The term "postmodernism" first emerged in the 1950s to describe new architectural and literary movements that opposed commonly accepted canons regarding the unity and coherence of narratives and artistic styles. Sociologists, meanwhile, have used "postmodernism" to indicate discordant trends such as the parallel growth in cosmopolitan globalization and parochial traditionalism. The term has also been appropriated by mainly French and German philosophers to designate a criticism of reason, regarded as a universal and certain foundation for knowledge and morality, and of modern culture, understood as a progressive unfolding of knowledge and morality. An examination of the works of these philosophers shows that many of the postmodern themes regarding the fragmentation (or deconstruction) of the rational subject and its object can be explained from the standpoint of conceptual tensions implicit within post-Kantian philosophy, which remains the main target of postmodern criticism.
A true son of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant defended reason as a universal faculty whose untrammeled exercise irresistibly leads to questioning all dogma and all authority, and from there leads to the complete emancipation of all individuals from the fetters of tradition. Faith in reason as it is deployed in science and morality fuels faith in the interminable progress of humanity. However, as postmodernists like Michel Foucault point out, the very reason that develops modern culture disintegrates under its own self-critical gaze, thereby issuing in oscillating and often discordant trends between absolutism and nihilism, totalitarianism and anarchism, humanism and multiculturalism, and universalism and parochialism. The end of rational idealism in turn spells the end of the subject as an autonomous, self-identifying, and self-determining locus of agency.
Ironically, it was Kant himself who initiated the critique of reason that later inspired postmodern philosophy. Kant observed that reason recognizes no limits in questioning the ultimate metaphysical grounds underlying reality, but that any answer it gives in response to its own questions entails contradiction. Rational inquiry must therefore be limited to phenomena within everyday experience. Kant's critique of pure, experience-transcending reason already anticipated postmodern skepticism regarding the completeness of our knowledge of things in their totality, while rejecting such skepticism with regard to our knowledge of things in their experiential finitude. Kant's rejection of this latter form of skepticism, whose main exponent is David Hume, requires that reason be seen as a synthetic power that infuses experience of objects with causal necessity as it imposes rational identity on the experiencing subject. However, to reconcile the causal necessity of the world with the uncaused freedom of the moral subject, Kant had to divide reason into two opposed deployments—theoretical and practical—only one of which was a source of knowledge (he later added a third, aesthetic deployment to mediate between the moral and the theoretical). Subsequent postmodernists continued to divide reason into an indefinite number of context-specific applications, thereby undermining any certain belief in a common reason, a common world, and a common humanity.
Also postmodern is Kant's view that reason questions even its own authority as a certain foundation of knowledge. As G. F. W. Hegel astutely noted, this self-referential (or reflexive) use of reason is paradoxical. By limiting the valid deployment of cognitive reason to natural science, critical philosophy undermines its own claim to validity as a nonscientific form of reflective knowledge. Conversely, by grounding natural science in a nonnatural form of transcendental subjectivity, it unwittingly shows natural science and its object to be partial and superficial forms of cognition and reality, respectively.
According to postmodernists, Hegel's system marks the last great attempt to resolve the crisis of reason bequeathed by Kantian philosophy. It does so by affirming what Kant had denied: reason's infinite demand to know the infinite totality. As noted above, this demand issues in contradiction. However, Hegel thought that this was true only if philosophical reflection did not completely grasp all possible metaphysical categories in a manner that showed how each implied all the others. Hegel's circular reasoning would show that the apparent contradictions implicit in metaphysical reasoning ultimately establish a closed system of resolved complementarities. In contrast, any attempt to found one kind of belief deductively on another in a noncircular way, as Kant had proposed, must issue in unresolved contradiction.
Postmodernists question whether reason can establish a complete and coherent system of thought. From Hegel's thought they retain his dialectical view that the fundamental reasons that define, categorize, and ground our beliefs about things effectively refer to properties that are thought to be external or opposed to these things. Thus, while logic (analytic reason) seeks to establish categorical distinctions between self and other, nature and society, reason and unreason, philosophical reasoning about logic undermines these distinctions. Postmodernists therefore conclude that nothing is certain and definite, not even our certainty that we as rational subjects exist.
The undermining of categorical distinctions has an important bearing on the meaningfulness of language. Postmodernists point to the futility of trying to ground the meaning of concepts in empirically verifiable objects or in what is immediately given in experience. As Ludwig Wittgenstein noted in his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus, the logical and philosophical metalanguage that is supposed to ground the meaningfulness of the object language in immediate experience is not itself an object language referring to immediate experience. Citing similar self-referential paradoxes made famous by Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, and Werner Heisenberg, Jean François Lyotard has argued that epistemic and logical indeterminacy, incompleteness, and uncertainty necessarily infect any scientific or philosophical metanarrative that claims to be all-encompassing. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the common acceptance by philosophers of language that meaning is relative to context and usage and yet is underdetermined by them has led philosophers as diverse as Donald Davidson and Jacques Derrida to suggest that meaning is at the very least an indefinite project of textual interpretation, if not, as Lyotard and Foucault argue, an anarchic war of contesting and inventing.
For postmodernists, acknowledging the uncertainty, ambiguity, and loss of identity that comes with the demise of rationalism, humanism, and idealism need not commit us to nihilism. On the contrary, as Friedrich Nietzsche observed, by insisting on impossible norms of certainty, clarity, and identity, we end up devaluing those common unfathomable and uncanny modes of moral and religious experience that open us up to novelty, fantasy, and vulnerability. Worse, by insisting on these impossible norms, we become arrogant and drunk on our own "will to power." It was in the name of pure reason, after all, that "enlightened" Europeans sought to eliminate or assimilate to themselves the "unenlightened" peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Genuine postmodern responsibility, by contrast, endeavors to promote an active, nondomineering receptivity to the other, no matter how different it may appear.
Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. The Postmodern Turn. New York: Guilford Press, 1997.
Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Pantheon, 1970.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Translated by Frederick G. Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.
Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 1982–1985. Translated by Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Lyotard, Jean François. Toward the Postmodern. Translated by Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993.
Natoli, Joseph, and Linda Hutcheon, eds. A Postmodern Reader. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Silverman, Hugh J., ed. Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Arts. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Vattimo, Gianni. The End of Modernity. Translated by Jon R. Snyder. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
David Ingram (2005)
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