Straw Man Critiques of Postmodernism

Particularly as a relatively new philosophical approach, it is very important for postmodernism to welcome critiques. And the critiques certainly abound! However, many of the critiques are founded upon inaccurate understandings of what postmodernism is. The idea of a straw man argument is that it is not a real argument (kind of like a straw man is not a real person) and it is easy to tear apart. This page is devoted to responding to what I feel are the straw men critiques of postmodernism. It is different than the misunderstandings, in that this is addressing critiques of postmodernism based on weak arguments. This section will also include some responses to postmodernism which are rather weak.

The “Arguments” 

1. The Call for a Post-Postmoderrnism:

To be honest, I think that the majority of the people calling for a post-postmodernism do so out of rather narcissistic intentions. After all, if you could be the first to claim you’ve defined post-postmodernism and convince the rest of the intellectual community of this, you’d have made quite a name for yourself (please note, most people talking about post-postmodernism are just ignored by the intellectuals). However, to be fair, some others just don’t understand postmodernism. If you read this site and pay attention to the significant shifts involved with postmodernism, you may be able to draw some conclusions for yourself about why the idea of a post-postmodernism is invalid.

Most of the people claiming to call for a post-postmodernism are really calling for a return to a revised modernism. There are other names for such theories (critical theory, for one). This is not so much as a move beyond postmodernism as a regression, so obviously post-postmodernism doesn’t make sense here. However, it does sound better and much more sophisticated to say “let’s move on to post-postmodernism” instead of saying “let’s return to modernism.”

One of the more logical reasons for calling for a post-postmodernism (as opposed to the rather silly arguments above) is misunderstanding the progression of postmodernism. As I have argued elsewhere (see postmodern philosophytheory overviews, and Hoffman, Hoffman, Robison, & Lawrence, 2005 ), there is a progression of how paradigms develop over time. Premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism are pretty broad paradigms, so they progress rather slowly. Modernism, the shortest of the first two paradigms, lasted 300-years! To expect postmodernism to last a mere 50 is naive, even given the reality that shorter time frames may occur over time. The transition to post-postmodernism is not likely to begin in the lifetime of anyone reads these words. We may see the foreshadowing of this, but we are not likely to see the occurrence.

In reality, we are just moving from the first part of postmodernism (deconstructing modernism) into the phase of postmodernism proper (building constructive epistemologies). Yes, people are already talking about the limitations of postmodernism, but let’s give it a chance to build a perspective before investing too much energy in deconstructing it. For the progression of knowledge to occur, we first must see what postmodernism has to offer us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we all embrace postmodernism to see where it takes us. Critics are needed. However, reactive critics do little good. What is needed is individuals who can consider postmodernism enough to offer good, intelligent critiques. Many of the critiques which I hear are based in personal discomfort with the ideas of postmodernism.

Now, let me make a confession. When first learning postmodernism I engaged in the post-postmodernism rhetoric. This was mostly because I was uncomfortable with what I interpreted as the relativism of postmodernism (see postmodern misconceptions #6). My tone in this section is much more sarcastic and cynical than is typical. There is a reason for it. In part, I am a bit ashamed of myself, as an intellectual, having such a reactive approach to postmodernism when I first encountered it over 10-years ago. For you Jungians, you may recognize my tone as part of my shadow. Another contributing factor to the shadow element of my tone is that I’d love to be part of envisioning what will come after postmodernism, yet I recognize I will probably not see this in my lifetime. Second, the reactive critiques and mischaracterizations of postmodernism, which I think are the basis of most attempts at post-postmodernism, make it very difficult to educate people about postmodernism. Many students want to jump to post-postmodernism before taking the time to understand postmodernism. This is often because of these harsh mischaracterizations of postmodernism that exist. Finally, I think most critiques of postmodernism associated with ‘post-postmodernists’ is lazy intellectualism.

I do think the question of what post-postmodernism is a legitimate question. And I think the curiosity about what it will be is quite natural. I don’t mean at all to be critical of the question or the curiosity. The discomfort with postmodernism can also be quite healthy. Additionally, critiques from those who can’t align themselves with postmodernism is needed. What a dreadful intellectual environment would exist if we all resigned ourselves to being postmodernist. So let’s critique and challenge postmodernism, but let’s do it from an informed positron.

Last, I should comment that I hesitate a bit in my tone in this section for one primary reason. Such a harsh or sarcastic tone often represents a closed-mind. So I hesitate in that this tone may create the impression that I am not open to critiques of postmodernism or different views on postmodernism. I guess that’s a risk I take in indulging in a little sarcastic delight! But please take note, this is a rather harsh critique of one response to postmodernism. I think you’ll find most of the others are much more sympathetic.

2. Postmodernism Doesn’t Fit with Religion

This concern is quite logical is postmodernism is seen as the anti-realist postmodern position. The anti-realists believe that there is no Ultimate Truth. Since many religious people see God as representing Ultimate Truth, anti-realist postmodernism appears to oppose any opportunity for religion, or at least a theistic religion.

However, the realist postmodern position must also be considered. In this position, ultimate truth exists, but it is unattainable. This can fit quite nicely with faith. For the postmodern theist, God, as Ultimate Truth, is unknowable. The religious individual must rely on faith, not knowledge when it comes to religion. This fits quite nicely with a good deal of theology. This also fits with the shift from religion to spirituality that is so popular in our current culture. I think postmodernism bears a good deal of responsibility in this trend. Spirituality is less concrete and fits better with postmodern ideas while religion tends to be more concrete.

We can also seek to resolve the apparent conflict between the anti-realist postmodern position and God by considering process thought. Ultimate Truth is generally seen as being stationary, or never-changing. So God being Ultimate Truth would mean that God never changes. However, in process theology, the understanding of God is that God is changing. Therefore, God is not Ultimate Truth if Ultimate Truth is understood as necessitating the quality of being never-changing. God can change the rules and God can change!

This is a very oversimplified summary of what is an extremely difficult and abstract concept. However, I will not go into more details about this at the current time. The more important issue is that there are ways to resolve the apparent inconsistencies between postmodernism and religion. Many religious individuals are not comfortable with these interpretations of God and religion, which is okay. However, it is important to realize that some devoted religious individuals are able to make such reconciliations between faith and philosophy.

Completed February 2006
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