Resources: Truth and Consequences
September 22, 2009
Ideas Have ConsequencesHow Postmodernism Changes the Rules
While there are significant disagreements among the various expressions of postmodernism there is a key belief that characterizes all of them: an acute awareness of our “situatedness” as humans. As I described in the previous article (“Ideas Have Histories: Where Postmodernism Came From”), postmoderns deny that there is any overarching story, or metanarrative, to the world. Therefore, we all come from a perspective, or bias, that is shaped by the culture, or the “little stories,” we inhabit. As Kevin Vanhoozer states, “Postmoderns are so preoccupied with the situated self that they cannot get beyond it.” Because of this “situatedness,” no one can claim objectivity for his or her views.
This is the clearest difference between postmodernism and most other worldviews. Whereas the central concern of other worldviews is what the real world actually is, the focus of postmodernism is on how we perceive and how we describe what the world is.
Postmodernism: A Worldview of Contingency
In the postmodern worldview, everything is contingent; nothing is fixed. There are several implications of confronting reality this way.
First, reality is ultimately unknowable. Our “situatedness” prevents us from directly accessing the real world or having true knowledge about it. This is not to say that the real world is not there (though some would suggest this), only that we can never shed our perspectives to access it. No one has a “god’s eye view” of reality; therefore no one can claim to have the truth about it. Stanley Fish describes this dilemma this way:
Moreover, not only is there no one who could spot a transcendent truth if it happened to pass through the neighborhood, but it is difficult even to say what one would be like. Of course we would know what it would not be like; it would not speak to any particular condition, or be identified with any historical production, or be formulated in the terms of any national, ethnic, racial, economic, or class traditions.”
We are trapped in our situatedness. There are no foundations that are not themselves contingent from which to build a certain and agreed-upon body of knowledge. Knowledge really comes down to one’s perspective: we never really have the facts; there is only interpretation.
Second, truth and knowledge are constructions of language. They reflect the perspective of the one who is claiming, but should not be confused as a statement of fact about actual reality. Of course, if truth merely reflects one’s perspective and does not actually represent anything about objective reality, it cannot be absolute. This is an inescapable conclusion of the postmodern worldview: there is no absolute truth; there are only “truths.”
It is important to note that postmodernism does not necessarily argue that each person has their own truth, but that our perspectives on what is true are shaped largely by the communities, or cultures, we find ourselves in. Each community constructs, through language, its own story of the world. No story is more true than another (since all stories are valid); but, in fact, truth is produced by the narrative of a community. “Truths,” then, are not propositional statements about reality, but rather narrative realities for a particular group; and every group is distinguished by their particular use of language.
In a sense, the postmodern turn can be considered a linguistic turn. Richard Rorty puts it this way, “We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there . . . To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human language are human creations . . . The world does not speak. Only we do.” In other words, since we simply cannot escape language in our attempts to describe reality, all objectivity is jettisoned.
This view of language is at the root of the practice of “deconstruction” in literature, which was first espoused by Jacque Derrida. He suggested that there is no fixed meaning of any text, since it is only the perspective of the author. But, each reader has his perspective, too. Therefore, the reader imposes meaning on the text. This meaning is not fixed, but rather every text can have a multitude of meanings despite the original intention of the author.
A third implication of postmodernism is that progress is an illusion. The optimism of the modern project, which was based on a false confidence in human objectivity and certainty, has been chastened. “Advancement” and “achievement” are socially constructed concepts; they are leftover baggage from modernity when we attempted to explain the world with metanarratives; they are expressions of our “situatedness” that cannot be used to evaluate another culture or another time.
Without the concept of progress, then what does it mean for a society to move forward (and what does “forward” mean)? Richard Rorty suggests pragmatism. As ideas, expressions, and concepts in a clash, one will emerge as a better working option; and something that works in a particular culture (like monogamy) or situation (like an appropriate age of sexual consent) may not in another culture or situation.
Contemporary sitcoms clearly illustrate this view. Sitcoms from a former time (basically, most of the ones prior to Seinfeld) tended to follow a pretty standard formula: a character (usually in the context of a family) would be faced with a crisis; through the course of the show, the character would wrestle with and resolve that crisis, and by facing consequences a moral lesson was learned in a humorous way. This is not usually the case in sitcoms today. The crisis remains, but real resolution is rare, consequences can be avoided, and morality disappears if the character can get away with it.
Putting Postmodernism to the Test
So, do postmodernists have a point? Let’s evaluate these ideas in light of four tests for ideas and see if it can withstand the scrutiny.
The Test of Reason. Postmodernism is full of self-contradiction. It denies that any metanarrative can offer an all-encompassing story that applies to all people and all times. The basic suggestion here is that the only story that applies to all people and all times is that no story can apply to all people and all times. In other words, postmodernism offers a metanarrative that there are no metanarratives.
Further, postmodernists suggest that we ought to reject metanarratives because we are trapped within our cultural perspectives, and therefore are only able to express our interpretations. For the postmodern, there is nothing but interpretation. But, would not the statement, “there is only interpretation” also be an interpretation?
In the denial of metanarratives, postmodernism also denies the existence of objective, absolute truth (especially propositional truth), and instead embraces the existence of many truths held by different people. However, the statement “there is no absolute truth, there are only truths” is an objective, absolute propositional statement. Consider again the claim by Stanley Fish cited above:
Moreover, not only is there no one who could spot a transcendent truth if it happened to pass through the neighborhood, but it is difficult even to say what one would be like. Of course would know what it would not be like; it would not speak to any particular condition, or be identified with any historical production, or be formulated in the terms of any national, ethnic, racial, economic, or class traditions.”
While claiming transcendent truth is impossible, Fish suggests that somehow we know truthfully what truth would not be like. If all truth is socially contingent, would not this truth be socially contingent as well? Who was able to access this truth about reality?
As we stated earlier, postmodernists tend not to play by the rules they set. These contradictions do not often seem worrisome for postmodernists, however. Richard Rorty states this in his typical winsome way, “. . . edifying philosophers have to decry the very notion of having a view, while avoiding having a view about having views.” In reality, this amounts to presenting “an argument which prove(s) that no arguments are sound — a proof that there is no such thing as proofs — which is nonsense.” By now the perceptive reader may have grasped that postmodernism is guilty at times of intellectual cowardice, at other times of intellectual bullying, and at other times of intellectual laziness.
The Test of the Outer World. While the biases of a community certainly shape the perspectives of the members of that community, it does not follow that reality itself is socially constructed and that we can never have access to objective reality, as postmodernists claim. In fact, reality is what reality is. Our perspective of reality is constantly being imposed upon, challenged, and even altered by reality itself. For example, transcendental groups whose social construction of reality is that the physical world is illusory, still find themselves constrained by the physical reality of time and space.
The Test of the Inner World. While modernism placed the hubris of authority with the autonomous self, postmodernism attempts to place it with the community. However, postmodernism ironically tends to increase our isolation from others. One reason for this is that most of us belong to many different communities: we grow up in one, settle to live in another, work in another, worship in another, and retire to another, With so many communal perspectives competing for our allegiance, the tendency is ultimately to belong to none of them. It is ironic that the current generation, which boasts better communication technology than any in the history of the world, is often the most isolated.
Finally, if the only reality we can access is the one we essentially construct, that would necessarily mean that life is devoid of any larger morality or meaning. Postmodernism is, in its most despairing form, a re-hash of classic nihilism. In its most positive form, it cannot elevate itself beyond a more corporate existentialism. In either case, all ultimate values are eliminated.
The Test of the Real World. Perhaps the ultimate proof that postmodernism cannot adequately explain reality is that it can never ultimately be lived out. People are made in the image of God, and being self-consciously aware of morality and meaning is a part of who we are. The postmodern ethicist essentially claims, “There is no such thing as good or evil,” and then pauses and adds, “and that’s a good thing.” There is an intuitive and implacable place within us that insists that there is such a thing as good and evil, even when we disagree among ourselves what we place within those categories. Alister McGrath passes along a delightful story told about Kenneth Kirk, professor of moral theology at Oxford University. His wife was asked about her husband’s work, and she replied, “Kenneth spends a lot of time thinking up very complicated and sophisticated reasons for doing things we all know perfectly well to be wrong.”
Further, it is important to note that postmodernism only exists as a viable worldview in certain contexts. The worldview that claims that all worldviews are historically and culturally contingent turns out to be historically and culturally contingent itself. In fact, in all of its rebellion against the evils of modernism and Western civilizations, postmodernism ironically exists only in the context of modernism and Western civilization! This is not accidental. The productivity of Western civilization has created a culture that is mostly defined by its consumerism. Ours is a culture of unlimited choices, from cereal to philosophies, and the only absolute value is to value everyone’s right to choose their own existence, even their own meaning. Life, experientially, seems to mimic the postmodern ethos, “presenting it as only one incident of choosing after another, none of which is related to the others.” This view of life, however, only works in cultures where this sort of choice and self-determinacy actually exists; and even then, only until this pattern of life gets disrupted by actual reality.
Rather than capitulate to postmodernism, the biblical Christian is wise to recognize it for what it fundamentally is: a cultural context in which Christianity exists, can survive and even thrive. Truth does not yield to popular opinion. Unlike postmodernism, the biblical worldview can withstand all challenges and still speak to the dominant culture.
- Kevin Vanhoozer, “Pilgrim’s Digress: Christian Thinking on and about the Post/Modern Way” in Penner, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2005), p. 76.
- Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too (New York: NY: Oxford, 1994), p. 8.
- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York, NY: Cambridge, 1989), pp. 4–5.
- Fish, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech,” p. 8.
- Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2009), p. 371.
- C.S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1959), p. 100.
- Cited in David Horton, ed. The Portable Seminary: A Master’s Level Overview in One Volume (Bloomington, IL: Bethany House, 2006), p. 610.
- David Wells, Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2005), pp. 75–79. Quote on p. 78.
- Note: This article is an adaptation and abridgment from the second chapter of Making Sense of Your Wolrd: A Biblical Worldview by Gary Phillips, William Brown, and John Stonestreet.