Postmodernism Redefined

The cover of Dr. Lawler’s book

I am not a fan of postmodernism, at least as it is generally defined. Because of this, I have written a couple of posts (here and here) that portray it in a negative light. A frequent commenter on this blog, Jake, took issue with my negative portrayal and suggested that I read Postmodernism Rightly Understood by Dr. Peter Augustine Lawler.

Since I appreciate Jake’s excellent comments and have learned from him on more than one occasion, I wanted to read the book, but it took me a while to get to it. I finally did read it last week. It was an interesting book that discussed several important authors and their ideas. Some of the authors (like Walker Percy, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Allan Bloom) were familiar to me, but others weren’t. As a result, I learned a lot and was exposed to several new ideas. However, I think the book misses the mark.

Now, of course, I am practicing philosophy without a license, while Dr. Lawler is a trained philosopher with lots of experience. Thus, you can take this criticism for what it is worth. Nevertheless, I don’t think this book is a defense of postmodernism. It is more of a discussion of anti-modernism, and based on Lawler’s obvious admiration of Walker Percy (who definitely deserves admiration), it is more a defense of Thomism.

Of course, it’s easy to get lost in the language of philosophy, so let’s make sure we are all on the same page. When it comes to philosophy, modernism suggests that we should ignore traditions (both religious and social) and the inherent biases that come with them, and we should try to judge the world critically. The more unbiased we can be in our judgments, the better. If we do that, we will be able to control our own destiny.

Dr. Lawler defines modernism a bit more narrowly:

By modern thought I mean the attempt to master or overcome nature through action directed by thought. Modern thought, roughly speaking, can be called pragmatism. The point of thought, as Karl Marx said, is not to understand the world but to change it. (p. 1)

I have no problem with that definition of modernism, and Lawler deftly shows that it is an untenable view. As a result, he says, any reasonable philosopher must be a postmodernist. That’s where I have a problem. I would say that any reasonable philosopher must be an anti-modernist, not a postmodernist.

I say this because while postmodernism is, by its very nature, difficult to define, one of its core tenets is to be very skeptical of universal meanings or universal truths. I may accept certain truths, but those truths are far from universal. Other individuals from other cultures or other backgrounds might have very different truths, and there is no way to argue whose “truths” are more or less reasonable than mine. One person’s “truths” are just as valuable as another person’s “truths.”

Dr. Lawler seems to be too good a philosopher to believe that kind of nonsense, so he chooses to redefine postmodernism. As his book’s title suggests, he thinks that the best postmodern philosophy is realism:

Realism, Christopher Lasch and Walker Percy agree, is postmodernism rightly understood. (p. 179)

I am not familiar with Lasch, and I have clearly not read as much Percy as Dr. Lawler, but I would be skeptical that Percy would consider himself a postmodernist. Once again, he is definitely an anti-modernist, but not a postmodernist. Instead, he is clearly a Thomist.

What is Thomism? It is a school of philosophical thought inspired by the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was a committed Roman Catholic and accepted the truths as taught by the Roman Catholic church. However, he was convinced that there were other sources of truth as well. Indeed, he thought that even pagans like Aristotle could express truths, and the Christian’s job is to “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). St. Thomas Aquinas incorporated truths from Greek philosophers, Roman thinkers, and Jewish theologians into Christian thought. Those who are guided by that approach are called Thomists.

A Thomist is a realist, so that part of Lawler’s statement is correct. Walker Percy rejects modernism and accepts realism, which posits that truths exist independent of our preconceptions. At the same time, realists also admit that our understanding of those truths is not complete. Obviously, Christians should believe those things, so Thomists are also realists.

Perhaps Dr. Lawler has decided that if you reject modernism, you must be a postmodernist. In my opinion, however, that’s not true. Premodernists (those who believe we learn objective truths based on Divine revelation) also reject modernism, but there is no way to call them postmodernists, since their view predated modernism. Indeed, I would think that the realism espoused by Percy has much more in common with premodernism than anything remotely postmodern.

That’s why I entitled this article “Postmodernism Redefined.” Dr. Lawler has redefined postmodernism to mean realism. I don’t think that’s reasonable, since by the standard definition, postmodernism is pretty much anti-realism.

13 Comments

  1. Heath Brown says:

    I think a better way to put all this is that there is a biblical world view and a non-biblical one. We do receive objective truth via divine revelation, and this is to be the standard by which we judge all other information whether it be true or false. God has spoken these objective truths to us through his Son Jesus Christ and his written word.
    All this debating of modernism, post-modernism, realism, etc I believe is largely a waste of time since it draws the attention away from what Jesus calls us to do in the Great Commission. Being intellectual and discussing philosophy might boost our egos, but it can very easily serve as a convenient diversion from the main issue. The main issue at stake here is the sinfulness of man and his need for redemption. A lot of this intellectual debating can be bypassed by simply using the law of God to reveal sin, and follow it up with the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus did in the Gospels, and this is what the apostles did in the book of Acts.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I am sorry you feel that way, Heath. I would also gently suggest to you that a Biblical world view requires you to think rationally, which is the entire point of philosophy. I don’t know anyone who does philosophy to boost their ego, but I know lots of philosophers who do it because they are trying to follow Biblical commands. One of those commands is in this article. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 tells us to consider everything and then hold fast onto that which is good. Since there are truths that are not expressed in the Bible, philosophy helps us to follow that command. Also, in Matthew 22:37 Jesus tells us the greatest commandment is that we are to love God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. One of the ways I love God with all my mind is to do philosophy.

  2. John D says:

    This debate is best exemplified and easiest to understand by looking the artistic movements. While the modernists rejected convention and translated the world into their own abstracts, the post modernists chose to forego interpretation and posit Carolesqe Jabberwockian ideas.

    Take for instance Michael Craig-Martins “An Oak Tree”. It is literally a glass of water on a shelf with an explanation nearby which states that what you are looking at is not a glass of water but rather an Oak tree.

    I would agree with you, that post modernism has nothing in common with Thomism – it seems no truth but instead seeks a sort of “non-refutism”.

    On a side Dr. Wile, you really need to come to Mass with me some day. The Catholic Church is calling you. We got Aquinas, we got Augustine, we got the council of Trent and Nicea, we got Hillaire Belloc and JRR Tolkien. We almost had CS Lewis.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I have been to mass many times. In fact, I lived as a monk at the Abbey of the Genesee for several weeks back in 1986. I don’t think the Roman Catholic church is calling me.

      Also, your use of art is spot on!

    2. Heath Brown says:

      But do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ by faith apart from works (ROM 5:1-2 and EPH 2:8-9)?

        1. Heath Brown says:

          Sorry Jay, not sure what happened there, but my question was intended for your catholic friend.

      1. John D says:

        Heath – absolutely! Talk to Him and thank Him everyday. Married a Scottish Protestant too! (although she’s much more of a Greg Laurie evangelical in practice) To quote Peter Hitchens “the cricket match between Canterbury and Rome” is very much alive in this house.

        Dr. Wile.. that’s fascinating regarding your monastic foray! Have you blogged on that before? If not, you should. I’d love to read about it.

        1. Jay Wile says:

          I never blogged about it. It happened so long ago I am afraid I would not accurately represent it these days. I wasn’t thinking about becoming a monk. It was part of a program where you could learn what it was like to be a monk. It was a Cistercian monastery, so we had to stay silent. There was a lot of time to think in solitude, which was wonderful, and I got to hold in my hands some VERY old books (all in Latin). I remember getting up really early for Vigils, then doing Lauds, then Mass, then working in the bakery (we made “Monks’ Bread”), then reflection time, then Vespers, and then Compline. It was an amazing experience.

        2. Heath Brown says:

          John,

          Justified by faith and married to an evangelical Protestant? That’s great! I’d say the Lord is trying to call you out of the Catholic church.

        3. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

          Heath, if John has “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ by faith apart from works,” then it seems unnecessary for God to call him out of the Catholic church. It’s certainly possible that God might be calling him out, but it’s also possible that God is calling him to remain in the Catholic church, and to be used by God as an instrument to reveal His love to Catholics.

    3. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

      John, I’d never before heard about Michael Craig-Martins “An Oak Tree,” but it reminds me of a story I heard about a professor who put a chair on top of a table, and told his students to write an essay about why the chair on top of the table was not a chair (or why there was no chair on top of the table). The only student who passed the assignment (or maybe it was the student who got the highest grade, I don’t remember) only wrote two words:

      “What chair?”

      1. John D says:

        Very cool stuff Dr. Wile. There’s a hermitage in Big Sur called the New Camaldoli Hermitage. While we were camping up there a gentleman camped next to us told us he was to be spending some time in solitude there in the coming days. We went to visit and found the grounds to be very serene. Instead of monks bread they make Holy Granola and we make a point to buy some any time we visit Big Sur (actually I’m thinking of buying some online right now!).. yum.

        Alaska,
        That is hilarious!!! I don’t think I will ever be able to forget that story! Thank you for sharing it.

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