Problems of postmodern critiques

I am concerned that the aforementioned critiques of disciplinary knowledge run the risk of over-ideologising and over-politicising knowledge and of endorsing a relativistic stance towards knowledge. Taken as a whole, the critiques are informed by or based on postmodernism - a sophisticated philosophical movement against modernism and Western civilisation (Hicks, 2004). Postmodernism can be seen as a philosophical transformation of Marxism or Neo-Marxism,2 with theoretical expansions including feminism, multiculturalism, poststructuralism and postcolonialism, among others. Underpinning the critiques arc three doctrines that, in varying ways, repudiate the objectivity and truth claims of disciplinary knowledge.

  • 1 All knowledge is socially constructed, inexorably intertwined with the standpoints and perspectives of knowledge producers. On this account, it is impossible to use objective reason to gain objective knowledge and truth that are untainted by subjective beliefs and opinions.
  • 2 There is no better or worse knowledge. In the words of Michael Young, ‘all knowledge, whether based on professional expertise, research, or the experience of particular groups, is of equal value’ (Young, 2008b, p. 22).
  • 3 The development of disciplinary knowledge is shaped in the interest of those in control and motivated by the gaining of power. Disciplinary knowledge thus reflects the priority and commitment of those in power and their need for control.

The commitment to Doctrine 2 entails an embrace and celebration of a diversity' of knowledge and alternative ways of knowing as noted earlier. However, postmodernists tend to endorse the knowledge of the oppressed and marginalised groups such as women, ethnic minorities and LBGT and to denigrate disciplinary scientific knowledge, which is seen as the product of‘dead while European males’ (sec Hicks, 2004).

Postmodernism has been challenged by a host of scholars (e.g. Hicks, 2004; Sokal & Bricmont, 1998; Peterson, 2017, 2018). Based on or informed by their work and that of social realists, I now venture to question these three doctrines. To be clear, this is by no means a thorough philosophical critique; a critique of that kind is beyond the scope of this book and is better to be pursued on another occasion.

With respect to the first doctrine, it is correct that knowledge is socially constructed, reflecting the standpoints and perspectives of producers. However, it is incorrect to assert that those standpoints and perspectives are necessarily ‘contaminated’ by their subjective opinions and personal biases. In scientific communities there are methods, criteria and norms that can ensure the generation of ‘objective’ statements ‘purged of any prejudices and predilections of individual participants in the enterprise’ (Klotz, 1996). Take scientific observations as an example. To detect the ‘regularities’ of a natural or social phenomenon, scientists start with stringently specifying the condition under which the regularities occur. Next, multiple researchers observe the phenomenon separately and make detailed records of what consequences are. Afterwards, they look for commonalities across the set of observations - which constitute the description of the objective world. In other words, the elimination of subjective opinions and personal biases is made possible by institutionalised social processes in which knowledge is developed and verified in accordance with rigorous and systematic procedures and norms. The construction of scientific knowledge, after all, is an extraordinary endeavour involving real scientific work, which is ‘all about the details - experimental design, careful execution, analysis of results’ (Bailey & Borwein, 2017). More importantly, it is grounded in the real world - which exercises powerful constraints over what counts as valid and reliable knowledge - and involves the use of scientific reasoning where ‘evidence, method, logic, or even the necessity for coherence’ matters (Peterson, 2018, p. 314).

In a similar vein, social realists argue that while disciplinary knowledge is a social product, it has an emergent ‘objective’ character that is guaranteed by distinctive ‘codes’ and ‘practices’ employed in creating, verifying and defending disciplinary knowledge within specialist communities (Moore & Young, 2001). It has value or power that ‘is independent of these originary context and agents’ (Young & Muller, 2013, p. 237). Disciplinary knowledge, after all, is developed by specialist communities within universities and research institutions (Young, 2009; Young & Muller, 2013). There are ‘criteria for differentiating between bodies of knowledge and for deciding that some are better than others’ (Moore, 2013, p. 339).

The problem of the first doctrine, then, has to do with the reduction of scientific knowledge and truth claims to the mere ‘standpoints or perspectives of particular (invariably dominant) social groups’ (Young, 2008b, p. 3). Such a reduction ignores the fact that there is an external world that provides the necessary grounding and constraints for the development of knowledge. The problem also has to do with the rejection of the possibility' of obtaining objective knowledge through the use of reason and scientific methods, enabled by the ‘knowledge producing’ communities as ‘distinctive specialist collectivities’(see Young, 2008a, 2008b; Young & Muller, 2013).

I now turn to the third doctrine. It cannot be denied that in developing scientific knowledge some scientists are motivated by the attainment of power, recognition and prestige. However, there are many other motivations - including discovering unobservable entities, solving complex problems and explaining unknown phenomena, among others, And, as noted earlier, the development of scientific knowledge is guided and regulated by a set of norms - such as rules for argument and debate - for generating and testing a hypothesis. Schmaus calls such motivations and rules ‘cognitive values’ and ‘cognitive norms’, respectively.

Cognitive values specify the aims of science, while cognitive norms specify the means to achieve these goals. Both cognitive values and norms range widely. Cognitive values may include everything from a scientist’s position regarding the ontological status of unobservable entities to the desire to solve a specific set of problems or to explain a particular set of facts. Cognitive norms may range from rules governing the forms of persuasive argument that can be brought in defence of one’s theory in a journal article to procedures for manipulating ‘inscription devices’ in the laboratory.

(Schmaus, 1994, p. 263, cited in Moore & Young, 2001)

Such cognitive values and norms determine that the development of scientific knowledge cannot be reduced to merely a political endeavour driven by political gains and power struggles. At the heart of the development is an intellectual and cognitive undertaking directed towards the advancement of scientific understanding.

Another issue concerns the connotation of power used in the third doctrine. It foregrounds the ‘tyrannical’ power of those who construct and possess knowledge - i.e. ‘power over’ - but completely ignores or overlooks the power that knowledge bestows to those who possess it - i.e. ‘power to’. In the words of Young (2013), the doctrine construes disciplinary knowledge as knowledge of the powerful to the neglect of powerful knowledge. As indicated in Chapter 1, disciplinary knowledge has emancipative power because the acquisition of this knowledge allows individuals to move beyond their particular experience, gain a better understanding of the world and envisage alternatives (Young & Muller, 2013; also see Young, 2008b). Furthermore, it is beyond doubt that scientific disciplinary knowledge has enormous explanatory, technological and creative powers. The application of scientific knowledge to various realms of the world has led to unprecedented scientific advancement, technological revolution, human flourishing, and social and economic progress (see Hicks, 2004; Pinker, 2018).3

Taken together, the problem of the third doctrine is twofold. First, the cognitive interests in developing disciplinary knowledge are replaced by ‘the sectional interests of power and domination’ of scientists (Young, 2008b, p. 30). Second, the exclusive focus on the ‘tyrannical’ power of scientists or knowledge producers entails the neglect of the emancipatory, explanatory, technological and creative power of knowledge.

The foregoing questioning of the first and the third doctrines leads to a repudiation of the second one. All knowledge is not equal in epistemological status and power. As a special product of specialised communities, scientific disciplinary knowledge is constructed in a way that can transcend not only the standpoint, perspective and interest of the special group but also the context in which it is developed or acquired. This knowledge is more powerful than other kinds of knowledge because it is ‘more reliable’ and ‘nearer to truth about the world we live in and to what it is to be human’, albeit ‘always fallible and open to challenge’ (Young, 2013, p. 107; also see Young, 2008a, 2008b). It is also because of explanatory, technological and creative power this knowledge has, as noted earlier.

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