Postmodernism and the Academic Disciplines

An Emerging Zeitgeist
A close examination of the emerging trends in many academic fields suggests that ‘the times they are a changin’. I’ve maintained elsewhere on this web site that we are living in modern times despite the modernist paradigm still having greater influence. However, many of the most important and influential trends in various academic fields reflect postmodernish trends. This section provides a very brief overview of some of the postmodern trends seen in various branches of academia. Over time, more extensive reviews of these topics may be available. Please keep in mind that within all of these areas of thought there is a great diversity of opinions. While these summaries point toward some general tendencies, any attempt at a concise overview necessarily over-supplies these theories and does not adequately reflect the variations within the theory.

Quantum Physics

Arguably, quantum physics foreshadowed and necessitated changes in other fields of thought. Science, particularly physics, seemed to be the discipline with strongest grounding in objective truth in the modern period. However, quantum physics demonstrated that maybe we shouldn’t be overly confident of physics. This shift was powerful. If we couldn’t know objectively in the realm of the hard sciences, how much less sure of ourselves we can be in the softer sciences, such as psychology.

Many interpretations of quantum physics has also suggested that everything is interrelated or connected. This is consistent with some of Gergin’s (1991) ideas about the self. The focus on the interconnectedness of all things has been influential on leadership theory and organizational theory (Wheatley, 2001). It is also the focus on the recent movie, What the Bleep Do We Know?!

Linguistics and Literary Theory 

Murphey (1996) provides a wonderful overview of the changes in literary theory which parallel postmodern trends. Many of these changes have been labeled as postmodern, while others use a different terminology. This shift is extremely important on a number of levels because it relates to how we understand truth.

Modern and premodern times used a referential approach to language. According to this theory, language represents something real or points toward an objective truth, of sorts. Words, then, have one true meaning. It becomes important to understand the correct meaning of words and then use them correctly. There was the idea that if one stated their position well enough, it would be difficult for others to misunderstand what they were stating. This approach to language appears pretty naive to most people today. It’s difficult to be educated and aware of different cultures while maintaining these beliefs. So the referential theory of language gave way to more of a postmodern understanding.

The most common postmodern approach to language and linguistic theory is social constructivism. In this approach, words and definitions are seen as socially constructed. From this view, it makes less sense to debate over definitions. Instead, it is important to try to understand the different ways that people use words. This could also be applied to language. Social constructivism understands that language is used differently by different individuals and different cultures. The more stubbornly individuals hold on to a particular use of language or a particular definition, the more difficult it is for them to understand others.

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Process Philosophy & Theology 

Process thought originated in the thinking of Whitehead and has become influential in philosophy, psychology, and theology. According to process thought, all things are in process. This includes the self, the world, and even God. The ever-changing nature of things makes knowing in an absolute or objective sense very difficult.

While process thought is a different philosophical orientation than postmodernism, it does share many similarities. For example, some process theologians will discuss the idea of panentheism. This is different than pantheism, which states “God is all things.” Panentheism would state the idea that “God is in all things.” This, in a similar manner to quantum physics, stresses the idea that all things are connected. While not all postmodern thinkers would agree with this statement, it is a common idea among some postmodernists.

Art & Architecture

It is often stated that architecture was the first place where we could really see the evidence of postmodernism. The general idea of postmodern architecture is the presentation of the historical structure or approach in a new light. Las Vegas is generally seen as the quintessential postmodern city in this sense. The themes of Las Vegas strip are include a variety of historical places and themes, but there is a very modern twist. For example, Caesar’s palace is a classic piece of history. Much of the design of Caesar’s Palace reflect architecture similar to that of Ancient Egypt. However, it is also very modern and full of modern technology and conveniences. So we see in much of postmodern architecture a reinventing of the old in the context of the new.

This provides a good metaphor, of sorts, for postmodern epistemology. Many believe that postmodern philosophy is opposed to premodernism and modernism. While this is true for some postmodernists, it is more generally not true. Rather, postmodernism is a reinterpretation of the premodern and modern epistemologies. For example, in premodernism revelation was seen as the way of knowing. In postmodernism, it may be considered a way of knowing. Similarly, in modernism, science was seen as the way of knowing. In postmodernism, it is considered a way of knowing.

Relational Psychoanalysis/Contemporary Psychoanalysis 

The three traditions in psychoanalytic thought provide a great example of the progression from modernism to postmodernism (see Hoffman, Hoffman, Robison, & Lawrence, 2005). Classical psychoanalysis or Freudian psychoanalysis was developed in the modernist period and reflects a modernist methodology. The second tradition in psychoanalysis includes self psychology and object relationships. This is still primarily a modernist system, but these theories emerged in more of the late modernist period. Some of the changes reflect the deconstructing and questioning of modernism.

The third tradition in psychoanalytic thought reflects a postmodern approach. Intersubjectivity, relational psychoanalysis, social constructivist therapy, and contemporary psychoanalysis have all fall within the scope of this third tradition. A greater emphasis is placed on the limitation of the therapist as knower, the intersubjective nature of the therapy relationship (compare with social constructivism), and multiple ways of knowing. This is also a more integrative approach which has heavily integrated from humanistic and existential thought.

While narrative therapy is still seen as the quintessential postmodern therapy by most, I’d argue this is not accurate. Contemporary psychoanalysis, existential therapy, humanistic therapy, and transpersonal psychology all have strong postmodern themes. Additionally, the progression of psychoanalysis over time provides an excellent example of the changes from modernism through postmodernism.

Narrative Theory/Therapy

Narrative therapy is often seen as the quintessential postmodern approach to therapy. While this theory is very postmodern, it also reflects a particular type of postmodernism. In many ways, narrative therapy leans more toward the personal constructivism, while relational psychoanalysis leans more toward the social constructivism side of postmodernism.

A focus within narrative therapy is on the individual’s story. Therapists assist clients in discovering their narrative or their story. The therapist assist the client in re-writing their story to bring new and more productive meanings. The implicit idea is that our self-understanding and meaning is at least partially constructed. While the therapist assists in this process, giving a social constructivist flair, it still focuses more on the client’s story as an individual. The individual also makes the central decisions about their story making it more of a personal constructivist approach.

Political Theory

“What is the definition of is?” — Bill Clinton, former president of the United States

Educational Theory

Premodern and modern educators enjoyed a very important place as experts in the educational system. Because both of these theories tended to be hierarchical, the educators were held in great esteem. In premodern times, the educators were generally the priests or religious leaders. In modern times, they were the “elites” and scientists who were well educated in the modes of modernism. When postmodernism came in and challenged the hierarchical systems, the educators were also questions as the holders of truth. Arguably, they were redefined as the protectors of the premodern and modern myths.

In postmodern educationally theory, the teacher no longer holds the privileges position. Student-centered learning became the new zeitgeist in educational theory. In the student-centered approach, the faculty is more of a guide than an expert. They chart the path and provide much of the content; however, they are not assumed to always be right. The students opinions are valued and seen as adding to the overall quality of the class.

This is also an approach that tends to be less structured in many ways. More flexibility is designed into the course in order for it to be adjusted to meet individual student needs. While it is a powerful teaching approach in many ways, it is one that is often resisted by both students and faculty.

Original Draft Completed February, 2006.
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