What is postmodernism?

Postmodernism is a philosophical view adopted widely in American culture. To understand postmodernism and its area of influence, it is necessary to understand what philosophy means. Simply put, philosophy, as define by Oxford Languages, is “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” In these three areas postmodernism finds its influence on current cultural thinking. Let’s now turn to some definitions on postmodernism. I added italics for emphsis throughout this page.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary says "...of, relating to, or being an era after a modern one...of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language.”

Britannica Encyclopedia defines postmodernism in the following manner: “A late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.”

Jean-François Lyotard, among the most radical of postmodern philosophers, explains postmodernism as “incredulity towards meta-narratives.” According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, incredulity means “the state of being unwilling or unable to believe something.” This incredulity to believe as stated by Lyotard, shines light when trying to understand postmodernism and its basic tenets.

These three points provide building blocks for a reasonably good synthesis of postmodernism, albeit a simplified view.

1. Postmodernism is a reaction against modernism.
Modernism (approximately 1900-1940) was based heavily upon the notion that life and existence could be understood through human reason alone. This was a departure from the premodern theistic era that placed understanding not on human reason alone, but on the belief that there are eternal and transcendent truths that can be understood only through belief in God, the source of all things.

The modern era saw a transformation from God as the source of understanding the world to human reason as the primary vehicle of understanding. This premise was articulated by Descartes, Locke, Kant and others. After the failures of both world wars and the perceived failure of human reason as the mechanism for improving mankind’s situation, modernism grew increasingly out of favor. As a reaction to modernity, postmodern voices began to question the ability of people to understand reality at all and questioned the ability of human reason to answer the most important questions facing humanity.

2. Postmodernism maintains that no meta-narratives are more true than another.
Postmodernism maintains that meta-narratives, that is, story lines that explain meaning and reality, are not to be believed. According to postmodernists, meta-narratives, at its core, are attempts by human beings to gain or maintain power and control over other human beings. Postmodernists believe that all attempts to explain truth and reality is, in the end, a story that has as its goal to bring others into subjugation. The goal and end result is oppression of other people. Therefore, regardless if a meta-narrative explains the story of Marxism, Capitalism, Democracy or Jesus Christ and the gospel, all meta-narratives exist to gain power.

Postmodernism also postulates that the best humanity can do is to tell people group stories in an attempt to understand meaning and truth, as it pertains to them. As stated, according to the postmodernist view, no story or meta-narrative is any more accurate or true than any other. Therefore, story lines are only true as perceived among communities or groups of people, applicable to their own situation and their own interpretation of their story. Therefore, meaning and truth to individuals are the result of social construct devised by those who share the story or meta-narrative. Therefore, no meta-narrative holds truth any more than any other. The stories only pertain to individual groups of people. And, in fact, no one can know more truth than another because truth, in the end, is unknowable. Jean-François Lyotard spoke correctly when saying postmodernism is “incredulity towards meta-narratives.

3. Postmodernism argues against traditional assumptions.

Postmodernism argues that traditional assumptions about reality, long held societal traditions, authoritative voices within society, and language itself are not what they appear to be. In fact, postmodernist claim that truth is to a very real extent, unknowable. Therefore, any traditional assumptions, that is, arguments and beliefs about truth as expressed in generations past, are to be scrutinized and reconsidered through the postmodern paradigm.

Let me restate, while this explanation is simplified, it is accurate in general terms. For a good short video of Jordan Peterson explaining postmodernism, visit here.

Now that we have discussed what postmodernism is, let's discuss some initial reasons why postmodernism is problematic.

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