Postmodernism as the problem of metaphysics

Part I: The Problem Stated

My paper will begin with an attempt to state in what way the loosely defined movement known as “postmodernism” constitutes a problem for the subdiscipline of metaphysics — both in its classical and modern guise. In defining the problem I will give some attention to the various expressions of postmodernism. Postmodernism is both a cultural attitude and mindset and a philosophical program. The terms “postmodernism” and “postmodernity” have been used to characterize contemporary developments in architecture, literature, the fine arts, the natural and the social sciences, politics, religion, and philosophy. We thus see that postmodernism is a quite pervasive cultural phenomenon, extending across the several disciplines. The problem that we wish to address, however, has to do more specifically with the philosophical expression in postmodernity — and even more specifically with the effect of postmodernity on the legacy of metaphysics.

In addressing this more restricted set of circumstances involving the postmodern, it is advisable to begin with the philosophical contribution of Martin Heidegger and his celebrated concept and strategy of the “Abbau” (deconstruction) — which he had already proposed in his “ Being and Time” and “The Problems of Phenomenology”. In “Being and Time” Heidegger had much to say about the “destruction of the history of ontology” and in “The Problems of Phenomenology” he explicated the meaning of “destruction” as a “deconstruction”. The project of deconstruction (Abbau) is designed to proceed via a dismanteling of the traditional metaphysical categories of the Western tradition. Now it is important not to confuse Heidegger’s understanding of the destruction/deconstruction of traditional metaphysics with the “elimination” of metaphysics as proposed by mid-twentieth century positivism (as represented by the British philosopher, A.J. Ayer, for example). Deconstruction is not simply a setting aside of metaphysics but is rather a dismanteling of its traditional concepts and categories for the purpose of retrieving their originative meaning and relevance. Now it is principally the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who is known for his use of the grammar and the strategy of “deconstruction”, but Derrida’s indebtedness to Heidegger can hardly be overemphasized. Admittedly, Derrida was of the mind that Heidegger did not carry his own project far enough; and thus it was left to Derrida to radicalize Heidegger’s employment of deconstruction. Yet, Derrida remains a filial descendent of Heidegger’s philosophy on this issue, and in concert they provide a formidable challenge to both classical and modern metaphysics. How can one meet this challenge?

Part II: The Fate of the Western Concept of the Logos

The problem of postmodernity for metaphysics seems to boil down to a “problematization” of the resources of rationality as defined by the traditional logos doctrine. Hence, Derrida’s project is often flagged as an attack on logocentrism — and for Derrida logocentrism fraternizes with phonocentrism and ethnocentrism. The undue privileging of reason (logos) is seen as linked with an unwarranted emphasis on the logos as speech (the spoken word) and an unabashed “white mythology” that proclaims the superiority of the European white male. Now it is important to achieve some clarity on specifically what is meant by the logos doctrine in classical and modern philosophy. H.-G. Gadamer has been of particular help on this matter. He speaks of the logos doctrine as “the grand hypothesis of Greek philosophy”, in which rationality is “not first and foremost a property of human self-consciousness but of being itself”, whereby “human reason is far more appropriately thought of as a part of this rationality instead of as the self-consciousness that knows itself over against an external totality” (“Reason in the Age of Science”). The classical Greek doctrine of the logos was explicitly metaphysical, referring at once to the structure of the universe and the structure of the human mind, exhibiting a proportionality in the process of knowing. Now what happens in the advent of modernity, as defined specifically by the father of modern philosophy, R.  Descartes, is that philosophy undergoes its “epistemological turn”. In this turn the logos becomes more closely linked to a technical/technological rationality, finding its chief paradigms in scientific discovery and justification. In the course of time, the modern logico-scientific-epistemological positioning led to an increased skepticism concerning the ontological/metaphysical commitments of the tradition. This was the case particularly in the philosophy of I. Kant. The centralizing and operative concepts and notions in the metaphysical tradition were universality, necessity, and identity. Although divested of their heavy metaphysical cargo by modern critiques, these traditional centralizing concepts continued to hold capital in the new disciplines of logic and epistemology. The traditional logos became “logicized”, if you will. Now the postmodern ethos needs to be understood as a revolt against both the metaphysical and logico-epistemological rendering of the logos, and as a consequence opts for particularity over universality, contingency over necessity, and difference over identity. Our task is to find a way to respond to the postmodern frontal attack on the classical and modern philosophical traditions.

Part III: The Transversal Logos

In the third and final part of my paper I will make an effort to address the postmodern challenge in such a manner as to avoid jettisoning the resources of rationality whilst retaining sympathies with the postmodern critique. Agreeing with the postmodern problematization of the traditional pretentious claims of reason, I will nonetheless argue that a displacement of reason that overdetermines its resources does not entail a rejection of reason in every sense conceivable. A rejection of claims for an unimpeachable universality does not imply the need for an exclusive embrace of particularity. A rejection of strict ontological and logical necessity does not mean that everything reduces to the contingencies of an historical relativism. A critique of the classical logic of identity does not imply a simple embrace of difference. What is required is a recognition of a genuine logos or structure of reason — but one that is TRANSVERSAL rather than universal. This is what I have come to call “the transversal logos”, wherewith one is able to split the difference between the overdetermination of rationality in classical and modern philosophy and the vapid and self-effacing posture on rationality among the postmoderns. The resources of the transversal logos thus keep us attuned to the concrete particularities and contingencies of human existence, whence philosophical reflection proceeds, and to which it returns with renewed understanding and insight. It is in this manner that one is able to recognize certain durable contributions of the tradition whilst responding sympathetically to the postmodern challenge.

Несколько слов об авторе

Профессор Кэлвин Шраг — один из ведущих современных философов США, член Нью-Йоркской академии наук и ряда других престижных научных организаций.
К. Шраг родился в 1928 году в Южной Дакоте. Получил разностороннее гуманитарное образование. В разное время обучался в Оксфорде, Гарварде, а также в высших учебных заведениях Иллинойса, Индианы и других университетских центров США. Является автором восьми монографий (в том числе: «Экзистенция и свобода», 1961; «Коммуникативный праксис и пространство субъективности», 1986; «Коммуникативная риторика и требования разума», 1994), более 150 других научных публикаций. В 90-е годы много внимания уделяет проблемам постмодернизма. В своей последней монографии «Ситуация человека после постмодерна» (“The Self after Postmodernity”), опубликованной в 1997 г., подвергает детальному анализу различные варианты возможного взаимодействия «дома человеческого бытия» и культуры в ситуации деконструированного постмодерна. Книга написана в критическом ключе и раскрывает важные аспекты отношения между модернизмом и постмодернизмом, а также между классическими и постмодернистскими представлениями о человеческой субъективности. Большой интерес, в частности, представляет предпринятый автором анализ знаменитой книги Ж. Делеза и Ф. Гваттари «Капитализм и шизофрения».
Важные моменты своей концепции проф. К. Шраг — гость нашей конференции — раскрывает в приводимом выше тексте пленарного доклада «Постмодернизм как проблема метафизики».

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