Jon Stovell’s Notebook


On history, truth, and postmodernism

It is interesting to observe the author of this article, “You Have Your History, I Have Mine.” He recognizes the validity of postmodern critiques of modernist approaches to history, but also the problems of (some forms of) postmodernist approaches. So far, so good. 

But his solution isn’t one at all. He simply wants to set up fences and say to the postmodern critique, “Thus far you may come, but no farther.” That won’t do at all. His “national parks” of historical fact would only be those areas where a given social group—a nation, for example—agreed not to question the traditional narrative. It’s a rearguard action, trying to preserve some modernist “truth” against postmodernism’s “relativistic” “opinion.” It is doomed to fail because there is no discernible rationale to determine where those fences and borders should be drawn. The author actually acknowledges the hopelessness of his idea at the end of the article, but he can see no better alternative and no way forward.

This is because his thinking is still thoroughly modern. The way he uses terms shows, for example, that he thinks of facts as the “most true truth”—an idiosyncratically modern notion, akin to suggesting that a pile of lumber and nails is a house—and that he thinks postmodernism is essentially synonymous with relativism. It is true that there is such a thing as postmodern relativism, just as there is such a thing as modern relativism, but that doesn’t make postmodernism relativistic in general any more than modern relativism makes modernism relativistic in general. Moderns tend to think of postmodernism as inherently relativistic because it undermines key assumptions that modernism uses to guard itself against relativism, but they don’t usually appreciate that postmodernism also undermines those other key assumptions that that impel modernism toward relativism to begin with. And so is the case here. If the author of this article understood more of what postmodernism posits, and not just what it critiques, he would be able to see that there are ways forward, and they are good. 

It would (will?) take me a book to explain what I see as the positive resources (both in the sense of positing something and the sense of being good and encouraging) of postmodernism and how they can be used to embark upon a better way, and this is already ridiculously long for a Facebook comment. I’ll just say that it involves a deep rethinking of our ideas about what truth is, but the results are epistemic humility, a recognition that our ideas are only ever approximations of reality, which leads to an open-handed stance toward the ideas we hold, and a newfound appreciation that wisdom is where the “most true truth” resides (even as the Book of Proverbs told us millennia ago). It is a big shift, but it is a good one. So far from this author’s dystopian vision of relativistic chaos and destruction raging around park-like sanctuaries of modernist historical fact, the future of second generation postmoderns and beyond may well look like the epistemological equivalent of re-greening our neighbourhoods where modernism paved everything over to put up carbon-copy condos and shopping centres. Never mind “national parks” to preserve valued historical narratives from threat; let’s get on with planting the trees of truth, in all their different kinds and wild diversity, in our backyards and streets and cities so that our children can grow up in that ever-growing, ever-changing, ever-breathing forest.