Postmodern Premortem

I’m here to announce the death of postmodernism. I’m slightly ambivalent about this as I’m not sure postmodernism is something that ever had any life in it in the first place. I’ve tried to get a handle on a good definition of postmodernism, and I think the best I can come up with is that postmoderns reject the enlightenment project of searching for absolute truth. This project is alleged to have begun, I think, with Descartes and carried on by people such as Spinoza, Leibniz, Galileo, and Newton. According to postmoderns, this project was a failure, as we all know that calculus, gravity, and Newtonian physics all turned out to just be socially constructed features of a peculiar language game (please don’t saddle Wittgenstein with the inanity of his followers).

We also know that no one before Descartes sought or claimed to have absolute Truth. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, and Aquinas were just playing language games and posing riddles. And when Socrates and the others were on their quest for Truth (or not), a few other people were saying things along the lines of “man is the measure of all things” and “truth” is determined by your culture, but the “Pomos” are sure it all started with Descartes. And after Descartes, of course, no one questioned the reliability of sense data to determine truth (Hume who?).

But Modernism, that evil quest for verified truth, has oppressed everyone but dead, white, European men, or so we still hear (I really thought these things had been resolved). Back in the 1980s, Dale Spender wrote, “Multiple reality is a necessary condition for the acceptance of the experience of all individuals as equally valuable and viable. Only within a multidimensional framework is it possible for the analysis and explanation of everyone to avoid the pitfalls of being rejected, of being classified as wrong.” As nothing can be verified, this is a great theory for liars. We must all recognize the “truth” of anyone who disagrees with our position. The use of logic, reason, and observation only serve as forms of tyranny over those whose voices have been suppressed and whose experiences have been diminished.

Also in the 1980s, feminist Jean Grimshaw rejected the postmodern idea of unverifiable realities. She wrote, “The fact that one group has power over another cannot be reduced to anyone’s belief that this is so; nor does the fact that someone does not understand their own experience in terms of oppression or exploitation necessarily mean that they were not oppressed or exploited.” She rejected the idea that one reality cannot be judged better than another. A reality that identifies and eliminates oppression is better than a reality that enables oppression. The irony is that postmoderns claim to be trying to eliminate oppression, but how can you eliminate anything bad when you deny any value judgments related to ultimate “truth” or to dissenting voices?

Postmoderns sometimes quote Richard Rorty as if he is on the same team. This is because he is a pragmatist who rejects ultimate truth (much as Hume did in the 18th century). In 1999, Rorty said, “We have learned the futility of trying to assign all cultures and persons places on a hierarchical scale, but this realization does not impugn the obvious fact that there are lots of cultures we would be better off without, just as there are lots of people we would be better off without. To say that there is no such scale, and that we are simply clever animals trying to increase our happiness by continually trying to reinvent ourselves, has no relativistic consequences.”

The point for me, and that is the most important consideration for me, is that we can be tolerant and listen to marginalized voices without claiming there is no way to judge one opinion or observation as being better than another. We can recognize that no particular group or individual has a key to absolute knowledge without succumbing to the paralyzing belief that there is no truth and no way to improve our working in the world. Reason and observation have had their success and failures. Irrationality and lack of judgment cannot make the same claim (with regard to success). Finding the truths that work best for us takes effort and judgment and a little rationality. Some things and some beliefs are just better. What makes them better? They reduce misery.

Commodifying Mindfulness

I attended a presentation last week on the use of mindfulness in marriage and family therapy. I don’t know a lot about Buddhism and would never claim to be an expert. What I do know of Siddhartha Gautama leads me to view his writings as moral writings. In other words, I do not see them as a guide to the good life but as a guide to how to be good. I may have missed the point here, and I’m glad to be corrected, if anyone reads his words differently. I also realize there is room for interpretation. Nonetheless, I don’t think his goal was to teach people to have a more pleasurable existence or to achieve greater success in business. I also wonder as to whether he intended to help people improve their marriages, considering that he abandoned his wife and son when he left for his journey to confront suffering in the world.

Statue representing Siddhartha Gautama.
Statue representing Siddhartha Gautama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The presenter I saw began by mentioning Siddhartha. He said, correctly, that there were four noble truths, but he did not mention what the first three were (they have to do with life as suffering or sorrow, the causes of sorrow, and the extinction of sorrow). The fourth truth is Siddhartha’s dharma, or teaching of “the way.” The word “dharma” is not specific to Gautama. Anyway, Buddha suggests we can achieve enlightenment by following an eightfold path. The presenter I saw mentioned only the seventh fork on the eightfold path, which is mindfulness.

By doing this, he ignored all the negative precepts of Buddha’s teaching. He left out the stuff about avoiding sexual misconduct (interpret how you will), lying, gossiping, killing animals (vegetarianism seems recommended), and a number of other things. Now, Buddhism, as I understand it, has no commandments, so no one is obligated to be a celibate vegetarian who never speaks, but these are suggestions as to how one might find enlightenment, the goal of which is extinction of individual consciousness. Once we are freed from the cycle of samsara, we will pass into a state of universal awareness, which negates the awareness of any individual.

Given that Buddhism does not recognize the existence of individuals and views all sorrow as universal sorrow, it seems unlikely that Gautama intended to help people achieve individual fulfillment. Indeed, when we take action to relieve suffering, the good of the action is not the good of an individual but the good of the universe. Similarly, the suffering of an individual is only (!) the suffering of the universe. To be freed from this suffering, we must no longer think of the individual, we must not think of our selves. So long as we do, life, which is sorrow itself, will continue.

A universe without suffering is a universe without life in it, least of all life that is conscious and driven by individual needs and desires. In Buddha’s scheme, mindfulness is one tool to help achieve this ego-less state. It is a moral guideline. It is not a way to focus on our goals and what is keeping us from them. It is not a way to relax. It is not a way to be happier. It is a way to be good and right. While I am not a Buddhist and will most likely never become one, I still respect the efforts of people to be better people. Buddha abandoned his family and friends to try to save the universe. Maybe he made the right choice, and maybe he did not, but I feel using mindfulness in a superficial manner is disrespectful of the effort. Using Buddha’s teaching to make money is even more offensive to me, but I suppose I’m easily offended.