What is it,
and What is Wrong With It?
by Andreas Saugstad
January 25, 2001
The period in which we now live is often called “postmodernism”. According to Nancy
Murphy, author of Anglo-American Postmodernity, postmodernism in the Anglo-American
world started some time around 1950. Others would perhaps say that postmodernism is
something which evolved after 1968. But anyway, in 1979 Jean-Francois Lyotard published a
book called The Postmodern Condition. At this point someone had defined postmodernism,
and during the last 20 years the ideas of postmodernism have been much debated in the
The Meaning of The Term
“Postmodernism” is not easy to define. The term is used in philosophy, literature, social
sciences and architecture. Different postmodern thinkers may have different opinions, and
people from different fields may have somewhat different definitions of “postmodernism”.
And if there is one thing postmodernists don’t tend to like, it is fixed criteria or dogmatism,
so perhaps we should be careful trying to give a final definition of the term.
But in this article I will focus on postmodernism as used in philosophy. However, some of the
points I emphasize may also be recognized in popular culture.
“Postmodernism” is of course composed by two parts “post” and “modern”. “Post” is latin
for “after”, and “modernism” refers to the modern period. In philosophy the modern period
was started by Descartes (1596-1650) who believed in exact science and objective
knowledge. He believed that there are certain self-evident principles that may provide a
foundation for other types of knowledge. Descartes was rationalist –he believed in reason,
and he thought that human reason can grasp truths independent of time and place. However,
let us not focus too much on Descartes and the etymology of the term “postmodern.” As I
now turn to some characteristics of the postmodern, you will be able to see how it differs
from Descartes, and not merely go into postmodernism as a historical phenomenon, but
understand it qua philosophy.
Postmodernism is associated with relativism. Relativism is the idea that “anything goes.”
It is the position where one has left the belief in absolute truth, and instead embraced the idea
that knowledge is dependent on one’s perspective. While in the Middle Ages, people believed
in God, Nietzsche (1844-1900) argued that “God is dead.” For some reason, many people just
accepted this, and thought that we are left with a contingent immanent reality. There are no
eternal fix-points in life –that’s what many postmodern followers of Nietzsche believe.
No Grand Narrative
A narrative is a history – a story. In his book from 1979, Lyotard emphasized
that in postmodernism one has left the idea of a grand narrative. In the Enlightenment, one
had certain ideas guiding the culture, a unified project, where knowledge and information
were important. In the Middle Ages, belief in God and the Bible gave society a grand
narrative. All aspects of life could be interpreted from a religious point of view, and a large
number of the population believed in God and Christianity.
But in postmodernism, society is more fragmented. Belief in the One Truth, or universal
criteria, has been substituted by a number of “small stories,” and a diversity of criteria.
I think for instance Europe or USA today is much more pluralist, than Europe in the Middle
Another idea within postmodernism, is social constructivism. I guess this idea can appear in
different versions. At its most extreme. It might be something like: ‘Reality is created by
social reality.’ But the main idea is that there is no objective knowledge or absolute
representation of reality. Many of our concepts and categories are based on the social reality,
and not because we veridically can represent physical reality. A Norwegian theologian has
been led to say that the distinction between the male and female sex is arbitrary, it is a social
construction. I will soon criticize this position. Some may even believe that scientific results
are constructs –the philosopher Daniel Dennett told about a person believing the DNA-
biology to be “just another story!”
So now we have emphasized three important traits in postmodernism: relativism, no universal
narrative and social constructivism. There are other keywords relating to this, like the
emphasis on contingency, and that language shapes our views of reality. Don Cupitt, for
instance, has said that language creates reality. “Reality does not determine language,
language determines reality.” This position may be called linguistic idealism, a radical and
quite bizarre idea that language constructs reality.
What is Wrong With Postmodernism?
Now it is time to evaluate postmodernism and look at some critical arguments. Is
postmodernism an acceptable philosophy? Are there counter-arguments against these views?
Let me first say that I believe postmodernism represents an important virtue. This virtue is
pluralism. Remember that I said that in postmodernism one has left the idea of a grand
narrative. There are many histories and ways of looking at reality in contemporary society,
and a diversity of opinions. This can be good. I do not believe that all the different paradigms
and approaches to reality in the global society today all can be true, and if pluralism leads
away from truth it has a very negative effect. But I do still believe that pluralism has certain
virtues. Interaction between different cultures, and the tolerance that sometimes is associated
with pluralism, can be a positive force. As Voltaire said, one may totally disagree with
another person, but until death defend his right to hold a different view that one’s own.
But although pluralism is a good thing, certain aspects of pluralism should, in my opinion, be
rejected. Let us look at some counter-arguments.
Relativism. Is relativism a sustainable thesis? I doubt it. Sometimes we may come to
recognize the relativity of our own views, and we don’t know if we are right in holding our
opinions. But this does not mean that relativism should be accepted. Something is true and
something is false. Let us take medical science as an example: chemotherapy may cure
cancer, while, say, drinking coca cola may not normally cure cancer. This is true! There was
once a Christian discussing with another student. The young student told the Christian that
there are no moral principles. They were sitting in a student room, and the Christian took
kettle of boiling water and held it over the student’s head. He just stood there with the boiling
water over his head, and then took it away. What an ingenious demonstration of the fact that
there are moral values that all must accept. It would be wrong to poor that boiling water over
the other person. There are certain absolutes, and we must continue to believe in this.
But the main argument against relativism is that it leads to logical contradictions. If you try to
defend relativism, you try to say something like “ There is no absolute truth”. Well, what
about that proposition? Do you deny that this is absolutely true? According to postmoderism
itself, you must, but why then accept it?
No Grand Narrative. As a description of contemporary culture, the point that there is no
grand narrative, is a good one. There is no unified theory guiding society now. Even though
science and technology is immensely advanced, not everyone believes in science as the key
to understanding all aspects of life. Some for instance prefer religion, while others dont care
because they are focused on poetry or music. To live in a pluralist society, can teach you
many things. Although I don’t think all cultures and groups possess the same amount of truth,
Its fun to meet people with different opinions, backgrounds, people from the Middle East,
Europe, USA and Latin-America. For instance, I have a problem with Norwegian girls.
Norwegian girls are supposed to be very pretty, but there is something about different
cultures and multi-culturalism that attracts me. Learning about different cultures is
interesting, and if the contemporary information flow can lead to this, it is good.
However, there is an important point to notice here. If there is such a thing as truth, one
should wish that as many people as possible will acknowledge and embrace it. Cultures
where science is not accepted, would perhaps benefit from changing their paradigm. Thus I
would like to say that I think it is important to note that it is possible to think that some
beliefs are better than others and should be accepted more universally than others. This must
not lead to chauvinism, but it is still something which is important to consider.
Social Constructivism. Social constructivism sometimes leads to intellectual confusion. When
someone argues that the distinction between male and female is arbitrary, I would simply
point to the fact that female vs male are categories found in nature. Reality is ordered, and
rational use of concepts and categories often has to do with being able to represent this
reality. Such rational categories impose themselves on the socially establish discourse, not the
other way around. I do believe that the human sex organs were there before society started to