What is often called ‘identity politics’ in the twenty-first century seems to be closely connected to the rise of powerful new forms of communications technology. We have seen the birth of Facebook in 2004, the release of the iPhone in 2007, the development of supercomputer powered algorithms, the rise of global cloud fiefdoms such as Amazon and Alibaba, and significant breakthroughs in AI. These on-line communications and commerce technologies are radically impacting human socialization, shaping how people project their virtual presence, and reconfiguring how our public discourse is conducted.

These technologies are also impacting our most intimate sensibilities and the very way we think of ourselves and others. Algorithmically mapping, holding, and conditioning our on-line attention has gone hand in hand with such developments as the explosion of internet pornography and a suit of unsavoury on-line fear and resentment behaviours. Phone-use addiction, compulsive doom-and-trivia scrolling, and the giving and receiving of on-line vitriol not constrained by face-to-face conventions, now seems almost normal. The continuous on-line manipulation of our desires, addictions, fears, and resentments is now ubiquitous as our primal drives are the easiest and most effective attention levers to algorithmically manipulate.

In all of this ‘the algorithm’ itself is entirely dispassionate, for all its programmers are interested in is holding, increasing, and commercially harvesting our attention. Seduced by instant access to the products and information that we are drawn to, we merrily take the ride. Yet, the impact on us of these on-line developments is hardly neutral. Mental health indicators in the young show troubling trends in psychological fragility, social anxiety, depression, and a paralysing apocalyptic dread. And we are lonely. The on-line environment disconnects us from where we actually live, and from those to whom we actually belong. Zygmunt Bauman’s understanding of the atomization of individuals and the ‘free flowing’ propulsion of us all in liquid modernity’s fast-moving currents of self-focused consumption, is put into hyperdrive by the virtualization of reality itself.

Arguably, one response to these new technologies is ‘identity politics.’ New types of ‘virtual communities’ are arising that are drawing in atomized and alienated individuals who increasingly define who they are from a seemingly infinite suit of cloud-located identity construction options. The most vocal of these communities often have a strong sense of grievance. They have been victimized, excluded, alienated in one way or another, and they are no longer standing for it. Virtual communities of grievance are now a significant feature of our increasingly fractured and splintering political landscapes. Righting injustices against every excluded and marginalized minority is the moral engine of identity politics.

Perhaps the rise of social media enabled identity politics signals a bold new advance in people power that promotes justice for marginalized minorities who have had no voice or platform in the past. Perhaps a somewhat post-human integration of virtuality and humanity is inexorably making old ways of socialization, relationships, and identity obsolete, and whether we like it or not, this is just how things now are? Or perhaps social media hands a megaphone to clandestine and special interest defined identity groups, promoting echo-chamber narrative insularity that is actively destructive of the common good? Most likely there are both positive and negative dynamics integral with the present trends. But twenty-first century identity politics is not simply a technologically or commercially determined matter. Philosophical choices and commitments are integral with our present dynamic as well.

The philosophical issues I wish to home in on concern a particular type of identity politics, which, perhaps expediently, I will call postmodern. More specifically it is anti-essentialist, anti-realist, and anti-idealist construals of identity, nature, and politics that, I think, should be philosophically examined.

Anti-essentialism is a postmodern stance that upholds the fluidity of all meanings because – it is maintained – there are no essential meanings in reality. That is, all meanings are human poetries that we subjectively and culturally make up. All judgements of value – good, bad, beautiful, ugly, significant, disgusting etc – are not about how things really are, but are rather preferences and governances that attempt to order and regulate one’s own – and other people’s – ‘bare’ physical needs and subjective desires.

Anti-realist approaches to nature are continuous with postmodern anti-essentialism. Nothing in nature has any knowable true meaning, let alone any real value. So ‘the natural’ is (in reality) a cultural construction. ‘Sex’, ‘gender’, ‘race’ ‘humanity’ – for example – are not natural realities, rather, they are cultural designations of constructed meanings that are (oppressively) externally or (freely) internally applied to bodies, selves, and histories. Anyone who thinks there are naturally given facts and essential meanings and values, is badly mistaken. For there are no uninterpreted meanings, no pure facts, no brute natural truths. In reality, all truth claims are performative assertions of meaning and interpretation that always serve governance and power interests in one way or another. A woman, for example, cannot be a real woman because she is biologically female.

Anti-essentialism also entails the denial of traditional categories of political metaphysics. Political idealists aim at advancing the Common Good, and pursue the ever-unreachable aims of civic Justice, Truth, and Goodness, via the forum of persuasive speech and the virtuous civic commitments of citizens. Here, public office governs power, but properly moral political authority is never reducible to the mere governing of power. In contrast, an anti-essentialist understanding of political power denies the reality and meaning of all ‘high’ political ideals, and holds that power is just power, and authority pinned to the transcendent ideals of Justice, Truth, and Goodness is always a deceptive cover for self-interest and mere power. Power is nothing other than the ability to impose – by whatever means – governing norms. There is nothing that stands above everyone’s personal interests and value preferences that distinguishes power from political authority.

It should be noted that postmodern identity politics cannot actually be about any real identity or any real natural fact, and fails to be genuinely political, by most pre-postmodern views of credible philosophical commitments. In fact, should one have such old-fashioned philosophical commitments, postmodern identity politics can only be an anti-identity and anti-political outlook. For the assumption of any real identity (rather than an anti-essential and poetically performed ‘identity’ construction) and any assertion of natural realism where real facts of nature can be partially known, let alone any assertion of partially apprehended moral truth, is anathema to postmodern identity politics. Further, governance by mere power is not a political outlook.

Who is right, then? The anti-essentialist postmodernists, or anyone who has some sort of commitment to at least partially grasped essential meaning?

A diverse cohort of powerful anti-essentialist, anti-naturalist, and anti-political-idealist theorists – such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler – are significant shapers of our academic landscape now. Their day has come not only in the academy, but in the immanently framed and pragmatic assumptions of consumer society, in the social atomization and meaning fluidity of ‘liquid modernity’, and increasingly, in the shape of our laws and public institutions. Their ascendency is the logical result of the erosion of Western metaphysically essentialist, scientifically realist, and political idealist traditions, which has been going on for many centuries now.

Augustine’s Christian Platonist theology was the grounding meta-perspective from which the Western university was born. The Cathedral School of Paris set up the University of Paris in the mid twelfth century. Peter Lombard’s Sentences – a compilation of Scripture, Augustine’s teachings, and the Church Fathers – was the basic intellectual framework upon which the master discourse of the medieval university (Theology) rested. In the thirteenth century Aquinas baptized the newly recovered Aristotelian corpus into Western Christendom. Thus was the Western university born within a rich tradition in philosophical theology deeply indebted to the Christian Scriptures and to Plato and Aristotle, and complexly unifying faith, revelation, reason, ethics, and natural philosophy.

Central categories of scholastic thinking concerned essence and existence. The complex relation of the eternal and the divine (transcendence) to the sensible and the temporal (immanence), and the relation of the particular, quantifiable, and material domain to the universal, qualitative, and intellective domain, dominated scholastic debates. Then came what we now call the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Starting up outside of the universities, a pragmatic and experimental natural philosophy was born which largely dumped Aristotle’s natural philosophy, often coupled with a Protestant and Anglo desire to throw out the scholastic synthesis of Aristotelian natural philosophy with Catholic theology. At the same time thinkers like the Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi were baptizing Epicurus, Lucretius, Democritus, and Empiricus into early modernity’s natural philosophy, and into Christian theology. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries see radical advances in science, the rise of rationalist Deism, and an agnostic or quietly atheist empiricism. Whilst this early modern turn towards ‘purely’ rational and ‘purely’ empirical metaphysics is increasingly methodologically discrete from theology and faith, theology and faith are still largely assumed. Amos Funkenstein describes the period between the sixteenth century invention of natura pura and the Enlightenment philosophy of Immanuel Kant as a period dominated by “secular theology… [wherein] science, philosophy, and theology [were] seen as almost one and the same occupation.”[i]

As the closing pages of Funkenstein’s book explains, it is Kant who firmly ends the scholastic synthesis of revelation and faith with reason and science. Perhaps this eventually leads to the loss of scientific realism, for the Logos of Creation is also Christ, the Truth, speaking within our minds to Augustine, such that subjective consciousness can have real, though divinely mediated, fellowship with objective natural meaning. Regardless of the late-modern tilt towards scientific anti-realism, the firm Kantian separation of faith and reason entailed the reworking of the basic categories of essence (now the domain of pure reason and the conditions of intelligible meaning) and existence (now the domain of the natural sciences, and practical judgements) so that they sit within Kant’s understanding of the proper limits of purely philosophical reason.

Kant effects a decisive rupture from the West’s pre-Enlightenment metaphysical traditions, wherein faith transmitted understandings of transcendent reality is integrated with the domains of reason, ethics, and natural philosophy. There are many steps between Kant and Judith Butler, but once any substantive knowledge of transcendent truth is ruled inadmissible, and once the mind of the human knower becomes the only locus of reason and knowledge, then the meaning of essence, the nature of nature, and the interpretation of the world in purely immanent terms makes essentially framed understandings of meaning as found in any sort of traditional metaphysics impossible to sustain. Eventually nature itself becomes a construct of entirely human poetries that have no real meaning outside of contingent linguistic constructions and entirely immanent cultural conventions. Politics too, eventually loses any ideal frame of reference, and power becomes ubiquitous and inherently instrumental.

Against the post-Kantian and the postmodern academy, a long Western heritage of essentialist and realist ‘common sense’ still largely assumes that we have at least a partial grasp of essential meanings, that natural facts are objectively verifiable, that analogies of real purpose and value are discernible in nature, and that transcendent ideals and moral truths aiming at a genuinely Common Good distinguish political authority from mere power. Such common sense has no philosophical connection with postmodern identity politics. Unsurprisingly, identity politics labels such commitments as bigoted and oppressive.

Perhaps what I am characterizing as a traditional common sense philosophical outlook is bigoted, indefensible baloney that no educated person should now take seriously. Or perhaps old-fashioned metaphysics still aligns with common sense because it is at least partially true. However one judges between them, is seems apparent that the postmodern academy is presently in something of a total war with a still deeply engrained traditional cultural outlook on common sense. Either common sense will be bent into an appropriately queer anti-essentialist, anti-realist, and anti-idealist shape, or some sort of new recovery of essential and realist (and possibly theologically framed) meaning will give light to the Western mind again.



[i] Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, 3.