Cartoon by Judy Horacek

Postmodernism describes the movement in the mid- and late-20th century that followed the Enlightenment, a part of the modernist period, when thinkers looked to the power of reason for truth. It encompasses art, philosophy, and criticism. Following World War I, which resulted in 10 million fatal casualties and 20 million non-fatal casualties and which saw the use of technology in weapons to obliterate communities, the high view that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had on human achievement plummeted.

In the struggle for meaning, a radical shift away from rationalism and based off the existentialism of Nietzsche and others brought the modern man to the conclusion that truth was a construct. He could not find it through reason or experience. Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998), in his Postmodern Condition, defined postmodernism “incredulity toward any metanarrative”, metanarrative being a grand account of historical events, theories, etc., based on a belief in universal values.

Inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lyotard used the concept of “language games” to oppose metanarratives. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote, “For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word meaning it can be explained thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Part I.43). Language has meaning in context, not by dint of any universal reality or truth.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) similarly believed in the context-limited value of language. In his doctoral thesis, published as the book On Grammatology in 1967, Derrida evaluated the philosophy of several writers to demonstrate the contrast between the intended meaning and the actual meaning. This study, called deconstructionism, revealed the ambiguity of language, and thus its inability to express truth in itself. “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” he decided: “There is no outside-text.” In other words, language means nothing outside context.

Michel Foucault
Photo from the Centre of Advanced International Studies

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) went beyond Lyotard and Derrida in his analysis of language’s use. Language serves not only as a means of communication in context; language is a tool for restructuring power. In an interview, Foucault described two types of intellectualism: universal and specific. Universal intellectuals bear universal truths – the “consciousness/conscience of us all” – as a voice for the proletariat (Truth and Power  126). Specific intellectuals do not speak for the collective. They are experts of their fields, speaking within certain domains of social and natural sciences.

Foucault called truth “a thing of this world.” It comes into being as a system by which to manipulate statements, brought about by power and brought about to create power. In affirming that “[e]ach society has its own regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth”, he repudiated the correspondence theory of truth, which holds that some knowledge is true because it corresponds to the actual state of affairs (Truth and Power 131). His view, the coherence theory, held as truth that which cohered to accepted propositions in other spheres of the culture.

Specific intellectual, Foucault argued, is the molder of society’s regime of truth in the modern age. By struggling with the specific truths in his specific field, he contributes to the truth of general society, for the fields of the specific intellectual unavoidably intermingle with the politics, economics, and institutions of his day. (For example, consider the political impact that the atomic scientist of World War II.)

Richard Rorty
Portrait of Richard Rorty by Steve Pyke

In America, the most prominent postmodern thinker was Richard Rorty (1931-2007). Rorty, the son of a Social Gospel founder and a professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, rejected representationalism, which views the world as a miniature reality of the real world; the conscious world represents the real world. It suggests the existence of an absolute reality and truth, which Rorty denied. According to him, we have no appearance/reality distinction. In Plato-speak, we cannot move from inside the Cave to outside the Cave because these places are not actual. In Kant-speak, the noumenal-phenomenal divide is nonexistent.

Rorty promoted pragmatism, which rejected dualistic epistemology and metaphysics and emphasized the practical value of language. In his article “Pragmatism as Anti-Representationalism”, Rorty noted, “[W]e do not think of ‘finding out how things are’ or ‘discovering truth’ as a distinct human project.” Man creates language and vocabulary to serve some purpose at some time; they are truthful only insofar as they are useful.

Rorty followed in the footsteps of other philosophical rebels, including Charles Sanders Peirce (1849-1914), who coined the term “pragmatism” and who said that “[i]t is absurd to say that thought has any meaning unrelated to its only function”; William James (1842-1910), a psychologist who judged ideas based on their “cash values” [their social utility]; and John Dewey (1859-1952), an educator who applied the beliefs of experimentalism (one finds truth through experimentation) and instrumentalism (one should evaluate truth according to its usefulness) to his theories on education.

Believe Anything
Believe Anything, by Barbara Kruger

Postmodernism affects 21st century Western society in its rejection of a priori moral truths and celebration of diversity in thought. It has manifested in politics, social interactions, and education with changes that include greater cross-cultural dialogue in the classroom and greater acceptance of diverse beliefs and peoples in society at large. These advances notwithstanding, postmodernism does have negative effects, which include the decline of religion (depending on what you believe, this could be positive or negative) and the inability for debate given the acceptance of regimes of truth over absolute truths.

What do you think about the impact of postmodernism in the 21st century?