Are We Post-Jeffersonian or Post-Postmodernism?

tags: Thomas Jefferson

M. Andrew Holowchak is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rider University and the author of "Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" (2013).

Imagine a wayward journeyer who, on a lengthy trip, pauses for refreshment at an out-of-the-way trattoria. He begins conversation with the owner and reveals that he began his trip in Los Angeles, passed through Salt Lake City, Boulder, and Lubbock, but is currently unaware that he is now just outside of Wichita. “Ah, travelling east—at least, somewhat?” says the owner. “Not really sure. Don’t much care where I’m at, or even where I’m headed. I just know where I’ve come from,” replies the journeyer, “and that’s really all I know—all I care to know.”

Joyce Appleby in her introduction to Peter Onuf’s Jeffersonian Legacies (UVA Press, 1992) offers a postmodernistic grounding of Jefferson. “We live in a world of ‘posts,’ ” she writes. “The buildings going up around us are postmodern; our literary criticism is poststructural; our sociology postpositivist; our legal scholarship is postrealist; our political science postbehavioral; the whole era is postindustrial. Ours is clearly an age that knows where it has been and senses that it is no longer there.”

She then asks us to consider how “this ‘post’ phenomenon” relates to our self-awareness of “what it means to be where one once was and is no more.” Our hearts are still moved by what Jefferson taught, though our head “rejects the intellectual context he established in order to claim a new dispensation for mankind.”

A prime illustration of our intellectual rejection of Jefferson’s “context” is the difficulty we have in “accepting Jefferson’s arguments with their scientific gloss of universal truths, first principles, and immutable norms.” The words of our context are “pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, relativism,” and they, in contrast to Jefferson’s words, “point to different truths about the human experience.” She says: “Should we continue to reason with outworn concepts of nature and truth? We can be certain of one thing—Thomas Jefferson would not have.”

I don’t share Appleby’s certainty nor find her ending “sockdolager” compelling. I am, in fact, certain that Jefferson would disrelish the pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, and relativism of which she speaks. At least, Jefferson would ground such concepts in the firm sciences of our time—e.g., our physics, astronomy, biology, and even medicine—which he would openly embrace. He would be impressed by new discoveries in our “physics”: the conservation of energy, the law of entropy, the law of gravity, the constancy of the speed of light, the relativity of bodily motions, the strange behavior of subatomic entities, E=mc2 as an improvement over Newton’s F=ma, and the Lorentz transformations, inter alia.

He would be astonished by unquestioned advances in other sciences: DNA sequencing in microbiology, the Darwinian discovery that species are not fixed but evolve, heightened and broadened understanding of medicines as well as novel surgical techniques, greater comprehension of human mentation through increased knowledge of the human brain, and even better understanding of the behavior and intelligence of other animals, among numerous other findings. He would be especially excited by the prospects of utilizing such discoveries and advances in the service of human flourishing. Advances in information technology, I am sure, he would have found overwhelmingly welcome just because of their serviceability. He would nowise believe that such laws, discoveries, and developments are merely posits, relative to our time, to be scrapped by future generations which will relish discretionarily their own “scientific” posits.

In agreement with Appleby, some of Jefferson’s concepts are “outworn,” but not because they are no longer fashionable, but because they are wrong—e.g., Jefferson’s appropriation of natural law to ground morality and political science and his belief in the fixity of species. Yet we are indebted to science in our own time as much if not more than Jefferson was in his day, and naturalistic concepts such as mass, velocity, acceleration, inertia, temperature, and species are just as vital today as they were in Jefferson’s time. It is just philosophically out of vogue to recognize our debts to science, and so we skirt our debts by appropriation of epistemic concepts such as subjectivism, relativism, perspectivism, and antirealism lest we fall into embrace of “universal truths, first principles, and immutable norms.”

Before ending her essay, Appleby says (I assume) rhetorically, “Are we now post-Jeffersonian?”

We can appeal to Jefferson’s relatively elastic conception of language to find an answer. He knew that language assumed the life of those currently using it and that people changed with each generation. In that regard, he was a relativist. To grammarian John Waldo (16 Aug. 1813), he writes: “I have been pleased to see that in all cases you appeal to usage, as the arbiter of language; and justly consider that as giving law to grammar, and not grammar to usage. I concur entirely with you in opposition to Purists, who would destroy all strength and beauty of style, by subjecting it to a rigorous compliance with their rules.”

Yet not all relativism is hostile to truth. For Jefferson, usage required changes to languages in keeping with human progress, and so the changes over generations were generationally relative, but not vagarious. They were instead in keeping with the tardigrade progress of knowledge over the generations, and that progress, however slow, demanded neology. “Nothing is more evident than that as we advance in the knowledge of new things, and of new combinations of old ones,” he writes to Joseph Milligan (6 Apr. 1816), “we must have new words to express them.” To grammarian John Waldo (16 Aug. 1813), Jefferson chastises those critics who would prohibit new words from entry into English and fix it to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. “Certainly so great growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.”

Thus, it is not mere change, but progressive change, that makes necessary neology. First, the advances of natural science of Jefferson’s time introduced neologisms such as oxygen, cotyledons, zoophytes, and magnetism. Second, innovations in political thinking, brought on by the American and French revolutions, birthed numerous neologisms and required refinement of concepts such as equality, liberty, justice, and even life.

In short, we would be post-Jefferson if we could embrace the notions that science is merely another human practice, no better epistemically than religion or mythography, and that equality and liberty are mere constructs, no better axiologically than inequality and coercion. Yet I suspect that that might not happen for an extraordinarily long time, if only because, whether we recognize it or not, we have normative investments in science and concepts.

If we are not, then, post-Jefferson, perhaps we are, or at least becoming, post-postmodernism, which is increasingly incommodious because of its various “post”-posits: its poststructuralism, postpositivism, postrealistm, postbehavioralism, and postindustrialism. Like Appleby, we acknowledge that postmodernism is a philosophy that “knows where it has been and senses that it is no longer there.” Yet it is also a philosophy, mired in posts, that does not know where it is or where it is headed (much like our wayward journeyer). As a philosophy of getting over the past, it situates itself via negation, and to be situated via negation is not to have any positive sense of identity, and that makes it most disconcerting, most unbeautiful, and following Jefferson most unserviceable to vital human needs.

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