The Fanciful Theories of Helen Pluckrose

I had an interesting exchange with Helen Pluckrose and several acolytes of the Sokal Squared Trinity on Twitter the other day. Pluckrose herself was largely agreeable, even given my own dismissive attitude toward her cohort’s understanding of “postmodernism” after Peter Boghossian tweeted out an endorsement of Stephen Hicks’ Postmodernism Explained. Hicks’ book is notoriously bad and is composed almost entirely of really inaccurate and frankly bizarre interpretations of early Modern and postmodern philosophy. Cuck Philosophy has done a great job picking this book apart here, but anyone who has basic knowledge of the history of European philosophy should be able to see right through most of this rubbish. Putting that aside, I want to take a deeper look at Pluckrose’s own views on postmodernity and postmodernism, particularly her article “How French ‘Intellectuals’ Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact,” on Areo.

Being as into Nietzsche as I am, I want to stress that my taking Pluckrose to task in what follows is a sign of respect. I only attack the strong and victorious. Admittedly, Pluckrose seems to be the the member of the Sokal Squared crew who is most familiar with actual “postmodern” theory and most likely to have actually done the reading. So, giving her the benefit of the doubt here, lets see what she has to say.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about “the West” for a second.

Let’s just start with the title — it’s absurd. It also contradicts what Pluckrose said to me on Twitter, which I cannot access right now because she’s either blocked me, deleted her Twitter handle, or been banned for some reason?

On Twitter, Pluckrose made a claim to the effect that she isn’t really attacking theorist of “postmodernity” who were doing descriptive work analyzing an epistemological crisis, but was rather taking issue with people who later made those theories actionable, what she calls “applied postmodernism,” in the so-called “theory wars” of the 1980s and -90s, around the time leading up to the original Sokal Hoax in the journal Social Text. But in the very title of her article, she specifically blames French “Intellectuals” for ruining the “West.”

Speaking of which, let’s talk about “the West” for a second. The West is a construct used by a lot of people. Kwame Anthony Appiah has looked at this construct here. So has Natalie Wynn here. Now, Appiah talks about postmodernism, postmodernity, and postcolonialism, but there’s not a very strong sense in which he is a postmodernist — unless just talking about these things puts someone in the camp of being a postmodernist. If this is true, then Pluckrose et al are themselves postmodernists. Wynn is maybe a better candidate for being a postmodernist, but I think she would reject that label and, based on her work, I think she would have grounds to deny the accusation.

The problem with the West as a construct is that people who use it want it to be a positive designation. The idea that  “the West” has been ruined suggests that there was a time in which it was not ruined, in which it was basically or mostly good. That basic goodness has been corrupted, according to Pluckrose, by French intellectuals and their role in instigating applied postmodernism. But this claim is defensible only if we cherry-pick the good and respectable things about European and American history and ignore the rest. Slavery, colonialism, and so on are all legacies of the West. Liberalism is a political ideology that Pluckrose attributes to the West, but Fascism is just as much a product of Western cultures as is Liberalism. In short, “the West” is a construct designed to make us feel good about ourselves, our European heritage, and is itself a purely ideological account of history that significantly curtails an actual, evidence based accounting of the history of those places traditionally lumped together in “the West.” I strongly recommend both Appiah and Wynn for some more detailed arguments concerning this idea of “the West.”

On this score of galaxy-brained, reality denying political commentary, they are in the austere company of Dinesh D’Souza and other right-wing grifters.

This construct of Western Civilization is key to understanding the Identitarian movement, a reactionary right-wing political ideology that centers Western chauvinism and white supremacy, advocates for racial separatism and the creation of white ethno-states in Europe by any means necessary, up to and including forced relocation of non-white people and genocide. Pluckrose uses the term “identitarian” as a euphemism for identity politics, a typically Left phenomenon originally developed by queer women of color with its theoretical origins closely associated with the 1979 “Combahee River Collective Statement.” This conflation is probably not intentional, but it does speak to the generally sloppy conceptual distinctions made by Pluckrose and her kind, particularly so that they can leverage their conceptual vagueness into a horse-shoe theory of politics that would allow them to accuse anti-Fascist Leftists of being Fascists themselves. On this score of galaxy-brained, reality denying political commentary, they are in the austere company of Dinesh D’Souza and other right-wing grifters.

Perhaps Pluckrose wants to claim that identity politics is harmful because basing politics around identity has contributed to or caused identitarian white supremacy. That’s an absurd and historically ill-informed type of academic victim-blaming. Right-wing reactionaries have always historically ripped off or adapted ideas from the Left, most visibly when Nazi’s incorporated “socialism” into their party name because socialism was wildly popular, only to later imprison and assassinate all the actual socialists when Nazis came to power. Those occupying positions of power have traditionally foregrounded their own identity markers, such as when James Madison argued in 1787 that the government “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Whether such arguments are made this explicitly or not, identity politics on the Left is a rational strategic move to foreground the interests of those who have been dispossessed because of the identity markers used against them by those wielding political power.

The fact that identity politics arises on the Left from the Black feminist movement also shows that it is not really rooted in postmodern theory, but rather on an elaboration of Marxist politics that seeks to address the apparent weakness of Marxism’s traditional emphasis on class-struggle as the struggle of ultimate importance. Pluckrose acknowledges that a similar criticism of Marx comes from postmodernism, but she fails to recognize that this is also a debate held within the confines of Marxist circles quite independently of postmodernism however broadly one chooses to construe its bounds. In fact, the postmodern criticism is very differently motivated. The concern there is theoretical, not practical or political, and centers on Marx’s historical materialism as a mode of Hegelianism that constitutes a meta-narrative. The Combahee River Collective does not offer a postmodernist critique of Marxism, but rather builds an argument from the evidence of their personal lives that a class-only focus overlooks what they call the “interlocking systems of oppression” that come to bear on people, particularly queer Black women, who exist at the crossroads of one or more identity markers. This account is a major inroad toward an understanding of the real origins of “intersectionality,” a term made famous by the legal scholar, theorist, and philosopher Kimberle Crenshaw. Crenshaw herself is hardly a “postmodernist,” though she cites the anti-essentialism of postmodern theory as an important sounding board for her thinking about intersectionality.

Anti-essentialism is the view that human beings do not have one fixed “essence” — a collection of properties that must obtain in a person in order for them to count as being fully human — which is transcendent, atemporal, and disassociated from the actual practices and lived experiences of persons living in society with one another. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous claim from The Second Sex that, “One is not born a woman, rather, one becomes a woman” is paradigmatic of the anti-essentialist position as it appears in existentialism.

Pluckrose herself seems to acknowledge that there are certain domains of human reality that are socially constructed, that is, domains mediated by and contingent upon the social and historical context in which they come into being, but insists her problem is with “radical constructivism” which claims that all knowledge as such is constructed and therefore relative to group identity and so on. Indeed, Pluckrose, if she is a liberal interested in the role of women in patriarchal societies, should accept some version of anti-essentialism herself unless she risks admitting the roles traditionally assigned to women within patriarchal societies are natural, deserved, and basically unchangeable. Her only other recourse would be that patriarchy, if is not a good thing, is somehow inhibiting the natural essence of women to be actualized. What would ground such an essence is not clear, since Pluckrose doesn’t seem to be a biological essentialist — but I could be wrong about this. It’s very hard to pin down exactly what Pluckrose herself believes, other than that liberalism, democracy, and the West are good, because so much of her work is just tearing down what she doesn’t like about “postmodernism.”

I suspect that Pluckrose would ultimately like to deny anti-essentialism, since she regularly advocates for a kind of universalism commensurate with classical Liberalism. This would by necessity downplay or ignore individual differences in identities such as race, class, gender, and so on. But that ultimately seems to come into conflict with individualism, since the universal must empty the particular of the content that would individualize it in the realm of its lived experience. What, then, would be the empirical evidence for this universal? Any such universal would have to be abstracted from experience, which provides great evidence for difference over universal identity. The abstract essence of humanness, be it reason or any other universal quality, can only be discerned in light of an a priori value which has determined the human-making quality sought in the empirical examples. Thus, the universal human nature cannot be empirically verified, since evidence for it is sought and identified only on the basis of the a priori principle. The empirical evidence is then justified insofar as it fits the non-empirical criteria given in the abstract.

Pluckrose also presents a strawperson of postmodern theorists when she says that they deny “stable reality or reliable knowledge to exist.” The disjunction here does a lot of work, because it allows Pluckrose and others to dissimulate about their actual argument concerning the weaknesses of postmodernism. One disjunct is a metaphysical claim about the stability of reality. The other disjunct is an epistemological claim about the reliability of knowledge. I suspect the disjunction is not intended to be an exclusive “or” as that wouldn’t permit the dissimulation. Nevertheless, the question is raised as to whether or not the difficulty comes through either one or the other, or if actually the problem comes from the conjunction of the two and not their disjunction.

The ontological side of the disjunct strawpersons postmodernism because “stability of reality” is deeply ambiguous. The standard model of contemporary physics could be interpreted to show that the universe is “unstable” — fundamental particles are popping in and out of existence in a fluctuating sea of Dirac. Once again, the rules that govern this fluctuation are abstract principles expressed in the formal language of a mathematical logic.

Postmodernism too offers principles that allow us to make sense of and understand the instability of social and cultural reality. In particular, ideas about power help us to understand how stable structures emerge from the fluctuating forces of human and institutional interaction. Postmodernism doesn’t deny a “real world,” but they do make claims about how human actions impact the meaning and significance of the real in our experience of it. These meanings are unstable, because the historical projects of human beings from which this meaning emerges changes over time as new and different ends emerge in relation to the situation within which human find themselves.

Science itself does not operate on the assumption that knowledge is fixed.

The “reliability of knowledge” side of the disjunct is perhaps more salient and accurate in relation to the majority of postmodern theory. Knowledge is open to questioning and postmodern thinkers are prone to being suspicious about claims to knowledge, particularly when powerful social actors advocate that we must all accept certain knowledge claims to be true. Postmodernists are constantly asking questions like, “whose interest is served by the acceptance of this claim,” “to what end is this knowledge put to use,” “how does knowledge operate in conjunction with power,” etc. But notice these question do not entail that there is no reliable knowledge. It just means that we have to be careful about what we accept as being true. And, of course, open to revising our views in light of new evidence, new theoretical perspectives, and newly available ways of understanding and interpreting the world.

Science itself does not operate on the assumption that knowledge is fixed. In fact, the very nature of inductive reasoning at the heart of scientific methodology denies the possibility of certain fixed knowledge. Because inductive reasoning is ampliative, designed to expand our knowledge, and not truth preserving like deductive reasoning which draws analytically contained truth from given premises on the bases of truth-logical functions or set-theoretical implications, inductive reasoning is never certain. It is probable, even very highly probable, but its conclusions are always open to revision in light of new evidence. Some findings are more reliable than others, but that reliability is always at risk of being undermined by new and relevant findings.

But notice again that postmodernism does not necessarily entail that no reliable knowledge exists. I don’t know of any serious or influential postmodern theorist that holds this position. At the very least, and this is an extremely uncharitable interpretation of the hypothetical postmodernist, they would maintain their their own claims are reliably accurate about the reliability of knowledge. Again, I think that is a very suspect interpretation, but the function of power as it structures social relations and their meaning is held to be pretty reliably known by most postmodernists. This is just one example, but merely one instance to the contrary is sufficient to refute the universal claim that there is “no” reliable knowledge.

In fact, postmodernism actually holds us to a more rigorous and stringent standard when assessing our truth claims.

In fact, postmodernism actually holds us to a more rigorous and stringent standard when assessing our truth claims. I think this is actually why people don’t like postmodernism — because it is demanding and hard. Most people are lazy and prefer to be comfortable in their prejudices or what “seems right to them” rather than go through the painful process of self-reflection in which they interrogate their beliefs and understand how they have been conditioned by social and historical forces. It’s much easier to think they’re a magical autonomous being fully in control of their thoughts and feelings with access to ahistorical universal truths by which they can reinforce their own self-perception. The reasons why people like to pillory postmodernism are the same reasons the Athenians killed Socrates — they prefer their own bullshit.

At this point, before moving into the truly untenable history of ideas offered by Pluckrose, I want to review, in light of the above discussion, just how ideologically driven the whole article as been in its first key paragraphs. Pluckrose has assumed a highly motivated definition of “the West,” which identifies it with Liberal democracy and modernity itself. This presupposes a purity of essentially Western ideals that is not upheld by the historical record. Rather, history has been cherry-picked in order to present a infallibly good picture of the West that obscures and willfully ignores its many flaws. Then, postmodernism is rendered as a scapegoat that threatens to upend this net positive. The strawperson version of postmodernism cannot be understood as a part of the Western tradition, but rather as a abnormality or deviation from the true and good trajectory of Western development that threatens to undermine it with values allegedly antithetical to the mythical golden time of “modernity.”

Pluckrose’s ideology drives her conclusions, such as when she says that postmodernism threatens to return us to “an irrational and tribal ‘premodern’ culture.” Where does modernity begin for Pluckrose? Not surprisingly, the (Italian?) Renaissance. Ironically, the Renaissance was facilitated largely by the not-tribal, but rather monolithic political clout of the premodern Catholic church and its benefactors. The “premodern” period of the Middle Ages could be seen as pretty unified under the philosophy of Scholasticism. Of course there were tribal, internecine squabbles over the nature of God, the Trinity, predestination and the freedom of the will, and so on, but these types of tribal divisions happened in Modernity as well. Rationalism and Empiricism, anyone?

The application of this purity test is exactly why Pluckrose and her crew have moved to talking about “applied postmodernism.”

The problem is that Pluckrose goes looking for discord in premodernity and finds it, while ignoring evidence of concord. She then goes looking for evidence of concord in modernity and finds it, while ignoring evidence of discord. Philosophers in the early Modern period were bitterly divided about the nature of knowledge, its source, the relationship between God and Reason, the possibility of the idea of the infinite, whether there was one substance or two or an infinite number, whether substance was of any relevance at all, whether we could know about causes, whether or not  things existed only when they were perceived, and so on. Pluckrose ignores the incongruities and contradictions within the philosophy of modernity in order to make it fit into her ideological preconception of it, which has been presupposed in the set-up of the article. We can play the game of continuities and discontinuities with any period of time and this is why people should read Foucault, because his theoretical framework has a lot to say about these types of historical developments and his books are extensively sourced with evidence from the archival record.

The other thing this ideologically driven narrative enables is a kind of purity test. The application of this purity test is exactly why Pluckrose and her crew have moved to talking about “applied postmodernism.” Now, you don’t have to be a postmodernist, your ideas just have to be infected by the deviate postmodern bug. So, Kimberle Crenshaw is not a postmodernist, but her theory of intersectionality is corrupted by the postmodern influence and so can be dismissed as “applied postmodernism.” The ideological purity test is basically a perverse one-drop rule for academics. One wrong idea, one misguided citation, and you’re off the path of the good true and pure march of Modern Progress and headed straight for irrational premodern tribal warfare. The purity test is especially disgusting because it is typically applied to the most marginalized thinkers, like queer Black women, people who are transgendered, and so on.

This ideological purity test is itself tribal, as it identifies “us,” the pure good rational thinkers who are continuing the project of modernity against “them,” the irrational relativists intent on destroying the great scientific awakening from our dogmatic, superstitious slumber. Pot, meet kettle. This way of thinking is more paranoid than the postmoderns, who are now imagined lurking in every marginal corner of the Academy, but who nevertheless wield great and terrible influence over everyone in the center.

Moving on to Pluckrose’s actual understanding of “modernity” in relation to postmodernism, I found this section to be the most poorly informed and historically inaccurate part of the entire essay. My dissertation was largely concerned with how literary Modernism prefigured philosophical theories that came to be known as postmodernism, so this particular movement in history is like, my thing. I’ve also published on this exact topic since.

Pluckrose is wrong that Lyotard coined the term “postmodernism,” but he did give it its first properly philosophical treatment.

Pluckrose begins with a basically okay treatment of postmodernism as an artistic movement (which I don’t think she appreciates), but her overview is basically lifted from the encyclopedia sources she cites. Her own contribution to this discussion is a false dichotomy between whether we see “modernity in terms of what was produced or what was destroyed.” Obviously, modernity did both these things, and postmodernism doesn’t choose one over the other. Rather, it acknowledges that both happened and were, in fact, necessary. If something new is to come into being, something old must be, at least in part, negated. Again, Foucault is helpful in seeing history as both a movement of continuity but also, and crucially, as one of discontinuity as well. There are breaks and incongruities in history when we move from one phase into another whether elements or whole structures of the old ways are abolished by the very processes that bring forth the new.

She then moves to Lyotard, who is responsible for bringing the word “postmodern” into the philosophical lexicon in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition. Pluckrose is wrong that Lyotard coined the term “postmodernism,” but he did give it its first properly philosophical treatment. Again, relying on quotes from Lyotard, Pluckrose initially does an adequate job conveying what he was trying to do. But as soon as she starts drawing conclusions, her ideological reading derails her and she badly misrepresents the consequences of Lyotard’s arguments.

She claims that Lyotard expresses “an explicit epistemic relativism (belief in personal or culturally specific truths),” but this claim is not supported by the quotes she provided nor by what Lyotard was actually saying. It’s true that Lyotard is pointing out that cultural institutions, such as scientific laboratories which rely on the interests of private and public funding, produce statements about what is true and provide us with a body of facts. But that in itself does not entail that his epistemology is relativistic in the sense that truth itself is relative to its site of production. What it does mean is what I’ve already said, but rendered in the specifics — science faces a problem of legitimacy because it is intertwined with political mechanisms capable of determining the projects of science by encouraging (though funding, for instance) the pursuit of projects that fulfill political ends, i.e. the Manhattan Project, the space race, the development of technologies congruent with the operations of the state apparatus, or those favorable to the interests of businesses, etc. This problem of legitimization is not necessary or only a problem within science, but it is more importantly a problem for the status of science within society as a whole. Lyotard helps us to understand climate skepticism, anti-vaxxers, chem-trail conspiracies, and flat-Earthers, not because those people themselves have legitimate points to make, but precisely because their dismissal of science can be predicated on the problem of legitimacy he describes. People are concerned about the entanglements of the projects of science with powerful institutions which, rightly or wrongly, do in fact seek to control or at least influence people to a certain extent. Some people may be deeply misguided in their rejection of science outright, but it is possible to understand why these phenomena occur when we are able to see the real problems facing science as it strives for a legitimate claim to knowledge production within the social institutions that facilitate the production of scientific knowledge.

Pluckrose then immediately claims that Lyotard advocates “privileging ‘lived experience’ over empirical evidence.” Setting aside the problem that lived experience is what provides any given individual with whatever evidence they will have to work with, Lyotard never advocates for this. In fact, the specific expression “lived experience” doesn’t even occur in The Postmodern Condition except as “lived social experience” but this phrase occurs in a footnote and is not original to Lyotard, but is actually contained in a quote attributed to Jürgen Habermas. Further, the quote and Lyotard’s discussion of Habermas is not one in which an advocacy of lived experience over evidence (nonsense) occurs, but is one in which both thinkers are concerned with how actual people living in society outside the confines of scientific institutions and practices are faced with and deal with the information presented to them. “Social pragmatics does not have the ‘simplicity’ of scientific pragmatics,” writes Lyotard. “It [social pragmatics] is a monster formed by the interweaving of heteromorphous classes of utterances (denotative, prescriptive, performative, technical, evaluative, etc.) There is no reason to think that it would be possible to determine metaprescriptives common to all of these language games or that a revisable consensus like the one in force at a given moment in the scientific community could embrace the totality of metaprescriptions regulating the totality of statements circulating in the social collectivity” (Lyotard, 65). Again, this concerns the difference between how language functions within the scientific community and the issues that arise when scientific language faces outward toward the larger social context within which it is embedded. Consensus on a given issue becomes unlikely due to the huge variety of linguistic contexts that everyday people actually engage in as part of their lived experience. So, certain devoutly religious people, because of the metaprescriptions that govern knowledge claims within their religious context, do not consent to evolution, which governs the language of the biological sciences where the metaprescriptions afforded by evolutionary theory are generally agreed upon and drive the knowledge claims produced by research in the biological sciences. This does not mean that evolution is not true, or is merely relative, or that the claims of the religious are “equally valid” as the claims of evolutionary scientists, but it does mean that problems of legitimacy will almost inevitably arise when scientists try to take their theories public and pass from the closed group of scientists who generally agree among one another and into the wider context of society where people do not generally agree on one master metanarrative that would legitimize the knowledge claims of scientists in the eyes of any given individual. Also, despite her contrary claims, I think some scientists actually are demoralized in the face of these difficulties, especially with science-denialism in the face of catastrophic climate change and/or increases in the spread of preventable disease due to anti-vaxxers or the assault on women’s health lead by scientifically illiterate politicians, etc. These are the kinds of things Lyotard is talking about when he says scientists are “demoralized” — he’s not saying that they’re giving up on the project of science itself.

Pluckrose talks about pluralism and privileging the views of minorities in this same section, but that just has nothing to do with what Lyotard is talking about in The Postmodern Condition. She says these things because her audience mostly has not and likely will read Lyotard, especially after she slanders him in their eyes (delegitimizing his knowledge claims from her position of assumed authority over her readers!) and so she can basically say whatever things she wants to say about the book and bank on people basically taking her word on it.

I learned this studying at the University of Paris X, Nanterre la Défense under Jean-Michel Salanskis, who was a student of Lyotard’s.

She does a similar hack-job on Foucault. And Derrida. As someone whose expertise is actually focused on this material reading Pluckrose’s article is exhausting in how wrong it gets things. For some reason, she also starts adding hyperlinked footnotes once she hits the Foucault/Derrida sections, most of which are not to primary sources, but to critical secondary sources. These sources are no doubt selected due to their affinity to Pluckrose’s ideological prejudices. They pass the purity test.

She says Foucault’s work is also “centered on language and relativism.” That’s not quite right either. Language, yes, relativism, no. Foucault doesn’t talk about relativism and is not in any meaningful sense a relativist.

Again, Pluckrose kind of starts out okay with a basic, Wikipedia-level intro to Foucault’s main ideas. So, in a sense, it’s true that, “discourses control what can be ‘known’ and in different periods and places, different systems of institutional power control discourses.” However, when Pluckrose turns to drawing out her conclusions from this, she produces a series of non-sequiturs that are not representative of what Foucault actually said.

Think about this discourse thing for a second. If you grew up in a sexually repressed household in which sex-talk was highly circumscribed, you would likely grow up knowing relatively little about actual sex and possibly believing some nonsense about how you might become pregnant by touching a doorknob after a boy who used the bathroom or something foolish like that. The discourse surrounding sex in such a house is so restricted exactly as a means to exert control — so the damn kids don’t have sex! See also: abstinence only education, etc. This is the kind of thing Foucault’s talking about on a wider scale. It’s a basic hermeneutic principle, from Heidegger to Gadamer and beyond, that you only get answers to the questions you ask. So, if certain questions are forbidden, or if the prescriptions of the language in use among a social milieu make it very difficult for certain questions to come up, then you’re increasingly less likely to get those answers, to access that knowledge. I don’t even think this is controversial, but for some reason when a bald gay French dude says it we’re destroying the foundations of Western civilization.

Then, Pluckrose attributes the absurd claim to Foucault that “people themselves were culturally constructed.” This is so stupid that I would readily throw all my Foucault books in the trash if he actually argued such a thing. What he did argue is that our concepts of personhood and our concepts of certain kinds of people are culturally conditioned. What it means to be “a hero” changes as our cultural ideas change. What it means to be “masculine” or “feminine” change as our social roles change, as power shifts, as different ideological structures come to the fore, and as we reevaluate and re-conceive what those categories mean and how we actualize those categories in our lives and social relationships. Plato’s idea of the simple, indivisible, immortal soul is somewhat commensurate with the Christian idea, but these concepts of the person are very different from the autonomous rational subject discussed by Kant and radically different from the Buddhist theory of the Empty Self that arose in the context of Indian philosophy and religion. These are different kinds of person, different concepts of personhood, and they reflect our shifting cultural, historical, and political relationships with power in society. Autonomy’s not all that important under the authoritarianism of absolute monarchy, but to the extent that you have some democratic institutions, the idea of self-governance makes more sense.

I don’t know what Christopher Butler is on in the quote Pluckrose attributes to him, but the phrase “inherent evil” makes no sense in Foucault. This is where critics of postmodernism try to have it both ways. Foucault is supposed to be some radical relativist truth-destroyer who also believes in inherent evil, but if everything’s socially constructed then there’s no such thing as inherent evil, so… gotcha, Foucault?

No, these absurdities only arise from the very misrepresentations of postmodernism constructed by people like Pluckrose et al.

Of course there’s room for individual agency and autonomy in Foucault. His last books, particularly those on the care of the self, are whole treatises on how individuals can live in, resist, and reshape structures that they find oppressive, not conducive to their happiness or general flourishing. But again, you’d have to actually read Foucault to know that he moved beyond the archaeology phase of his early career, into phases of genealogy, and so on. What Pluckrose and others fail to realize is just that Foucault’s early work is focused on analyses of structural systems. It helps to know that in France, Foucault is treated as an advanced kind of structuralist, not necessarily a “post-structuralist,” which is largely and Anglophone invention. I learned this studying at the University of Paris X, Nanterre la Défense under Jean-Michel Salanskis, who was a student of Lyotard’s. Thus, accusing him of not leaving room for individual autonomy is like accusing a cosmologist for not leaving room for chemistry; that criticism is simply not relevant to the level of the analysis at work. As Foucault’s work developed, he shifted his attention to provide accounts of the individual and their freedom, the threats to their freedom, and their potential lack of freedom within the systems he’d analyzed. He did move beyond the Kantian notion of autonomy in these accounts, because people are not actually, as Kant theorized, predominantly intellectual beings whose transcendental ego’s hover above the concrete conditions in which they practically lived.

Pluckrose and many others bandy the term “autonomy” about, but rarely display a philosophically rigorous understanding of what exactly constitutes autonomy. The concept is thoroughly Kantian and is not easily disentangled from certain metaphysical commitments of Kant and his followers in German Idealism. It may be a philosophically interesting and valuable project to attempt to articulate a theory of autonomy outside the limits of this historical movement and many philosophers have done so. However, I see no evidence that Pluckrose et al are engaged in such a project and they seem to take autonomy for granted as a completely simple and transparent concept that is free of complicated metaphysical entailments.

What makes Pluckrose’s cheery picture of “the West” so odious is that it is designed to do exactly that — let us off the hook.

Beyond these philosophical concerns, Foucault’s career is not the static caricature on offer here. The problem Pluckrose and others like Christopher Butler have is that Foucault doesn’t make it easy to be free. You actually have to engage in thoughtful self-reflection, become critical of the history and social context in which you’re embedded, and make some tough decisions about how you’re going to live in that context. Freedom doesn’t come easy and you have to work at it. You don’t get to be a magic autonomous thing floating around totally free of ideological entanglements, problematic assumptions, unexamined prejudices, to just do whatever you want in an ahistorical vacuum. Again, postmodernism places more rigorous and strenuous expectations on us if we are to be free and responsible agents. But you’d have to engage Foucault in good faith and an actual desire to understand what he’s saying to know that.

You’d also have to know a little about Foucault as an actual person, not a boogeyman, to understand why he would say something hyperbolic such that medieval feudalism and modern liberal democracy are equally oppressive during the famous Chomsky/Foucault debate. The rhetorical strategy of such statements is to insist that we never let ourselves off the hook. What makes Pluckrose’s cheery picture of “the West” so odious is that it is designed to do exactly that — let us off the hook. According to Foucault, we should never be so complacent to think that we are free of all control, oppression, and that our society has “made it.” Even if we have, we could lose it, because history is not a continuous march toward ever greater perfection. Rather, history is full of set-backs, false-starts, back-sliding, regression, and general disruptive discontinuities that will always be potential threats to any “progress” we perceive we have made. To think we have magically attained a perfect freedom under liberal democracy is not only naive, but foolish and potentially dangerous, especially if liberal democracy is truly “better” than other systems. Plus, by being critical of even our best conceived systems, we might discover systems that are even better still.

I actually hope that she has not read it, because if she has, then she either failed completely to understand it or she is purposely misrepresenting its contents.

Pluckrose takes a break from committing crimes of scholarship to state without much argument that Judith Butler, Edward Said, and Kimberle Crenshaw have had their thinking corrupted by the nefarious Frenchmen. They fail the ideological purity test. So, even if they are not properly postmodern theorists (Butler is actually the best fit for being a postmodernist), they commit the crime of having applied concepts from Foucault in their work, and so are “applied postmodernist” and are destroying Western civilization by writing books.

When she turns to Derrida, the scholarly irresponsibility of Pluckrose’s article reaches new heights. Derrida is probably the most egregiously misrepresented philosopher thus far and it is not clear that Pluckrose has actually read Of Grammatology, which seems to be the basis of most of her criticism. I actually hope that she has not read it, because if she has, then she either failed completely to understand it or she is purposely misrepresenting its contents.

She’s somewhat correct that Derrida is the founder of deconstruction, but “deconstruction” is not a concept, but rather a whole theory of textual analysis and interpretation replete with its own system of concepts. He does not argue for cultural constructivism or culture or personal relativism and these labels are just asserted by Pluckrose without any argumentation to back them up. It’s clearly important to her that readers perceive Derrida to hold these views before she begins her abortive attempt to “explain” his views. This way, the well is poisoned and she can attribute whatever half-baked idea she wants to Derrida in the hopes her audience will be none the wiser.

As an aside, you can’t argue for both personal and cultural relativism, as these are distinct and not commensurate ideas, but again, this is just symptomatic of Pluckrose’s conceptual vagueness and imprecision. It is true that Derrida is primarily focused on language, especially in his early work, so I guess she did get that right.

Derrida does not just “pronounce” that “there is no outside-text,” but rather shows that this follows from the logic of structuralism as a theory of language. The result is not intended by Ferdinand de Saussure, the linguist and semiotician, but Derrida derives the result by following the logic of signs that signify their object by way of representation, as a stand-in for the object. Again, Derrida is not claiming this as his own special theory of language, but it rather attempting to derive it as an unexpected result of the logic of structuralism.

If the sign is a stand-in for what it signifies, that means there is a distinction, a difference, between the object and the word that refers us to it. This conceptual distance opens the space for ambiguity to creep into language. Such ambiguity is in fact necessary and allows us to use language metaphorically and use the same word for multiple objects of the same or different kinds or different words for the same object and so on. However, this means that words don’t refer to objects in a strict one to one ratio, but rather indicate them obliquely in a round about way. Further, once we begin to inquire as to the meaning of a given word, we soon find ourselves referred, not to the objects which the words are meant to represent, but rather to other words which are themselves stand-ins for the first word about which we had inquired. We become thrown into an “abyss of representation,” unable to get back to the objects themselves and referred indefinitely round and round to words defining words defining words. Again, this is the consequence of the logic of structuralism and its representational semiotics.

When Pluckerose says that the author of the text is not the authority on its meaning, I think she is confusing Derrida for Roland Barthes.

When Pluckerose says that the author of the text is not the authority on its meaning, I think she is confusing Derrida for Roland Barthes. Barthes wrote a famous 1967 essay called “The Death of the Author” that questions the extent to which the meaning intended by the author is the final word on the text’s ultimate meaning. The issues discussed by Barthes are not entirely separate from those investigated by Derrida, but I honestly think that Pluckrose is conflating the two and doesn’t know what she’s talking about on this score.

For Derrida, neither the reader nor listener “make their own equally valid meaning,” in part because the meaning of a text is still guided by a logic inherent in the text itself. The reader/listener just doesn’t “make meaning” in Derrida’s theory. This is just false and doesn’t even follow from anything Pluckrose has tried to attribute to Derrida. Certainly, whatever meaning people might make up about a text are not “equally valid,” and again, this is just stupidity. Texts do have multiple possible interpretations due to the fundamental ambiguity of language and the logical tensions which “structure” the meaning of the text. But these possible interpretations are constrained by the actual words that are on the page and their limits are set by the logic that follows from the ambiguities inscribed therein. Validity doesn’t really factor into the point Derrida is working out here. In fact, what he’s attempting to show is that texts, due to the ambiguity of language, produce interpretations that are potentially incommensurate with one another, but that the text itself will not give us the key to determining which interpretation is the “final” or valid one. In a sense, they are only “equally valid” insofar as the logic of the text itself supports it. Its just possible that a given text might support multiple interpretations.

Pluckrose jumps abruptly mid-sentence to a quote from a completely different work by Derrida in order to make his “no outside-text” statement seem nonsensical. She breaks a quote from “Signature, Event, Context,” in half and presents it in reverse order with her own paragraph break in between. In the quote, Derrida says:

“Every sign, linguistic or nonlinguistic, spoken or written (in the usual sense of this opposition), as a small or large unity, can be cited, put between quotation marks; thereby it can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely nonsaturable fashion. This does not suppose that the mark is valid outside its context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center of absolute anchoring.”

The real irony here is that what Pluckrose has done actually proves Derrida’s point.

The issue Derrida is discussing here is a completely different matter from the critique of structuralism in which the “no outside-text” quote appears. In the Franken-quote engineered by Pluckrose, Derrida is talking about our ability to quote things in a seemingly infinite variety of contexts in order to elicit new and different meanings from the same set of words. I can use them ironically, I can make a joke, I can eulogize someone, I can make a slogan, and so forth, all using what are ostensibly “the same words,” but the meaning ascribed to the words takes on different significations relative to the context in which they are inscribed. There is no “absolute anchor,” no one true context that determines for all time the meaning of the quote that can be reiterated in a variety of different contexts to different effects. Pluckrose is making a monster out of Derrida by patching together butchered quotes to make deconstruction look nonsensical. She is using her ideological prejudices to interpret Derrida uncharitably and reach conclusions about him which she has already determine beforehand and which do not reflect the actual things Derrida says. It’s egregious falsification and scholarly malfeasance.

It’s ethically suspect if Pluckrose is misleading her readers like this on purpose. If she’s not intending to mislead, then she’s simply a hack.

The real irony here is that what Pluckrose has done actually proves Derrida’s point. She has taken his words, rearranged them in a new context and used them to convey meanings that were not intended and are contradictory to the original context in which the words first historically appeared. This would be extremely clever if this is what Pluckrose intended, however, the joke would be on her because if she’s actually successful, then Derrida is vindicated and Pluckrose’s whole article is actually a contradictory performance of postmodern theory itself. She is the applied postmodernist. Either way, what that manipulation would reveal is that Pluckrose is not presenting the same ideas as Derrida. She’s not actually trying to explain Derrida or make sense of deconstruction for her readers, but only to discredit a monstrous caricature of Derrida invented for the sole purpose of attacking “postmodernism,” which we can now see is, in the context of Pluckrose’s essay, her own invention. The conclusions are totally driven by ideology.

I suspect Pluckrose is not playing 13-dimensional chess with deconstruction, however, because she then goes on to talk about différance and botches that discussion just as badly as anything that preceded it.

Derrida does not exactly derive différance from “the verb differer which means both ‘to defer’ and ‘to differ’,” though he does play on this ambiguity. Différance is a misspelling of différence where the “a” replaces the second “e.” However, in French, you cannot tell the difference between these two spellings when they’re pronounced aloud. They sound the same. The difference is only inscribed in the writing. Where differ/defer come into play is in the articulation of this difference. It refers both to spatial difference, the space between letters and words that marks out their difference and structures meaning as it divides up the text and also to the temporal deferring or postponing of meaning that comes about through the indirect reference made by the representational sign. Again, it’s true that the meaning is, then, never “final” in one sense, because the object signified by the sign is always deferred due to the meaning of the sign itself being mediated through the other representational signs that constitute its meaning. Thus, the signified is never brought to presence by the sign, whose meaning is constituted in the difference between the sign and its signified and whose presence is thereby deferred by this difference. Derrida is criticizing a metaphysics of presence. Again, Pluckrose is conflating several distinct issues that Derrida is addressing throughout his writing by bringing together various sources that each are dealing with their own philosophical problems and presenting them as if they’re all about the same thing and, because of this misrepresentation, they appear incoherent.

She jumps again, without alerting readers, to a still different issue in Derrida’s 1972 book of interviews, Positions, and deploys a quote that finds Derrida deep in a discussion of Hegelian metaphysics. Derrida says, “We are not dealing with the peaceful co-existence of a vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy [in Hegel’s metaphysical oppositions]. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment” (Derrida, 43). Now Pluckrose stops there, but Derrida has only laid out the first phase, indicated in the quote by “first of all,” of what he calls the “double science” of the deconstructive strategy. Derrida is very clear that what Pluckrose has quoted is just the first move and that the result is not merely an “inversion of the hierarchy” as Pluckrose herself describes it.

It cannot be a mere inversion, for the inversion itself creates a new dynamic that reconfigures the meaning of the original pairing. Thus, the meanings cannot be maintained in the resulting reconfiguration. A new meaning begins to emerge that outstrips the original logic of the oppositional pairing. This is a move that Heidegger observes in Nietzsche. To understand what Derrida’s doing in the context of Hegel’s metaphysics requires some knowledge of the history of this philosophical development from Hegel to Nietzsche to Heidegger to Derrida. Pluckrose isn’t even trying. Derrida specifically and pointedly warns us against stalling on the first phase and simply thinking we can settle on the inverted pairing, on a new hierarchy.

Pluckrose follows this incomplete reading of Derrida’ double science by blaming deconstruction for a host of Leftist ills, such as the claim the reverse racism isn’t real (it isn’t, but I don’t know what on Earth Pluckrose is getting at here), ironic misandry, and the idea that “identity dictates what can be understood.” But Derrida explicitly rejects maintaining inverted oppositions precisely because he argues that they tend to reinscribe the problematic dynamic established in the previous order. The purpose of the second phase of the deconstructive strategy is to move beyond the opposition into a new paradigm that escapes the problem of the old opposition while avoiding its reinscription. So, Derrida explicitly argues against the very form of ideation that Pluckrose attributes to him.

The rest of the article is just a tribalistic screed against the irrationalist, anti-liberal “postmodernism” that Pluckrose has created in her own image. I’m going to stop my analysis here because the apocalyptic conclusion of the article would only follow if Pluckrose had actually represented Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida accurately, but I have shown conclusively that she has not done so. The end result is tilting at windmills, a purely ideological mythology of an embattled West struggling with the demonic forces of “postmodernity.” But it is a postmodernity entirely of the Sokal Squared gang’s creation. Based on what has been outlined above, their version of postmodernism bears no resemblance to actual historical philosophers who wrote actual books that can be read and checked against the ugly mischaracterizations I’ve exposed above.

I can only conclude that, based upon their presentation of postmodernism through Pluckrose, they are both hypocrites and not at all serious.

Given the alleged concern the Sokal Squared trio have about the integrity of scholarship, I can only conclude that, based upon their presentation of postmodernism through Pluckrose, they are both hypocrites and not at all serious.

One thought on “The Fanciful Theories of Helen Pluckrose

  1. Dear Donovan,

    I thank you for your lengthy consideration of my work but am saddened to see you conclude by diagnosing my collaborators and I both hypocrites and unserious. This is deeply uncharitable and not remotely true. It also makes it unproductive to try to discuss anything further. A bare minimum for productive discussion is assuming the other person to be both sincere and well-intentioned. We are.

    I will say that I only began picking the titles for my own essays when I took over Areo and I quite agree that the title of the piece you focus on is awful. I wish I had objected to it. It is not remotely difficult to know what I believe and you will find much information on that here: https://areomagazine.com/author/hpluckrose/

    I recommend paying particular attention to “The Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity”, “No, Postmodernism Is not Dead”, “No, Liberal Lefties are Not Right-Wing” and “Skepticism is Necessary in our Post-Truth Era: Postmodernism is Not.” I think those answer all the questions you raised and implications you, most uncharitably, read into my work.

    Most incorrectly of all, you assume that I think the west is defined by secular, liberal democracy, science, reason etc. I do not. I think secular, liberal democracy and liberal humanism are defined by these things and I consistently point out the perpetuation of orientalism by those scholars and activists who insist on relating these things to the west and denigrating them and assigning mystical alternative ways of knowing to the rest of the world. I frequently point out that secular, liberal humanists exist everywhere and that it is our job to support those in every culture. I also point out that it is particularly ironic to argue that science and reason are western traditions and akin to imperialism when the UK is having a STEM crisis and is reliant on attracting doctors, scientists and engineers from India, Pakistan and Nigeria among other countries. You will find that argument made most strongly here: https://conatusnews.com/western-centric-intersectional-feminism/

    Postmodernism, however, is largely a western phenomenon and you will this being pointed out by materialist postcolonial scholars most vehemently. I think it would be much better for the rest of the world if we do not export it.

    I am sorry that you have taken this stance of objecting to things you suppose I mean when what I actually do mean is set out repeatedly in hundreds of thousands of words which are not difficult to find. I doubt that productive conversation with you is possible and I will not attempt it again.

    Like

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