Does each of you reading this sentence understand its meaning? Does it have an objective meaning? Or is meaning a subjective matter that differs according to one’s race, socioeconomic class, gender, and personal idiosyncrasies? If the latter, then I am wasting my time writing this, for I intend to communicate a particular set of meanings that are limited in scope. If I wanted to say something that means nothing beyond the quirks of the individual reader, then I would teach in an English department rather than in a philosophy department.
How did much of contemporary intellectual thought move from universal standards to cultural relativism to linguistic relativism? Is such movement really a movement from “modernism,” the idea that human beings can discover standards through universal reason, to “postmodernism,” the idea that there is no “Truth” with a capital “T,” and that even meaning itself is wholly relative to the observer?
The theologian Thomas Oden has argued that the radical cultural and linguistic relativism that is a fetish in today’s academic climate is not really “postmodernism” but “ultramodernism.” Modernism claimed to reject tradition (while substituting its own tradition for the (primarily religious) traditions it supplanted. With the exception of Grotius and some eighteenth century philosophers (including, oddly enough, David Hume), modernism rejected a natural law ethic in favor of abstract reason. But abstract reason is not enough to unify human communities with disparate cultures and traditions–thus, in the face of clear evidence of cultural diversity, some strands of modernism accepted cultural relativism (the work of the anthropologist Ruth Benedict is an example). With the politicization of academic discourse in the 1960s, with its focus on race, class, and gender (and later, sexual orientation), the view arose that one’s identity (and perspective on life) is determined by these factors. All of these developments are logical extensions of modernity’s emphasis on abstract reason–so-called postmodernists take a rationalistic framework, the “race/class/gender/sexual orientation” paradigm, and try to apply this framework to real human communities.
It was a small step from this division of cultures in the modernist Babel to the division of tongues. Jacques Derrida rightly criticized the abstract rationalist framework of structuralism–if he had stopped there, well and good. However, he went on to deny any objective meaning to texts, accepting a radical “reader response” theory of meaning, in which the only meaning a text has is that provided by the reader. There is no common understanding and ultimately no common language.
The late British philosopher C. D. Broad refers to what he calls “silly philosophies.” A silly philosophy is one that, if accepted by a non-philosopher, would result in that non-philosopher being considered insane. What sounds good within the halls of academia may make little sense in everyday life. And it is clear that, while we do bring our assumptions to the texts we read, and our background influences our reading of texts, we still find a common core of meaning. Take, for example, a science text. Students in Africa, India, China, and the United States will understand some common meaning in the text; otherwise, scientists would be wholly unable to communicate their findings to people in different cultures. In literature, Shakespeare’s plays have a universal meaning (Hamlet’s struggle with vengeance) that people from different cultures can and do understand (Quine’s “indeterminacy of translation”–another “silly philosophy”– notwithstanding). This is not to say that communication through language cross culturally is perfect–but to deny it takes place at all is insanity.
Such “ultramodernist” insanity is the logical development of a modernism which rejects both tradition and a common human nature. What is needed is a true “postmodernism” which accepts the role of tradition in interpreting and understanding reality while also accepting that humans share a common biological and rational nature. This postmodernism would accept the best science of its day (rather than rejecting it, as Christian Fundamentalism, a modernist movement, does). It would interpret “reason” not in an abstract way, but would understand how reason functions in concrete human communities with their traditions through which they interpret reality. Such a view does not imply relativism, for there remains a common human nature, common desires and needs that all human beings have no matter what their tradition might be. Cross cultural communication would be possible (here I am following Alasdair MacIntyre) by a process of “translation” of the discourse of one tradition in a way that someone in another tradition can understand. For example, I must admit that, as a Western Christian, I have difficulty understanding Buddhism’s “no-self” doctrine. But that does not mean I am incapable of partially understanding it through comparisons with similar Western theories of the self (such as Hume’s, though Hume would deny the strict causality of the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination). The same follows for other views.
If this essay elicits angry responses from “ultramodernists,” I wonder if I should reply. After all, according to them, I can interpret what they write according to my background and whims. So I’ll interpret them as really agreeing with me. And they are free, on their own account of meaning, to interpret me as agreeing with them. And if I really believed what I just wrote, then I would deserve to be institutionalized.