Postmodernism is a notoriously hard to define intellectual and cultural movement that has, over recent decades, become a regular topic of discussion in academic and artistic circles because it rejects traditional metanarratives linked to beauty, reason, truth, objectivity, and knowledge. The term postmodernism implies that modernism has ended, since, as Richard Rorty puts it, “both the Age of Faith and the Enlightenment seem beyond recovery.”
To understand postmodernist thought, we must look at the context in which its characteristic subjectivism and skepticism gained ground. The Enlightenment saw reason as inherent to all human beings, and, through the work of thinkers like John Locke, the idea of individual moral responsibility gradually became a central theme in western culture. As these ideas took hold, more people began to value objectivism, empiricism, and reason as the optimal ways to acquire knowledge.
These cultural changes inspired scholars and scientists, including Adam Smith and Isaac Newton, to pave the way for capitalism, science, technology, and the industrial revolution. This idea that all humans have a natural potential for reason is referred to by Steven Pinker as the “better angel of our nature,” and Peter Singer calls it the driving factor of our “expanding circle.”
In the eighteenth century, the philosophical vulnerabilities of Enlightenment ideas led them to fall prey to a growing band of skeptical philosophers, who argued that there were limits to reason and questioned the axioms governing knowledge. This philosophical agnosticism grew within the European intelligentsia, eventually producing an intellectual split between Anglo-American and German philosophical cultures. Numerous German scholars followed a counter-Enlightenment movement, which made room for subjectivity, while Anglo-American thinkers continued down a predominantly Enlightenment-centred path. However, while the German intelligentsia did not entirely abandon Enlightenment ideas, they inculcated a skeptical attitude towards philosophical absolutes, such as reason and truth, because of their obvious implications for religion and morality. In a historical blink of an eye, God had, among most western intellectuals, gone from being seen as a personal entity watching over every individual- to an immaculate primordial creator who constructed the world long ago and then left it to its own devices.
By the early nineteenth century, many intellectuals understood the link between reason and the development of science and, consequently, the gradual replacement of religious faith and morals with naturalistic reasoning. According to Stephen Hicks, Immanuel Kant was the earliest counter-Enlightenment thinker because he advocated premodern ideas of faith and collective duty, paving the road for later irrationalism and nihilism and the “beginning of the epistemological route to postmodernism.”
Kant is usually considered an Enlightenment philosopher, but, as Hicks elucidates, he was part of the counter-Enlightenment as well. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant asks: can reason allow us to acquire knowledge of reality? He concludes that there are clear limits to reason and argues that one must make room for faith. Kant also contended that acquiring objective knowledge is impossible, and we must, therefore, reverse the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. He refers to this as his Copernican revolution.
Kant was a central figure in the development of the first Enlightenment and later postmodern skepticism, as Nietzsche noted: “Kant would begin to exert a popular influence […] reflected in […] a gnawing and crumbling skepticism and relativism.” This deep-seated skepticism and subjectivity is at the root of post-structuralism and postmodernism. Building on Kant’s skepticism, irrationalist and nihilist philosophers like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger continued identifying contradictions and cognitive dead ends in modernist ideas. For instance, Kierkegaard argues that truth must be split into two aspects: objective truth, governed by consensus and based on verifiable, empirical results achieved through science and forms of formal abstract logic, such as mathematics; and subjective truth— meaning personal and individual truths, such as those achieved through religion and metaphysics. To create this split, we must take a leap of faith and crucify truth.
Half a century later, Nietzsche announced the death of God and warned of the dangers posed by the sudden lack of an omnipotent institution that could shape western morals, arguing that humanity now needed to create its own moral structures. He was pessimistic about mankind’s potential for reason, which he saw as just one human impulse, subordinate to “the will to power.” In this, Nietzsche would exert a strong influence on later postmodern philosophers, such as Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, who regarded power as the crucial element underlying all human relations and social hierarchies.
Essential Tenets of Postmodernism
Postmodernism is an ambiguous term, but it can most simply be considered a label for the skeptical ideas of the counter-Enlightenment. Most postmodern philosophers resent the label, however, and there is disagreement among them regarding the general tenets of the philosophy.
After the Second World War, many philosophers began to radically doubt the human capacity for reason. Michel Foucault commented: “The deepest strata of Western culture […] are once more stirring under our feet.” The first characteristic of postmodernist philosophy can, therefore, be considered the belief that modernism has failed. John Grey, for instance, writes: “We live today amid the dim ruins of the Enlightenment project, which was the ruling project of the modern period.”
The irrationalist claims of Kant, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche explicitly elevate subjective truth over objectivity. However, if truth and reason are subjective, postmodernist philosophers should be randomly distributed across the political spectrum. But, as Stephen Hicks has pointed out, the first generation of postmodernists were, without exception, far leftists. Why is this?
By the 1950s and 60s, most western intellectuals recognized that the Marxist experiment had failed, at the cost of millions of lives, and its underlying theories had been dismantled by economists like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. This caused a crisis among far leftists. Among the first postmodern intellectuals to diagnose these problems were the self-proclaimed Marxist and Maoist thinkers Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard. To deal with the crisis, they invoked a doctrine of rhetorical skepticism with the purpose of elevating subjective truth and the continuation of their underlying Marxist and Maoist ideology.
During this time, Foucault and Derrida began reappropriating some of the right-wing ideas of Nietzsche and Heidegger regarding power and truth, which had been exploited by Nazi ideologues, and combining them with aspects of Marxism to form a new philosophy. One central element of both Marxist and postmodernist criticisms of the west is the assumption that power—not reason—governs social hierarchies. They generally also view people primarily in terms of their positions within a hierarchy of social groups vying for power and consider western institutions to be inherently corrupt and beyond repair. In Foucault’s words, “[…] against the idea of universal necessities in human existence […] the arbitrariness of institutions […] and how many changes can still be made.”
Lyotard believed that reason and power were the same thing and that any hierarchies based on reason would inevitably lead to tyranny. Therefore, postmodernism becomes an activist strategy to overthrow the coalition of reason and knowledge, after all, if humans do not have a proclivity towards reason, then all human dynamics must be a collectivist struggle for power—a Hobbesian battleground of tribal identity groups vying for dominance. Because postmodernists reject both reason and dialogue (logos), most Enlightenment ideas are deconstructed and are viewed as merely subjective.
According to Frank Lentricchia, postmodernists “seek not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth but to exercise power for the purpose of social change”—a strategy similar to the Marxist idea of social revolution. Lyotard denies the idea that philosophical absolutes exist, categorizing such ideas as metanarratives. According to Lyotard, all terms that seem to have universal social legitimacy, when deconstructed, reveal their meaninglessness. To the earliest postmodern philosophers, the principles of reason, truth, and knowledge were metanarratives disguising the underlying human wish for power.
Derrida popularised the idea of deconstruction: not as a method for achieving understanding (because objective knowledge is impossible to achieve), but as a way to allow a text to deconstruct itself and thereby reveal its deeper meaning, which might often be diametrically opposite to what the author intended. This leads to a myriad subjective interpretations, including the attribution of malicious intent on the part of authors. This has had an influence on contemporary popular culture and academia, where professors, creators, and comedians are now being canceled over subjective interpretations of their intent. While not all postmodern thinkers use the term deconstruction, this strategy for dismantling metanarratives is one of their standard tools.
A Requiem for the Enlightenment?
Kantian epistemology ushered in a wave of skepticism regarding humanity’s capacity for knowledge. Yet, Steven Pinker has argued that humanity’s capacity for reason is the cause of our undeniable recent historical progress. So, has modernism really ended?
Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Camille Paglia, among many others, have argued that Enlightenment principles continue to be fundamental to western institutions today. Pinker emphasizes that the unprecedented progress we have made since the seventeenth century has been a consequence of our inherent desire to establish formal institutions, punish unwanted behavior, and improve our immediate environment. Our natural proclivity towards reason has allowed us to gradually admit ever more people from different groups into our perceived tribes. The same mechanism, Peter Singer suggests, is the source of “the expanding moral circle of trust.”
Research by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, and Joshua Greene, suggests that we use two decision-making processes when faced with moral choices. The first process governs most day to day decisions and uses implicit judgments, intuition, and emotions. But faced with more complex and logically challenging decisions, we use manual reasoning. This second process is used to compute the solution to dilemmas arising between perceived moral groups, or tribes if you will, without being influenced by emotions, heuristics, and biases. Joshua Greene has argued that the second process may be partially trainable, and proposes a meta-morality as the solution to the unavoidable dilemmas arising between “moral tribes“. This process has facilitated cooperation with groups harboring different moral priorities and permitted their incorporation into our perceived groups. In turn, this has produced societies with more stable social hierarchies, and unprecedented low levels of crime, racism, wars, and genocide.
If we discard the modernist principles that were first formulated during the Enlightenment, we will be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is some merit to postmodern and Marxist scholars’ claims that capitalism and western culture are inherently corrupt and oppressive structures. After all, all hierarchies tend towards tyranny if left unchecked. However, there is no evidence that postmodern or Marxist hierarchies would produce anything more stable or less tyrannical than the societies that Enlightenment principles have facilitated so far. In fact, the history of the twentieth century strongly suggests otherwise.