Skip to content

Ep. 133 Bob Murphy Debates Thaddeus Russell on Postmodernism as Foundation for Liberty

Thaddeus Russell, creator of Renegade University, has been arguing that libertarians should embrace postmodernism as their philosophical foundation, rather than blame it for today’s “social justice warriors” as Jordan Peterson has done. Bob profoundly disagrees, arguing that the Judeo-Christian notions of truth and morality are a much better foundation.

Mentioned in the Episode and Other Links of Interest:

The audio production for this episode was provided by Podsworth Media.

About the author, Robert

Christian and economist, Research Assistant Professor with the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech, Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute, and co-host with Tom Woods of the podcast "Contra Krugman."

27 Comments

  1. Mark on 07/27/2020 at 2:50 PM

    Bob,

    I will admit I have only read the show description and have not listened to this. But I would just like to point out that there ARE very serious continentalist Christian philosophers out there. They endorse some but not all aspects of postmodernism, and as far as I can see, don’t embrace full throated relativism.

    Michel Henry https://www.amazon.com/Am-Truth-Philosophy-Christianity-Cultural/dp/0804737800

    Jean luc Marion studied under Derrida. https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B009XE662K/ref=dbs_a_w_dp_b009xe662k

    James K.A. Smith, who teaches at Calvin college, has done some work on this as well. https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/080103972X/ref=dbs_a_w_dp_080103972x

    I still gravitate far more towards analytic philosophy because of it’s very clear writing style, but I don’t think all aspects of postmodernism should be equated with an anti-Christian ethos either.

    As Michael Huemer rightly points out, continentalists tend to lean VERY left economically, which is why it hasn’t gained much of a following in free market circles.

    https://fakenous.net/?p=1112

  2. Dusan Vilicic on 07/27/2020 at 3:15 PM

    What if I went to the doctor and told him “I identify as being 300 Kg fat, very sedentary” despite me being thin and athletic? According to Mr. Russell what would he have to do? Accept what I said and put me in a diet? Maybe suggest I have to take some medication, thereby harming me? Russell’s logic puts people in catch-22 like situations, and he does not seem to realize this.

    Related to that, he also seems to be making a meaningless argument. He says categories are useful and should be used but also they are oppressive and should not be used? He just talks nonsense to me.

    • Danan on 08/01/2020 at 12:56 PM

      According to Russell your doctor is an evil scientist anyway.

  3. Eric on 07/27/2020 at 10:14 PM

    This was so frustrating. I wish Thaddeus would have answered the questions. You really really tried, Bob. It was totally unfair how he attacked you and evaded the questions.

    I have never posted on an episode’s page, but this was too much. I think more highly of Thad than what he demonstrated in this interview. I made a point to listen because I thought it was going to be interesting. How disappointed I am.

    Thad completely missed the message/philosophy of libertarians. He reminded me of me as a young ron Paul supporter taking “it’s a free country” to a completely wrong conclusion. Unfortunately, he wasn’t willing to engage in those ideas or else he might have better understood us and might have worked it into his own philosophy

  4. will on 07/28/2020 at 1:55 AM

    His position is that we can know nothing. But how does he know that we can know nothing?

    • bj on 07/29/2020 at 8:53 AM

      Thaddeus, was not making the claim that we can’t know anything (hard agnostic), but that he doesn’t know hat we can know anything (soft agnostic).

      So, his position presupposes that he could become a hard agnostic or a believer in objective truth.

      But, you have to admit, it seems like he is saying, “If you are not a soft agnostic, then there is something objectively wrong with how confident you are.”

      In other words, he is quite confident for someone who is not sure about knowing anything.

      • Dusan Vilicic on 07/30/2020 at 4:38 PM

        Exactly. He was playing both sides. And that tells me he was just talking nonsense.

  5. Marko on 07/28/2020 at 6:12 AM

    Bob,

    Russell is right. Let us start from your last sentence. I am paraphrasing: “At least in principle science has a capacity to access the truth, so the bad science is not accessing the truth, while the good one is”. Well, this is methodologically wrong. Science is not what you think it is. Science is NOT in the business of the truth, but in the business of explaining a set of observations. We can’t exclude that some explanations are actually objectively true, but even if they were, there is no way for us to know it, because no one has the Book of Truth to compare those explanations to. So, we can only say that science is better if it explains the observations better, not because better science is closer to truth. Better means those explanations are more logical, less contradictory, less complex (Occam’s razor), they included as many observations as possible. So, Russell was right when he said we can never be sure about the objective truths. Not only, we can’t be sure that even objective reality exists. It might exist, our intuitions say it does, but scientific method does not allow us to know that.
    The fact we believe objective reality exists is useful for us humans, the fact we believe laws of Nature exists is also very useful. But, we really can’t exclude the possibility that laws of Nature do not exist, but they only seem to exist. Like it seems the Solar System is stable, and will be for billions of years, after that, it will collapse and the Sun will destroy the Earth. May be the reality is random, but with slow, yet unpredictable changes. And yes, we do not have a way to know if the objective reality really exists, or we are the brain in the tank. Occam’s razor principle tells us that it is more parsimonious to assume the reality against the brain in the tank, because from our perspective the consequences are the same, a perfect simulation of the reality can’t be distinguished from the reality, because, again, we do not possess the Book of Truth to know that.
    That said, the conservative approach in science is useful too. If the scientists accepted easily any new claim, because, we can’t be sure of anything, we would lose not only the science, but also our minds. We would all become mad man. So, the right first reaction to someone claiming he just saw 3 new planets in the Solar System should remain to ask him to clean better his telescope, instead of easily accepting so brave statements, but eventually, we can’t exclude we missed 3 new planets so far. The danger I see in people like Russell, is that even though methodologically they are right, and you are wrong, still you may be more useful for human flourishing because people like Russell have a tendency to step the gas pedal too strongly towards any new idea. There is nothing in the scientific method that can discredit evil scientist who create evil theories based on clever selection of the observations. No one can say, 5 observations are OK, while 4 or 6 are not, because we do not have a Book of Truth. But, the scientific competition solves, to a certain point, the problem of evil scientists, because other scientists are motivated to correct those theories by adding observations that may falsify them.
    In the end, the science, as the political battle, as any other human endeavor is as good as people are good. With enough motivated bad people and with enough lazy good people, anything can collapse and, yes, Russell is right, but let us use his correct view very wisely.

  6. Brendan Shelton on 07/28/2020 at 1:43 PM

    Russel raises some challenging questions. I wonder what conclusions he would reach if he applied his deconstructive analysis to things like the nonaggression principle, private property, and the rights of a human person. These ideas are, arguably, arbitrary social constructs which have changed over time and were developed by people in particular cultures with their own biases.

  7. Stefano Rondelli on 07/28/2020 at 2:13 PM

    I couldn’t discern whether Thaddeus was being disingenuous or was purposely trying to provoke you, but I was left with the impression that you two were really having distinct conversations. And yeah, I think the recordings you played were really unambiguous and that Thaddeus either forgot about them, or what meaning he attaches to those words are not at all shared by other people. He really should have clarified what he meant, which he did in this episode, and wasn’t too far off from your interpretation.

    The first statement about the subjectivity of value really set the tone: whereas Thaddeus likened it to relativism, either moral or epistemological, you correctly characterized it as a purely evaluative phenomenon. Subjectivity does not mean, for Mises or any other austrian, that reality itself is a subjective creation, but that the relative importance of things in reality are a product of individual choices and thoughts. That things are a certain way is never called into question, even if we can get it wrong.

    There is a passage from Hoppe, that I think you quoted as representing a possible solution to the mind-body problem in a previous episode, where he explicitly states that, properly understood, praxeology is a realist epistemology, as opposed to an idealist one. I also found egregious the fact that he didn’t even try to challenge the fact that virtually all austrians, and certainly all misesians, think that praxeology is an absolute truth. Praxeological knowledge is true knowledge, in all conceivable circumstances. Hoppe flat out states that economic a-priori statements are unbreakable. How’s that for subjective?

    I also found bizarre that he would equate being a libertarian with supporting all claims from individuals, no matter how absurd those might be. His “attack” on the male and female distinction as clearly suspect since it is a creature of the state was amazing, and he didn’t really engage your point about the difference between categories and the thing that they adhere too. Recognizing that understanding changes, even if not always for the better, does not mean that these things do not describe anything, even if they do it incorrectly. This was what you were getting at with the irish example, I believe.

    His point about Thailand’s (was it Thailand’s?) third gender was also misguided, since it doesn’t really matter. If “the west” has two categories that can profitably describe the things and phenomenons that other human groups describe employing more tools of thought, in no way detracts from either the truth or the usefulness of our constructs. Thais might as well be wrong, but that’s beside the point. If a statement has to have any meaning, it must be at least internally consistent. If I say “I am the planet Jupiter”, and all those words have a definite meaning, then that statement is clearly false, no matter what I think. It’s also immaterial that words are, in a sense, arbitrary: they still stand for something. They stand for concepts. Once we clearly identify which concepts we’re referring to, there is no ambiguity regarding their truth.

    This was a really frustrating conversation.

    • Frank Crowther on 07/30/2020 at 1:22 AM

      And now I understand why I can’t have a real conversation with my sister. Bless you for subjecting yourself to such an absurdity.

  8. Jose B. Guerra on 07/28/2020 at 5:21 PM

    Hello,

    Just wanted to say awesome job and thanks for all the content you produce. I’m a fan of both you and Thad and love listening to both podcasts. Thad’s take on the gender thing (when I saw it live on JRE) also was the biggest thing that turned me off from postmodernism thinking. I understand where they are coming from in regards to being skeptical of everything and deciding what you want to do with your life (call or claim yourself as whatever you want to be) but how does that help when lets say an individual gets testicular or ovarian cancer. Those require specific treatments due to their sex/gender. Adhering to some “truths” in the moment is perfectly fine and if those “truths” are one day overturned, so be it. Overall there are some things from postmodernism that we can take away and use/incorporate into our own lives but I believe that overall it just leads to more confusion of oneself in a directionless manner. Its almost like postmodernism should be taught when your older to better build upon foundations of what you perceive is “real” than learn everything could be fake or real and that you should just live your life without hurting others and do your best to succeed in life. I can see why Jordan Peterson can view postmodernism as dangerous to teach to young and impressionable peoples cause you will end up questioning everything (including whether you have one set of private parts over another (although if you get one of aforementioned illnesses you will learn quickly that you fall under one of two categories )).

    Sorry for the rant, forgive the grammar, and thank you again for the content. Will definitely donate in the next few minutes. Thanks!

  9. Chad on 07/28/2020 at 7:19 PM

    I had heard of Russell before but don’t remember listening to him, but I do know he is quite popular. He is quite intolerable to listen to and doesn’t seem convincing at all. He is making a number of mistakes in logic, which are easily solved by understanding Loki’s Wager (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loki%27s_Wager), Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, and Jordan Peterson’s refutation of post-modernism.

    If you take Russell’s arguments seriously, you are left catatonic, unable to make any decisions because you might be wrong. At some point you have to make a best-guess choice based on experience.

    • Dusan Vilicic on 07/30/2020 at 4:43 PM

      Russell did not really have arguments, he had rethorical tactics. He was constantly feinting, flip-flopping and generally muddying the waters. That’s why “if you take Russell’s arguments seriously, you are left catatonic”. If he can only do that, then I say he’s just talking nonsense.

  10. bj on 07/29/2020 at 9:08 AM

    Robert Murphy, how do you think the conversation went?

    What would you have done better?

  11. The NAPster on 07/29/2020 at 11:26 AM

    I have now heard Russell twice debate someone intelligent on (his view of) post-modernism, the other instance being Steve Patterson. Both this time and then, the most charitable way that I could describe Russell is as a magician: he is very good at distracting folks away from what he doesn’t want people to notice, namely, the cogency of the other side’s argument. He seems to be more form than substance, but it could be that it’s not him per se, so much as he’s defending a very questionable philosophy that can’t stand up to close scrutiny.

    There are so many comments that I could make, but I’ll settle for one, relating to the NASA point Bob was making. To prove Bob’s point, all we have to do is find a floor plan of NASA after women were let in, and confirm that there were female bathrooms installed. Wouldn’t that prove that when NASA let women in, it wasn’t because the powers-that-be had decided that there was no such thing as a “woman” but, rather, that women too could play a role at NASA?

    • Dusan Vilicic on 07/30/2020 at 4:44 PM

      That tactic of “distracting folks away from what he doesn’t want people to notice, namely, the cogency of the other side’s argument” is the same lefties use when debating against evidence.

    • Paul on 08/01/2020 at 3:40 AM

      I Russell’s appearance on Patterson was the best presentation and self-refutation of post-modernism.

      IIRC, Patterson is trying to address a certain truth that Patterson believes, and all Russell could do was question Patterson’s motives, until Patterson finally gets Russell to address the existence of a certain truth and, this is pretty much a direct quote; “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know! That’s my answer for everything!”

      Even with this interview I still found Russell certain that he can be certain of nothing.

  12. TM on 07/30/2020 at 5:15 AM

    I’m a stereotypical ancap so you know where I am coming from…. I actually am starting to warm up to Thad’s post modern argument. I’ve heard him make it a few different times and I think I am starting to understand. I think it is an analog to Austrians aversion to high level math in economic calculations. This math makes generalizations and disregards how the human action variable could render the high math model void. What makes sense in post modernism is that the definition of anything is dependent on context. And that context is forever changing. Even a word’s meaning is forever changing. It’s similar to the economic calculation problem. Knowing all facts and exact definitions are not knowable because of the human condition. I think that some ‘truth claims’ can be so self evident that they can be known to be true at such a high probability that it might as well be a law: 2+2=4, supply and demand, etc. There is still a slight uncertainty so you can’t say it is 100% true but who cares about a .001% chance that it may not be.

    Thad does take the slim uncertainty to absurd ends but there are many claims that are generally accepted that would probably better serve humanity if they were questioned more vigorously. I think that is the point, don’t take these ‘scientists’ theories as gospel as even the most accepted facts have been overturned with time. It’s really just a theory on how generalizations can fail. Similar to how libertarians like to look at people as individual actors and not a robot controlled by whatever ‘group’ that the person might associate them with.

  13. Tel on 07/30/2020 at 11:26 AM

    Famous Zen saying … try to achieve the voice from Iron Chef if possible when reading this.

    Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.

    – Dōgen

    Russell seems stuck in that middling region … God bless!

    It’s healthy and liberating to question assumptions, but tiresome to question every assumption all the time, over and over.

    • Tel on 07/30/2020 at 11:42 AM

      This link has the same Zen saying associated with various people.

      https://sacred-texts.com/bud/zen/sayings.htm

      No date of course because time is a social construct … authorship is also a social construct so attribute it to anyone you like!

  14. clort27 on 07/31/2020 at 7:54 PM

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

    There is a spirit of darkness. Of negation. Of anti-thought. Of anti-life. Of anti-sense. Of anti-truth. Of anti-creation.

    And Thaddeus is spewing it around the room like the little girl vomiting in The Exorcist.

  15. Paul on 08/01/2020 at 3:41 AM

    I wasn’t clear why Russell chose to attack your state-issued birth certificate but praise the state that recognized three genders. Maybe there is something I missed there.

  16. Not bob on 08/01/2020 at 5:28 AM

    Couldn’t listen to more than 2 minutes of this guy. Wow. The type of person who discovers in 5th grade that people will shut up if you talk over them and slightly faster, and then build a life out of it.

    I stopped listening at “I didn’t hear an argument,” right after Bob’s first introduction.

    Regarding the general ideas of post-modernism, as I understand them from the Rogan clip, Russell makes a major intellectual mistake when he jumps from “biological categories -> societal roles (past, bad)” to “no biological categories -> freedom (present, good).”

    It’s obviously great that we no longer tie people’s societal roles exclusively to their biological categories (e.g. skin color, sex). But it does not follow that the categories don’t exist.

    It’s not that we discovered “woman” is a useless concept, it’s that we discovered that just because someone is a “woman” it doesn’t mean she has to follow a certain life plan and be prevented from certain other plans.

    There are the obvious examples where his ideas fall on their head, of course: I can identify as 6’5 and athletic all day long, but that’s not going to help me dunk a basketball.

    This argumentation is so dumb or disingenuous that I’d stop right there and walk out of the room. I’m not surprised the guy denied having said things he’s on record saying – he’s too smart to be that dumb, he’s just a liar.

  17. Atticus on 08/01/2020 at 2:36 PM

    Wow. This guy is insufferable. I did make it through the entire episode but it was a frustrating listen. Bob, you have more patience than myself. Keep up the good work.

  18. Josh on 08/02/2020 at 4:27 PM

    If I date a chick, and we go on two years talking about having kids etc. I marry her and say, “Let’s get to that procreating!” She replies, “I can’t because I was born with a penis.”
    If I said, “You deceived me all this time?”
    She replies, “No, we just have different definitions of what it means to be a female.”
    CLEARLY I’d feel wronged. And most men (in common usage) would feel the same. It’s not because some scientist determined these categories, but that we developed these general notions that work pretty well most of the time to define what we need them to.
    TR’s usage of these terms clearly seeks to buck this trend, but (assuming he’s not a pansexual) if such a situation happened to him he’d certainly feel wronged and clearly would not be a true post-modernist in his own sense.
    The mere fact that he would feel deceived would be his praxis showing: he’s proclaiming ludicrous nonsense he doesn’t actually believe if reduced to absurdity.
    If a guy wants to call himself a girl in some sense not generally recognized in society, particularly in the venue of personal relationship, it’s owed to that companion at he transparency.

    We don’t fall in love with a person we assume to be opposite sex; we fall in love with the expectation of whom that person will be in the future. If you want children, the unwilling one should be honest about saying they don’t.
    If you want biological children, the incapable should be honest about saying they can’t.

  19. mary on 08/30/2020 at 5:47 AM

    There are no Judeo-christian notions of morality. There’s jewish morality and christian morality. Don’t mix.

Leave a Comment