What is Postmodernism?
1. 30-Second Definition
Postmodernism (also known as PoMo) is a branch of philosophy that developed throughout the 1900’s. To put it simply, postmodernists are skeptical of (or fundamentally oppose) many of the core elements of Western liberal democratic systems; things like individuality, reason, and science.
Generally speaking, postmodernists believe that:
- People can’t know anything for certain; therefore everything is relative, including scientific knowledge.
- Because everything is relative, the dominant culture in a society isn’t inherently better or worse than the alternatives.
- Therefore, dominant cultures are oppressive by nature because they must discourage or exclude other perspectives.
What this generally means is that the dominant culture (i.e Western liberal democracy) must be overthrown to create a more fair, multicultural, and just society.
2. Two-Minute Explanation
Postmodernism is an extension of Marxism, which sees the world as divided into an ‘oppressor’ class and an ‘oppressed’ class. Instead of dividing people up by wealth (as in classic Marxism/Communism), PoMo divides people up by identity group – sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion.
The core belief of Marxism is that our society is corrupt and must be thrown to achieve economic equality. You can see how that turned out by looking at the USSR, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Mao’s China. The death toll is in the hundreds of millions.
The core belief of PoMo is essentially the same thing – our society is corrupt and must be overthrown to create *social* equality. Anyone with privilege must relinquish that privilege, otherwise they are a willful oppressor and are the enemy.
The sentiment is the same distortion of reality as classic Marxism, and if you look at the riots on US college campuses, the methods are more or less the same.
3. Extended Commentary
In his book Explaining Postmodernism, Dr. Stephen Hicks lays out a pretty comprehensive history of the entire philosophy, including a full examination of the core elements of postmodernism.
The charts used on this page are from his book, with permission, and are also available on his website.
Fundamental elements of Postmodernism
Postmodernism, at its heart, is based on skepticism of the kinds of cultural perspectives and values that we take for granted in Western liberal democracies.
In his book La Condition Postmoderne, one of the foundational books of the philosophy, Jean-François Lyotard calls these paradigms “metanarratives”, implying that concepts like truth and justice are simply that; subjective narratives.
“I will use the term ‘modern’ to designate any science that legitimizes itself with reference to … some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.
For example, the rule of consensus between the sender and addressee of a statement with truth-value is deemed acceptable if it is cast in terms of a possible unanimity between rational minds: this is the Enlightenment narrative, in which the hero of knowledge works towards a good ethico-political end – universal peace.
As can be seen from this example, if a metanarrative implying a philosophy of history is used to legitimize knowledge, questions are raised concerning the validity of the institutions governing the social bond: these must be legitimized as well. Thus justice is consigned to the grand narrative in the same way as truth.
Simplifying to the extreme, I define ‘postmodern’ as incredulity towards metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences, but that progress in turn presupposes it.”
– Jean-François Lyotard –
“La Condition Postmoderne”
At first glance, it isn’t all that unreasonable to question whether or not some of the foundational beliefs of our society are universally valid.
However, postmodern takes what might otherwise have been a healthy skepticism and mixes it with assumptions about human nature and human relationships, many of which are incorrect.
For example, postmodernists assume that humans are stuck in frames of reference determined by things such as race, sex, gender, class, and country of origin. Therefore, communication between different groups is limited and ineffectual, meaning that it’s impossible for people to reach a true consensus on things.
Postmodernists also (wrongly) assume that people are primarily motivated by power, and that in the absence of true consensus and understanding, language is only a tool to gain power. Lyotard refers to these as “language games”.
Example: On the popular website Derailing for Dummies, an anonymous (and brilliantly sarcastic) author provides a list of common “language games” used by people debating social justice activists. One of them is “Derailing using Intellectualism”, which claims that appeals to rationality are not efforts to define reality through discourse, but are simply ways to maintain the upper hand in an interaction:
“If you really want to excel as a privileged person you need to learn to value data, statistics, research studies and empirical evidence above all things, but especially above personal experiences. You can pretend you are oblivious to the fact most studies have been carried out by privileged people and therefore carry inherent biases, and insist that the marginalized person produce “Evidence” of what they‘re claiming.Their experience does not count as evidence, for it is subjective and therefore worthless.
You see, the very capacity to conduct studies, collect data and write detached “fact-based” reports on it, is an inherently privileged activity. The ability to widely access this material and research it exhaustively is also inherently privileged. Privileged People® find it easier to pursue these avenues than marginalized people and so once again you are reminding them you possess this privilege and reinforcing that the world at large values a system of analysis that excludes them, and values it over what their actual personal experience has been.
The process of valuing “fact” over “opinion” is one very much rooted in preserving privilege. Through this methodology, the continued pain and othering of millions of people can be ignored because it’s supported by “opinion” (emotion) and not “fact” (rationality).”
– Derailing for Dummies –
In Explaining Postmodernism, Dr. Hicks condensed the characteristics of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern philosophies into an easy-to-read table:
Political Postmodernism: Ties to Marxism
“If a deep skepticism about reason and the consequent subjectivism and relativism were the most important part of the story of postmodernism, then we would expect to find that postmodernists represent a roughly random distribution of commitments across the political spectrum.
If values and politics are primarily a matter of a subjective leap into whatever fits one’s preferences, then we should find people making leaps into all sorts of political programs.
Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty are all far Left. And so are Jacques Lacan, Stanley Fish, Catharine MacKinnon, Andreas Huyssen, and Frank Lentricchia.
Of the major names in the postmodernist movement, there is not a single figure who is not Left-wing in a serious way. So there is something else going on besides epistemology.”
– Stephen Hicks –
It’s no secret that academics have always tended towards the political Left. For almost a century, intellectuals advocated Marxist socialism as the next step in economics and governance.
However, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Leftist arguments in favour of socialism had been largely debunked as stories of atrocities and massacres committed by socialist countries like the USSR, Mao’s China, Vietnam, and Cambodia reached the West.
As millions refugees streamed over the USSR’s borders, an honest argument in favor of Marxism was almost impossible to come by. It became perfectly clear that liberal capitalist democracies were flourishing, while people living in socialist states suffered almost universally.
“Marxism was and is a class analysis, pitting economic classes against each other in a zero-sum competition.
This class analysis yielded three definite predictions. First, it predicted that the proletariat would increase as a percentage of the population and become poorer: as capitalist competition progressed, more and more people would be forced to sell their labour; and as the supply of those selling their labor increased, the wages they could demand would necessarily decrease.
Second, it predicted that the middle class would decrease to a very small percentage of the population: zero-sum competition means there are winners and losers, and while a few would be consistently winners and thus become rich capitalists, most would lost at some point and be forced into the proletariat.
Third, it predicted that the capitalists would also decrease as a percentage of the population: zero-sum competition also applies to competition among the capitalists, generating a few consistent winners in control of everything while the rest would be forced down the economic ladder.
Yet that was not how it worked out. By the early twentieth century it seemed that all three of the predictions failed to characterize the development of the capitalist countries. The class of manual laborers had both declined as a percentage of the population and become relatively better off. And the middle class had grown substantially both as a percentage of the population and in wealth, as had the upper class.”
– Stephen Hicks –
As it became increasingly clear that a class-based analysis did not hold up under any kind of scrutiny, new types of group-based analysis emerged. The so-called Frankfurt School, which existed in Germany in the 1960’s, attempted to combine the works of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Weber, and others into a cohesive social theory.
Among many developments in postmodernist theory, some key themes emerged during this time period:
- Since it was obvious that capitalism generally lifted people out of poverty, Marxists began to focus less on the need for societies to provide people with the necessities of life and more on the concept of equal distribution of wealth.
- Marxists movements began to emphasize race, sex, and ethnic identities over class identities: essentially creating an infinite number of “sub-proletariat” groups oppressed by society instead of a single economic proletariat class.
The bleed-over between contemporary Marxist thought and postmodernist philosophers in the 1960’s was considerable. Four of the most prominent postmodernist academics – Michel Foucault, Jean-Francçois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty – were all socialists, born and educated within years of one another, and rose to prominence after classical Marxism was revealed to be intellectually and morally bankrupt.
As a result, the attitudes of postmodernism are decidedly far-Left, and were heavily influenced by Marxist scholarship that took place in the 1960’s, such as the work of the Frankfurt School.
The below graph, taken from Explaining Postmodernism, shows how postmodernism can be seen as an extension of socialist attempts at reforming society.
Implications & Consequences
So, given that postmodernism is deeply skeptical of metanarratives (especially Western narratives), and the foundational thinkers of the philosophy were all far-Left socialists, what does this all mean?
“Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida are just three of the “founding fathers” of postmodernism but their ideas share common themes with other influential “theorists” and were taken up by later postmodernists who applied them to an increasingly diverse range of disciplines within the social sciences and humanities.
We’ve seen that this includes an intense sensitivity to language on the level of the word and a feeling that what the speaker means is less important than how it is received, no matter how radical the interpretation.
Shared humanity and individuality are essentially illusions and people are propagators or victims of discourses depending on their social position; a position which is dependent on identity far more than their individual engagement with society.
Morality is culturally relative, as is reality itself. Empirical evidence is suspect and so are any culturally dominant ideas including science, reason, and universal liberalism. These are Enlightenment values which are naïve, totalizing and oppressive, and there is a moral necessity to smash them.
Far more important is the lived experience, narratives and beliefs of “marginalized” groups all of which are equally “true” but must now be privileged over Enlightenment values to reverse an oppressive, unjust and entirely arbitrary social construction of reality, morality and knowledge.
– Helen Pluckrose –
“How French Intellectuals Ruined the West”
Postmodernism, in the modern age at least, is an ideology which holds that the success of contemporary society is a result of exploitation and oppression of minority groups.
Although there is a kernel of truth in this claim (see: the colonization of North America), the corollary to this interpretation of Western dominance is that it is not an optimal societal configuration, and therefore must be torn down to build something better.
Some of the implications and consequences of this outlook include;
- Anti-rationality is now deeply entrenched in the humanities and social sciences being taught in university.
- Identity politics and political correctness, couched in oppressor/oppressed language, is now an incredibly powerful force in modern discourse.
- Personal experience is now seen as equally valid as scientific evidence, resulting in fringe movements like transracialism and transpeciesism.
4. Why should anyone care about philosophy?
To be honest, philosophy is a difficult subject for people to get excited about. Most philosophical discussions take place late at night under the influence of alcohol or marijuana, and quickly end with the realization that the conversation is going nowhere fast.
But postmodernism is important enough for everyone to understand. Here’s why:
- It is now widely accepted as truth in almost all Western universities, especially the humanities and social sciences, and especially gender studies. Tens of thousands of students per year are now being indoctrinated to hate the very foundations of Western society.
- Postmodernist principles are now influencing legislation in our governments, such as Bill C-16 in Canada, which are built on social constructivist views of human development favored by postmodernists (and disproved by the ‘hard sciences’ like biology).
- Even businesses are now becoming affected. “Anti-Bias training” is becoming more commonplace, despite all existing scientific evidence suggesting that it actually makes things worse.
- It’s not just a war of ideas; many people have lost their jobs and livelihoods due to the efforts of vindictive social justice activists.
5. If this is such a problem, what do we do about it?
Honestly, nobody really knows what to do yet. A lot of the concepts that postmodernism teaches seem plausible and are extremely seductive, especially to well-meaning young people who care deeply about improving our society.
This website hopes to be a part of the solution in three ways;
- Helping people understand what postmodernism is and how it operates.
- Collecting news about people who have successfully stood up to postmodernist principles, in the hopes that we can find courses of actions that work.
- Coordinating efforts to oppose postmodernist activism in our campuses, governments, businesses, and institutions.
6. Change Log
June 12, 2017
– Finished the first iteration of this page. Section 2 still needs a lot of work, including more robust ties between PoMo and Marxism, as well as more quotes from source material regarding the formation of identity politics and its relation to skepticism of rationality.
– Implications & Shortcomings could be fleshed out as well in the next iteration.
June 19, 2017
– Added a “Two-Minute Explanation” section, renamed S3 (previously S2) to “Extended Commentary”.
– Still have to round out the Extended Commentary, as well as implications/shortcomings.