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


  1. There is an I in realiseJanuary 9, 2019 at 4:51 AM


    I put it on top since everything that comes after is subject to it and it does not matter whether I like it or not. Is this true? What is not subject to truth? Is there something that does not stand under truth? I do not know and that is a fact, but I would be suspicious of any and all claims that something is not subject to truth.

    With that out of the way, I am pleased to read the blog post of a sound mind, well done and here is for further well doing. Now, prepare to be rebutted harshly without tact and nothing but the truth, so help you God.

    I wish it was that easy, there is just so much I do not know. 'Rebutted harshly' is just hot air and used for comedic effect and I do not wish you harm, as far as I know, but I could be lying or hide my motives even from myself. Nothing but the truth is wishful thinking since I do not know the truth, but I do know some basic facts. I have just read your blog post containing Postmodernism in the title. I am writing this. Got a cuppa brewing and soon it will be ready to drink. It is dark outside my windows at this location right now, illuminated merely by different shapes of light.

    - What is fact is right, what is not fact is a falsity and that is wrong. This is the beginning of the great divide/subdivision that runs through everything (creation).
    - The erecting of truth in one's self begins with the first fact.
    - Enter life by trials and errors. In one's inventory there are (objectively) facts and there are "facts".
    - Sooner rather than later, make time to practise the ability to distinguish what is fact and what have been accepted as facts, but are not; done regularly to maintain sanity.
    - Truth is larger in scope than one or several facts; truth is the sum of all facts - which consists of known facts and facts and their counterparts yet to be discovered.

    - Facts can be categorised and subdivided .. err ..
    - Clusters of facts are facts that are of .. similar nature .. err ..

    This is hard. My intelligence has a certain scope. It is a struggle, even on a day of clarity.

    Intelligence with a greater scope will grasp more, be able to reveal more and explain it better, in proper order and in greater detail.

    Truth. Liberty to grow and learn truth. Intelligence and heart to understand truth. Faith and earnest wish that truth will become known and realised.

    At the end of the day, everything that is under truth is fallible. It is a long way to the top and from the top to the bottom, but there is a way.

  2. The nature of truth is another old philosophical conundrum

    1. There is also an I in realityJanuary 11, 2019 at 5:26 AM

      I have pondered your comment.

      The nature of truth is that truth is in nature. Backwards? Proof is in the pudding.


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