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  • Postmodern Critique: Between Relativism and Reduction
  • Horace L. Fairlamb


For many disciplines in the humanities, the last three decades have been enlivened by skeptical claims of epochal scope. In the late sixties Derrida gestured toward the closure of the “historico-metaphysical epoch” of logocentrism; at the end of the seventies Rorty invited the end of philosophy; and Lyotard made “the postmodern condition” a central preoccupation of the eighties. Notwithstanding their differences in detail, poststructuralism, neopragmatism, and postmodernism all contributed to widespread doubts about Western philosophy’s claims to the ultimate foundations of knowledge, truth, and meaning.

According to these radical voices, an epochal shift is indicated by changing relations between philosophy, literature, and language. Where ancient philosophy sought to discipline the poets with science, some contemporary philosophers have surrendered to the tricksters of meaning. Meanwhile, literary critics have theorized their trickery seemingly ad infinitum. No wonder some see philosophy and literature as having reversed stations in the hierarchy of critical authority. With philosophy having failed to produce a final consensus on rational grounds, the literary critic’s interpretive sophistication may seem the ultimate form of critique.

This triumph of literary over philosophical analysis has a number of attractive features beyond its more exotic theoretical origins. After all, are not poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Did not [End Page 405] Freud get his best ideas from poets and novelists? And with all due respect, might not Shakespeare be wiser than Kant?

But the case against traditional philosophy is not so complete as the most radical critics have claimed. As the following pages will argue, the repudiation of foundational philosophy is premature for several reasons. First, the instabilities of language are not decisive for foundational philosophy. Second, the errors of traditional philosophy are best critiqued in foundational terms. And third, certain incoherent features of postmodern skepticism prove explicable in foundational terms. Lacking something more decisive, antifoundational skeptics cannot yet claim a victory.


It is no secret how language has lent prestige to literary criticism. Perhaps the most striking claim for the philosophical significance of language is Derrida’s in Of Grammatology:

However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others. But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogeneous discourses, diverse and heterogeneous in their intention, method and ideology. . . . [T]his crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon. 1

For Richard Rorty, the failure of epistemology led inexorably to this insight: “The ubiquity of language is a matter of language moving into the vacancies left by the failure of all the various candidates for the position of ‘natural starting-points’ of thought, starting-points which are prior to and independent of the way some culture speaks or spoke.” Moreover, language is itself the ultimate challenge to epistemology’s ideal of proper representation: “Philosophy, the attempt to say ‘how language relates to the world’ by saying what makes certain sentences true, or certain actions or attitudes good or rational, is, on this view, impossible.” 2

For some critics, the demise of traditional philosophy follows this failure to domesticate meaning. As the ubiquitous medium of thought, language allows too many forms and uses of knowledge to warrant a single ideal of science and meaning. Since the inevitable slippage of [End Page 406] meaning renders impossible an ultimate vocabulary, the foundational ideal crumbles.

No doubt, these strong pronouncements may seem implied by much that has transpired in the history of philosophy, not to mention in literary theory. Yet they conclude too much. Though language is central for philosophy, it is not decisive for all philosophical issues. Not all foundational claims are problems of representation. Nor does the hermeneutic perspective have a monopoly on critical ultimacy. And worse, antifoundational radicalism may be a self-refuting concept.


Postmodernism concludes that because epistemology failed in the past, one moves beyond its burdens by not asking its questions. Hence, Rorty urges us to understand rather than justify beliefs, putting...

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