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Defining Postmodernism

Defining Postmodernism

10 Mins
February 26, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled "The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

William Thomas wrote:

The American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition, defines Postmodernism as:

Postmodern: adj. Of or relating to art, architecture, or literature that reacts against earlier modernist principles, as by reintroducing traditional or classical elements of style or by carrying modernist styles or practices to extremes: “The post-modern mode of tapering the tops of buildings” (Jane Holtz Kay).

This, in a nutshell, presents us with the problem of knowing what we are talking about when we talk of Postmodernism.

In literary theory, it is associated with Deconstruction, Queer theory, and a general denigration of the idea that there should be standards, or that literary analysis can in any way or should in any way be objective.

In architecture, it is associated with an eclecticism that partakes of many traditional design elements, as opposed to the rigid standards of the international style of modern architecture (e.g., Mies Van Der Rohe).

In art, it is associated with non-traditional forms of sculpture, such as environmental art, and with various forms of performance art.

In music, it appears to be about a return to accessibility and a certain eclecticism about adapting historical styles.

I am offering these observations as a way to help lay out the territory that has to be defined.

Is there a principle behind the reaction to Modernism? Or is the reaction composed, as I think must be the case, of radically different camps? Perhaps we should be explicit in stating that Postmodernism is, for us, the new collection of “cultural critiques” now entrenched in literary criticism and “cultural studies” programs.

I am not offering a definition here, because I am still groping to isolate the CCDs of the current term. There is the criterion of “reaction against modernism”. There is “eclecticism” as a principle, or the “denial of objectivity.” And then there is the content of the cultural critique: group rights, ethical relativism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism.

I invite the participants of the cyberseminar to offer their analyses of “Postmodernism.” It will help us know where we are starting from, and where we are going over the course of the term.

Bryan Register wrote:

David Kelley proposes that one worthwhile question to ask is “Rand’s Question” about the concept ‘postmodernism.’ I thought I would take a very brief stab, based on characterizations I’ve seen of postmodern literature and its relation to postmodern theory.

The work I’ve looked at indicates that there are actually at least two closely related concepts: there is postmodern*ity*, and also postmodern*ism*. These take as their direct contrasts, respectively, modernity and modernism. The adjective ‘postmodern’ is applied to anything in a culture which is evidence of that culture instantiating postmodernity. These things are, of course, also what the postmodernity of the culture consists of. Thus there is ‘postmodern literature’ and ‘postmodern theory.’ This last is what is called ‘postmodernism,’ because, being a theory, a postmodern theory is an -ism. There is also an alternate usage of ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’, wherein a particular theory is a modernism or a postmodernism; so Kantianism might be a modernism, while Nietzsche’s philosophy might be the first postmodernism.

Modernity and postmodernity are thought of as cultural conditions, and the marks of these cultural conditions are to be found in a culture’s literature, journalism, law, science, humane studies, and so on. Modernism and postmodernism are thought of as kinds of theoretical approaches; specifically, the kind of theoretical approaches which try to understand modernity or postmodernity and which are themselves instances of modernity or postmodernity showing itself in the culture. Postmodernism is postmodernity showing itself in the humanities, just as modernism was modernity’s version of humane studies.

Modernity is marked, by these postmodernists, by (at least) three features.

1) The desire to overcome prejudice and achieve objectivity.

2) The notion that progress was here to stay.

3) A set of distinctions which were supposed to make it so that we overcame prejudice and retained progress.

The first idea is best seen in Kant's “What is Enlightenment?,” which answers that Enlightenment is a critical mentality which persists in questioning dogma until it is either proved or gotten rid of. Objectivism , of course, is a modern philosophy (a modernism) by this criterion.

The second idea is best seen in Hegel and Marx. For both of these thinkers, there is an underlying force moving the world, and the direction it is taking us is good. This modern confidence in worldly progress was supposed to replace the pre-modern confidence in otherworldly salvation. I have seen many a writer propose that this modern idea has definitively gone down in flames: Auschwitz’s flames. Objectivism is not a modern philosophy by this criterion, because Objectivism ’s indeterminism allows that progress is not necessary but merely contingent (on human choice).

Modernism dichotomized objectivity and prejudice, postmodernism rejects the dichotomy.

The third idea is also best seen in Kant. Fact-value, subject-object (i.e., self-world), mind-body, and so forth are all distinctions best formalized in Kant. These pairings have been the common currency of most modern schools of thought; that is, most modernisms have agreed to the common matrix of the Kantian distinctions (that’s why they’re modernisms). One semi-formal definition I’ve seen of postmodernism is that it is “theory which breaks down the untenable dualities of modernism”, with a litany of examples following. Objectivism is apparently postmodern (is a postmodernism) by this criterion. Actually, the first condition, but for its salience, should be seen as an instance of this third condition. Modernism dichotomized objectivity and prejudice, postmodernism rejects the dichotomy.

So postmodernism is a feature of postmodernity. Postmodernity takes modernity as its contrast object. The dimensions along which the two differ are their view of prejudice and objectivity, their optimism about progress, and their acceptance of the litany of modernist dichotomies stemming largely from Kant (and a few other places and phenomena). Their conceptual common denominator is that they are (kinds of) cultures.

Roger Donway wrote:

To define “postmodernism” correctly, I think we might best separate the task into two parts: (1) define the concept “postmodernism” in the context of several fields; (2) determine if all or some of those concepts have sufficient similarity to justify a higher-level concept of “postmodernism.” I do not think we can assume that there is one concept of “postmodernism” that is employed univocally in several fields, or that there is a genus-level concept of “postmodernism” possessing several validly formed species-level concepts.

This two-step approach is frequently found in dictionaries, that is, the genus-level concept will be defined, then the species-level concepts.

general definition; hence

2. in field (a),

3. in field (b),

4. in field (c),

And so on.

From the standpoint of concept-formation, however, it would seem preferable to move in the opposite direction.

1. in field (a),

2. in field (b),

3. in field (c),

4. hence, generally, ...

Of course, it might turn out that the concepts defined in (1), (2), and (3) are so different that no genus-level concept can be formed. Or the similarity may be so slight as to leave us with a concept of scant utility. Thus, the word “cat,” in the broadest sense, could be defined as “the domestic feline animal or anything thought to resemble one.”

Now, because I know little of contemporary art, architecture, or literary studies--fields in which the term “postmodernism” is frequently used--I shall confine my efforts to defining it in the field of philosophy. And to do so, I shall place postmodernism in the context of a broad-brush history of philosophy.

What is commonly called Modern philosophy--Hobbes to Hume, the late Renaissance through the Enlightenment--was in essence a period of epistemological realism. It was followed by nineteenth-century idealism, in a wide variety of forms. Idealism, in turn, was superseded in the twentieth century by both a modest realism (actually representationalism) and a modest idealism, which tried to make the coherence theory of meaning and truth more respectful of science.

Postmodernism attempts to get beyond the realist versus idealist, primacy-of-existence versus primacy-of-consciousness, dichotomies, and to do so it sets forth what I take to be its defining tenet in philosophy. Thus, I would say: “postmodernism,” in philosophy, is the doctrine that language is simply one form of social behavior among many and the characteristics of language (for example, meaning and truth) are determined by the worldview of the speaker’s group, such as those groups characterized (in whole or part) by sex, race, class, nationality, age, era, and so forth.

If that is accurate, the term “postmodern” is apt. For although Idealism was the first literal post-Modern philosophy, it retained (to varying degrees) a belief in objectivity and universality, key elements of the Modern outlook. Postmodernism rejects those elements.

Bryan Register wrote:

Roger Donway proposes that “‘postmodernism,’ in philosophy, is the doctrine that language is simply one form of social behavior among many and the characteristics of language (for example, meaning and truth) are determined by the worldview of the speaker's group, such as those groups characterized (in whole or part) by sex, race, class, nationality, age, era, and so forth.”

I’m afraid that I don’t see the problem. For one thing, many analytic philosophers of language, following Wittgenstein’s lead, agree that language is but one form of social behavior; the production of speech acts is no different in principle from the production of any other socially defined act, such as moving a knight in chess. So the account seems to include Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle, and a pile of other non-postmodernists.

But moreover, language *is* but one among many social behaviors, and the meanings of words and sentences *are* determined by the worldview of the speaker’s group, since they’re the ones from whom the speaker learned her language.

I can't say, “Dinner is almost ready” and mean “Poughkeepsie was once the capital of New York,” however much I might want to.

This can be supported with examples; I'll use a close-to-home one. As a grader, I’ve recently been spending a lot of time trying to puzzle through the poor writing of UT undergrads. In some cases, I find it necessary to note on their papers the actual meaning of sentences which are grammatical but misleading. The meaning intended by the student is often apparent, but the sentence has a meaning distinct from the one the student intended. The meaning, then, is not determined by the intentions of the student, but by the conventions of our common language. Likewise, a child cannot make a knight move in chess the way he likes (magically pushing across rows of opposition to win the game), but only in the way that the rules of chess allow him to move the knight.

This is the reason that I can't say, “Dinner is almost ready” and mean “Poughkeepsie was once the capital of New York,” however much I might want to.

Of course, this does not mean that the *thoughts* which one expresses in language are socially determined, or that the *truth* of one’s utterances are socially determined (unless the utterance has as its subject matter something social). But language itself certainly is but one among many forms of socially determined behavior.

So Roger Donway’s account of postmodernism not only includes a wide variety of non-postmodernists, it also makes postmodernism true.

William Dale wrote:

Here’s my attempt to differentiate the cultural movement of Postmodernism from other movements such as Objectivism by using three of the epistemological standards David Kelley suggested: unit, contrast objects, and CCD. I follow this analysis by offering a definition of Postmodernism based on those standards.

Unit: I agree with Bryan Register that Postmodernism is essentially a cultural movement rather than a philosophical movement. Its defenders are concerned with changing the culture more than with philosophical theses per se. As Stephen Hicks pointed out in his talks on Postmodernism two summers ago, Postmodernists are defenders of a political position first, and concerned with philosophical ideas only as a means to the defense of their politics.

Postmodernists are defenders of a political position first, and concerned with philosophical ideas only as a means to defending their politics.

The units of Postmodernism are the group of cultural opponents of modernism and/or modernity. According to my philosophical encyclopedia [Urmson and Ree (eds.), The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers], Postmodernists oppose 1) the belief in the advancement of society through scientific advancement and epistemological enlightenment (i.e., modernity) and 2) traditional standards in art and language (i.e., modernism). They replace these with Postmodernity, a “carefree skepticism about any attempt to make sense of history,” and Postmodernism, in which “language [is] treated as an object in its own right, rather than a stand-in for an ulterior reality.” These theses may explain the advancement of Postmoernism through Literature and Sociology departments, rather than the philosophy departments where the Modernist analytic philosophy is predominant.

The units of the concept would therefore be the adherents of a cultural movement who reject the idea of historical scientific progress, philosophical enlightenment, metaphysical realism, and standards of artistic achievement.

Contrast Objects: Identifying the contrast objects is straightforward give the self-descriptive nature of the term in question, i.e. defenders of modernism and modernity (Modernists) of various kinds, including, I think, Objectivism . Modernists would include any cultural movements whose adherents accept the possibility of scientific advancement, philosophical enlightenment, and identifiable standards for aesthetics.

CCD: Postmodernism advances several theses in the major philosophical branches. David Kelley noted that there are often multiple CCD’s for complex concepts, and that seems to be the case for a highly abstract concept like Postmodernism. I think the dimensions of interest come out along the usual philosophic categories with which we’re all familiar. Here are what I take to be the primary “measurements” for Postmodernism along the relevant dimensions:

Aesthetics: rejection of all usual standards

Politics: collectivism (e.g., environmentalism, group rights, interest-group politics, socialism)

Ethics: egalitarianism and relativism (e.g., cultural relativism, animal rights)

Epistemology: subjectivism (e.g., textual interpretation/deconstruction)

Metaphysics: media of expression (e.g., texts)

I list these in the above order purposely. I believe there is an underlying hierarchical organization to the above dimensions for defenders of Postmodernism, and it is an organization that inverts the usual Objectivist one rising from metaphysics through politics and aesthetics. Postmodernists are primarily defenders of aesthetic anarchy (e.g., deconstruction of texts, performance art) and collectivism (e.g., group rights, egalitarianism) with other philosophical theses such as epistemological subjectivity and ethical relativism as intellectual defenses to be used as necessary, but dropped if failing to defend the politics/aesthetics (if I’ve understood Stephen Hicks’s thesis about this correctly).

In conclusion, I offer the following definition of Postmodernism: A cultural movement which rejects the possibility of cultural advancement through scientific progress and principled aesthetics based on epistemological objectivity, and which instead defends political collectivism and standardless aesthetics based on epistemological relativism and ethical egalitarianism.

Will Wilkinson wrote:

In these “what is the essence of x” discussions, I often feel somewhat the obstructionist. I was disgruntled at this summer’s Graduate Seminar by all the putative definitions of analytic philosophy. Each would exclude paradigmatic “analytic” philosophers. Likewise, I worry that our discussion of Postmodernism will be equally unsatisfying, and for similar reasons. The main reason is that there is no monolithic school of thought each of whose members share a common unifying characteristic. What there is is a cluster of overlapping themes, not all logically related to the others.

So, if we give an account of Postmodernism that captures some of these themes, we will be missing other themes just as important within “postmodernist” discussions. If one proposed an account that captured all the relevant themes, one would have a hodgepodge that serves no real cognitive purpose. The problem is that we have a word, ‘postmodernism,’ that gets attached to all sorts of things for often bad reasons. And so it is a quixotic pursuit to try to puzzle out the principle by which this word got applied to all it got applied to, because there is no principle.

I favor a rather more piecemeal approach to understanding ideas. If what bothers us about some Postmodernists is their denial of the existence of an independent, objective world, then try to understand why they deny it. If we are bothered by their theses about the indeterminacy of meaning, then let us see why they hold them. In the process we’ll find that Postmodernists are not too different from analytic philosophers in some of these things, and we can generalize explanations across schools of thought. I think it would be much more profitable to try to grasp and criticize doctrines of semantic indeterminacy in Derrida & Quine together than to try (and surely fail) to find the ephemeral essence of contingently constituted “schools” unified in fact by little more than a mood and a literary style.

So here is my challenge to the project of defining Postmodernism. Why think that there is a hard logical core to the whole variegated cultural/intellectual phenomenon? And if there isn’t one, what is the point of trying to find it? Wouldn’t we be better off attacking each of the bothersome themes of Postmodernism separately? Because our recent emphasis on method stresses getting clear on our intellectual purposes, I think it is necessary to see if we really have a purpose worth pursuing.

Stephen Hicks wrote:

Abstract: (1) I propose that a definition of a comprehensive philosophy should be four-dimensional: It should identify the philosophy’s metaphysics, epistemology, view of human nature, and its core value theses. (2) I argue that there is a comprehensive philosophy characterized by metaphysical antirealism, epistemological collective subjectivism, social constructionism in human nature, and value collectivism. (3) I argue that “postmodernism” is an appropriate label for that philosophy, given the opposition of that philosophy’s theses to modernist philosophy’s theses. And (4) I argue that the views of several major contemporary thinkers (Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty) are similar enough to warrant categorizing them as the “postmodernist” school.

Is there a set of ideas that may fruitfully be called “postmodern”?

A comprehensive philosophy answers four questions: What’s real?, Who/what am I?, What’s good?, and How do I know? That is, a philosophy is a set of views on metaphysics, human nature, values, and epistemology.

A philosopher who has developed views has a comprehensive philosophy. To the extent that different philosophers agree in their views in those areas, they can be grouped into schools.

So then the questions are whether the thinkers we are considering as “pomo”-candidates have developed views in all those areas, and whether their views are similar enough to warrant categorizing them as members of the same school.

At this point, Will Wilkinson raises two pitfalls to avoid:

1. Defining postmodernism as a school and contrasting it with analytic philosophy may lead us to miss the fact that analytic and continental philosophers sometimes agree, e.g., Quine and Derrida on indeterminacy in language. In other words, a definition may be too narrow and lead us away from grouping together thinkers who should be so grouped.

2. Defining postmodernism may, if there is no common core, lead us to characterize it so vaguely that we miss significant debates within the so-called pomo community. In other words, a definition may be too broad and lead us to lump together thinkers who should be separated.

We should avoid these two vices, and when appropriate we should follow Will Wilkinson’s advice and attack particular pomo and/or analytic theses themselves. If, however, there are sets of philosophical theses that are regularly packaged together and thinkers who organize themselves in schools around those packages, we should take cognizance of that, too.

Is there a set of ideas that may fruitfully be called “postmodern”?

To start with some leading pomo-candidates and their core views: Foucault and Derrida both speak of “truth” and “knowledge” as meaningless concepts, of humans as socially constructed, of far left values, and of deconstruction. Lyotard rejects metanarratives (i.e., the idea that there is a true account that can be given of anything), for a vision composed of humans as contingent and socially constructed, far left values, and hermeneutics. Rorty advocates antirealism, speaks of humanity as contingent and as needing to evolve in solidarity, speaks of moderately far left values, and speaks of traditional reason being dead and of irony as its replacement.

So we have a number of individuals who argue the same broad themes: metaphysical antirealism, reason as an epistemological dead end and various subjectivist alternatives, human nature as contingent and socially constructed, and left-wing values.

Additionally, each of these thinkers sees this package of views as internally linked--in contrast to many analytic thinkers, who will either not have views in all branches of philosophy or, if they do, see no essential connections among them (e.g., Quine).

Now for the appropriate label for this set of beliefs. The label “postmodern” situates this set of beliefs historically and contrasts it with “modernism.” All of the above thinkers take modernism to be metaphysical naturalism, human nature as universal, rational, and autonomous, values as individualistic, and reason as the primary epistemological mandate. They see modern philosophy as a coherent set of beliefs and as having reached a dead end. So they accept Lyotard’s characterization of our situation as being a “postmodern” one (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota, 1984). Or they see the task, as Rorty states it, as trying to figure out what to do next “now that both the Age of Faith and the Enlightenment seem beyond recovery” (Consequences of Pragmatism, p. 175). The Enlightenment, as Rorty and the others see it, was the modernist project.

So I propose to define postmodernism as a philosophy that advocates metaphysical antirealism, epistemological collective subjectivism, value collectivism and leftism, and social constructionism in human nature.

It’s true that many subsidiary issues factor in each broad philosophical dimension. Each of those subsidiary issues needs to be addressed, and in doing so it may be useful to note that on a particular subsidiary issue a postmodern thinker is arguing the same point that an analytic thinker is. There is a value sometimes to focusing on the trees, or to adopt military language, in engaging tactically.

It’s also true that to the extent a thinker is consistent in his views in one part of philosophy, he will adopt views on related issues. And like-minded thinkers tend to organize themselves into social movements and alliances that agree on broad principles while disagreeing over details. Understanding those organizations helps one learn the issues involved, the state of the debate, and how to navigate the intellectual and social terrain. So there’s also value sometimes to focusing on the forest, or in engaging strategically.

This broad philosophical characterization of postmodernism I think helps put in context the many dimensions of postmodern thinking and culture that Will Thomas, Bryan Register, and Roger Donway identify in their posts on defining postmodernism.

Will Thomas identifies four features for our attention: (1) eclecticism, (2) denial of objectivity, (3) various left positions such as group rights, ethical relativism, environmentalism, and anti-capitalism, and (4) reaction against modernism. All of these elements are parts of the pomo package. (1) Eclecticism is a consequence of the metaphysical anti-realism: if there is no reality out there, there is no identity, so there are no necessary connections among things; so anything can go with anything, and in postmodernist art one finds deliberate disintegrations and deliberate juxtapositions of parts that cannot be integrated. (2) Denial of objectivity is the fundamental part of the postmodern anti-reason epistemological package. (3) The various left positions are parts of the value collectivism. (4) “Reaction against modernism” is a summary and a negative historical situating of all of these views. The only thing missing from this list is an account of human nature.

Similarly, Bryan Register identifies three modernist items and contrasts postmodernism to them. Modernism’s features are (1) objectivity, (2) belief in progress, and (3) dualisms. Postmodernism is then a rejection of objectivity, the belief in progress, and all dualisms. Again, all of these are parts of the postmodernist package: the denial of objectivity is part of the epistemology, the denial of progress is a consequence of both epistemological relativism and the left-egalitarianism in values, and the rejection of all dualisms is a part of the postmodern metaphysics or anti-metaphysics. On one level the postmodernist rejection of all dualisms is a straightforward consequence of the antirealism: if it’s not meaningful to speak of the way reality is, then any proposed real distinction can be deconstructed.

(On another level the pomo blanket rejection of dualisms is tricky because one pomo strategy is to argue by package-deals. For most postmodernists there are no significant differences between, e.g., Plato and Aristotle, and so the choice is between postmodernism and the Plato/Aristotle approach. Similarly, conservatives sometimes characterize the debate as being between a Platonic/religious philosophy and a nihilistic postmodern one; for those conservatives there is no significant difference between the naturalistic Aristotle and the Sophists/postmodernists.)

Finally, Roger Donway suggests that antirealism is the fundamental defining trait of postmodernism. He points out that a major modern debate was that between the realists and the idealists. The realists accepted the Primacy of Existence and so consequently accepted objectivity and universalism, while the idealists accepted the Primacy of Consciousness while trying to maintain objectivity and universalism. However, as the Primacy of Consciousness forces gradually won out, the objectivity and universalism were abandoned and we were left with postmodern Primacy of Consciousness, subjectivity, and relativism. That characterization of the evolution of the debate I think is correct, and I think it accounts for the pomos’ views in metaphysics and epistemology. I don’t think it accounts for the postmodernist views in human nature, ethics, and politics, though. From Primacy of Consciousness, subjectivity, and relativism, no particular views about human nature, ethics, and politics follow, so I think we need to look elsewhere for the sources of those parts of the pomo package. And since specific views on human nature, ethics, and politics are integral parts of the pomo package, any definition needs to include them.

In summary: (1) I have proposed that a definition of a comprehensive philosophy should be four-dimensional: It should identify the philosophy’s metaphysics, epistemology, view of human nature, and its core value theses. (2) I have argued that there is a comprehensive philosophy characterized by metaphysical antirealism, epistemological collective subjectivism, social constructionism in human nature, and value collectivism. (3) I have argued that “postmodernism” is an appropriate label for that philosophy, given the opposition of that philosophy’s theses to modernist philosophy. And (4) I have suggested that the views of several major contemporary thinkers (Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty) are similar enough to warrant including them in the “postmodernist” school.

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