What is Postmodernism?

cover

The concept of modernity has come under intellectual assault by thinkers within a philosophical movement known as postmodernism that developed during the twentieth century and can be today found in the humanities and social sciences (1). This article outlines various perspectives within these philosophical movements, observes their differences, and will end with criticisms leveled at postmodernist philosophy.

Modernity has come under intellectual attack in that many of its claims are now met with suspicion and doubt. But what is modernity that the postmodernist trends and thinkers wish to undermine? It is helpful to view a philosophy by what it negates and, although we have looked at it before, it will suffice for now to view modernity in light of the following five fundamental ideas (2):

[1] Belief in truth and method
[2] Belief in final instances
[3] Belief in disclosure strategies
[4] Belief in progress
[5] Belief in liberty

These five fundamental notions of modernism are rejected by postmodernists. For example, a major constituent of “belief in truth and method” is what we know to be science, hence why science has been met with significant opposition from postmodernist theorists. Many of these thinkers claim that historical contexts and power relations within societies have influenced science (and scientists) to such an extent that it can no longer be viewed as an objective, neutral approach to obtaining truth. The likes of language, power, society, historical context, and more have undermined the role of reason and experience as final instances traditionally believed to be the foundation of truth. Without a stable foundation, argues the postmodernist, we certainly cannot place our faith in science and its methods and models that attempt to explain how the world functions. This also renders doubt on any confidence one might have in an objective world that exists beyond the human mind “out there” waiting to be discovered. Instead, what we perceive of the world is merely a human construct influenced by language, power, society, etc. Regarding progress and liberty, these are too undermined in light of the postmodernist’s view of subjects no longer being seen as stable and unified entities. The person is, on this view, fully socially determined. Further underpinning these doubts is language which postmodernists argue, rather than representing reality in a direct way, is problematic. Jean Baudrillard, for example, argued that our perception of reality is undermined given the endless simulations of reality produced by mass media, technologies, and the growing recreational industry. With these basic criticisms in mind, we turn to sociologist James Beckford who presents four common features within postmodernist thought (3):

[1] A refusal to regard positivistic, rationalistic, instrumental criteria as the sole or exclusive standards of worthwhile knowledge
[2] A willingness to combine symbols from disparate codes or frameworks of meanings, even at the cost of disjunctions and eclecticism
[3] A celebration of spontaneity, fragmentation, superficiality, irony, and playfulness
[4] A willingness to abandon the search for overarching or triumphalist myths, narratives or frameworks of knowledge

We already noted the postmodernist assault on [1], but it is important to acknowledge that the convictions underlying the Enlightenment mentality, notably the belief in reason, rationality, and scientific progress, is contradicted by the postmodernist’s refusal to accept rationalistic and instrumental criteria. It is also safe to say that many postmodernists hold negative attitudes towards reason, logic, and science, which they believe are in essence destructive. They point to atrocities committed in the name of reason and science, such as eugenics in Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, which caused incalculable suffering, pain, and death. Strands of postmodernist thought, notably in the domain of religion where inclusive temperaments, instead of exclusivist attitudes on matters of truth and revelation, is favoured, it is not uncommon for proponents to “combine symbols from disparate codes or frameworks of meanings” into eclectic systems. Combining symbols from various Eastern and Western worldviews and traditions to produce innovative “spiritualities” are forms of imaginative religious eclecticism. That some of these symbols might contradict is not a matter of much importance, for postmodernists view logic as merely human constructs. Many postmodernists are engaged in the quest to “abandon the search for overarching or triumphalist myths, narratives, or frameworks of knowledge.” Overarching narratives and frameworks are thought to produce exclusionary perspectives distancing, oppressing, and/or silencing persons who do not accept those narratives, which many postmodernists view as intolerant and distasteful. Exclusive access to truth produces power dynamics that can be used by some at the expense of others.

Not all theorists perceive modernism and postmodernism to be so mutually exclusive. Albrecht Wellmer in his The Persistence of Modernity (1991), for example, holds to a view that sees a continuity stretching from modernism to postmodernism. To Wellmer, postmodernism is a wiser and more modest form of modernity, characterized by experiences of war, nationalism, and totalitarian movements. It is a continuation of the heritage of the Enlightenment, but with less utopianism and belief in science. Other theorists, as we will note in the criticisms of postmodernism, see western society not as postmodernist but still as modernist or, at the very most, late-modernist.

Postmodernist thought has relevance to religion (4). Most religions and sacred texts make absolute truth claims about reality by presenting overarching narratives. These narratives offer concepts about the nature of reality, the world, human beings, the future, the afterlife, God, and so on, that are believed by the tradition’s members to be exclusively and unquestionably true. Many postmodernists see this as presenting exclusivist myths, narratives, and knowledge that alienate certain persons. It is therefore not only the claims made by the scientist that are rejected but also the many absolutist claims proposed by religions, sacred texts, and their members. Thus, to claim that Jesus Christ is the Saviour and the only means of attaining salvation from sin and alienation from God is dogmatic and intolerable, especially to postmodernists who prefer a spirituality that some have called ‘cafeteria theology’ in which the proponent selects what she likes from various religions and philosophies and combines them into an eclectic, self-made system. The more inclusive this system is the better; the more exclusivist, the worse.

Criticisms of Postmodernism

Postmodernism has received much criticism and fails to be a popular movement within philosophy and in most other areas of thought. Some have noted its geographical and social limitations (5). Postmodernism, these scholars claim, is an elite phenomenon constrained by social class and found more commonly among, for example, artists and journalists than among farmers and pensioners. This is because in most areas, postmodern logic is counterintuitive and has no practical use or benefit. According to Steve Bruce, dominant social institutions, such as the economy, technology, and politics, continue to be strongly controlled by modern rationality rather than postmodern logic (6). Inger Furseth and Pål Repstad agree writing that “It is not by random chance that the concept of postmodernity has gained more popularity among culture and media sociologists than among economic and political sociologists” (7).

Philosopher William Lane Craig argues that it is mistaken to claim Westerners are living in a postmodern culture: “Most people don’t for a minute think that there are no objective standards of truth, rationality, and logic” (8). For example, most people tend to agree that if a person calls a specific object a circle, when it is in fact a square, he has, in accordance to the logical law of identity, made an error in his reasoning. A square is always a square, and at no point can a square be said to be a circle. Craig goes further to suggest that a post-modern culture is both impossible and unlivable: “Nobody is a post-modernist when it comes to reading the labels on a medicine bottle versus a box of rat poison. (If you’ve got a headache, you better believe that texts have objective meaning!) The idea that we live in a post-modern culture is, I fear, a myth…” Furthermore, most Westerners certainly embrace modernity’s logic in other matters, such as in, for example, the embrace of a fixed identity,

“Whether the “I” and the personality of the individual have, for some, been theoretically “de-centered” or dissolved, it is still part of our operative everyday knowledge that we perform as individual actors. It may even be so for many postmodernists when they leave the auditorium or go home from the café. In general, people have a somewhat less problematic relationship to language and subject than literary science has. Many social and technical legitimizations of modernity continue to be useful in everyday life, including the perception of the human being as a controller, master, and creator in relation to nature, and the human quest for wealth and welfare. Therefore, if we must use definitive labels for our epoch, we would prefer late modern to postmodern” (9).

Philosophers have mounted severe criticisms of postmodernism elsewhere, perhaps most fatal being the self-defeating positions adopted by many of its proponents. For example, is the postmodernist’s attack on the overarching or triumphalist narratives of modernity not herself presenting a set of triumphalist narratives? If the answer is yes (which it surely is because she views her own narratives as superior to those of others with whom she disagrees, especially the modernists), then she has presented a triumphalist narrative and therefore fails to reason by her own standards. As the famous saying goes, ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too.’ However, if she answers no, then she fails to affirm that her own postmodernist views are superior to the views of anyone else, including the modernists, and thus no-one is rationally compelled or obligated to embrace them. Furthermore, are not many of the postmodernist’s claims absolutist and therefore exclusive? If the postmodernist is willing to reject scientific knowledge on the grounds of historical contexts and power relations within societies, then is she not also obligated to reject her own postmodernist views which have too been shaped within the furnace of historical context and power relations? If language is merely self-referential and problematic because it does not represent reality in a direct way, then does this not also go for the postmodernist’s own writings (i.e. published works, books, journal articles, presentations, etc.) and arguments that are all communicated in the medium of language. If language does not refer to reality in a direct way, then what is the postmodernist’s language referring to, and why should anyone take it seriously?

For these reasons and many others like them, postmodernism is yet to make a compelling case attractive to most philosophers and sociologists. A final important point to consider is that the postmodernist areas of emphasis, which are typically around power relations and will therefore include the topics of gender and colonialism, are not inherently self-defeating, irrational, or impractical like most of postmodernism’s epistemology is. It is safe to say that scholars working within these areas are producing valuable work seeking to bring into the intellectual discussion historically neglected perspectives and voices. There are attempts in my field of religion studies, for example, to bring in previously marginalized voices, such as that of women, unconventional individuals, slaves, persons who were dominated by colonial systems, other marginalized groups, and so on into consideration.

References

1. Furseth, Inger., and Repstad, Pål. 2017. An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 77.

2. Schaanning, Espen. 1992. Modernitetens oppløsning [The Dissolution of Modernity]. Spartacus.

3. Beckford, James. 1992. “Religion, Modernity, and Postmodernity.” In Religion: Contemporary Issues, edited by Bryan Wilson. London: Bellew. p. 19.

4. Furseth, Inger., and Repstad, Pål. 2017. Ibid. p. 79.

5. Furseth, Inger., and Repstad, Pål. 2017. Ibid. p. 79.

6. Bruce, Steve. 2002. God is Dead: Secularization in the West. Hoboken: Blackwell.

7. Furseth, Inger., and Repstad, Pål. 2017. Ibid. p. 79.

8. Craig, William Lane. 2008. Do We Live in a Post-Modern Society? Available.

9. Furseth, Inger., and Repstad, Pål. 2017. Ibid. p. 79.

One comment

  1. […] Postmodernism has a presence that is, according to philosopher William Lane Craig, “entrenched in the university subculture in departments of literature, women’s studies, and, significantly, religious studies” (1). But what is it and how might it differ to modernism? As scholar of religion Ivan Strenski explains, the name “post-modernism” suggests an “evolution from the “modern” to something succeeding it – “post”” (1). […]

Let me know your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s