Postmodern philosophy

Postmodern philosophy

Postmodern philosophy is a philosophical direction which is critical of the foundational assumptions and structures of philosophy. Beginning as a critique of Continental philosophy, it was heavily influenced by phenomenology, structuralism and existentialism, including writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger. Postmodern philosophy is skeptical or nihilistic toward many of the values and assumptions of philosophy that derive from modernity, such as humanity having an essence which distinguishes humans from animals, or the assumption that one form of government is demonstrably better than another.

Postmodern philosophy is often particularly skeptical about simple binary oppositions characteristic of structuralism, emphasizing the problem of the philosopher cleanly distinguishing knowledge from ignorance, social progress from reversion, dominance from submission, and presence from absence.[1][2]

Postmodern philosophy has strong relations with the substantial literature of critical theory.[3]


History of postmodern philosophy

Early influences on postmodern philosophy

While the idea of postmodernity had been around since the 1940s, postmodern philosophy originated primarily in France during the mid-20th century. However, several philosophical antecedents inform many of postmodern philosophy's concerns.

It was greatly influenced by the writings of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century and other early-to-mid 20th-century philosophers, including phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, structuralist Roland Barthes, and the language/logic philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Postmodern philosophy also drew from the world of the arts and architecture, particularly Marcel Duchamp and artists who practiced collage, and the architecture of Las Vegas and the Pompidou Centre.

Early postmodern philosophers

The most influential early postmodern philosophers were Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida. Michel Foucault is also often cited as an early postmodernist although he personally rejected that label. Following Nietzsche, Foucault argued that knowledge is produced through the operations of power, and changes fundamentally in different historical periods.

The writings of Lyotard were largely concerned with the role of narrative in human culture, and particularly how that role has changed as we have left modernity and entered a "postindustrial" or postmodern condition. He argued that modern philosophies legitimized their truth-claims not (as they themselves claimed) on logical or empirical grounds, but rather on the grounds of accepted stories (or "metanarratives") about knowledge and the world—comparing these with Wittgenstein's concept of language-games. He further argued that in our postmodern condition, these metanarratives no longer work to legitimize truth-claims. He suggested that in the wake of the collapse of modern metanarratives, people are developing a new "language game" -- one that does not make claims to absolute truth but rather celebrates a world of ever-changing relationships (among people and between people and the world).

Derrida, the father of deconstruction, practiced philosophy as a form of textual criticism. He criticized Western philosophy as privileging the concept of presence and logos, as opposed to absence and markings or writings.

In America, the most famous pragmatist and self-proclaimed postmodernist was Richard Rorty. An analytic philosopher, Rorty believed that combining Willard Van Orman Quine's criticism of the analytic-synthetic distinction with Wilfrid Sellars's critique of the "Myth of the Given" allowed for an abandonment of the view of the thought or language as a mirror of a reality or external world. Further, drawing upon Donald Davidson's criticism of the dualism between conceptual scheme and empirical content, he challenges the sense of questioning whether our particular concepts are related to the world in an appropriate way, whether we can justify our ways of describing the world as compared with other ways. He argued that truth was not about getting it right or representing reality, but was part of a social practice and language was what served our purposes in a particular time; ancient languages are sometimes untranslatable into modern ones because they possess a different vocabulary and are unuseful today. Donald Davidson is not usually considered a postmodernist, although he and Rorty have both acknowledged that there are few differences between their philosophies.[4][5]

Post-structuralism, Deconstruction, and Social Constructionism

Postmodern philosophy is closely related to three other movements in 20th century philosophy: post-structuralism, deconstructionism, and social constructionism.

Exactly what distinguishes "postmodern philosophy" from "post-structuralism", or whether there is such a distinction, remains somewhat contentious. However, in general "post-structuralism" refers to a more specific movement in 1960s and 1970s France, centering around former alleged structuralists like Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva. "Postmodern philosophy," on the other hand, is often used to delineate a much broader trend in 20th century philosophy, including the likes of Americans like Richard Rorty and, more contentiously, many of the philosophers he cites: late Wittgenstein, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, W.V. Quine, and others. (Most analytic philosophers would object to calling this latter group of philosophers "postmodern," so this should certainly not be taken as standard usage.)

As with post-structuralism, the boundaries between "deconstruction" and "postmodern philosophy" are not especially clear. However, "deconstruction" is usually used more narrowly to describe the sort of philosophy practiced by Derrida, and is more often understood as an approach to literary criticism rather than a movement in philosophy per se.

Postmodern philosophers are also often said to be "social constructionists" of one sort or another, often by critics of the movement. Social constructionism is often taken to be the claim that reality or truth is a product of human social groups or cultures, rather than something objectively out there, waiting to be discovered. It can be related to constructivist epistemology which, as an epistemology, goes further than being focused on sociology. Generally, people who call themselves "social constructionists" are found in social sciences, often the history or sociology of science, or anthropology.

New perspectives on what postmodernity "is to be"

In the last couple decades, philosopher and semiotician John Deely has argued for the contentious claim that the label "postmodern" for thinkers such as Derrida et al. is premature. Insofar as the "so-called" postmoderns follow the thoroughly modern trend of idealism (the view that boils down to maintaining that whatever the mind knows of what it knows, the mind itself constructs), it is more an ultramodernism than anything else. A postmodernism that lives up to its name must no longer confine itself to the premodern preoccupation with "things" nor with the modern confinement to "ideas," but must come to terms with the way of signs embodied in the semiotic doctrines of such thinkers as the Portuguese philosopher John Poinsot and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.[6] Writes Deely,

The epoch of Greek and Latin philosophy was based on being in a quite precise sense: the existence exercised by things independently of human apprehension and attitude. The much briefer epoch of modern philosophy based itself rather on the instruments of human knowing, but in a way that unnecessarily compromised being. As the 20th century ends, there is reason to believe that a new philosophical epoch is dawning along with the new century, promising to be the richest epoch yet for human understanding. The postmodern era is positioned to synthesize at a higher level—the level of experience, where the being of things and the activity of the finite knower compenetrate one another and provide the materials whence can be derived knowledge of nature and knowledge of culture in their full symbiosis—the achievements of the ancients and the moderns in a way that gives full credit to the preoccupations of both. The postmodern era has for its distinctive task in philosophy the exploration of a new path, no longer the ancient way of things nor the modern way of ideas, but the way of signs, whereby the peaks and valleys of ancient and modern thought alike can be surveyed and cultivated by a generation which has yet further peaks to climb and valleys to find.[7]


For the most part, postmodern philosophy has spawned substantial literature of critical theory.

Recently, it is noticeable that some of the ideas found in postmodernism, as the lack of belief in absolute truth or the idea of a reality constructed, are promoted in a new paradigm within constructivist epistemology.

Some writers and theorists fear Kalle Lasn’s description of our contemporary society:

Post-modernism is arguably the most depressing philosophy ever to spring from the western mind. It is difficult to talk about post-modernism because nobody really understands it. It’s allusive to the point of being impossible to articulate. But what this philosophy basically says is that we’ve reached an endpoint in human history. That the modernist tradition of progress and ceaseless extension of the frontiers of innovation are now dead. Originality is dead. The avant-garde artistic tradition is dead. All religions and utopian visions are dead and resistance to the status quo is impossible because revolution too is now dead. Like it or not, we humans are stuck in a permanent crisis of meaning, a dark room from which we can never escape.[8]

See also


  1. ^ Sim, Stuart. Routledge Companion to Postmodernism
  2. ^ Taylor, Victor and Charles Winquist. Encyclopedia of Postmodernism "Binary Opposition"
  3. ^ Problematizing Global Knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society. Vol. 23 (2-3). Sage, 2006
  4. ^ An interview with Rorty
  5. ^ Davidson, D., 1986, "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge," Truth And Interpretation, Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, ed. Ernest LePore, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, afterwords.
  6. ^ John Deely, Four Ages of Understanding: The First Postmodern Survey of Philosophy from Ancient Times to the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: U. of Toronto, 2001).
  7. ^ John Deely, "Philosophy and Experience," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly LXVI.4 (Winter 1992), 299–319, esp. 314–15.
  8. ^ Kalle Lasn & Bruce Grierson, A Malignant Sadness, ADBUSTERS #30, June/July 2000.

Recommended reading

  • Charles Arthur Willard Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy. University of Chicago Press. 1996.
  • John Deely "Quid sit Postmodernismus?," in Roman Ciapalo (ed.) Postmodernism and Christian philosophy, 68-96, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. 1997.

External links

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