What is postmodernism? Is it a problem? The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism. It is based on the book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks, Professor of Philosophy, at Rockford College. His excellent book goes into great detail, exploring postmodernism and its origins.
Previous posts include:
Reason, truth, and knowledge are meaningless, argue the postmodernists, they are only political oppression. In Marxist tradition, postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism and its progeny – truth, reason, knowledge, science, individualism, free markets, and liberal democracy.
The Age of Enlightenment’s modern philosophy overthrew the Medieval philosophy of faith. Modernism replaced faith with reason. Individuals could use perception and reason to know reality. Reason produced individualism and science. Individualism produced liberal democracy and free markets. Science produced technology and medicine.
Counter-Enlightenment Strikes Back
Postmodernism’s seeds were sown during the Age of Enlightenment. There was a Counter-Enlightenment, a reaction to modernism – both to defend faith and to criticize modernism’s logical flaws. The Counter-Enlightenment planted the seeds of postmodernism.
Enlightenment thought helped make England into a powerhouse. Continental Europe took notice. The French followed, for a time. Many Germans were troubled. The Enlightenment threatened politics, religion, community, and morality.
Enlightenment reason and individualism threatened to replace religion with a godless, soulless, amoral machine.
- Gone was a personal God, replaced by a distant, disconnected abstraction.
- Gone were faith, religious answers, and the human spirit, replaced by logic, causation and mechanical necessity.
- Gone was morality and community, replaced by the selfish pursuit of happiness.
The German Counter-Enlightenment gathered its forces. Its progeny would include existentialism, nihilism, Marxism, Nazism, communism, and postmodernism.
Objectivity is Dead
German philosopher Immanuel Kant was a defender of the faith. He attacked Enlightenment reason in order to defend religion. “I here therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith,” Kant wrote. In defense of faith, he struck reason a crippling blow.
Reason is clueless about objective reality, Kant argued. Our reason is limited by our subjective perceptions and understanding. Our perceptions are subjective. Our understanding is subjective. Therefore, we cannot know objective reality.
Our perceptions are subjective, said Kant. Our sense perceptions are not reality. They are only internal representations of reality. Our sense organs veil reality.
Our understandings are subjective, Kant contended. Our understandings are even further removed from reality than our perceptions. We construct our understandings from artificial concepts. “We always remain involved in conditions” that make our experiences, he said.
Kant rejected knowledge to protect faith. We cannot know objective reality, he concluded. Reason and science are cut off from reality. Truth exists only inside our brains. Thus, science cannot disprove God.
Kant struck a blow against reason, in a major break from Enlightenment thought. The results might be:
- Reality. We know
objectivesubjective reality because reason and perception are subjective. Our organs of consciousness are obstacles to consciousness.
- Human Nature. We have
the autonomouslimited capacity or the illusion of capacity to form our own character.
- Values. The individual
ismight be the unit of value. Universal principles are subjective.
Kant made powerful, logical arguments against reason. He separated object from subject, and reason from reality. Modern ideas about reason, truth, and knowledge are called into question.
Kant turned reason (logic) against itself. Objectivity had stood on shaky legs. Kant took logic’s razor and cut objectivity’s legs from under it. The fight left reason wobbling – and blind in one eye. Science could see only part of the truth.
The German Counter-Enlightenment launches a counter-revolution. Next: Part 3, Hegel’s Dialectic.