"A Useful Distinction" (original Westhues essay)

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Meynell's lecture, "How to Destroy a Don"

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For elaboration of Meynell's argument, see his Postmodernism and the New Enlightenment (Washington,  DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999).


Additional References:

Jacques Derrida,
Of Grammatology (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Jacques Derrida,
Points ... Interviews 1974-1994 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge (NY: Pantheon, 1987).

Michel Foucault,
Discipline and Punish (NY: Vintage Press, 1975).

Michel Foucault,
The History of Sexuality (NY: Random House, 1976).

Bernard Lonergan,
Insight: a Study of Human Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972, first published 1957).

Bernard Lonergan,
Method in Theology (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1971).

Hugo Meynell,
Redirecting Philosophy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).

Gift for the Ghost

Postmodernism and the New Enlightenment

Commentary on the Distinction between Postmodern and Modern Modes of Discourse

by Hugo A. Meynell, F.R.S.C., Professor of Religious Studies, University of Calgary, 1981-2001

Published online March 2013, website on academic mobbing, K. Westhues.

About twenty years ago, at a humanities colloquium in a certain university, I heard a paper delivered by an attractive and evidently accomplished young woman. It was beautifully expressed and constructed; but it disturbed me by the fact that the principles, or rather lack of principles, which she was expounding, seemed destructive not only of all truth but also of all decency. I wrote to her afterwards, expressing my admiration, but also my concerns; and was expecting a hard-hitting reply which might lead to a useful academic discussion. I was shocked when I read her answer. Evidently, she wrote, I was involved in some kind of crusade, and was defending epistemology, which she regarded as an essentially fascist enterprise. I was not to communicate with her any more on the subject.  But I had thought that the university was just the place for thrashing out fundamental ideological differences in the light of reason. As to epistemology, is not its central concern how to be as objective as possible in making judgments of fact and value; and is not this concern of the essence of civilization as opposed to barbarism? If I was not then on the kind of crusade that she attributed to me, I am certainly so now.

‘Postmodernism’ is somewhat hydra-headed; but I think most of those appropriately labeled by the term ‘postmodernist’ are sceptical about all such ‘epistemological’ attempts to establish foundations of knowledge or objectivity, whether in matters of fact or of value. For the purposes of this discussion, let us take two famous and representative postmodernists, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Each of them, in his different way, effectively expresses, rather than clearly and distinctly presents, such a position. Fortunately their arguments, such as they are, are easily refuted once clearly set out. I do not deny that Foucault and Derrida are both extremely clever men, or that their work is well worth reading—which is more than can be said for that of most of their followers, so far as I am acquainted with it. Nothing could be more worthwhile for contemporary intellectual life than to identify and refute their errors, and to diagnose the disease with which, I submit, they are infecting our civilization.

I am not quite happy with the term ‘modernism’, as I think that the assumptions and attitudes which it denotes were well anticipated by Plato, and splendidly exemplified by Aristotle and Aquinas, as well as being generally applied to theoretical and practical matters by comparatively recent figures like Kant and J. S. Mill. (Similarly, postmodernism is anticipated strikingly by the Greek ‘sophists’.) For these and other reasons which I hope will eventually become clear to the reader, I would prefer to make a threefold distinction between the old enlightenment, of which in turn I will distinguish two aspects; postmodernism; and the new enlightenment.

The basic principles of  ‘the new enlightenment’, which may be said to play synthesis to the ‘modernist’ thesis and the postmodernist antithesis, have, so far as I know, been set out more succinctly and forcefully by Bernard Lonergan than by anyone else. He has done so in his ‘four transcendental precepts’—‘be attentive; be intelligent; be reasonable; be responsible.’
• Attentiveness is to be directed not only to data of sensation or feeling, as stressed by traditional empiricists in the wake of David Hume and Bertrand Russell; but also to the conscious operations of our minds with respect to such data—in questioning, conceiving possibilities, assessing evidence, judging, deciding what to do about one’s judgments, and so on. (These were noted by John Locke in the late seventeenth century, and again by Edmund Husserl in the early twentieth; but have somehow been left out of account by classical empiricism.)
• Being intelligent is a matter of fertility of envisaging possibilities, whether in ordinary life (perhaps this salesman is trying to cheat me?) or in science (is it possible that we have evidence here of an ornithological rarity, or a new kind of fundamental particle?).
• One is reasonable so far as one affirms on adequate grounds that some judgment is probably or certainly so, in accordance with the relevant evidence available in experience (rather than in deference to sloth, fear, or pressure exerted by one’s paymasters). Now reasonableness, in opposition to a prejudice quite characteristic of the old enlightenment, is as applicable to judgments of value as to those of sheer fact; it may be more reasonable than not, on the basis of what tends to lead to a situation of greater overall happiness and fairness, to fluoridate the water supply, or to try to ensure that all women in one’s society should receive at least an elementary education.
• Finally, to be responsible is to act in accordance with the value-judgments at which one has reasonably arrived.

A psychologist of behaviourist or reductionist-materialist stamp might raise the following objection: ‘But to assert or presuppose the reality of such private operations as are alluded to in these “transcendental precepts” is the merest mentalism, and so pre- or anti-scientific.’ Does she raise this objection intelligently, reasonably, and responsibly, due to attention to the relevant evidence? If she does not, what is the point of paying any attention to her? But  if she does, she has followed the precepts in the very process of denying their reality or possibility. It should be noted at once, that to say so much is not to deny that deference to authority is often reasonable and responsible. Thus one’s physician should be consulted on what medicine to take; the  professor of physics at one’s local university on whether there are black holes or Higgs bosons; the professor of English at the same institution on whether As You Like It is a better play than The Two Gentlemen of Verona, or Jane Austen’s Emma in general (prescinding from the special interests of the psychologist or sociologist) more worth reading with serious attention than Denise Robbins’ Desert Rapture.

I should say that it is a considerable merit in Foucault’s writings, that they make a good case for the reasonable judgment that much of our alleged ‘knowledge’ about, say, psychiatry or criminology, is not  really so much due to reasonable assessment of the relevant evidence, as to the desire of one group of people to impose power and control over others. But he never, at least in those writings of his with which I am acquainted, attends to the question of why the motive of power does not impugn his own investigations just as much as those of the objects of his studies. And the actual judgments at which he arrives can seem, frankly, terrifyingly unreasonable and irresponsible to those of us who are not under his spell. I take an example from the collection of his writings published in English under the title Power/Knowledge. In France, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, before the traditional institutions for the maintenance of justice were back in place, little courts were set up, with little more paraphernalia than a desk, writing materials, and a few wooden chairs. These were for what one would have thought was the laudable purpose of taking at least some steps towards determining whether those accused of collaborating with the now defeated enemy were actually guilty as charged. Foucault expresses contempt for this bourgeois charade; the accused should have been left, he writes, to the spontaneous wrath of the people. Now it so happened that, at about the same time as I read this, I saw on television a story about how some heroic young women had been working for the Resistance, using as cover the job of being waitresses in a bar frequented by Nazi officers. These girls were just about to be publicly humiliated by having their heads shaved, when the truth came out, and they were duly reprieved. Of course, if there had not been at least rudimentary courts of the kind contemptuously dismissed by Foucault, such a salutary outcome would have been far less likely.

I recently heard attributed to Foucault the doctrine, as abominable as it is absurd, that history, in the sense of an attempt to find out what really happened in the past, is impossible. So much for those exemplary lawyers, who discover by assiduous research that clients serving life sentences did not really commit the murders of which they have been accused and convicted. (And do we really not know, or judge truly and for good reason, that Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March of 44 B.C.E,, or that Abraham Lincoln died of gunshot wounds?)  Sawing off the branch on which one is sitting, in the manner I have attributed to Foucault, is, as Derrida charmingly claims, a perfectly feasible manoeuvre. But perhaps a  more just comparison is with the would-be mass murderer who inadvertently shoots himself first before carrying out his crime.

Following the train of free association, as in a psychoanalytic tranche and in the manner of Derrida, can certainly be quite amusing, and a good way of limbering up the mind so that it can envisage fresh possibilities and hypotheses, thus breaking out of conceptual routines—the function of ‘intelligence’; but it is merely a distraction when it comes to ‘reasonableness’, the business of determining which, if any, of the hypotheses that one has conceived is likely to be true, or at least closer to the truth than the available alternatives. Of course, everyone really makes judgments of fact and value; but Derrida gets round the issue by making them in a jokey way that makes it seem almost ungentlemanly to hold him to them. Derrida has been blamed in some quarters for his de facto conservatism. But when whom you choose to send up depends entirely on your caprice, you might as well opt for the status quo as for anything else.

I distinguished above between two aspects of the ‘old enlightenment’, and must say more about this. One of them, which we will call the A position, made a radical distinction between judgments of fact and judgments of value; the latter were founded in the last resort on arbitrary choice. This obviously pernicious doctrine, in its ‘emotivist’ and ‘prescriptivist’ forms, was firmly established in moral philosophy in the analytic tradition for several decades from the late forties onwards, and unfortunately cannot truly be said yet to be quite defunct.  More plausible and healthy is position B,  as defended in their different ways by utilitarians and Kantians, which holds in effect that what is morally good depends on happiness and fairness, much as the truth of scientific judgments depends on observations and the observable results of experiments. Though most exponents of the A position made a point of behaving very well, it is a small step from it to what may be called Bundyism. When Ted Bundy informed his captives that he was about to rape and murder them, they would sometimes object that what he intended  to do was wrong. He would reply that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, were essentially outdated concepts from a strictly modern and scientific point of view. C. S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength is about a university which goes morally to pot, to the extent of actually killing off inconvenient people. When, towards the end of the book, concerned persons wonder what has gone wrong, mention is made of the Professor of Moral Philosophy. He was a man who was so conscientious in his personal life, that he was overwhelmed with  scruples when he was a day late in returning a borrowed book. But the fact remained that there was no abominable practice that was not perfectly consistent with the principles he had been propounding for many years in his lectures and articles. (I have a book in press at the moment, which argues for the B position; and maintains that the A position has no firmer foundation than a blunder in the philosophy of logic. A thing’s being ‘a’ can be roughly a matter of its being ‘x’, y’, or ‘z’; without ‘a’ being strictly definable as a disjunction of ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’.)

There is no denying that Derrida has a knack, but I should say that others have more of it than he does.  I quote, from memory, some examination questions from 1066 and All That: --- ‘Who was the more alike, Caesar or Pompey, or vice versa?’  ‘Arrange in this order: Henry I, Henry II, Henry III.’  ‘Fill in the names of the following: (1)  ---  (2)  ---   (3) Simon de Montfort.’  ‘Do you regard Edward the Confessor as directly responsible for the French Revolution?’  And there is the classic instruction to examinees: ‘Candidates should not attempts to write on both sides of the paper at once.’ I venture to contribute from my own armory  an alternative version of some lines from Macaulay’s famous poem about the three Roman heroes who held the bridge against the Etruscan host: ---  ‘Now who will stand at either hand, / And clean the fridge with me?’ Bertrand Russell writes somewhere, ‘I understand, from the works of Bulldog Drummond, that a heavy blow on the head will enable one to see in an instant not only the starry heavens, but also the moral law.’ He also reports a conversation with a ‘touchy yacht-owner’: ‘I thought your yacht was larger than it is.’ ‘No; my yacht  is not larger than it is.’  G. K. Chesterton made a habit of this kind of thing: ‘Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike --- especially Buddhism.’ And  there is the report of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s remark when he first encountered Sherlock Holmes: --- ‘I have never met a fictional detective before.’

In comparison with verbal pyrotechnics like these, Derrida’s performances can seem rather prolix and dreary. In the words of Eeyore the donkey, such things are ‘amusing in a quiet way, but not really helpful.’ It is fair to say that what is probably unique to Derrida is the scholarly erudition required to enjoy his jeux d’esprit ; you have to have at least a nodding acquaintance with several languages, ancient and modern, and some grounding in the history of ideas. Part of the frisson to be got out of his writing is due to the snobbery which lurks not far below the surface of  every scholar—your ordinary chap, glued to his television whenever he is not being subjected to the slavery of his boring job, would be quite incapable of appreciating this!

The  authorities at the University of Cambridge eventually refused, after much heated discussion, to confer an honorary degree on Derrida. This was on the grounds, I would have thought reasonable enough at first sight, that while the degree was supposed to be in philosophy, no professional philosopher would describe Derrida as a philosopher; only people like film-critics, cultural gurus and experts on literature were prepared to do so. (Would you give an honorary degree in physics to one whom no physicist would describe as a physicist?) They conceded that he had talent of a kind, but insisted that it was not in philosophy. Derrida’s reply to their decision, though full of contempt and moral indignation, and showing his usual verbal dexterity, is a ripe classic of irrelevance. In assessing Derrida’s credentials as a philosopher in the usual sense of the term, one may well make the following point. In the Phaedrus, Plato’s ‘Socrates’ makes some sensible remarks about the relative merits of speech and writing as means of communication, with which one may find reason to agree or to disagree. But at all events, Derrida’s counter-arguments in Of Grammatology are a disgrace, as any reader may easily verify for herself.

Foucault and Derrida, as I have said, in common with others who may be labeled ‘postmodernist’, appear to destroy the basis for rational judgments of fact or value. Yet, in our present global situation, we have urgent need for such judgments. What is the truth about climate change and its causes, and what is the appropriate human response to it? How can we reconcile a modicum of social justice with the demands of the market? How can the new-found autonomy and self-disposability of  women be achieved while ensuring a sufficiently stable interpersonal environment for the satisfactory development of children? The baleful remark of  Lonergan comes to mind, that a civilization in decline digs its own grave with relentless consistency. The association of postmodernism with the persecution of scholars with more traditional attitudes, as pointed out by Kenneth Westhues, is just what is to be expected on the account which I have given.