What is "postmodernism?"

The word “postmodernism” is used in many different situations, and means many things.  When applied to art, literature, politics, architecture, and philosophy, it has specific connotations.  That is a way of saying that people are very sloppy in their use of the word.  

What most versions of postmodernism share is a sense of meaning—that we now live without accepted transcendent truths.  The things we believe to be true, beautiful and good might not be true, beautiful and good.

Philosophy and religion are no help here, postmodernists say.  Some accept this or that philosophical approach, or religious faith, but there is no good reason why others should join them.  We must work out the problems of human existence without extrahuman standards and judges.

Jean-François Lyotard said that postmodernism is “incredulity toward metanarratives.”*

Here is a propositional account of postmodernism.**

1.      There is no such thing as transcendent truth. What we call "true" is simply what we agree with. So-called truths or facts are merely negotiated beliefs, the products of social construction and fabrication, not ‘objective’ or ‘external’ features of the world.

2.      Knowledge, reality, and truth are the products of language. There is no language-independent reality that can make our thoughts true or false.

3.      If there were any transcendent or objective truths, they would be inaccessible and unknowable by human beings, hence unavailable for any practical epistemological purposes.

4.      There are no privileged epistemic positions, and no certain foundations for beliefs. All claims are judged by conventions or language games, which have no deeper grounding. There are no neutral, transcultural standards for settling disagreements.

5.      Appeals to truth are merely instruments of domination or repression, which should be replaced by practices with progressive social value.

6.      Truth cannot be attained because all putatively truth-oriented practices are corrupted and biased by politics or self-serving interests.


Sheldon Wolin uses ‘postmodern’ in a way similar to Lyotard, and not as part of an epistemic claim.  “For theorists of a postmodern era… the contrast between appearance and reality no longer holds.  Appearance is all there is…. dependent upon incessant and insistent changes that undermine confidence in the existence of a reality principle.”*+  Wolin adds later: “Foremost among the changes from modern to postmodern power is that the directive role of the state is now shared with the power-forms hitherto conceived primarily as economic in character.”**+


*The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. xxiv.  See next note.  Lyotard did say this was “(s)implifying to the extreme….”

**These 6 propositions, a quote, are presented as "criticisms of truth-based epistemology" in Alvin I. Goldman, Knowledge in a Social World (Oxford, 1999), p. 10.  The six propositions, says Goldman, are demonstrably wrong.  Worse than that, he says, they are silly.  That is why people who consider themselves to be postmodern philosophers are uncomfortable in departments of philosophy, where colleagues ask pesky questions.  It should be noted that Goldman is not directly addressing the kind of propositions referred to in the reference to Lyotard.  We make useful distinctions between broad propositions about society or history and specific claims which we pursue because we wish to have true belief (as opposed to being misinformed or uninformed).  (Goldman, 24, 26)

*+ Politics and Vision (Expanded Edition, Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 395. 

**+ Ibid., p. 563.