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Postmodernism and Will to Power

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre became so unenthused with Nietzsche, and the whole postmodern tradition that he saw as following Nietzsche, that he famously declared in his 1982 book After Virtue (MacIntyre 2007) that we, in the Western intellectual tradition, must choose between Nietzsche and Aristotle. However, on the basis of the analysis we have engaged with here, the choice need not be between two different strands of Western thought. The choice can also be between continuing along the lines of a Western perspective and finding new ways of integrating Western and Eastern philosophies.

Postmodernist philosophers have promised to liberate us from rigid structures of language through a playful loosening up of social reality as grounded in language, symbols, and signs, but many postmodernists, following Nietzsche and Foucault, are nevertheless stuck within a perspective of power. This means that they see philosophy as essentially an expression of will to power—even their own writings. But why should we think they are right? From a Buddhist perspective, Foucault, for example, could well have been right in claiming that writing and modern discourse are indeed much about seeking power; nevertheless, there is no reason to think that practices cannot be transcended. There is no reason to believe that we must necessarily end up with postmodernism as the final perspective on human social life. It is only one perspective among many others and, in a way, it is an extension of Kant’s philosophy through Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms.

Some have read Kant in constructionist ways that Kant himself would hardly have approved of. They have taken Kant as saying that reality is constructed by us, without paying attention to what Kant said about the noumenal. This means that they have read Kant as a constructivist in a general sense. Cassirer took Kant’s fundamental approach to understanding the human mind and externalized it in his philosophy of symbolic forms (Cassirer 1953-1957). That is, while Kant had realized that in order to understand the world around us, we must have structures that are fit for doing so, Cassirer saw those structures as external to us, as being part of language, symbols, and signs. For Cassirer, not only do all symbolic forms—and symbolic forms include those of science, philosophy, mythology, and artistic expression—shape our understanding of the world, but also we live in symbolic worlds out of which there is no exit:

No longer in a merely physical universe, man Lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience. All human progress in thought and experience refines upon and strengthens this net. No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium. (Cassirer 1944, p. 43)

While Aristotle and the whole Western tradition after him came to see human beings as defined by rationality—rational animals, as Aristotle had stated—Cassirer defines us as being symbolic animals:

The great thinkers who have defined man as an animate rationale were not empiricists, nor did they ever intend to give an empirical account of human nature. By this definition they were expressing rather a fundamental moral imperative. Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man’s cultural life in all their richness and variety.

But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining him as animal rationale, we should define him as animal symbolicum. By so doing, we can designate his specific difference, and we can understand the new way open to man—the way to civilization. (Cassirer 1944, p. 44)

Cassirer ejected both the rational being and the noumenal world from Kant’s system and left us dangling within a world of symbols and signs of our own creation. In doing so, Cassirer began a journey that took Western subjectivism to new levels of radicalization, which depict externalized human thought processes—sym- bols and signs—as what our reality is for us: a socially constructed, essentially linguistic or semiotic reality, outside which we have little or nothing to say. Postmodernism grew out of the work of Cassirer and structuralism (with de Saussure as the proponent of structuralism). Writers in this tradition, such as Barthes and Derrida, continued exploring external cognitive structures of language, symbols, and signs, declaring—in resonance with Cassirer’s idea of us as symbolic animals— that there is nothing outside text (Derrida 1997, p. 158) and that the author has died (Barthes and Heath 1977, p. 142), because the author was to be seen as merely a vehicle of the text, as it is socially produced in a complex multidimensional space of writings, far from an “Author-God”:

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. (Barthes and Heath 1977, p. 146)

In the view of radical poststructuralism, we don’t own our thoughts or even our minds—whatever thoughts we have are conditioned by the totality of language use. We are vehicles by which language expresses itself as a cultural-historical process.

 
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