04 May 2009

Merleau-Ponty and Post-Modernism

I finished reading the required chapters in Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception last night. For the most part, I was impressed. This is the first time I've ever encountered a non-taiji player describing something like the bodily sensations that I notice in push-hands, the way the body can move before conscious thought sets in. I felt like 90% of what Merleau-Ponty was saying made perfect sense and was exactly the way I myself experienced things like the body and time.

But one thing troubles me. I can see little pointers scattered through the text that almost certainly paved the way for the post-modern movement. I have no problem with the idea that nothing can be known with absolute certainty, but post-modernism generally doesn't tack on those last three words. It tends towards an absolute relativism that I find to be at odds with the phenomenological reduction. Rather than putting the world in brackets, and not worrying about what the phenomena can or can't tell us about that [world], post-modernists seem to bury the world entirely. Essentially, there are no facts, and all viewpoints are equally valid. Pelletti commented that it was pointless to argue with real postmodernists, as they have no interest in coming to any sort of common truth; instead, it becomes nothing more than a game of manipulation and power.

He also gave a rather extreme example of a French post-modern philosopher (can't remember the name, but I think he was at Harvard) who scoffed at the idea that King Tut might have died of smallpox. Since smallpox wasn't discovered (read: created/invented) until the 1800's, it was completely impossible that King Tut could have died of it! Now, with the qualification that no one in King Tut's day would have known about smallpox, and therefore experientially he could not have died of smallpox, I can say, fine. But lacking that qualification...

Essentially (according to the pomos), there are no facts or truths. There are only ideas that have won some sort of ideological battle, and so are currently accepted. So ... if it was not accepted that rattlesnakes had deadly venom, would no one die of rattlesnake bites? If it was not accepted that people don't fall through solid material, would no one be able to walk down the street without sinking into the earth? Going by the post-modern perspective, these would both seem to be the case. It also becomes clear why this viewpoint is attractive to nutjobs of all stripes. If a non-philosopher justifies some bizarre idea by an appeal to post-modernism, I'd estimate that there's a 99.99999% chance that said person is a crackpot. This estimate is probably low.

Back to Merleau Ponty, I'm hoping to read the rest of the book after finals are done, and then I might have more to say specifically about his ideas.

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