Saturday, May 2, 2015


Students have sometimes asked me what I thought would come after the post modern infatuation which some say we're currently experiencing. My own view is that it'll be either a cultural and intellectual apocalypse or a return to more traditional views of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True.

Philosopher Crispin Sartwell of Dickinson College has an intersting take on what's coming next. In the New York Times' Opinionator column he declares us to be on the cusp of "popomo," a post-post modern period in philosophy which will, in fact, amount to a return to realism.

His whole column is interesting and the reader can get a sense of it in his summation. After discussing the post modern anti-realism of thinkers like Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty, Sartwell says this:
But the ‘80s heyday of Rorty and Fish is beginning to seem like a long time ago, and a backlash seems to be in progress. More recent work in philosophy includes various forms of realism about the world: the idea that reality is not the product of consciousness, or of human perceptual structures or languages or interpretive communities, but exists independently. We don’t make the world, as one might put it; the world makes us. Where for decades or even centuries, philosophy has focused on our representations and descriptions of the world, on human consciousness and cultural systems, many are now turning to the external features of the world that constitute the content of our experiences and the context of our social practices.

Let’s call this phase after postmodernism post-postmodernism – “popomo” for short....

Some of the motivation for the realist turn has been ecological: Climate change isn’t just in our heads or in our descriptions, but a real-world situation that requires real-world physical transformations. Others have been political: defenses of the urgent truth of justice, or of the importance of material economic conditions and the treatment of physical human bodies. And I think that, as our experience becomes in many ways increasingly mediated or virtual, we simply started yearning toward the old-fashioned physical environment, which was always available and still is, and on which whatever we see on a screen depends utterly. Ideas are always an index of longings.

For me, a large part of the motivation was simply to find a way to keep on writing and doing philosophy. I ran out of interest in my own consciousness around 1990, but there’s no reason ever to run out of interest in the world. The intellectual generation that came after pomo had to find a way to keep going after the period after the end. The period after the period after the end is the popomo era. But the “post” was always itself a symptom of a sense of decline and ending, and I do hope and think that our period of inquiry doesn’t just come after something, but that it is itself something, and that it comes before something.
The problem with realism is that it seeks to make the physical world, as well as human moral and aesthetic values, objectively real entities. The former, however, seems to be undercut by quantum physics and the latter seems to be undercut by naturalistic metaphysics. Quantum physics seems to point to mind as being the fundamental reality and naturalistic metaphysics entails, in my view, an inescapable subjectivity of moral and aesthetic value. It'll be interesting to see how Sartwell's last line ultimately plays out.