ThoughtStorms Wiki

The philosophy of knowledge.

Quora Answer : What are the big similarities between postmodernism and skepticism?

Sep 21

It's a historical story.

"Philosophical scepticism" was a project launched by Descartes.

He wasn't trying to doubt or attack philosophy. He was trying to put philosophy and human knowledge on a solid basis, and to sort the properly justified and justifiable knowledge from the random speculation. Descartes was also a mathematician, of course; what he was really hoping for was to give our empirical knowledge of the world a similar rigour and reliability as mathematics which had formal proofs.

So he used systematic scepticism : let's start by assuming we know nothing. Then we can't accept anything UNTIL we can justify that we know it.

That was a project any of us today can at least understand and most of us can applaud and relate to. Surely we should have a solid rational basis for our claims to knowledge. We shouldn't just believe random nonsense for no reason.

Unfortunately, the sceptical method that Descartes invoked was stronger than he expected.

Philosophers spent a couple of hundred years trying out various justifications : reason, empirical evidence, the senses, memory etc. as the basis for knowledge.

And while all these things seemed useful in day-to-day life, when subjected to hard scepticism, they all failed.

Could you trust your senses? Well, what about illusions? And dreams? As Descartes himself noted, how could he know that the world wasn't a lie that a daemon was telling him? (Today we'd say "how do we know we aren't living in the Matrix?" or "a computer simulation?" etc)

Memory? Well we seem to forget easily. Can't trust memory.

What about science? Science is good, no? Except it's based on assumptions that can't themselves be justified. Is the universe a clockwork mechanism following laws? Well, assuming that it is, then science works, bitches. But can science test that assumption? Can science itself guarantee that the universe IS a clockwork mechanism following laws?

And so on.

The history of modern (by which I mean "post-Descartes") philosophy was the history of philosophers struggling to come up with something that could be a strong enough basis of justification to ground our knowledge; and other philosophers saying "well if we can't have that, can we at least have this instead of being able to ground our knowledge of the world. Perhaps we can only ground our knowledge of the experience of the world. Or our concepts of the world. Or our language that describes the world. Etc.

Finally, along comes Nietzsche, who is a bit like the boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes, and gleefully, and obnoxiously tells everyone that this whole philosophy thing is a scam, and that knowledge is nothing more than a power-struggle in which the great thinkers impose their ideas on the common herd.

Now Nietzsche isn't simply trying to be an asshole here. Nietzsche cares deeply about this stuff and about the failure. In fact, he's trying to hold on to the one thing he thinks he can say. Just as Descartes says "I think, therefore I am". Meaning that the one thing he thought he could really be sure of, was that he existed. Because he couldn't even be questioning whether he was thinking, without thinking and existing.

So Nietzsche thought that, at the very least, ideas and values were the product of creativity and a kind of "vitality" of life. You couldn't be sure they were true. Or that the values were the right values. But you could be sure that the ideas were a great invention and that someone came up with them who was really smart, and really serious about it. The kind of guy who got things done. Or rather, the guy himself was a kind of vehicle or channel for a creative "will-to-power" force. You had to believe in a will-to-power, a vigorous and ruthless spirit of inventiveness running through humanity, because otherwise, how could there be all these ideas and values?

Now "post-modernism" is a wide, vague label. And now a lot of people who know nothing about it have decided on a political culture war against a completely unrealistic straw-man of what it is. Those stereotypes are too broad. And there is little really to "post-modernism" other than "what this generation of thinkers thought."

But, as I observed on Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to Can we consider that Nietzsche is a postmodern philosopher? If yes, how and why? if you want to make a generalization which is still bad, but not quite as bad as everyone else's, then you could say that the post-modernists are the philosophers who took Nietzsche's model seriously. That doesn't mean that they are straight Nietzschians. But they did recognise that other attempts to justify and give a foundation to knowledge had largely failed. And so some kind of power-struggle between impersonal but creative forces was the only viable game in town.

Some people love to paint a completely bizarre picture with post-modernists as cackling villains saying "ha ha! I will destroy all your truths".

No, it was Descartes's scepticism which had already led to nihilism. The PoMos and Nietzsche were just trying to deal with it.

No Backlinks