Idealism as a Response to "Postmodernism"
I put the word "Post-Modernism" in scare quotes for two reasons. One is that it is impossible to pin down just what should go under the name 'post-modern'. Here I shall just be picking out a few notions thought of as post-modern and address them. The other is that, in my opinion, these notions are better understood as "end stage modernism" rather than "after" modernism. I will, nevertheless, use the term 'post-modern' in this essay in its customary way.
One more comment on the title. I used the word "Response", rather than, on the one hand, "Refutation", and on the other, "Type of". In this essay I will be arguing that idealism -- and only idealism -- is not subject to post-modern critiques of modernism, yet in a sense (to be shown) it embodies those critiques while at the same time being a complete metaphysical position, which post-modernists tend to say is impossible.
Modern philosophy is generally considered to have its start with Descartes (with a nod to Francis Bacon), with the intent to throw out the Scholastic refinements of Aristotle, and start anew. Descartes proceeded by doubting everything, and then seeing where reason and experience would lead him. And so did those who followed. Unfortunately, they all got led to different places. It turns out that it is not that easy to doubt everything, and post-modern philosophy might be characterized as the pointing out that we are unavoidably conditioned by our language and culture, that there is no rock-bottom starting point. Even mathematics has come to be seen as conditional, following the discovery that non-Euclidean geometries are just as viable as Euclidean. A further wound in the desire for a total system was provided by Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, that any axiomatic system complicated enough to cover arithmetic (much less "everything") was necessarily incomplete -- that there are truths that cannot be proven. Plus another Gödel proof that one can't prove that a complex system is consistent. Plus Turing's Undecidibility proof, that we cannot write a program that will decide in all cases if a program will eventually halt or not.
The basic premise of modernist philosophy is that there is reality, and there are our minds that can detach themselves from that reality and observe it accurately, and then we can write up our observations into a coherent system. This premise has two problems, one obvious, and one perhaps not so obvious. The obvious problem is that our minds are part of reality, and so we would need to detach ourselves from ourselves if our philosophy is to be complete. The not-so-obvious problem is that we have gradually learned that observation cannot be completely detached from the observed, whether it is the anthropologist who changes the culture being studied just by studying it, or the quantum experimenter whose observation selects from a superposition of states. The final nail in the modernist premise is, again, that one's language and culture have all sorts of presuppositions built in that shapes the observed in various ways before one's (supposedly) detached mind can reflect on it.
Awareness of these problems is not new, but it was hoped that there was a way to get past them, for example, Leibniz' dream of a characteristica universalis -- basically an attempt to mathematicize language. However, the developments in mathematics already referred to (non-Euclidean geometry and the Incompleteness and Undecidability theorems of Gödel and Turing) pretty much spiked that possibility. And so, post-modernism comes along to say that we cannot escape the relativity imposed on us by language.
Enter idealism. It claims that there is nothing outside of consciousness. This has various implications:
- All things are thoughts. What we call objective is simply the subjective thinking of a mind or minds outside of our subjectivity. I can't walk through a brick wall because the mind that is thinking the electro-magnetic force into existence is stronger than my thought of passing through that force.
- Mathematical systems are thoughts. Hence there can be many mathematical systems -- one is a Euclidean structure, another non-Euclidean.
- Physical reality is a language, its words being sense perceptions which, alas, we don't know how to read. Science studies its syntax, but not its semantics.
- There is an Absolute Origin, and it is that which creates systems of thoughts and languages. There is no reality independent of these thoughts and languages. As local subjects, what we do is play around within these systems, perhaps learning to create our own. (Since reference to any Absolute will raise the hackles of a postmodernist, I should state that as I think of it (or It), it is inseparable from its creations. It is its creations, its creations are it. The trick is to learn to think about this without sounding like a pantheist in one's effort to avoid sounding like a theist. My way of doing so is described in the Tetralemmic Polarity essay -- see menu.)
What these implications amount to is that by claiming one Absolute Truth -- that there is nothing outside of consciousness -- the idealist incorporates as positives all that the post-modernist sees as negative. Hence idealism is a metaphysical system that evades all post-modernist criticisms of metaphysical systems.