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Postmodern Argumentation and Post-Postmodern Liberalism, with Comments on Levinas, Habermas, and Rawls*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Jeffrey Reiman*
The American University, Washington, D.C.
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The Paradox of Postmodernism

Modernism is, roughly speaking, the Enlightenment belief in a single unified rational perspective, founded on some indubitable evidence given in human experience – either innate concepts à la Descartes and the rationalists, or sensations à la Locke and the empiricists – and elaborated according to reliable logical rules. This view was first attacked for its ‘foundationalism.’ Philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Dewey, Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein, denied that there is any indubitable given upon which truth can be founded. There is no experience, no testimony of the senses or of reason that blazons forth the undeniable truth. Rather the ‘given’ is, so to speak, constructed - which is to say, not given to us, but made by us. Some experience or other evidence is interpreted as this or that with this or that epistemological status, on the basis of beliefs that one already has about, say, space or mathematics or sense perception or the nature of what is ultimately real. Postmodernism is an intensification of this attack, with a distinctive political spin.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1995

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I am indebted to Joseph Flay, emeritus professor of philosophy at Penn State, and Jonathan Loesberg, professor of literature at American University, for numerous helpful comments, many of which I have incorporated into this paper. The mistakes are mine.


1 In Speech and Phenomena, Jacques Derrida gives an argument for the non-givenness of meaning and thus for the fundamentality of interpretation from within phenomenology itself. He does so by playing Husserl's Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness off against Husserl's own theory of the intuitive givenness of linguistic meaning. The latter requires there to be an instantaneous grasp of the meaning of a term, while the former shows that there is nothing in consciousness that is instantaneous. Everything in consciousness is elapsing in time, and that implies that the appearance of an instantaneous grasp of meaning is really the product of a gathering-up of flowing elements of experience into some meaningful totality, which is to say, interpretation. Nor should the term ‘elements,’ here, be taken as implying yet other instantaneous givens, since that too is denied by the elapsing nature of consciousness. As far down as we go, all we get are interpretations. See Derrida, JacquesSpeech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press 1973).Google Scholar

2 Bauman, ZygmuntPostmodern Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell 1993) 13Google Scholar

3 Rawls, JohnPolitical Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press 1993)Google Scholar

4 See Habermas, JürgenDiscourse Ethics,” in his Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990) 43115.Google Scholar

5 Descartes, RenéThe Philosophical Writings of Descartes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1984) 2; 270 and 272-3.Google Scholar

6 See Singer, PeterRethinking Life and Death (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), 180Google Scholar; and Trendelenburg, A.A Contribution to the History of the Word ‘Person',Monist 20 (1910) 336-63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Ross, David trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1980)Google Scholar bk. IX, sec. 8; bk. X, sec. 7. For interesting commentary on these passages, their translation and their significance in Aristotle's ethical theory, see Kraut, RichardAristotle on the Human Good (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1989) 128, 183, 189Google Scholar.

8 All ad hominem arguments appeal the logical law of noncontradiction, insofar as they aim to show that a given conclusion is either acceptable because compatible with the listener's judgments, or unacceptable because incompatible with them. It might seem, then, that the law of noncontradiction is an exception to the requirement of ad hominem argument, since it is presumably held valid independently of the listener's endorsement of it. But this misconceives the role of the law. The law of noncontradiction is not an arbitrary rule which a person can judge appropriate or not. It is the material condition of having a judgment of one's own at all. I simply cannot judge that P, if I also think that not-P. So did Aristotle use an ad hominem argument for the law itself, holding, in the Metaphysics, that if one affirms that the same thing can at the same time both be and not be, then this affirmation affirms the truth of its own negation. To deny the law of noncontradiction is to deny that denial. To deny the law of noncontradiction, one must implicitly affirm that the truth of the denial of the law is incompatible with the truth of the affirmation of that same law, and that means that whoever would deny the law of noncontradiction must assume the law's truth to do so. See Aristotle, Metaphysics, bk. XI, sec. 5, in Barnes, J. ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1991) 2Google Scholar; 1677-8.

9 “[B]y the principle of respect which [people] owe one another they are directed to keep themselves at a distance” (Kant, ImmanuelThe Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, Part 2 of The Metaphysics of Morals, in Ethical Philosophy [Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishers, 1983], 113).Google Scholar

10 Given the logical gulf between facts and values, ‘appropriateness’ may be just the relationship that one should expect at the core of a moral doctrine - even one that is not argued within the requirements of postmodern argumentation.

11 Levinas, EmmanuelEthics as First Philosophy,” in Hand, Sean ed., The Levinas Reader (Oxford: Blackwell 1989) 78Google Scholar

12 lbid., 85

13 lbid., 82

14 Levinas, EmmanuelEthics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press 1985) 87 Emphasis in the original.Google Scholar

15 Levinas, “Ethics as First Philosophy,” 83-4Google Scholar

16 Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 97 Emphasis in the original.Google Scholar

17 Levinas, “Substitution,” in The Levinas Reader, 110Google Scholar

18 Curiously, Bauman bases the positive doctrine of his Postmodern Ethics on Levinas's teaching without even considering its apparent violation of this key tenet of postmodernism. See note 2, above.

19 See note 3, above.

20 Ibid., 12-13, inter alia.

21 Ibid., 9, inter alia.

22 Rawls, JohnReply to Habermas,Journal of Philosophy 92 (March 1995) 134Google Scholar; I have omitted Rawls's references.

23 Ibid., 135

24 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 10Google Scholar. See also “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,“ Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (summer 1985) 223-51.

25 “[P]olitical liberalism, rather than referring to its political conception of justice as true, refers to it as reasonable instead” (Rawls, Political Liberalism, xx).

26 Actually, I think that would vastly improve Rawls's theory, and that it is in any event necessary at other points in the theory as well. Consider the fact that the abortion controversy needs a solution within the non-metaphysical framework of political liberalism. Rawls is quite sure this is possible, as he points out in a lengthy footnote: “As an illustration, consider the troubled question of abortion. Suppose … that we consider the question in terms of three important political values: the due respect for human life, the ordered reproduction of political society over time, including the family in some form, and finally the equality of women as equal citizens. (There are, of course, other important political values besides these.) Now I believe any reasonable balance of these three political values will give a woman a duly qualified right to decide whether or not to end her pregnancy during the first trimester. The reason for this is that at this early stage of pregnancy the political value of the equality of women is overriding, and this right is required to give it substance and force … “ (Political Liberalism, 243 n.32; emphasis mine).

But note right away that Rawls's conclusion about abortion only follows on the assumption that a first-trimester fetus is not among those equal persons who are to be protected by the laws of a liberal state (otherwise the political value of women's equality would not be overriding). This is clearly a metaphysical, not merely political, claim.

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