Session Notes

What We Will Learn Today

  1. The main contours of postmodernity.
  2. The cultural context from which postmodern thought emerged.
  3. Famous postmodern thinkers.
  4. Whether aesthetics and ethics might be able to come to the rescue of epistemology for the future of philosophy.


Postmodernism is a notoriously difficult term to define. In a sense, it doesn't exist

  1. Postmodern thinkers dislike the concept of “isms,” and the phenomenon of the postmodern condition is the increasing diversity of opinions
  2. the more common way of contrasting major approaches to philosophy today is to distinguish the Analytic from the Continental philosophical schools.
    1. Postmodernity is best associated with Continental Philosophy

In general, postmodernity involves several different, but related trends in the world of contemporary life

  1. In one sense, it is a cultural time period
  2. In another sense, it is an artistic, literary, and architectural spirit
  3. For our purposes, we will explore postmodernity as a philosophical mood

Describing postmodern thought as relativism is an unhelpful assumption. Try and set that definition aside, at least until the conclusion of this module.

  1. Perhaps a better way of clarifying the movements of modernity and postmodernity is by noting the naïve forms of each.
    1. Naïve modernists treat all subjects as if they are in the hard sciences.
    2. Naïve postmodern thinkers treat all subjects as if they are in the social sciences.

Postmodernity itself..

  1. While not relativism.. there is a popular application of postmodern thought that has turned up in conservative theological and political circles
  2. Evidence matters—data matters, truth matters. not just party allegiance
  3. To the extent that we ignore truth and evidence, it becomes hard to provide
  4. An easy way to avoid uncomfortable multicultural situations
  5. It is not uncharitable to describe postmodernity as a time in which we find ourselves in an intellectual quagmire
  6. Consider the first two lines of Psalm 69 and visualize what the psalmist depicts. He writes:
    1. “Save me, Oh God, for the floods come up to my neck. I sink deep into the quagmire, where there is no foothold.”

Analytic philosophers, for all their achievements, realized that many important questions remained unanswered

  1. For this module, we will assume then, that postmodern thought recognizes that we are in a sort of intellectual and cultural quagmire today
  2. The playwright, Arthur Miller wrote
    1. “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.”

Postmodernity is a period in intellectual history when several modern ideas seemed indeed to be exhausted illusions. Which ones?

  1. For one thing, postmodernists note that the quest for certainty, ever since Descartes, has failed to produce results in the real world
  2. More problematic is the illusion of inevitable progress
    1. By the end of the nineteenth century, many believed that rationality, science and technology could solve all of the world’s ills. Then, after two world wars, a holocaust, a great economic depression, and the creation of atomic weapons, this illusion was shattered.
  3. Then there was the shattered myth of a universal rationality.
    1. As capitalist and communist powers clashed, each thought the other was irrational or immoral
    2. Beyond that, several so-called “third world” cultures operated from an entirely different perspective
    3. Thus, whether or not there was one true rationality in the world, there was, in fact, no shared rationality
  4. Moreover, the idea of pure objectivity in the quest for knowledge created a crisis for epistemology

Postmodern thinkers were not the first to identify the 20th century crisis of knowledge. The Catholic public intellectual and author, G.K. Chesterton, had already noted the problems of materialistic modernity, when he wrote…

“As an explanation of the world, [modernistic] materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. … [The modernist] understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cogwheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.”

For Chesterton, modernity had led to many important insights about the world.. it had a sort of maddening effect upon human the mind

  1. Culturally speaking, most will admit that the period of modernity did in fact lead to many dangerous authoritarian abuses that could arguably be said to have stemmed from an unwavering trust in the power of reason to make a better world

Consider four French philosophers associated with the postmodern or Continental tradition:

  1. Jean-François Lyotard
  2. Jacques Derrida
  3. Paul Ricœur
  4. Jacques Ellul

Each of these thinkers had first-hand experience with Nazi occupation of their homeland. Lyotard and Derrida were Jewish. Ricœur and Ellul were from families that were members of the Protestant minority.

Many Continental philosophers started to connect the idea of absolute truth with absolutism

Postmodern thinkers;

  1. Shared in common a distrust of uncritical ideology
  2. Were interested in the ways in which sociology can provide insights into the ways in which ideas, and claims to truth, arise

Since it is impossible to give a simple definition of postmodern thought, let us instead trace several contours or themes in postmodern thought

“Power is knowledge,” Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

  1. Power is at play in most, if not all, claims to truth
  2. Thus, the first contour of postmodernity is the interest in identifying and criticizing power plays that mask themselves as objective intellectual judgments

“We should have a healthy incredulity toward metanarratives,” Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998)

  1. Typically seen as the closest thing to a short definition of postmodernity
  2. In 1979, Jean-François Lyotard published a book entitled The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. In it, he describes postmodern thought as “incredulity toward metanarratives.”
  3. Metanarratives are the implicit stories or myths that undergird our understanding of the world
  4. What makes metanarratives in the modern world so dangerous is that they pretend not to be myths, but simple statements of what is scientifically and rationally apparent.

“Read between the lines (deconstruction),” Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

  1. Jacque Derrida developed a method of challenging power plays and metanarratives
  2. His method is called deconstruction
  3. Deconstruction focused attention on the interpretation of texts. It assumes that what is unsaid can sometimes be as important, or even more important, than what is said
  4. This method works subvert power plays, and binary oppositions involved in language
  5. Texts could include films, monuments, movies, and political speeches
  6. For Derrida, there are no perfectly obvious interpretations of the world, and everything is an interpretation
  7. However, the purpose of deconstruction was primarily concerned with ethics since the language we use can often work to harm marginalized people

“We play language games,” Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

  1. The early Wittgenstein’s Tractatus inspired the Logical Positivists and influenced early analytic philosophy
  2. The latter work of Wittgenstein was influential for postmodern thinkers
  3. Instead of thinking of words as corresponding directly to a Fixed dictionary definition, he noted that the meaning of words depends on their context, and their use within a community
  4. People agree upon the use of words the way they agree upon the rules of a game like chess
  5. Postmodern philosophy is often described as the “linguistic turn” in that linguistics became increasingly important for understanding knowledge claims

A final contour of postmodern thought actually comes from a philosopher associated with the analytic tradition, Willard Van Orman Quine

  1. He rejected the rigid distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions, and took the linguistic and holistic aspects of language into account
  2. people do not base their beliefs on one original foundation, and then stack certainties upon certainties. Instead, we form paradigms, or networks of beliefs, that take into account the totality of experience
  3. For Quine, beliefs are not unrelated to reality, but they are flexible, and adaptive

V. James Mannoia identified the following three phases as important parts of a student’s development through higher education

First, there is the phase of naïve dualism

  1. People and are seen as all good or all evil. Ideas are seen as certainly true or certainly false
  2. Their own perspective is viewed uncritically. But then, they meet people from diverse backgrounds and read about thinkers who challenge the student’s original assumptions about the world

The second stage is naïve relativism

  1. In this phase, all beliefs are equally valid
  2. In their appropriate desire to get along and demonstrate tolerance, students avoid taking a critical stand regarding what they believe to be true for all, not just true for them
  3. The first phase resonates with an unsophisticated understanding of modern thought
  4. The second phase resonates with a popular interpretation of postmodern thought

The third and most mature phase is critical commitment

  1. A person with critical commitment recognizes that they might be wrong, that we finite beings bring biases to any field of inquiry
  2. Nonetheless, they use their education to develop informed, defensible positions
  3. How does one move from the first to the third phase?

Perhaps the answer is to cultivate in students two intellectual virtues:

  1. Humility and
  2. Courage

Some contemporary thinkers have attempted to show how beauty is an indicator of truth because of the subjectivity of beauty this project has been fraught with problems

How would intellectual help the academic process, when in comes to concrete implementation?

  1. If a university education cultivates humility in students, they are better able to avoid the arrogant mistakes of modernity and recognize that human reason is fallible
  2. Take creation seriously.
  3. Take reality and evidence seriously.
  4. Critical realists recognize subjectivity and also the fact that we tend to understand the world through paradigms.
  5. Paradigms are networks of beliefs

To conclude our entire series, let me point you to what I have found helpful both in figuring out what I believe about philosophy and also what I believe in terms of religion

  1. We all work with paradigms. Sure. But can we ever escape our own circular reasoning within these paradigms? Barbour suggests we can.
  2. Four Transparadigmatic Criteria
    1. Agreement with Data
    2. Coherence
    3. Scope
    4. Fecundity

Let’s apply these to Christianity, briefly:

  1. Agreement with Data—the Incarnate Jesus is accessible to us through historical methodology.
  2. Coherence—this can be overemphasized (conspiracy theories are an example) Christianity offers a coherent narrative about the world.
  3. Scope—Christianity helps us understand ourselves and our world in a non-reductionistic way.
  4. Fecundity—the gospel is promise and power. In my life, the new logic taught by Jesus has created new opportunities in relationships, for happiness, and for understanding the world better.

CS Lewis once wrote:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Further reading:

  1. Uwe Siemon-Netto, One incarnate truth : Christianity's Answer to Spiritual Chaos (CPH 2002)
  2. Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003)
  3. Jim Powell, Postmodernism for Beginners (For Beginners, 2007)
  4. J.K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church (Baker, 2006)
  5. Jean-François Lyotard The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979)
  6. V. James Mannoia, Jr. Christian Liberal Arts: An Education that Goes Beyond (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000)
  7. Further viewing:
    1. “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” Dir. By Sophie Fiennes (BBFCInsight, 2012)