Theory & Science (2000)

ISSN: 1527-5558

Flawed By Design:
The Virtues And Limitations Of Postmodern Theory

Timothy McGettigan
Department of Sociology
University of Southern Colorado


Nothing is perfect in an imperfect world-especially science. The postmodern critique of Enlightenment science has driven home that point forcefully. However, despite the harshness of its critique, postmodernism has fallen well short of creating a viable alternative to modern science. In this paper, I argue that the only recourse for postmodernists is to adopt a new orientation to the fundamental pursuit of modernist science: truth.

A World of Change

Sociology and modernity have always been inextricably interrelated. As the early framers of the discipline pointed out (Addams, 1907; Comte, 1896; Durkheim 1964; Martineau, 1838; Marx, 1992; Marx and Engels, 1998; Weber, 1978), the logic of the “traditional” world, i.e., rural, agricultural, provincial, static, did not apply well to an urban, industrial, secular, global society (Durkheim, 1951; Simmel, 1971, 1978; Tönnies, 1963; Weber, 1946). Instead, a new form of forward looking—or enlightened (Ritzer, 1996)—social logic was required to make sense of a rapidly revolutionizing world and, thus, the science of society was born.

The charter of modern, enlightened science has been to generate knowledge (Ashley and Orenstein, 1998; Coser and Rosenberg, 1989; Lemert, 1999; McGettigan, 1998, 1999; McIntyre, 1999; Ritzer, 1996; Rossides, 1998; Turner, et. al., 1995). Indeed, not only has science assisted in bringing our understanding of modernity up to speed, but it has also promised to create a “better” society. The basis for such a bold assertion—which, by the way, has been voiced by theorists of widely varying stripes (Comte, 1896; Durkheim, 1964; Marx, 1992)—was that science rested on a qualitatively stronger epistemological foundation than any other belief system. Whereas other systems were regulated by established dogmas, science was (presumably) beholden to no earthly influence save the pursuit of truth, the most pristine of intellectual standards.

Philosophically speaking, the possibilities of applying science to the reconstruction of an evolving society were, to say the least, exciting. In an enlightened age, the scourge of social pathology would doubtlessly wither under the antiseptic light of scientific scrutiny. Further, sweeping democratic reforms promised to unite with science in a mutual struggle to uplift humanity. For it to flourish, “good science” required democratic freedoms that ensured unfettered opportunities for inquiry. In return, science promised to invigorate the public’s long neglected intellect. Fueled by their reciprocal aspirations, science and democracy have indeed combined to influence profoundly the people, politics, and economics of the modern world.

Yet, despite the spectacular achievements of modernity’s juggernaut (Giddens, 1990), the fabled “good society” remains far from realized. Certainly, there are many who enjoy luxurious living standards. Nevertheless, as modernity has progressed, the numbers of people living in abject poverty has also increased (McLaren, 2000; United Nations Development Programme, 1998). While some have insisted that culpability lies with those who are least fortunate (Murray, 1984, 1998; Rostow, 1960), others contend that fault lies elsewhere.

Modernity’S Achilles Heel

Postmodernists have hammered hard at the illusion propagated by modernist theorists that science would ultimately generate truth and, thereby, a better world for one and all (Clough, 1992, 1994; Denzin, 1996, 1997; Kincheloe and McLaren, 1994; Lather, 1991, 1993, 1995; Lemert, 1991, 1999; Lyotard, 1984; Richardson, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1996; Seidman, 1991; Tierney, 1997). Indeed, if modernity was supposed to ameliorate social problems, then why, after approximately two hundred years of enlightening scientific development, has global misery actually increased? Postmodernists have a ready answer to this question: because the promises of the Enlightenment were lies.

Far from achieving the Enlightenment’s philosophical goals, postmodernists maintain that science has sustained a long-standing project to exploit people everywhere (Denzin, 1997; Kincheloe and McLaren, 1994; Lather, 1995; Lemert, 1991; Seidman, 1991). In other words, the Enlightenment is a western European invention that is permeated by a variety of significant biases (e.g., patriarchy, racism, Christianity, rabid industrialism, etc.). Thus, despite pretensions of objectivity, Western cultural biases have thoroughly tainted every aspect of modern “progress” (Smith, 1990): the language, customs, and ideals of the West are emulated everywhere. Therefore, if it is a better social world that we seek, then, as postmodernists suggest, we may need to strike out along a new path. However, one need ask, after having molded the globe in the image of the West, is there any feasible alternative to juggernaut?

A Clarion Call for Inaction

In response to the evils that have been proliferated (whether intentionally or not) by the purveyors of modernist science, postmodernists have called for a “humanization” of the collective social endeavor: scientific, economic, and otherwise (Denzin, 1995, 1997; Lather, 1995; Lemert, 1999). Postmodernists have argued that the juggernaut of modernity can be challenged most effectively by rejecting every assertion that knowledge or truth is generalizable (Seidman, 1991). Therefore, where there is no truth, there can be no justification for superimposing Western values and interests; to do so would constitute an unequivocal and unacceptable act of violence.

This orientation to the philosophy of knowledge accomplishes a number of important goals for postmodernists. First, by elevating the status of “common knowledge,” the arbitrary, destructive power of science can be offset. Secondly, postmodernists have argued that, as a consequence of eliminating the pre-eminence of truth standards, “learned dialogues” are likely to become populated by a greater number and diversity of voices (Lemert, 1999). Consequently, by creating an environment wherein the oppressed may give voice to their concerns, the rotten core of modernity is more likely to be exposed.

Having rejected the modernist emphasis on truth, a variety of postmodern “artistic” practices have been developed for the purpose of steering science in new directions (Brady, 1998; Janesick, 1994; L. Richardson, 1995, 1998; M. Richardson, 1998; Travisano, 1998). Yet, while there have been some noteworthy attempts to organize postmodernists around substantial scientific projects (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994, 2000), no clearly defined postmodernist plan of attack has yet emerged. Indeed, the inability of postmodernists to mount a full counteroffensive to modernism has stimulated Lochner (1999) to propose that postmodernism is simply a poorly repackaged version of Dadaism, a nihilistic artistic movement. Lochner notes that, shortly after being recognized as a definable movement in the arts, Dada’s principal artists disbanded: once they had established that their movement was opposed to all forms of standardized control, there was nowhere else for Dadaists to go. Lochner even asserts that certain leading figures in the contemporary postmodern movement (Jean Baudrillard, in particular) have intentionally ignored their debt to Dadaism for two reasons:

  1. This would establish that their revolutionary social theory was not, in fact, terribly original.
  2. This would also indicate that there was no future for postmodernism—either in theory or practice.

Still, while the motives of some postmodernists may be rather dubious, I do not think all the goals of postmodernism should be dismissed. There are many important reasons to question and criticize the modern world. However, as the Dadaists discovered long ago, the tactic of abandoning truth is an entirely unworkable strategy (i.e., one disavows every credible basis upon which to construct or criticize knowledge). Further, it is not possible to base any sort of “movement” on such a relativistic, nihilistic epistemology. Consequently, for postmodernism to move in a more meaningful direction—a move that has been called for by others as well (Brents, 1999; Campbell, 1998; Kincheloe and McLaren, 1994; Lange, 1998; McLaren, 2000)—I believe that postmodernists must reinvigorate the roots of their critique: how is it possible to organize a more just, fair, free, equal, and democratic world? Oddly enough, these should sound like familiar questions because they are precisely the same questions posed by Enlightenment scientists.

The philosophy of Enlightenment science was forged to the presumption that the world was changing rapidly, and with the “right” kind of tinkering it could become a better place (Comte, 1896; Durkheim, 1964; Hobbes, 1969; Locke, 1947; Machiavelli, 1999; Marx and Engels, 1998; Rousseau, 1967). Postmodernists have performed the valuable service of pointing out that such tinkering has been managed by neither an exact, nor a very fair world of science. Since science has perpetrated and justified a lot of regrettable tinkering in the modern era, its task now, at the very least, should be to ensure that its worst offenses are not repeated. But how can that be accomplished?

Up till now, the crucial flaw in the postmodern strategy has been its unequivocal rejection of universal truth; a strategy that is roughly akin to combating foes by lopping off one’s own head. If postmodernists want to impugn the claims of Enlightenment science, then they must assert a more primary definition of truth. That is, without offering a more convincing definition of “postmodern truth,” then we must accept the modernist definition—if for no other reason than because modernist scientists believe in it. Thus, it is only by asserting an alternate definition of truth that postmodernists will be able to un do modernist science.

An Alternate Definition of Truth

I have argued elsewhere (McGettigan 1998, 1999) that truth does exist and it can be produced by anyone—not just scientists. In spite of all the ideology that has been broadcast in the modern world, it remains within the capacity of individuals to “redefine reality.” In the process of redefining reality, people transform their understanding of anomalous phenomena by refuting dogma, e.g., Galileo’s rejection of the earth-centered theory of the universe, or Darwin’s assertion of natural selection as the motor of evolutionary history. When individuals redefine reality they do not suddenly arrive at an ideal world wherein Truth reigns supreme (Habermas 1970, 1972, 1981, 1993), but instead they realize a “moment of truth,” i.e., the time frame in which they are transported from an ideologically proscribed view of the universe to a more inventive version of reality. Truth, according to this definition, may be produced by individuals who actively overcome the influences of social power that limit the boundaries of understanding.

Thus, if postmodernists are interested in criticizing science for the purposes of building a “better world,” then they will need to adopt a clearly defined standard of truth. An “emergent” view of truth (McGettigan, 1998, 1999) maintains that it is essential for truth to be generated at the level of the individual. Consequently, not only is this notion of truth compatible with an epistemology that respects a multiplicity of voices, but it can also serve as a basis upon which to critique and move beyond the limitations of modernist science.

As long as postmodernists remain committed to an anti-truth orientation to science, they will be unable to overcome the inherent limitations of their epistemology. This does not mean, however, that science will be hindered in its progress. No doubt, modern science will continue to precipitate social change with admirable efficacy. Therefore, if postmodernists want to counteract such change, then they will need to develop a sound scientific strategy—which, as we learned from modernist scholars a long time ago, can only be accomplished by seeking the truth.


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