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No. 39, December 1997

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Postmodernism and Theory of Knowledge

by Dr. Vivek R. Bammi
Jakarta international School, Indonesia

In this cogent mini-review of Postmodern thought, Dr. Vivek Bammi makes connections to non-Western thinking and to the goals of TOK.

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" or "underdeveloped."

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 cultural assumptions!

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 on pouring.

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.


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