Criticism of postmodernism

Criticism of postmodernism

Criticism of postmodernism has been intellectually diverse, but much of it has centered on the perception that postmodernism tries to "deconstruct" modernity and promote obscurantism in ways that are similar to reactionary movements of the past.[citation needed]


Counter-Enlightenment and antimodernism

The term postmodernism, when used pejoratively, describes tendencies perceived as relativist, counter-enlightenment or antimodern, particularly in relation to critiques of rationalism, universalism or science. It is also sometimes used to describe tendencies in a society that are held to be antithetical to traditional systems of morality.

Habermas' argument has been extended to state that postmodernity is counter-enlightenment (see The Enlightenment, modern responses). Richard Wolin in his book The Seduction of Unreason argues that key advocates of postmodernity began with a fascination for fascism. The view that Romanticism is a reactionary philosophy and that Nazism was an outgrowth of it is widely held among modernist philosophers and writers, who argue that the cultural particularity and identity politics of postmodernity, the consequence of holding post-structuralist views, is "what Germany had from 1933-1945"[citation needed]. They further argue that postmodernity requires an acceptance of "reactionary" criticisms that amount to anti-Americanism[citation needed].

This debate is seen by philosophers such as Richard Rorty as between modern and postmodern philosophy rather than being related to the condition of postmodernity per se[citation needed]. It also grows out of a common agreement that modernity is rooted in a rationalised set of Enlightenment values.

Moral relativism

Some critics have interpreted postmodern society to be synonymous with moral relativism and contributing to deviant behavior.[1][2][3] See, Postmodernity, subsection "Anti-postmodernity critiques."

Christian writers are characterized as tending to look askance at the postmodernist era as ideologically agnostic and replete with moral relativism or situation ethics.[4] Josh McDowell & Bob Hostetler offer the following definition of postmodernism: “A worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.”… Truth is “created by the specific culture and exists only in that culture. Therefore, any system or statement that tries to communicate truth is a power play, an effort to dominate other cultures.”[5]

Many philosophical movements reject both modernity and postmodernity as healthy states of being. Some of these are associated with cultural and religious conservatism that views postmodernity as a rejection of basic spiritual or natural truths and in its emphasis on material and physical pleasure an explicit rejection of inner balance and spirituality. Many of these critiques attack specifically the tendency to the "abandonment of objective truth" as the crucial unacceptable feature of the postmodern condition[6] and often aim to offer a meta-narrative that provides this truth.

Meaningless or disingenuous

Critiques of postmodernism can be found in Beyond the Hoax and Fashionable Nonsense, by professors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.

The criticism of elements of postmodernism as sophism or obscurantism was played out in the Sokal Affair, where Alan Sokal, a physicist, delivered for publication an article about interpreting physics and mathematics in terms of postmodern theory, which he had deliberately written to mock postmodernist views on objectivity, determinism and the social construction of scientific truth. It was published by Social Text, a cultural studies journal active in the field of postmodernism. Sokal arranged for the simultaneous publication of another article describing the former as a successful experiment to see whether a postmodernist journal would publish it, triggering an academic scandal. Sokal later published a book with Jean Bricmont called Intellectual Impostures, which expands upon his criticism of postmodernism.

Criticisms of the postmodern condition can be placed in four broad categories: those who reject modernism and its offshoots, criticisms from supporters of modernism who believe that postmodernity lacks crucial characteristics of the modern project, critics from within postmodernity who seek reform or change based on their understanding of postmodernism, and those who believe that postmodernity is a passing, and not a growing, phase in social organization.

The linguist Noam Chomsky has suggested that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. He asks why postmodernist intellectuals won't respond as "people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc? These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames."[7]

Apologists for postmodernism claim that such critiques result not from faith in traditional authority but from a belief that objective knowledge must be obtainable either in all domains or in no domain. As such domains as physics and chemistry are not seriously taken as subjective or relative in postmodernity it follows that ethics, politics, and the good life in general are not relative or subjective either. This view has been mentioned by Allan Bloom[citation needed]. However, as Richard Dawkins argues in his review of Sokal and Bricmont's book, the crux of this critique of postmodernism lies not in epistemological musings, but in the high probability that fuzzy language, opaque jargon and directionless arguments are hallmarks of "mountebanks and charlatans" who actually have "nothing to say."[8]

Subsidiary historical moment

The criticisms of postmodernism are often complicated by the still-fluid nature of the term [9], and in many cases the criticisms are clearly directed at poststructuralism and the philosophical and academic movements that it has spawned rather than the broader term postmodernism[citation needed].

Critic Timothy Bewes called postmodernity "an historical blip", a "cynical reaction" against the Enlightenment, and against the progress of the modern project. This view, that features attributed to postmodernity are "kitsch", a turning away from fundamental deep structure and uncompromising progress, is one which is leveled by art critic Robert Hughes as well. From this viewpoint postmodernity is a subsidiary historical moment in a larger modern period. James Fowler argues that postmodernity is characterized by the "loss of conviction"; Grenz and Seidner concur, saying that postmodernity is a period of pessimism contrasting with modernity's optimism.

However the most influential proponent of this critique, Jürgen Habermas, contends that all responses to modernity abandon either the critical or rational element in philosophy and that the postmodern condition is one of self-deception over the uncompleted nature of the modern project. He argues that without critical and rational traditions society cannot value the individual and social structures will tend towards totalitarianism. From his perspective universalism is the fundamental requirement for any rational criticism and to abandon this is to abandon the liberalising reforms of the last two centuries. Postmodernists including Lyotard and Stanley Fish see Habermas as desiring to rationalise universalism and argue that the entire critique rests on the modernists' insufficient faith in social mechanisms.

Political aspects

Michel Foucault rejected the label of postmodernism explicitly in interviews but is seen by many to advocate a form of critique that is "postmodern" in that it breaks with the utopian and transcendental nature of "modern" critique by calling universal norms of the Enlightenment into question. Giddens (1990) rejects this characterisation of modern critique by pointing out that a critique of Enlightenment universals were central to philosophers of the modern period, most notably Nietzsche. What counts as "postmodern" is a stake in political struggles where the method of critique is at issue. The recurring themes of these debates are between essentialism and anti-foundationalism, universalism and relativism, where enlightenment thinking is seen to represent the former and postmodernism the latter. This is why theorists as diverse as Nietzsche, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and Butler have been labeled "postmodern", not because they formed a historical intellectual grouping but because they are seen by their critics to reject the possibility of universal, normative and ethical judgments. With some exceptions (e.g. Jameson and Lyotard), many thinkers who are considered 'postmodern' or 'poststructuralist' see these characterizations merely as labels of convenience and reject them altogether.

Marxist critique

Alex Callinicos, a leading member of the British Socialist Workers Party, argued against what he calls "the idealist irrationalism of poststructuralism", the "existence of any radical break" from modernism to postmodernism, and the socio-economic developments of the late 80s and early 90s (the height of postmodernism's popularity) actually representing "any fundamental shift from classical patterns of capital accumulation."

Callinicos attacks notable postmodern thinkers such as Baudrillard and Lyotard, arguing postmodernism "reflects the disappointed revolutionary generation of '68, (particularly those of May 68) and the incorporation of many of its members into the professional and managerial 'new middle class'. It is best read as a symptom of political frustration and social mobility rather than as a significant intellectual or cultural phenomenon in its own right." [10]

Art historian John Molyneux, also of the Socialist Workers Party, accuses postmodernists for "singing an old song long intoned by bourgeois historians of various persuasions".[11]

Fredric Jameson, American literary critic and Marxist political theorist, attacks postmodernism (or poststructuralism), what he claims is "the cultural logic of late capitalism," for its refusal to critically engage with the metanarratives of capitalization and globalization. The refusal renders postmodernist philosophy complicit with the prevailing relations of domination and exploitation.[12]

Sherry Wolf, a leading member of the American International Socialist Organization dismisses postmodernist theories as a way to fight for gay liberation in her 2009 publication, Sexuality and Socialism.[13]

Critiques within postmodernism

The range of critiques of the postmodern condition from those who generally accept it is quite broad and impossible to summarise. One criticism levelled at postmodernity from within is expressed by author David Foster Wallace, who argues that the trend towards more and more ironic and referential artistic expression has reached a limit and that a movement back towards "sincerity" is required on which the artist actually speaks with an intended, concrete, static meaning.

Certain criticisms also focus on the fact that postmodernism lacks a coherent rhetorical theory. "Consequently, a theory will always fail to make good on its claim to provide a set of rules independent of the practice it describes; and because a theory will always fail in its goal to guide and reform practice, it therefore, by definition, can have no consequence."[14]


  1. ^ "Truth Decay", Probe Ministries
  2. ^ Wells, David F. Review:"Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision," 1998.
  3. ^ Seidner, Stanley S. (June 10, 2009) "A Trojan Horse: Logotherapeutic Transcendence and its Secular Implications for Theology". Mater Dei Institute.
  4. ^ Seidner, Stanley S. (June 10, 2009) "A Trojan Horse: Logotherapeutic Transcendence and its Secular Implications for Theology". Mater Dei Institute. p 3.
  5. ^ Josh McDowell & Bob Hostetler, The New Tolerance (Carol Stream IL: Tyndale House, 1998), p. 208.
  6. ^ See for an example the Traditionalist School, in special the critical works by René Guénon.
  7. ^ Noam Chomsky on Post-Modernism
  8. ^ "Postmodernism Disrobed", Nature 394, pp 141-143, 9th July 1998.
  9. ^ Taylor, V. E., Winquist, C.E. (ed), Encyclopedia of Postmodernism, 2001, London and New York: Routledge.(ISBN 0-415-15294-1), p. 251: "The modernist era might be conceived as the continuous blurring of an either/or. Either modernism is a historical era that perpetuates late Romantic and Victorian ideals [...], or modernism is merely an ideological appellation for a set of shared stylistic, cultural, and philosophical concepts and practices. Either modernism is what postmodernism has reacted to [...], or modernism is the prototype from which postmodernism has not only evolved but also has continued to perpetuate."
  10. ^ "Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique" Alex Callinicos (University of York), 1990. Accessed July 22, 2008
  11. ^ Is Marxism deterministic? International Socialism Journal, Issue 68, Accessed December 20, 2010.
  12. ^ Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,Duke UP, 1991.
  13. ^ Sexuality and Socialism: Reviews Haymarket Books. Accessed December 28, 2010.
  14. ^ Justifying Belief: Stanley Fish and the Work of Rhetoric, Gary A. Olson, State University of New York Press, 2002, 90 State Street, Suite 700, Albany, NY, 12207

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