Explaining Postmodernism: A Conversation with Stephen Hicks

In today’s episode, I invited the philosopher and author Stephen Hicks on Context to chat about his book, Explaining Postmodernism. Stephen has been a Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University in Illinois for nearly 20 years, he’s also the Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship, and a senior scholar at the Atlas Society. He’s published five books, with more on the way, and his work has been translated into over 16 languages. The reason I invited him on the show was because I’ve been poking at postmodernism for years – criticizing postmodernism’s worst ideas has been an axe I’ve tended to grind throughout my academic career, and Stephen Hicks literally wrote the book on explaining postmodernism. He’s also just a great person to talk to if you’re searching for historical wisdom. In this episode, Stephen and I discuss the meaning of postmodernism, where it came from, and why it seems to be infecting all of American politics and culture these days. We contrast postmodernism with modernism, and help clarify what’s at stake in that battle of ideas.

From my perspective, the reason why understanding postmodernism is so important is because I think postmodernism really planted the seeds of the identitarianism and anti-western illiberalism that we’re seeing erupt throughout our society today. The core philosophies of postmodernism, as Stephen Hicks helps clarify, grew up around the ideas of rejecting truth for the sake of power, and rejecting individualism for the sake of tribalism. Postmodernism is often dressed up in fancy philosophical language, but these simple propositions are what much of it boils down to. There is no objective truth, there is only power and influence. There is no such thing as a free-thinking, unique individual entitled to universal human dignity, there is only group identity and the zero-sum contest between groups for power. In my opinion, this is the battle of ideas that will determine the fate of liberal democracy in my lifetime.

Now, it’s been interesting to see that some of the most hostile reviews I’ve ever received about this podcast have emerged since I explicitly entered this battle of ideas and became more open with my views about all of this; in response, I’ve been dismissed as a right wing extremist and libertarian lunatic. I certainly don’t consider myself either one of those things. I’m not ideological or partisan at all, really, it’s simply the case that, based on everything I know about history, and based on my own life experience with real people, I can’t see a viable end game for modern society besides liberal democracy’s emphasis on individualism. Not because individualism is perfect – it’s not. Humans are not perfect. Rather, it’s because the main alternative to individualism is tribalism. And we tried tribalism for a hundred thousand years, and it was worse. For most people, most of the time, it was worse. Modernism represents humanity’s attempt at something better. Every instance of a modern society forgetting that and systematically reverting to tribalism, like America seems to be in the process of doing right now, has proven disastrous. And, in the end, it doesn’t matter if the tribe in question comes from the fascist right or from the Marxist left. Either way, it’s a mob that threatens liberal democracy’s institutions of individual rights, due process, reason, and progress. There is a lot at stake here, and we shouldn’t have to re-learn this tough lesson the hard way over and over again simply because we fail to educate ourselves honestly about that history.

To that end, Stephen Hicks and I also review the purpose of a liberal arts education today, and we discuss how liberal arts professors might reconsider their responsibility as stewards of historical sanity.

I loved this conversation, and I learned a lot. I hope you feel the same.

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