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January 25, 2013

Making Sense of Postmodern Metaphysics

Editor’s Note: For the Understanding the Times revisions, I’m trying to work out a non-confusing way of describing something inherently confusing postmodern metaphysics. Does this make any sense? (the explanation, not the philosophy):

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, a shrewd observer of the Postmodern scene and a somewhat sympathetic critic, traces Postmodernism’s foundational ideas back to Friedrich Nietzsche.[1] He writes, “Nietzsche, the patron saint of postmodernity, prophesied accurately: ‘If God is dead, then it’s interpretation “all the way down.”’. . . [O]ne word only points to another word and never to reality itself. No one interpretation can ever be regarded as final. As in interpretation, so in life: everything becomes undecidable.”[2]

So what is really real? Here’s a baffling but revealing example about how Postmodernists approach the question. In 1991 French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” in which he claimed that the Gulf War was not real, but merely simulated for CNN television.

Of course, Baudrillard did not say that no bombs were dropped or that no lives were lost. Rather, he argued that calling these particular military maneuvers a “war” was a question of how the parties involved define war, how both Saddam Hussein and the Allied Forces use words to shore up their power and get people to see things their way, and how brief clips of anti-aircraft fire were repeatedly played to give the impression that the story the Allied Forces told was describing what is actually “real.”

In the end, the intentions of Hussein were not defeated, Baudrillard argued, so the phrase “Gulf War” is not a set of actions that actually took place but a use of words to describe a particular viewpoint.[3] The relevance of lives being lost and property being destroyed did not seem to concern Baudrillard; he was severely criticized as a man who played with words while something important was actually taking place. As Glenn Ward notes, Baudrillard’s piece has been used “. . . to discredit not only Baudrillard, but Postmodernism’s abandonment of truth and evaluation.”[4]

Fans of the cult-classic movie The Matrix might be interested to know that when Morpheus says to Neo, “Welcome to the desert of the real,” he’s quoting a phrase from Baudrillard’s 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation. It’s probably not important, but it does give you an idea of where his — and other Postmodern writers’ — mind-bending ideas lead.


  1. See Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1997), Will Du­rant’s The Story of Philosophy, and John P. Koster, The Atheist Syndrome (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, 1989) for background material on Nietzsche.
  2. Marvin Penner, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views, p. 78.
  3. See Jean Baudrillard (Paul Patton, Trans.), The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995).
  4. Ward, Postmodernism, 77. For a systematic analysis and critique of Postmodernism, we recommend Christopher Norris’ The Truth About Postmodernism (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).

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  • January 25, 2013 // 11:27 am //  # 
    David Kennedy Bird's avatar David Kennedy Bird

    I think it’s good, Jeff.  I don’t know how intelligible it would be to someone with zero previous exposure to the discussion.  I like it as a nuancing of things that i’ve already been thinking about.  It’s so hard to know how to present an entry-level explanation of something so heady….


  • January 25, 2013 // 12:54 pm //  # 
    Cheryl Klassa's avatar Cheryl Klassa

    I’m starting to realize that I process things slowly so that may be part of this.  I understand what you are saying, but it feels like something is missing.  Something like bringing it back to how this relates to “postmodern metaphysics”.  Maybe that part just isn’t what you are sharing yet?
    My family tells me that I state everything 3 times in slightly different words, maybe that’s what I feel is missing too.
    Or maybe it’s as David said and I just don’t have enough exposure to the discussion to understand.  I’m fine with that.  grin

  • October 07, 2013 // 01:58 pm //  # 
    Myron Penner's avatar Myron Penner

    It’s “Myron Penner,” not “Marvin Penner.”

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