Modernism and Postmodernism

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Modern philosophy is construed as beginning sometime in the Renaissance. A philosophy that seeks new foundations for knowledge was offered as an alternative to that provided by the ancient philosophers. Modern philosophy was presented as starting afresh from new beginningsturning to nature directly (Francis Bacon), turning to the mind directly (René Descartes), turning to experience directly (Thomas Hobbes). The "quarrel between the ancients and the moderns" resulted from this basic disagreement as to the sources of philosophical knowledge.

Modern philosophy turned away from the past and toward the future, toward the advancement of knowledge, toward human understanding, and toward progress through method or through experience. With the break between the Continental rationalists (Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Benedict de Spinoza) and the British empiricists (Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume) at the end of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, a new formulation in modern philosophy was called for. Immanuel Kant brought together in his "critical" philosophy the commitments to the analytic exercise of the mind, on the one hand, and the empirical reception through the senses on the other. With Kant, modern philosophy combined the "transcendental unity of apperception" with the "manifold of experience." Modern philosophy was no longer based on a theory of representationrepresentation to the mind through reason or representation to the mind through experiencebut on the linking of transcendental subjectivity and empirical objectivity. This "doublet," as Michel Foucault came to name it, accounted for a whole new way of philosophizing.

Modernism is distinguished from modern philosophy in that it is linked to certain movements in art and literature that began sometime around the end of the nineteenth century. While drawing upon some similar characteristics of "modern philosophy," modernism in art, literature, and philosophy involved novelty, break with tradition, progress, continuous development, knowledge derived either from the position of the subject or from claims to objectivity, and concomitantly the crisis in knowledge produced by this very dichotomy. Hence in modernism, at the same time that certain theories based knowledge on a centered, transcendental, interpreting subjectivity, and others based knowledge on certain, atomistic, analytic, empirical objectivity, the crisis in knowledge created a sense of uncertainty, paradox, incompleteness, inadequacy, emptiness, and void. Modernism in art and literature involved a shift away from the dichotomies of romanticism and realism to the stream of consciousness, lived and internal time-consciousness, transcendental subjectivity, narrated remembrance and awareness, portrayed speed, mechanisms, objects, and abstractions. Latent content was allowed to penetrate through the surfaces of manifest content. Understanding would have to delve more deeply than surfaces and mere appearances. A phenomenology would be needed in order to inventory the contents of consciousness (Edmund Husserl) or a psychoanalysis to delve the depths of what the mind was really thinking (Sigmund Freud), or a logical positivism would take the alternative tack by excluding all knowledge that cannot be verified logically and empirically (Bertrand Russell, early Ludwig Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer). Modernism in philosophy involved at each stage the Kantian combination of the empirical and the transcendental, the objective and the subjective, the material and the intellectualbut each time measuring the doublet with weight on one side or the other.

The disintegration of modernism in philosophy was internal. The radical claims of logical positivism excluded all that was of value: metaphysics, aesthetics, axiology, and so forth. The rigorous science of transcendental phenomenology excluded the very existence of what it was investigating. The dualism of creative evolutionism left an irreparable dichotomy between lived experience and objective knowledge. The pragmatism of radical empiricism failed to provide a way to interpret the meanings of experience. The center of modernism in philosophy could not hold because its very foundations were in question. But attempts to retrieve it from itself by the turn to languageordinary language, analytic philosophies of language, hermeneutics of language, semiologies of languagecould not resolve the dilemmas of human existence. Modernism in philosophy faced the absurd, the ambiguous, and the dialectical. And it worked these theories to their limits.

In the mid-1960s philosophy came to look at its epistemological formations and to ask whether the humanisms and anthropologisms of modern philosophy had not circumscribed themselves. Maurice Merleau-Ponty's interrogations were reformulated in Foucault's archaeology of knowledge. The human sciences placed the optimisms and pessimisms of modern philosophy in question by circumventing the theory of "man." Knowledge formations were articulated in terms of multiple spaces of knowledge production and no longer according to a central source or position, or ego, or self, or subject, nor according to a multiplicity of sense-data, objective criteria, material evidence, or behaviors. Knowledge formations crossed disciplines and operated in multiple spaces where questions of structure, frame, margin, boundary, edge, limit, and so on would mark any discursive practice. In other words, knowledge was no longer produced from a center, foundation, ground, basis, identity, authority, or transcendental competency. Knowledge was dispersed, multiple, fragmented, and theoretically varied. Knowledge was no longer based on continuity, unity, totality, comprehensiveness, and consistency. Knowledge began to be understood in terms of discontinuity, difference, dissemination, and differends.

By the early 1970s postmodernisma term that Daniel Bell used in connection with postindustrial society in the 1950s, that architects appealed to in the 1960s, and that art and literary historians invoked in the 1970shad still not been invoked in connection with philosophy. Jacques Derrida's grammatology and theory of "difference" in 1967 (building upon Martin Heidegger's account of "the end of philosophy and the task of thinking") turned into a full-fledged deconstruction in the 1970s. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's notion of rhizomal thinking (as opposed to hierarchical, authorizing arborescent thinking) marked a move against psychoanalytic theories based on Oedipal authority and paternal insistence. Their idea of nomadism placed emphasis on knowledge, experience, and relations that were not organized around a central concept. J. Kristeva's account of the revolution in poetic language marked the distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic. Where symbolicscientific, theoretical, phallic, paternalthinking had pervaded philosophy and science, Kristeva invoked the semiotic as the poetic, fluid, receptacle-like, maternal thinking that has been hidden in modern thought. Yet postmodern was hardly the term that was invoked to describe this kind of philosophizing. Correspondingly, the more restricted study of phenomenology and existentialism in philosophy gave way to the more multiple and diverse theories implicit in Continental philosophy: deconstruction, archaeology of knowledge, semanalysis, schizoanalysis, feminist theory, and so forth. Yet, while poststructuralism (in connection with Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Kristeva, et al.) was hailed as the successor to structuralism (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser), and existential phenomenology (Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir), postmodernism was still not a relevant category in philosophy until well into the 1980s. As time passed, postmodernism and postmodern thought came to take precedence over poststructuralism as the prevalent theoretical formulation.

Postmodern thought means the appeal to differencesdifferences in theories, differences in formulations, differences in identities. Postmodern thought rejects hierarchies and genealogies, continuities and progress, resolutions and overcomings (Überwindungen ). Postmodern thought, in fact, cannot operate outside of the modern, for it is itself what can be called an "indecidable." The postmodern signals the end of modernity, but it operates at the same time necessarily within the modern. To claim that the postmodern is outside the modern is to identify it as other than the modern, but that which is outside or other reinscribes the identity of the modern and therefore the postmodern inscription within it. Hence the postmodern both marks places of difference within the modern and calls for an alternative to the modern. The postmodern in any case does not call for the destruction of the modern, not does it seek to deny the modern, since it is necessarily part of the modern.

The postmodern involves the question of the end or limit or margin of what is in question. History, man, knowledge, painting, writing, the moderneach is posed in terms of its end. The end is not a matter of termination or conclusion any more than a matter of goal and aspiration. The postmodern involves, as G. Vattimo notes, a Verwindung of modernitya getting over, a convalescence, a recovering from modernity. This means that modernity is itself placed in question and no longer taken as an unquestioned given. The cracks and fissures in modernity, the places where modernity cannot be fully aware of itself, the moments of unpresentability in the modernthese are the concerns of postmodern thought. As J.-F. Lyotard has noted in his famous The Postmodern Condition (1984), the postmodern involves the presentation of the unpresentable in presentation itselfthat is, in modernity, the concern was to present something new, something unheard of, something unique, something shocking, something unpresentable. The postmodern involves the presentation of the unpresentable in presentation itselfthe formulation of the moments of unpresentability as they mark what is presented. Lyotard calls attention to the role of the "differend" as the place of conflict between two alternative positions. The differend does not belong to either side. It belongs only to the place between, to the gap between the two presentations on either side. This is the postmodern momentsuch moments or events with which the modern is distinctively scarred and animated.

See also Ayer, Alfred Jules; Bacon, Francis; Barthes, Roland; Beauvoir, Simone de; Continental Philosophy; Deconstruction; Deleuze, Gilles; Derrida, Jacques; Descartes, René; Existentialism; Foucault, Michel; Freud, Sigmund; Heidegger, Martin; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Husserl, Edmund; Kant, Immanuel; Kristeva, Julia; Lacan, Jacques; Language; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Logical Positivism; Lyotard, François; Malebranche, Nicolas; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Phenomenology; Postmodernism; Realism; Renaissance; Romanticism; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Self; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Structuralism and Post-structuralism; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


Derrida, J. Margins of Philosophy. Translated by A. Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Foucault, M. The Order of Things. Translator anon. New York: Pantheon, 1970.

Kristeva, J. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by M. Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Lyotard, J.-F. The Postmodern Condition. Translated by G. Bennington and B. Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Lyotard, J.-F. Toward the Postmodern. Translated by R. Harvey and M. Roberts. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993.

Natoli, J., and L. Hutcheon, eds. A Postmodern Reader. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Silverman, H. J., ed. PostmodernismPhilosophy and the Arts. New York: Routledge, 1990.

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Vattimo, G. The End of Modernity. Translated by J. R. Snyder. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Hugh J. Silverman (1996)

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Modernism and Postmodernism

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