What Is Postmodernism?

By Paul Copan

In one of his dialogues, Plato cited the thinker Protagoras as saying that any given thing “is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you.”1 This sounds rather contemporary. We hear slogans declaring “that’s true for you but not for me” or “that’s just your perspective.” These statements reflect the postmodern mood that continues to affect and shape Western culture.

How did postmodernism descend upon our civilization? What is postmodernism? What are its defining characteristics? We will look very briefly at these questions.

1. How did postmodernism emerge? Obviously, the term postmodernism presupposes an era that preceded it—modernism. But we must also understand what modernism was reacting to—namely, premodernism.

Premodernism: Before the 1600s, people in the West generally believed that God (or the transcendent/supernatural realm) furnished the basis for moral absolutes, rationality, human dignity, and truth. This is expressed by the noted Christian theologian Anselm (b. AD 1033), who said, “I believe that I may understand” (credo ut intelligam) he spoke of a “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). That is, the starting point for knowledge and wisdom was God, who provided the lens through which one could properly interpret reality and human experience. By having faith in God, the world could be rightly understood.

Modernism: Then came philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). As a Roman Catholic, he was troubled by the philosophical skepticism and (due to the Protestant Reformation) the theological uncertainty of his day. So he embarked on a “skeptical voyage” in the pursuit of absolutely certain knowledge. As part of his project, he determined to doubt everything: Maybe an evil genius was tinkering with his mind – or maybe everything is an illusion. But he concluded that at least he knew he was doubting, which is a form of thinking. He concluded: I think; therefore I am (or, in Latin, cogito, ergo sum). So without realizing it, Descartes’ project removed God from center stage, replacing it with the human knower as the starting point. The effect would be momentous. The rationalism of the European Enlightenment (c. 1650-1800) reflected this shift. This period was both optimistic about human potential and reason, but was also skeptical about church authority/state churches and Christian doctrine (“dogma”).

This was just one of many modernist projects that assumed that human dignity, truth, and reason could be preserved without God. Besides rationalism (with its emphasis on reason), there were Romanticism (with the emphasis on feeling), Marxism, Nazism, and other utopian schemes that sought to displace God as the starting point for understanding and living. The Jewish-Christian worldview that had deeply influenced the West was now being challenged.

Postmodernism: Then, in the wake of two World Wars, a postmodern climate started to permeate the West. Confidence in human progress and autonomy was shattered on the rocks of Auschwitz and the Soviet gulags. The systems or “grand stories” (“metanarratives”) of Nazism, Marxism, scientism, or rationalism ended up oppressing “the other”—that is, those marginalized by these systems such as Jews, capitalists, etc. These systems proved to be total failures. So with postmodernism, not only was God excluded as a foundation for making sense of reality and human experience; we cannot speak of any universal truth, reason, or morality. We just have fragmented perspectives.

If the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille in Paris (1789) stands as a picture of the shift to modernism, the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly 200 years later (1989) symbolizes the failure of modernism and rise of postmodernism.

 Premodernism (up to 1650)

 Modernism (1650-1950s)

 Postmodernism (1960s – present)

God/the supernatural realm furnishes the basis for morality, human dignity, truth, and reason. Morality, human dignity, truth, and reason rest on foundations other than God (reason, science, race, etc.). All metanarratives (systems or grand stories) are suspect-whether religious or not. No universal foundation for truth, morality, human dignity exists.

 French Revolution (1789)

 Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989)

2. What is postmodernism? French postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard famously claimed modernism’s end symbolized by Auschwitz, asking, “Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?” What is postmodernism then? “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”2 That is, postmodernism is deeply skeptical about (or suspicious of) big explanatory systems or stories. It is also critical of any view that claims to be neutral, unbiased, or rational. Christian philosopher Merold Westphal observes that modernism was characterized by the quest for (a) absolute certainty (think of Descartes) and (b) totalism – that all-embracing system (“metanarrative”).3   Modernists attempted to create “grand stories”-without reference to God-to ground human dignity, freedom, morality, and progress.

While modernism sought totalizing systems and absolute certainty, postmodernism now calls them into question in a two-fold manner. To counter totalism, postmodernism asserts that our interests and desires often use “reason” to promote their fulfillment; “truth” is simply whatever promotes my (or my group’s) will or interests.  There is a “political agenda” in whatever we claim to be true. Knowledge is not neutral. (This observation utilizes the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”) In response to the unbiased certainty, postmodernism emphasizes that our ideas and judgments are embedded within a historical-cultural context; so we can never fully remove ourselves from it by pure reflection. (This has been called the “hermeneutic of finitude.”)4

3. What are some characteristics of postmodernism? We can only take a glance at some of the chief characteristics of postmodern thought.

Anti-dualistic: Postmoderns assert that Western philosophy created dualisms (true/false, right/wrong) and thus excluded certain perspectives from consideration. On the other hand, postmodernism values and promotes pluralism and diversity (rather than black vs. white, West vs. East, male vs. female). It claims to seek the interests of “the other” – those marginalized and oppressed by modernist ideologies and the political/social structures that support them.

Questioning texts: Postmoderns also maintain that texts—historical, literary, or otherwise—have no inherent authority or objectivity in revealing the author’s intent, nor can they tell us “what really happened.” Rather, these texts reflect the peculiarities of the writer’s particular bias, culture, and era. Australian historian Keith Windschuttle has noted that for the past 2400 years, critics assumed that truth was still within the historian’s grasp, but “the newly dominant theorists within the humanities and social sciences assert that it is impossible to tell the truth about the past or to use history to produce knowledge in any objective sense at all.”5

The linguistic turn: Postmodernism argues that language shapes our thinking and that there can be no thought without language. So language literally creates truth. As Richard Rorty argues, “Where there are no sentences there is no truth.”6 So truth is created rather than discovered. Thus, as Friedrich Nietzsche argued, “There are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths.”7

Truth as perspectival: Furthermore, truth is a matter of perspective or context rather than being something universal. We do not  have access to reality —to the way things are—but only to what appears to us. Since we cannot remove ourselves from our context to have a “God’s-eye view” of things, we must acknowledge that our thinking is shaped by forces beyond our control. We are like Truman Burbank in The Truman Show. He is the unknowing star of a production in a sheltered environment (“Seahaven”), where 5,000 cameras monitor his every move; everyone but Truman is acting. Likewise, we simply find ourselves thrown into a context with no way of getting outside it.

Of course, we can be grateful for the postmodern critique of modernism in many ways. Much within postmodernism raises important questions regarding genuine human limitations or bias and the problematic position that one should only believe what is absolutely certain. But much within postmodernism raises many troubling questions and deep contradictions: How can someone deny universal truth without affirming it in some way (“It’s universally true that there is no truth”)? Would it not be a universal fact that there are not any universal facts? Is it not the claim that “it’s all a matter of perspective” asserting more than someone’s perspective? Do not those who question whether we can know an author’s intentions write to express their own particular intentions? And is it not the rejection of metanarratives/grand stories a kind of metanarrative itself?

In another essay, we will look at some of these issues-pro and con. There we will assess “What’s Wrong (and Right) With Postmodernism?”

1 Plato, Theaetetus, p. 152a.

2 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. xxv, xxiv.

3 Merold Westphal, “Postmodernism and Religious Reflection,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 38 (1995), p. 137.

4 Merold Westphal, Interview with Gary J. Percesepe, “Appropriating the Atheists,” Books & Culture (May/June 1997), p. 24.

5 Keith Windshuttle, The Killing of History (New York: Free Press, 1996), pp. 1, 2.

6 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 5.

7 Friedrich, Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 13.

Paul Copan is on faculty at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Florida.


Published March 30, 2016