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A Postmodern Take on Philosophy

Philosophy, theoretically speaking, has paved way for ideas, concepts, systems, ways of life etc. But it started off as ‘thinking’ about issues which concerns no one, about questions which no scientist would deal with and I am not referring to the pre-Socratic scientific ‘thinkers’ alone but to what goes beyond them. In a way, it is the subject-matter which is a gift from philosophy itself. Ethics, aesthetics, rhetoric, linguistics- these fields have sprung from philosophy. They truly are the products of philosophical thinking and they transcend it. Philosophy literally means ‘love of wisdom’ and involves dealing with fundamental questions about living. Philosophy has for ages, been a medium to infuse knowledge among the masses. As Socrates’ famous saying goes, ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’. His midwifery method suggests that the task of philosopher is to help realize the potential, which is already there; to help recollect the knowledge already present in us. And for him, this knowledge is equivalent to moral virtue, which in turn makes philosophy a means to possess ‘a good life’. So, if it is seen as a method of achieving something, what can be of its own? If philosophy is not capable to give us anything of its own, how can we even regard it as a discipline? A postmodern would say it is not a discipline.

It is true that philosophy provides us concepts and systems to deal with language and the world. Tremendous efforts are done by analytical philosophers in this regard, who are after conceptual clarity through a formal and clear language. Their efforts to provide a stable system of language is an attempt at erasing the ambiguity of thought. But have they not used philosophy as a tool to undergo every inquiry, to speculate every word, to criticize every move towards confirmation? They might aspire clear and correct knowledge of things, but they gave us loops where systems are formed, and they are internally broken down by fallacies. The problem is not in practice, but in the vision. Wittgenstein, a man who influenced analytical trends said, Philosophy is an activity. Therefore, it is a ‘doing’, a work-in-progress without limits, without telos. All attempts to set a goal or purpose for philosophy tend to defeat its nature, it cannot be a discipline like science or mathematics with set experiments, formulae, and defined terms. In view of a postmodern, philosophy is a way to understand the world and to undo that understanding. At most, it can be regarded as a method, a direction, or a perspective. Any attempts to provide a definition and to confine a subject like philosophy is avoided by a postmodern. But who is a postmodern? Postmodernism came as a movement against modernism or ‘modernist’ structures who preferred conceptualizations and categorizations in philosophy. Modernists are set to give way to grand or meta narratives in philosophy, which engages the study in a particular direction and deals with some concepts as eternal truths instead of having a critical look at matters. A famous example of such grand narrative is the perfect imagery of ‘Enlightenment rationality’, which provides an enhanced picture of scientific rationality and objectivity in a way which not only demolishes the Church religion but also replaces it with equally ‘totalitarian’ scientific inquiry. Post-moderns regard this ‘totalitarian’ because there is seldom a chance to lay fingers upon scientific authority and question its bearings. They are often seen as criticizing the meta-narratives of history that includes patronizing trends of philosophy too such as formation of dichotomies like male/female, subject/object, self/other, speech/writing, universal/particular etc., where privilege is placed upon the former, who is given primacy over the latter. Jacques Derrida, a postmodern philosopher has written extensively on this arbitrary formation of dichotomies, where one side is placed at the center while the other side is cornered. Often, he has deliberated to expose the fluidity within these dichotomies, in an attempt to break the inflexibility of their distinction into categories of right/wrong, good/bad, friend/enemy etc. Derrida’s famous method of deconstruction exposes and punctures these dichotomies from within, by either reversing the power play within dichotomies or by introducing a third category which transcends the dichotomy itself.

Another postmodern tenet is to give primacy to the ‘context’ rather than forming universal principles. Western philosophical trends have been accused of favoring ‘universalizing’ tendencies. Right from Plato onwards who talks highly of “universal ideas” over “particular images”, there has been a constant effort to look for concepts and not percepts. However, we do have philosophers like Immanuel Kant who try and show the importance of both, there is still a suspicion towards what is already in perspective, and a favor towards something that is an objective reality. Philosophy has always carried this burden of ‘objectivity’, so much so that it haunts every notion it touches upon. It questions the very credibility of a subject like philosophy. But again, should one even regard philosophy as a ‘subject’? The ‘scientific temper’ which has gotten every subject on its toes as a criterion or a measure for relevance and utility is harmful. Philosophy is not supposed to make us think scientifically, but philosophically and the two are not totally distant in spirit. Philosophy lays its ground upon reason and critical thinking; it is a pursuit of relentless questioning into existence.

So, what role does a postmodernist play in this scenario? Postmodernist denies carrying forward the burden of objectivity and celebrates philosophy even in its analysis of nuanced ‘particular’ events which feature its subjective aspect. Postmodernists are of relevance here because they view philosophy as much more than any discipline. It is a challenging task and thus an activity for a curious mind which is in search of novelty. A discipline tells us ‘this is the case’ and then expect us to go by the rules and the boundaries it sets for us. Philosophy lets us make those rules and break them; it is fluid. It patiently takes us case by case to divergent views and plethora of ideas. It teaches us how a view can be challenged yet advocated for, it doesn’t take sides and by that it is not ‘stand-less’. Like other disciplines, philosophy is not just ready with answers to memorize, rather it importantly deals in questions and teaches us the art of asking the right questions. Philosophy is just too open and too wide to be taking some views into account leaving others. Acceptance is what philosophy teaches us; at the same time, it is making us skeptical of approaches. Therefore, philosophical outlook becomes so essential in spheres of life where episodes go on like a complicated riddle, to be handled patiently and differently every time. It is not important to have reached the answers quickly, but to have understood the problem unwearyingly.

Postmodern thinkers are the ones who are more interested in the ‘un-important’ ‘marginal’ issues of history. They tend to investigate the neglected, the cornered, the minority, the secondary. Why do they do so? Do they want to balance it all out? Is justice their ideal? Would they even approve of a universal ideal? In a nutshell, the post-moderns have nothing to offer you. They will not provide you theories, concepts, systems that have only one understanding, as was the case with modernists. Postmodernists realize that views can be contested, and systems can be broken, thus they think it fair enough to leave it upon the ‘context’. Postmodernists respect the differences, the particularities, and the contextual play. And therefore, they do not have well-articulated definitions for a concept. They understand it in a limited way and are aware of it. Most of the postmodern reading is ‘textual’. They understand philosophy as being aware of the suppositions, the assumptions, influences, also biases. Most often it happens in our attempts to free mankind from perpetual worries, we offer universal principle. These principles surely seem larger than life and give a comfort of sorts that we have found a way out of our finitude, however in all this juggle, we forget to look at the local problem at hand. We forget that we have a life to live which is in our everyday chores and noises. Postmodernists do not see philosophy divorced from the daily, it is thriving within the reaches of a common man. What is philosophical is as much social, cultural, economic, and political. Philosophy is a medium for them which must be at the least noble and novel.

– Tanya Yadav (Freelancer)

Picture: “La Discussion Politique” (Émile Friant, 1889) – Representational



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