Postmodernism and Language Games: The limits of abslute truth

Language gamesWhen I studied philosophy in the Netherlands, postmodernist thought was an important part of the curriculum. Now that I am studying in Australia, I am more exposed to the analytical philosophy tradition. (See also my previous article Schools of Thought). I have been reading some analytical criticisms of postmodern thought and think some are missing the point.

Thinkers of the analytical tradition have a big issue with the postmodern idea that truth is not absolute. A very common counter argument is that this is by itself presented as an absolute truth and therefore a logical contradiction. Most criticisms are, however, missing the point.

The answer to the problem lies in the work by Richard Rorty whose interpretation of Wittgensteinian Language Games provides a very powerful way of dealing with relativism.

Within a Language Game (closely related to Khun’s ‘paradigm’ and Foucault’s ‘episteme’) there is absolute truth. Rorty argues, however, that there is no almighty Language Game that can provide a universal truth. Human culture has produced many different language games across time and cultures and none of these provide a final answer to any problem, nor will any future products of the human mind be able to do so.

This thought is quite disturbing as we are psychologically wired to favour certainty. Our oversized brains give us the possibility to contemplate the future. This amazing feature enables us to develop science and philosophy because we can think about an answer to the question “What if?”. This causes a great deal of grief because with an uncertain future comes fundamental existential uncertainty. Science, philosophy and the arts are merely psychological band-aids to help us deal with this uncertainty and prevent anxiety.

Postmodern philosophy is, in a way, an attempt to create a universal language game. The quest for universality comes at a great price, because the only universal claim we have been able to find is that all knowledge is relative and only valid within a certain Language Game. The issue that many analytical commentators, and also many postmodern thinkers, do not seem to understand is that postmodernism—as a universal language game—can not be used for any practical purposes. It is a Language Game about Language Games—not a Language Game by itself.

Postmodernism is therefore only useful to be able to talk about language games in general. The problem is that postmodern mankind is by definition detached from the possibility of finding truth with the inherent risk of falling into nihilistic despair. Postmodernism is a Venom Crystal, a beautiful wisdom which is poisonous to the mind. From an existential point of view, postmodernism is a view that can only be maintained by those who are able to float in a metaphysical hot air balloon above the landscape of Language Games.