Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Nancey Murphy's Postmodernism

In her insightful book Anglo-American Postmodernity, Fuller professor Nancey Murphy argues that a major shift in thought has occured in the past fifty years - a break away from methodological principles enshrined in modern philosophy to holistic and fractal theories. She calls this shift "postmodernism." To demonstrate this she examines the way this shift is evident in the major areas of philosophical thought.

In epistemology this shift is characterized by the rejection of foundationalism in favor of the holism of Kuhn and Quine. In philosophy of language she sees a shift from theories of meaning based on reference and representation to a focus on the social uses of language, found especially in the works of Austin and speech act theorists. In ethics she describes the rejection of modern ‘generic’ individualism in favor of MacIntyre’s more complex theory of the priority of the social. These philosophical shifts correspond to certain trends in scientific theory, specifically the rejection of modern atomism-reductionism in all its forms.

Murphy is aware that there are exceptions to this broad characterization of modernism. However, notwithstanding certain weakness (one of the most obvious being her almost "foundationalist" suggestion for a postmodern philosophy of religion) I believe her analysis is quite insightful.

One element which is especially helpful is her description of the movement from bottom-up explanations in the modern period to top-down analyses which characterize postmodern approaches. A major catalyst for this shift was the work of Quine, who argued that there is no sharp distinctions between basic (foundational) beliefs and nonbasic beliefs. Data are not just given—they are made by means of their interpretation in light of ‘ideals and natural order’ or theoretical assumptions. In short, for raw data (if there is such a thing) to be counted scientifically requires an interpetation which itself is constituted by theory.

For serious students of philosophy I highly recommend Murphy's book.

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