by Andreas Saugstad
The period in which we now live is often called “postmodernism”. According to Nancy Murphy, author of Anglo-American Postmodernity, postmodernism in the Anglo-American world started sometime around 1950. Others would perhaps say that postmodernism is something which evolved after 1968. But anyway, in 1979 Jean-Francois Lyotard published a book called The Postmodern Condition. At this point someone had defined postmodernism, and during the last 20 years the ideas of postmodernism have been much debated in the Western world.
The Meaning of The Term “Postmodernism” is not easy to define. The term is used in philosophy, literature, social sciences and architecture. Different postmodern thinkers may have different opinions, and people from different fields may have somewhat different definitions of “postmodernism”. And if there is one thing postmodernists don’t tend to like, it is fixed criteria or dogmatism, so perhaps we should be careful trying to give a final definition of the term.
But in this article I will focus on postmodernism as used in philosophy. However, some of the points I emphasize may also be recognized in popular culture.
“Postmodernism” is of course composed by two parts “post” and “modern”. “Post” is latin for “after”, and “modernism” refers to the modern period. In philosophy the modern period was started by Descartes (1596-1650) who believed in exact science and objective knowledge. He believed that there are certain self-evident principles that may provide a foundation for other types of knowledge. Descartes was rationalist –he believed in reason, and he thought that human reason can grasp truths independent of time and place. However, let us not focus too much on Descartes and the etymology of the term “postmodern.” As I now turn to some characteristics of the postmodern, you will be able to see how it differs from Descartes, and not merely go into postmodernism as a historical phenomenon, but understand it qua philosophy.
Relativism Postmodernism is associated with relativism. Relativism is the idea that “anything goes.”
It is the position where one has left the belief in absolute truth, and instead embraced the idea that knowledge is dependent on one’s perspective. While in the Middle Ages, people believed
in God, Nietzsche (1844-1900) argued that “God is dead.” For some reason, many people just accepted this, and thought that we are left with a contingent immanent reality. There are no eternal fix-points in life –that’s what many postmodern followers of Nietzsche believe.
No Grand Narrative A narrative is a history – a story. In his book from 1979, Lyotard emphasized
that in postmodernism one has left the idea of a grand narrative. In the Enlightenment, one had certain ideas guiding the culture, a unified project, where knowledge and information were important. In the Middle Ages, belief in God and the Bible gave society a grand narrative. All aspects of life could be interpreted from a religious point of view, and a large number of the population believed in God and Christianity.
But in postmodernism, society is more fragmented. Belief in the One Truth, or universal criteria, has been substituted by a number of “small stories,” and a diversity of criteria.
I think for instance Europe or USA today is much more pluralist, than Europe in the Middle Ages.
Social Constructivism Another idea within postmodernism, is social constructivism. I guess this idea can appear in different versions. At its most extreme. It might be something like: ‘Reality is created by social reality.’ But the main idea is that there is no objective knowledge or absolute representation of reality. Many of our concepts and categories are based on the social reality, and not because we veridically can represent physical reality. A Norwegian theologian has been led to say that the distinction between the male and female sex is arbitrary, it is a social construction. I will soon criticize this position. Some may even believe that scientific results are constructs –the philosopher Daniel Dennett told about a person believing the DNA-biology to be “just another story!”
Other Traits So now we have emphasized three important traits in postmodernism: relativism, no universal narrative and social constructivism. There are other keywords relating to this, like the emphasis on contingency, and that language shapes our views of reality. Don Cupitt, for instance, has said that language creates reality. “Reality does not determine language, language determines reality.” This position may be called linguistic idealism, a radical and quite bizarre idea that language constructs reality.
What is Wrong With Postmodernism? Now it is time to evaluate postmodernism and look at some critical arguments. Is postmodernism an acceptable philosophy? Are there counter-arguments against these views?
Let me first say that I believe postmodernism represents an important virtue. This virtue is pluralism. Remember that I said that in postmodernism one has left the idea of a grand narrative. There are many histories and ways of looking at reality in contemporary society, and a diversity of opinions. This can be good. I do not believe that all the different paradigms and approaches to reality in the global society today all can be true, and if pluralism leads away from truth it has a very negative effect. But I do still believe that pluralism has certain virtues. Interaction between different cultures, and the tolerance that sometimes is associated with pluralism, can be a positive force. As Voltaire said, one may totally disagree with another person, but until death defend his right to hold a different view that one’s own.
But although pluralism is a good thing, certain aspects of pluralism should, in my opinion, be rejected. Let us look at some counter-arguments.
Relativism. Is relativism a sustainable thesis? I doubt it. Sometimes we may come to recognize the relativity of our own views, and we don’t know if we are right in holding our opinions. But this does not mean that relativism should be accepted. Something is true and something is false. Let us take medical science as an example: chemotherapy may cure cancer, while, say, drinking coca cola may not normally cure cancer. This is true! There was once a Christian discussing with another student. The young student told the Christian that there are no moral principles. They were sitting in a student room, and the Christian took kettle of boiling water and held it over the student’s head. He just stood there with the boiling water over his head, and then took it away. What an ingenious demonstration of the fact that there are moral values that all must accept. It would be wrong to poor that boiling water over the other person. There are certain absolutes, and we must continue to believe in this.
But the main argument against relativism is that it leads to logical contradictions. If you try to defend relativism, you try to say something like “ There is no absolute truth”. Well, what about that proposition? Do you deny that this is absolutely true? According to postmodernism itself, you must, but why then accept it?
No Grand Narrative. As a description of contemporary culture, the point that there is no grand narrative, is a good one. There is no unified theory guiding society now. Even though science and technology is immensely advanced, not everyone believes in science as the key to understanding all aspects of life. Some for instance prefer religion, while others don’t care because they are focused on poetry or music. To live in a pluralist society, can teach you many things. Although I don’t think all cultures and groups possess the same amount of truth,
Its fun to meet people with different opinions, backgrounds, people from the Middle East, Europe, USA and Latin-America. For instance, I have a problem with Norwegian girls.
Norwegian girls are supposed to be very pretty, but there is something about different cultures and multiculturalism that attracts me. Learning about different cultures is interesting, and if the contemporary information flow can lead to this, it is good.
However, there is an important point to notice here. If there is such a thing as truth, one should wish that as many people as possible will acknowledge and embrace it. Cultures where science is not accepted, would perhaps benefit from changing their paradigm. Thus I would like to say that I think it is important to note that it is possible to think that some beliefs are better than others and should be accepted more universally than others. This must not lead to chauvinism, but it is still something which is important to consider.
Social Constructivism. Social constructivism sometimes leads to intellectual confusion. When someone argues that the distinction between male and female is arbitrary, I would simply point to the fact that female vs male are categories found in nature. Reality is ordered, and rational use of concepts and categories often has to do with being able to represent this reality. Such rational categories impose themselves on the socially establish discourse, not the other way around. I do believe that the human sex organs were there before society started to talk about them. Nature does actually precede culture, not the other way around. While the term “male” is learned in a community of language-users, the category it refers to exists prior to our language and social setting.
If think that if social constructivism entered into medical science and NASA’s research, it would confuse the researchers. So the belief that we don’t have a veridical access to external reality may be dangerous. But still, there might an insight here to notice.
Certain concepts are social constructs, and certain moral codes are practiced because of conformity. Sometimes we have go beyond our own “deep culture” and challenge mainstream opinions. In a modified and sound version, social constructivism, can give us insights, but in a radical version it should be criticized and rejected as another irrational social construction!
Conclusion There are both pros and cons when it comes to postmodernism. But there are many cons, and it is important not merely to follow trends among academics or in popular culture. As the Norwegian philosopher Dagfinn Føllesdal has emphasized, analytical reasoning is vital for democracy. Analytical skills are important to civilization, although many other human qualities definitely are needed. Some postmodernists do not seem to take logical reasoning seriously, and instead of listening to reason and arguments, they may tend to focus on relativism and constructivism.
As previously mentioned, the philosopher Daniel Dennett gave us a good illustration of how weird postmodern conclusions can become. A friend of Dennett attended a conference on literature. The conversation turned to DNA, and one of the participants said: “Oh, do you still believe in that story?” To believe that DNA is a social construction or just another story, can be dangerous. If postmodernists undermine respect for helpful science and moral principles they are promoting ideas that are very implausible and should be aggressively rejected.
The ideas that there are no absolute truth and the belief in social construction, may end in nihilism and a disrespect for that which can help human civilization make progress.
Postmodernists have given us many ideas which are important, we should try to understand postmodern thinking and learn what we can from the postmodern approach.
Still we must always be critical. I realize that my treatment of postmodernism is somewhat rudimentary and not complete. What I do hope, however, is that my essay gives you something to think about. My goal as an essayist is to make the reader think and reflect on the topics. Reflection is indeed needed in the postmodern pluralist world.