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.footnote1 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.

My chosen texts undoubtedly show certain common preoccupations, of which perhaps the most striking is an aversion to the idea of universality. The Enlightenment pictured the human race as engaged in an effort towards universal moral and intellectual self-realization, and so as the subject of a universal historical experiencÈ; it also postulated a universal human reason in terms of which social and political tendencies could be assessed as ‘progressive’ or otherwise (the goal of politics being defined as the realization of reason in practice).footnote2 Postmodernism rejects this picture: that is to say, it rejects the doctrine of the unity of reason. It refuses to conceive of humanity as a unitary subject striving towards the goal of perfect coherence (in its common stock of beliefs) or of perfect cohesion and stability (in its political practice).

All of our three philosophers illustrate, in their different ways, the postmodernist advocacy of pluralism in morals, politics and epistemology. All are struck by the thought that justification or ‘legitimation’ are practices, sustained in being by the disposition of particular, historical human communities to recognize this and not that as a good reason for doing or believing something; and all associate ‘enlightenment’ with a drive to establish communication between these local canons of rationality and to make them answerable to a single standard. But this is just what postmodernist thinkers complain of, for they question the merit of consensus as a regulative ideal of discourse. The policy of working for it seems to them to be objectionable on two counts: firstly as being historically outmoded, and secondly as being misguided or sinister in its own right.

The first claim frequently appears in the shape of triumphalist comments on the defeat of revolutionary socialism in the West. MacIntyre, for example, singles out Marxism for special mention as an ‘exhausted’ political tradition.footnote3 In a similar vein, Lyotard argues that ‘most people have lost the nostalgia for the lost narrative’ (that is, for the idea of humanity as tending towards a condition of universal emancipation, the prospect of which endows the historical process with meaning);footnote4 and he connects the declining influence of such ‘grand narratives’ with ‘the redeployment of advanced liberal capitalism [after 1960], . . . a renewal that has eliminated the communist alternative and valorized the individual enjoyment of goods and services’.footnote5

The second claim—namely, that the pursuit of ideal consensus is misguided—finds expression in arguments for a more accepting attitude towards the contingency and particularity of our ‘language-games’. It is not that postmodernism subscribes to the view that whatever is, is sacrosanct: quite the reverse, in fact, in the case of Rorty and Lyotard, who prize innovation for its own sake. It does, however, deny that the replacement of one ‘game’ by another can be evaluated according to any absolute standard (e.g. as being ‘progressive’ or the reverse, in the sense fixed by a teleological view of history). The thought is that since history has no direction (or: since it is no longer possible to think of it as having a direction), any new configuration of language-games which we may succeed in substituting for the present one will be just as ‘contingent’ as its predecessor—it will be neither more nor less remote from ‘realizing (universal) reason in practice’.

It is not surprising then to discover in this literature a leaning towards non-teleological descriptions of discursive activity. Rorty wishes to transfer to conversation the prestige currently enjoyed by ‘enquiry’;footnote6 MacIntyre’s reflections on morality lead him to the conclusion that mythology, the range of narrative archetypes through which a culture instructs its members in their own identity, is ‘at the heart of things’.footnote7 Neither ‘conversation’ nor ‘mythology’ is naturally understood as aiming at a single, stable representation of reality, one which would deserve the name of ‘truth’ in something more than a contextual or provisional sense. And it is this negative feature which fits the terms in question for their role in expounding a ‘postmodernism of the intellect’.

But the divorce of intellectual activity from the pursuit of ideal consensus is too important a theme to be entrusted to one or two happily chosen words. Rorty, as we shall see later, explicitly states that a form of life which no longer aspires towards a more-than-provisional truth will be better, on broad cultural grounds, than one which continues to do so; while Lyotard goes further and equates that aspiration with ‘terror’, believing as he does that it leads inevitably to the suppression of diversity or ‘difference’.footnote8 He even calls for a ‘war on totality’—a reassertion of the familiar liberal teaching that, while it may be a regrettable necessity to place constraints on liberty in the name of social order, one must not actively seek to bind together the multiplicity of thought and practice into a single ‘moral organism’ or ‘significant whole’.footnote9