Postmodern Philosophy – Introduction
Richard Rorty summarizes Postmodern philosophy well, “We...[should] give up the correspondence theory of truth, and start treating moral and scientific beliefs as tools for achieving greater human happiness, rather than as representations of the intrinsic nature of reality.”1
The philosophical ideas of Postmodernism divide modern-day academia. Today’s college students will find Postmodernism ruling the day in their humanities and social studies courses, but will also find Modernism still prevalent in their science, engineering, and mathematics courses.2 As well, there is little acceptance of the Postmodern approach to knowledge and truth in America’s philosophy departments. The Postmodern notion that truth is community-oriented likewise appeals to few Christian theologians.3
While there is no single cohesive Postmodern philosophy (rather, there are several), a few consistent themes emerge from each mainstream Postmodern writer.
Postmodern Philosophy – Subjective Truth
One of the themes in Postmodern philosophy is a denial of universal, objective truth. This is clearly declared in Jean- Francois Lyotard’s famous statement “incredulity towards metanarrative.”4 A metanarrative refers to a unifying story that seeks to explain how the world is—in other words a metanarrative is a worldview. Lyotard suggests that we should be skeptical of such broad explanations. For example, the statement “God so loved the world” is nonsensical to Postmodernists for two reasons: (1) they deny the existence of God, and (2) statements reflecting the whole world (metanarratives) are impossible.
For Postmodernists, since there is no universal Truth (capital “T”), there are only “truths” (small “t”) that are particular to a society or group of people and limited to individual perception. Written or verbal statements can reflect only a particular localized culture or individual point of view. A well-worn catchphrase we hear in this regard is, “That may be true for you, but not for me.”
Yet, by making the universal statement that there are no metanarratives, Postmodernists have put themselves in the position of creating a metanarrative. Their story that explains the world is that there are no explanations of the world, only local stories told by various cultures. For this reason, we refer to Postmodernism as the anti-worldview worldview.
Postmodern Philosophy – Language and Deconstruction
Regarding literature, Postmodernists are highly concerned with the language of written texts. The term defining the major literary methodology of Postmodernists is deconstruction. Associated with the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, deconstruction involves reading a text to ferret out its hidden or multiple meanings (polysemy). In this way, a reader’s interpretation of the text becomes more important than the text itself. Also significant is the subjectivity of the reader in determining what the author intended. For example, a reader may feel that a particular text really means an author is racist, even though the written text makes it clear that the author deplores racism.
In 1968, Roland Barthes wrote a short essay entitled “The Death of the Author.” In this essay he argued that the origin of the text is not the important thing, rather it is the destination—the reader. By allowing the reader to invent new meanings, the text is freed from the tyranny of the author’s single intended meaning.
For example, there is no reason to assume “that a Shakespearean play means exactly the same thing today as it did when first performed.”5 Each author (or artist) is the product of his or her own cultural setting and uses language to fit his or her condition. Thus, Postmodern literary criticism claims that words never describe the objective world but only refer to other words.6 Therefore, no matter how a writer constructs a sentence, it can never tell us about the real world, but only about the world as understood by the reader. This concept is summed up in the phrase, “That’s just your interpretation.”
Postmodern Philosophy – Anti-Realism and the Construction of Reality
The concept of deconstruction in Postmodern philosophy is taken far beyond the area of literature. Just as you, the reader, are creating the meaning of this text, you also construct the world according to your culture and experiences. In other words, there is no “real world” out there—only six billion constructions of the world, a belief known as anti-realism.7
Traditionally, Truth (with a capital “T”) was understood as the relationship between the real, objective world and statements that correspond to the real world. This view is called the correspondence theory of truth. However, Postmodernists claim this kind of Truth is impossible to achieve. There is no universal “Truth,” only personal, subjective truths that exist only in a particular situation or cultural surrounding. Thus, according to the Postmodernist paradigm of anti-realism, there is no real world to which truth can correspond. Rather, our words correspond only to other words and, in the end, create our understanding of reality. If words signify only other words, then words can never be used in the pursuit of Truth.
A classic example of the concept that words do not refer to reality is found in Foucault’s essay entitled, “This Is Not a Pipe.” In this essay, he analyzes a 1966 painting by Magritte that shows a picture of a pipe on a blackboard with the written phrase “This is not a pipe.” Above the blackboard is an abstraction of a pipe hanging in the air. Foucault insists that none of these is a pipe, but merely a text that simulates a pipe.8
The primary idea behind this “word play” is the Postmodern insistence that all human beings are conditioned by their culture and language—their situation in life—and that no one is able to break through his or her situation to engage a universe with objectively true statements of fact. ‘Water wets’ is true for only a small community of individuals locked in their own language and culture. In addition, it is true only as long as this community agrees upon this particular usage. In fact, the community determines what is truth through the words it chooses to use.
Richard Rorty has said that truth for him is whatever his community of scholars allows him to get away with. If Rorty says the moon is made of green cheese and his community does not disagree with him, then for him the moon is made of green cheese. Again, reality is not what objectively exists; reality is produced by our agreement of what it is. We do not discover true facts about the real world—we create it.
French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard took this concept to its logical conclusion. In 1991 he claimed that the Gulf War was not real, but merely simulated for CNN television. The truth that real people were killed did not seem to enter the equation. In actuality, not all Postmodernists take the concept of language and reality to Baudrillard’s extreme. Yet, as Glenn Ward notes, this piece has been used “. . . to discredit not only Baudrillard, but Postmodernism’s abandonment of truth and evaluation.”9
Postmodern Philosophy – Conclusion
As opposed to the relativism of Postmodern philosophy, Christian students need to understand that according to the Christian worldview “Truth” exists. Nearly everything about Christianity is universal in scope and application. God created the whole universe, including men and women. Sin is a universal condition affecting every human being. God loved the whole world, including every human being. Christ died for the sins of the whole world, not just one or two particular communities. Christians are to love God with all their heart and mind and their fellow human beings around the world.
Most importantly, God chose to communicate the Truth about Himself and His world by words contained in the Scriptures and the language of the heavens (Psalm 19). God’s words do not depend upon a reader’s interpretation. Instead, the reader is to interpret the Bible according to God’s intention. The Apostle Peter is clear when he writes, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19–21).
To correctly understand the meaning of any text of Scripture, we should heed Paul’s advice to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) By acknowledging that God has communicated in language Truth about the real world, and by diligently studying the Bible, you can know the Truth that sets you free (John 8:32).