Clearly, the very term “postmodernism” distinguishes this philosophy from something called “modernism.” What is the nature of that background philosophy? What were the views that modernism held, and when did it flourish?
For instance, the rise of reason and science meant that religion was being marginalized and was in danger of being shut out of public life. Then, too, in the view of counter-Enlightenment thinkers, the modern emphasis on individualism and on the pursuit of happiness was and is a threat to the traditional ethical values of duty and communal ties.
The modern world at the end of the seventeenth century had tremendous optimism about the power of reason and the potential for scientific knowledge. To a great extent, we still share that optimism. But beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, the modernist strain of epistemology came under siege from counter-Enlightenment thinkers, who tended to skepticism and relativism. The major early figures here were David Hume, Rousseau, and Kant. The battle was waged throughout the nineteenth century, and the skeptical and relativistic side got the upper hand. By the turn of the twentieth century, it had essentially swept the field of epistemology. So, the failure of epistemology here is the failure of philosophers to defend reason and the scientific enterprise from the skeptical counter-attack.
Another kind of compartmentalization is not between what philosophers said and what the scientists did, but within individuals themselves. Some scientists, in their more philosophical moments, might voice very skeptical or relativistic kinds of claims, but in their actual practice as scientists, they might function in a pro-reason and objective way. We know it is possible for individuals to compartmentalize themselves psychologically in fairly dramatic ways. And we know, for example, that a practicing scientist may, outside of the lab, profess mystical, irrational, religious beliefs. But once he goes into the lab, all of that is left outside. In the lab, he functions objectively and in a reality-oriented fashion.
So, I think that is the way to put those two things together—the great scientific achievements on one hand, and the prevalence of skeptical, subjectivist philosophy on the other.
My point here is that, if you are going to have a full account of reason, there are a number of major component ideas that must be defended. One is objectivity. Another is logic. A third idea is that it is individuals who do the reasoning, and therefore have the responsibility for operating objectively. A fourth idea is the universality of reason. Human beings have the same cognitive capacities, so that truth-seekers can collaborate and check each other. All those notions—objectivity, rationality, individuality, universality, and others—are elements in a full defense of reasoning.
Kant did not abandon reason wholesale. He gave up on the idea of objectivity.
Now, Kant did not abandon reason wholesale. He gave up on the idea of objectivity. But he still maintained the universality of reason. And he maintained that reason was a function of the individual mind. In the subsequent history of philosophy, however, we see that once objectivity was gone, there was no way to maintain the defense of the universality of reason and there was no way to defend the individuality of reason. So, over the course of the next century and a half, up to postmodernism, the implication of Kant’s abandoning objectivity was played out until we got to the postmodernists, who said: “Forget objectivity. Forget individual reason. Forget the universality of reason.” What we got is their subjectivist, relativist, collectivist account of human cognition.
Now, in what sense is that a logical development? Well, there were people in the post-Kantian world who wanted to defend some but not all aspects of reason and the scientific enterprise. But over the course of the next century and a half, those people gradually lost their arguments, until you got to postmodernism. But no one said: “If there’s no objectivity, then we must accept postmodernism.” It was a step-by-step realization spread over decades.
TAS: One distinguished libertarian protested against your condemnation of postmodernism, saying that you did not adequately appreciate the ways in which it permits people the choice of identities from a world of multiple possibilities. How would you respond? What do you think of a libertarian-postmodernist alliance?
SH: I'm familiar with objections like that, from my discussions with various libertarians. I think two things are going on. One is a very superficial reading of postmodernism as a philosophy. Every philosophy has buzzwords. “Choice,” “freedom,” “equality,” “liberation,” and so forth. Most people are in favor of these, in some sense or other. Everybody is in favor of fairness. But you have to ask the follow-up question: What does the philosophy mean by “choice,” “freedom,” “equality,” and so on?
The postmodernists said: “Forget objectivity. Forget individual reason."
Obviously, people who are attracted to libertarianism like the word “choice.” They like the idea of options and self-realization, the idea that there can be different lifestyles that are compatible with human self-realization, and so forth. But that is not in any deep way what postmodernism is about. You can find all kinds of postmodernists who will use words like “liberation,” and when you ask them what they are talking about being liberated from, they will mention a monolithic, authoritarian, religious worldview. And it is fine to want to be liberated from that. But that is not a distinctively postmodern thesis. That is the modernist thesis, in fact. That was the modernist revolution against the older, feudal authoritarian revolution. What the major postmodernists are talking about is being free from reason, being free from reality, being free from the constraints of human nature, denying that facts about reality and human nature should ground values and determine the choices we make.
So, typically, that kind of objection to my thesis comes from someone who represents the more subjectivistic wing of libertarianism. They think that if there are objective values, well, that will just empower the state to step in and make you live up to those objective values. From their perspective, the only way to support libertarianism is through the idea that there are no moral principles; there is no objectivity; everything is a matter of personal choice, and so forth. And here I think that they are confusing the subjective with that which is legitimately personal. If you start saying that liberty is just a matter of personal whim or following subjective choice, of doing what happens to press your button but may not press somebody else’s button—then the defense of liberty is pointless. Someone can say, “Well, liberty does not push my personal button. Some other kind of political system is my subjective desire.” And on subjectivist grounds, no counter-argument is possible there.
So instead of a libertarian-postmodern alliance, I favor a libertarian-modernist alliance or a libertarian-Enlightenment alliance. The values that most libertarians rightly prize have their natural home in the Enlightenment or modernist framework. Scientific progress, technological progress, the free market, the broadly democratic and republican approaches to government, the optimistic sense of human potential, the notion that the pursuit of happiness is possible to us—all of those are rooted in the modernist intellectual framework, and all of those are things that the postmodernists attack. If you look at the postmodern intellectuals—Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Rorty—all of them are incredibly hostile to the free market, and that is not an accident.
TAS: This brings us to your link between epistemology and politics. Having traced the developments in epistemology from the modernists to the postmodernists, you go back in Chapter Four of your book and trace the politics of the counter-Enlightenment, including what you call “right and left collectivism.” What is the spectrum that you are using here to define right and left? And who are the main philosophers in each?
SH: Anytime you use “right” and “left,” the terms are metaphorical. So, it is always important to unpack that metaphor and define your spectrum in literal terms. In this case, the context is nineteenth-century German philosophy and politics, and the dominant voices here are Hegel and Fichte. Following Hegel, of course, we have Marx.
The dimension or axis that I am using is collectivism, and along that dimension it is possible to speak of right and left versions. Right versions are more nationalistic. Left versions, like Marx’s, are more internationalistic. Another point of variation is religion. Right versions of German collectivism want more of a state-and-religion marriage. Hegel is an example of this. He opposed, on principle, the separation of church and state, so that will put him on the right side. On the left side, Marx is the clearest example, being vigorously atheistic and secular in his orientation.
TAS As I understand your book, you maintained that right collectivism was discredited by the Holocaust and World War II, and effectively banished from Western political discourse. First of all, is that reading correct? Secondly, would you say that that is an instance of a contingent historical event changing philosophical history?
SH: There’s a lot packed into those questions. Yes, World War II and the horror of that war, and then the widespread knowledge of the Holocaust, did, in fact, discredit the rightist versions of collectivism for several generations.
But then you asked a question about philosophical history: Was this a case of a contingent historical event determining later philosophical history? No. The way the war played out did not change the underlying philosophical arguments. They are still there. And I think that is why we are seeing a resurgence of old-fashioned national socialism on the contemporary stage: people’s obsession with racial identity and ethnic identity, organizing people into collective groups, seeing them as engaged in zero-sum conflict with each other.
The modern world overturns the older medieval world. And one of the great questions is: What will replace feudalism?
TAS: Let’s turn to left collectivism—socialism. Do you see it as a child of the Enlightenment or the counter-Enlightenment? Marxism claims to be the product of reason and social engineering, which point to the Enlightenment. But historically, socialism rose to prominence during the Romantic counter-Enlightenment, at the same time as nationalism.
SH: Great historical question. Go back to the basic narrative. The modern world overturns the older medieval world. And one of the great questions is: What will replace feudalism? The individualists have their Enlightenment, pro-reason answer to that: It will be replaced by individualism, liberal-democratic politics, and free-market economics. At the same time, however, there were thinkers, especially on the Continent, who wanted to replace feudalism with a new kind of communalism—socialism.
So, liberal individualism and collectivist socialism were the two modernist answers to the question of replacing feudalism. But the socialist side of that divide split into two approaches. I’ll give them historical names here. One follows a Rousseauian strategy, and the other follows a Marxist strategy.
The Rousseauian strategy was the earlier one. It placed its emphasis on passion rather than on reason, and on small tribal groups rather than on large-scale industrial or cosmopolitan enterprises. It also placed more emphasis on staying close to nature than on high-tech industrial development. That movement fed directly into the Romanticism of the nineteenth century and was associated with the right collectivism that I mentioned earlier.
Marxism had the same communal aims and altruistic themes as the Rousseauians, but it drew more on Enlightenment themes. It had a materialistic metaphysics; it claimed to favor a scientific epistemology of sorts; and it was much friendlier to technological development. And for the next century or so, it was the Marxist version of socialism that dominated socialist discourse. As I see it, Marxism is a compound. It draws on some Enlightenment themes of reason and science and naturalistic metaphysics and so forth. But at the same time it holds onto that traditional altruistic and communalistic ethic. That’s why it turned out to be unstable.
TAS: Well, let’s look at that. Chapter Five describes the crisis of Marxist socialism. Most readers, I expect, have heard of the “God that failed” syndrome, the long line of people who gave up on socialism over the years. But your concept of “the crisis of socialism” is wider. How would you characterize it?
SH: I like that phrase, “the God that failed,” because it captures the ways in which the disillusionment that socialist thinkers underwent in the twentieth century was analogous to the religious crises of faith that so many intellectuals went through in the nineteenth century. But “the crisis of socialism” was a much broader phenomenon than the disillusionments of individual communists that were recorded in Richard Crossman’s 1949 book The God That Failed. In the 1950s and 1960s, the phenomenon became general. The failures of socialism became widely known, and they were both economic and moral. One of the issues between socialists and capitalists had always been which system was more economically fruitful. By the 1950s and 1960s, capitalism was clearly winning. And capitalists were also beginning to explain why. Hayek and others were arguing effectively that efficient economic planning was impossible under socialism.
Socialism was based on altruism, which millennia of philosophers had judged superior to self-interest.
Then there were the serious ethical issues that socialists had to confront. From the beginning, socialists had looked down on capitalism morally. After all, the profit motive was based on self-interest. Socialism was based on altruism, which millennia of philosophers had judged superior to self-interest. A socialist society put the needs of its citizens first and demanded from each according to his ability, so that each might receive according to his need. Well, the ethical superiority of socialism was really rocked in the 1950s. In 1956, the revelation by Khrushchev of Stalin’s horrors caused huge problems for leftists. Also in 1956, the suppression of the revolution in Hungary was televised to a worldwide audience. People could see how the Soviet Union looked after its people. Seeing and hearing those kinds of horrors coming out of the socialist world made complaints about capitalist countries and the treatment of the working class seem petty by comparison.
Economically, then, socialists were losing the debate, on the practical and theoretical levels. And ethically, they were losing the debate on the practical level.
TAS: Okay. Now to bring it all together. The second half of your book’s thesis statement says, “The failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary.” Please explain.
SH: With the crisis of socialism in mind, the question becomes: Why did socialists make a dramatic turn, in the 1960s and on into the 1970s, by linking up with postmodernism? It is a cliché to say that there was a shift from the Old Left to the New Left in the 1960s. What I am doing, in effect, is examining that shift and integrating it with the emergence of postmodernism.
The failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary.
The postmodernists who came to greatest fame in the 1970s, 1980s, and later—people such as Foucault and Derrida and Lyotard and Richard Rorty and so forth—had all been young men in the 1950s and 1960s, and so they lived through the crisis of socialism. All of them were, in their youth, advocates of a fairly far-left politics. Rorty was perhaps the least extreme; most of the others were members of the French Communist Party. Derrida did not quite join, although he hung out with them and contributed to their publications.
And along came the crisis of socialism. The question is: What are you going to do? Here you have a movement, the socialist ideology, that you have thought to be beautiful and true and noble; the Idea that is going to cure all of the world’s problems. Now it is being buffeted by theoretical arguments that seem to be unanswerable and by practical events that provide tons of evidence undermining it and showing that the hated capitalist system is superior. How are you going to deal with that crisis, psychologically and intellectually?
My hypothesis is that postmodernism is the way a significant number of far-left socialists dealt with that crisis.
The analogy that I would make here is to a religious crisis. Suppose you believe in a religion that has come to be a part of your identity, that you believe to be true and noble, and that gives meaning to life. Suddenly, you find yourself in a position where all the evidence is going against this religion, all of the logical arguments are going against it. You have a choice. Either you go with the evidence and go with the logic, in which case you are going to abandon your religious beliefs. Or you can maintain your religious beliefs but abandon the notion that evidence matters and the notion that logic is the final court of appeal.
On this religious analogy, we know that there are a number of people who, confronted with the intellectual failure of religion, resort to irrationalist defenses of their view. They will attack reason, they will attack evidence, they will attack logic, they will embrace various non-rational epistemologies. And that, I suggest, is exactly what started to happen in far-left circles in the 1950s and in the 1960s.
The left intellectuals were confronting the crisis of socialism. One choice was to say: “The logic and evidence show that socialism does not work, that it is discredited, and so we have to abandon socialism in order to stick with the logic and the evidence.” The other choice was to say: “We have to maintain our socialism and our advocacy of it, but we therefore have to attack logic, attack evidence, attack reason as the final court of appeal.” And the latter is exactly what all of those postmodern, skeptical, subjectivistic, relativistic epistemologies do. They, in effect, give you a set of tools. If there are arguments against the success of socialism and in favor of the success of capitalism, well, you can just dismiss those arguments on epistemological grounds. Postmodernism gives you, in effect, a get-out-of-jail-free card against any rational attack on your system. So, that is what I mean by saying, “The failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary.” Postmodernism, including its epistemological strategy, was the only way in the latter part of the twentieth century for someone to retain his faith in socialism as an ideology.
TAS: Some people have said that in tracing postmodernist belief to political disappointment you are engaging in an argument ad hominem. What is your response?
SH: Well, let’s think about the ad hominem issue. It is correct that whether postmodernism is true or not is independent of the political views of its advocates. Those postmodern epistemological strategies—skepticism, subjectivism, relativism, the notion that human beings are in zero-sum conflict—all those arguments have to be addressed on their own terms. So if my argument was: “Postmodernists use certain epistemological strategies, but they are just a bunch of socialists, so their epistemological arguments are no good,” that would indeed be an ad hominem argument. All of the elements of the postmodernist package—their epistemology, their view of human nature, their ethics and political theory, and so forth—all of the elements do have to be addressed philosophically, and counterarguments have to be made against them, and adequate defenses of the alternative position have to be made as well.
But—and this is the second part of my answer here—when one is doing intellectual history, which is a related but different enterprise from doing philosophy per se, then one must try to understand why a movement of thinkers embraced the views that they did. And there is this striking question when you turn to the latter half of the twentieth century: Why is a huge movement of very powerful intellectuals, the vast majority of whom are far left in their politics, suddenly advocating and using skeptical or relativistic arguments in defense of their political ideology? It is all the more striking when the history of socialism, particularly in its Marxist version, had for over a century emphasized the importance of science, the importance of evidence, the importance of giving good rational arguments for one’s position. If you have a generation that quickly throws into reverse its epistemological defense of socialism and tries to defend socialism by the very opposite means, that is a question in intellectual history that begs for an answer.
So that is why I think it is absolutely essential to tie the epistemology of postmodernism to the politics of postmodernism. The vast majority of the major postmodernists are far left in their politics. We know a lot about the history of far-left politics in the twentieth century, and I do not think it is an accident that those thinkers confronted with the crisis of socialism resorted to desperate epistemological strategies in their defense.
TAS: Since completing Explaining Postmodernism, you have produced Nietzsche and the Nazis, a 2-hour-and-45-minute documentary that picks up on certain material from the book. In it you ask, “Did Nietzsche’s philosophy provide the foundation for the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis?” Well, did it?
SH: I talk about Nietzsche in my postmodernism book and the Nazis to a lesser extent. But this documentary is a full-bore investigation about that fascinating question of political history and intellectual history: To what extent were the Nazis justified in citing Nietzsche as one of their philosophical precursors? Hitler, for example, had a bust of Nietzsche in his study. He gave a set of Nietzsche’s works—I believe the complete set that had been published up to that point—as a gift to Mussolini on one of Mussolini’s state visits. Many of the speeches of Hitler and Goebbels and other members of the Nazi hierarchy have rhetoric that is clearly inspired by Nietzsche. And so on.
The vast majority of the major postmodernists are far left in their politics.
So it is an interesting intellectual historical question. In addition, since the Nazis were such a disaster and Nietzsche is such a popular philosopher of the twentieth century, many people have been afraid that there might be something to the Nazis’ claim that Nietzsche was one of their own. After all, where would that leave today’s admirers of Nietzsche?
My answer to the question is an unequivocal yes and no. In several significant respects, the Nazis were bang-on accurate in citing Nietzsche as one of their progenitors. And I think that, in a number of other respects, Nietzsche would have been properly horrified at the use that the Nazis made of his philosophy. To keep my answer here under two hours, I’ll have to focus on generalities.
The more abstract the level you look at, the more the Nazis have a claim on Nietzsche. They both are anti-rationalistic in their thinking; they both make zero-sum conflict central to their idea of human relationships; they both are strong advocates of violence and militarism. And so all of those ideas—none of which Nietzsche invented, but all of which he advocated—can be found in Nazi rhetoric. And Nietzsche was an extraordinarily powerful voice for those ideas. So, the Nazis were right to see Nietzsche as advocating the same themes that they were.
At the level of specifics, though, there are any number of important points of detail about which the Nazis and Nietzsche had profound differences. Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite in the virulent way that the Nazis were. The Nazis thought of the German Aryan-type as the highest development of mankind, and Nietzsche had almost nothing but contempt for contemporary Germans, and so on. So I would say this: At the level of philosophy, there are a number of very strong agreements between Nietzsche and the Nazis. At the level of cultural specifics, there are more divergences than areas of agreement.
But for details, watch the documentary.
TAS: Lastly, I want to discuss The Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.
I wrote an article called “Ayn Rand and Contemporary Business Ethics.” That article was read by John Allison, who was the CEO of BB&T Corporation, a financial holding company, and head of the BB&T Charitable Foundation. He is a strong advocate of Ayn Rand
’s philosophy, and he liked the article, so that led to a correspondence between the two of us. The BB&T Charitable Foundation has been funding some academic programs around the country, trying to foster a vigorous and well-informed debate over the morality of capitalism. So, out of our correspondence came a proposal that was then approved.
These are exciting times for entrepreneurship, by all indications, and so we are going to be seeking out creative people, people who have achieved success through entrepreneurial activities. We are also going to be seeking out people to interview who are principled, thoughtful, and strategic about how they do what they do. We have a list of people who had a vision, worked hard, and made it real. The interviews with them will show how they did what they did, how they met the various challenges and difficulties, and what we can learn from them as a result of their entrepreneurial success.
TAS: Thank you for your time.