress (big-S Science™). Meanwhile, I think religion, scientism, and postmodernism are tangled in a tensely bound, three-way relationship of shared and opposing convictions and values. I think it’ll be illuminating to explore that triangle.

Let’s start out with some terms. Postmodern thinkers are often accused of claiming that everything, from cultural values to biological sex to gravity itself, is a “social construct.” But what does that even mean? A lot of very smart people have argued that something is a “social construct” if its reality depends somehow on the thoughts, speech, or actions of groups of people, rather than on some objective basis. Some thinkers go further and specify that social constructs proper are constitutively dependent on social facts, which means that they’re actually comprised of our beliefs, actions, and so forth. For example, the United States Supreme Court is a social construct, because without our beliefs and discourses, it wouldn’t exist. By contrast, the Pacific Garbage Patch is the result of human activity, and so it’s causally dependent on social factors. But its existence isn’t sustained by our beliefs or actions. Even if every human on earth were to be suddenly raptured away tomorrow in some universalist eschatological event, the Garbage Patch would still be skulking around on the ocean’s surface, poisoning equatorial fish. So, by the standards of most theorists, the Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t a social construct. But the Supreme Court is. 

Natural Kinds Vs. Social Kinds

However, the U.S. Supreme Court is only a singular entity, which is actually the less interesting and important kind of social construct. The more important sort of social construct is social kinds. A social kind is a general category that reflects the contingent ways that humans sort the world into types, such as “refugee” or “nongovernmental organization” or “Aboriginal Canadian.” Social kinds of this sort are essentially ideas that people use to make sense of the world, advance their particular agendas, or accomplish their various objectives. 

Social kinds are different from natural kinds, which are categories that philosophers and scientists think really exist in the external world. Main-sequence stars, for example, seem to be a natural kind. These stars have certain characteristics that set them apart from other stars, including that they’re undergoing hydrogen fusion and maintain a balance between gravitational collapse and thermal pressure. This would probably be true regardless of whether there were any astrophysicists in the universe to observe such stars or not. Other categories commonly thought to be natural kinds include biological species (such as gray wolf or alpine sagebrush) and geological types (such as granite or quartz). 

One important difference between social kinds and natural kinds is that, as the philosopher Ian Hacking has pointed out, social kinds have an inherently interactive relationship with the entities they’re supposed to be categorizing. Hacking famously called this the “looping effect.” So, for example, if you invent a social category called “millennials,” then you’re not just objectively describing a certain category of persons according to neutral features they all seem to share (such as being under 38 and not owning a house). You’re actually creating a new template that turns right around to influence the way the people being described see themselves and, in turn, how they behave. People who find themselves being called “millennials” learn to act like millennials. By creating a category, you’ve actually changed the world, rather than simply describing it.

Looping social kinds mean that it’s very difficult to objectively study social phenomena. The consequences can be far-reaching. For example, the United States is still wrestling with the ugly historical legacy of having decided, in one of history’s more boneheaded moves, to categorize people according to race. The category “white” didn’t mean a whole lot back in Europe, where everybody belonged to proud and ferociously mutually antagonistic ethnic groups. Scots and Walloons, for example, had practically nothing to do with each other, except for when they occasionally met on one of Europe’s well-patronized battlefields to try and kill one another as parts of opposing coalition armies. They spoke different languages, lived in different parts of Europe, and so on. But if a Scot and Walloon both emigrated to the United States, then by gum, they both were categorized as “white,” and pretty soon they started to feel white. 

Similarly, the category “black” applied to anyone with subsaharan African descent. But this criterion applied to literally thousands of completely distinct tribes and ethnic groups, many of whom had even less in common with each other back in African than the Scots and the Walloons had in Europe. The new categories “white” and “black” were nominally intended to be descriptive, but in fact they ended up creating new, normative social classifications and, by inference, new identities. Upshot: social kinds are generative as well as descriptive. They seem to be social constructs in a deep way.

Postmodernism, Social Construction, and Social Deconstruction

Now, back to postmodernism. Postmodernism is a very complicated thing and not in any way a unitary – or even coherent – movement, as I’ve mentioned here before. Many ideas and frameworks that get described as “postmodern,” particularly in a pejorative sense, are quite different from each other and really don’t belong in the same basket. But one thing that characterizes most postmodern thinkers is hyper-awareness of the ways that our everyday reality, which seems to be so objective and taken-for-granted, is actually an enormous leaning tower of social constructions. The feminist philosopher of science Sally Haslanger  puts it like this:

in a significant range of cases – at least in the case of race, gender, and sexuality – our efforts to classify things as ‘natural’ or ‘objective’ have failed, and this has prompted a general critique of the methods we have used to justify our classifications, as well as the political institutions built to accommodate them.

Accordingly, postmodern thinkers are often interested in deconstruction. For example, the superstar French intellectual Michel Foucault tried to show that our contemporary ideas about sexuality – sexual orientation, gender, and sexual propriety – are relatively recent social constructs. Before the early modern era, people just didn’t think in terms of social categories such as “deviant” and “normal” sexuality. Several social innovations, including the Counterreformation Catholic practice of private confession and governments’ growing interest in scientifically managing their populations, led Western societies to try to identify rigid categories that could help identify and label people according to their sexual status. In turn, these new categories fed back to shape everyday behavior, leading to the hardening of brand-new social categories like “deviant.” 

By highlighting the historically contingent, politically motivated way that Western societies slowly settled on these new categories, Foucault encouraged readers to doubt the reality, and thus the legitimacy, of modern ways of thinking about sex. (Or at least this is what Foucault’s followers usually want; what Foucault himself was hoping to accomplish may be another story entirely. If any philosopher deserves to be called “gnomic,” Foucault does.)

This example illustrates a critically important feature of postmodern critique: it’s fundamentally political. Unlike most scientists, postmodern thinkers aren’t interested in discovering truth for truth’s sake. In fact, they generally suspect that what we call “truth” is actually a meta-narrative that serves concealed interests, usually (though not always) the interests of some group of elite white men. Pointing out that something is a social construction is therefore usually not a mere neutral observation, but an implicitly normative or ideological “unmasking.” As Ian Hacking points out, 

most people who use the social construction idea enthusiastically want to criticize, change, or destroy some X that they dislike in the established order of things.

and, moreover,

(Social) constructionists are greatly concerned with questions of power and control. The point of unmasking is to liberate the oppressed, to show how categories of knowledge are used in power relationships.

Science and the Search for Capital-T “Truth”

By contrast, scientists usually see themselves as trying to figure out what’s really, objectively true, regardless of its political implications. This is a core aspect of the ideology of science: the belief that science is truly an objective way of learning about the world. Sometimes it’s easier to live up to this ideal, sometimes harder. For example, it’s difficult to see what the political consequences are of calling certain stars “main sequence.”* So pointing telescopes at stars might be politically neutral enough. But petroleum geology or climate science have more obvious political implications. Are scientists who are learning to extract more shale oil from bedrock, or who are trying to predict how long it’ll be before Miami has to be permanently cancelled, just neutrally pursuing the capital-T “truth?” Well, no, not really. They’re trying to realize particular goals, and goals are values. Who chooses the values?

And let’s not forget the scientific study of sex or gender. Or, really, anything social or related to humans. Because, again, it can be very difficult to prize apart what’s socially constructed from what’s objective in such fields. In part this is because of the looping effect of social kinds, as Hacking and Haslanger point out, but it’s also because people often bring loads of concealed or semi-concealed agendas into this kind of research. These agendas influence scientists’ theoretical standpoints, the way they interpret data, and their choices of experimental paradigms. A conservative scientist might be interested in proving that gender roles are largely based in biology. A more progressive scientist might try to show that they’re rooted in social environment instead. And so on.

What’s more, science produces technologies, and technologies can be used to benefit some people at the expense of others – such as the way that the Silicon Valley-centered tech economy seems to have helped facilitate massive increases in wealth inequality. Even more unsettlingly, the social sciences – such as psychology, sociology, and demographics – got their modern starts in large part as tools for helping governments and organizations learn how to manage and manipulate people more efficiently. This fact has disquieting implications for my own field, the scientific study of religion and cultural systems. As one researcher puts it, 

Natural and technical sciences…are mostly undertaken in the interest of generating more effective ways of controlling the environment. What could the interest behind a ‘science of religion’ possibly be?**

So: scientists often claim to be pursuing an ideologically neutral, socially unconditioned “view from nowhere” that, postmodern critics like to point out, doesn’t actually exist. So when science advocates argue that science provides a universally valid, perfectly objective viewpoint, postmodernists throw their hands up in exasperation. “That’s what Europeans have been claiming for 500 years!” they groan. “Doesn’t it strike you as a teensy bit convenient that the supposedly universal, neutral, objective ‘view from nowhere’ you keep rhapsodizing on about conveniently matches the prejudices and preconceived notions of elite European males?”

So postmodern critics often accuse science advocates and scientists of ignoring or trying to erase alternative viewpoints and of valorizing a disembodied, non-relational view of humanity. They believe that science has taken the place of religion in the postindustrial world, and therefore is a kind of normative (or “hegemonic”) worldview that enforces only a very narrow, officially sanctioned type of thinking while marginalizing all the others. In this scientistic vision, heroic individual minds stand apart from physical reality, surveying it from above, insulated from each other, from the tangible universe, and even from their own bodies. In this way, postmodernism sees itself as a defense of cultural and individual particularity and embodiment against the overwhelming epistemic power of supposedly “universal” and abstract, scientific conceptions of the world.

The Identity Vortex

But notice how, while trying to give a fair characterization of what postmodernists think about Science™,  I’ve been obliged to mention this interesting species called “white males” several times. This is because, as postmodernists and critical theorists grew more and more skeptical of what they call “meta-narratives” – grand, explanatory stories about what the world is, where we came from, and where we’re going – they came to emphasize more and more the influence that individual perspectives and agendas exert on what people claim is true. In short, if there’s no such thing as a truly objective point of view, then people’s various claims about truth are actually a function of who those people are. 

The result has been an increasing focus on the relationship between social identity – straight, gay, white, black, citizen, immigrant, male, female, transgender – and epistemology. Since the “dominant” viewpoints and truth claims in Western society are associated, fairly or unfairly, with white men (such as Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, or Bertrand Russell), postmodern critiques often raise questions about both the dominance of white men and scientific meta-narratives at the same time. As a result, debates about the legitimacy of science – the so-called “science wars” – often heavily center around questions of identity, as postmodern critics question the ways that dominant male interests have structured or informed our ideas about the world. So left-leaning academic discourse tends to blend insights from postmodern fields such as critical race theory, poststructuralism, and postcolonial theory to deconstruct dominant meta-narratives. As Sally Haslanger puts it,

once we come to the claim that everything is socially constructed, it appears a short step to the conclusion that there is no reality independent of our practices or of our language and that ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are only fictions employed by the dominant to mask their power.***

Daniel Dennett Gets Irked

This, then, is where we find Daniel Dennett getting seriously aggravated. In an interview in 2017, Dennett complained that

We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that we’ve not experienced since the middle ages.…I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.

Dennett, of course, is a noted advocate of science, and indeed an advocate of Science™ as well. (Remember that “science” is the actual practice of science, whereas Science™ is the ideology that defends science as the premier human institution and scientists as the best, and maybe only, arbiters of truth.) It’s no surprise that Dennett would be upset by an intellectual movement that attempts to deconstruct objective truth claims, because he’s spent his entire life trying to identify and write about objective truth. It’s also no coincidence that, as an elite white male, he’s not entirely sympathetic to a movement that reduces his deepest beliefs and convictions to his skin color and gender. 

But Dennett also displays some of the weaknesses of the ideology of Science™ – weaknesses that postmodernism, for all its flaws, is right to point out. For example, quite a few years ago I heard Dennett speak at a conference on religion and science in New York City, in which he gave the usual New Atheist talking points. I asked a question from the floor: didn’t he think that his strategy of tying science advocacy together with vociferous anti-religion sentiment might just possibly backfire? After all, average Americans tend to be religious. If they internalize the message that they have to either choose religion or science, which Dennett certainly wants them to internalize, wouldn’t it be likely that they’d just shrug, turn their backs on science, and choose religion? Didn’t he worry that his New Atheist rhetoric would end up alienating those people who still needed religious meaning in their lives – people who might otherwise be allies for science?

Dennett’s response was quick and dismissive. I don’t remember his exact words, but his answer was essentially “I don’t feel I owe anything at all to stupid people.” The implication was that people who feel a need for religious meaning are so mentally weak – so intellectually un-macho – that science advocates shouldn’t even worry about trying not to alienate them. Let them be alienated. This attitude epitomizes the arrogance with which science advocates dismiss those they consider socially inferior – a major complaint of postmodernism (despite the fact that postmodernists themselves aren’t usually too keen on religion, either).

So now, about ten years later, we have a national and international situation where Science™ has increasingly become the province of the political and cultural left, and political divisions on polarizing scientific topics like climate change have grown rather than shrunk. More and more, what people think about core scientific debates is a pure function of their political identities, rather than a neutral review of evidence. Yet at the same time, discourse on the intellectual left has increasingly metabolized a perspectival and constructivist view of truth drawn from postmodern critiques of meta-narrative. So the very people who claim to be defending science are also often the those who, when faced with debate, proceed to reduce others’ arguments to a mere function of their identity categories – “You only think so-and-so because you’re an elite white male, and you’re defending your hegemonic interests.”

So Daniel Dennett and his allies are right to complain that postmodernism, or at least its popularizers, have gone too far. But advocates of Science™ aren’t exactly innocent. They have actively contributed to the partisan breaking up of scientific loyalties, in a very active and self-destructive way that precisely corroborates the complaints that postmodernists make about them.

Each side has a truth that the other needs. Postmodernists need the reminder that, while much of reality is socially constructed and all views on the world are inherently perspectival, we can still correct and improve our understanding of the world by taking part in careful scientific research that balances competing perspectives against each other. We can correct – imperfectly, but by no means ineffectively – for our biases. Truth is something we really can approach, if only asymptotically. It may not be possible to find a perfectly objective viewpoint, but, as philosopher Thomas Nagel has pointed out, we sure as hell can find ways to be more objective. 

Advocates of Science™, meanwhile, need the reminder that real science is significantly less heroic and more socially conditioned than they’d like to admit. Most of all, they need to admit that particular, subjective viewpoints really do matter, and in a very big way. Science is the process of trying to correct for subjective error. Postmodernism is, in many ways, an immune system reaction against this process’s attempt to colonize the entirety of life.**** Like it or not, we’re subjective creatures – each one of us has an inner life and can only see things from one point of view. That’s an impolite thing to mention among scientists, a bit like burping loudly at a formal black-tie dinner, but it’s true. Science is an attempt to epistemically correct for subjectivity, but real life is lived in the subjective mode. We are subjects. When science becomes an ideology that tries to conquer everything, it makes us into objects. Postmodernism results.

This was part one. Again, I’m not trying to paint postmodernists, advocates of science (or even Science™), or anyone else as the bad guy here. I’m only trying to explore how we came to the point in our history as a civilization in which nobody seems to know what’s true and what isn’t. Deconstructive critiques against science are one of the main reasons, but Science™ has helped evoke those critiques. In the next post, I’ll explore the mutually strained relationship of both scientism and postmodernism to religious traditionalism, and religion’s relationship to them. Stay tuned.


* Although it’s not impossible. There are clear hierarchical implications in deciding to single out some stars as “normal” while relegating others to alternative designations such as “brown dwarf” or “red supergiant.” If your politics is opposed to any kind of social hierarchy, you might balk at any such categorization schemes, because they seem “privilege” one kind of entity over others. Seriously. I mean, consider the claim – attributed to feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray – that E = MC2 is “a sexed equation” because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.”† In some corners of the activist/postmodern intellectual world, people are so allergic to any form of power or inequality that basic cognitive processes such as the attribution of different levels of salience to distinct patterns in data can seem problematic, because calling one class of data “normal” or “important” and another “marginal” or “irrelevant” is a form of epistemic discrimination that reflects inequalities in the social environment. Of course, the way we understand and live in the world is by selecting what to pay attention to and what to ignore – in fact, that’s how visual processing itself works. If we tried to pay equal attention to every single detail in our field of vision, every bit of information we encountered, we’d be cognitively helpless. Thinking is a hierarchical process. So at its worst, postmodern anti-hierarchical activism can actually impede thinking itself.

** More on this in another post.

*** This is not actually what Haslanger thinks. In fact, Sally Haslanger is a good illustration of the way that our ways of categorizing people, including scholars, are often overly simple. Despite the fact that she’s a feminist who focuses on social construction, Haslanger also defends realism and works very carefully to show why we shouldn’t conclude that all of reality is socially constructed. So is she a “postmodernist?” I would say no, but most critics of postmodernism (especially Science™ advocates who had only heard of Haslanger, but hadn’t read her) would say “yes.” Maybe I just like her work better than some other social constructionists’ because she’s an analytic philosopher rather than a continental one, and so she feels an obligation to ensure that her ideas are coherently written. But even this goes to show that lumping everyone who’s skeptical of scientism into a “postmodern” or “woo-woo” category is a mistake. Analytical philosophers, for all their other failings, are the opposite of woo-woo.

**** To paraphrase Jürgen Habermas.

† I spent a wholly unproductive hour trying to substantiate that Irigaray actually ever said this. The only source for this quote is in an obscure French-only book that no library seems to hold. If any readers have information about whether this absurd quote from Irigaray is actually genuine, I’d like to hear about it.††

†† UPDATE! A friend of mine found a blog post referring to the original work, in French, in which Irigaray actually did say that E = MCis a “sexed equation.” With photos. So the quote is real.

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