When I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins in the early 1980s, I played on the intramural softball team of the postmodern literary theorist Stanley Fish. I recall his umpiring at a practice once when the batter, my buddy Mike, now a distinguished professor at Yale, argued a call. Fish good-humoredly pointed out that what’s a ball and what’s a strike is not an objective, external, or natural fact, it’s an interpretive practice; and according to that practice, whatever the umpire calls is real: If he calls it a strike, it’s a strike. (So that was a strike, Mike.)
The next day in class he expanded the ball and strike example into a theory of literary interpretation, and finally of reality: what’s true or false in these areas is what authoritative interpretive communities approve. Law is a practice like this, he said. Philosophy is. Science is.
Over his career, Fish had gone from close readings of “Paradise Lost” to an approach to textual interpretation that made use of French post-structuralists such as Jacques Derrida. And by developing the view that truth was a matter of linguistic practice rather than referring to a reality outside of language, he had become one of the spearheads of “postmodernism.”
It was in one of Fish’s seminars that I first read Richard Rorty, another arch-postmodernist who was later my dissertation adviser. Rorty convincingly defended himself against the charge of relativism – I know, having spent hours in his office, trying to make it stick — and yet he maintained that it was useless to talk about the world, or truth. It was ridiculous or impossible, he asserted, to try to describe reality outside of our linguistic practices, to describe it as it would be if it were not being described.
When you got right down to it, Rorty’s argument was similar to that of the early modern Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley. Berkeley challenged you to produce an unperceived object, and concluded that to be and to be perceived were the same. In graduate school I actually took to calling myself a “bone-head realist,” and appointed myself the defender of the external world against my teachers. Rorty challenged me, over and over, to describe an undescribed object, to tell him about something outside language. He didn’t, according to himself, deny the existence of the world, he simply held that the assertion that there was stuff outside of language was itself a linguistic practice.
Studying with Fish and Rorty, it was awfully hard not to pick up a sense of the end: the end of their own disciplines — which Rorty, for one, explicitly declared — and vaguely the end of many things that they said had expired long ago: objective truth, determinate meanings, noncontingent values, a material external world. That certainly presented a quandary for a graduate student trying to generate a dissertation topic under their tutelage.
An eminent analytic philosopher of my generation, Timothy Williamson, writes this about his supervisor at Oxford, Michael Dummett, now deceased: “He was remarkably tolerant of the strident realism of my thesis, which effectively presupposed the futility of his life’s work and pursued other issues from that starting point.” Dummett’s anti-realism was more limited and technical than Rorty’s, but they were closely related (both men were influenced by Wittgenstein, for one thing). Dummett held that truth was internal to our linguistic practices of justification, rather than denoting access to external realities. And one thing that I think both Williamson and I were trying to do was find a way to keep going, or somehow to bulldoze exit routes from what seemed like a cul-de-sac.
But the ‘80s heyday of Rorty and Fish is beginning to seem like a long time ago, and a backlash seems to be in progress. More recent work in philosophy includes various forms of realism about the world: the idea that reality is not the product of consciousness, or of human perceptual structures or languages or interpretive communities, but exists independently. We don’t make the world, as one might put it; the world makes us. Where for decades or even centuries, philosophy has focused on our representations and descriptions of the world, on human consciousness and cultural systems, many are now turning to the external features of the world that constitute the content of our experiences and the context of our social practices.
Let’s call this phase after postmodernism post-postmodernism – “popomo” for short. There are many varieties of this recommitment to the world, from thinkers across disciplines, including the speculative realism of figures such as Graham Harman and Jane Bennett; externalism in philosophy of mind, led by Andy Clark and Mark Rowlands; the “new materialism” of Rosi Braidotti or Karen Barad; Viki McCabe‘s cognitive psychology; the physicist Lee Smolin‘s defense of the reality of time; and Bruno Latour‘s anthropology.
Some of the motivation for the realist turn has been ecological: Climate change isn’t just in our heads or in our descriptions, but a real-world situation that requires real-world physical transformations. Others have been political: defenses of the urgent truth of justice, or of the importance of material economic conditions and the treatment of physical human bodies. And I think that, as our experience becomes in many ways increasingly mediated or virtual, we simply started yearning toward the old-fashioned physical environment, which was always available and still is, and on which whatever we see on a screen depends utterly. Ideas are always an index of longings.
For me, a large part of the motivation was simply to find a way to keep on writing and doing philosophy. I ran out of interest in my own consciousness around 1990, but there’s no reason ever to run out of interest in the world. The intellectual generation that came after pomo had to find a way to keep going after the period after the end. The period after the period after the end is the popomo era. But the “post” was always itself a symptom of a sense of decline and ending, and I do hope and think that our period of inquiry doesn’t just come after something, but that it is itself something, and that it comes before something.
Adapted from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/13/philosophy-returns-to-the-real-world/