Neil Postman
Building a Bridge to the Enlightenment: How the Past Can Improve Our Future
New York: Knopf, 1999

(One cannot help but appreciate the passion and altruism of Neil Postman who died late this past year. But, from all that I've read of his writing, I cannot help but believe that he would want us to debate his claims, not swallow them whole. Accordingly, I'm tackling some of the propositions in his last book....His words appear in black font; mine in brown.)

Bill Washabaugh, January 2004

41 We have held on to the idea of progress but in a form that no eighteenth-century philosopher or early-nineteenth-century heir of the Enlightenment would have embraced--could possibly have embraced: the idea that technological innovation is synonymous with moral, social and psychic progress. [But Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real by Richard Coyne, 1999, shows that many disciples of Enlightenment utopianism did in fact embrace just such an idea (see p. 25). Indeed, a great deal of the technoromantic discourse about technology is infused with Enlightenment yearnings universal human betterment, open discourse, universal language, etc. After reading Coyne, it becomes very difficult to believe that the contemporary celebration of IT is anything but Enlightenment in its spirit.]

61 Enlightenment philosophers, natural and otherwise, discovered a method of using language that provided a truer representation of reality than had previously been known. And it was done by defining 'true representation' as propositions susceptible to verification. Propositional language is the heart of the exposition, as is the assumption that there exists an intelligible world of non-words: that is to say, 'reality.' Exposition proceeds under the further assumption that positions can describe reality, and that when this is done with clarity, logic, and rigor, it is possible to uncover the structure of reality with enough approximation to understand how it works. [Is this really how science should work? Karl Popper' suggests a different modus operandi in his Conjectures and Refutations. He says that scientists should not set out to verify and confirm propositions because such efforts open the door to self-fulfilling prophesies, skewed data, and self-supporting interpretations. Instead, scientists must turn their attention to the task of falsifying propositions. Normal laboratory life should be devoted to the task of demonstrating the inadequacy of hypotheses. When such efforts fail --fail to demonstrate falsity that is-- then those propositions should be allowed to stand temporarily and tentatively as approximations to the truth.

It is important to emphasize that in Popper's characterization of normal science, we never know the truth; we only know the domain of propositions that we have not yet proven false.

63 The best-known Enlightenment philosophers believed (anticipating Wittgenstein by two centuries) that philosophical indecisiveness and ambiguity arose because of muddled language, and that is such muddles were cleared away, philosophy would at long last be left with testable questions concerning human social life. [While the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus might have said as much, the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations and the Blue Book adopted quite a different view of the matter.] They anticipated that there would arise a Newton of the social sciences, someone who, abjuring metaphysical language, could identify basic and answerable questions about the human condition. And thus a true merging of philosophy and science would result. This hope led to the idea that we call today psychology, sociology, and anthropology would be scientific disciplines.
65 of Thomas Paine:
No one asked the question, How could an unschooled stay-maker from England's impoverished class produce such stunning prose? From time to time Paine's lack of education was pointed out by his enemies, but it was never doubted that such powers of written expression could be the possession of a common man…To write political philosophy did not require, of him, or anyone else, the mastery of an arcane, specialized vocabulary….The language of the common person was deemed entirely suitable for the expression of philosophical ideas. [But Olivia Smith, in her Language and Politics 1791-1918 (1979), provides abundant evidence to the contrary. Pleas and petitions written to Parliament in common language were dismissed and discarded because of the commonness of their discourse. Moreover, Paine himself was tried for treason, and jailed for advancing the view that truth could be formulated in common language, a view he shared with other daring proto-Romantics of his day including Tooke, Spence, and Cobbett.]
68 The point of view commonly referred to as 'postmodern' covers a vast terrain of cultural expression including architecture, art, film, dance, and music, as well as language. In the broadest sense, it argues that at some point in recent history (it is not clear exactly when) there occurred a striking and irreversible change in the way artists, philosophers, and social critics, and even scientists thought about the world. And it is this change that takes the name of postmodernism (sometimes poststructuralism), because it calls into question some of the more significant 'modern' assumption about the world and how we may codify it. [Postman here seems to have misunderstood the force of postmodernism. Postmodern is not opposed to "modern" but to "modernism" and it is opposed in quite the same way that poststructuralism is opposed to that corollary of modernism called "structuralism." Modernism (dating from roughly 1880) and structuralism (dating from roughly 1918) both contended that human behavior is driven by unseen logical operations that run continually in the core of human minds --and indeed in HUMAN MIND understood as a universal human faculty. Poststructuralism and postmodernism reject the closed deterministic, and quasi-mathematical character of this unseen human faculty. Most importantly, poststructuralists and postmodernists reject the presupposition of normal science that human language, offspring of these innate universal faculties, is capable of generating narratives that work for all people in all places at all times (metanarratives). The most profound and compelling effort to demonstrate the groundlessness of human language for truth-seeking is Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979, about which Postman says nothing. (See my essays "The Enlightenment, Romanticism and Agency" and "Modernism and the Subject" )]
75 It is the key to intelligence, if not sanity, to be able to assess with some accuracy the extent to which words refer to the world of non-words. Modern medicine is better than witchcraft precisely because its language is a more accurate depiction of the world of non-words. 'More accurate' means closer to reality; that is, 'truer' and 'more objective.' You may say, if you wish, that all reality is a social construction, but you cannot deny that some constructions are 'truer' than others. They are not 'truer' because they are privileged; they are privileged because they are 'truer.' ....they work because they are derived from sets of propositions whose 'truths' have been tested and shown to be in accord with our limited understanding of the structure of reality.
[Postman here seems to have skipped over the most obvious variable in tests for truth, namely, checking the pudding. It is not so much that X is a proposition worth holding on to because it is derived from sets of verified propositions, but rather because it works. The proof, we say, is in the pudding, in a practice, in an act and in the success (however that might be defined) of an action. For more on this view, see Charles Sanders Peirce's "How to Make Our Idea's Clear," 1878 .
81 Many of the writers of the Enlightenment period ...believed in the capacity of lucid language to help them know when they had spoken truly or false. Above all, they believed that the purpose of language is to communicate ideas to oneself and others. [After long and much debated searches through the literature on the history and function of human languages-some of these searches are discussed in my Speaking Into a Mirror: A Story of Lingusitic Anthropology, 1988-I have come to the conclusion that human languages are only incidentally serviceable for cognitive representation (see Chomksy's Cartesian Lingusitics) and communication (see my Chp. 13 in SIM). Instead I contend that human languages are for talk, and that talk is for bonding (see Waltzing Porcupines, 1992)] Why, at this point in history, so many Western philosophers are teaching that language is nothing but a snare and a delusion, that it serves only to falsify and obscure, is mysterious to me.

87 Information: All the newspapers of the age regarded information as a weapon. America's first paper, published in 1690, indicated that its purpose was to combat the spirit of lying which then prevailed in Boston. One did not give information to make another 'informed." One gave information to make another do something or feel something, and the doing and feeling were themselves part of a larger idea. The change in the meaning of information was largely generated by the invention of telegraphy and photography in the 1840's….

88 the telegraph made information into a commodity, a 'thing,' desirable in itself, separate from its possible uses or meaning [Thomas Richard's The Imperial Archive (1993) gives us quite a different take on the transformed role of information in the 19th century. Richards shows us that, and how, information became critical for the exercise of political power.]

Photography joined with telegraphy in re-creating our conception of information, since photography is preeminently a world of fact, not of dispute about facts or of conclusions to be drawn from them. [As Shawn Michelle Smith's American Archives, Miles Orvel's American Photography (2003) and George Didi-Huberman's The Invention of Hysteria (2003) make clear, photography in the middle of the 19th-century was all about the organization, classification and control of people. Like the information archives described by Richards, photography was a tool used by the powerful to control the powerless.]

93 Newspapers should get out of the information business and into the knowledge business.

106 America was the testing ground of a new narrative intended to provide practical answers to what is 'right'--morally, socially, and politically. Exactly how can their [Note: Postman here is referring to Franklin, Jefferson, Mason, Madison, Adams, Rush, Barlow, Cutler, Priestley and Pain "who "were America's answer to the great philosophes of Europe) narrative help us to manage things in the century ahead? There are several ways I should like to suggest. The first and most obvious is to reaffirm the necessity of a transcendent narrative, for without one, we can have no sense of purpose.

108 We may ask ourselves, as we cross the bridge to the century ahead, if we believe in this story, and if we do not, what story DO we believe in?
[Postman considers it essential for us all as humans to hold onto tales of some sort that acknowledge our humility and fragility in the face of larger realities that we cannot countenance. I agree with him on this point as my essay Waltzing Porcupines suggests. The notion of humility is central to Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, (1989]. Here Rorty makes it clear that postmodernism does not mean the obliteration of "ultimate concerns." See also Susan Handelman's Slayers of Moses (1983).]

124 Freud and Dewey were writing at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.... neither anticipated the later-twentieth-century condition that would render eighteenth-century concepts of childhood problematic. I refer, of course, to the 'information revolution' which has made it impossible to keep secretes from the young--sexual secrets, political secret, social secretes, historical secrets...

124 There was no theory of childhood, at least after the invention of the printing press with movable type, that did not assume that the information environment of adults is different from the information environment of children, and that the former is fuller, richer, broader, and, to pay respects to Rousseau and life itself, more depressing and scary. [Bambi Schieffelin The Give and Take of Everyday Life (1990) shows that the Kaluli, a contemporary New Guinea community, has a well developed theory of childhood that assumes that the information environment of adults is no different from that of children. The Kaluli give serious attention to their children only when they begin speaking like adults; their socialization/education consists in the main of verbatim recitation of adult speech forms....For a theory of childhood communication that is consistent with Kaluli practices, see my Speak Into the Mirror, Chapter 13.]] The word 'socialization' implies this. It means a process whereby the young are inducted gradually into the adult world.

126 Was childhood discovered or invented? I said at the start of this chapter that childhood was a social construction, which is to say, not a biological necessity; which is to say further, invented not discovered.

128 It is as obvious as it is depressing that the structure and authority of the family have been severely weakened as parents have lost control over the information environment of the young.

129 If parents wish to preserve childhood for their own children, they must conceive of parenting as an act of rebellion against culture. This is especially the case in American. For example, for parents merely to remain married is itself an act of disobedience and insult to the spirit of a throwaway culture in which continuity has little value...But most rebellious of all is the attempt to control the media's access to one's children.
[Is the childhood that Postman describes a desirable social condition to maintain? What is the upshot of this condition, so domesticated, deferential and subservient? Kenneth Kaye's The Mental and Social Life of Babies (1983) suggests quite a different view of childhood as one of agency and contentiousness right from the very first moments. ]

131 As for school, it is the only public institution left to us based on the assumption that there are important differences between childhood and adulthood. [Perhaps schools are limping because they continue to imagine themselves as authoritarian institutions. Dewey's view of education suggests quite a different approach to authority and student life....As we consider the social invention of childhood and schooling, we would do well to review William Ray's synopsis, in The Logic of Culture (2000) of the two primary paths towards childhood education that were taken by the French in the wake of the revolution. His conclusion is that not only are schooling and childhood invented, but so too are the two major options for characterizing the life of children and the mission of schools: "One "model assumes that normative regimes are best internalized not through coercion, but through analysis and reconceptualization in one's own terms. The immediate objective is to train subjects to judge for themselves and thus make them resistant to demagoguery...The other "model of education was based on the concept of straightforward indoctrination...While proponents of this approach frequently pay lip service to the citizen's autonomy, their working assumption is that the ideal subject is an undifferentiated creature of reflex, a creature whose behavior can be relied on never to deviate from the interests of the state precisely because it has been purged of semiotic initiative: it will make no determinations on its own, specify no meanings, draw no conclusions. ... The strange vacillation in these debates between positive and negative visions of the autonomous thinker and the consensual majority, like the persistent concurrence of theories of self-formation with theories of indoctrination, underscores the extend to which the logical of individual identity formation and that of the unconscious collective reflex are inseparably intertwined." (Pp. 58-78) Ray, here, is saying that no only is childhood invented in post-Revolutionary France, but the very contest between the two possible avenues for handling childhood in schools is itself an invented result of the emerging nation state and its requirements for its citizens. In other words, we cannot understand what childhood is or how it is to be dealt with without simultaneously understanding the social formations in which individual play out their lives.]

132 Were our schools to grasp that a computer is not a tool but a philosophy of knowledge we would indeed have something to teach (Hence my eagerness to make use of the Worldwide Web in my Anthropology courses)

148 A language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print. [Postman's paean to print-based education contrasts sharply with the views of many other educators and Enlightenment scholars. Barbara Stafford for example rails against exaggerated emphasis on "nineteenth-century ideals and standards of textual literacy" (Artful Science, 1994: xxi) and its "totemization of language as a godlike agency in western culture" (Good Looking, 1996: 5), contending at one point that "public education is in a shambles.. students and educators alike perceive schools as ineffectual and boring. Instead of attempting futilely to retrieve nineteenth-century ideals and standards of textual literacy, it might be helpful to focus on the other side of the historical story....high-order thinking was taught (in the 18th c.) in the construction of visual patterns and that optical technology often boosted the learning process of difficult abstractions. (Artful Science p. xxiii). It is for these reasons that I stress the importance of visual literacy in contemporary education.]