Skeptical Modernism (and how it clarifies post-modernism)

One of the greatest challenges with attempting to discuss post-modernism is figuring out exactly what claims are being made. For a start, many of the figures typically associated with post-modernism didn't label themselves as post-modernist, so it isn't as unified as it might have been if it had been an explicit movement, rather than just people who wrote about similar things. Secondly, the roots of post-modernism are in continental philosophy, which has much less of a focus on clearly defining terminology and logic flow than analytical philosophy and so is often harder on the reader. Thirdly, post-modernism tends to be popular among a certain crowd and many in that crowd tend to be less interested in rigour than I would like (think artists, literature majors, sociology students). Due to these factors, it is particularly important to clarify exactly what is being said when talking about post-modernism or otherwise reduce how often people end up talking past each other.

Post-Modernism is usually contrasted with modernism. Modernism isn’t any one thing, but a collection of related beliefs such as a progression of history, optimism about the power of science to answer our questions, a belief in an objective reality that we can know or at least progress towards knowing. It is also associated with certain movements in art, film or architecture, but these are outside the scope of this article. Post-Modernism is posited as a rejection of these assumptions. It may argue that grand narratives a merely a fallacy, that science isn’t truly objective, that our interpretations of the world are unavoidably a product of our culture and perhaps even that there is no objective truth or reality.

Scott Alexander wrote an article that attempted to put post-modernism in terms that rationalists could understand. He later retracted the article based on feedback from people who told him that it wasn’t a good explanation of Post-Modernism. I actually think that the content was good, but that he should have framed it differently. While he did a great job of defending a Modernist (or Rationalist) position that made significant concessions towards post-modernism, the beliefs conveyed in the article weren’t really post-modernism. Nonetheless, this is a useful perspective which deserves its own name, so I will henceforth refer to this as Skeptical Modernism.

More precisely, Skeptical Modernism tries to acknowledge just how limited our knowledge of the world is, whilst still defending science, logic and the progress of society as better than the alternatives. It makes as many concessions to post-modernism as it can, while still remaining a modernist philosophy. This allows it to provide an effective challenge against overconfident Modernism, whilst also allowing Post-Modernists to clarify their position by explaining how it differs from skeptical modernism. Expanding on the later, one of the most common complaints about post-modernism is that it involves Mott and Baileys. Defining Skeptical Modernism greatly reduces the scope for this to occur and helps clarify what a post-modernist is claiming that cannot fit within a modernist world-view.

So what exactly is Skeptical Modernism? Perhaps the best place to start is the summary by no_bear_so_low:

1) Theories have strategic uses
2) Words have strategic definitions
3) Ideology formation is often done in shockingly cynical ways.
4) Even when it's not intended cynically it ends up being used that way.
5) The answers to popular debates are often less interesting than the question 'why are we having these debates at all?'

After that, I’d read the SlateStarCodex article, but two key points it mentions are:

  1. Seemingly objective facts are often actually subjective (the date when Rome fell depends on how you define “falling” and perhaps the date we use is affected by incentives)
  2. Objective criteria of what counts as what are generally dependent on subjective opinions about what should count as important

I’ll also list a bunch of additional arguments or points that characterise Skeptical Modernism:

  1. Science is not quite as objective as it appears, as while there are certain standards or rules as to how various pieces of conflicting evidence should be compared, there isn’t a comprehensive, universally agreed upon standard for this
  2. Our culture raises us from birth to think a certain way and it is impossible for us to completely escape this influence
  3. Most people have a tendency to generalise their beliefs of how society should work to other societies with a very limited understanding of the cultural context. Even people who are well educated generally don’t have the same experience that people in that culture have.
  4. The language that we have access to makes some ideas easier or harder for us form and communicate
  5. That moral intuitions differ widely between societies so we should strongly question whether our moral beliefs are well justified
  6. Society seems to have been progressing over the last few hundred years, but not in all ways and this progress is far from guaranteed
  7. Democracy is generally good, but it requires a specific type of cultural context to work

We can seperate the first five (statements about epistemology) from the last two (statements about grand narratives). It is possible to take a Skeptical Modernism approach to epistemology, but not grand narratives, or vice versa.

12 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:52 AM
Select new highlight date
Moderation Guidelinesexpand_more

If people using pomo ideas actually doubted all grand narratives including the one about oppression, they'd be a lot more fun to talk to!

They talk about this kind of thing a lot in Integral Theory (Ken Wilber). I don't understand it well enough to say anything substantial, but they describe the stage after postmodernism / green similarly to what you're saying. Post-postmodernism / teal rediscovers the value and truth of hierarchy and that not all perspectives are equal after all. And from there, you can try doing science again but with the added awareness that your background context affects your science.

Anyway, there's more stuff there if you want to look. I will probably try to read one of Wilber's books at some point.

Would you say this differs in any way from what we've alternatively been calling metamodernism?

It's very different.

As I define it, skeptical modernism is supposed to be a form of modernism. It responds to post-modernism, but by translating its critiques into modernist critiques instead of taking them on their own terms. A post-modernist might say that this doesn't properly respond to post-modernism. You seem to have said as much in a comment below and I'll respond there. On the other hand, metamodernism would probably call itself both modernism and post-modernism or neither or somewhere in between.

Skeptical Modernism holds that post-modernism only partially deconstructed modernism, so there is no need to reconstruct it. We can use whatever remains. On the other hand, metamodernism attempts a reconstruction.

Plus skeptical modernism is centered on philosophy, while meta-modernism seems to center on art.

I like this and agree that this thing deserves its own name. In my own head (you may not agree) this view often also includes ideas like 'explicit formal metrics often get Goodhart-ed into useless cargo cults, top-down rational plans often erase illegible local wisdom', etc. The kind of cluster people seem to get from Seeing Like A State, The Great Transformation, etc. (I've never read either of those myself though.)

To my mind this cluster is something like 'pomo ideas grafted on analytic rootstock', rather than the normal continental rootstock. And I think the main influence it misses because of this is phenomenology (gworley I think may be pointing somewhere similar). Thinking seriously about subjective internal experience often pulls people towards a more thoroughgoing rejection of modernism than the 'skeptical modernism' one.

I don't understand any of this well myself, though, and I'd struggle to unpack any of this into a compelling argument for someone who didn't basically already agree with me.

Yep, that's what I'm aiming at in my other comment: there's a fundamental problem with the epistemologies of modernism in that they assume the possibility of perfect knowledge of that which cannot be perfectly known, and it is especially complicated when modernism tries to focus on empericism yet also assumes empericism can grant objective knowledge. Postmodernism fails in other ways, specifically by undervaluing the intersubjective and the way it suggests the existence of stuff prior to observation.

Skeptical modernism seems to be moving in the right direction but, as you say, doesn't seem to be paying enough attention to phenomenology and as such is addressing what I said were the surface level problems with modernism while missing the deeper epistemological issue.

"and as such is addressing what I said were the surface level problems with modernism while missing the deeper epistemological issue" - If you think the main purpose of Skeptical Modernism is to be true then you haven't understood the purpose of this post.

Goodhart's law and an awareness of metis are definitely in the same cluster. 'pomo ideas grafted on analytic rootstock' is a great summary of what it is.

Do you see Skeptical Modernism as a new movement in philosophy, or can you point to a previous body of work on this subject?

I have no doubt that this isn't original, but I haven't tried to find previous work on this subject.

I like your direction but I think you may want to look deeper. From my perspective you're looking at surface-level issues when in fact it goes down all the way to fundamentally how we know anything because it's connected to the metaphysical question of how it is that the world changes (or more properly how the lifeworld changes and through that how we reckon the world changes).

I don't completely understand what you are saying, so this response may not apply, but it seems that you may not understand the purpose behind defining skeptical modernism. The goal isn't to tackle post-modernism on its own terms, but rather to see how far the modernist framework can be stretched while still remaining modernism. The difference between post-modernism and skeptical modernism should therefore consist of all of the claims of post-modernism that the modernist framework cannot accomodate.