Postmodernism -- A much abused term
There are two articles here and here which seem to me to be very confused about what is postmodernism. One claims that it is nothing more than a form of art criticism and the other claims that there can be conservative postmodernists -- with even the impeccably conservative Dennis Prager being elected as a postmodernist.
The first writer above, Michael Barnard, lists some of the many lines of thought that have been described from time to time as postmodernist and many others could be added. "Postmodernist" has become a sort of all-purpose description of any body of thought that seems fanciful or unrealistic, or, indeed incoherent.
So what is postmodernism? Is it just a form of Art criticism as Barnard contends, for instance? It may be the form that Barnard most respects but his own examples of where discourse about postmodernism arises show his claim as merely provocative if not silly.
So am I going to provide a better definition? Not at all. There are a variety of definitions and all get at something in postmodernism. Read as many as you like. I cover a fair few of them here
What I want to do is to trace postmodernism to it source and from that an understanding of what it is readily emerges. It originated in a severe philosophical problem that became increasingly well-known and influential in the twentieth century. It traces at least from David Hume's denial in the 18th century that one can derive an “ought” from an “is” but arguably goes all the way back to Socrates. The problem was how do we know what is right, good or ought to be done? The expressions "X is pink" and "X is good" are of similar form so are they of the same kind? Is goodness as objective a property as pinkness?
For almost everybody, the answer to that is clear. The first is a statement of fact and the second is a value judgment. But where do values come from? Is goodness and rightness hiding under a rock somewhere? If not, where is it? There have been various attempts to answer that but in the end there is nothing objective that can be pointed to. It all devolves into a matter of opinion.
Analytical philosophers have labored long and hard to find ways of defining what is good but the very fact that they have different opinions about it undermines the effort. We just have to accept that there is no such thing as an objective right and wrong. Statements about rightness and wrongness are expressions of attitude, not expressions of fact. Philosophy has failed to give an account of objective or absolute rightness and goodness.
Awareness of that state of affairs gradually grew throughout the twentieth century as exposure to education spread -- and many people encountering it seemed to find it liberating. They saw a failure of philosophy as telling them something important about the world. They saw it as undermining all standards in morality, ethics, aesthetics and much else. They interpreted it as liberating them from all restraints.
Civilized restraints however did not go away. Certain old-fashioned customs were no longer seen as binding but what you needed to do to have a pleasant life did not change much.
But if your behavior remained constrained, your theorizing was not. And the resultant gabble is what we identify as postmodernism. Postmodernism is an attempt to use or at least understand why there are no absolute moral truths and, in some cases, an attempt to construct alternative truths. Whatever you dreamed up could be justified by the absence of objective moral truths.
Thus it became customary that when a Leftist was backed into a corner over the value of some policy, he would say "But there's no such thing as right and wrong anyway". He eluded a practical debate by describing it as something else, as a debate about moral absolutes
So postmodernists celebrate a lack of objective standards about what is good or right -- and usually offer their own behavior recommendations anyway, the pursuit of power being the main one. In their celebration of their own incoherence they can say in almost the same breath that there is no such thing as right and wrong but Donald Trump is wrong about just about everything. Their philosophy does not even account for their own usage.
So most of the world's people carry on with efforts to build a pleasant life for themselves and bother themselves with debates and explorations about how to achieve that. Abstract philosophical debates don't enter their consciousness.
And conservatives in particular do that. If analytical philosophy has failed to solve one of it central problems they are unconcerned. What gives them the life they want is their overriding interest. And they search for guidelines about that. It is not at all clear how one should behave to have a life with maximum happiness and minimal pain. And when they do arrive at a guideline or set of guidelines that sounds like it has an impressive track record (such as evangelical Christianity), they do tend to value that guideline and act in accordance with it. They might even describe it as the "right" way to live in discussions with others who are searching.
Among Leftists, however, there seems to be a belief that because there is no such thing as objective right and wrong, therefore there are no guidelines that lead to a happy life. One pities them. It is no wonder that all the surveys find that conservatives are happier.
So the absence of an objective right and wrong does not tell us that all roads will lead to happiness. As Jesus said, that road may be "strait and narrow".
So in the end there was one moral philosopher who got it right. R.M. Hare argued that the only defensible function of "is good' or "is right" statements is to commend. That can be unpacked in various ways but it can also be unpacked to interpret "rightness" statements as saying "This makes me happy and I think it will make you happy too", or "This satisfies me and I think it would satisfy you too" or "This gets me results I like and I think you would like its results too" -- and so on.
The similarity of the two statements "X is pink" and "X is good" does lead some people to think that the goodness they are discussing is something objective, something that can be pointed to in the same way that one can point to a color. A little reflection normally tells us however that the "goodness" or "rightness" being referred to is something fundamentally different from a color.
There is a belief among some people however -- particularly among the products of a Catholic education -- that there ARE some moral absolutes. They cannot point to any proof of it but they FEEL that some things are "just wrong" and are always wrong. There is a sound evolutionary reason for that feeling which I discuss in my fuller account of moral philosophy