In my last post, I began to take stock of postmodernism’s indebtedness to Immanuel Kant. Postmodernism is a creature of the 20th century, but Kant lived in the 18th century. The evolutions in thought that link postmodernism to Kant fill volumes written by myriad thinkers during the centuries between Kant and the postmodernist philosophers. Inherent in my project of exploring such matters by means of series of blog posts is the necessity of attempting to compress the history of western philosophy to essential moments. It is not always clear how these essential moments accumulated into contemporary thinking, though, when they are presented in such a wholly abridged form. On the other hand, trying to construct an account that avoids smoothing out rough edges would require all those volumes that sit, largely unread, in libraries around the world. I must, then, do my best in hopes that any errors I introduce in service of simplification will not prove impediments to others’ attempts to understand these matters better than my blog posts evince.
If we are to pick one moment in philosophy to connect postmodernism to Kant, that moment occurs in the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was quite a vocal critic of Kant, but as we shall see, his criticism was qualified.
Nietzsche compared Kant’s philosophy to a butterfly that died in its cocoon. In other words, Nietzsche saw Kant’s work as something that had the potential to become beautiful, but he believed that Kant was not able to complete the work. If Nietzsche saw the potential for beauty in Kant, this means he saw a way in which Kant’s thought could have become beautiful. He saw a way forward on the basis of Kant, and it is this indebtedness to Kant in Nietzsche’s thinking that requires attention if we are to understand postmodernism.
Nietzsche recognized Kant’s point about conceptualization as human imposition on the world, but for him Kant failed to consider how human beings build the conceptions that we impose upon the world. Nietzsche begins to address Kant’s failure in Beyond Good and Evil when he says—and this is my paraphrase of BGE 1:5-6—that all philosophy is the attempt of the author to order the world according to his/her sense of morality. We are so used to moral relativism that this statement probably seems unremarkable to us, but we must remember that we are speaking within the context of a critique of science. Our commonsense view of moral relativism holds that science is exempt from claims of subjectivity, but Nietzsche saw, as a consequence of Kant’s thought, that science cannot escape the realm of subjectivity. I.e., if scientific theories belong to us rather than to the nature of the world, then the fact that they coincide with observable physical phenomena is not a guarantee of their truth. It is only an indication of their usefulness. For Nietzsche, then, science is not the antidote to subjectivity.
Being neither traditionally religious nor convinced of the authority of the physical sciences, Nietzsche posited a hypothesis that was possible for neither of these points of view simply. He posited that if the origin of human beings is generically identical with the being of the “material” world, then it might be the case that our experience of our own interiority, our own mental being, is the experience of the world from the inside that is impossible for the physical sciences. (This is the origin of Nietzsche’s famous “will to power.”) If, however, we arrive at a place in which we say that (a.) all ideas of the good are human creations, that (b.) the will force undergirding and empowering human moral expression is the fundamental force that makes the world go ‘round and that (c.) human history is the story of the war of these “will” forces, we are now pretty much in the place of understanding the postmodern point of view.
When we said that for postmodernists subjectivity is free, what we meant was that on the basis of insights pretty much in line with Nietzsche’s, the postmodernists judge human subjectivity as free from God and free from objective necessity…free from science. Marx brought onto the world stage the project of engineering human cosmopolitanism similar to the way in which an engineer designs a bridge, but his claim that the objective side of human life is the key for social engineering failed. For the postmodernists the idea of the freedom of subjectivity offered a new modus operandi for Marx’s program of social engineering. To shape the world according to a Marxist cosmopolitan ideal, the postmodernists saw an amoral war of values as the necessary means.