Scarlet & Grey
Ohio State University
School of Music

Critical Commentary on Joseph Natoli and Postmodernism

David Huron

Music 829
May 5, 2000

Natoli, Joseph. A Primer to Postmodernity. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Lest readers get the wrong impression, let me begin my critique by identify those aspects of postmodernism with which I agree.

Points of Agreement

  1. The world contains injustice and warrants our efforts to bring about positive change. Only people who are priviledged think everything in the world is just fine. There is plenty of injustice in the world. There are many marginalized and voiceless people who deserve better. There is reason to be morally outraged, and we should do what we can to oppose the injustices.

  2. Observations can be unreliable. Naive realism is untenable. We do not observe the world directly. Our observations are colored by our sensory systems.

    Note that criticisms of naive realism did not originate with Postmodernism. Plato identified the problem with observation in his allegory regarding shadows on cave walls. Modern arguments against naive realism can be found in the philosophy of science literature. For example, in the writings of Pierre Duhem (1905).

    Note that not all observations are unreliable. Observation can still inform us about the world. We make a mistake if we think observations are unbiased, but we make an equally onerous mistake if we think observations are irrelevant to knowledge.

  3. Observations often depend on theory. Facts are theory-laden. Many "facts" can be identified as such, only when the observer is equipped with a sophisticated theoretical background.

    However, note that such observations don't need to be theory-independent in order to be reliable. Consider the following musical example:
    Many observers would characterize this as a "D minor chord followed by a rest." For a non-musician who doesn't read music, it might take many months of study to be able to develop the theoretical baggage necessary to make this observation. This does not mean that the observation is purely an artifact of the observer. Nor does it mean that the observation is just as arbitrary as some observer who characterized it as "a G diminished seventh chord followed by a cymbal crash".
    "No evidence is absolutely reliable, and, arguably, no evidence is theory-independent. However, the basic requirement for the scientific use of any evidence is not that it should be absolutely reliable and theory-independent, but only that it should be more reliable than the theories that it serves to confirm or disconfirm and therefore independent of those particular theories (or of any equally controversial theory)." -Dan Sperber, Explaining Culture, 1996, p.40.
  4. Pluralism is valuable. As Natoli notes, "alternative practices, all things being equal, ought to be allowed to flourish and even to be promoted." (p.149) In all aspects of human endeavor, there is value in examining alternative perspectives, considering different ways of doing something, and imagining how things might be different.

  5. A certain creative choas can be useful. Not everything in life needs to make sense. It is useful to stir us from our complacency, to stimulate our imaginations, to contemplate the absurd. One of the values of art is that it offers challenges to how we view the world.

    Note, however, that "choas" isn't warranted when people get hurt. The choas of meanings which forms the goal of deconstruction can be excessive when meaning is always denied.

  6. Bad logic should be exposed. Any theory or view based on illogical foundations should be exposed. In the case of widely held views ("master narratives" if you wish), it is especially important to point out illogical foundations, to say (when appropriate) that "the emperor is wearing no clothes."

  7. Expose the self-serving. People often prefer theories, interpretations, and facts, merely because they are self-serving. It is always a good idea to point out when the views people hold are clearly in their self interest.

    However, just because an idea is useful to the person advocating the idea, doesn't mean that the idea is wrong.

Points of Disagreement

My main points of disagreement with postmodernism are as follows:

  1. Postmodernism embraces absolute relativism with remarkably little regard for the philosophical consequences.
  2. Postmodernism clandestinely assumes the importance of "rigor" and "persuasive argument" without acknowledging these values, and without investigating these concepts further.
  3. Postmodernism confuses reason with belief.
  4. Postmodernism adopts a moral tone which is contrary to its own premises.
  5. Postmodernism over-emphasizes the fallability of observation.
  6. Postmodernism wrongly assumes that language is unconnected with the real world.
  7. Postmodernism criticizes forms of science that were long ago abandoned.

1. Relativism

Relativism is the belief that all ideas are equally valid.

Postmodernism is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to defend the marginalized voices -- especially gays, women, non-whites, and non-Westerners.

Notice that this list includes only groups that the majority of society considers disadvantaged and deserving. However, postmodernism does not distinguish between the narratives of the deserving and the narratives of the undeserving. What about other possible "minorities" -- people who we don't necessarily agree with? What about the Montana Freemen, Ayrian Nation, neo-Nazis, mass murderers, or corrupt politicians? Natoli "marks" only the dispossessed that we sympathize with.

Thomas Kuhn was wrong when he implied that changes arise through fashion and power rather than including rationality. Feyerabend was wrong to imply that there is no rigor, and that "anything goes".

2. Rationality and Rigor

From the beginning of recorded history, one of the principal intellectual problems has been the "problem of knowledge." How do we know something? How do we know we know? What makes a convincing argument? What makes one claim more persuasive, more rational, more logical, more rigorous, or more accurate than another?

Formal logic has addressed these issues with regard to deductive knowledge.

The philosophy of science has attempted to address these questions with regard to inductive knowledge. How is it possible to learn general principles from specific examples. In short, how do we learn from experience?

Recall that postmodernism argues that rigor and rationality are impossible. There is no way to say that one view is better than another.

But suppose that postmodernists themselves were to appeal to concepts such as rationality, rigor, and "better" views in advancing their arguments. If this were demonstrably the case, then we would have to conclude that postmodernists are hypocrites. Hypocracy is defined as denying to others what you yourself do.

Consider the following concrete examples. On page 156, Natoli identifies the following "modernist" charge against Postmodernism:

"The idea of responsibility -- of being accountable for one's actions -- has no meaning in a world where [there] is neither truth nor reality, but only endless interpretation." [quoted from Lynne Cheny Telling the Truth, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, p. 204]
Natoli then responds as follows:
"I don't see how the postmodern observation that we live in a variety of mediations of reality causes us to give up the struggle to represent reality in as honest and complete a way as possible." (my emphasis) [p.156]
What, we may ask, is an "honest representation of reality"? How does one know that one representation is more "complete" than another? Aren't these exactly the questions that science seeks to address?

In his discussion on page 175, Natoli notes:

"There is a very persuasive view ..."
What does Natoli mean by "persuasive"? How does one way of viewing the world become more persuasive than another?

Natoli favorably quotes from Catherine Belsey, "Towards Cultural History," p.561:

"I am persuaded that we should not abandon the notion of rigor; the project of substantiating our readings ..." (pp.127-128)
What does "rigor" mean? What does Belsey mean by "substantiating our readings"? How does one know whether one narrative is more "rigorous" or is better "substantiated" than another?

One of the goals of postmodernism is to subvert master narratives and create new narratives that converge with the experiences individuals have in the world. Natoli speaks of the need to have representations that "hook up" with the way we experience the world:

"What's to be gained in breaking out of the older ways of looking at things and adopting a postmodern way? Well, for one thing, our reality constructing and what we can say about it will connect. They'll hook up." (pp.7-8)
... that "reality" and what we say about reality will connect ... This is the long-standing goal of science: that one aims for a congruence between reality (however understood) and our assertions about reality.

Natoli also notes that other people can help us in this venture:

"Other people enable us to move out of possibly limiting stories of the world/self fusion. They show us other ways of "hooking up." (p.19)
A further question arises here. Precisely how is it that some people able to facilitate other ways of representing the world? How do we "change our minds"? How are other people able to cause us to change our minds? What demonstration, argument, or experience is able to change how people represent the world? In short, what is the nature of a convincing argument?

Once again, all of the above questions are questions that have motivated philosophers of science for three hundred years: How do we represent reality? What is a persuasive argument? What is rigor? How do we sustantiate different notions of reality? What is it that causes people to change their minds?

Yet here, the meaning of terms such as "rigor" and "persuasion" are assumed. Natoli rightly ridicules the naive realist for arguing "Hey, everybody knows what reality is." (p.9) Here we can similarly ridicule the postmodernist assumption: "Hey, everybody knows what rigor is." "Everybody knows what we mean by persuasive."

One of the principle problems with Postmodernism is that it clandestinely relies on rationality and rigor, even as it purports to deny the use of these concepts.

3. The Confusion of Reason with Belief

A third problem with postmodernism is the frequent confusion between reason and belief.

Postmodernism notes the culpability of rationality. The Nazis, notes Natoli, claimed that reason was on their side.

The Nazis also claimed that it is important to nurture children, to engage in exercise, and to listen to music.

Even if people believe that the Nazis were morally wrong, it does not follow that nurturing children, engaging in exercise, or listening to music are corrupt activities.

Similarly, that the Nazis purported to use or encourage "reason" does not mean that "reason" is corrupt.

Just because a group of people believe they are acting rationally or presenting a rational argument, does not mean that they actually are.

Reason is not a person or thing; it is an activity of a certain sort. People who value rationality can still make errors in logic or reasoning.


Postmodernism is convinced that truth is a human construction:

"Truth is not out there ... but in us, in our cultural world. Reality out there, which no postmodernist denies, is neither true nor false, neither good nor evil, neither ugly nor beautiful. It just is." (p.95)

The issue is not whether the world is true or not, the issue is whether assertions about the world are true or not.

If so, our disagreement hinges on language.


Postmodernism claims that truth cannot be independent of the human mind [Rorty, p.5] as expressed in a culturally constructed language. Consider the following thought experiment:

A theatrical magician places a banana in a box in full view of a chimpanzee.
The chimp opens the box and finds no banana.
The chimp screams in disappointment.
Is it not the case that the chimpanzee's unhappiness is due to the discovery of a false assertion about the world? That is, the chimpanzee's unconscious assertion "The banana is in the box." was found to be false.

It is not just humans that form theories about the way the world is. Moreover, assertions about the world need not be expressed in language. Finally, it is possible for reality to fail to conform to an individual's expectations. Assertions can be falsified.

A person might claim that the ratio of the length of the diameter of a circle to the circumference of the circle is 18:1. This is a false claim. Moreover, it is a false claim, whether humans exist or not.

When an animal takes any action, there are implicit assertions about how the world is. For example, when an animal eats some food, the animal actions attest to the assumption that the food is not poison. Assertions or propositions about the world can be true or false without the need to posit cultures, human languages, human thoughts, or even human beings.

As we saw in the work of Henry Plotkin, biology itself is a generator of knowledge about the world.

4. Moral Tone

Postmodernism is careful to acknowledge that it has no claim to "rational superiority":

"It is part of postmodernity's unusualness not to engage in a battle in which it claims it has climbed one rung higher on the ladder to truth." (pp.16-17)
"since [in the eyes of the postmodern] there is no necessary progress, no forward movement in history, and perhaps no such thing as history (in the absence of a convincing metanarrative), the postmodern cannot imply that there is any normative advantage that comes from either being later in time or a sign of the future. Postmodernism cannot and should not claim to be better, more advanced, or more clever than whatever preceded it." David Couzens Hoy, "Foucault: Modern or Postmodern?" in After Foucault: Humanistic Knowledge, Postmodern Challenges, ed. Jonathan Arac (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988), p.28. As quoted by music theorist Patrick McCreless.
But even as postmodernism purports to have some humility with respect to epistemology, it assumes an infuriating moral tone. By it's own logic, the moral claims of postmodernism are no better than other moral perspectives. Yet postmodernism does not adopt some sort of moral or ethical humility with respect to its moral claims. On the contrary, postmodernist critiques are filled with inuendo of moral emptiness, expressed with all the verve and confidence of an evangelist. Where postmodernism has no "pretensions of reason" it clandestinely exhibits the "pretensions of morality superiority".

Circumventing Criticism: The Failure to Debate

Early in his book, Natoli expresses his fear of criticism:

"any book entitled A Primer to Postmodernity in our culture war climate is going to get "objectively critiqued" into the abyss, like so much toxic waste. There are more pressing issues for a postmodernist to turn his or her attention to in our present culture than academe's protection of its "authorizing" domain."

I find Natoli's attitude distressing for several reasons.

First, Natoli clearly wants to preempt criticism of his work. I agree with Popper that the good scholar invites criticism, and with Hattiangadi's view that the essence of the progress of knowledge is a debating tradition. Natoli wants no part of it. Shame on him.

Second, the implication is that the only reason someone would criticize postmodernism (and Natoli specifically) is to protect one's academic previledge. At the time of this writing, postmodernism has much greater influence in music scholarship than does empiricism. So, as I am a "minority" empiricist, Natoli's presumption is false that only those motivated by maintaining the academic status quo would want to criticize him.