Theme: “The Death of Objective Analysis”
Current thinking by all our political and other leaders is now restricted by the influence of postmodernism. Most of the people who are influenced by postmodernism are completely unaware of the fact because it is simply a cultural trend which has permeated throughout public thought and debate without being consciously acknowledged most of the time.
The Blessing of Postmodernism
The first philosophers to push postmodern thinking had important things to say. They had powerful trends to fight against. Modernistic thinking had dominated political ideology from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. Modernists sought to understand the world through rationally constructed theories which mimicked the theories of the natural sciences. Societies were envisaged as machine like structures with repeatable and predictable behaviours. Each individual was an objective cog in an objectively analysed machine. Each cog acted rationally and predictably.
Such approaches created the ideological underpinnings for Communism and Fascism, movements which inflicted high human costs on the population at large. It was easy to point out that modernist theories to describe the behaviour of social systems, in other words groups of people, were trite and over-simplistic. It was easy to point out that human behaviour was less predictable than implied in these types of theories.
Postmodernists preferred to stress the value of subjective personal experience. They debunked any attempt to construct rational ‘scientistic’ theories to predict or describe the behaviour of populations, states etc. It was a kind of democracy. No one had the magic formula to understand or explain anything. Everyone’s personal subjective feelings and opinions were equally valid. “Shut down the university philosophy and social science departments, they have nothing to teach anyone.”
Thus postmodern thinking was liberating and empowering. It was in its own way revolutionary.
The Curse of Postmodernism
Unfortunately there have been some harmful consequences of the near universal acceptance of the easy option of postmodern thinking in western culture, especially political culture.
Modern politicians and the ‘intelligentsia’ coming out of British universities have been deprived of the tool of objective thinking. Believing that it is always enough to see every situation only through their own selfish eyes and never through the eyes of others, perhaps others who are affected by their actions, is a disastrous and dangerous impoverishment of people’s analytical abilities in dealing with political, economic and social problems. It is a form of trained-in autism that fits so well with the self-absorbed culture of our ‘Consumer Capitalist’ society.
Our modern political leaders stride around the world making reckless and far reaching decisions about foreign policy without ever once putting themselves in the shoes of those they are dealing with. They never once ask the question “How will the people on the receiving end of our actions react to what we do?”
To do so is not easy, and today we have been indoctrinated with the universal belief that the easiest thing to do is always the best thing to do. To understand the concerns, interests, values and behaviour of someone whose circumstances, life experiences and background are totally different to yours is a difficult thing to do, and is fraught with potential mistakes. However to deal with others in the absence of doing this is simply to underestimate the difficulty of the task. If you take it upon yourself to inflict your policies on others it implies you fully seek to understand the way they may react collectively. If you do not, then it is dangerous and stupid and you should stay at home.
It is of course the very essence of strategic thinking to calculate how others will react to what you do. For example such strategies are tritely and over-simplistically embodied in a piece of modernistic theorising called ‘Game Theory’. Unfortunately simply recognising that attempts to theoretically predict how others will react to what you do is complex and difficult, does not mean it’s not important to do it. If you don’t do it you might get yourself and a lot of other people killed.
Objective Analysis in Society and Politics
Philosophically it has been alleged that theoretically modelling phenomena involving the behaviour of groups of people as in the social sciences, so as to predict the likely outcomes of some actions, or future developments, is not possible. I take issue with this, and claim that although it is usually not possible, it sometimes is possible. Furthermore where it is possible it is often important to attempt it.
What must be realised is the very nature of theories. All theories including those of Physics are models, in other words representations. A model is not the thing it models, it is of necessity a simplified sketch of it. A theory captures the key dominating relationships between the variables of interest. Every theory breaks down outside some range of circumstances where it is applicable. However when applied correctly a theory is a practically useful tool. Call me an ‘instrumentalist’. In fact a theory is only useful because it is a simplification. It only answers certain narrowly formulated questions under certain suitable conditions.
How it is that social phenomena can be represented by theoretical models is that the trends of interest to the analyst may be largely determined by a few dominant forces in society, politics, the economy etc. The relationship between the phenomenon of interest and these stronger currents can then be identified.
Why theories and models representing social phenomena will never been on a par with physical theories is because a theory depends on the structure of the system being modelled, for example the presence of these dominant currents. However the structures of social, economic and political systems are continuously changing, so a theory will become out of date as the dominant currents fade or change with time.