S. Wallace earned his B.S. In Education from Miami University, his M.A. In Philosophy from Biola University, and has pursued doctoral studies in Philosophy at Marquette University.
The university today is replete with opinions about postmodernismopinions that have diverse answers to questions such as: Where did postmodernism originate, and when? What defines it? How has it influenced our culture? How is it different from philosophies before it?
Christians in academia must carefully analyze the various opinions and seek a correct understanding of postmodernism to know how to relate to this intellectual movement.1
Though much is being written on the nature of postmodernism, it appears many of the analyses focus on what may be termed "accidental properties," or properties which do accompany much postmodern thought, but are not essential to the view. I will discuss some of these accidental features, touch on the difficulties which result from identifying these as necessary or essential features of postmodernism, offer what seem to be the necessary or essential features of postmodernism, and compare these to the essential commitments of the Christian worldview. The result should be an understanding of postmodern thought which allows one to embrace that which is laudable and avoid that which is amiss in the postmodernist view.
Many definitions of postmodernism are "historical" in orientation. Taking the reference to modernism in "postmodernism," the historical approach seeks to define postmodernity in terms of what it rejects of modernity. The most prominent feature of this approach includes the rejection of a modernist view of freedom, rationality and progress.
Concerning reason, postmodernists shun modernist views which inflate reason to the status of an entirely independent, neutral, unbiased and objective instrument with which truth can and will be found. Regarding progress, postmodernists are quick to point out that, contrary to the optimistic outlook of modernity, we are not "every day, in every way, getting better and better," but rather in some cases we are creating survival-threatening conditions by the unbridled rush toward technological "progress." The same is true in terms of views on freedom. Whereas modernity placed freedom and human autonomy as one of the highest values to be embraced, the postmodernist suggests our freedom is an illusion. In fact, postmodernists maintain that our freedoms are determined by factors well beyond our control, be they race, gender, culture, or otherwise.
It seems clear that these features of postmodernity are in some ways commensurate with the Christian worldview. For example, we too reject the rationalism of modernity with its disdain for revelation or anything "scandalous" to reason. We would say that sin entails certain cognitive effects that diminish our reasoning capacity and make it a bit more suspect than modernity would admit. We would agree with postmodernists that "progress" is not always good, e.g., the fact that we can clone a human being does not mean that we should do so. And we agree human progress will not lead us to "utopia," which we say can be achieved only through life in and through the kingdom of God. Lastly, we agree that we are not ultimately free and autonomous beings. The words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15 convince us of this: ". . . for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate." Hence as Christians we find at least some if not
a great deal of agreement and common-ground with the postmodernist on these issues.
However, some take these features to be the essential features of postmodernism, and seeing the parallels to the Christian worldview, they embraced postmodernism as fully compatible with the Christian worldview. This is a grave error, due at least in part to the assumption that these features are essential and not accidental elements of postmodernism. In fact, it becomes clear through inspection that the common points of postmodernism and Christianity derive from antithetical philosophical commitmentscommitments which identify the essence of postmodernity and mark it off as essentially and deeply anti-Christian. To those essential features of the postmodern and Christian worldviews we now turn.
Foundational to each person's understanding of reality stands a "metaphysic." The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy defines metaphysics as ". . . the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality." A person's metaphysic ultimately defines and guides his or her thought, action, values, and so on. Underlying postmodernism is a metaphysic which ultimately unites all other strands of thought within that lineage, and as such may aptly be identified as the essence of postmodernism. This essential postmodern metaphysic maintains an unmitigated nominalism and the rejection of truth as correspondence to an objective, mind-independent world.
First, postmodernism is essentially nominalistic. This may be best understood by comparing it to the alternative: metaphysical Realism (hereafter simply "Realism").2 Realism maintains that universals do existentities which are transcendent (i.e., exist apart from, or transcend the individual and culture), objective (not mind-dependent), and capable of being multiply-exemplified ("had" by more than one individual thing at the same time). This final point is often identified as the essence of Realism. Reinhardt Grossmann, using the property "whiteness" as an example, summarizes the position by stating:
Is the whiteness of the two billiard balls literally the same? Is there just one entity which is exemplified by both balls? Or does each ball have its own whiteness? This is the so-called problem of universals. . . . Philosophers who believe that the color of billiard ball A is the very same as that of billiard ball B are called realists. Those who deny this, are called nominalists.3
As examples of such universals, Realists point to moral values, natures, and propositions. Realism maintains that such things as goodness and justice exist and are transcendent, objective and multiply-exemplifiable. The same is true of human nature and propositions (such as the laws of logic), according to the Realist.4
In contrast, Nominalism maintains that no universals exist, but rather all that exists are particular, discrete things. Nothing is transcendent. Hence it follows that such things as moral values, human nature and propositions are created by the individual (or collectively by the society), not discovered as existent "out there." As such, they are not objective and absolute, but rather subjective, bound to the individual and/or culture for their existence and validity. We find this metaphysic echoing throughout the writings of the leading proponents of postmodernism. Concerning values, Michel Foucault writes, "The domination of certain men over others leads to the differentiation of values; class domination generates the idea of liberty."5 Concerning propositions, Jacques Derrida states, "The absence of a transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of significations infinitely,"6 which echoes the words of Nietzsche: "There are no facts, only interpretations."7 Again, in reference to natures, Foucault writes,
"Why does Nietzsche challenge the pursuit of the origin (Ursprung) . . . ? First, because it is an attempt to capture the exact essence of things, . . . because this search assumes the existence of immobile forms that precede the eternal world of accident and succession. . . . However, . . . there is 'something altogether different' behind things: not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence."8
In sum, the nominalistic metaphysic of postmodernity denies the transcendence, objectivity and multiple-exemplification of moral values, natures and propositions. The important point here is that for the postmodernist there are no universals. Realists disagree as to just how many universals there are, but are in agreement that some properties exist as universals, as illustrated above. The postmodernist stands against this as a thoroughgoing nominalist: there are no universals whatsoever.
Furthermore, we may identify a second essential feature of postmodernism: the rejection of truth as "correspondence." On a correspondence view, a proposition (such as "snow is white") is "true" in virtue of it corresponding to the state of affairs in (mind-independent, objective) reality (snow really being white "out there" in the world). Such a view is squarely rejected by postmodernity. For the postmodernist, no appeal is made to an external "reality" beyond the individual and/or culture which ground a proposition as "true." Hence truth is ultimately grounded in the individual or culture. As Richard Rorty has stated,
Those who wish to ground solidarity in objectivity . . . have to construe truth as correspondence to reality. . . . By contrast, those who wish to reduce objectivity to solidarity . . .view truth as, in William James' phrase, what is good for us to believe. So they do not need an account of a relation between beliefs and objects called 'correspondence.'9
In the words of Nietzsche, to whom many postmodernists look for inspiration, truth is
a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphismsin short a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.10
Foucault concurs, writing "The forceful appropriation of things necessary to survival and the imposition of a duration not intrinsic to them account for the origin of logic."11
Once understood, it is not difficult to see the ubiquity of this metaphysic in the outworkings of postmodern thought. While space does
not permit a detailed explanation, several examples should suffice to illustrate the point. Take, for example, the postmodern view of rationality. As a result of rejecting truth as correspondence to objective, mind-independent reality and thus asserting that reason and truth are individually or culturally determined, one can see why it is anathema to postmodernists for someone to assume to have "objective" truth. Such assertions are paramount to cultural imperialismthe violent imposition of subjective, cultural tendencies on others in order to conquer and subjugate.
The same is true concerning deconstructionism and the hermeneutics of suspicion: the greatest of all errors is to assume to have the one "true," "correct" or "preferred" interpretation of a text, for to do so is to assume truth is objective and knowable. Given the postmodern metaphysic, those who assume such an objective interpretation of a text has been obtained (or is even possible) must be motivated to claim as much due to political or social factorsultimately the desire to have power and authority over others. As Foucault summarizes,
Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true . . . 12
Furthermore, this postmodern metaphysic explains the motivation to reject metanarratives, which by definition are comprehensive worldviews understood to be the accurate and "true" understanding of reality. Such metanarratives as religious traditions (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Buddhism) and philosophical systems (e.g., Marxism, Humanism, Modernity) are to be unequivocally rejected due to their claim of having truth that transcends the individual, or culturetruth which can give one knowledge of reality as it is. These views are diametrically opposed to the postmodernist metaphysic. Jean-Francois Lyotard summarizes: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives."13
Finally, following from the rejection of an objectively-grounded human nature, it follows that one's personal identity must be grounded not in virtue of being human per se, but rather in terms of more narrow groupingssuch as ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. Similar examples of the outworking of this metaphysic are to be found in the various other doctrines often associated with postmodernism.
In summary, I suggest a far more adequate definition of postmodernity is to be found via "philosophical" analysis, rather than "historical" analysis. In such a philosophical analysis we find two fundamental theses which underlie postmodernism and are the flower bed out of which the rest of postmodernist thought grows. As such, it is appropriate to identify these two metaphysical theses as the essential features of postmodernismthe necessary and co-sufficient conditions under which a view may appropriately be defined as postmodern. If they are consistently applied, one derives the other features of a postmodernist ideology. On the other hand, if one or both are denied, and a Realism regarding universals and/or a correspondence view regarding truth is embraced, the resultant view will clearly not be postmodern in nature. However, it is precisely in regards to these two commitments that postmod-ernism and the Christian worldview are at odds:
First, the Christian worldview clearly assumes Realism concerning values, natures and propositions. For instance, the moral rightness of loving God or acting justly are posited as truths which transcend individuals and cultures, and are multiply-exemplified throughout cultures and times (the same value can and has been exemplified by many people at many times). Likewise regarding natures: the Christian worldview assumes such a thing as human nature exists (for the incarnation was the taking on of something reala real human nature), and the nature assumed by Christ was the same nature as that of other humans, such that Christ was truly a human being and thus an equal and adequate substitute (as Hebrews 2:14 states, "Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by his death He might destroy him who holds the power of death.").14 Also, the same may be said regarding propositions: the Christian worldview accepts these as universals. Such things as theological propositions (for example, regarding the nature of God) are taken to be true, not subjectively, but objectively, and multiply-exemplified (the same proposition had by many minds at one time so that inter-subjective communication is possible, and across time and cultures so that dialogue with those of other times and cultures is possible).
Second, a correspondence view of truth appears to be most consistent and even assumed by the Christian worldview. For example, propositions such as "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1) and "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day . . ." (I Cor. 15:3-4) are understood by Christians as being true, and true in virtue of their accurately describing the state of affairs in reality. As such, the Christian would assert that such propositions would be true even if no (human) minds ever entertained such propositions (e.g., surely God could have created the heavens and the earth without populating it with human knowers, in which case it would still be true that God created the heavens and the earth, but that truth would in no way be dependent on [human] minds.) Thus for the Christian, truth is not mind-dependent and hence subjective, but rather mind-independent and objective.
Therefore, having identified the essence of postmodernist thought and the Christian worldview we may conclude that (1) though there are points of common ground between the Christian and postmodernist views of the world that should not be ignored, (2) ultimately the Christian and postmodern metaphysic are diametrically opposed one to the other, and thus (3) we must be careful and reflective as we engage these ideas in the academy. The details of such engagement will be as varied as our disciplines and universities. Yet these fundamental metaphysical issues transcend the particulars of disciplines and universities, and as such give us a foothold: a place to begin the process of seeking to embrace truth and avoid error concerning these most important issues.
1 I wish to thank J. P. Moreland for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper, and the CLM leadership for the time to study in preparation for teaching and writing on this and related issues.
2 A third option often mentioned "between" these two positions is conceptualism: Universals transcend the particulars, though they exist universally only in one's mind as concepts. Yet in my view this option is ultimately reduced to a nominalistic view if these mental "universals" are taken to be nothing more than individual ideas which have no status outside the individual thinker (and hence are not multiply exemplifiable), or reduces to Realism if these concepts are taken to be entities with mind-independent status and are thus multiply-exemplifiable. Therefore, though there is a great deal of debate on these issues, for our purposes it is sufficient to identify Nominalism and Realism as the two options most germane to our attempt to define postmodernism.
3 Reinhardt Grossmann, The Existence of the World: An Introduction to Ontology (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 12. See also James Porter Moreland, Universals, Qualities, and Quality Instances: A Defense of Realism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985).
4 I have focused on those entities most widely agreed to be universals by Realists. There are other candidates, about which there is more debate concerning their status. These include colors (e.g., red), shapes (e.g., triangularity), aesthetic values (e.g., beauty) and numbers (represented by the numerals "1," "2," etc.).
5 Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Articles (edited with and introduction by Donald F. Bouchard; trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 150 (italics added).
6 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 280.
7 Nietzsche, The Will to Power (trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. Hollingdale, New York: Random House, 1968), p. 267.
8 Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, p. 142. He goes on to state, "Nothing in mannot even his bodyis sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men." (ibid., p. 153) (italics added).
9 Richard Rorty, "Solidarity or Objectivity?" in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 22 (italics added).
10 Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense," in The Portable Nietzsche, (selected and translated, with an introduction, prefaces, and notes, by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Viking Press, 1980), pp. 46-7 (italics added).
11 Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, p. 150 (italics added).
12 Michel Foucault, "Truth and Power" in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (edited by Colin Gordon, translated by Colin Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 131. Elsewhere Foucault writes, "This demagogy [assumption of objective historical analysis], of course, must be masked . . . under the cloak of universals. As the demagogue is obliged to invoke truth, laws of essences, and eternal necessity, the historian must invoke objectivity, the accuracy of facts, and the permanence of the past." Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, p. 158.
13 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi; forward by Fredric Jameson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. xxiv.
14 See also Philippians 2:7: Jesus "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant . . . ." (italics added).