Premodernism, Modernism, & Postmodernism: An Overview

The Three Major Philosophical Epochs

Understanding premodernism, modernism and postmodernism first requires us to understand how these terms are used. Each of these can be talked about as periods of time and as philosophical systems. When discussing them as philosophies, it is probably best to view them as “isms” in the sense that within each epoch there were many different approaches.

Philosophical Epochs. When discussing these as time periods, the time periods are being defined by the dominant philosophical system of the time. In other words, from the beginning of history up through the 1650’s, the dominant way of viewing the world was largely consistent with the premodern philosophical system. This is not to say there were modern and postmodern ideas that were around in the premodern period. Rather, it is stating that premodernism was dominant. Around the 1650’s, premodernism was losing its influence as the dominant system and was being replaced by the modernist mind set. For about 300-years, this was the dominant philosophical system in Western culture. The 1950’s are also considered the time when the transition from modernism to postmodernism occurred. However, in many ways, modernism is still dominant within much of American culture.

The context of the dominant philosophical systems is where the reference of “modern times” and “postmodern times” can aptly be applied. In postmodern times, there is a predominance of postmodern art, architecture, and philosophy. These are the signs of the times.

Philosophical Systems. Premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism as philosophical systems are three very different ways of looking at the world. The differences are represented best in their epistmologies. Each of these philsophical approaches have very different ways of looking at and understanding the world. But the differences should not be reduced down to merely a differnece in epistemology. There are many, many diffrences which go beyond what can be covered in this web site.

As noted previoulsy, it is very important to keep in mind that each of these major “isms” has many different philosphical approaches which could be categorized under them. The idea of a unified premodernism, modernism, or postmodernism is a fallacy. There are many variations of each of these philosophical systems.

Introduction to Overviews. A word should be said about these overviews prior to beginning them. First, more detailed analysis of each of these will be developed on this site over time. This page is more of a quick overview or quick reference for some of the major themes. As with any overview of complex systems, some oversimplification is necessary. Please be aware of this as you read. Additionally, it should be noted that this is primarily referring to Western thought.

Premodernism (Beginnings up to 1650’s)

Epistemology. The primary epistemology of the premodern period was based upon revealed knowledge from authoritative sources. In premodern times it was believed that Ultimate Truth could be known and the way to this knowledge is through direct revelation. This direct revelation was generally assumed to come from God or a god.

Sources of Authority. The church, being the holders and interpreters of revealed knowledge, were the primary authority source in premodern time. Additionally,

Modernism (1650-1950’s)

Epistemology. Two new approaches to knowing became dominant in the modern period. The first was empiricism (knowing through the senses) which gradually evolved into scientific empiricism or modern science with the development of modernist methodology. The second epistemological approach of this period was reason or logic. Often, science and reason were collaboratively or in conjunction with each other.

Sources of Authority. As the shift in power moved away from the church, politics (governments, kings, etc.) and universities (scholars, professors) took over as the primary sources of authority. Oftentimes, a religious perspective was integrated into these modern authority sources, but the church no longer enjoyed the privilidged power position.

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Postmodernism (1950’s to current times)

Epistemology. Postmodenism brought with it a quesioning of the previous approaches to knowing. Instead of relying on one approach to knowing, they advocate for an epistemological pluralism which utilizes multiple ways of knowing. This can include the premodern ways (revelation) and modern ways (sceince & reason), along with many other ways of knowing such as intuition, relational, and spiritual.

Sources of Authority. Postmodern approaches seek to deconstruct previous authority sources and power. Because power is distrusted, they attempt to set up a less hierarchial approach in which authority sources are more diffuse.


This introductory overview of premodernism, modenism, and postmodernism only addresses a few of the most signficant differences between these approaches. A more detailed overview will be available in the extended theory overviews as they are developed.

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