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Progressive advant-gardes

In this post I will try to draw parallels between three very different intellectual communities: string theory, Marxist theory, and postmodernism. What do they have in common? Not very much indeed, but I have the impression that there are some analogies worth noticing.

  • They represent an extrapolation of trends that had a very successful track record at the time these movements were born (for string theory, the importance of symmetry arguments, and the unification between different theories; for postmodernism, the overcoming of the idea of absolute truth, and of Western cultural imperialism; for Marxism, the belief in equality between people and the disappearance of class privileges).
  • The early followers of these intellectual movement were apparently certain that their new ideas would be eventually adopted by everyone, and that posterity would have regarded them as the first followers of the next big revolution in the respective fields.
  • The followers of these movements, adding a theoretical foundation to the trends described in the first point of this bullet list, developed a shared understanding of how “progress” should like, and why their intellectual movement was apparently the logical next step.
  • They had a lively internal debate, and developed increasingly advanced ideas that require a lot of dedicated study to be understood. As a consequence, their more elaborate writings ended up appearing incomprehensible, or plainly absurd, to people on the outside of these intellectual movements.
  • The basic premises on which their doctrines were built did not age very well (for sting theory, we now know that supersymmetry is very likely false, at least at “natural” energy scales; for Marxism, the theory of value made great improvements since Marx’s time; for postmodernism, this point may be false, I do not know). Nevertheless, many of followers of these movement maintain an high level of certainty that they are correct, and that naive criticisms lack the competence (that is, the years of study) required to understand and judge their theories.

Maybe these similarities are enough to group them in a common category?


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