I sat on my tall stool behind the counter in my parents’ music store, looking past my open history textbook to the dirty snow and paper trash blowing down the street in the darkening afternoon. A lone figure shuffled down the opposite sidewalk, past the jewelry store, and stopped on the corner in front of the drug store at the stoplight, his helmeted head cast down, waiting for the traffic light to turn. I scanned a few more paragraphs in my textbook until he entered, heralded by a chorus of automated door chimes and blown in by a gust of frozen air.
The most significant movement in philosophy and social thought during my lifetime has been the demolition job. And it’s been going on for roughly 40 years. Judging by the growing pile of rubble, the wrecking crew has kept very busy.
I’m talking about the dismantling of the big theories. In an earlier day, a major thinker was expected to offer a system, but over the course of the 1970s and 1980s something changed in the prevailing intellectual currents. The emerging trend embraced the debunkers of systems. The very same large-scale unified theories that delighted academics in the 1940s and 1950s each got discarded by the baby boomers as they came of age, dismissed as vehemently as they had once been embraced. Under the new regime, any all-encompassing system was, at best, a dead end, and at worst a prop to discredited power structures.