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A Summary of Postmodern Philosophy

QUESTION: A Summary of Postmodern Philosophy


Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is a shrewd observer of the Postmodern scene and a somewhat sympathetic critic. In addition, he understands the important role Nietzsche played in expressing the foundational ideas for Postmodernism.1 He writes, “Nietzsche, the patron saint of postmodernity, prophesied accurately: if God is dead, then it’s interpretation ‘all the way down.’...[O]ne word only points to another word and never to reality itself. No one interpretation can ever be regarded as final. As in interpretation, so in life: everything becomes undecidable.”2

Vanhoozer points us to the late C.S. Lewis, who foresaw the shift toward Postmodernist thinking. Lewis’ term for this movement is “bulverism” after its imaginary inventor Ezekiel Bulver. Vanhoozer explains: “Lewis imagines the moment that bulverism was born, when five-year-old Ezekiel heard his mother say to his father, ‘Oh, you say that because you are a man.’ Bulver intuitively grasped the stunning implication: arguments need not be refuted, only situated. One rebuts a thought simply by calling attention to the genealogy or location of its thinker.”3 Probably nothing in Postmodernism today would surprise Lewis.

A Summary of Postmodernism
Vanhoozer offers a concise summary of Postmodern philosophy:
  1. The mark of the Postmodern condition of knowledge is a move away from the authority of universal science toward narratives of local knowledge.4
  2. Postmodernists reject the notion of universal rationality; reason is always situated within particular narratives, traditions, institutions, and practices.
  3. Postmodernists reject unifying, totalizing, universal schemes in favor of new emphases on difference, plurality, fragmentation, and complexity.
  4. Postmodernists reject the notion that the person is an autonomous individual with a rational consciousness that transcends his or her particular place in culture, language, history, and gendered body.
  5. Postmodernists agree with Nietzsche that “God” (that is to say, the supreme being of classical theism) has become unbelievable, as have the autonomous self and the meaning of history.
  6. What we know about things is linguistically, culturally, and socially constructed. Language stands for the socially constructed order within which we think and move and have our being.5

Rendered with permission from the book,Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews(Rev. 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.

1 See Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1997), Will Du rant’s The Story of Philosophy, and John P. Koster, The Atheist Syndrome (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, 1989) for background material on Nietzsche.
2 Penner, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views, 78.
3 Ibid., 76.
4 Postmodernists were not the first to offer such a view of knowledge. Bertrand Russell held a similar view—”all truths are particular truths.” See Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion (London, UK: Rutledge Classics, 2002), 127. Midgley offers a classic critique of this position, quoting Wittgenstein that “particular propositions cannot always be prior to general ones. Both are elements in language, which is itself an element in our whole system of behaviour. In a crucial sense, the whole is always prior to its parts. And unquestionably this kind of belief in a law-abiding universe... is a precondition of any possible physical science.”
5 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., Postmodern Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), 10–13.

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