Saturday, October 04, 2014

Steven Pinker on postmodernist writing

An excerpt from an interview with Steven Pinker:

Q: How much of that tendency [to hedge and to obfuscate] comes from postmodern and poststructuralist fields where academics have very different ideas of what knowledge is and what can be proven? Do you think that some of those fields have done damage to academic writing?

A: Oh absolutely, yeah. Unquestionably. Because by far the worst writing in academia comes from postmodernist scholars, notoriously so. When Denis Dutton ran his bad academic writing contest in the late 1990s, it was postmodernists and other similar literary scholars who won the award year after year.

Postmodernism is an extreme exaggeration of a stance which all academics have to some extent: we don’t open our eyes and just see the world as it is. We understand the world through our theories and constructs. We are constantly in danger of being misled by our own unconscious biases and assumptions. Gaining knowledge about the world is extremely difficult, so all of those qualifications are certainly true, and even scientists who believe in an objective reality acknowledge the fragility and difficulty of obtaining knowledge.

But postmodernism takes that to the lunatic extreme of denying that there is such a thing as [objectivity], as the real world or objective reality or truth or knowledge at all. The problem is that one can be fully aware of all these epistemological issues, how hard it is to gain knowledge, but not let it cloud up one’s writing. That is, in writing one can for the purpose of exposition adopt a fiction that there is an objective world that you can know just by looking at it even if one is not committed to that as as an actual statement. So it is an indispensable fiction even if it is a fiction.

This is the sort of critique that I wish Camille Paglia wrote, given her own distaste for postmodernists and poststructuralists. Granted, what Pinker says above doesn't amount to a substantive critique, but I'm gratified, at least, to see him griping about PoMo—its erosion of academe and of academe's respectability.


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