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New Left Review I/178, November-December 1989

Sabina Lovibond

Feminism and Postmodernism

The term ‘postmodernism’ exerts an instant fascination. For it suggests that ‘modernity’ is, paradoxically, already in the past; and consequently that a new form of consciousness is called for, corresponding to new social conditions. But of course it does not tell us what the distinctive character of these new conditions, or of the accompanying consciousness, is supposed to be. Expositions of postmodernism in the context of political and cultural theory often take as a negative point of reference the idea of ‘Enlightenment’. I therefore propose to look at some recent examples of anti-Enlightenment polemic and to consider their meaning from a feminist point of view. I shall use as source material the writings of three well-known philosophers—JeanFrançois Lyotard, Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Rorty—who are among the most forceful exponents of the arguments and values which constitute postmodernism within academic philosophy. [1] Specifically, I shall draw on J.-F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester 1984 , hereafter pmc; A. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, London 1981 , hereafter av; R. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Oxford 1980 (hereafter phmn), and ‘Pragmatism and Philosophy’, in his Consequences of Pragmatism, Brighton 1982 , reprinted in Baynes/Bohman/McCarthy, eds., After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, Cambridge, Mass. 1987. Obviously the attempt to capture any complex argument in a brief survey is liable to lead to some oversimplification, and in particular it should be noticed that Rorty in phmn refers to the Enlightenment separation of science from theology and politics as ‘our most precious cultural heritage’ (p. 333). The main motive of his book, however, is to voice a ‘hope that the cultural space left by the demise of epistemology [i.e., of the commitment to rendering all discourse commensurable] will not be filled’ (p. 315), and this identifies him for our purposes as an anti-Enlightenment theorist. The themes of After Virtue are developed further in MacIntyre’s more recent book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, London 1988. Inevitably, then, my response to their work will also be a response tothe bigger picture which I shall trace in it. But this does not mean that I believe the whole of postmodernism, even in its philosophical variant, to be wrapped up in the pages I have chosen for study: what follows is, in the first instance, an account of a specific bit of textual exploration.

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