Numerous times I have heard that existentialism and postmodernism don’t fit. At other times, I have heard people state that really postmodernism is just existentialism in a new language. So which is true? Maybe both. Of course, who besides the postmodernists and existentialists could make such a paradoxical statement and mean it.
Both postmodernists and existentialists have made comments about their movement being difficult to define. John Paul Sartre, who coined the term “existentialism,” made the comment that defining this movement would limit its ability to grow and change. This would be counter-existential in many ways. Similarly, postmodernists often say that this movement avoids definition. It is likely that the difficulty and resistance to defining what existentialism and postmodernism have helped prevent them from developing as many of the fundamentalistic tendencies inherent in so many theories.
Inside each of these movements, both unity and diversity can be seen. The existentialists agree on several important themes which emerge in the existential literature: subjectivity, freedom, human limitation, death, choice, agency, and meaning. However, even how they approach each of these topics varies greatly among the existentialists. Despite the agreement that these are key existential issues, few existentialists would favor moving toward complete agreement on how these issues should be viewed existentially. In the end, it could be stated that what is most central to existentialism is that people identifying as existentialists are interested in the same questions.
Similarly, the postmodernists can identify certain themes which are consistently addressed: the limitations of knowledge, the limitations science, the limitations of reason, pluralism, and local truths. Concerns about power and power structures also are important to most postmodernists. Several more common themes could be added; however, what is important to note is that again the themes are more important than the specific answers. So again, postmodernists tend to be interested in similar questions, but not necessarily the same answer.
Resolving the Paradox
Hopefully, now it is becoming apparent how the paradoxical answer offered above is plausible. It is not simply an avoidance of the question or taking the easy route out; rather, this is facing the difficult, abstract reality. There is great overlap between the existentialists and the postmodernists in the themes and questions to which they attend. They even often answer the questions in a similar manner much of the time; however, they will also come up with very different answers at other times.
So what does this mean for the relationship between the two movements? I’d argue that the similarities tend outweigh the differences unless advocating for the necessity of agreement on answers. However, if this is insisted upon both traditions would be forced to break down into numerous warring factions.
One of the most insightful answers on the relationship between these two movements came in a conversation with Kirk Schneider in which I posed the question of how these two theories are related. His response was that they are very similar with the difference being that postmodernism often does not take as seriously the relational and phenomenological aspects of being. While this is more a matter of attention than necessity, it is an important distinction.
On the philosophical level, this particular difference seems to fade away while other more challenging differences emerge.On the psychological side, of which this web site is mostly concerned, this concern is vitally important. I think it would be fair to say that the difference which Schneider identified between postmodernism and existentialism also often occurs between existential philosophy and existential psychology. In the tradition of Rollo May, existential psychology is profoundly relational; however, it varies much more in existential philosophy. Although relational themes can also be seen to some extent in existential philosophy, it is not emphasized to the same degree.
This reality points toward another challenge in this discussion. When we compare postmodernism and existentialism, does the particular academic discipline which is being used as a reference make a difference? I’d respond with a very strong “Yes!” However, at the same time, I think this is a dangerous way of thinking about these two movements. Both of these movements permeate many disciplines. In the different disciplines, each movement gets expressed a bit differently. So it may be more effective to stand back from the particular discipline to look at these movements from an interdisciplinary standpoint. When this is done, I believe they become more similar than within the most specific academic disciplines.
The Postmodern Condition in an Existential Perspective
I would propose that much of the writing of Rollo May is really aimed at addressing the challenges of living inherent in the postmodern condition. A frequent theme in May's writing is the loss of our cultural myths (May, 1979; 1991; Schneider & May, 1995). According to May, this is a fundamental cause of psychological distress, psychopathology, substance abuse and addiction, and even suicide.
The loss of cultural myths can be tied very directly to the postmodern condition. The early phase of postmodernism was primarily a reaction to modernism which focused on deconstructing modernist philosophy and myths (Hoffman, Hoffman, Robison, & Lawrence, 2005), including the myths of self (Hoffman, Stewart, Warren, & Meek, 2006). Although postmodernism seems to be rather indifferent, or even proud, of this accomplishment, existentialism is very concerned about the radical deconstruction aspect of early postmodernism.
Existentialism, while sharing a lot with postmodernism, also provides an important frame to understand the dangers of postmodernism as expressed in contemporary times. Additionally, it often an important corrective in advocating for the need for new myths for our current times.
Where does this leave us? Well, first of all, without absolute clarity of the issue! I imagine for quite some time there will be a variety of conflicting perspectives on this issue. To a degree the answer lies in how you define each movement. For me, I believe they are more similar than different. Furthermore, I think both movements can greatly benefit from continued dialogue.
Hoffman, L., Hoffman, J., Robison, B., & Lawrence, K. (2005, April). Modern and postmodern ways of knowing: Implications for theory and integration. Presented at the Christian Association for Psychological Studies International Conference, Dallas, TX.
Hoffman, L., Stewart, S., Warren, D., & Meek, L. (2006, August). Multiple selves in postmodern therapy: An existential integrative critique. Paper presented at the American Psychological Associations Annual Convention, New Orleans, LA.
May, R. (1979). Psychology and the human dilemma. New York: Norton & Company. Purchase here
Schneider, K. J. & May, R. (1995). The psychology of existence: An integrative, clinical perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Added February, 2006
Updated December, 2006