AGHA SAAD REHMAN

Often tainted as insignificant in the modern world and shelved in place of “solid” subject matters, philosophy, contrary to popular understanding, still has a lot to offer today. The “love” of “wisdom” - its common transliteration - was the original inquiry into the nature of the world. As knowledge grew and people started specializing, other sciences split-off from philosophy. Over the years, as other disciplines started contributing towards producing more practical good, philosophy became associated with armchair academicians who had little of concrete value to contribute to the world. With the advent of Postmodernism, however, such allegations are rendered completely untrue.

Postmodernism - a term notoriously difficult to define - can roughly, in the words of Jean-François Lyotard, be described as an incredulity to grand narratives. The grand narrative during 20th century Europe was Enlightenment - an idea which purported the view that human reason coupled with science was the way to progress and anything that wasn’t science, was to be disregarded. While the movement brought unbelievable advances for society, it also brought unthought devastation. Notions of “racial superiority” which asserted the dominance of the “Aryan race” under the umbrella of scientific legitimacy aimed at the extermination of those they saw as Untermenschen (sub-humans), and finally culminated in the Holocaust. It was in this light that philosophers began to realize that perhaps science was not the panacea, and that it too could not be relied upon as a grand narrative.

Since then, the postmodern perspective has seeped into every subject. Feminism, for instance, which started off with blaming lack of education, and later lack of liberty as the reason behind the subjugation of women (Liberal Feminism), and even later capitalism and patriarchy as the main culprits (Socialist Feminism) soon realized that a single grand narrative was unable to explain the reason behind women’s subjugation. The oppression was in fact multi-faceted and could only be explained by a postmodern concept called intersectionality which is a theory that takes multiple positions to explain a problem. For instance, women oppression could perhaps be accurately examined when seen in the light of gender, race, capitalism, religion, ethnicity etc.

In history, postmodernism instructs us to be wary of one-dimensional narratives often disseminated by state agencies. Such accounts are often biased and tend to overshadow the experiences of marginalized communities, coloring over their accounts of history and often resulting in oppressive attitudes towards them. Postmodernists conclude that historical accounts should be taken as views of the historian rather than objectively true archives. They purport the view that spaces should be opened for marginalized communities so that a fuller understanding of the past can be conceived.

What postmodernism aims to inculcate is a sense of skepticism towards all grand narratives. It, by no means, aims to dismantle popular narratives or take away from their achievements. Its sole purpose is to issue a warning against totalizing theories which may end up doing more harm than good. Its lesson can be extrapolated to situations in everyday scenarios as well. Take, for instance, the grand theory of the incumbent government that corruption is the single biggest threat to Pakistan. All speeches, policies and directives revolve around the assumption that if we somehow manage to rid the country of corruption, we would be on our way to success. Close inspection, however, reveals that that this too is little more than a grand narrative. While it must be acknowledged that corruption is a major problem, it should also be understood that eradication of corruption alone would improve little. The bureaucracy, for instance has a flawed hiring process, lacks incentivisation, is laced with Red Tapism, and has a huge problem of over-centralization. It has a multitude of other problems too, of which corruption forms a major part. However, a singular focus on corruption alone is not only misleading but also counterproductive.

The implications of postmodernism are far-reaching and its lessons profound. An indulgence into philosophy can provide a holistic appreciation of the world around us and ultimately provide novel solutions for our problems. An absence of it can potentially wreak devastation.

–The writer is a freelance contributor.