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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 conclusion.

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 imaginary, phenomenon.

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 society.

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.

Negative Criticism

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 undeconstructible.

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 case, however?

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 structure.

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, nevertheless.

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 metanarratival elements.

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.