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Postmodern Philosophy and the Problem of Language

QUESTION: Postmodern Philosophy – The Problem of Language


Another serious problem arises from a Postmodern philosophy of language: if each community determines what is true through its use of language, which community gets to decide between rival communities when it comes to conflicting ideas? Take for example such disputed ideas as suttee (the Hindu practice of burning widows on their deceased husband’s pyre), exterminating the Jewish race, or abolishing private ownership of property. Since no community can claim to be “right” on these or other issues, the result is an increased competition for which group will dominate the others. We are witnessing this kind of escalation between warring factions in many areas of society, from the college campus to the political arena to the international scene.

Elaborating on this problem is Jurgen Habermas, a German philosopher speaking from a Secular Humanist point of view. Ward explains: “Habermas sees Postmodernism’s apparent embrace of irrationality as morally bankrupt and believes, contrary to Lyotard, that some sort of universally agreed-upon framework is both possible and necessary in order to ensure that freedom and justice are achieved. Habermas disputes the claims of some Postmodern thinkers that human identity is unstable, fragmented, or ‘in process:’ for him we all, deep down, share eternal human needs and desires. The failure of the Postmodernists is that they refuse to propose a route towards the fulfillment of these.”1

Postmodern Philosophy – Science is the Universal Language
Paul Kurtz, in Humanist Manifesto 2000, agrees with Habermas and says that Postmodernism—“a philosophical-literary movement”—is nihilistic (the view that nothing can be known or communicated). In contrast to the idea that objective truth is unknowable, Kurtz declares that science offers “reasonably objective standards for judging its truth claims.” He says, “Science has become a universal language, speaking to all men and women no matter what their cultural backgrounds.”2

Kurtz fails, however, to acknowledge Christianity’s role in the foundation and development of modern science. Also, while Kurtz is correct in his statement that scientific knowledge can lead to Truth concerning the physical world, the Biblical Christian philosophy of knowledge also emphasizes revealed truth as a means for understanding other Truths, including our relationship to God.

Yet far more significant than these criticisms is the negative consequences of a Postmodern approach to language. For a telling example, look at the results of applying deconstruction to law revealed by the 1973 Roe v. Wade case. In handing down their decision, the majority of the Supreme Court justices chose to look at the Constitution as a “living document”—that is, open to many interpretations (polysemy). As a result, they invented new meanings from the original text—meanings that were not openly stated—and came up with a novel interpretation regarding a woman’s reproductive rights that has apparently gone unnoticed for almost 200 years. One consequence of that reinterpretation is that since 1973 over forty million unborn children have been murdered at the request of their mothers.

Postmodernists are correct about one thing—interpretation is important. Confucius is quoted as saying, “When words lose their meanings, people lose their freedom.”3 However, it is worse than that. In reality, when words lose their meaning, people not only lose their freedom, but their lives as well.


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 Glen Ward, Postmodernism (Chicago, IL: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 179.
2 Kurtz, Humanist Manifesto 2000, 22.
3 F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 106.

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