- Critical Conditions: Postmodernity and the Question of Foundations
Some theories might be in critical condition, but others are terminal, run aground by their own illogic, according to Horace Fairlamb. Despite some theories’ terminal state, Fairlamb still senses dangers, for as he says in his introduction: “If critical authority cannot turn to metaphysical permanence, transcendental subjectivity, scientific objectivity, formal systematicity, methodological closure, or any other transcending constraints for its authority, are we not left with nothing firmer than Nietzschean perspectivism and an anarchy of wills to power? Might not the respectable looking Trojan Horse of philosophical hermeneutics be filled with sophists, gamesters, and fascists?” Well, yes and no and maybe.
Fairlamb explores the issue of foundationalism, later called foundationism, in eight chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. Most of the eight chapters are labeled as devoted to single contemporary thinkers and theorists, all male: Stanley Fish, Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas. Fairlamb has problems with all these people, and he is very good at laying out objections, based in logic, that arise from the main positions of each. He wants to provide “an analysis of how certain strategies fail to address foundational problems” (p. xi).
This analysis consists mainly of turning positions back on themselves, so that when Fish or Habermas or any one of the people addressed in the book makes a claim that indicates an anti-foundational position, Fairlamb jumps in to ask: where is the foundation for the anti-foundational positions? This tactic fills the book, and becomes the driving force of a number of questions and assertions that follow a similar pattern. For instance: “Fish’s radical hermeneutics condemns universalism, but constantly practices it” (p. 40), or “Gadamer’s vision of philosophical hermeneutics must have non-historical authority lest it reduce to his historically bound prejudices” (p. 127). At the end, Fairlamb feels he has demonstrated the logical paradoxes and argumentative blind spots of the various theorists and thinkers mentioned above, and he proposes instead what he calls “a heterological foundationism [that] is able to account for both what changes and what stays the same, and thereby account for the failure of both reductive foundationism and relativism” (p. 263).
While I can applaud Fairlamb the logician, I cannot recommend the book. The deck is stacked from the beginning, as he admits early on: “I do not claim to represent the entire range of these authors’ works and thought, nor all their subsequent revisions and recantations” (p. xi). The game here is not to think about the thinkers at all, which is perhaps why Fairlamb rehearses some knee-jerk positions, such as an attack (p. 25) on Derrida’s too-famous statement “there is nothing outside the text.” While he cites (p. 266) Rodolphe Gasché’s [End Page 271] The Tain of the Mirror, Fairlamb apparently refuses Gasché’s reading of the sentence that “does not permit the conclusion that there is nothing else but texts, or for that matter, that all is language” (Tain, p. 281).
By dealing only with the logic of some works, Fairlamb unburdens himself of the need, for instance, to attend to Gadamer’s Gesammelte Werke, or to any of the thinkers’ writings in their original languages, a task even some postmodernists agree is foundational for basic scholarship. One can only guess that the universal language of logic has no patience with foreign languages, except to lay bare the inconsistencies and paradoxes of selected bits of syntax.