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Postmodern Metaphysics: Violence vs. Music

October 16, 2018


“Owned!” “Destroyed!” “Obliterated!” shouts the clickbait describing the seemingly endless YouTube videos of the infamous Jordan B. Peterson debates. The Peterson revolution has ignited a full assault on postmodern philosophy and its constituents. Leading the charge with a tweed jacket and PowerPoint presentations while wielding Jungian archetypes, evolutionary psychology, and lobsters, Peterson blazed the trail as the first intellectual to dissent publicly from postmodern dogma enshrined in academia. As a result, countless podcasts, Twitter wars, and university speaking events have surfaced from both the intellectual right and left, uniting thinkers as diverse as Orthodox Jew Ben Shapiro and atheist Sam Harris in challenging the tenets of postmodernism.

The coalition, in my estimation, is united against the postmodern rejection of the Greek philosophical concept of being as physis or nature (the physical world). Postmodernism is inherently anti-realist, possessing a distaste for fixed, universal scientific or philosophical definitions of nature, holding the impossibility of knowing meaningfully any independent existing reality. In fact, some thinkers like Jacques Derrida believe in an unsurpassable chasm between human consciousness and the external world, which renders all attempts to explain or define the physical world as merely nominal word games. Language does not connect human consciousness to reality but only connects language with more language.

Frederick Nietzsche is a key transitional figure between modern scientific realism and the sounding of the firsts postmodern alternative. In his book On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche argues for leaving behind traditional philosophical categories in favor of the perspectival nature of knowledge. Perspectivism rejects the classical definitions of nature and metaphysics, claiming that no objective understanding of the world can transcend cultural or subjective designations. In his famous question “What is truth?”, Nietzsche responded that truth is “but a sum of human concepts, which have been enhanced and canonized poetically and rhetorically.” For Nietzsche, then, “truth” is historically and culturally conditioned and therefore available from many particular vantage points. In this view, no objective facts or knowledge of things-in-themselves exist, but only different circumstances and individual perspectives.

Rather than a universal physis or nature to which the material world conforms, postmodernism turns to the diverse and unique traits of distinctive cultures. Since truth is seen as merely a product of human culture, physis is fundamentally malleable and constructed by the dominant cultural ethos. Because language is believed to have no connection to the external world, the truth of physis remains concealed from human knowing. The purpose of language therefore is not to arrive at the truth of things, but to persuade or attract persons in solidarity to a particular movement or world view. “Seek not to find the foundation and conditions of truth,” writes one postmodern author, “but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.” Postmodernism is less a school of thought and more a political activist strategy wherein power is held in greater esteem.

The theme of diversity and difference are a postmodern commonplace. Derrida (hold your breath) reverses the classical understanding of the identity of things, positing that a thing can only be discovered by what it is not, as opposed to Aristotle’s notion that a thing must first exist as something before it can differ from another. Derrida writes that difference is the “primordial dispossession” that allows thought to begin, and that the absence always precedes the immediacy of an entity’s being. A thing is never present in and of itself, he states, but only understood and vindicated by its relation to other things. Therefore, there is no truth in things themselves without the presence of a difference.

Critiquing the prevailing tenets of postmodern thought, John Milbank described the movement as variants of an “ontology of violence.” Because it is constructed on the theme of difference, he says, whether it be ontological, cultural, or grammatological, an inescapable competition occurs in postmodernism between beings caught in an aimless falling away from order. Milbank’s insights highlight the postmodern belief that as the material world progresses from the singular point of origin, entities collide and displace one another as they strive to exist, resulting in a chain of causes leading to unrelated differences. Since postmodernism conceives material being to have no organizing ground, no schema or goal orders the natural world. Creation is determined by boundless flow of diversity, setting entities over and against each another in a competition of becoming. The analogy that best describes postmodern ontology is “music” without a composer. When slamming a hand down on a piano the diversity of notes clash with one another all at once, striving to be the loudest instead of working together to form a harmonious melody.

In this postmodern world of foundationless “truths” composed of an endless multiplicity of cultural narratives, no overarching truth is available to set a single nuanced idea above any particular tribal rhetoric. Intellectual discourse devolves into an all-or-nothing shouting match that excludes any attempts at a synthesis through analysis or dialogue. Postmodernism sets the pursuit of truth in competition with the power of cultural or political rhetoric to overcome any intellectual disparity, believing that truth itself is a weapon of oppression used by the cultural elite. In order to achieve gender equality, for example, it is claimed that gender fluidity must replace traditional binary gender designations. In order to close the wealth gap between the poor and the rich, socialism must replace capitalism. In order to have a pluralistic and equitable society, tolerance and nonjudgement must replace free speech and religious dogma. In order to overcome “oppressive” Western metanarratives, emotions must replace truth, and social theory must replace biological science.

Christian metaphysics offers an alternative vision to the competition and violence of postmodernism. The great Christian minds of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Dante, and J.R.R. Tolkien have all likened the doctrine of creation to music. Acting as a cosmic composer, writes David Bentley Hart, God’s ordering word sings individual entities into existence note by note, and harmonizes the multiplicity of sounds into a “polyphony of polyphonies.” The manifold diversity of created entities functions not violently, but aesthetically, as a symphonic and rhythmic compilation of praise. The divine tune is the grounding form and physis of creation, the unity that harmonizes all diversity. According to Thomas Aquinas, God designed a multifarious world because no one creature alone can adequately reflect God’s plentitude. All things at all levels—from a speck of dust, the dinosaurs, the black holes and myriad constellations of stars—are united in the hierarchical ordering of God’s symphonic artistry, which reveals his glory in dynamic and variegated intonations.

However, sin and violence introduce harsh cacophonies of evil that disrupt the polyphonic intricacies of God’s music. Vice and disordered desires become a cosmic remix, an alternate track of the mundane and ugly. And how does all this reflect on God? J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings called The Silmarillion, an allegorical creation account of Middle-earth. In the epic work, the conflict between the creature Melkor and the creator Eru Ilúvatar parallels the ancient battle of Lucifer and God. In response to the evil that Melkor introduced into creation, Eru Ilúvatar responds that “no one can alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” Rather than allow the intervals of evil to disrupt the music of creation, Tolkien brilliantly depicts God as playing into it, incorporating the evil into the song, using it to bring about a grandiloquent victory of beauty and love. The Church Fathers saw by the Incarnation of Christ God’s introduction of a new Word into the song. Through the Paschal Mystery and the institution of the sacraments, God begins to restore the world’s proper rhythm. “The soul that is virtuous,” Augustine says, “is the one that turns its rhythms not to the domination of others, but to their benefit,” and as the soul grows in virtue through participation in the sacraments, it harmonizes itself with the melody and cadence of the cosmic praise and restores God’s order of love. Christian metaphysics, therefore, as described by David Bentley Hart, is ultimately an “ontology of peace.”

The Peterson revolution marks the beginning of something new in philosophy today. His movement has unofficially united atheist proponents of evolutionary biology and neuroscience with Aristotelian-Thomistic religious thinkers in a burgeoning neo-modern or post-postmodern defense of the natural order. While atheists and Thomists may disagree about first principles and ethics, both agree that physis is a vitally important foundation for human knowledge. For example, a recent Twitter poll by mathematical physicist Eric Weinstein, a self-identified progressive atheist, asked: “Assume that the fields of Gender Studies and Biology came to disagree on a matter of gender and sex. Which would you be likely to believe more?” Out of the 60,103 participants, 95 percent voted for biological science to adjudicate the disagreement. Interestingly enough, Weinstein reported the remaining five percent made the loudest and most discontented responses on the message boards, indicating a majority preference for the hard sciences despite the politically incorrect backlash from social theorists. 

Postmodern anti-realist ideology imagines the created world without a nature or goal. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote profusely about this problem in his critiques of modern art, spotting the seeds of postmodernism. Before completing his licentiates in both theology and philosophy, Balthasar’s formal education included a doctorate in literature that resulted in a three-volume tome on the state of German literature and philosophy entitled: The Apocalypse of the German Soul. Just after the publication of his thesis, in 1940 Balthasar published Die Kunst in der Zeit and its response, Antikritik, describing the dilemma of modern art as a struggle between authentic creativity and nihilism. Analyzing dadaism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism, Balthasar pinpointed the underlying crisis as an attempt to express content without form. These schools of art portray life as a shapeless ball of clay, in what appears to be a scatterbrained amalgamation of abstract shapes and colors that hint at a disjointed and dysphoric semblance of the human person (or not). The traditional material signifiers used to express profound philosophical questions now fail to connect to any coherent sequence, therefore dislodging truth from physis in order to let the composition float freely away from objective conventions.

Postmodern anti-realism appears to be the biggest challenge for the Church in the years to come. In the difficult and sensitive conversations about sexual ethics and human identity, the Church now faces typically postmodern allegations of hatred and phobia. The Christian doctrine of creation—the most basic and fundamental belief that God ordered the world according to his wisdom and purpose—offers a metaphysical alternative. The doctrine upholds a plan for both creation and the human body that leads to human flourishing. Vatican II affirmed that through the Incarnation, the music of creation reaches its climax, revealing Christ as the archetype of human nature, the divine template for human authenticity and vivacity. The Christological paragon for human nature and all of creation proposes a perennial standard of what is human that transcends particular cultures; it offers a standard not based on the flux of human conventions or disordered desires, but upon conformity to Christ’s divine nature, which elevates humanity to the truth of God’s tune. Christian metaphysics, therefore, is ultimately a way of reconciliation and of peace, bringing fallen creation together with the unending crescendo of the celestial chorus, recapitulating the serial composition, note by note, into the perfect form of Christ.