A Brief and Inadequate Introduction to Postmodernism:

     Copyright © 2004 Bruce W. Hauptli

The question “What is postmodernism?”  Is bad in several ways.  First it carries the presumption that a set of necessary and sufficient characteristics could be specified in the effort to capture the “essence” of postmodernism.  This presumption has to be false as a central theme of postmodern thought is the rejection of timeless and static essentialistic thought.  Whereas much of philosophy in the Western tradition has sought such essences, many 20th century philosophers have raised serious questions as to whether or not there “really are” such things.  Following the mature thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein (his views in his “later period”), many maintain that there is not a useful set of characteristics which can be appealed to if one wants to capture the nature of “language,” for example.  Just as there is no single characteristic which one can appeal to in characterizing all the things we call “games,” so there is no one characteristic (and no simple set of characteristics) which capture exactly what it is to be a language.  Wittgenstein, instead, speaks of “language-games,” and uses the metaphor to indicate that there are a variety of overlapping characteristics, and a set of conventionally “clear-cut” cases as well as several families of “border-line” cases.

     To understand postmodernism, of course, one has to have a conception of “modernism.”  Modernists held to the Enlightenment picture which posited the view that there are universal and timeless truths (both in science and in morality), that these truths could be reached via objective methodologies, and that individuals of radically different times and cultures could come to recognize these truths.  In short, the modernists held there was “a way the world is,” and they held that we could come to rationally understand this “way.”  Modernists also generally believed in the idea of “human progress”—they believed that as we pursued the objective truths of science and morality, we would improve our condition.

     While many postmodern thinkers are attracted to elements in this “Enlightenment picture,” they reject its core elements.  Postmodernists contend that all descriptions (analyses, theories, evaluations, etc.) are such from a perspective, and they contend that the Modernists often (though, sometimes unconsciously) adopted perspectives which were colonial, racist, capitalist, sexist, paternalistic, and homophobic.

     Here, however, it becomes difficult to continue.  The Postmodernists are more unified by what they reject rather than what they accept.  Modernists frequently contend that this is the case because there is a fundamental logical flaw at the core of the Postmodernists’ vision.

     The following two sites are helpful in attaining a “positive” characterization of postmodernism:



     Another way of trying to clarify some of the central elements of the postmodernists’ views if by looking at some of the criticisms of the orientation which have been offered.  In his “The Sleep of Reason,” Thomas Nagel offers a concise version of this critique:

...the denial of objective truth on the ground that all systems of belief are determined by social forces is self-refuting if we take it seriously, since it appeals to a sociological or historical claim that would not establish the conclusion unless it were objectively correct.  Moreover, it promotes one discipline, such as sociology or history, over the others whose objectivity it purports to debunk, such as physics and mathematics.1

In his Teachers Without Goals: Students Without Purposes, Henry Perkinson offers a longer version of this critique.  He maintains that:

in the fifties, many philosophers began to follow the later work of Wittgenstein, abandoning the ideal of truth and replacing it with the quest for meaning.  Meaningful knowledge, they said, was useful knowledge; i.e., the meaning of a symbol, a word, a phrase, a statement, a text, was now said to depend upon the way language is used.  And since different groups use language differently, or play different language games, the meaning of a proposition becomes relative to a speech community.  Although they abandoned the notion of truth and substituted meaning in its place, these philosophers still retained the belief that knowledge had to be justified.  But now justified knowledge was simply knowledge that had meaning to some group.  A justified proposition was one used in accordance with the language rules of some linguistic community.  To justify a proposition, one had only to describe its meaning to some group.2

Since there are many, many distinct communities, however, such justification appears to be without point, and, it seems, “anything goes.”  This appears to make “postmodern pedagogy” impossible:

Why should students accept acculturation into the language games of the experts?  Especially if that language game has nothing to do with truth?  The only answer that postmodern teachers can give is that we are all continually playing games....The teacher’s game is to socialize or acculturate students to the language games of the experts.  The students’ game consists of learning those language games....
  Here, as in much of postmodern thought, description substitutes for explanation: take it or leave it.  At bottom then, education in the hands of postmodern teachers becomes a political activity.  That is, those who have the power impose language games on those who do not.  That is what education is.3
These post-postmodernist educators want to unmask the traditional school subjects of history, literature, social sciences, and even the natural sciences.  These post-postmodern teachers help students to “see through” the traditional subject matters, help them see how the “oppressors” have used these subject matters, both to oppress females, blacks, and non-Europeans and to get them to accept this oppression and victimization by telling students that the knowledge taught to them is justified.  This post-postmodern approach to education makes students conscious that education is nothing but a political act, a transaction that socializes people to some linguistic community.  Moreover, through this approach, students are brought to understand that the program of traditional subject matters—created by the hegemonic linguistic community of white, male Europeans—must be destroyed and a new one set up in its place—one that is feminist, black, and non-European; an educational program that will empower those who heretofore have been victimized.4

     In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education, Martha Nussbaum maintains that:

attack upon logic: they charge that the central forms of logical argumentation don’t suit the minds of women, or minorities, or non-Western people.  Although these views are sometimes put forward by people who wish to deny full political equality to minorities or to women, their influence in the academy derives from the fact that they are also put forward in a progressive spirit, as if we cannot help disadvantaged groups to make progress unless we recognize the “fact” that logic itself is patriarchal or a tool of colonial oppression.  But we do not respect the humanity of any human being unless we assume that person to be capable of understanding the basic issues of consistency and validity and the basic forms of inference.  We sell that person short as a human being unless we work to make that person’s potentiality for logical thought into an active reality.  Such criticisms typically show ignorance of the logical traditions of non-Western peoples and a condescending attitude to the logical abilities of women and racial minorities.5

     In his “Afterword: Pragmatism, Pluralism and Postmodernism,” Richard Rorty maintains that:

but perhaps the transvaluation of traditional philosophical values to which I have referred—the shift from unity to plurality—was simply an attempt by philosophers to climb on an economic and military bandwagon?  Perhaps philosophy was simply following the flag?
  A Deweyan response to such a postcolonial sceptic would go something like this: Sure, pragmatism and utilitarianism might never have gotten off the ground without a boost from colonialist and imperialist triumphalism.  But so what?  The question is not whether the popularity of these philosophical views was the product of this or that transitory hold on power, but whether anybody now has any better ideas or any better utopias.  We pragmatists are not arguing that modern Europe has any superior insight into eternal, ahistorical realities.  We do not claim any superior rationality.  We claim only an experimental success: we have come up with a way of bringing people into some degree of comity, and of increasing human happiness, which looks more promising than any other way which has been proposed so far. 6 

Insofar as ‘postmodern’ philosophical thinking is identified with a mindless and stupid cultural relativism—with the idea that any fool thing that calls itself culture is worthy of respect—then I have no use for such thinking.  But I do not see that what I have called ‘philosophical pluralism’ entails any such stupidity.  The reason to try persuasion rather than force, to do our best to come to terms with people whose convictions are archaic and ingenerate, is simply that using force, or mockery, or insult, is likely to decrease human happiness.7

  We do not need to supplement this wise utilitarian counsel with the idea that every culture has some sort of intrinsic worth.  We have learned the futility of trying to assign all cultures and persons places on a hierarchical scale, but this realization does not impugn the obvious fact that there are lots of cultures we would be better off without, just as there are lots of people we would be better off without.  To say that there is no such scale, and that we are simply clever animals trying to increase our happiness by continually reinventing ourselves, has no relativistic consequences.  The difference between pluralism and cultural relativism is the difference between pragmatically justified tolerance and mindless irresponsibility.

     An interesting site on the internet is:


This site purports to generate instances of postmodern scholarship which are wholly meaningless.


Thomas Nagel, “The Sleep of Reason,” The New Republic, October 12, 1998, pp. 32-38, p. 36.  Emphasis added to the passage.

2 Henry Perkinson, Teachers Without Goals: Students Without Purposes (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 51.

3  Ibid., p. 54.

4  Ibid., p. 55.

5 Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1997), p. 38.

6  Richard Rorty, “Afterword: Pragmatism, Pluralism and Postmodernism,” in his Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin, 1999), pp. 262-277, p. 273.

7  Ibid., p. 276.

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