Truer Words: Expressing a Wish to Abandon External Reality Without Paying a Price

Share this Blog post

In my October 23rd, 2013, blog post, I pulled from the work of philosopher John Searle as a way of helping us understand the growing resentment being directed toward biology and nature. In this earlier blog post I make the argument that the lion’s share of this Resentment is coming from the ideologies of postmodernism (PM) and posthumanism (PH). Both ideologies express the worldview that holds that humans should transcend the constraints imposed by nature and biology. Posthumanism uses a methodology of moving biological entities over to mechanical entities. The central metaphor here is “humans as mechanical machines.” Artificial Intelligence or AI would be a prime example. Postmodernism (at least in the area of psychology) uses a methodology of moving all natural causation over to social causation. The central metaphor here is “humans as social machines.” Liberation psychology (i.e., self-esteem, self psychology, resilience) would be a prime example.

In my earlier blog post I mainly pulled from Searle’s book entitled The Construction of Social Reality. Searle, like John Bowlby, draws a straight line connecting biology and culture. Searle goes a step further and argues that language bridges between biology and culture. (This makes sense given that the Adult Attachment Interview is used to analyze linguistic constructions as a way of assessing the biology–culture connection.) Searle expresses concern over the current postmodern and posthuman attempts to separate biology from culture. (Searle calls these anti-Realism movements.) Searle sees these as attempts to separate what it means to be human from Realism or the worlds of biology and nature. Here are Searle’s Truer Words:

One objection to some of the current challenges to realism is that they [PMers and PHers] want to abandon external realism without paying the price. The price of the abandonment of realism is abandonment of normal understanding. If someone wishes to abandon normal understanding, he or she owes us an account of what sort of understanding is possible.

In other words, postmodernists and posthumanists—through their desire to separate people from nature and biology—wish to abandon normal understanding AND to be understood normally at the same time. This is a classic case of wishing to have your cake and eat it too. As an example, many Occupy protestors will say what they do not want by protesting such things as income disparity and economic oppression, but will otherwise fail to say what they do want because they know that that very “speech act” (to use a Searle concept) would support the normal understanding system they wish to oppose. This agrees with linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s idea that in negating a frame, one activates the frame and, ultimately, makes it stronger.

The same could be said of many Tea Party protests. Consider the following quote from a recent article by Mike Lofgrin profiling the Tea Party:

It is more likely that however the Tea Party initially presented itself, it is no longer a group of mainly affluent, well-educated people whose primary obsessions are the deficit, debt or health care policy. This became evident in the later stages of the shutdown, when it was obvious that Tea Party-influenced office holders had no coherent strategy for achieving concrete, tangible political goals. This confusion was memorably expressed by Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a Tea Party favorite: “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

So, the problem with protests of this nature stems from the fact that two steps (pulling from Searle) are necessary: 1) abandon what needs to be abandoned, and, 2) establish a new system of understanding. In the cases of postmodernism and posthumanism, extreme confusion arises because step one is carried out (i.e., abandon Realism or nature or biology), but little effort is made to establish a new meaning system. As a result, the old, normal meaning system—the one that hails from biology and nature—is used but in a way that conveys anger, resentment, and contempt. In fairness, this flailing about may be part of a process of finding a new meaning system. And some have argued that the digital world, with its love of zeros and ones, is a new meaning system.

In the mean time, as postmodernism and posthumanism continue to express a desire to abandon nature and biology and not pay a price—that is to say, continue to use the old meaning system born from nature and biology as opposed to creating a new one born from who knows what—confusion and chaos will ensue. One of the only defenses a modernist has against all of this is to simply tell PMers and PHers that they owe “us an account of what sort of understanding is possible” (quoting Searle).

Side note: One way to identify how “abandonment of realism” leads to “abandonment of normal understanding” is to look for very localized, idiosyncratic, and ad hoc meaning systems that attempt to transcend time and space. Narcissism would be an extreme case where the mantra is: “Only my meaning system is important and everyone should get it and use it.” For more on this theme, see Christopher Lasch’s book entitled The Culture of Narcissism—American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations. I summarized a chapter from Lasch’s book entitled The Socialization of Reproduction and the Collapse of Authority. Contact the Foundation for a copy of this summary. Suffice it to say that there is a movement within philanthropy toward very localized, idiosyncratic, and ad hoc meaning systems that attempt to transcend time and space. Such meanings tend to be momentarily satisfying, however, like with most addictive processes, a desire for more and more “flash in the pan meaning” is created. The Internet provides a veritable smörgåsbord of flash in the pan meaning (which in large part explains its huge popularity). At the risk of becoming a broken record, to access normal understanding within time and space, one must develop Executive Functioning with its focus on delaying gratification and mental time travel. Developing EF, like any skill, requires time, effort, and energy.