I have annoyed a philosopher

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While getting stuck in to Johann Hari (age 13¾) and his comical misunderstandings of Slavoj Žižek, I included a brief (and slightly flippant) thumbnail sketch of analytical philosophy. Over on the indispensable D-Squared Digest, this drew a response from Prof Chris Bertram of Bristol University, who I remember (though he probably doesn’t remember me) from the far-off days when he was on the New Left Review, before he and Norm and Branka and the rest discerned greener pastures elsewhere. I’m slightly bemused as to why Chris would defend AP, as he isn’t an analytical philosopher but a post-Rawlsian (or neo-Kantian) political philosopher. Nonetheless, I’m pleased to discover that Chris is still alive, and will post a considered piece on AP shortly.

But young Johann’s use of postmodernism as an all-purpose insult (he also ties it to that other modern swear-word, “Leninism”) is illustrative of a more general tendency among those sections of the British punditocracy who aspire to be intellectuals, and also links back to my long-delayed critique of Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? That is, and this may pain Johann, Nick and Francis Wheen, but their take on philosophy is uncannily congruent with that of the Socialist Workers Party. Our pundits may not remember this – Johann would be too young and Nick’s memory has been dodgy of late – but the SWP spent the entire decade of the 1990s on a huge crusade against the danger posed by postmodernism to civilisation in general and rational thought in particular.

This too involved some comical misunderstandings, although they would hardly have been apparent to the SWSS students who wore “Bollocks to Postmodernism” T-shirts. The reader will recall the famous book Against Postmodernism by Alex Callinicos, the Greatest Living Philostopher Known to Mankind. This was quite a stylish and enjoyable polemic, marred only by Alex’s seeming confusion as to what postmodernism was. Drawing on Renaissance Man Chris Harman’s critique of the retreat of the European far left, Alex tended to identify the postmodernists with the Nouveaux Philosophes, who of course were a completely different tendency. Therefore, apart from a ridiculous lack of proportion that implies Francis Fukuyama was leading an army of PoMo barbarians in an assault on Hackney, Alex assumes that the postmodernists were attacking Marxism from the right.

This is wrong. Alex, one assumes, will be aware that Lyotard cut his teeth in the neo-Trotskyist Socialisme ou Barbarie tendency. This is not a coincidence. The postmodernist critique was aimed primarily at the French Communist Party tradition of Marxism, or if you prefer neo-Stalinism. Therefore the postmodernist challenge was an early part of the philosophical deconstruction of Stalinism, which one would have thought would endear it to a neo-Trotskyist like Callinicos and woolly social democrats like Hari and Cohen alike. In fact, I would argue that the main problem with the postmodernists was their failure to distinguish between Marxist philosophy and Stalinist ideology, a failure rooted in their inability to come to grips with the Trotskyist tradition.

So there was a lot of value in the postmodernist approach, except that they went too far and developed into the philosophical equivalent of Lenin’s infantile ultraleftism – who can forget Foucault’s writings on the Iranian revolution? – a kind of intellectual analogue to the Spartacist League (only more polite). In fact, it is my contention that Alex would have better occupied his time by writing a book called Against Spartacism, because you’re more likely to meet a follower of Jim Robertson than a loyal follower of Derrida at a British university.

And this brings me back to the point. You wouldn’t guess, from reading our pundits, that analytical philosophy was actually the establishment position in British academe and has been for about 50 years – Cohen and Elster, cited by Chris, were revising Marxism using the techniques of analytical philosophy long before postmodernism came on the scene. Instead, they prefer to ignore what is taught in British philosophy departments in order to pretend that postmodernism is sweeping all before it. Frankly, this is bollocks. While postmodernism has gained some influence in sociology and humanities departments – which were pretty much post-Marxist by the mid-70s – it remains utterly marginal in philosophy departments. And, you know, Marxism Today didn’t require Foucault or Derrida to do what it did. It simply required Jacques, Leadbetter and Aaro.

But does this seep through into our public discourse? No, it does not. And, while postmodernism has plenty of faults, it deserves to be taken seriously, not to be used as a prop for Johann, Nick and Francis in their Beavis and Butt-Head attempts to make French thought look much sillier than it really is. At least postmodernism attempted to form a limited model of social criticism, something analytical philosophy has never been.

6 Comments

  1. Andy said,

    May 23, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    Your jibes at Hari’s age really undermine any argument you might be making.

  2. Liam said,

    May 23, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    This is pretty interesting but I feel I’d have to read a lot of very dull books before I could leave an informed opinion.

  3. ejh said,

    May 24, 2007 at 8:16 am

    or Derrida to do what it did. It simply required Jacques

    This reads a bit confusingly, what with Derrida’s first name being the same as Martin’s surname.

  4. neprimerimye said,

    May 24, 2007 at 10:01 am

    I’m sure it says nothing good about me whatsoever but I would far prefer to read Against Spartacism than Against PoMo.

    Although perhaps the professors real book was motivated simply by a desire to be seen to be clever and write something that make him a star rather like Zizek?

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 24, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Your jibes at Hari’s age really undermine any argument you might be making.

    I know it’s a cheap shot, but there is something irresistibly Adrian Mole about Johann. Besides, what’s the fun if you can’t get in a cheap shot? Johann himself does it from time to time.

  6. Red Squirrel said,

    May 24, 2007 at 9:42 pm

    That was a nice one. I chuckled a lot.


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