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Monday, August 01, 2005

Postmodernism, relativism etc.

Not sure what's happened here. I’m pretty sure I posted this and saw this on my blog (before the football post) but it seems to have disappeared. If the other version does re-appear this is a slightly modified form of it that (un)fortunately managed to survive as I just so happened (untypically as it happens) to type it up on my computer first. I should point out that I’m not drunk or anything like that. Just confused.

These are some chaotic thoughts on relativism and (perceptions of?) postmodernism/poststructuralism (or whatever label you like). Though on a different track, the thought process was set off by a combination of Michael Bird’s blogging on critical realism and some of the comments made elsewhere on this blog. Oh, and the horror of having to do loads of lifting and moving tomorrow (brother moving house, me doing the hard work).

I do not think that there are many people, even on the most extreme wing of what is labelled postmodern or poststructuralist thought, who would go as far as denying a factual event. The perception that there are such people is certainly there. Perhaps one of the most notorious examples is Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. This caused some outcry and I cannot deny that I thought it was a very weird book (the most unusual academic book I have ever read). But it seems (I say ‘seems’ because the book does not have a structured argument in the traditional sense but reads more like a long poem) that no truth claims as to whether the there was physical fighting. Rather the analysis was more on what was happening in the media, something completely different from what was happening on the ground.

So if there is no denial of fact, what then? Causality has been one area of attack. Now here I am guilty of being a bit old fashioned in the eyes of some. While not denying that there are impositions of narrative, models, whatever, there is still a place for causality. Generalisations from similar situations, so long as they are properly backed up with evidence and are aware of historical particularities, can provide some explanations of historical events. Interestingly, there is a fair bit of Christian history writing which could be immune from post-modern criticisms of causality, writing which attempts to stress whether Acts is or is not factually accurate, whether Jesus did or did not do this or that miracle or action and so on. (Or: whether Mark was or was not written at this or that date). Causality, despite some claiming otherwise, is not always high on the agenda of NT scholars, apart from the arguments as to what degree Jesus influenced the subsequent movement.

The question of presuppositions. Yes, postmodern writers do go for this a lot but perhaps get too much credit. Noting presuppositions is hardly new. The history of biblical studies itself has plenty of pre-1960s examples, as do other disciplines. Schweitzer is perhaps the most famous. I suppose the emphasis on not just others we disagree with but even ourselves being hopelessly biased is the key stress. This does not mean no chance of objectivity: there is always the test of factual evidence in many cases. What’s more, people driven by a wide variety of ideologies have made genuine insights in sciences and humanities. We all argue and think there must be a correct answer or correct answers. Sometimes people are persuaded. But if this was all just a clash of equally valid (or invalid) arguments we would get nowhere. It would be very difficult for people function if each argument was just as (in)valid as another.

Perhaps the most controversial of all is beliefs and ethics. The decline of meta-narratives such as Marxism, Christianity, or whatever may be true but it is not confined to the so-called post-modern period. The Gk Magical Papyri reveal a sometimes bewildering array of mixed beliefs. Some scholars like to compare the situation at Corinth with the mixture of religious views in ‘postmodern’ contemporary societies. It is also true, I think, that if we don’t follow Marxism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Freudianism, or any other ‘meta-narrative’ that does not automatically make us relativists in a strong sense? Let’s say we pick and choose what we want. That may mean that such behaviour is a particularly notable feature of the so-called postmodern period but does it imply relativism in the sense that ‘anything goes’?

Virtually all religions have some dramatic truth claim and many would happily agree that their meta-narrative is true. But how significantly different in terms of truth claims is this really from the way most people behave? Many people would broadly identify with the left of right of politics without being a Marxist, Labourite, Thatcherite, Tory or whatever but hold to a set of convictions and assumptions they believe are true or at least adhere to, often derived from Enlightenment ideals (another target of some postmodernists, not to mention a certain bishop), and most would be reasonably consistent. Of course for all we know they may be grounded in nothingness, or at least they are ultimately ideals which cannot be ‘proven’ but this is true for religious people too. Very few people operate without making truth claims that cannot be proven. It may be impossible for an atheist or agnostic to say that we shouldn’t murder people but very few of them would accept that murdering is a good thing. They may see it as a means of making societies function, it may even be a part of the evolutionary function of human beings, but it is not a moral absolute that is mysteriously ‘out there’. For all the truth claims made by Marxism the idea of socialist revolution can hardly be claimed as an absolute historical ‘law’ (though I know not all Marxists would claim that).

So I suppose through this haze my general view would be in favour of picking and choosing and seeing what works. I think many people actually work that way, even people who hold to ‘meta-narratives’, religious or secular. None of us may be able to prove the grounding of our moral absolutes but few of us function as if they do not exist and many postmodernists/poststructuralists would agree.

Incidentally although I have written similar things in print this doesn’t officially count. They are chaotic thoughts as I said and they are liable to be changed at any given time. I’m also paying attention to the radio and listening to a particularly good set. Ok, got that?

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anon said...

Hi, please visit my log, on philosophy (Plato...) and more, hope you enjoy, leave a comment...

August 02, 2005

 
Anonymous steph said...

no not quite, I'm a bit confused but extremely fascinated - postmodern relativist ha ha. what is in print? I would love to read it, and what was the score? It sent me off on all sorts of tangents, including Sanders' provocative appeal to 8 then 15 'indisputable facts'. And atheists' appeal to morality - deciding on the difference between right and wrong depending on what works best for societies... seems better than appealing to god to condone invading countries, making war and killing people. I am very muddled, which isn't unusual - my head is permanently chaotic and I might change my ideas tomorrow!

good luck moving! my unfriendly computer hid this post the second time I tried to read it but then it came back when I went out of your blog and came back - I am a bit dyslexic in that department though

August 02, 2005

 
Blogger Ben Myers said...

Good heavens -- exactly the same thing happened to my post yesterday. There for a moment, then gone.

August 02, 2005

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks anon, will do.

As for Sanders' points, Steph, I think he is largely right. And it falls well within the concerns of much of history writing in earliest Christianity. It effectively comes down to a question of whether these events happened or not. I always thought it was interesting that stating some basic factual features has become a particularly notable feature of historical Jesus research.

And of course there is nothing wrong with a chaotic mind and a willingness to change! Of course your right on the divine being used as a defence for all sorts of things but atheists have their bad types too: e.g. Stalin.

And Ben, thanks for that. It is reassuring that I am not either utterly confused or just computer illiterate!

August 02, 2005

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Or should I say Benjamin!!!

August 02, 2005

 
Blogger Ben Myers said...

No, Ben is fine -- no need to address me by my "Blogger Display Name"....

August 02, 2005

 
Anonymous steph said...

oh gosh i wasn't criticising Sanders although it looks like I was - and anyway he says 'almost' beyond dispute, not absolutely. And only really 'provocative' within the JS - it just occurred to me because another book on Jesus I have just read adopts them (Herzog). And the appeal to God for bad things really just referred to something specific. And on top of that my neighbour was having her roof pulled off by the roofers and I couldn't hear myself think!

Thanks for the reassurance about the chaos and changing opinions

August 03, 2005

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Sorry Steph, I wasn't meant to imply that you were criticising Sanders: I was just developing the point. My bad writing.

August 03, 2005

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Oh dear, that's more bad writing: 'I never meant...'

August 03, 2005

 
Anonymous steph said...

no, my bad writing! The reason I thought of Sanders and his historical facts, having just read Herzog's new book which also used historical facts, was precisely because of the point you made in your blog which I got ... surprisingly in view of my chaotic mind! Thank you

August 03, 2005

 

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