Art & Postmodernism—Part I

Why do people today think the way they do about truth? Though most ideas about truth come from philosophers, most never read philosophy because it’s often boring and technical. If hardly anyone reads what they write, then how do philosopher’s ideas shape how the culture thinks? One word: art. Artists take philosophical ideas and communicate them to the masses through art. Remember art includes not merely paintings, but literature, comic books, songs, poetry, plays, television, and movies. In this article I’ll show how key philosophical ideas about truth can be found particularly in movies.

First I’ll summarize the major philosophical movements that have shaped the way we think about truth. The history of Western thought is often divided into three eras:

Premodernism (500 BC–1600 AD) – This includes Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Christian philosophers such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.

Modernism (1600–1800 AD) – While seeds of this era can be found in Aristotelian Scholasticism and the Renaissance, it didn’t really blossom until the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. One well-known thinker of this era is Rene Descartes (1596–1650 AD), the Father of Modern Philosophy. Other thinkers from this era include Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton.

Postmodernism (1800 AD–present) – I’m using the term Postmodernism broadly to refer to all the movements that responded against Modernism. The first Postmodern movement was Romanticism in the early 1800s. Postmodern thinkers from the 1800s include Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Postmodern movements in the 1900s include Existentialism, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and the movement of the 1970s and 1980s called the Postmodern movement, which included thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucalt, and Richard Rorty.

The central aspect that distinguishes these three eras from each other is the notion of where truth comes from. I’m using the term truth to refer to ultimate truth such as the meaning of life, purpose, love, and morality. Here’s a simple way to understand the key distinctions:

1. Premodernists thought truth came from up there.
2. Modernists thought truth was discovered out there.
3. Postmodernists think of truth as something found in here.

Premodernists thought truth came from up there in that it had a transcendent source. This is not only true of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam); many ancient Greek philosophers also believed truth had a transcendent source. Some, including Plato and Aristotle, even described this transcendent source in similar ways to how the Abrahamic religions described God. For example, Plato’s search for certainty amidst the constant change we experience in the physical world led him to posit his theory of the forms.1 The constant state of flux we find in our world, which includes ourselves, couldn’t provide the necessary objectivity for truth, including moral truth, that Plato, like many others, assumed must be the case. Thus, he posited forms, or transcendent universals, including moral truths, that somehow exist objectively apart from us. He even suggested that a divine craftsman employed these universals in making the physical world.2 He taught that this transcendent realm is the ultimate reality because it alone is permanent and unchanging.

Later, many Christian theologians, including Augustine, proposed that what Plato was describing, though he didn’t realize it himself, was actually the nature and mind of God. Plato’s influence in Western thinking cannot be overstated; the famous Harvard philosophy professor Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) wrote that the

“safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”3

During the Medieval era the most exalted type of understanding was learning these transcendent truths such as beauty, love, rationality, and justice. Some went too far and thought these ideas were the only important things to study because the physical world included only shifting shadows of transcendent perfections. They thought these ideas alone were good and everything physical was inferior or contaminated with evil.

Things began to change when Aristotle was rediscovered. Aristotle’s works had been preserved in the East by Muslims but had largely been lost in the West until the 1100s when his books were translated into Latin. Whereas Plato, and Plato’s influence through theologians such as Augustine, focused too much on the transcendent realm, Aristotle, and Aristotle’s influence through theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, had a better balance between the transcendent realm and the physical world. Aristotle argued Plato was wrong to think the physical world was merely shadows and that only the transcendent realm was truly real. He taught that the physical world was important too and shouldn’t be neglected. Aristotle himself studied nature intensely; some even consider him the first scientist.

This difference between Plato and Aristotle was insightfully captured by Raphael in The School of Athens. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the middle where Plato and Aristotle are disagreeing.

Plato points upwards emphasizing the transcendent realm, whereas Aristotle outstretches his hand near his waist illustrating that it’s important to study the transcendent realm and the physical world. This rediscovery of Aristotle caused Western culture to focus more attention on the physical world. Many argue that this shift in thinking, from studying mostly transcendent ideals to studying the physical world too, led to the scientific revolution, a key part of Modernism.

Early Modernists were largely motivated to study the physical world because they thought that doing so would help them learn more about the transcendent realm, i.e., God’s nature and mind. They expected to learn more about God, which they still believed was the ultimate source of truth, by studying the physical world, since it was designed by his divine mind. However, as Modernism progressed many people began to reject the idea of a divine mind behind nature and concluded that the physical realm itself was the source of truth. That’s why I’ve summarized Modernism as the idea that truth is discovered out there in nature. Whereas in Premodernism the physical world was often neglected, now the transcendent realm, including God, was neglected and eventually discarded.

Whereas in Premodernism the physical world was often neglected, now the transcendent realm, including God, was neglected and eventually discarded.

Modernists developed an attitude some call scientism, that scientific knowledge is the best or only type of knowledge that can be trusted. If something can’t be studied scientifically, then it’s probably not real, and definitely not worth studying. People with this attitude celebrated the Enlightenment as a time when Western culture finally left behind ignorant superstitions of the past and embraced reason and science as the light that would show us the way. There was an incredible sense of optimism that we’d be able to figure everything out on our own. The pendulum swung from too little emphasis on the physical world in Premodernism to too much emphasis on the physical world in Modernism.

This extreme optimism didn’t last long. There are many ways that Modernism crashed and burned, but I’ll focus on just one. Modernists developed a mechanical view of reality, that the universe itself is best understood through, for example, Newton’s mechanical laws of motion. At first people didn’t view humanity as part of this vast machine; while everything else in the universe followed set deterministic laws of cause and effect, humans were special and somehow existed beyond merely their physicality. We have machine-like parts—the heart functions like a pump—but we’re more than the sum of our parts. These earlier Modernists didn’t believe humans were governed by deterministic laws of cause and effect but had intelligence and made their own choices.

However, eventually people began to think that humans were merely the result of the mechanical forces of nature. This was a titanic shift in thinking because people concluded humans were part of the deterministic chain of cause and effect, part of the universe-machine, and thus merely machines themselves. Humans don’t have free will but everything about them is set by the deterministic laws of nature. For example, Nikola Tesla, famous nineteenth-century inventor, wrote, “The universe is simply a great machine which never came into being and never will end. The human being is no exception to the natural order. Man, like the universe, is a machine. Nothing enters our minds or determines our actions which is not directly or indirectly a response to stimuli beating upon our sense organs from without.”4

However, eventually people began to think that humans were merely the result of the mechanical forces of nature.

Jacques Monod, French Nobel Prize winner and founder of molecular biology, said, “[a]nything can be reduced to simple, obvious mechanical interaction. The cell is a machine. The animal is a machine. Man is a machine.”5 He added “[t]he universe is not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man… Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty.”6 Famous atheist scientist at Oxford, Richard Dawkins, wrote, “[w]e are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it.”7 I trust you see where this mechanical understanding of humanity leads to. According to these Modernists, everything that makes us human—hopes, fears, loves—are merely the result of random atoms accidentally bouncing around.

Though Modernism began with optimism that truth could be found out there, it eventually concluded that there is no ultimate truth. Modernism came to understand what Plato pointed out thousands of years earlier—if there’s no transcendent realm to provide a fixed, unchanging foundation for absolute truth, if all that exists is the constantly changing physical world, then there aren’t any fixed ultimate truths about the meaning of life, beauty, justice, love, and purpose. The always-in-flux physical world just isn’t a stable enough foundation for ultimate truth. If all that exists are changing particulars, then there’s no fixed standard for ultimate truth. Modernism, hoping to find enlightenment by discarding the transcendent realm, ended up without absolute fixed reference points for life, beauty, justice, love, and purpose.

Dr. Adam Lloyd Johnson earned his PhD at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He taught for Rhineland School of Theology in Wolmersen, Germany, & Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. His own ministry is called Convincing Proof & he also serves with Ratio Christi. He’s the author or editor of several published works, including A Debate on God and Morality: What is the Best Account of Objective Moral Values and Duties?, coauthored with William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, & others. His next book, A Divine Love Theory: How the Trinity is the Source and Foundation of Morality, will be published this fall by Kregel Academic. You can learn more about his work at