This interview with Helen Pluckrose about postmodernism was conducted in August 2020 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
About Helen Pluckrose
Helen Pluckrose has a background in English literature with particular interest in late medieval women’s religious writing. She started to experience difficulties within academia when it came to having different opinions or sometimes even stating biological facts. She gave up her studies and started writing, mainly about the culture wars and postmodernism. Pluckrose got a lot of attention from participating in the Grievance studies affair together with James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian. Today, she is the editor-in-chief of the digital magazine Areo and has just recently released the book Cynical Theories with co-author James Lindsay.
What are the main pillars of postmodernism?
– Postmodernism is a huge field of artistic and intellectual work and ideas. I argue that what we are seeing in the social justice activism now is not that. What we see is a few core ideas in postmodern thought. Something happened in 1989, when a new wave of scholars rose up and wanted to make some of the postmodern ideas more actionable. They made them condensed, simplified and more user friendly if you will. They are the ideas of knowledge, power and discourse. The principle is that knowledge is a construct of the way we talk about things. The way we talk about things is decided by which kind of discourses we regard as legitimate and not, and this is decided by the people in power. All of these three things are feeding into each other. We are all dominated by discourses because we all talk in certain ways about certain things that we just assume are true and we can’t see outside this system of language that we are all embedded in. This works to maintain the power of certain groups in society.
– If you take something current, like Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, you can see that these concepts of discourses, knowledge and power are the foundation of her whole work. She assumes that there is a discourse of whiteness that underlies absolutely everything. It permeates everything and it decides how we view and talk about things. The problem is that we can’t really see it. She understands her job to make it visible to white people so that we can dismantle it. When white people don’t actually believe that what she is saying is true, they suffer from white fragility. She developed a concept to explain why people might disagree with her.
“The word woke has been used over the recent years to describe a person who is able to see these systems of power.”
– This is the idea of critical consciousness or consciousness raising, which is actually more of a Marxist idea but it has been adopted in postmodernism. It means that you can’t see outside yourself and you need this critical training in order to be able to see the systems of power. The word woke has been used over the recent years to describe a person who is able to see these systems of power. As a woke person, you feel that you are doing good and making the world a better place. You feel that you are special because you can interpret and understand the system. You feel that it is your duty to make other people woke as well. People argue that it’s like a religion in order to dismiss it and I don’t think it is a useful metaphor, but I can’t deny that this movement meets many of the same social and psychological needs as religion – purpose, meaning, a sense of community and a moral framework.
I find the attacks on science and the claim that there is no objective truth both provoking and disturbing. Is anti-science really a central thought from the original postmodern philosophers?
– Well, if we’re looking at discourses, some of them have become legitimized. The one that has become legitimized over all the others is science. It is what we understand as the strongest and most proven knowledge that we have. This is what is regarded as particularly worrying by the postmodernists and their descendants. Michel Foucault developed the concept of biopower, and by that he meant scientific discourses which governed how people thought about sexuality. To be fair, there’s some truth in that. For centuries homosexuality was seen as a heinous sin. From the end of the 19th century into the middle of the 20th, it was seen as a psychiatric disorder. Then it became seen just as something that some people were. The concept of biopower means that the scientific discourse gets to determine which humans are normal and which are abnormal. Which are deviants and which are good.
– A lot of theories have come directly from the concept of biopower and biopolitics. Foucault looked very much at biology, and he argued that it was all mixed in with politics. But this concept has gone a lot further and it is now present in feminism, postcolonial studies, critical race theory, disability studies, fat studies and particularly in queer theory which is almost entirely Foucauldian, Underlying it all are the ideas that everything is socially constructed, that we cannot get at the actual truth and that we are governed by an oppressive force.
– Since science tells us what is real and what isn’t, it becomes the primary oppressive force for many people. This is why science particularly is challenged by postmodernists of all kinds and we see it particularly with the feminists who don’t want to accept that any psychological differences between men and women at all exist. We also see it with the queer theorists in trans activism, where science is seen as something which constructed male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, as though we are not a sexually reproductive species. I agree that the anti-scientific aspect is really quite alarming.
“They would say that you are stuck in your Western mindset where you just assume that correspondence to reality is the best way to determine what is true.”
Are they criticizing the scientific method or are they looking back in history and finding examples of bad science? It’s easy to criticize scientific conclusion from the past, like the claim that homosexuality was a disease or that the Sun orbited the Earth. But if they would use the scientific method to, for example, measure the gravitational constant, they would get the same result every time, proving the reliability.
– I see what you mean. Let’s take “scientific racism” as an example, as it is something that is looked at in critical race theory. They imply that this was the hard sciences, but in fact quite a lot of the talk about race and gender was what we would now call social science, and it wasn’t rigorous at all. What annoys me with the queer theorists particularly is that they point out that science regarded homosexuality as a disorder, but they don’t seem to explain the part about it being a heinous sin. When science got to it, it took the assumption that was already there, that this was something abnormal and pathological. Scientists studied it and in a very short space of time the conclusion became that this is a natural variant on sexuality.
– Back to your example of measuring the gravitational constant as an scientific experiment. The postmodernists are not claiming that what we believe to be true actually changes reality, but they believe that the way we establish whether something is true or not is culturally constructed. They wouldn’t say that our beliefs about the Earth orbiting the Sun actually affects the solar system. But they say that we claim it to be true because of the way we determine truth. We determine truth by its correspondence to reality and and that method is a cultural construct. To you it seems clear that this is reality and everybody can discover this reality, but they would say that you are stuck in your Western mindset where you just assume that correspondence to reality is the best way to determine what is true. In other cultures they might think that a story about the Sun being a God, drawing a chariot across the sky is the best way, and why would your belief about reality be worth more than their myth?
It seems nearly impossible to discuss with somebody who completely disregards one’s epistemology. How do you have a valuable discussion with a postmodernist?
– If you’re talking to somebody who is deeply embedded in the postmodern system, you are not likely to bring them out of it. However, I honestly don’t think that many people are pure postmodernists. Somebody on Twitter put it really well the other day: we might not be able to develop a cure for those who are fully infected, but we can produce inoculation to everybody else if we can compare these ideas. If I were to talk to a postmodernist and they were fully embedded in social constructionism, I would try to meet them as far as I could. Some things are obviously a social construct – we obviously are creatures of our culture to a certain extent. It’s not an accident that nearly everybody in Pakistan are Muslim. A culture does dictate what we believe; we can agree on that to a certain extent. I would then try to get them to meet me part way, in that there are better and worse ways of knowing things.
– I can draw a parallel to medieval culture, where you have got just a very small number of theologians. These are people who dedicate their entire lives to understanding the word of God and interpreting it. Then you’ve got a broader band of priests, nuns and people who take religion very seriously. I would compare those to the activists. Then you’ve got the general population who may not actually be people who have a great interest in this or know anything about it, but they absorb it as a norm.
“He has great difficulty getting his students to see that if two people have a belief and they are contradictory, then they can’t both be right.”
– Foucault is right in that there is a cultural construct. What worries me is that I see people who probably have never read Foucault and may not even have been to University and they are still making assumptions that come from postmodern concepts of knowledge. David Detmer, the philosopher who wrote Challenging Postmodernism, has described that he has great difficulty getting his students to see that if two people have a belief and they are contradictory, then they can’t both be right. This is getting harder and harder each year, he says, because the students have absorbed that knowledge is relative – there’s my truth and there’s your truth and we don’t have to try and reconcile these.
– James Lindsey and I suspect that we are in a late state of postmodernism, which will be known as the age of narratives. We see people who make up these stories that satisfy what they want to believe to be true, and it really doesn’t matter to them whether it really is true or not. We see somebody like Donald Trump, who will say something and then he will deny having said it and then even say the exact opposite of it. If you point this out to his supporters, they won’t even see that there is a problem. Obviously we see this on the left as well. A growing problem is that people will translate what someone has said to something totally different, run with it and fit it into their narrative. That’s nothing new, but what’s new is that they’re not even trying to hide it. There are no expectations that claims will be evidenced, that there will be reasoned arguments or that you should at least pretend that that’s what you are doing.
Is there any way we can end this on a positive note? Do you see any light in the tunnel?
– Yes, I think the most hopeful is that their way of thinking has been made explicit – we can get at it now. It’s getting harder and harder for their advocates to say that this isn’t an authoritarian belief system. More and more people are pushing back. What we can hope for is that the pushback will come from the liberal center left instead of a right wing populist push back that could actually set back social justice issues and equality issues. I definitely think that we are seeing the death throes of the extreme social justice movement. I think this is the peak, and what we’ve got to do now is try to make it subside in the most ethical way possible.
What book would you like to recommend?
– Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch. It’s a must-read for all liberals who want to defend evidence, reason and liberalism against social justice.
Click here to buy the book:
Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay
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