Abstract painting of subject, generated by DALL-E 2


08 Mar 2007 - Bruno Prior

Charles N. Steele wrote a funny little comment on Hot Coffee Girl's blog a while back, about not defining oneself as a "non-smoker". Recent encounters with various pseudo-intellectual movements defining themselves as post-this or post-that got me to thinking that the prefix "post-" probably deserves similar contempt for defining oneself not in terms of what one is but in terms of what one is not.

There is a debate going on at Charles's site about a strange concept called post-science. Though much of the argument is esoteric, I recommend it to you for the entertainment value of the claims of the post-science spokesman (and of the websites that he points to), and as an illustration of the difficulty of reasoning with people who consciously reject rationality, and of where such a rejection gets you to.

Then there is the similar-sounding but separate (in origin and purpose, if not in mode of "thought") post-normal science. Though post-science looks down on post-normal science, they share the view that truth should be established by means other than rational analysis and (where appropriate) falsification through empirical testing. Instead, they are inclined to accept as equally important to rational analysis other methods of assessing the truth. In particular, it would seem under both systems, if the majority can be persuaded of the truth of something, it becomes true by that virtue, regardless of the merits of the argument. Stephen Colbert has a word for something pretty similar to this: truthiness, and a website (Wikiality) replete with examples.

I came across post-normal science when I was trying to learn about ecological economics, another pseudo-intellectual, irrational philosophy. Ecological economics, which is based on a post-normal scientific approach, is only distantly related to ecology and economics. I will post separately about their philosophical emptiness, but suffice it to say that they exist to find a way to put an intellectual gloss on opposition to the logical conclusions of rational thought to which some people's gut-based rather than head-based (as Colbert would put it) thinking leads them.

Ecological economics has been adopted as a branch of post-autistic economics. This is a reaction to the dominance of the neo-classical model in the teaching of modern economics. But rather than look for a more rigorous alternative (the fault of the neo-classical model, after all, being that it incorporates generalisations and assumptions that do not match the real world), they took the magpie approach of putting together a pluralist philosophy trying to incorporate every shiny new idea they could find, including historicist, ecological, feminist, social, and Islamic economics. The result is a smoke-machine of confusion, spreading fog rather than light on an academic field that could definitely do with more light.

In fact, it is typical of these ideas that they were built on a grain of truth. Post-science rightly rejects the over-reliance on the over-stated certainty of scientific dogma that infects politics and academia nowadays. Post-normal science rightly observes that massively complex systems such as the global ecosystem (or the human mind) may not be amenable to analysis by conventional scientific techniques. Post-autistic economics began with a rebellion by French economics students against the neo-classical orthodoxy that dominates university economics departments (and not just in France), which they rightly observed often has very little relation to the real world.

Sadly, these groups start from a justified criticism of the current direction of travel, but instead of correcting the map, they throw it away and head off in a series of random directions, none of them the right one. With their rejection of the original philosophy, they have also thrown away the tools that would allow them to put together something better. They are classic illustrations of how it is harder to construct than to destroy, harder still to construct something better than what was there before, and hardest to do so without using the foundations of the previous edifice. They have jumped down from the giant's shoulders, and can now see very little at all.

The term post-anything is based on the concept of continual, inevitable improvement — that failed philosophy of history that underlies the fallacies of many of our most influential thinkers, from Smith and Fukuyama (for whom capitalism was the culmination of the progress of history) to Marx (for whom capitalism is just one more step in the inevitable historical progress to socialism). The implication is that what comes after is necessarily better than what came before, and that post-whatever is therefore better than whatever. Life isn't necessarily like that. Post-lunch bloat isn't necessarily as good as lunch or its anticipation. Less flippantly, ideas of the roles of government and society in the Dark Ages were a retrograde step compared to those espoused by the Roman Empire, let alone by the Republic. Progress is not inevitable and continual, and ideas that come later are not necessarily better than those that came before. Only rationality can guarantee progress.

Calling one's ideas post-something is trying to define one's philosophy as the final stage of progression. What comes after post-modernism? Post-post-modernism? To be fair, the modernists probably started it, defining their movement by virtue of its newness, rather than a positive term that encapsulated the philosophy (unless rejectionism and revisionism were all it had to offer). What happens to modernist ideas when they are no longer fresh, new or even credible? Are they old-hat but modern? The truth about the Shock of the New is that mostly it wasn't so much shocking as just daft and uninspiring. It hasn't been superseded, it was never much good. Its principal virtue was to be different, and so it could only be defined by reference to what came before.

Having realised that being post-anything is old hat and without merit, it seemed that we could usefully group these twentieth-century aberrations of thought under a generic umbrella: postism. It turns out that some are there before me, and that the counter-strike of post-postism has already been launched. It is fitting that analysts of postism take themselves rather more seriously than those of post-postism (unbearably, pompously seriously, in fact).

But before we allow ourselves the luxury of sniggering at the absurd constructions and pointless mental gymnastics into which many twentieth-century intellectuals* descended, we ought to remember where such silly thinking can get you: Iraq, an example of the new liberal imperialism of the post-imperial, post-modern state that is Blair's Britain. Sloppy thinking is often funny, but it is always serious.

  • I use the term "intellectual" here in the Hayekian sense of someone who spouts about ideas without necessarily understanding them. The term "cultural workers", used by the authors of the insufferably academic paper linked above to imply that people like them are actually doing a hard day's work producing garbage, probably refers to the same group.

Copyright © 2023 Picking Losers