Those members of our clerisy and elites imbued with the doctrine taught by our academic postmodern philodoxers—the social construction of knowledge and reality—are taking themselves out of a credible leadership role in our society. For despite their self-serving illusions, sophistry, and demagoguery in elite and political speech, the realities of nature, science, economics, and mathematics—which the knowledge of Western civilization reflects—are coming to prevail in the real world.
The Sophists came to Athens before Socrates, with some, like Protagoras, calling themselves sophistai, “teachers of wisdom” and accepted as equivalent to our “university professor.” But like many of our postmodern professors, they proved to be philodoxers: “lovers of opinion” or opinionated men passionately pursuing illusion. Out of the doxa, the false opinion fanatically held, came disorder in the body politic. No absolute truth can be found, said Protagoras, but only such truths as hold for given men under given conditions; contradictory assertions can be equally true for different persons or at different times. All truth, goodness, and beauty are relative and subjective; “man is the measure of all things.”
The Sophists contributed to the deterioration of morals and quickened the disintegration of Athens. Every clever youth, impelled by his passions and low interests, could now feel free to rationalize his desires as virtues. The general ethical tendency of the Sophists is suggested in our word “sophistry,” meaning “clever but misleading reasoning.” Then, as now, moral relativism and radical individualism leading to societal decay were the outcomes of sophistry.
In the American academy, theories of postmodernism (or agnostic nihilism) were developed from Nietzsche and became broadly influential from the 1990s. Postmodernism posits that there are no objective truths or facts, moral universals, or fundamental realities and that all claims to knowledge are socially constructed and merely a mask for power relationships. Postmodernism is designed to reject modernism, the Western applications of reason and science to discover knowledge, discern truth, and advance human progress, which ideas are now deemed oppressive. All knowledge and morality are relative and established by groups based upon the beliefs of their cultures. Our postmodern thinkers construct a bubble of their own personal opinion, ideal reality, or transcendent belief—illusion—not to be penetrated by the logic of reason to seekobjective answers.
Philosopher Ken Wilber critiques postmodern views of science in The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1998). Postmodernism postulates, says Wilber, that “science is not governed by facts, it is governed by paradigms, and paradigms are not much more than ad hoc constructions or free-floating interpretations….This erased evidence from the scene of truth, and into that vacuum rushed every egocentric project imaginable….The vaunted narcissism of the Me Generation predisposed many individuals…arbitrarily to deconstruct any reality that happened not to suit them and insert their own ‘revolutionary new paradigm’ into the scene.” This same approach is applied by postmodernists in other fields such as social science, economics, education, history, and public and political dialogue. Wilber concludes: “Extreme postmodernism is a dead end. It either nihilistically denies truth, including therefore its own; or attempting to avoid that, it retreats into narcissism, exempting itself from its own claims.”
While it is surely a dead end, postmodern thinking has been spread throughout our society by college-educated elites. Anyone’s belief or opinion, however uninformed or ill-formed, has become equally as valid as that of well-informed individuals or knowledgeable experts. Ironically, “many faculty members are finding now that students in their classes believe that they have a ‘right’ to their own opinions, quite independently of questions of truth and falsity, right or wrong,” notes Tom Wood in Slouching Toward the Theraputic, Part 2. Unfortunately, our youth have learned from Athens only how to be philodoxers. They have become, as Peter Wood has described them, “unmoved by any abiding sense of reality.”
In national politics, sophistry based on opinion, illusion, and subjectivism has replaced rhetoric based on knowledge and reason. An increasingly uneducated public has its illusions and passions fostered by demagogic and dissembling elite sophists. Postmodernism and relativism have debased the veracity of not only reporting by our media, but political speech at the highest levels of government leadership. As Lewis Lapham has observed, “passion as truth” has replaced “truth as passion.”
But the mathematical actualities of economics and finance now confronting our nation’s unrealizable entitlement promises and expectations; the educational and family actualities of a new underclass of unemployable youth, including numerous college graduates; the scientific actualities of theories about anthropogenic climate change; and the divisive social actualities of the diversity ideology are converging to confound the notion of social construction of knowledge and reality. Fallacious illusions lead to failed policies and outcomes in the actual world.
Postmodernism is also belied by the findings, summarized in my earlier article, Human Nature and Western Civilization, of the modern science of evolutionary psychology—human nature has innate traits and is not blank and entirely socially constructed. And as their fantasies are exposed, our frustrated postmodern elites, as well as the ordinary people they have misled, react with what Peter Wood calls, in A Bee in the Mouth: The New Anger in America (2007).
The Romans educated their governing elites in the artes liberales, the “liberal arts.” Artes means skills and liberales refers to a free man. Liberal arts were originally something like “skills of the citizen elite” or “skills of the ruling class,” who were expected to debate and decide on issues of public policy. The Renaissance deplored ignorance and exalted the power of the educated mind. For its elite, it stressed education in the skills and prudence necessary to be successful in a life of work and to be a public-spirited citizen and member of the ruling class. The Renaissance demonstrated the need for balance in the knowledge provided by science, humanistic studies, and religion, which provide the objective, subjective, and transcendent worldviews.
But our universities have adopted an orthodoxy that dismisses as “white male ideology,” the very idea of an educated person, of a cultivated human being provided with broad and humanistic knowledge of the kind esteemed in the Renaissance. The liberal arts have largely been eliminated from education, replaced by the social sciences and postmodern multiculturalism, with their biases against Western civilization and knowledge. Postmodernism in the academy still denies the efficacy of science, the value of reason and humanistic studies, and the need for religion and its moral precepts, while fostering the unrealistic and immoderate illusions of our academic and college-educated elite.
In Part II of his April 2011 essay Is Our Civilization a Bubble? , Stephen Balch considers whether our civilization has created its own mega-bubble by the thinking of elites who “consume society’s substance chasing impossibilities”; he concludes that “an accompanying misunderstanding of humanity’s condition is what threatens to puncture it.” Our postmodern philodoxers have created such a bubble with their false concept of social constructionism—and reality is already proceeding to puncture it.
Our colleges and universities should again impart the knowledge of Western Civilization, which makes clear that solutions to advance humanity’s condition must be based on truths in order to be successful in the real world.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).