Monday, 1 September 2014

Postmodernism faces its first great challenge

Postmodernism seems to have become the dominant contemporary paradigm governing Western thought. I use the events in Ukraine to show that postmodernism is facing its first real challenge - on the political front. I ask: What will come of this?

Over the last century, postmodernism has slowly but steadily grown to become what is probably the most important paradigm governing Western thought. At first, it was only an idea, a philosophical idea. But with time postmodernism has seemingly become the dominant paradigm in Western thinking which pervaded not only the arts and literature but most areas of academic research and life: psychology, politics, theology and even the some of the sciences. There are some scientists in the natural sciences who still cling to the modernist paradigm, but even in the philosophy of those sciences, the boat has departed to different shores (although not necessarily postmodernism).

In the public and political space, postmodernism seems to govern the thinking of the world's most important leaders and a very large part of the main media outlets. The EU is a paradigmatic example where postmodernism governs the thinking of the elite. The same is true of Barack Obama's administration. The new manner of thinking says that all narratives are fine, all have a valid point, no standpoint is to be excluded, peace should reign, all are even. This paradigm thinks of itself as representing an all-inclusive package, where all views in its otherness find acceptance in an open space of reconciliation and accommodation (except maybe those which degrade our humanity in a substantial way).

Often challenges for such paradigms arrive in the political arena. This is where the practical implications of ideas and paradigms become visible. As such, the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea in Ukraine presents a direct and substantial challenge to postmodernism. It is not merely that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, rejects the postmodern paradigm and tries to present an alternative (a nationalist-traditionalist perspective). It is rather that he presents a part of reality which is not included in the postmodern paradigm. And this poses the first real challenge to postmodernism. The question is: How will these events impact on postmodern thinking?

Postmodernism and reality

As with all powerful paradigms, postmodernism became part and parcel of Western thinking over a long period of time. As its name suggests, the idea behind it originally developed in reaction against the modernist paradigm which ruled the Western world from the Enlightenment into the early twentieth century. The thinker who can in my view be regarded as the father of postmodernism is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He was the first philosopher who radically challenged modernism, and with it, the long rationalist tradition going back to Socrates. To some extent, however, his philosophy should rather be viewed merely as anti-modernist.

Although various great names, such as Sigmund Freud, took a lot from Nietzsche's thinking, it was the French philosophers Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998), Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and others who formulated the ideas which took the name postmodernism and which became the paradigm of thinking all over the West (and even wider). Some philosophers, like Richard Rorty (1931-2007) with his easy style of writing, was influential in getting the ideas out to the American public and others around the world.

Postmodern thinkers staged an effective reaction against modernism in levelling severe criticism against it. The greatest reason for modernism's eventual fall, however, was that it showed serious discrepancy with practical reality. In the era when the sciences became established, it seemed so natural and logical to think that one would always be able to obtain a final objective view of things. Is science not exactly the pursuit of such final truths? Final truths which show for once and for all what reality is like?

Already in Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) philosophy, who is often viewed as the paradigmatic modernist thinker (that distinction rather belongs to René Descartes (1596-1650)), it is clear that although we can obtain "objectivity" to the extent that we as humans share the same type (forms) of understanding as well as the same world, both our reason as well as our access to the world are restricted. This means that we do not have a God's eye view from which we can make final judgments - all our judgments are made from our restricted human standpoint (this is captured in the famous "Copernican turn" in his philosophy). Even in the natural sciences, for example, in quantum mechanics, we cannot do better than allowing for various interpretations.

The disconnect between paradigms arising from great ideas, and reality, is well-attested in the history of such paradigms. Take Marxism, for example. For many, it seemed like the final social answer to the class-divided world. Many great Western thinkers were Marxists. But when it was implemented in practice in Communist countries all over the world, it failed miserably. With the collapse of the Soviet-Union, Marxism effectively also ceased to be a viable paradigm.

The events in Ukraine brings postmodernism at the same crossroads. Again, as with so many older paradigms, it does not seem to fit reality. The reason is simple: Putin represents a view which sets itself apart from the postmodern paradigm. This demonstrates that at least some views are not only not-included in postmodernism; these views are in conflict with the basic perspectives guiding postmodernism. On the surface, postmodernism seems to be exceptionally accommodating, but in practice, it cannot include views which assert their own correctness against postmodernism.

Putin thinks in geopolitical terms - and the expansion of the EU, with its postmodernist paradigm, presents a do-or-die moment for him. The expansion of the EU strangles the Russian sphere of influence. It says: join us or join us. There is not any allowance for Russian geopolitical concerns, which view the EU-expansion (and its ideas) as "life" threatening. Putin represents that part of reality which stands outside the postmodern paradigm and its political goals; that part of reality which is not included in the postmodernist paradigm.

Postmodernist thinkers will not see it in these terms. They view Putin's stance as out of line with contemporary thought. They believe that Putin holds fast to outdated ideas. They believe that Russia - and the world - will eventually come around and see that postmodernism is in fact correct. If the present conflict escalates into a full-blown (cold)war, they would view the Western perspective as one worth fighting for. And if the West prevails, they would believe that such a victory demonstrates the triumph of postmodernism on the political front. It will be taken as evidence for the success of postmodernism itself.

Postmodernism as ideology

One of the typical problems with the implementation of ideas and the establishment of paradigms is that it reveals underlying problems that would otherwise remain hidden. It shows what are the defects of such generally accepted paradigms. And as I argued above, the general defect of paradigms is that they, in general, exclude some aspect of reality. Since we only have a human perspective, it is impossible to obtain final proof to demonstrate that some paradigm is the only valid one (that was the main idea behind modernism!).

Often those situated in some paradigm are blind to such defects and try to enforce their paradigm as the only correct and acceptable one. Then the problem is not merely that the adherents of the paradigm regard it as the only valid view (many competing paradigms can hold to that), but that they do not allow for any discontent. At this point, the paradigm becomes an ideology. In the case of Marxism, the ideological implementation led to dictatorship and total control over peoples lives. It led to the suppression of all freedom. And this is generally true of all paradigms which become ideologies and which come in control of the resources and means to enforce implementation.

Postmodernism represents a very large house in which many and diverse alternative viewpoints have been accommodated. It presents a unity in diversity, but not a unity which includes all diversity. Since it represents mainly "alternative" viewpoints which have traditionally been excluded from mainstream thinking, it also presents an alternative to traditional viewpoints. But the alternative which is presented does not have space for those traditional views. This is the part of reality which it can never incorporate. Although postmodernism professes to accept all narratives as having validity, the peace which it preaches can only be realized when their viewpoint becomes the final one - undisputed and taken as the only correct one.

To achieve this goal, postmodernist advocates are in a total war against its opposition: to discredit, undermine and exclude it as far as possible. Its sense of reconciliation has very definite limits: there is no place for alternative paradigms, like that of traditional Christianity, who rejects "alternative" world-views and lifestyles as undermining the basic foundations of healthy family life. In fact, it preys on broken and dismembered family members who are (largely because of the modernist paradigm) disillusioned with traditional thinking. These advocates are involved in an all-out war of ideas. Since they are in alliance with the contemporary political elite, they are in near-control of the mind-forming media. One can expect that at some point in future they will also start to reinforce their paradigm as the only acceptable one.

The partnership between postmodernism and the political elite in the EU and (partially) the US can eventually lead to exactly this outcome. We already see that postmodernism has become an ideology which is enforced through "political correctness". Journalists who are not careful to stay in line with politically correct thinking will soon find themselves out of work. Books which do not toe the line, will not be published in the mainstream press. One can think that the EU, where postmodernism is in every respect the unofficially accepted paradigm, would eventually as it grows in power also start to enforce this ideology not only in the media but even beyond that. When it becomes the enforced norm, freedom of thinking will be sacrificed. The question is maybe not whether, but when, the EU will eventually proceed along this road?

What is the alternative?

Some philosophers seem to be stuck in the modernist-postmodernist dichotomy. They think in either-or terms. But are these real opposites or are they merely opposing paradigms? Are there any other roads - even they are less travelled? There are in fact such alternatives. An important alternative is the one presented by Kant, namely the "transcendental idea" (as I call his basic philosophical idea). One cannot really call it a paradigm because it has never developed into a generally accepted paradigm, in spite of the enormous impact that Kant's thought had on Western philosophy. The main reason for this is that for most of the past two hundred years Kantian studies was dominated by the two-object view which supposedly finds all sorts of inconsistencies in Kant's philosophy. Over the last half-century, there has, however, been a dramatic repositioning in Kantian thought with the general acceptance of the two-aspect view.

According to the transcendental idea, there are ideas (say, scientific theories) which fit our observation of reality, but only within certain constraints. We can obtain a good fit between our conceptual structure and the external world around us given in perception. We can, however, never achieve a fit between our ideas and the world as it really is outside those constraints. The fit between ideas or paradigms and reality can, therefore, never be final. One often finds opposing paradigms which are dogmatically asserted by their proponents, but which do not capture reality as it really is - and which effectively "says too much" about the world. They affirm things that cannot be proven.

Modernism and postmodernism can be viewed as such opposing paradigms. Although postmodernism has brought a very effective criticism against modernism, the same can be done regarding postmodernism. In both cases, the paradigm says more than it should: Modernism believed we can obtain one final and objective truth, postmodernism believes that all possible truths are included in its truth. In fact, both these extremes are too restricted to capture the whole truth - or the world as it really is.

Kant showed that we can bring such opposites into conflict and in that way discover solutions which, although they cannot be proven to be true, may, in fact, be true. In this way, we create space for various valid possibilities. In fact, one of the most important outcomes of the conflicting positions discussed by Kant is the possibility of saving "freedom". We can, in general, take this as the free space in which paradigms compete. Such a space allows all possible paradigms to freely compete in the marketplace of ideas. Viable ideas would present themselves as worthy competitors. When this space is restricted, it is a typical sign that the adherents of that paradigm who do this, do not have confidence that their own view would be able to survive the open competition.

In the market space of ideas, rational discussion and practical demonstration should freely compete. And those ideas which are better would carry the day - if this space is not loaded to favour one over the other. Although absolute freedom is obviously not obtainable (there are always certain paradigmatic structures embedded in a society which developed over many years), this space should involve freedom to promote one's views without being persecuted (there are obviously certain limits to this, for example, child pornography etc.). Although we can respect all views (or maybe rather the persons holding those views), this does not mean they are all worthy of our consideration. We can at the same time argue that some are better and even that one is correct - even though we, from a human perspective, would never be in a position to prove that in a final sense.

The problem with the present situation is that this space is severely restricted by the congruence between postmodernism and the Western political elite. Only those ideas which are in line with postmodern thought are accepted and allowed in the public media. Only certain viewpoints are heard on TV, on radio and in the main newspapers. When the traditional viewpoint is presented, it is often not by sufficiently accomplished persons and it is always attacked vehemently by the proponents of postmodernism. Often a caricature is made out of it. What we see is not a free space for ideas (although the main newspapers would often say that it is!), it is rather a war zone where the postmodern ideologists try to gain as much field as possible.

In my opinion, the present conflict in Ukraine demonstrates that postmodernism is not all-inclusive and can never be. The fact that this conflict between the West and Russia is also cast in ideological terms in the mainstream media (especially in the EU) could eventually lead to a perceived victory for postmodernism if the West win in any future escalation of the conflict. This can strengthen the ideological impulse in postmodernism circles leading to even stronger enforcement of its view.

At some point along the way, freedom can give way to effective dictatorship, although under a different name. Then their enemies would be cast in the role of enemies of reconciliation and accommodation. Since the postmodernist house is so large, it could easily lay claim to the whole space, and try to eliminate all who reject this paradigm. Since traditional Christians would surely find themselves on the outside, their breathing space could become extremely small. Although this would exhibit the failure of postmodernism in its ideological dictatorship, there would probably be nobody to appreciate this.


In this essay, I discuss the present challenge that postmodernism faces on the political front in the confrontation between the EU and Russia over Ukraine. I am not a supporter of Putin; I merely show that his stance demonstrates the shortfall of postmodernism. Postmodernism has been victorious over modernism, but this victory can easily lead to the dogmatic assertion that this is the only valid and acceptable paradigm. In fact, this is already thought to be the only "politically correct" view for the media to promote. When this paradigm is eventually enforced as an ideology, it can easily, as so often happened in the past - think of Marxism - lead to loss of freedom for alternative paradigms and even dictatorship.

I obviously do not know what will eventually happen. As such, this essay is like a time capsule, like a letter in a bottle. It refers to things in the distant future. It refers to the time when the EU project has transformed itself into a powerful force on the world stage - maybe even a great and powerful empire [1]. Only then will the ideological impulse behind postmodernism become visible for all to see. But then there will maybe not be anybody to appreciate this final failure of postmodernism - except those who will face the full force of its might. As such, this essay will be forgotten long before it becomes relevant. And who will then read it?

[1] Click on  The European Union: forever rising
I discuss the transcendental idea in the framework of hermeneutics in the following essays:
Part 1: Can we still believe the Bible: a hermeneutical perspective
Science and Atheism

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.