Postmodernism: Good, Bad, or Indifferent?
Millard J. Erickson
What shall we make of postmodernism? Is it basically a correct and helpful way of
understanding life? If so, then we should embrace it, regardless of whether it
accords with our previous beliefs. If, on the other hand, it is an inaccurate view of
reality and of life, then we should resist it and reject it.
As with virtually any understanding of thought or life, postmodernism has both
strengths and weaknesses. We need to appreciate and utilize the strengths, but
with due recognition of its shortcomings. We noted earlier that both more
conservative and more radical interpretations are possible, even of the same
postmodernist. To the extent that one follows the more conservative
interpretation of postmodernism, it is less vulnerbale to criticism, but it also is less
unique. The same valid insights can be found in other philosophies that do not go
as far. On the other hand, the more radical readings of postmodernism preserve
its uniqueness, but make it more vulnerable to criticism. One can legitimately
adopt either interpretation of postmodernism, but one cannot hold both, at least
not without the loss of one’s intellectual integrity.
Positive Elements of Postmodernism
Postmodernism offers certain strengths and accurate analyses, and we need to
take note of them lest we miss their benefits. One of postmodernism’s helpful and
correct insights is that it is not possible to be absolutely certain about any system
of thought. While we may possess absolute truth, it is quite a different matter to
say that we understand it absolutely. Because of our human limitations, our beliefs
will always contain an element of the uncertain and the merely probable. This, is of
course, should not be surprising since Paul said that “we live by faith, not by sight”
(2 Cor. 5:7). In particular, postmodernism’s criticism of classical foundationalism
seems to be correct. Foundationalism, especially in the tradition of the
seventeenth-century French philosopher Ren’ Descartes, had sought for certitude
by contending that there are certain unquestionable truths. These truths serve as
the basis of all other knowledge claims, which can be derived from these
foundations by deductive certainty. Thus, the conclusions are those about which
one need, and indeed can, have no doubt.
We now know that what seemed so certain and indubitable to an earlier period is
not that at all. That starting point of those systems turns out not to be
inescapable, but rather to be of the nature of the nature of assumptions, or to
contain hidden and unexpressed premises. Descartes, for example, believed that
he started with absolutely certain premise: I am doubting. Although he could doubt
everything else, he could not doubt that he was doubting.
We now see, however, that Descartes’ supposedly intuitive starting point was
actually an inference from his experience, plus a suppressed premise. All he could
really have properly said at the starting point was “Doubting is occurring.” Anything
more than that was an inference. Similar problems can be found with all other
claimed foundationalisms. Whether the entire search for sure foundations has been
discredited, every claimant to that task is seen to be fallible. It simply is not
possible, either logically or psychologically, to expect that any rational person,
willing to take the time to examine the evidence, must come to the same
Second, the postmodernists have correctly pointed out that all of our knowledge is
conditioned. Each of us functions from some particular point, where what we see
and how we judge it is affected by our situation in time and place. All of our
experiences, all that we have been exposed to in life, affects our judgment. Much
of this is on an unconscious or preconscious level. This means that even the
choice of issues to discuss is affected by the when and where of the discussion. An
illustration of this can be seen in the discussions of pre- and postmillennialism,
which flourished in conservative Christian circles in the first half of the twentieth
century but now receive relatively little attention, although there are discussions
(such as the theonomy debate) that embody similar underlying principles. The
origin of humans was not a large topic of debate, either in the church or even in
broader society, until the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and
similar works on evolution.
Beyond that, however, the view of given issues is affected by our setting. Just
how dramatic this can be is seen in the different reactions to the O.J. Simpson
murder trial verdict on the part of whites and African-Americans. The conflicting
testimonies by persons who witnessed the same event also underscore this truth.
Who we are, how we have been educated, the societal subgroup that we have
occupied are all very influential in how we see and understand things.
Our attitudes are affected and structured by our experiences. For example, my
ability to think objectively about the Democratic party is still somewhat influenced
by the fact that I lived in the city of Chicago in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Many
people familiar with the activities of the Cook County Democratic machine in those
days believe that Richard Nixon probably won the presidential election in 1960, and
the deciding state was Illinois. The closeness of the vote and the wisely exposed
voting irregularities in that county in those days contributes to such a belief.
Much of this kind of effect occurs on an unconscious level. Who, for example, living
and functioning within a Protestant church today, can read the book of Romans
without being influenced by the fact that Martin Luther lived, taught, and wrote?
This may happen, even if the person does not know that there was ever such a
person as Martin Luther. This is because Luther’s work has influenced the tradition
to which the reader has been exposed.
Suppose that you put on a pair of green sunglasses, the wrap-around kind that
keeps the wearer from seeing past the edges. Then the entire world, viewed
through those glasses, would have a greener tinge than would otherwise be the
case. Suppose, however, that you have been born wearing such glasses, which
expanded to fit you as you grew. In this scenario, there never would have been a
time when you had not viewed the world through those glasses. Everything,
including human skin, would appear greenish to you. This would seem obvious to
you, just the way things are.
Our own presuppositions, or what we carry about with us, affect our understanding
of the thoughts of others. Thus, when we read what someone else has written,
we may actually be hearing that person say what we would mean if we were the
ones saying it. What has happened is that the other person’s ideas have been
filtered through our own way of thinking, and the result may be quite different from
what the other person intended to say. This especially becomes a problem when
we evaluate the other person’s view. Here what we may think to be an internal
contradiction in that person’s thought may actually be a conflict between his
thought and our own. For years I have taught my students that “I don’t agree” is
not an adequate or even appropriate criticism of the thought of another. My
master’s thesis dealt with one philosopher’s analysis of the thought of Plato, within
which he felt he had found two contradictory concepts. My conclusion, however,
was that the interpreter had actually read Plato through Aristotelian eyes, and that
the conflict was not between two of Plato’s ideas, but between one of Plato’s and
one of Aristotle’. The criticism was actually that Plato was not a very good or
consistent Aristotelian, and I do not think that would have bothered Plato at all.
Having said that, we also must recognize the value of the postmodernists’, and
especially Derrida’s, contention that every system of thought contains a
contradictory element or a contradictory body of evidence, which it simply cannot
assimilate. On any issue, the evidence seldom if ever is all on one side. If that
were the case, controversy and disagreement would be minimal. We need to be
certain that we take into account the data that could contradict our own view. To
ignore, suppress, or make such material fit by distorting it is an instance of the
suppressing of contradictory considerations that deconstructionists decry, and to
do so involves a violation of intellectual integrity.
All of this means that we must hold much of what we believe with a certain degree
of tentativeness, or at least flexibility. Dogmatism on most matters is
inappropriate to the actual facts of the case. We must assess the relative weight
of the evidence on each side of disputed issues and place our belief and
commitment on the side that appears to be supported by the greater weight of
evidence. We must, however, continue to hold this commitment in tension with
the contrary evidence, so that if at some point the balance of evidence shifts, we
are prepared to alter our view. It also means that we must be willing to expose
ourselves to contrary views, lest we suppress the truth in our zeal for our own
currently held theories.
What we have said should not come as a surprise to Christians, at least to those
Christians who take the Bible as their primary source of the Christian faith
seriously. We have alluded earlier to the fact that the Bible never claims that we
can have absolute certainty, satisfactory to human reason. Beyond that, Paul
points out that our present understanding of spiritual matters is incomplete and
indistinct. (1 Cor. 13:12). We also believe that the phenomenon of what we
sometimes call “original sin” means that we actually deceive ourselves in our
understanding (Jer. 17:9). In an earlier chapter we promised to identify points at
which postmodernism is in accord with Christian belief, and these are some of
those points of agreement. Note that the argument in this chapter, however, is
not that postmodernism is good because it is in agreement with Christianity, but
rather that it is to be considered a positive because it fits the nature of reality as
we experience it, which Christianity also does.
The postmodernists, with their criticism of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the
efficacy of the exclusive use of reason and experience, have pointed out that
humans are not fully rational creatures. Much of human belief and action stems
from more subjective factors, such as feelings. Whether such should be the case,
the Enlightenment ideal of cool, dispassionate, objective attitudes is not an
accurate depiction of much of human experience.
Beyond that, however, postmodernists have reminded us that there are
dimensions of actual, valid knowledge that transcend the narrow scope of the
scientific/mathematical method. One of these is intuition, especially as it functions
in human relationships. As a seminary administrator, whose job heavily involved
assessments of other human beings, I increasingly learned to trust my initial
feelings about people. Sometimes, of course, these feelings had to be revised, but
in many cases, subsequent experiences substantiated them.
Another large area of postmodernism’s positive strength lies in the accurate
emphasis, especially by Foucault, on the use of power to establish “truth.” If he is
correct, then the “hermeneutics of suspicion” recommended by some
postmodernists is very appropriate. There is a struggle for power, a desire to get
one’s own way or what one wants, and in this struggle, purported knowledge is
also used to accomplish one’s ends. The manipulation of the truth is a real, not an
One area where this is most obvious is politics. The specific title given to one of
the most common forms of this practice is “spin doctoring.” Spin doctors are
assigned to give the most favorable interpretation possible to events that occur
and to statements that their political employers make. It is interesting to see how
economic events are treated. Each party is quick to take credit for positive
developments, while seeking to place the blame for anything negative on the other
party. If one party has recently succeeded in passing a bill that has some
relationship to the matter, the opposition party blames any unfortunate
development on the action, even if there has not been sufficient time for the law to
have any effect. The other party, however, usually interprets such an event as an
indication of just how serious is the need for such legislation, in fact, as indicating
the need of even more radical action. Both sides seek to muster any
considerations in support of their own views and efforts.
Such activities are especially apparent in election campaigns. Here one’s own party
is depicted as the very embodiment of virtue, while the opposition party is treated
as the incarnation of evil and error. Data are very carefully chosen for
presentation, and actions of the opposition may be severely distorted.
What is especially distressing is the basis on which the legislative process itself
rests. They system of trading political favors is relied upon. I have supported your
bill, so now you owe me one, and I am calling in that favor. You must vote for my
bill, whether you agree with it morally or not. It is worth noting that in Lawrence
Kohlberg’s scale of moral development, this mutual back-scratching procedure
ranks very close to the bottom. 1 And unfortunately, it is not only the official
political arena that is the locus of political behavior. This can be seen in church
government, educational governance, and any number of other spheres within our
There are numerous other ways that the truth is manipulated, or constructed. One
is by the use of euphemistic descriptions. For example, Joseph Fletcher’s
description of the German woman who convinced a guard to impregnate her, so
that she would be released from prison and could return to her family, is labeled
“sacrificial adultery.” 2 Al Capone, the notorious mobster of the 1920s and 30s,
complained, “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter
pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a
hunted man.” 3 This is description of an action in terms of its consequences
rather than the act itself. The reverse is also true. An action may be characterized
as simply “tensing the index figer of the right hand,” without bothering to mention
that the finger was at the time resting on the trigger of a loaded pistol, pointed at
the head of a person, at point-blank range.
There may be manipulation of data. This may be done in financial reports, so that
unusual items of income are included to give a better overall impression than would
otherwise be the case. Other statistics also can be manipulated. Notice, for
example, the widely differing estimates of the number of persons involved in a
political demonstration by opposition parties in the dispute.
Subtle qualifiers enable a statement to be made that is technically true, but
misleading. A joke is told of a dual track meet between the United States and the
Soviet Union several years ago, won by the United States. Pravada, however,
reported, “U.S.S.R. places second in track meet; U.S.A. finishes next to last.” An
actual case was the report of a denominational official to his constituency: “We
have reduced the amount of interest-bearing debt.” The correct translation of that
statement was: “We are borrowing money from our own trust funds, and unlike
the United States government, we do not pay ourselves interest.”
In other cases, the manipulation of the truth is accomplished by carefully selecting
the data reported, giving the impression that this sampling is representative of the
whole, or is the only data. This can also be done by making sure that only one
perspective is heard. In some departments of large universities, even publicly
supported universities, only representatives of one school or point of view are
appointed to the faculty. Unless they are unusually scrupulous in presenting
alternative viewpoints, those viewpoints simply do not get heard, and even if they
do, they are not presented by people who hold them with conviction. The head of
the women’s studies department of one university actually said, “We forbid any
view that says we restrict free speech.”
All in all, we conclude that there are some accurate descriptions here of the ways
truth is manipulated or that power is employed to guarantee what the truth will be.
It should indeed induce in us a hermeneutic of suspicion, so that we carefully
evaluate the truth claims urged upon us.
For all of the helpful insights postmodernism has to offer us, there are major
problems with this philosophy that deserve to be pointed out. There are of many
varieties, but some of them consist in postmodernism’s failure to apply its own
standards and insights to itself.
One of these is the exemption of deconstruction from its own methodology. This
is actually stated overtly, when Derrida says that “Justice is not deconstructible.
After all, not everything is deconstructive, or there would be no point to
desconstruction.” 4 Why, however, should this be the case? If deconstruction is
used to expose the problems of other views, why should it not be turned on itself?
For if it is exempt from deconstruction, perhaps there are other ideas or ideologies
that are also exempt. Unless there is some adequate justification, more than
simply, “there would be no point to deconstruction,” this begins to sound
suspiciously like an ad hoc exception, raised in order to make one’s own case.
That, however, strongly resembles the sort of power knowledge to which Foucault
is so emphatically opposed.
The principle of “autodeconstruction” would seem to require its application to
desconstruction as well. If the presence of contradictory elements within is used
against such systems of thought as Platonism, should it not also count here?
Should we not be looking for the presence of contradictory elements in
postmodernism and considering them as indications of defect? Certainly, the
variation between what we might term “hard postmodernism” and “soft
postmodernism” is a relevant consideration.
Derrida finds it very difficult to maintain his position without contradicting it in the
process. We have already alluded to one of these areas in our discussion of his
debate with John Searle. To speak of the idea that meaning is not supported by
anything outside the text, that it is built up by the free play of words, is one thing.
This is supported by Derrida’s discussion of writing, the advantage of which is that it
allows for differing interpretations. It is quite another thing, however, to object at
great length to an interpretation of one’s writing on the basis that the interpretation
represents a misunderstanding and a misrepresentation. With all of Derrida’s
attempted avoidance of logocentrism, ontotheology, and metaphysic of presence,
it is hard to understand how this objection can rally be taken seriously. Derrida’s
response appears to ble a very non-postmodern one, even on his very own terms.
To return to the limitation of desconstruction’s application, we find the same
problem for Derrida, but in a somewhat different setting. To insist that justice is
undeconstructible gives the appearance of saying that there is something instrinsic
about justice that makes it unconditionally valuable. Does this not mean that there
is something of what he terms the “transcendental signified” attached to justice?
Derrida maintains that this is not the case, but nonetheless wants to insist upon the
undeconstructibility of justice. Just what is he saying, however? It is not at all
clear, nor is any satisfactory justification given for treating justice as
In other places, Derrida comes face to face with the problem and admits the
difficulty. For example, having discussed the traditional or logocentric approach to
meaning, he says, “We have no language–no syntax and no lexicon–which is
foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which
has not already had to slip into the form, the logic; and the implicit postulates of
precisely what it seeks to contest.” 5 This however, seems to ble a very
damaging admission. To have to assume something to disprove that something is
very much like the T-shirt I described earlier. In this case, its falsity entails its truth.
There are difficulties with the concept of alternative logics. It is difficult to
determine just what Derrida means when he says, “It is thus not simply false to
say that Mallarme’ is a Platonist or a Hegelian. But it is above all not true. And vice
verse.”6 At one point, he identifies his view as very close to that of Hegel, who
believed that logic moved in a fashion in which there was a thesis, which then was
opposed by an antithesis, and that finally these two were gathered up into a
synthesis in which both were combined, elements of each surviving in the new
product. Yet Derrida says that he parts company with Hegel, because there is no
final synthesizing of the two. What, then, is Derrida assserting? We have seen
that with respect to his own view he finally insists on rejecting an interpretation
that is contrary to his, presumably on the basis that the two contradictory
statements cannot both be true. It appears that he is using the idea of an
alternative logic more as a rhetorical device than anything else, to break down any
attempt to pin down the meaning of a statement, including his own. The selective
use of such a device, however, seems somewhat evasive.
There are also problems with some of the support or arguments given for some
facets of postmodernism. I have in mind here, for example, Foucault’s arguments
regarding power and institutions. It has been observed that this appears to be a
blend of history and philosophy, as Foucault engages in analyses of how these
institutions have developed historically. At times, however, he refers to what he
terms “fictive” writing of history. This seems to be the sketching of things that did
not necessarily happen in exactly this fashion, in order to make the point. What is
the status of such fiction, however? It brings to mind a story I read in a German
reader many years ago. I have no idea whether this incident ever occurred, but it
is what one of my philosophy professors used to call a “metaphysical truth”–-if it
didn’t happen, it should have. I am not introducing this as an argument for my
point–this is not fictive writing of history–but as an illustration.
According to this story, Georg Hegel, the philosopher, was lecturing on the
philosophy of history, showing how it illustrated the thesis-antithesis-synthesis
dialectic. A student interrupted to say, “Aber, Herr Professor, die Tatsache sind
ganz anders” (“But, Professor, the facts are entirely otherwise”). To this Hegel
reportedly replied, “Und so schlimmer fur die Tatsache” (which translates loosely
as, “And so much the worse for the facts”). That seems to be what Foucault is
doing and saying. The facts are being constructed to fit the theory. This is what
William Dean has entitled History Making History.7 This is the novel 1984, in which
history is rewritten to satisfy the point being made. It seems to be a violation of
intellectual integrity, if it is really intended that someone will take this as being the
actual truth. If it is not so intended, then we must ask just what function the fictive
history is playing. Surely, it is something more than merely illustration, of the type
sometimes referred to as “preacher stories,” which are presented as if they are
real–at least enough so to make plausible the point they illustrate.
It appears that Foucault is attempting to have his view prevail, or at least to obtain
the results that would follow if his view were accepted, such as a more general
tolerance of homosexuality. This, however, seems to be an exercise of power, of
using whatever ability he has to get this view accepted as true. But is this not the
very thing that he has criticized in works like Power/Knowledge? Here again, we
find an inability to live with one’s theory, or at least an unwillingness to apply the
theory itself. If, however, Foucault admits that he is dong this as an exercise of
power, then are we to believe him?
This is the genral problem of self-reference: the question of whether a theory can
itself meet the criteria it applies to all other views. More than one theory has
foundered upon this rocky shore. A generation or two ago, logical positivism had
formulated a theory of meaning according to which there are only two kinds of
meaningful statements. One kind is analytical in nature; that is, they make explicit
in the predicate what is implicit in the subject, like mathematical statements. The
other kind are those that can in theory be either verified or falsified by sensory
data, like scientific statements. All other purported propositions are meaningless.
Even though they may have the grammatical structure of propositions, they are
actually asserting nothing. They are merely expressions of emotions.
Then, however, someone asked about the meaningfulness of this principle, which
had come to be known as the verifiability criterion. What was its status? It is an
analytical statement? Certainly not. If not, then what is the set of sense of data
that would verify or falsify the statement that the meaning of a synthetic
statement (one in which the predicate adds something not contained in the
subject) is the set of sense data that would verify or falsify it? Apparently, on its
own criteria, this was a meaningless statement. One attempt to respond said that
it is like a ladder. Once you have climbed up on a ladder you no longer need it, and
once you have used the verifiability principle, it does not matter that you see that it
is meaningless. These and other attempts to salvage the principle proved
unsatisfactory. The problem here as well is that if there is one area where the
principle does not apply, there may likely be others as well, and the principle has
been seriously breached. It appears that ther3e is a serious problem with
postmodernism, at several points.
To some extent what we are dealing with here is failure to carry a theory to the
secondary level. So, for example, Rorty in effect says that truth is what works
out. Does he also follow this on the next level, however? If this is a theory of
what truth is, what about the truth of theories of truth? Is it the case that the
theory that truth is what works out is the correct theory of truth? In other words,
does holding this theory of truth work out better than holding other theories of
truth? To some extent, Rorty does follow this contention, saying that pursuing
those other questions (e.g., the nature of Truth) is unproductive. When he comes
to measure productivity or nonproductivity, he falls back on more mirrorlike
theories. In other words, the justification for holding that believing that the
pragmatic test of truth is the most productive is not the productivity of this third-level belief, but the fact that it actually fits the way things are.
The postmodern objection to metanarratives falls in this category also. In various
ways, the postmodernists decry metanarratives or all-inclusive philosophies. It
may be simply because they cannot be constructed, or because they are
constructed by the suppression of contrary voices, or simply that if adopted and
practiced they have the effect of intolerance or being used oppressively. For
whatever reason, whether that they cannot be done or that they must not be
done, postmodernism strongly opposes matanarratives. If this is indeed the
sincere view of postmodernists, then one would expect to find that they
themselves would shun constructing their own metanarrative. Is this really the
I contend that postmodernism itself constitutes a metanarrative, albeit often of a
somewhat different type than is customarily found. For example, the
deconstruction practiced by Derrida is a universal theory. It is a claim that all
theories contain contrary internal elements. It is a claim that everything, with one
exception as noted above, can and must be deconstructed. It is an explanation of
meaning, and how that is built up through “writing.” These are encompassing
explanations and theories believed to apply to all elements of reality and of human
discourse. The same is true of Fourcault’s approach to deconstruction. His
theories about power are advanced as explaining all that occurs. Power is the all-inclusive concept, applied in many different ways, but nonetheless everywhere
present. It is what lies behind, not just some “knowledge,” but all. This sounds
strangely like a metanarrative as well.
It is clear that these theories are designed to lead to action. While decrying any
sort of ontology or metaphysic of presence, these theories themselves are the
basis on which practical actions are to be carried out.
One can also see, underlying the proposals, certain value systems that carry
universal import. In the case of Derrida, there is a desire to overturn the totalizing
of theories, which suppresses alterity. It is apparent that freedom, of a particular
type, has a very high value within this system. The same is true of justice. While
transcendental reference is denied, justice has an absolute character. It is what
constitutes the motivation for all the deconstruction that is to be pursued. Call it
what one may, the freedom-justice set of values appears strangely universal in
nature. We have been here what might be called a crypto-metanarratival
Foucault’s deconstruction is also based on certain universal elements. It is
apparent that he wants to tear down any sort of coercive suppression of contrary
elements. The reason for this, however, again seems to be that freedom is good
and must be sought and preserved. Here is an undeconstructed element.
Note also Rorty’s view of things. He states that at the age of twelve he came to
the conclusion that “the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting social
injustice.” 8 Whether this opposition to injustice is rooted in a theory of human
nature, it certainly derives from “being human,” which sounds suspiciously like an
implicit conception of human nature. Note that this is not phrased as if it were a
view that applies to a portion of the human race, or to those in a certain culture or
time period. It is a matter of “being human,” so that presumably all human beings
are covered by this. If this is not a metanarrative, then what is?
Although Rorty objects to what he calls Philosophy, which concerns itself with
questions like what is True and what is Good, he is himself concerned with similar
questions. If social injustice, cruelty, and humiliation are to be shunned, then we
seem to be faced with the problem of whether these are everywhere and always
wrong. Perhaps philosophy with a small p does not seek for the True and the
Good, but when it says that the question is not “why avoid humiliating?” but rather
“what humiliates?” It appears to be concerned with Humiliation or Social
Injustice.9 The question, “should we avoid humiliating?” seems to be definitely
answered, “yes!” Rorty’s metanarrative is what we might term the liberal-ironist
(as Rorty terms his view) metanarrative, but it is a metannarrative of sorts,
It probably is not fair to term these full-fledged metanarrratives, because they are
not fully worked out, with a complete treatment of all related issues. We have
used the expression “implicit metanarrative” earlier, and this is what we are dealing
with here. Perhaps the way to put it is that postmodernists do not have a
metanarrative, but their thought does contain a metanarrative, or it has
We should also note that the belief in the conditioning of truth is not carried
through consistently. Presumably, this is true of everyone, and therefore of
everyone’s belief. This contention is in effect utilized to relativize or even to
neutralize various viewpoints, somewhat along the lines of the genetic fallacy, that
if you can explain the origin of something, you have accounted for it, and do not
need to ask about its adequacy in relation to any more general criteria. This is
particularly the case with Rorty’s behavioristic explanation of ideas. The question
to be asked, however, is whether this theory must not also be applied to
postmodernism itself. Are not the contentions advanced by the postmodernists
historically conditioned? So, for example, the view of freedom that seems so
important to the deconstructionists is actually simply a phenomenon of our time.
In particular, it draws heavily from existentialism. Does this not mean that it simply
is the view of certain people in certain times and places? Why should it be treated
with any greater respect than any of the other theories that have appeared?
Similarly, Rorty’s concern for justice (as also that of Derrida) is a product of a
particular philosophy, probably utilitarianism. We may find it significant that the
liberal ideals espoused by each of these men are the ideals of persons who at one
time or another in their lives subscribed to some form of communism. Perhaps
these are ideas that were produced by that movement and were appropriate
during its time of influence, but are now outmoded, since communism is in a state
of sharp decline throughout the world.
Rorty’s behaviorism is especially problematic. What of those who have not had the
sort of conditioning necessary to bring to them the convictions and values Rorty
espouses? Can anything be said, other than, “they are different”? Do we not
simply have to abandon them to the view that they hold? Or is all of the Rortian
argument simply an attempt to manipulate conviction and action?
Postmodernism also generates some major practical problems. One is the concept
of community as the factor introducing adequate objectivity. Right and wrong are
not some absolute, universal realities, rooted in a metaphysical basis independent
of humans and their judgment. Yet right and wrong are not simply individualistic,
subjectivistic judgments. They are governed by the norms of the community.
There is a problem here, however. How does one judge among communities, or is
one’s community simply that into which he or she has been born or thrust? There
are alternative communities, each with its own set of standards of the right and the
good. Which of these is one to follow?
More pointedly, yet, what happens when communities differ and even conflict?
Such conflict does occur, and on the largest and most dramatic scale, it is what we
term war. If there is no measure or basis for the good and the right independent
of various groups’ formulations, then is not the good that which is held and
practiced by the community that is able to triumph in the competition with other
communities? This would seem to be a case of “might makes right,” and to be a
consistent application of Foucault’s principles.
The problem can be seen when we consider a radical example. World War II was
fought in part because of the ideology of Adolf Hitler, which included the idea of the
superiority of the Aryan race and the consequent importance of ridding society of
the Jews. This was an ideology strongly opposed by much of the rest of human
society at the time, and certainly is widely condemned in our own time. Suppose,
however, that the Axis forces had won the war. This is not as unlikely a scenario
as might at first appear to be the case. If Hitler had timed the invasion of Russia a
bit earlier; if the winter had not been so severe as it was; if Hitler had invaded
Britain when he first planned to, rather than becoming enraged when Berlin was
bombed and declining to bomb London to the ground, thus dissipating the
Luftwaffe; if Hitler had employed his jet aircraft as fighters rather than as bombers;
if the weather at Dunkirk had been different at the time of the British evacuation; if
all of the forces of German research in physics had been concentrated to work
together–rther than inefficiently and redundantly working as independent units–so
that the Germans obtained a functional atomic bomb before the United States did,
the outcome of the war might have been quite different.
If all of these factors, or even several of them, had turned out differently, the Axis
might well have won the war. Hitler would then have been unhampered in his
efforts to carry out the extermination of the Jews, if not throughout the world, at
least in a much larger geographical area and a much larger portion of the world
population than he did. Would his philosophy then have been right? Would the
genocide of Jews have been right? Presumably no postmodernist would ble willing
to answer yes to such a question, and yet that seems to be the answer that must
be given on postmodern terms. For unless there is something superior to and
independent of the community, then the Nazi community would be right.
There are also smaller issues of a practical and academic nature. One of these is
Rorty’s tactic of simply declining to discuss issues, finding them uninteresting. It is
questionable whether this is an academically respectable move. It seems to be an
attempt to avoid issues that would be problematic for his own view. In this
respect, it resembles his statement that during his student days studying
philosophy, he gradually came to the conclusion that philosophy could not
construct an all-encompassing view that would tie together both Trotsky’s political
philosophy and the wild orchids that he studied as a boy. Only a theistic belief
could do that, but he says by that time he could not see himself becoming
religious, and had in fact become more raucously secular. In effect, he is saying,
“It could be done, but I had lost interest.” Is this an adequate answer, however?
To avoid issues because they do not interest one is one thing. As soon as one
advocates such an action for others, however, which Rorty does seem to be
doing, a different dynamic comes into play, which seems to contradict the rationale
he is advancing.
There is also a problem with the stretching of terms that often is found within
postmodernism. When one denies the fixed meaning of terms, one is free to use
them with any meaning one pleases, or with any meaning that emerges from the
free play of words. What is unfortunate, however, is the use of words that have a
rather widely accepted meaning with an intended meaning that is quite
different–without notifying the reader or hearer of that unique meaning. The
explanation, of course, is that the community gives the meaning. It may,
however, in this case, be a very small, isolated, and unusual community that is the
reference point. Forthrightness would seem to require informing the recipient of
the message of what community’s meaning is being used. If this is not done, then
the use of such language is at best misleading.
It should be noted that at times rather unusual and dramatic terminology is used,
with the rhetorical effect of seeming more impressive for being so unusual. I have
in mind here Derrida’s reference to “the death of the author,” whereas others
would utilize a more prosaic expression, like “the fallacy of authorial intent.” The
effect is to create the impression that something different and unusual is being said.
A further problem is the practice of making two or more statements on the same
issue and then alternating between them. When accused of saying “A,” the
postmodernist may respond, “but I said not-A in such and such a place.” That may
very well be true, but the person in question also said “A.” This appears to be
another form of evasion.
There is a difficulty with the posing of the question of how postmodernism is to be
understood. The constant indications are that one has misunderstood, and indeed,
must misunderstand, when attempting to understand it from an alien perspective.
It is as if one can only understand postmodernism from within postmodernism.
Further, there is no neutral ground into which postmodernists and non-postmodernist could enter to discuss their differences. There might be three
possible answers to the question of how one can understand postmodernism
1. From a different viewpoint, such as that of modernism.
2. From a neutral viewpoint which is neither uniquely modern nor postmodern.
3. From within postmodernism itself.
By the process of elimination, it appears that option three is the correct one. That,
however, seems to call fro some sort of surrender in advance. One can only
understand postmodernism by becoming a postmodernist. This appears to be a
tactic for eliminating any criticism, while simultaneously providing a basis for
criticizing all different views. As such, however, it begs the question of the
correctness of postmodernism, and is thus an illegitimate technique.
Finally, something must be said about the obscurity of style that characterizes the
writing of many postmodernists. This is especially true of deconstructionists such
as Derrida and Foucault, since Rorty and Fish are, by contrast, virtual models of
clarity. There are many dimensions of this, and many explanations. Terms are
introduced without explanation of how they are being used, and some are
neologisms. References are made to conversations with other thinkers, and to
other issues, without identifying them, leaving the reader to puzzle as to what is
really being said. Sometimes sentences go on at great length–in one of Derrida’s
instances, for three pages–with various inserted quotations. One is left to wonder
about such obscurity. One answer often given is that this is simply so profound
that the reader does not understand; this lack of understanding, or actual
misunderstanding, is made the basis of defense against charges. When, however,
there is no effective effort to indicate just how the interpretation is incorrect (with
the exception of Derrida’s lengthy response to Searle), then one wonders if the
obscurity is deliberate. In any event, it does not contribute to good
communication and understanding.
There is also an unfortunate tendency in some of these postmodernists’ writings to
use language that is not very helpful. At times Derrida and Foucault respond to
statements or ideas of others by referring to them as “ridiculous” or “stupid.” Such
language does not really advance the cause of learning, and in my judgment is out
of place in intellectual discussions.
All of these practical problems have a deleterious effect upon scholarship and
academic standards, at least as these have generally been understood. It may well
be objected that this statement reveals a modern bias, an approach of objectivity,
that begs the question. I propose, however, that the criteria we are appealing to
are not limited to modern scholarship, but have been present through many
periods of time. Such values are truthfulness, forthrightness, and offering support
for contentions have, empirically, been universal values.
These are problems Allan Bloom complained about and warned of in his Closing the
American Mind. 10 for example, in the Vincennes branch of the University of Paris,
which Foucault helped to found, grades were in some cases awarded on an unusual
basis. Rather than writing a paper or taking an examination for the professor’s
office door, suitably inscribed with the student’s self-evaluation of the learning
experience in the course. This was then made the basis of the grade. In
academics as with water, the result cannot rise higher than the source.
Conventionally, an education has been adjudged to have value because someone
of superior knowledge in the filed–the professor–has judged the student to have
attained a certain level of achievement, and the faculty awards the degree. The
degree’s value is certified by the faculty. In the type of situation just described,
however, the value of the credit is certified only by the student himself or herself.
It is like the man who claimed to be the smartest man in the world. When asked
why one should believe that, he responded, “Because I say so.” The further
question was, “What weight does that statement carry?” to which the man
answered, “Would the world’s smartest man be wrong about something like that?”
1. Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and
the Idea of Justice (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).
2. Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Philadelphia: Westminster,
1966), pp. 164-165
3. Quoted in Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1948), p. 21
4. Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques
Derrida, edited with a commentary by John D. Caputo (New York: Fordham
University Press, 1997), pp. 131-32
5. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1978), pp. 280-81
6. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, translated with an introduction and additional
notes by Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 207
7. William D. Dean, History Making History: The New Historicism in American
Religious Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988).
8. Richard Rorty, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” in Wild Orchids and Trotsky:
Messages from American Universities, ed. Mark Edmundson (New York: Penguin,
1993), p. 35.
9. Rorty, “Private Irony and Liberal Hope,” in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 91.
10. David Allen Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education
Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1987).
Taken from The Postmodern World: Discerning the Times and the Spirit of Our Age by Millard J.
Erickson. Copyright © 2002. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News
Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois, 60187. This material is not to be electronically transferred. Down-load for personal use only.