During the last half of the twentieth century, in the heart of France, there was a colossal rupture in the fabric of philosophical and intellectual thinking. A new, iconoclastic way of understanding people and their experience of the world emerged. It was labelled postmodernism—a term borrowed from the late-nineteenth-century art world. Although postmodernism is rarely precisely defined, it is diametrically opposed to much of the thinking of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, modernism and humanism—with respect to rationality, essentialism, objectivity, sovereignty, the reasoning process, human nature and the human capacity to discover interconnected universal truths. Postmodernist practitioners claim that there are an infinite number of equally valid ways to interpret the world and they reject the idea of human universals. They argue that human behaviour, discourse and social linguistic patterns are wholly motivated and determined by people’s desire for power over others, and vulnerable to manipulation in the service of that goal. As Stephen Hicks has elucidated, they are antirealists, in the sense that they believe that discussing the existence of any sort of reality other than language is untenable and futile. They see individual human minds solely as products of those individuals’ sociocultural environments, and human ideas solely as products of the cultural and social discourses that predominate in those environments.
Today, postmodernism has taken over western academia, especially in the liberal arts. One way to understand this phenomenon is to analyse it using the framework described by Jean-François Lyotard, in his 1979 work, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. As Lyotard puts it, postmodernism boils down to an attitude of incredulity towards all meta-narratives. (A meta-narrative is any account of human knowledge or history that explains it in terms of a single conceptual framework or looks at it through a single conceptual lens—for example, through the lens of Darwin’s theory of evolution.) As Lyotard explains, postmodernists believe that all meta-narratives result in the dangerously naïve, dogmatic acceptance of a mere story as if it were a sacrosanct description of reality. Lyotard and others have spent their careers highlighting the perils of simply accepting such meta-narratives, rather than approaching them with critical thinking and scepticism.
So what happens if we apply the postmodernist approach to current western universities, with particular attention to their social sciences and humanities departments? A postmodernist would first endeavour to find out whether there is a meta-narrative that has become widely accepted and foundational to most of the work and thought being generated by those institutions. To identify a meta-narrative, postmodernists look for repeated themes, tropes, truth claims and patterns in how people talk about ideas—and note whether they support a particular all-encompassing explanation of human nature and society, the truth of which is widely taken for granted.
A deep dive into the social science and humanities disciplines reveals that there is indeed a dominant meta-narrative. It is critical social justice theory—which, ironically, was engendered and facilitated by postmodernists. The critical social justice meta-narrative holds that western societies are nothing but tyrannical social organizations, which benefit only one group of people by virtue of a powerful discourse that has over-valued certain immutable phenotypic characteristics of human beings. This meta-narrative is being especially strongly propagated by certain relatively new academic departments dedicated to critical social justice areas of study. It has seeped out beyond those departments, however, and begun to establish itself as the only acceptable academic narrative. It is shaping every curriculum, research project and theory—as well as the attitudes of students. And it is accepted with the same degree of credulity, intransigent allegiance and obsessive attention that has prompted postmodernists to call other meta-narratives dangerous. In consequence, western universities are becoming increasingly controlled by this single meta-narrative.
This meta-narrative is neither unimportant nor devoid of intellectual value. On the contrary, it could be a useful conceptual lens through which to understand certain aspects of the world. It deserves a seat at the proverbial table. It can make for exciting and important classroom debate and it should be taught alongside many other narrative frameworks. The problem is not the meta-narrative itself, but its status as the only framework that is considered valid.
In addition, as postmodernists would be quick to note about any other framework, it is crucial to see the critical social justice meta-narrative as only one approach, one story, one interpretation of the world among many. But that realisation seems to have been lost. When it started to be applied to every question in every discipline, it became a meta-narrative that poses exactly the same dangers that the late twentieth-century postmodernists dedicated their careers to challenging. As Michel Foucault often wrote, it is not only societies, but institutions, that are vulnerable to being consumed by a single dominant story.
Progressives once relished postmodernist analysis, which enabled them to bash all meta-narratives. It would be antithetical to postmodernism to simply allow a new meta-narrative to take over. Foucault himself was concerned that postmodernists would simply replace one meta-narrative with another. (Foucault used the term episteme rather than meta-narrative). For him, postmodernist thinkers should show how unstable any given meta-narrative is—not replace it with a different one. (And, unlike proponents of the critical social justice meta-narrative, Foucault never suggested that the views of subjugated people are somehow closer to the truth than those of the socially dominant.) Therefore, to be consistent with postmodernism, western academics should use postmodernist tools to critique the meta-narrative that postmodernist thinkers have cleared the way for and that has now become doctrinaire.
Once postmodernism became mainstream in the academy, many leftists adopted it as a tool of ideological change. But postmodern analysis is, by definition, nonpartisan. Any critical thinker, regardless of her politics, can use it as a tool to examine the world, assess the current state of society, uncover the current dominant meta-narrative and consider how the way she experiences the world is determined by that meta-narrative.
The original postmodernists challenged entrenched cultural practices, scientific findings, philosophical schools of thought and widely held assumptions about human universals and ways of knowing. For example, Paul Feyerabend argued that it is a fallacy to believe that any particular scientific framework will always endure. Foucault himself challenged conventional ideas and practices related to criminality, sexuality and psychiatry. Richard Rorty argued that what we think of as knowledge does not accurately represent the world but instead is a set of reflexively accepted social truisms. Judith Butler claimed that gender is merely performative. Jacques Derrida claimed that texts do not reflect anything outside themselves. These thinkers challenged the academic, social, philosophical and intellectual status quo, which took courage. And academia should value courage.
As western universities increasingly accept only one meta-narrative, the original postmodernists’ boldness is needed more than ever. Postmodern thinkers who are daring enough to use postmodernist tools to critique the current meta-narrative should be in high demand. A shot of the audacity and fearlessness of the original postmodernists needs to be injected into the fervent young academics of today so that they can help restore nuance, diversity of opinion and meta-narrative-shattering ideas to western academia. We need to ask ourselves: should our universities be priding themselves on producing platitudinous automatons—or courageous critical thinkers?