Postmodern Philosophy

Overview of Postmodern Philosophy

Even as a psychologist, I have to acknowledge a certain bias I have toward philosophy. If you are going to understand anything deeply, you must look at its underlying philosophy (many of my students and former students are probably either nodding or rolling their eyes as they read this statement!). In this sense, I see philosophy, especially the epistemological branch, as the mother of all academic disciplines. The academy will often host classes such as the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of science, and even the philosophy of psychology. In essence, these are looking at how these academic disciplines are constructed and what are the implicit assumptions held within this field.

Epistemology is generally refers to the question of ‘how do we know what we know?’ When we speak of “the philosophy of” a discipline, such as “the philosophy of science,” we are asking the question of how do we know scientifically. Without considering this basic question of how do we know, we are essentially just wandering based off of ungrounded, implicit assumptions. An entire elaborate theory could be build without ever even considering this basic questions of how do we know if it is true. And this has happened!! Some of these theories may even make logical sense, but when the question is asked of ‘how do we know’ we begin to see the theory unravel.

Philosophy is important.

It is more accurate to think of postmodernism is a group of philosophical approaches instead of a united philosophical position (Richards & Bergin, 1997). A common denominator of these postmodern approaches is that they question the validity of modernism. It is not that modernism, or premodernism for that matter, is disregarded Rather, it is that these are seen as insufficient philosophies. The first emergence of postmodernism was seen in a host of critiques of modernism. For this reason, it has long been easy to confuse postmodernism with deconstructionism as applied to modernistic paradigm.

Epistemology: The Dividing Factor

Two aspects of epistemology form the most significant differences between postmodernism and its predecessors, premodernism and modernism. The first difference pertains to how we know and the contingent methodologies. The second difference pertains to the nature or structure of truth itself.

How We KnowPremodernism relied upon revelation as the basis for its way of knowing. Modernism rejected revelation as a way of knowing and replaced it with reason and experience (empiricism). These two were combined to form what we think of a science. Both of these paradigms rejected other ways of knowing and claimed their narrowly defined epistemology as superior. Postmodernism rejected these narrow approaches to knowing and instead elected to adhere to an epistemological pluralism which embraced multiple ways of knowing. The premodern and modern ways of knowing were not rejected in this approach, rather they were now understood as partial ways of knowing or one way of knowing among many.

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Epistemological pluralism does not say that all ways of knowing are equal. Rather, it states that we need to always consider multiple ways of knowing to better approximate the truth and arrive at a deeper understanding of the issue. However, some ways of knowing may be more applicable or valid in some situations than others.

Another difference which emerges pertains to beliefs about whether Ultimate Truth exists and whether humans can attain it. Both premodernists and modernist agree that objective truth exists and is attainable. However, they disagree on how to achieve it. Postmodernists are divided. Some believe that Ultimate Truth exists, but we can attain it (realists/realism). Others believe that Ultimate Truth Does not exist therefore it is illogical to believe it could be attained (anti-realists/anti-realism). Let’s take an example.

A common metaphysical problem which philosophy addresses is “Does God exist?” In the premodern period, this question was answered based on revelation. Various scriptures, which were revealed from God, said God existed. So that settles it. Modernism took a different tactic. Claimed revelation meant little to the modernist. For them, there needed to be scientific evidence for the existence of God, which led to the emergence of apologetics. Postmodernists take a different approach. For them, the existence of God cannot be proven. However, we can use multiple approaches to knowing to develop a more informed opinion on the matter. The postmodernist may consider the sacred texts, scientific evidence, and personal evidence (i.e., personal experience) into consideration. For some, revelation may be given more weight and personal experience less. Other postmodernist may be more skeptical of the revealed sources of knowledge and place a heavier emphasis on personal experience and science. However, all of them consider multiple ways of knowing must be considered.

The Nature of Truth: Nancey Murphey (1996) provides one of the best overviews of the contrasting views on the nature of truth across these three philosophical approaches. This is one of the most significant difference between postmodernism and the previous approaches to truth. Until the postmodern period, it was assumed that knowledge and truth were of a foundational nature (Foundationalism). This can be traced back to the first philosophers who attempted to discover essences. Some argued that fire or water were the more basic essences that all things were made of. Others proposed radical ideas that very tiny particles, or atoms, formed the basis of all things.

Later, we can see Descartes as another example of a search for the most basic unit of knowledge or truth. He attempted to question everything even his very existence in order to find what is the most basic source of knowledge. In the end, he determined that he thought, therefore he must exist (“I think therefore I am”). Descartes methodology wasn’t new, in many ways it reflects the pre-Socratic philosopher’s search and the Socratic Method. It was still this search to find what is most basic or foundation.

Once what is most foundational is discovered, then a whole theory of knowledge about the world could be developed. For Descartes, this most basic understanding of thought, as the basis of knowing we exist, was used to build grand theories of knowledge. However, if the foundation was to be disproven, all the knowledge build upon it would also be disproven.

Foundationalism implicitly categorizes knowledge into that which is most foundational and that which is less foundational. The further the knowledge is from the foundation, the less confident we are that it is true. Postmodernism rejected this foundational approach to knowledge, in particular the idea that some truth or knowledge is more essential or foundational than others. It was replaced with what has often been described as a web theory. This could be viewed as a quantum model in which everything is interrelated. In other words, all knowledge is equal and all knowledge is connected.

This model could be illustrated as a spider web. Each point of connection is a bit of knowledge. Given the physical structure of a spider web, if any one point was removed or changed, it would impact all the rest of the web. The physical structure and properties would be changed in relation to the change of this one point. However, they would not be discounted or disregarded. This is a completely different understanding of the nature of knowledge which represents one of the most drastic paradigm shifts in the history of thought! We should not underestimate its importance. Given this, any appraisal of postmodernism being just another form of modernism is drastically off-base!

There are, however, limitations to this model. For example, this seems to present knowledge as two dimensional. However, it would be more accurate to this of this as a web that is three-dimensional. Also, the question of what the web is connected to quickly comes up. It would be better to this of this as a self-contained web that is not attached to anything outside of itself. This brings the image of postmodernism floating in the air and brings imagery which seems to be relativistic. This is simply a limitation of the model, not an accurate criticism of postmodernism (let’s not confuse the symbol with what the symbol is representing!). Also, some will point out that there still seems to be more central points of knowledge – that which is closest to the center of the web. Again, this is a limitation of the illustration.

Now that we’ve entered the postmodern era and have to contend with these postmodern theories of knowledge, we can truly say that knowledge will never be the same!

Completed February, 2006
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