An Excellent Observation about Postmodernism

Cartoon by Judy Horacek (click for her website)

Cartoon by Judy Horacek (click for her website)

I was first exposed to postmodernism when I went to university. If you don’t recognize the term, it is rather hard to define, mostly because there are so many variants of it. However, it generally refers to the idea that there are very few (if any) objective truths. Most of the things we hold to be “true” are only true for our experiences. Someone with a completely different set of experiences might come up with a completely different sent of “truths,” and those “truths” are just as valid as the “truths” that we come up with.

Consider, for example, the insightful cartoon above. The first panel shows an artist who has apparently come up with something he thinks is amazing. Because he sees that it is good, he considers himself to be a genius. The second panel shows a postmodern artist, who says that there is no such thing as a genius, because that category is dependent on culture. Of course, he thinks he is a genius for recognizing this fact!

Now, when it comes to art there is a measure of truth here. What is beautiful to one person might be quite unpleasant to someone else. As the old maxim states, beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. However, I think it is possible to recognize the genius of an artist, even if you don’t find his or her art appealing. A postmodernist would not agree. Moreover, a strict postmodernist would apply this idea of “truth” everywhere, even in science. According to the postmodernist, a “scientific fact” isn’t a fact at all. It is a social construct, and it might be quite different in another culture or society.

Obviously, I think postmodernism is mostly nonsense. Apparently, so does Andrew Klavan. In a previous post, I discussed his book, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. I noted that he makes some very profound statements, and one of them required its own blog post. Well, I got distracted (probably by something shiny) and only now remembered that I wanted to blog about it. As you might have guessed, it has to do with postmodernism.

In chapter 8, he discusses the “mad scene” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In that scene, the title character (Hamlet) is pretending to be insane. Klavan writes:

When he’s asked what he’s reading, he answers weirdly, “Words, words, word.” He talks about how his internal moods seem to transform outer reality so that he can never be sure what the world is really like. Morality especially has come to seem to him completely dependent on his own opinions. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” he says.

How wild was this? Shakespeare had predicted postmodernism and moral relativism hundreds of years before they came into being! Like Hamlet, the postmodernists were declaring that language did not describe the world around us…Like Hamlet, the postmodernists announced that what we thought was reality was just a construct of our minds…And like Hamlet, the postmodernists had dismissed the notion of absolute morality…

But there was one big difference. Hamlet said these things when he was pretending to be mad. My professors said them and pretended to be sane.

Indeed.

7 Comments

  1. Kaydi says:

    Great point!

  2. John D. says:

    Sometimes it feels like post-modernism and evolution have a bit in common in that they both have become universal lenses.

    An old friend of mine was a liberal arts PHD candidate and I remember EVERYTHING being viewed in light of postmodernism. He and his classmates were especially obsessed with Michel Foucault and what “Foucault would say” in a situation. I know there is some debate as to whether or not Foucault was a postmodernist. He specifically rallied against the label despite seeming to fall in line with many of the movements tenets. To me this illustrates the postmodern point precisely.

    The mentioning of art in this post brought to mind a documentary I thoroughly enjoyed (despite being a fan of some modern art myself!) I would highly recommend “Why Beauty Matters” to anyone who hasn’t seen it. In it philosopher Roger Scruton lambasts the modern art movement and some of the more ridiculous fruits it’s produced (Duchamp’s signed urinal, “Artists Can of Sh*t”, etc). They also critique a very “postmodern” piece called “An Oak Tree” which is just a glass of water sitting on a glass shelf. There is an explanation nearby explaining why it is an oak tree.

    It can be seen free here – https://vimeo.com/128428182

  3. Jake says:

    Eehhh… I think it’s an exaggeration to say that Shakespeare “predicted” postmodernism, and that relativism “came into being” around the same time as postmodernism when we have clear examples of relativism in Protagoras and the Sophists. And I think I agree with basically all of what Leffel describes as postmodernism – except the parts about foundationalism – truth and morality being relative. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the ridiculous postmodern interpretation of Just’s theories on cytoplasm actually has some basis in reality, though I definitely think it’s grasping at thin air and of little use.

    I feel like Leffel’s critique of postmodernism is pretty weak: Claiming that babies learn concepts and then attach words to them does little to undermine the postmodern view of language, as language is a phenomenon that requires interaction among multiple people and doesn’t make sense applied to an individual with no community. (The baby still gets its language from the community anyway.) It’s not wrong that language is a tool for expressing thought, but that doesn’t make it any less socially constructed. Also, Leffel’s “It also seems true in the history of science that researchers may select and interpret data based on philosophical commitment” is very much an understatement. Leffel is right, of course, about the connection between relativism and fascism, but that’s low-hanging fruit in my opinion.

    I don’t think postmodernism is mostly nonsense – though I do agree that relativism is nonsense – because postmodern thinking functions as a useful problem-solving tool (as Kuhn might say). The theory-ladenness of observation makes sense in terms of postmodern linguistics, and that’s one of the concepts Quine used to take down logical positivism. That scientific theories are socially constructed is also important, as understanding that helps us argue that the scientific community can be wrong (e.g., about quasicrystals and global warming). The nonsensical part is when the postmodernist (you yourself called this “strict” postmodernism) says there is no truth – that the unavoidability of social construction makes every construction equal. But even “strict” postmodernism betrays itself here, for it always talks in terms of power. And how can a social construction gain power (and become “oppressive”) if it’s no better than any other construction? Power seems to correlate with something real, at least as far as science goes.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Good points, Jake, especially the bit about Protagoras. After all, he was the one who said, “Man is the measure of all things.”

  4. Eduardo says:

    “those truths are just as valid as the truths that we come up with” is this truth?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Hehe. I suppose it is, as long as it is what your culture has determined to be truth!

  5. Bill McClymonds says:

    As others have pointed out, the reply to a person who says there is no truth is a question. Is that true? The statement there is no truth is self refuting. If there is no truth, the statement that there is no truth could not be true.

    A person could also say there is no objective truth. In that case, you should ask the person if their statement is objectively true. Again, saying there is no objective truth is a self refuting statement.

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