To introduce postmodernist thinking with the statement that subjectivity is free is, as is often the case in philosophical matters, more a restatement of the question than an answer. We said before that Marxism, intending to be scientific, took the objective side of the human world, i.e., economics, as that which humans needed to take control of in order to produce utopia. We also said that postmodernism is the blending of Marxism with European continental philosophy upon the basis of an awareness of Marxism’s failure. Now, we can begin to develop these threads in order to explain postmodernism’s appraisal of subjectivity. In order to do so, we must consider a very brief history of a decisive moment in modern European philosophy.
The academic discipline of philosophy is, today, broadly divided into two camps: the camp of analytic philosophy and the camp of (European) continental philosophy. Analytic philosophy is, roughly speaking, an attempt to begin philosophy over on a mathematical basis. Continental philosophy is the home of postmodernism. Analytic philosophy flourished in the Anglophone world. Continental philosophy flourished in the francophone and German-speaking world(s). The split between these two traditions is largely attributable to a German philosopher’s reaction to what he learned from a British philosopher. The German philosopher was Immanuel Kant. The British philosopher was David Hume.
David Hume is known as a skeptical philosopher. Skepticism has something fundamental to do with doubting. A person claims that thus and such is the truth of something. The skeptic tends to take the position that thus and such is not the truth of that something. David Hume’s skepticism rested on a central point. He questioned the link between cause and effect.
A typical representation of Hume’s doubting of causes uses the sun as an example. The sun rose yesterday morning. It rose this morning, and we all have not a lick of doubt that it will rise tomorrow morning. How do we know that the sun will rise tomorrow morning? Of course, we have a model of the solar system, a theory of gravity, etc. At a basic level, our experience of the sun’s constancy gives us confidence that it will rise tomorrow, and every day of our lives after that. Hume’s doubt, here, is a formal, logical one. He would grant all the reasons for our confidence, but he would ask: what principle in our theory of science, what principle in our experience, guarantees that the sun must behave the same way tomorrow as it behaves today?
The answer is: nothing. Simply because something has acted a certain way for the entirety of our experience with it, this is not in and of itself a logical proof that it must act that way all the time, only that it is likely to act that way all the time. Once we have seen this logical point, the question becomes: okay, so what do we do with that?
This is where Immanuel Kant comes in. We can explain the logical steps of his response to Hume by applying Hume’s skepticism to our understanding of science. When we look for certainty upon which to found our confidence that the sun will rise tomorrow, we look to the scientific explanation that we referenced above. At its core, science ascribes natural laws to matter. The certainty of science, then, is supposed to be that it (a.) hypothesizes about the inherent properties of matter, (b.) proves or refutes these hypotheses through experimentation and (c.) uses proven hypotheses to build a lawful theory of nature. The certainty is rooted in the lawfulness that is supposed to be gained through practicing the scientific method. What Hume showed Kant, in part, was that that idea of lawfulness in science is merely a presupposition. Again, because there is no self-evident logical principal that guarantees that material things will continue to behave in the same way simply because they always have acted in that way, the supposed lawfulness that we ascribe to material processes is not really lawfulness.
Kant looked at Hume’s point and supposed that we could draw the conclusion that the so-called “laws” that we ascribe to nature never really belong to nature. Even when they predict the behavior of nature perfectly, they still belong to us. For Kant scientific laws and, indeed, all human conceptualization fail to capture things in their essence. Instead, when we hypothesize, when we conceptualize, we are imposing our perception, our thinking on things.
On the one hand, Kant’s response to Hume enables and even necessitates the idea of science as an infinite human project. I.e., because scientific theories are always the imposition of our thinking on the world rather than a description of the essence of the world’s being, every scientific theory is liable to being eclipsed by a more accurate, more comprehensive scientific theory. On the other, Kant’s response to Hume established the question of human perception, human subjectivity as a potential route of central concern. From Kant forward, the British academy followed, broadly speaking, the path of scientific inquiry. The German and, later, French academies followed the path of critiquing the modern scientific project on the basis of insight into subjectivity.