Dennett on Politics, Philosophy, and Post-Modernism
Daniel Dennett (Tufts) is visiting the UK to promote his new book, but most of this interview with The Guardian is about US politics.
Some excerpts, including a bit about how some philosophy might be responsible for our current political predicament:
We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that we’ve not experienced since the middle ages…
Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”…
What I’d really like to work on is some very exciting new developments in theories of consciousness, which has almost nothing to do with politics. I begrudge every hour that I have to spend worrying about political issues instead…
Why do advertisements cost so much at the Super Bowl? Answer: it’s not just that millions of people are watching but that millions of people, hundreds of millions of people, know that hundreds of millions of people are watching. And that gives it additional credibility. And the web isn’t like that. But when you’ve got Trump tweeting to millions of people at a time, they know that he’s tweeting to millions at a time. He’s getting one of the advantages of this credibility effect without the disadvantages…
I’m skeptical that post-modernism had much to do with Trump’s victory. It is not even on the radar of most Trump voters, and is certainly not the part of the current ideologies in play among “Trump elites,” it seems to me. Nor does post-modernism appear to have compromised the opposition to Trump. Thoughts on this?
I also don’t think that it is “respectable” to be cynical about truth. People are cynical about it, and people get away with all sorts of bullshit, but more of a contributor to this than post-modernism would just be the fact that we are easily distracted beings who carry with them at all times highly effective distraction machines. And so the bullshitters have the reasonable hope that we won’t pay attention long enough to discover or care about their bullshit.
Dennett also shares his thoughts on our reliance on technology that we’re unwilling to try to understand:
One of the big themes in my book is how up until recently, the world and nature were governed by competence without comprehension. Serious comprehension of anything is very recent, only millennia old, not even a million years old. But we’re now on the verge of moving into the age of post-intelligent design and we don’t bother comprehending any more. That’s one of the most threatening thoughts to me. Because for better or for worse, I put comprehension as one of my highest ideals. I want to understand everything. I want people to understand things. I love understanding things. I love explaining things to myself and to others. We’ve always had plenty of people who, for good reason, said, “Oh, don’t bother explaining to me how the car engine works, I don’t care. I just push the ignition and off I go.” What happens when we take that attitude towards everything?
I’m with you, Justin. It’s typical of philosophers to cling to the empirically dubious idea that their activity has this kind of massive causal effect on society. The only philosopher for whom this might be even remotely true is Marx (and it is hard to put into words how fantastically ironic that is).Report
I didn’t know they were postmodernists in the middle ages. I thought the doctrine of double truth was, like, condemned.Report
Abelard’s famous essay Sic et Non — where using the Fathers of the Church he argued opposite propositions — is probably what is meant.Report
This is breathtakingly naive, arrogant, or foolish–probably all of the above.
To imagine that a cultural indifference to truth requires philosophical persuasion–that ordinary people were just waiting for philosophers to give them a reason to be indifferent to reasons!
And to imagine that the cultural influence of incomprehensible postmodern writers would have a greater skeptical influence than skeptical arguments by respectable philosophers like Plato, Descartes, Berkeley, and Hume, who all have a much earlier and longer cultural impact.
I can, off the top of my head, name 10 immensely popular and influential movies, comic books, and novels from the last decade, as well another 10 from the last century, based on those philosophers’ experiments in skepticism, but not one based on a “postmodernist.”Report
This man truly has *zero clue* of the extremely privileged (e.g., wealthy, white, man) position from which he gets to utter such nonsense as this: “What I’d really like to work on is some very exciting new developments in theories of consciousness, which has almost nothing to do with politics. I begrudge every hour that I have to spend worrying about political issues instead.” To say that consciousness and theories thereof have “almost nothing to do with politics” is to betray one’s glaring ignorance of intellectual traditions other than his preferred, narrow version of analytic (i.e., scientistic) philosophy. And, to “begrudge every hour” that one has to spend “worrying about political issues”, instead of recognizing the massive honour of being an academic, is to betray one’s glaring ignorance of one’s own extreme socio-economic privilege.Report
“This man truly has *zero clue* of the extremely privileged (e.g., wealthy, white, man)…And, to “begrudge every hour” that one has to spend “worrying about political issues”, instead of recognizing the massive honour of being an academic, is to betray one’s glaring ignorance of one’s own extreme socio-economic privilege”
Mike, you gotta stop with criticisms of this kind. And not because you’re fundamentally wrong (Dennett most certainly does have socio-economic privilege), but because apparently you believe that the “honour of being an academic” means that they must automatically address political topics that they may have very little interest in.
Do I think it’s an important aspect of being a good citizen or member of society to understand current politics (and to align yourself in opposition to oppressive forces)? Of course I do. But do I also understand that a 74 year old philosopher (who believes that this infinitesimally short life the universe grants is all we get) that’s spent his entire career trying to understand what consciousness fundamentally is probably wants to maintain focus on that rather than examining systemic racism and discussing the points that Fanon and W.E.B. Dubious make in their various works? Yea, that’s pretty goddamn reasonable.
Not everyone is going to be fiercely interested in topics of social justice. I certainly am not. My favorite fields probably center around philosophy of science, phil. of mathematics, and epistemology (yup, of that “analytical” bent that you seem to find so disturbing).
By the way, I’ve never in my life heard of a theory of consciousness with deep connections to “talking politics” and can’t even begin to understand what that means. If you could relay any information on that front I’d love to look into it, as I imagine we became conscious entities long before we started talking politics…Report
I am with everyone else in condemning Dennett’s using Trump as an excuse to reiterate that hackneyed critique of postmodernism. I would just like to add historical ignorance to the charge-sheet: respectable, informative, principled mass media, if it ever really existed, was an anomaly. Power has always militated against it, not because of some radical French thinkers’ esoteria but because it’s in power’s interests for people to believe what power wants them to believe. If those postmodernists have anything to do with this relationship, it’s that they *revealed* it.Report
Dennett overstated it but surely it’s quite reasonable to say that postmodernism – strongly associated with disputing the concept of truth and the ideals of the enlightenment – has played some role in creating the broader cultural milieu in which post-truth politics has grown. This is quite different from suggesting that Trump voters have been taking their cues directly from postmodern philosophers (though I do enjoy the idea of a Midwestern Trump supporter taking his political inspiration from Derrida).
Keynes made a comment about economists and political philosophers than seems somewhat applicable to postmodernists in this moment:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.Report
We are offered a hypothesis which is said to partly explain the rise of evidence-free political discourse, and the hypothesis is given without any supporting evidence and with an argument from authority. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.Report
What type of evidence are you hoping for? I assume you realise it’s inappropriate to evaluate this type of claim in the way that you would with a scientific hypothesis. Society is so complex with so much noise in the system that it would be almost impossible to prove that postmodernism and post-truth politics are causally connected. If you want to evaluate a claim like this you would have to first see if there has been a correlation in the growth of the two sets of ideas (there has), and then judge whether there is a plausible reason why they may be causally connected. It seems plausible to me that postmodernism – in some cases explicit in its goal of undermining the concept of truth – could have played a role in the emergence of post-truth politics. This tentative claim is a long way from the demonstrably false claims that characterise post-truth politics.
On your other point, I’m unsure where you think there has been an appeal to authority. The Keynes quote is simply a nicely expressed riposte to the view expressed above that academic ideas have a very limited impact on life outside academia. There was no appeal to authority at work there. You are free to disagree but, again, don’t expect any definitive evidence to help you make up your mind.Report
Perhaps Dennet overstates the case, but it seem some commenters here are not aware of how far postmodernism extended in its heyday. From philosophy faculties, through all the humanities to departments of education, and beyond.Report
It doesn’t seem to me like he attributes Trump’s victory to postmodernism. He says postmodernists “are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.” Now I don’t know if that’s true either, but it’s a narrower claim. He seems to be saying that people can have utter disregard for the claims of science, and still pass as an intellectually respectable person. And he seems to think that makes it more difficult to insist on a commitment to the truth in public discourse. I guess you could read it as a claim that postmodernism is to blame for the rise of Trump, but that seems uncharitable.Report
Dennett is relying on a view of postmodernism that he–and anyone who actually cares about truth and intellectual honesty–should quickly correct. No doubt there are people who just plainly deny the existence of truth and affiliate themselves with postmodernism. But the central idea of much of postmodernist writing isn’t skepticism about truth. It’s skepticism about whether what is presented to us as truth by various institutions has any such distinction; and *any* philosopher should be skeptical of this.
The point is not that there is no truth, but that if we bracket out truth and then look at why some views are accepted as true over others, we will find that in many cases the answer has little to do with truth and much to do with power structures. I’m not sure if this view is even that contentious; at best, people may disagree about just how much influence factors unrelated to truth have on what ends up being widely accepted as truth. But surely those factors have at least some influence, and surely many of our beliefs are false because what grounds them isn’t truth but some form of power.
Obviously that kind of view, which forces us to question how much of a role power structures play in determining what we take to be true, can have the effect of undermining our confidence in what we take to be true. But if we are going to blame postmodernism for Trump as a result, we’d better blame Pyrrho, Descartes, and (especially) Hume as well. To the extent that postmodernism undermines truth more than ordinary skepticism (which no one seems to be blaming), it’s only because it hits closer to home for us social beings.Report
I agree with the commenter above who dated postmodern musings after a long history of skepticism (and assigned them a similarly secondary degree of importance/influence). Dennett confuses cynicism with the real, healthly lesson of Descartes, Hume, Kant, etc. — fallibilism.Report
It is a common accusation among conservatives that the left in general, and academics in particular, are postmodernists who don’t believe in truth. That in itself doesn’t demonstrate that postmodernism has had bad or good effects, but it seems like that fact should be some part of this conversation.Report
I thought the popular critique of the middle ages, previously voiced by the new atheists, was that they were times of dogmatism. Now the critique is that they were times of uncertainty and epistemological murk. Turns out the middle ages are just a convenient punching bag even when they have nothing to do with the issue.Report
I’ve got a couple of tickets to see Dennett in London on 6th March where I will also buy his book. It is only then, when I have put his quotations in context, that I will be able to judge whether I agree with him or not. Surely that is the most sensible way of assessing an author and his book. Is it not?Report
Dennett on psychological ascriptions (among other things):
They are “true with a grain of salt… veritas cum grano salis” (‘Instrumentalism reconsidered’).
“Sometimes, functional interpretation is obvious, but when it is not, when we go to read Mother Nature’s mind, there is no text to be interpreted. When “the fact of the matter” about proper function is controversial–when more than one interpretation is well supported–there is no fact of the matter” (‘Evolution, error and intentionality’).Report
Richard Rorty would beg to differ about the post modern claim above if he were alive today.
I’d agree with Justin but would also cut Dennett a bit of slack. There is a problem with our failure to establish and face the facts and it afflicts philosophy worse than most area of life, and the result of it is a free–for-all of opinion and conjecture that spreads out across science and religion. My problem with his point is that I would accuse him of being one of the worst offenders and as representing exactly that part of philosophy that needs to change.
So the hypocrisy would be my problem with his comments.Report
Dennett’s overconfidence in the grasp of philosophers (like himself) is on trial in:
and related commentary:
Some of the comments here seem to betray a remarkable lack of awareness of intellectual and cultural currents outside of professional Anglophone philosophy. Postmodernism (in the generic sense that’s at issue here) isn’t merely some “radical French thinkers’ esoteria”; it’s had a profound influence on intellectual life within the academy and beyond — in art, architecture, politics, and so forth. To ask for evidence of that is a bit like asking for evidence that we’re breathing air; if you’re genuinely curious, I can here only urge you to read some books and speak so some intellectuals outside your field. That some of the more epistemically dubious aspects of ‘postmodernism’ might help to erode a fact-based political discourse was recognized by one of the central figures in the field, Bruno Latour, more than a decade ago. Since many of you seem so confident about the history and content of postmodernism, I assume you’ve read Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”, and are aware of its influence. I encourage you to revisit it. In it, Latour warns that the tools of critique might be, and are being, appropriated in the service of the oppressive power structures they were originally intended to undermine, as in ‘critiques’ of evidence of anthropogenic global warming. “No surprise that eroding public faith in epistemic authority might have odious political consequences”, one might have thought — but evidently this WAS a surprise to Latour and his fellow travelers. After recognizing that critique and social constructionism might be wielded by the Right as well as the Left, Latour abandoned it. My understanding is that postmodernism (broadly construed) has since moved away from some of the strong claims about the social construction of objectivity, facts and evidence that characterized much early work in the field. But this is after several decades of the stuff being fed to smart undergraduates throughout the social sciences and humanities. If you don’t think that this could plausibly have an influence on the broader intellectual culture, what are you in the business of college education for? The money?! It seems to me that Dennett’s claim is essentially just a crude way of making the same point Latour made 13 years ago, a point that arguably changed the field of postmodernism for the better. But only after much of the damage was already done.Report
In the words of Latour: “[E]ntire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.”Report
I am not a philosopher but, for years, I’ve listened to some of my university colleagues declare to graduates and undergraduates alike that there is no such thing as truth (literally-those last seven words) without adding any of the finer points noted by others who’ve commented here. I’ve also listened as students have parroted the sentiment in classes (in my media ethics courses, for example). I agree with Mr. Morgan that university faculty members are extremely influential in shaping thought, inside and outside of academic institutions and I would encourage philosophers not to distance themselves from the broader issue to which Dennett points. The question his comments raise is a good one: Has postmodernism enabled the rise and acceptance of Trump and his ilk in the public sphere? That question deserves cold, hard thought and if the answer is anywhere close to yes, corrective action must be taken. Much of that conceptual work would need to be done in the academy where, arguably, most of the thinking about postmodernism has occurred. Let’s hope it, too, would spill out into the larger world.Report
If you think that post-modernism has no political impact, then you need to undertake the painful duty of reading the opinion pieces on Foxnews.com and other conservative sites. It is a routine criticism that academics don’t believe in truth, and “post-modernism” is used as a term of abuse.
If you want to understand how conservatives are thinking, you have to follow the conservative media.Report