Like Goldman (1999) and other epistemology philosophers, I feel that postmodernism is one step forward and two backwards. That school’s greatest triumph was to forcibly remind positivists of the value of erstwhile non-standard perspectives. In particular, continental philosophy (predominantly French) of the 20th century (following the Germanic lead from the hermeneutics of Dilthey and Heidegger (Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Moses & Knutsen, 2007) established the legitimacy of phenomenalism. Their negative legacy, however, was on the insistence that no single ‘fact’ could ever be established as truth. Instead, truth was subjugated to perspective and contingency.
Bhaskar (2008) offers an answer to postmodernism, an answer that not only re-establishes the possibility of truth but also allows empirical and social science to work more in tandem with technical (and dare I say, more accurate) Anglo-American modern epistemology. Bhaskar would argue that rather than there be multiple truths, his distinction between the forms of evidence in the three domains; of the real, the actual and the empirical, accepts that different empirical traditions lead to different slices of the truth. These slices are not incompatible, just incomplete.
To claim that knowledge is fleeting may be a categorical error. Knowledge is defined in traditional epistemology as justified true belief (Dew & Foreman, 2014). This speaks to a stability, not to a sense of temporality. Within bounds (and Kuhnian paradigm shifts), scientific activity questions, updates, refines, refutes earlier knowledge, so a sense of fleeting-ness may be apparent in the long term. However, as Goldman notes (1999), even this does not happen as much as we may believe. Newtonian physics has not been superseded by quantum physics, and much of modern engineering continues to work fine using Newtonian principles. The transient fact (Bhaskar, 2008) that there are multiple perspectives does not invalidate, i.e. diminish the truth claim, of any individual perspective. What was needed (prior to Bhaskar) was a philosophy that could entertain the known complexity of what postmodernism brought to the proverbial table while retaining the value that positivism had already given to the scientific world. In other words, the more we know about democratic, inclusive, phenomenological and erstwhile non-standard perspectives, the more there is a need for an encompassing philosophy. Critical realism seems to offer this.
Postmodernism (which I’m using as a blanket term for all post-Humean and hermeneutic models) is, arguably, anti-science in its insistence on difference. If there really is no stable truth, or knowledge, and some even claim that interpretation is entirely in the hands of the reader (Barthes, 1967) then there is hardly any point in writing at all. Goldman (1999) makes the point that if postmodernists (or radical constructivists) actually believed this, no one could/should write at all, arguing that, clearly, this is nonsense. I take an alternative view. Bring on the differences: the more the merrier: for each contradiction brings with it its own knowledge—a stable, justifiable knowledge, which makes the search for truth more probable, rather than less, because of the increased knowledge base from which to create that search. It is more complex, for sure, but in this inclusive 21st century, this is what we need to do.
All human action is value-laden. Let this point be a given. It’s not so interesting to make. The intellectual game of working out either one’s own values or those of another has merit, but only when the values themselves need to take centre stage (as in Foucault’s prison study) do they need to be prioritised. Otherwise, let values be a factor in the dialectic. And let’s try to explicate and illuminate as many other factors in any situation as possible. All of those that can be justified may incorporated into any design as knowledge. Those that can’t need to be understood as such, perhaps as provisional opinion, guesses, hypotheses and so on.
I’ve gone on too long without even commenting on epistemic cognition. I’ll leave that for now.
Barthes, R. (1967). The death of the author. UbuWeb Papers. Retrieved from http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf
Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1967). The social construction of reality. New York: Doubleday.
Bhaskar, R. (2008). A realist theory of science. London and New York: Routledge. http://doi.org/10.2307/2184170
Dew, J. K., & Foreman, M. W. (2014). How do we know? An introduction to epistemology. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.
Goldman, A. I. (1999). Knowledge in a social world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Moses, J., & Knutsen, T. (2007). Philosophy of naturalist science. In Ways of knowing: Competing methodologies in social and political research (pp. 19–52). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.