Our contemporary intellectual condition, postmodernism, remains notoriously
difficult to define, perhaps because it is still in the process of "becoming."
As a historical period, it suggests a perceptible change from the modern,
industrial age (which held sway in much of the Western world for about
200 years) toward a "post-modern" era dominated by electronic
technologies and information services. It could, however, equally be
conceived of as a "crisis" of modernity, a realization of
the ecological and aesthetic limits of scientific industrialism.
In fact, the term seems to have arisen in the context of modern architecture,
faced with a "void" or the emptiness of its forms. Such concepts
may appear threatening to the Western mind, but they are the very conditions
for intellectual and spiritual progress in Buddhism! The Buddhist term
for spiritual enlightenment, "Nirvana," implies the "void"
or "burning" of the ego, emptied of its preconceptions and
previous learning, and thus uniquely situated to understand the many-sidedness
of reality and the absence of permanent truths. Buddhism, Postmodernism,
and Theory of Knowledge share an insistence upon "polyphony,"
recognition of the multiple voices and conceptions that shape the contemporary
world. As critical examinations of knowledge, they question the foundations
of many "self-evident truths."
In particular, Postmodern thought challenges the canons of scientific
rationality (the dominant paradigm of Western academia since the Enlightenment),
with its notions of underlying natural and human regularities amenable
to examination through the use of reason. Using machine-like metaphors,
rational explanation grounded in natural science assumes objectivity
in the form of "facts," logical causality, a completeness
or unified body of knowledge, and a self-centered presumption of "truth,"
which can only be determined by its own practitioners. Two related ideas
-- essence and dichotomy -- arise from a belief in the inherent "nature"
of things and the possibility of "true" or "false"
statements about that nature. When applied to the human sciences, these
presumptions can be used to claim "essential" or "intrinsic"
properties of entire societies or cultures. British colonial writers,
for instance, enframed "traditional" Indian society within
defining characteristics of caste, autonomous village structures, and
state despotism, a static entity that "justified" the leavening
of British institutions and attitudes. Dutch colonial officers created
the myth of Bali as an island of "village republics" to conform
to European preconceptions. Islam was labeled as incorrigibly misogynous
by the same Victorian apparatus that provided evidence of the biological
and intellectual "inferiority" of women at home! Post-Cold
War political and media machines continue the vilification of Islam,
falling victim to the most damaging dichotomy of all, the "Self
/ Other" or "us / them" duality, used with "scientific"
evolutionary perspectives to label other societies as "primitive"
Some of the most popular modern political and economic theories haven't
escaped the assumption of an underlying human "nature" or
"essence": capitalism and political liberalism project "self-maximizing
individualism" as fiercely as the "class consciousness"
and collective identities of Marxism and other sociological theories,
or the Hegelian "Mind" and "Spirit." In all cases,
human action becomes subordinate to its "essential nature"
rather than a creative response to changing circumstances. Contrarily,
Postmodernism declares the historically contingent nature of all knowledge,
creating a personal identity that Ernesto Laclau calls "nothing
but the unstable articulation of constantly changing positionalities."
In a more positive sense, this mirrors the possibility of multiple identities,
arising from the incompleteness of human practices and knowledge.
Several voices have contributed to Postmodernist melodies, but I will
confine myself to a handful. Emmanuel Kant set the tone as far back
as 1784 with the question "What are we," implying a critical
analysis of us and our present in a precise historical moment, as opposed
to Descartes" question "Who am I," the "I"
implying a unique but universal and unhistorical subject. The English
philosopher of history, Collingwood, went further in asserting that
all metaphysical questions are historical questions. History and philosophy
thus become the critical study or "science" of presuppositions,
shaped by each era. From this perspective, Western rationalism and its
constant search for universals appears as simply a particular set of
Collingwood constructs his open-ended view of knowledge around "overlapping
entities" of "dialectical" forces that move toward agreement
and synthesis, and "eristical" forces that lead to disagreement
and attempts at domination or subjugation. Thomas Kuhn's theory of scientific
revolutions echoes Collingwood's dynamic processes: a period of "normal
science" based on a ruling set of paradigmatic assumptions and
practices, being undermined over time by the appearance of "anomalies"
and their eventual replacement by "revolutionary science."
Even nature doesn't seem to partake of universals!
No other Postmodernist philosopher has done more to focus upon the
forces of domination, the intimate links between knowledge and power,
than Michel Foucault. Through historical analyses of specific and changing
practices in Western societies in areas like public health and medicine,
psychiatry, imprisonment and punishment, and sexuality, Foucault exposes
the "regimes of truth" that envelop knowledge, imposing constraints
on discourse through exclusion and selection. Of particular interest
is the emergence of modern public education as a form of "discipline,"
an aspect of the State's control mechanisms.
Many second generation feminists have extended Foucault's analyses
to uncover the mechanisms of patriarchy, a particular "regime of
truth." Drawing upon Foucault and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan,
Luce Irigaray points to the seminal role of language and symbolic systems
as the "irreducible" foundation of the "phallic"
order, necessitating the contrary search for a "feminine imaginary."
In the religious sphere, for instance, "the feminine god would
be one to give form to multiplicity, difference, becoming, flows, rhythms,
and to the "splendor of the body" -- in other words, to those
things that cannot receive a viable image within a patriarchal religious
experience." It may be noted that some religious traditions, such
as Hinduism and several "animist" faiths, have celebrated
multiple images of feminine divinity. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard,
however, questions the very "reality" of images and linguistic
codes in an era of mass-media consumerism dominated by effective simulation.
For him, we are now in the age of "simulacra," where the difference
between the "real" and its representation is erased. Among
the social symptoms of "simulacra" are that "opposites
begin to collapse and everything becomes undecidable: the beautiful
and the ugly in fashion, the left and the right in politics, the true
and the false in the media, the useful and the useless at the level
of objects, nature, and culture."
Here we confront the potential dangers of Postmodernism. The "collapse"
of aesthetic and political standards, suggested by Baudrillard, could
easily result in extreme relativism and even "postmodern nihilism"
of the "anything goes" variety. This kind of attitude must
be challenged, since it obscures the quickening pace of interaction
between Western and non-Western cultures, some of it perpetuating historical
inequalities. On a more hopeful note, the astonishing imposition of
global power structures upon the "periphery" is being countered
by varied and far from predictable responses. Rather than empty relativism,
it seems to me that the "Postmodernist" approach, at its best,
implies a passionate engagement in the lives and actions of other peoples
and cultures. "Positive internationalization," a goal of the
IB and TOK curricula, would emerge from a base of specific cultural
and regional understandings, rather than an imposition of homogeneous
structures from "above." Ironically, relativism risks the
danger of lapsing into self-contained ethnocentrism.
From the above discussion, it will be evident that Theory of Knowledge
is a course uniquely in tune with contemporary philosophical concerns.
The emphasis on critical thought, accompanied by a historical perspective
on all knowledge, helps to sift through the mass of ethnocentric information
to discover the nuggets of human wisdom. TOK already turns the historical
spotlight on the Natural Sciences and Mathematics, two areas which were
long considered "universalistic" and bearers of privileged
truths. Coming to terms with the absence of "universal" or
"absolute" truths should not, as noted earlier, serve as a
pretext for hollow relativism. Rather, Postmodernism challenges us to
engage in a "polyphonous" world and ensures that certain voices
don't disappear, as they've tended to in our colonial and expansionist
past. At the very least, TOK essays should reflect a much greater awareness
of the specific cultural and historical contexts within which students
are located in different parts of the world, rather than the "ancestor
worship" of Greek and other Western forms of knowledge which appears
to predominate at the moment.
Above all, as Collingwood asserted, philosophy is a "science of
presuppositions," a lifelong commitment to intense scrutiny of
the self and society, a readiness to redefine and reconstruct that transforms
a closed mind. The Zen story "A Cup of Tea" seems a particularly
appropriate TOK episode:
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university
professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept
The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain
himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"
"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your
own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you
first empty your cup."
N.B.: A version of this paper was first presented at the I.B. TOK workshop
at Brisbane, Australia, in July 1996. I would like to thank the workshop
participants for their helpful comments and feedback.