What Is Postmodernism? - Apologetics (2022)

By Paul Copan

In one of his dialogues, Plato cited the thinker Protagoras as saying that any given thing “is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you.”1 This sounds rather contemporary. We hear slogans declaring “that’s true for you but not for me” or “that’s just your perspective.” These statements reflect the postmodern mood that continues to affect and shape Western culture.

How did postmodernism descend upon our civilization? What is postmodernism? What are its defining characteristics? We will look very briefly at these questions.

1. How did postmodernism emerge? Obviously, the term postmodernism presupposes an era that preceded it—modernism. But we must also understand what modernism was reacting to—namely, premodernism.

Premodernism: Before the 1600s, people in the West generally believed that God (or the transcendent/supernatural realm) furnished the basis for moral absolutes, rationality, human dignity, and truth. This is expressed by the noted Christian theologian Anselm (b. AD 1033), who said, “I believe that I may understand” (credo ut intelligam) he spoke of a “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). That is, the starting point for knowledge and wisdom was God, who provided the lens through which one could properly interpret reality and human experience. By having faith in God, the world could be rightly understood.

Modernism: Then came philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). As a Roman Catholic, he was troubled by the philosophical skepticism and (due to the Protestant Reformation) the theological uncertainty of his day. So he embarked on a “skeptical voyage” in the pursuit of absolutely certain knowledge. As part of his project, he determined to doubt everything: Maybe an evil genius was tinkering with his mind – or maybe everything is an illusion. But he concluded that at least he knew he was doubting, which is a form of thinking. He concluded: I think; therefore I am (or, in Latin, cogito, ergo sum). So without realizing it, Descartes’ project removed God from center stage, replacing it with the human knower as the starting point. The effect would be momentous. The rationalism of the European Enlightenment (c. 1650-1800) reflected this shift. This period was both optimistic about human potential and reason, but was also skeptical about church authority/state churches and Christian doctrine (“dogma”).

(Video) What Is Postmodernism and How Does It Affect Our Culture Today? | Dr. Jamie Dew

This was just one of many modernist projects that assumed that human dignity, truth, and reason could be preserved without God. Besides rationalism (with its emphasis on reason), there were Romanticism (with the emphasis on feeling), Marxism, Nazism, and other utopian schemes that sought to displace God as the starting point for understanding and living. The Jewish-Christian worldview that had deeply influenced the West was now being challenged.

Postmodernism: Then, in the wake of two World Wars, a postmodern climate started to permeate the West. Confidence in human progress and autonomy was shattered on the rocks of Auschwitz and the Soviet gulags. The systems or “grand stories” (“metanarratives”) of Nazism, Marxism, scientism, or rationalism ended up oppressing “the other”—that is, those marginalized by these systems such as Jews, capitalists, etc. These systems proved to be total failures. So with postmodernism, not only was God excluded as a foundation for making sense of reality and human experience; we cannot speak of any universal truth, reason, or morality. We just have fragmented perspectives.

If the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille in Paris (1789) stands as a picture of the shift to modernism, the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly 200 years later (1989) symbolizes the failure of modernism and rise of postmodernism.

Premodernism (up to 1650)

Modernism (1650-1950s)

Postmodernism (1960s – present)

(Video) [William Lane Craig] What good is apologetics in a postmodern culture?

God/the supernatural realm furnishes the basis for morality, human dignity, truth, and reason.Morality, human dignity, truth, and reason rest on foundations other than God (reason, science, race, etc.).All metanarratives (systems or grand stories) are suspect-whether religious or not. No universal foundation for truth, morality, human dignity exists.

French Revolution (1789)

Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989)

2. What is postmodernism? French postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard famously claimed modernism’s end symbolized by Auschwitz, asking, “Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?” What is postmodernism then? “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”2 That is, postmodernism is deeply skeptical about (or suspicious of) big explanatory systems or stories. It is also critical of any view that claims to be neutral, unbiased, or rational. Christian philosopher Merold Westphal observes that modernism was characterized by the quest for (a) absolute certainty (think of Descartes) and (b) totalism – that all-embracing system (“metanarrative”).3 Modernists attempted to create “grand stories”-without reference to God-to ground human dignity, freedom, morality, and progress.

While modernism sought totalizing systems and absolute certainty, postmodernism now calls them into question in a two-fold manner. To counter totalism, postmodernism asserts that our interests and desires often use “reason” to promote their fulfillment; “truth” is simply whatever promotes my (or my group’s) will or interests. There is a “political agenda” in whatever we claim to be true.Knowledge is not neutral. (This observation utilizes the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”) In response to the unbiased certainty, postmodernism emphasizes that our ideas and judgments are embedded within a historical-cultural context; so we can never fully remove ourselves from it by pure reflection.(This has been called the “hermeneutic of finitude.”)4

3. What are some characteristics of postmodernism? We can only take a glance at some of the chief characteristics of postmodern thought.

Anti-dualistic: Postmoderns assert that Western philosophy created dualisms (true/false, right/wrong) and thus excluded certain perspectives from consideration. On the other hand, postmodernism values and promotes pluralism and diversity (rather than black vs. white, West vs. East, male vs. female). It claims to seek the interests of “the other” – those marginalized and oppressed by modernist ideologies and the political/social structures that support them.

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Questioning texts: Postmoderns also maintain that texts—historical, literary, or otherwise—have no inherent authority or objectivity in revealing the author’s intent, nor can they tell us “what really happened.” Rather, these texts reflect the peculiarities of the writer’s particular bias, culture, and era. Australian historian Keith Windschuttle has noted that for the past 2400 years, critics assumed that truth was still within the historian’s grasp, but “the newly dominant theorists within the humanities and social sciences assert that it is impossible to tell the truth about the past or to use history to produce knowledge in any objective sense at all.”5

The linguistic turn: Postmodernism argues that language shapes our thinking and that there can be no thought without language. So language literally creates truth. As Richard Rorty argues, “Where there are no sentences there is no truth.”6 So truth is created rather than discovered. Thus, as Friedrich Nietzsche argued, “There are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths.”7

Truth as perspectival: Furthermore, truth is a matter of perspective or context rather than being something universal. We do not have access to reality —to the way things are—but only to what appears to us. Since we cannot remove ourselves from our context to have a “God’s-eye view” of things, we must acknowledge that our thinking is shaped by forces beyond our control. We are like Truman Burbank in The Truman Show. He is the unknowing star of a production in a sheltered environment (“Seahaven”), where 5,000 cameras monitor his every move; everyone but Truman is acting. Likewise, we simply find ourselves thrown into a context with no way of getting outside it.

Of course, we can be grateful for the postmodern critique of modernism in many ways. Much within postmodernism raises important questions regarding genuine human limitations or bias and the problematic position that one should only believe what is absolutely certain. But much within postmodernism raises many troubling questions and deep contradictions: How can someone deny universal truth without affirming it in some way (“It’s universally true that there is no truth”)? Would it not be a universal fact that there are not any universal facts? Is it not the claim that “it’s all a matter of perspective” asserting more than someone’s perspective? Do not those who question whether we can know an author’s intentions write to express their own particular intentions? And is it not the rejection of metanarratives/grand stories a kind of metanarrative itself?

In another essay, we will look at some of these issues-pro and con. There we will assess “What’s Wrong (and Right) With Postmodernism?”

1 Plato, Theaetetus, p. 152a.

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2 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. xxv, xxiv.

3 Merold Westphal, “Postmodernism and Religious Reflection,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 38 (1995), p. 137.

4 Merold Westphal, Interview with Gary J. Percesepe, “Appropriating the Atheists,” Books & Culture (May/June 1997), p. 24.

5 Keith Windshuttle, The Killing of History (New York: Free Press, 1996), pp. 1, 2.

6 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 5.

7 Friedrich, Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 13.

(Video) Postmodern Apologetics

Paul Copan is on faculty at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Florida.

Published March 30, 2016

FAQs

What Is Postmodernism? - Apologetics? ›

Postmodernism is a philosophy that says absolute truth does not exist. Supporters of postmodernism deny long-held beliefs and conventions and maintain that all viewpoints are equally valid. In today's society, postmodernism has led to relativism, the idea that all truth is relative.

What is the concept of postmodernism? ›

Postmodernism is an intellectual stance or mode of discourse which challenges worldviews associated with Enlightenment rationality dating back to the 17th century. Postmodernism is associated with relativism and a focus on ideology in the maintenance of economic and political power.

What does postmodernism mean in Christianity? ›

Postmodern theology, also known as the continental philosophy of religion, is a philosophical and theological movement that interprets theology in light of post-Heideggerian continental philosophy, including phenomenology, post-structuralism, and deconstruction.

What is the main focus of postmodernism? ›

As a philosophy, postmodernism rejects concepts of rationality, objectivity, and universal truth. Instead, it emphasizes the diversity of human experience and multiplicity of perspectives.

What are the 3 critiques of postmodernism? ›

Criticism of more artistic post-modern movement such as post-modern art or literature may include objections to a departure from beauty, lack of coherence or comprehensibility, deviating from clear structure and the consistent use of dark and negative themes.

What are examples of postmodernism? ›

Postmodern movies aim to subvert highly-regarded expectations, which can be in the form of blending genres or messing with the narrative nature of a film. For example, Pulp Fiction is a Postmodern film for the way it tells the story out of the ordinary, upending our expectations of film structure.

What is another word for postmodernism? ›

In this page you can discover 16 synonyms, antonyms, idiomatic expressions, and related words for postmodernism, like: post-modernism, post-structuralism, postmodernity, poststructuralism, postmodern, postmodernist, modernism, structuralism, primitivism, and relativism.

What do postmodernists believe about God? ›

Postmodern religion considers that there are no universal religious truths or laws, rather, reality is shaped by social, historical and cultural contexts according to the individual, place and or time.

What do postmodernists believe about religion? ›

In a postmodern world there are no universal religious or ethical laws, everything is shaped by the cultural context of a particular time and place and community.

How does postmodernism affect religion? ›

Postmodernism and Religion | Beliefs in Society | A-Level Sociology

What are 5 characteristics of postmodernism? ›

Many postmodernists hold one or more of the following views: (1) there is no objective reality; (2) there is no scientific or historical truth (objective truth); (3) science and technology (and even reason and logic) are not vehicles of human progress but suspect instruments of established power; (4) reason and logic ...

What are the key features of postmodernism? ›

Its main characteristics include anti-authoritarianism, or refusal to recognize the authority of any single style or definition of what art should be; and the collapsing of the distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture, and between art and everyday life.

Who is the father of postmodernism? ›

FOLLOWING the great American modernist poets of the first decades of the 20th century -- Pound, Eliot, Williams -- Charles Olson is the father of the "postmodernists" of the second half of the century, bridging Pound & Co. to such major poets as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley.

Why is postmodernism controversial? ›

Postmodernism was nothing if not controversial. Its often esoteric texts and dramatic pronouncements about rationality, progress, and power—such as Lyotard's claim of the 'end of metanarratives'—sparked major disputes.

What are the weaknesses of postmodernism? ›

Postmodernism had flaws from the beginning (as do all aesthetic theories.) For one thing, conceptions of “high and low” culture (and music) are not very descriptive. They are vague, create confusion, and provoke unnecessary ideological tension.

How do postmodernists contradict themselves? ›

Postmodernists contradict themselves. They claim that there is no such thing as the truth, yet they have made their own truth claims. Why should we accept their own meta-narrative over the other grand theories? Postmodernism exaggerates the amount of social change that has happened.

What is a major influence on postmodernism? ›

Postmodern artists, writers, and philosophers who were open to questioning socially constructed identities challenged preconceived notions of sexuality and gender and inspired widespread change. Technology: Technology has directly influenced two major themes of the Postmodern Period: digitalization and globalization.

How does postmodernism affect us today? ›

Postmodernism affects views and lifestyles, which in turn affects the young adult's performance of roles and his interactions within all his different social systems. A strong attachment to family and home, as well as the importance of roles as sons/daughters were found.

Are we still in postmodernism? ›

Since the late 1990s there has been a small but growing feeling both in popular culture and in academia that postmodernism "has gone out of fashion." However, there have been few formal attempts to define and name the era succeeding postmodernism, and none of the proposed designations has yet become part of mainstream ...

What is a sentence for postmodern? ›

Postmodern sentence example. Nevertheless, he has been regarded as one of the few postmodern game designers. The postmodern critique reminds us all that the future is not in the past! This is part of the postmodern critique of 1970s feminism.

What does postmodernism think of the soul? ›

What Does Postmodernism Say About The Soul or About Self? There is no self-identity and no permanent soul or mind.

What are the seven assumptions on which postmodernism rests? ›

  • Universal truth can't be known.
  • Reason is subjective.
  • Objective knowledge is a myth.
  • The world is too complex to be explained by any worldview claiming to have objective knowledge of absolute truth.
  • There is no God to give meaning to the world.
  • Societies, like humans, are biased.
  • No one is neutral.

How is postmodernism different from modernism? ›

Main Difference – Modernism vs Postmodernism

The main difference between modernism and postmodernism is that modernism is characterized by the radical break from the traditional forms of prose and verse whereas postmodernism is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions.

What do postmodernists say about society? ›

Postmodernists believe that in contemporary global society people's identities are chosen rather than ascribed (given). In the past identity tended to be more simple and fixed, being defined by class, gender and age in a more straightforward way.

What does postmodernism say about humanity? ›

Postmodernists highly reject the knowledge position of reason and other human knowledge tools and hold no value for natural and intrinsic values; because basically, they consider all realities and values including human nature and his innate values as being fluid and constructed by social and external factors.

What do postmodernists have to say about the Abrahamic faiths? ›

What does postmodernism have to say about the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, Islam)? When it comes to the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), Postmodernists reject their claims that humans can interact with reality and make truth claims from it.

Is postmodernism a philosophy? ›

Postmodern philosophy is a philosophical movement that arose in the second half of the 20th century as a critical response to assumptions allegedly present in modernist philosophical ideas regarding culture, identity, history, or language that were developed during the 18th-century Enlightenment.

When did post postmodernism begin? ›

Stretching from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, Modernism reached its peak in the 1960s; Post-modernism describes the period that followed during the 1960s and 1970s.

Which phrase best describes a quality of postmodernism? ›

Which phrase best describes a quality of Postmodernism? Blurring fact and fiction to find an underlying truth.

What is the advantage of postmodernism? ›

What are the strengths of postmodernism? Postmodernism recognises the fluidity of current society and the changing relevance of the media, power structures, globalisation, and other social changes. It challenges some assumptions we make as a society. This may make sociologists approach research differently.

Why is postmodernism useful? ›

Postmodernism can also be a critical project, revealing the cultural constructions we designate as truth and opening up a variety of repressed other histories of modernity. Such as those of women, homosexuals and the colonised.

Is postmodernism subjective or objective? ›

Postmodernism argues that people are fundamentally subjective because their unique beliefs and values alter the way they organize factual data. Thus, the narratives they construct around data will also be subjective. However, it doesn't follow that postmodernism cannot distinguish between narratives.

What is the origin of postmodernism? ›

The term 'postmodern', understood as distinguishing from the modem, seems to have been used first in 1917 by the German philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz, to describe the 'nihilism' of twentieth century's Western culture – a theme he took from Friedrich Nietzsche.

Is Marx a postmodernist? ›

Marxism has not “merely changed” or “rebranded” and transformed to Postmodernism, but Left movement got disappointed in Marxism, class struggle and social revolution and realigned to Identity Politics and minorities rights. Identity politics may be related to Postmodernism, but not to Marxism.

What is the difference between modernism and postmodernism? ›

The main difference between modernism and postmodernism is that modernism is characterized by the radical break from the traditional forms of prose and verse whereas postmodernism is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions.

Who is the father of postmodernism? ›

FOLLOWING the great American modernist poets of the first decades of the 20th century -- Pound, Eliot, Williams -- Charles Olson is the father of the "postmodernists" of the second half of the century, bridging Pound & Co. to such major poets as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley.

What is a major influence on postmodernism? ›

Postmodern artists, writers, and philosophers who were open to questioning socially constructed identities challenged preconceived notions of sexuality and gender and inspired widespread change. Technology: Technology has directly influenced two major themes of the Postmodern Period: digitalization and globalization.

Videos

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