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Postmodernism is "critical" of the Enlightenment project.

Here I define postmodernism as an intellectual movement which questions the legacy of the European Enlightenment philosophy and starts from Nietzsche, and goes to Heidegger, to the "French Theory" (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan).

But of which Enlightenment in particular are they critical? Is it French, Great Britain, or German Enlightenment?

I think this question is fair to ask because all three Enlightenment movements were very different from one another (in political philosophy and in philosophy), and postmodernists in the sense I take this term were mainly French and German writers.

Also, what do successors of the Great Britain Enlightenment (i.e. in political philosophy, classical liberals, and in philosophy, I would say, empiricists) think of French postmodernists?

Edit: I have read some times, including in the comments of my post, that postmodernism and the critics of it has to see with the analytic / continental divide.

So, analytic philosophers were more in the continuation of Great Britain Enlightenment (logical empiricism in continuation of empiricism), while French postmodernists (which is part of the continental philosophy) were in continuation of German idealism?

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  • For what postmodernists criticize (universalism about knowledge, faith in rationality and science, optimism about progress) national differences are of little consequence. The analytic/continental divide, in part, reflects the diverging perspectives on the Enlightenment's legacy. Fashionable Nonsense is, in a nutshell, the Anglophone response to the more extreme forms of postmodernism.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 6:54
  • @Conifold But "rationality" was not the same during the Enlightenment in Great Britain (empiricism) as it was in France (cartersian rationalism) and Germany (idealism)
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 6:56
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    "The analytic/continental divide, in part, reflects the diverging perspectives on the Enlightenment's legacy." What do you mean? Analytic philosophers were more in the continuation of Great Britain Enlightenment (logical empiricism in continuation of empiricism), while continental philosophers (including French postmodernists) were in continuation of German idealism?
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 6:58

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"Is it French, Great Britain, or German Enlightenment?" Enlightenment was a cosmopolitan project from day one (just like Freemasonry), as the French said "liberty, equality and fraternity". Kant defined it as you daring to use your own reason instead of relying on authority.

All Enlightenment thinkers believed that men by nature are rational (the Cartesian self-sufficient subject), that there is progress as a result of which tomorrow will be better than yesterday, and that positivist empirical science will not only make our lives better, but it will also solve the deepest mysteries of the universe. It was optimistic.

Postmodernists attacked it on all fronts. Freud ('the man is not a master in his own house'), Nietzsche, Lacan ('the subject is split') and Deleuze (schizo-analysis and disiring machines) dismantled the subject / ego / cogito.

Positivist empirical science was shown to be a system of domination over nature (for Heidegger) or over the non-privileged population (for Foucault). For Deleuze, science was a good thing, but he wanted a more 'horizontal' (he calls it rhizomatic) science, that does not oppress like the 'vertical' (he calls it arborescent or tree-like) science.

The notion of progress was challenged by Heidegger in his essay on technology, and in his rarely read text "Four Seminars" (this work is fascinating because it has the only mention of Wittgenstein that Heidegger made, and also discusses Marx at length).

Derrida challenged many ideas that lie at the foundation of Enlightenment, for him they exemplify "metaphysics of presence" that he opposed. For example, in "Of Grammatology" he provides an interesting reading of JJ Rousseau that uncovers inconsistencies in Rousseau's theory of the 'noble savage' and his views on masturbation.

"Also, what do successors of the Great Britain Enlightenment (i.e. in political philosophy, classical liberals, and in philosophy, I would say, empiricists) think of French postmodernists?" - The successors of British Enlightenment are analytic philosophers (which is arguable I admit, since Frege and Wittgenstein were from the continent). Russell said that ever since Leibniz there have been 2 very different ways of doing philosophy, the German / continental way and the ango-saxon / analytic way.

In the 21st century the predominant attitude is that of distrust, disregard and hate. The most illustrative example is the 1996 "Sokal's Affair". An American physicist Sokal submitted a nonsensical paper to a philosophical journal that published continental philosophy, and that paper got published with positive reviews. Sokal then said, you see, all of postmodernism is nonsense. Derrida replied with a terrific snarky essay called "Limited Inc".

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    I think you explain very well, but I don't really agree with the very first statement "Enlightenment was a cosmopolitan project from day one (just like Freemasonry)", as it implies that French, GB and German Enlightenment were basically similar. They were not. Locke, Hume and Berkeley empiricism is completely different from continental rationalism (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz)
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 14:00
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    I believe the intent was to say it is cosmopolitan in its assumptions and general outlook, not all-inclusive or unified in its constituency. Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 22:15
  • @NelsonAlexander In comparison to GB empiricism, continental rationalism was quite totalizing indeed, so a critic of it on this aspect could be fair (from the postmodernist). That's why I insist on which type of "Reason" (empiricism vs. continental rationalism) the postmodernists were talking about. As they were French, I think it is fair to hypothesize they had more in mind continental rationalism tha GB empiricism
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 2:17
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Post modernity is a modern form of scepticism. It questions all 'grand narratives', including that of the enlightment project itself. Whilst this project varies across Western Europe, nevetheless they all subscibe to certain views such as the supremacy of our own reason.

Derrida, a post-modernist, never made big inroads into the British philosophy tradition. He found a more congenial home in the USA.

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There's an important distinction to make here between:

  • The 'Enlightenment Project': a set of political and social philosophies concerned with liberty and the status of individuals within society, and...
  • 'Modernism': an ideology which asserts that the enlightenment project is complete (in the Western world, at least), and rejects further philosophical debate.

The things we tend to lump under the rubric 'post-modernism' are explicitly rejections of modernism and implicitly efforts to revitalize the enlightenment project as a philosophical endeavor.

In other words, 'post-modernism' opposes the (somewhat smug) belief that an ideal form or Liberalism has been achieved, and that no further thought is needed on the issue. It's against dogmatic ideology, not against the project itself.

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    "an ideology" who are the proponents of that ideology?
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 2:19
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    "and that no further thought is needed on the issue" but postmodernists believed we should put too much faith on Reason. So why are they still thinking?
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 2:20
  • @Starckman: I don't think you'll have too much trouble finding people who advocate that ideology; the superiority of the West's culture is a common enough theme among conservative pundits. And setting aside Romanticism, very few philosophers are anti-reason. They may advocate for the importance of non-rational aspects like culture and emotion, but they won't sacrifice reason in the process. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 17:53
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    "but they won't sacrifice reason in the process." Their critic of Reason is that Reason's capacity to understand the world is limited by us being stuck into structures, including societal structures and linguistic structures, is that correct? Then, I believe this critic points to the abandonment of Reason.
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 3:51
  • I believe many thinkers express their ideas, often not by expliciting the idea, but by pointing to it. It is absolutely not limited to the postmodernists, we find it in right-leaning intellectuals as well.
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 3:53

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