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After Postmodernism: A Report

After postmodernism? Is postmodernism over -- already? No, not quite; there is a deliberate double meaning in "after" postmodernism.

"We keep the critique of modernity, but we move beyond the mere arbitrariness that postmodernism proclaims. We question all stated foundations, but this doesn't mean 'just anything goes'."

Such was the motto of a Conference on "APM" at the University of Chicago where 93 people, mostly philosophers with some anthropologists, sociologists, and others, gathered to discuss how to move beyond the poor alternatives seemingly posed by postmodernism: either some system of stated truth, or no kind of truth at all.

The Conference was sponsored by the Ward M. and Mariam C. Canaday Educational Trust and arranged by Gene Gendlin and Richard Shweder.

The Announcement had said:

"Yes, every assertion is made from some vantage point . . . [and] all words bring an unavoidable "metaphysics." But, since it is unavoidable, can we do no more than . . . [end in] decentering, undecidability, rupture, limbo, aporia, flux?"

From postmodernism it promised to save

  1. Play and humor, no small contribution.
  2. Making economic, political, gender, and colonizing power visible.
  3. Putting the recognition of the ungrounded variety of assumptions first, rather than [as always before] only at the periphery. . . for the benefit of those who already knew it.

We are now a little past the time when it was revolutionary and freeing to undermine all logical fundamentals and scientistic "objectivity." But since postmodernism delights in denying any alternatives, the scientific robot simply marches on. Mere negativity cannot change the assumptions and values that still determine our social policies and institutions. And philosophy is, and has always been the discipline that deals directly with those assumptions, and also asks if and how one possibly can.

Many people have now also grasped the fact that every word brings old conceptions with it, and that we may fall into those. But is it as postmodernists say, that this leaves us no fresh way with language at all? The postmodern critique and the problems it poses are now widely understood, but many are bored by the constant stoppage, as every word one utters can be made to seem a fall-back to old metaphysics. It's time to move on from the semi-humorous but sometimes all too real "postmodern dilemma" that once we reject any stated kind of truth, no other kind -- nothing at all is left. In practice all of us already do better than that.

In six months of E-mail discussion before the Conference some of the participants got to know each other well. 36 advance papers as well as shorter pieces (called "Specifics") and much else were (and are) available on our web page

Our purpose was not agreement but opening a new discourse after postmodernism. The Conference format involved only discussion -- no papers -- and this aspect of the Conference received more praise than any other.

There was very good rapport. Only occasionally were some people "accused" of being "just" postmodernists rather than AFTER postmodernism, or even of being BEFORE postmodernism. Most of those who came shared the project of going further from postmodernism.

Except for that overall set, there was a great diversity. People felt that it was extremely informative just to hear "the very different places people were coming from."

For one day we divided into Sections. In some of them the discussion was excellent. We planned for a quiet, self-revealing kind of discussion but this was not achieved. There needed to be still smaller groups and a more quiet receptive climate than we had, although it was certainly remarkable that so many people with strong commitments from a life of study remained so polite and constructive with each other.

Here are some of our results:

We are not trapped in metaphysical language.

If one brings Heidegger's critique, one can see Wittgenstein demonstrating that metaphysical concepts do NOT control what we mean when we speak. He shows that these concepts hardly function in ordinary speech, only in philosophy -- and they need not do so here either.

We no longer need to use only negative ways of saying.

If we lived in a logical order; breaking it would leave only its rupture, contradiction, aporia, limbo, abyss, tragedy, loss, void, or flux. But we don't live in a logical order, not even the broken one. We can speak from our more intricate human situations -- where else could we be speaking from?

We are developing a language across the texts.

Most philosophers today belong to small inwardly-turned communities. We have spent years coming to know certain texts, and not others. We feel quite at ease saying "I know nothing about Wittgenstein" (or Heidegger, or Peirce, or anyone other than our specialty). We went some distance with each other toward a language across the texts, not to dilute anything, but to open new avenues.*

Theory and practice open each other.

Heideggerians found common ground with Wittgensteinians in "the primacy of the practical,"* not the dull idea of preferring practice over thought, but the vital sense we all have in action that how we find ourselves in a situation is more than concepts. The conceptual appears contextually.* This was bad news when people still wanted everything to reduce to rules, but now it opens avenues beyond postmodernism. Contexts escape postmodernism's either/or; they are neither just logical nor arbitrary; we can ask how we know a context, and how it affects what our words mean.

How we find ourselves is always more than cognition can reach. It has open possibilities that are missed by foundational models and by their negation.

Human bodies "know" by inhabiting their interactional situations and the universe.

All day we act in many situations without explicitly formulating what we are acting from, but we can notice pauses, sometimes slight hesitations -- not of deliberate decision-making -- but of a very rapid re-directing process.

After Merleau-Ponty we can say that our bodies sense not just the space behind us (and in front of us) but the situation. In everyday absorbed coping, acting is experienced as a steady flow of skillful activity in response to one's sense of the situation . . . a right body-feel that completes a gestalt.*

Nearly all participants held that bodily knowing gets past the postmodern alternatives: it exceeds formulation and yet it is far from arbitrary. Many examples were brought up.

Foucault is wrong; the body has not been "destroyed by history." There is more knowing FROM the body than what is imposed ON IT from the top down.

How is bodily knowing related to speech and concepts? The direction of an answer is something like: "there is NO REPRESENTATIONAL EQUATION between bodily knowing and sentences, but there are a number of subtle RELATIONSHIPS between them. Speaking from it can block or shrink the bodily knowing, but it can also have the effect of developing it and carrying it forward. Either way the speaking from it does not represent, copy, or merely describe.*

The possibilities of bodily knowing and its relations to language sail past the postmodern alternatives of stated fundamentals or nothing at all.

A new kind of ethics is coming.

Norms, ethics, guidelines for action are not impossible after postmodernism.* All moral paradigms need opening up, but that leaves more than scepticism and moral indifference. We heard of instances where norms and rules were generated FROM ongoing practices, and from the desires of the people for improvements in those practices.*

Dissatisfaction can create a new openness in old forms and norms. This capacity for AS YET UNFORMED novelty leads to a concept of human nature. Said a Heideggerian: "This dissatisfaction is constitutive of human being."*

New conceptual models are welcome as tools within a wider context.

Merely denigrating science leaves philosophy helpless while computer logic redesigns animals and human genes for the market. The reductionist assumptions are not changed by mere negations. We need different conceptual models to think and study differently.

From computer science came the report that a logical system works for a while, then "crashes" and needs to be replaced, only to crash again after a while. Rather than disparaging formal systems, we can grasp the whole cycle. Systems emerge from, are used in, and flow back into the wider context in which people work. The context is post-and-always-again-pre-structural.*

A new kind of scientific term has been devised, that incorporates both scientific and life world versions.*

Postmodernism is wrong to oppose conceptual models. We get trapped in the scientistic objectivist model because it is so largely the only one. We need many; then we cannot get trapped in one.

A new kind of truth and objectivity.

General statements of "truth" and "objectivity" are permanently ambiguous -- but this does not mean that truth and objectivity are lost. Rather they require more -- they need a further contextual completion from what we are just then living, before we can choose among variants for an activity at hand.

Instead of mere pluralism we can create "complexes of multiple truths" involving a demanding and sophisticated steering of scientific research with multiple applications and resonance to local contexts.*

There is no top-down determination by culture, history, or language.

Humans are NOT WITHOUT culture, but this doesn't mean we are DERIVATIVE from it. Our situations (experience, practice, interaction .....) far exceed culture, history, and language.

Postmodernists reject scientific reductionism, but often assume a kind of "cultural reductionism." "Culture" is misused as a "master term."*

"Culture" is CONSTRUCTED by an outsider as an attempt to see pattern/structure/meaning in the unfamiliar.*

The infant comes with the capacity for all existing cultures, and more.

Each culture develops dimensions that other cultures leave unexplored. All were possible for the newborn.*

One expatriate reports "disaster" when trying to apply the conceptual machinery of "other cultures" while interacting with people. We can understand individuals in another culture when they are willing to interact and speak from their experiencing, rather than dealing with us through the cultural group-forms which we do not grasp.

The current denial of a universal human nature is better than Western colonialism, but while there may be NO UNIVERSAL FORMS, there is universality in the possibility of CROSS-CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING. Crossing makes for a more intricate understanding of one's own culture as well as the other. The cross-cultural experience also opens an avenue for rethinking how we understand anything as a kind of crossing that is always ready for more crossing.*

It is wrong to say that we cannot speak from ourselves without the old concept of "the subject."

Some participants held the postmodernist view that there is no subject; the self is sheer narration. They emphasized that human events are not fixed entities; what they "were" or "are" depends on how one construes them, and how one parleys and enacts them further.*

Others held that while human events cannot be rendered in fixed meanings, one does "run up against something," a "knowing" of the past and of what is being lived right now. Meanings are not something that one "adds" to senseless experience.*

We are each inherently dialogue -- living in interaction with others, and also with more of ourselves than we can command. In dialogue more emerges from us than we had "in us."*

If we look at texts for what we now need and can use, there is a lot in phenomenology and pragmatism that can come after postmodernism.

Before postmodernism the philosophy texts were read with an effort to see a coherent system in them. One felt embarrassed by Dewey's "lack" of values other than those that arise from process; one emphasized his "universal method of inquiry" instead. People defended phenomenology for its "pure descriptions." With postmodernism one deconstructs the texts in terms of those readings.

Something exciting happens when one looks at these texts not for a closed system, but to see how these philosophers dealt with the ever-open edge. We find that they were not only aware of this. IT WAS OFTEN THEIR MAIN CONCERN! Far from being undermined by postmodernism, these aspects of the philosophies can help us to move on from it.

In our Section on phenomenology and pragmatism we considered Peirce's sequence of three terms as perhaps enabling us to move beyond the postmodern trap of just signifier and signified.*

In phenomenology, statements can never be equated with experience, phenomena, situations, practice, events . . . A new kind of phenomenology can cope with this. Indeed, perhaps only a phenomenology can open it, give us terms about how experience is "carried forward" by words, and make us familiar with the whole arena of the many relationships between experience and statement.*

This is clearly not a counterrevolution against postmodernism. It may be a further revolution under way.

The discussions were often complex and not like the topic sentence I am reporting here. At least a little more detail might give some sense of careful discussion and the many promising points.

As an example of the need for language across, must we say "disclosure" -- a word that only Heideggerians understand? Can we not, like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, use words freshly to day "disclosure" in many ways (and thereby also instance) an openness to what might yet be encountered, newly thought, discovered, or radically reformulated?* When it is understood, the openness for "disclosure" can be recognized as the characteristic task of philosophy. Then the word "philosophy" can reacquire its age-old meaning. As one participant said, to undermine the unconscious paradigms "and then still go on -- only philosophy does that."*

Our Wittgensteinians happened to be outnumbered by Heideggerians, a hangover from the long years during which Wittgenstein seemed to belong only to the Analytic philosophers. Someone even objected to invoking "that ikon of the Analysts." But Wittgenstein himself didn't like how he was (mis)understood by Russell and those who followed. He teaches the crossing of boundaries.*

Sometimes Wittgenstein presents two dozen odd uses of the same word -- with very precise new meanings emerging from its use in each different situation. No concepts (metaphysical or otherwise) actually govern the meaning of words.* They mean the effect that saying them has -- in the situation -- and there they can mean "all sorts of things" (as he always says), not just routine common meanings.* In this light even philosophers can "overcome" the metaphysical concepts since they never did control what words mean. We may fall into metaphysical meanings, but they are not inherently "unavoidable."

In regard to bodily knowing, some argued that a human is an elaborated animal and plant -- living bodies organize their own next moments of life-process. Self-organizing process also concerned the Section on science.

It was asked: How is the body connected to the universe directly?* Cultural worlds, myths and divinities can be understood as formulations that carry this forward. Myth and logos are initially identical, then logos is separated and claims to account for language.*

There is now a widely available "training" called "focusing" which applies this kind of philosophy to teach one how to contact one's bodily knowing, how to find its soundness as against other manifestations, and how to tell when what is said has carried that soundness forward, and when it did not.

Improvisation was cited as one good example. In jazz it shows that a stable structure (the harmonic base) can ENABLE creative moves rather than preventing them. Improvisation in a group also shows the immediacy of interaction in our productions.*

The Conference plank on saving the play and humor of postmodernism was not well kept. Most of us were only serious. One contributor did see play as part of bodily knowing. He pointed out that animals play! "Watch them sometimes. They fool around -- you wonder what they're doing?" Delight came over his face as he said: "They're goofing off!"*

In the Section on science and logic it was said that we are now tired of merely undermining old-line objectivity, of mere critique, cynicism, relativism, looking rather for a "reconfiguration" of the philosophy of science -- and of science.

Scientific activity (all activity) happens in the present progressive tense,* This is a self-organizing that is never just the completed objectivity of the usual conception of time. Three participants are working on new models of time which would not reduce ongoing eventing to the completed, objectified, world-wide system of linear positional time.*

Space and time as finished symmetries are always described in terms of integers of dimensions (one dimensional, two dimensional, and so forth). Symmetry-breaking together with symmetry-making can fractionate the closed continua of the integer dimensions and expose the dimensional interstices that constitute eventing.*

Empirical results depend on the hypotheses -- but not entirely! Something responds -- and with more precision than we came with. Nature has an order that is more intricate than a single conceptual system; it is rather a "responsive order" that gives regular but different responses to different procedures.*

This approach can re-establish empirical findings within a more critical context, rather than the fuzzy postmodern disbelief in empiricism. The technology might be scaled up from its highly controlled environments to the much wider and more intricate social contexts, to generate research on the human effects of technological applications (now conducted sporadically and without the care, successive steps, and funding that now goes to "basic research." With companies investing billions before a use is even known, our social policies are "based on science" without even knowing what the application will be, let alone how it will affect people.

There was strong agreement to reject any reduction of human processes to the "completed, objectified" kind of terms used in current science, while still respecting science and logic -- not as representations, but as recognizably special tools.


1 Angel Medina, 2?, 3 ?, 4 Tracy Strong and Hubert Dreyfus, 5 Hubert Dreyfus, 6 Gene Gendlin, 7 Lawrence Hatab, 8 Ingrid Stefanovic, 9 Robert C. Scharff, 10 William Sterner, 11 Patrick A. Heelan, 12 William Sterner, 13 Louise Sundararajan, 14 Reinhard Duessel, 15 Richard Shweder, 16 Gene Gendlin, 17 ?, 18 Robert Fox, 19 Buck Schieffelin, 20 Marsha Moen, 21 Gene Gendlin, 22 Nikolas Kompridis, 23 Babette Babich, 24 & 25 Hans Julius Schneider, 26 Gene Gendlin, 27 Hema Pokharna, 28 Lawrence Hatab ?, 29 ? ?, 30 Alphonso Lingis, 31 Koichiro Matsuno and Theodore Kisiel, 32 Steven Rosen, Gene Gendlin, Koichiro Matsuno, 33 Steven Rosen, 34 Gene Gendlin.


[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1998.]