Can Metamodernism Sublate Modernism and Postmodernism?

I’ve been hearing that metamodernism is the next stage in the march of history toward progress. Metamodernism will synthesise modernism and postmodernism into something better that before. It’s what’s for breakfast.

I’ve heard about metamodernism in the past, and everytime I review some material I discount it and move on. This time, I’ll react to it. My colleagues in some other online fora have suggested metamodernism (Freinacht) or post-liberalism (Pabst), who see their solution located in the middle between conventional polarities. The attempt here is to adopt Hegel’s dialectic approach, so we’ve got a starting point, an objective, a lens, and a framework. Sounds good. Let’s go. But what are we trying to reconcile?

Ideas attributed to Modernism are

  1. Faith in science
  2. Development and progress
  3. Democracy
  4. The individual
  5. A meritocratic social order
  6. Humanity can recreate nature by virtue of her reason

Ideas attributed to Postmodernism are

  1. Critical questioning of all knowledge and science
  2. Suspicion towards all grand narratives about “progress”
  3. Emphasis on symbols and contexts
  4. Ironic distance
  5. Cultures have been oppressed and ruined by modern society
  6. Reveals injustice in “democratic” societies
  7. Relations create the individual
  8. A multicultural order where the weak are included
  9. Humanity has destroyed the biosphere

Metamodern Ideas

  1. How can we reap the best parts of the other two?
  2. Can we create better processes for personal development?
  3. Can we recreate the processes by which society is governed, locally and globally?
  4. Can the inner dimensions of life gain a more central role in society?
  5. How can modern, postmodern and premodern people live together productively?
  6. How can politics be adjusted to an increasingly complex world?
  7. What is the unique role of humanity in the ecosystems of nature?

Reviewing the Modern List

I want to be careful not to construct a strawman or create a false dichotomy, so perhaps I do have to backtrack to touch on the Modern list.

Faith in science is exactly that—faith—and is not warranted without recognised and articulated assumptions.

The notions of development and progress rely on underlying teleological goals and values that are not universally agreed upon and don’t benefit participants in the same manner and to the same degrees. There are winners and losers.

Democracy is a specious notion that I’ve railed against time and again. This is simply one form of political organisation among many. There is no reason to elevate this form over many others.

Moderns do have an rather fixed notion of what defines the individual. A Postmodern is not very likely to accept this notion except as a snapshot that can only be interpreted within a narrowly defined context.

A meritocratic social order is a Modern concept ripe with metanarrative support.

That humanity can recreate nature by virtue of her reason—notwithstanding the odd use of ‘her, evidently a nod to Mother Nature—, there is a elevated notion that reason is a superior mechanism. I’d extend this to include the notion that many people—not just the elite—are capable of ‘reason’. Yet again, all of this is questionable.

Critiquing the Postmodern List

At the start, I’ll suggest that Metamodernism is an attempt by Moderns to re-established ground lost to Postmoderns under the auspices of reconciliation. This does not appear to come from a disinterested mediator. The constituents of the Modern list look orthodox enough for my purposes, and I wish to spend some time parsing the Postmodern list. These lists don’t appear to be equivalent, as there is more editorialising in the PoMo list. I’ll skip the the first 4, taking them as given.

That cultures have been oppressed and ruined by modern society is quite value-laden. I’d be more inclined toward cultural constructs rely on unspoken metanarratives that leads to unbalance and disrupt the playing field. Employing the term ruin is a hint that the author is a Modern out of their element. To ruin would presume a notion of something to ruin with some teleological metanarrative in play.

That PoMo reveals injustice in “democratic” societies is interesting. First, the quotes around democratic suggests that the author finds claims of democracy to be specious or finds the term is at least at times misapplied. I can’t be certain. In the end, it’s not important because it seems to be acting as an unnecessary filler anyway. I better rendering might be the phrase ‘reveals injustice in societies‘. Full stop.

Relations create the individual feel legitimate. Identity is unnecessary in a vacuum. Although Identity is a dynamic and ambiguous concept. I don’t think this will affect my assessment.

A multicultural order where the weak are included is prescriptive. This, again, is a misinterpretation by a modern. That a Postmodern makes a claim that a culture has inequalities and inequities, it does not follow that s/he is promoting some particular solution—include the weak. Emotionally, this may indeed be the reaction by a Postmodern—perhaps myself included—, but this is not part of the philosophy that points out the discrepancy. It’s an annex.

Attributing the claim that humanity has destroyed the biosphere to Postmoderns is a huge stretch. I don’t believe this is an idea initiated by Postmoderns, and I don’t think this perspective is disproportionality held by Postmoderns over some other cohort.

Perusing the Metamodern List

Now to react to the metamodern list. Having already inspected the list, I’ll point out that every one of these questions has a Modern perspective—the need to construct and resolve over a need to deconstruct and explore.

How can we reap the best parts of the other two?

Ok. The concept of best here is a bit disconcerting since best is value-laden and relies on context, which further relies on some set of narratives.

Can we create better processes for personal development?

Again, what is this person we are developing? What is the telos? Why this telos and not another?

Can we recreate the processes by which society is governed, locally and globally?

This is a binary question, so I’ll assume the author meant more. We already know this answer. It’s yes.

The question this implies is ‘what might it be?’ We already know this answer, too. There are any number of organisations and processes of government, none particularly better than the next.

Can the inner dimensions of life gain a more central role in society?

Where is the inner dimensions idea even come from? Why would anyone even accept the notion, and why give it any preference let alone credence? Not to be a dick, but why give anyone a role? The apparent metanarrative here appears to be democracy or at least participation, but there is not reason to accept this as better or worse than alternatives.

How can modern, postmodern and premodern people live together productively?

Why ‘productively’? This is another Modern notion foisted on the solution. Aside from the productivity red herring, this is a somewhat valid question, though it does elevate the notion of an inclusive society, and there is not reason to accept this as a preference, again, without some underlying metanarrative treatment.

How can politics be adjusted to an increasingly complex world?

This feels a bit emptier that the other list entries. Again, the answer depends on the goals and expectations, so it requires this context.

What is the unique role of humanity in the ecosystems of nature?

Really? Humans need to have a unique role? This is obviously a Modernist-Humanist notion that elevate humans. I could see an argument where humans can be unique but not elevated. Again, what world would that be in? With notions of progress and productivity, it should be obvious that we’re again operating with some underlying metanarratives in place.

So What?

Reviewing metamodernism again, I can see why I forget about it shortly after I encounter it. Perhaps this will serve as a reminder that I’ve trodden this ground before. In summary, it’s painfully apparent to me that so-called Metamodernism is simply an attempt by Moderns to repackage and re-gift Modernism through the same old lens, but I’m not buying it.

Along my quick review of information on Metamodernism, there is a large metaphysical/spiritual element that is quite unlikely to resolve to either rationality or Postmodernism.

I may investigate other flavours of this concept, whether post-post modernism, post-liberalism, but from what I can tell, these are backwards looking toward Classical Virtue metaethical models. Besides having nostalgic value, I’m not a fan.

Vantage

A runner helps a competing runner to complete and win a race. The competitor had been confused, as signage was in a language foreign to him, so the other helped him out.

Iván Fernández Anaya and Adel Mutai Race

Although the debate in the comments thread on LinkedIn of whether the rules of the event supersede the overarching human condition leans heavily toward cooperation over competition, some are vehemently opposed to the thought of ‘breaking the rules’ of the contest.

I suggest that this is an issue of framing. Sporting events are a wholly contained subset of the human condition. If you visualise this as a Venn diagramme envisaged as camera lenses, you’ll see that the event is a deliberate tight shot. One with the broader human experience cropped out. But the viewer has the ability to pull back and capture a wider shot. This shot recognises factors other than winning a petty sporting event. It emphasises cooperation over competition.

There is no moral imperative here. One may adopt either lens without shame. As for me—and apparently most—, the wider shot is preferred. But a wider lens is not always the default view for humans.

Humanism

When it comes to how, as people, we fit into the larger universe, we tend to adopt a human-centric view. And one doesn’t need to be a Humanist to take this position. Most religions do this by proxy, where the gods have appointed humans as the Ones.

How can one not be a racist?

This is the same choice as whether to adopt a tight or a wide shot. And some people take an even tighter shot, where the focus is on nationality or race or colour or sex or gender or affluence or whatever. But the wide shot captures all species on the same plane. Peter Singer is the leading Western philosopher in this space. In his world, Humanism, this human-centred view, is Speciesism.

The most common responses to this charge are to dismiss it on the grounds that ‘humans are superior for reasons’ or that ‘as long as we consider the biosphere as a system, we can still take an elevated position’. I don’t truly accept either of these positions. The first is, frankly, narcissistic, as is the second, but humans have an abysmal track record when systems thinking and complexity are involved.

How can one not be a Speciesist?

The obvious question, then, akin to, ‘How can one not be a racist?’ in these #BlackLivesMatter times, is ‘How can one not be a Speciesist?’ But there are still wider lenses as we pull back to capture the entire taxonomy. We can elevate species to genus to family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain, or life. And why stop there except for moral convenience?

Ask yourself: What lens are you using? What is your frame? Where is your focus? What is your depth of field?

Dismissal of Emotivism

In my post, The Truth of Truth, I linked to a BBC page outlining Emotivism. I did this even though the leading paragraph reads, as follows:

Emotivism is no longer a view of ethics that has many supporters. Like subjectivism it teaches that there are no objective moral facts, and that therefore ‘murder is wrong’ can’t be objectively true.

BBC Ethics Guide

As I subscribe to Emotivism and its Prescriptivist progeny, I’ll respond from my perspective. Let’s parse the paragraph stepwise:

Emotivism is no longer a view of ethics that has many supporters.

Notice immediately the appeal to popularity. People have been convinced rhetorically that this cannot be true, primarily because they are uncomfortable with the notion. People tend to resort to escalating commitment, digging in their heels and doubling down on their position.

Just because something is popular doesn’t make it incorrect, but neither are unpopular opinions untrue.

Like subjectivism it teaches that there are no objective moral facts

Indeed, as I’ve discussed at length, there are no moral facts. Morals are human constructs of language and subject to contextual framing. The prevailing meta-narrative is that a moral code is necessary in a society, which is further predicated on the notion that society is necessary. Any moral code is, then, by definition, subject to this underlying meta-narrative.

I can say that I think society and cooperation are necessary for the continuation of our human species, but this is also admittedly and unabashedly self-centred hubris—another unquestioned meta-narrative.

We also have a domain boundary problem. At times, we have altered the boundaries to exclude people from the definition, hyper-focus on people in the definition, or exclude entire other species and kingdoms.

All of these are subjective. So when the inevitable response is, ‘I mean for humans’, we now know the subject.

‘murder is wrong’ can’t be objectively true.

On the topic of emotion, murder is a heavy hitter. After all, who is going to argue that murder is not wrong, let alone subjective?

Even on the surface it’s obvious that this is a tightly scoped claim, and there a few things going on here:

  1. Murder is a legal subset of killing.
  2. As for the victim—murderee anyone?—, s/he is defined to be human. We cannot murder dogs or roses.
  3. As for the actor—I’m going with murderer here—, this subset is limited to (A) humans, (B) killing not authorised by the State, and (C) unintentional killing.
    • A human can be declared a non-person or a partial person in order to exempt it from the moral charge. We’ve seen this time and again throughout history, entire classes of people who could be killed with no moral outrage.
    • A human can be exempted (given a free pass) by maintaining that their killing isn’t murder whilst others are vilified for killing not yet regarded as murder. The rules are subject to change without recourse.
      • The State declares that killing in some justified circumstance puts a person in some protected realm outside of the scope of murder. These might be military personnel, police officers, executioners, and so on.
      • Abortion antagonists claim that doctors performing these procedures should be considered to be murders.
      • Euthanasia opponents claim that doctors performing these procedures are murders.

If one—the subject—does not accept this frame, s/he also doesn’t accept the, let’s say, verdict. Vegan philosopher, Peter Singer claims that all animal life should be protected, that any killing is immoral. Some have claimed that nature itself should have a voice.

And so a statement like ‘murder is wrong’ is nothing more than a prescriptive emotional statement:

I feel that murder is bad (emotions with justification defended by protective layers of reason), and you should too.

Just Saying

Not an ounce of objectivity to be found, excepting, of course, for the objection I have to the counter-claim.


I’ll save you a click to the BBC page. These paragraphs are as silly as the first.

Emotivism has become unpopular with philosophers because the theory that led the Emotivists to think that moral statements were meaningless has fallen from favour.

Less technically, if expressing moral judgements is really no more than expressing one’s personal opinion there doesn’t seem any useful basis for arguing about moral judgements.

In practical terms, Emotivism falls down because it isn’t very satisfying. Even (most) philosophers think moral statements are more than just expressions of feeling.

And it’s perfectly possible to imagine an ethical debate in which neither party has an emotion to express.

Non-philosophers also think there is more to ethics than just the expression of an attitude or an attempt to influence behaviour. They want a better explanation and foundation for shared standards of morality than Emotivism can provide.

Humanism is Speciesism

Why is racism wrong but speciesism OK? Primarily, other species have no voice, and to have no voice is to have no say. This advert got my attention.

Joaquin Phoenix Advert

Humanism is part and parcel of specious Enlightenment tripe, where ‘coincidentally‘ humans put themselves at the forefront. Copernicus removed Earth from the centre — though to be fair, even Christians had elevated gender-non-specific-Man above other animals — , but Humanism makes it more poignant that it’s Man at centre not God. Gods be damned. In fact, it’s often an afterthought that humans are animals at all, despite only the slightest veneer of consciousness and, more to the point, language to separate us from them.

Otherness has proven itself to be an evolutionary survival aspects, one that has brought me tho a point where I can write this, so one can call it natural, another term fraught with connotational baggage. To be able to differentiate and discriminate appear to be valuable attributes, but how much is enough, and how much is too much.

Buddhism teaches that we are all one with the cosmos, that any distinction is an illusion. Buddhist Enlightenment — not to be confused with Western Enlightenment — is to understand this, to not be bound to the illusion.

But, if racism is wrong, why is speciesism OK? Humans do give some animals some rights, and some places give different animals different rights, whilst other give animals categorically more and fewer rights. Some places ascribe divinity upon animals, elevating them above humans.

Racism seems to be more wrong because humans are more genetically homogeneous — at least phenotypically. Other mammals and herptiles don’t look so much like us. In observation, when they do, we have an additional layer of empathy, so chimps and canines with expressive eyes gain sympathy not afforded crustaceans and pinnipeds.

I don’t have an answer save to say that it’s just convenient and some day we may see a world as portrayed by science fiction where some — mostly bipedal species — live quasi-harmoniously with humans. But even there, humans are always the start, front and centre to provide to moral POV.

Moral Realism meets Non-Cognitivism

One particular criticism of non-cognitivism is that it is not intuitive (as if this is the arbiter of truth). Much of statistics is not intuitive. The behaviour of quarks and other quantum events are counter-intuitive. This is a poor argument, especially given the limitations of intuition—whatever that might be.

Quarks[1]

In his book Moral Realism, Kevin Delapp advances his belief ‘that as a descriptive thesis, noncognitivism appears exceptionally counterintuitive’. He advances with argumentum ad numeram (or ad populum—take your pick): Most speakers of most languages do not mean by “killing innocents is wrong” merely that they don’t approve of it, or even that they are simply endorsing a norm, no matter how universal in form. Rather they say, namely that killing innocents is literally wrong.’ Moreover, what people think they mean and what they mean may diverge widely. But these are petty arguments.

“Killing innocents is wrong.”

Let’s unpack the example Delapp uses. Let’s even move forward by accepting common idiomatic notions of these terms. The problem is one of scope. Keeping away from any metaphysical complications but considering a cosmic scope, how is this wrong?

Ignoring that people die routinely of natural and otherwise ‘unnatural’ causes—however these might even be classified—, the absence of some particular human or all humans or all life forms would have a nil effect on planetary motion, the birth and death or stars, or of the creation of other universes. An analogue might be similar to killing a single bacterium in your body, an event that happens countless times daily yet you don’t even notice.

kisspng-buzz-lightyear-sheriff-woody-jessie-toy-story-extr-toy-story-5abbfcdc013fd4.5041701215222694040052.png

The reason that this is considered wrong relates to hubris, the self-importance humans bestow themselves. It would be amazing for another lifeform with the capacity for language—a shared human language—to impose its parallel morality on earth-dwelling mortals…with the twist that they envision themselves as superior lifeforms. Of course, in the work, the earthlings would justify eliminating this hostile species—and vice versa. Yet neither would be right. As we do on earth now, we’d rely on our divine intuition and know that our vantage was the true one and these usurpers would need to be shown the error of their ways.

In any case, the only reason this logic is justified is by some argument of self-preservation, as if the universe somehow cares about this. Of course, the religious attribute the special place occupied by humans to be justified because we are God’s special children—but these are short-bus children indeed.

Returning to recast the original statement, ‘killing innocents is wrong’, we end up with something less than universal and quite contextual more along the lines of ‘killing [human] innocents is wrong [to me as a human with simple cognitive assessment skills and who has been socially indoctrinated to believe that humans are the most important lifeform in the entire universe or any possible multiverse]. Here wrong means ‘not conducive to the furthering of humanity‘, which is miles away from some claim with a deeper foundation, integrally woven into the fabric of space-time itself.

And when these people counter with, ‘would you want me to kill you’ (smugly clever, indeed), taking this to be some logical checkmate as opposed to the “I know you are but what am I” juvenile retort. Weak tea, indeed.

You might be selling it, but I’m not buying it.

Post-Post-Modern Subjectivism

I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate. Originally published in 2002 (and re-published with an afterword in 2016), it still feels fresh. Pinker offers compelling rationale for accepting that humans are not blank slates entering the world.

Though I am somewhat of a social justice warrior in principle, I am still a moral subjectivist, a post-modern thinker. Pinker shares his strong feelings against subjectivism, but he provides no evidence of the moral objectivism he advances, relying instead on an emotional appeal; in fact, he employs the same defensive tactic his detractors employ, which is to try to make an empathic connection to the reader.

All he does is to claim that there is an objective morality because everybody feels and knows that X is better than Y, taking a strawman approach. It’s not that I disagree with his Xs and Ys; it’s just that they are subjective not objective measures. He tries to slip in an appeal to popularity by claiming that everybody would (or should) feel this way when push comes to shove.

Nietzsche, I think, had it right in Beyond Good and Evil when he pointed out the dual moral systems of masters and slaves. Although a moral (just) system might be best constructed from scratch in the manner of Rawlsveil of ignorance, we are not starting from a blank slate. The power structures are already in place. There is a possibility for upward and downward mobility, but large jumps are not likely except in the manner of a lottery. Other than this, it’s unlikely that one will move from one quintile to another and even less likely to skip a quintile, especially on the upward trend.

In any case, the issue is not whether some might feel subjectively better; it’s whether—across all possible dimensions—a relative, stable equilibrium can be found. Even here, this is not objective, even if it’s not otherwise arbitrary or capricious. The larger problem is one of epistemological empiricism—apart from the ontological question—, whether we can know that we’ve found the objective truth or if we’ve just settled on something that works for our current station.

As much as I really do like Steven Pinker, and I await his next book, Enlightenment Now, I do so only to read how he couches his argument in support of Enlightenment and Humanism, two concepts I feel are tainted by hubris