Lindsay Perigo
Lindsay Perigo

Editorial: The Collapse of the Anti-Mind

The cameras flashed and clicked. People stood on tiptoe to get a better look over the crowd. It was the last World Philosophy Congress of the 20th century, and some of the most important philosophers were on-stage Wednesday evening in the ballroom of the Marriott Hotel: Willard Van Orman Quine, Peter Strawson and Donald Davidson. You might have thought that Plato and Socrates and Aristotle themselves had assembled for a symposium. When the cameras finally stopped flashing, the philosophers blinked and trained their thoughts on a single question: "What have we learned from philosophy in the 20th century?"
The air fairly crackled with anticipation. Quick-witted Mr. Quine, a 90-year-old Harvard philosopher who is the premier 20th-century proponent of naturalism, the view that philosophy is a part of science, went first. "I should have thought up an answer to that one," he said. "I'm going to have to pass." Everyone laughed, but he wasn't kidding.
— Extract from "At the End of a Century of Philosophising, the Answer is, Don't Ask," by Sarah Boxer, New York Times, Arts & Ideas section, 15/08/98.

20th century philosophy couldn't have a more fitting epitaph than this — the noblest intellectual enterprise of all, the love & pursuit of wisdom begun by the ancient Greeks, brazenly reduced to a flickering snigger twenty-five centuries later by one of its latter-day saints, co-hero of Auckland University's Philosophy Department, Willard Quine (see Perigo vs Nola in this issue). 20th century philosophy is dead, & good riddance to it — to its tortuous, irrelevant linguistic manipulations on the one hand and its mindless emotional ejaculations on the other (and its positing of the two as the only alternatives). Its last gasp is a rebellion of the latter against the former. It's the fad known as post-modernism, which has an eloquent embodiment in the form of a co-columnist of mine in Auckland University's Craccum magazine, Martyn Bradbury. His weekly discharge is titled Bomb's [sic] Away .

Bradbury observes that we all live in a "post modern" world "where every mode of thinking that claims absolute truth has been deconstructed." He includes Lenin, the Catholic Church & myself (such august company I keep!) in the category of those who claim absolute truth & have been deconstructed, and dismisses us all as "fanatics."

Now why am I writing about this, you might be wondering at this point, when Jenny & Winston have choked on each other's entrails, the economy is bungy-jumping, etc.? Because Bradbury is right up to a point, & the thing he is right about is what explains Jenny & Winston & just about everything else in this rampantly anti-rational era. It is a post-modern world we inhabit, & one of its characteristics is a disdain, such as Bradbury expresses, for abstract thought of the kind that Communists, Catholics & Objectivists are wont to engage in. The post-modern world is a proudly illiterate, incoherent, range-of-the-moment one — there is no point in pursuing truth in such a world because there is no such thing as truth & to believe otherwise is the hallmark of a fanatic; therefore, dear reader, ask not what philosophy can do for you — suspend judgement, go with the flow, respond to the first stimulus you experience, swim with the squirtings of your glands & the ejaculations of your fellow-zombies, and above all, do it now, without thinking about it — without thinking, period. If you think, there is a danger that you will form a conclusion; if you form a conclusion, there is a danger that you will believe it to be true; if you believe it to be true, there is a danger that you will believe differing conclusions to be false ... and, hey man, in this post-modern world true & false are not cool!

Politics in this post-modern world is thus not a contest of differing ideas as to how society should be structured (or whether it should be structured at all); politics, more than ever, is about who is gratifying his power-lust by what manoeuvres at whose expense & with whose support. Hence Winston & Jenny. Journalism in this post-modern world faithfully & gleefully reports these goings-on & is dutifully bereft of any semblance of integration of them into some kind of conceptual coherence. Hence TV News & the Pg 2 columnists in the NZ Herald.

The problem with this post-modernism is that it's riddled with what Ayn Rand called stolen concepts (all of them as old as the hills, in actual fact — post-modernism is really both modern & pre-modern). "There is no truth" — stated as a truth. "Certainty is impossible" — stated with certainty. "Anyone who thinks he's right is a fanatic" — stated by someone who thinks he's right. Etc..

In truth, dissembling by the likes of Quine & Bradbury notwithstanding, we cannot avoid forming conclusions about the world we inhabit; we cannot avoid philosophy in spite of the best efforts of the philosophers to disintegrate it. Creating a better world is not a matter of avoiding or evading philosophy — it is a matter of getting it right.

Even Mr Bradbury, having pretended to eschew philosophy for a couple of post-modernly-mangled paragraphs, repairs to it — a grotesque (Marxist) type of it — in the remainder of his column, railing against consumer products, the Bussiness (sic) Roundtable, Libertarianz, work, profit, and whatever/whoever else causes his glands to squirt. In the case of the Business Roundtable, as it happens, there is good reason to criticise them, as I have criticised them in this magazine: they have landed us, contrary to their rhetoric, with more taxes & regulations & restrictions on individual freedom than we've ever seen, & preached the same sort of subordination of the individual to "society" that excites Mr Bradbury's glands. For him to attack the Roundtable is to attack one of his own collectivist allies. But to identify that fact requires precisely the kind of conceptual integration that Mr Bradbury disdains. It requires effort, & why bother with effort when you can just respond to your glands ("That's the way I see it, that's the way I'm gonna call it")?

As the above venerable occasion wore on, so the New York Times reports, Mr Quine was given a second chance. Had he thought of something insightful while his colleagues were opining? He replied, "I really have nothing to add." We should be thankful for that. Now we can restore philosophy to its former glory, & begin the Third Millennium by repairing to the magnificent spirit that animated the Greeks — before the first one!

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