The Dilemma of Postmodernism

I view the main dilemma of postmodernism as the quest for meaning. While the quest for meaning is traditional and philosophical, the characteristics of postmodern times pose new difficulties for those on the quest. This paper is an attempt to outline those difficulties and describe the answers posed, so far, in response to the dilemma in light of those difficulties.

We are living in the postmodern age. So what do we mean by the term "postmodern"? That is what we are engaged in defining every day. There are some things that we can say about what it has been used for, so far. It is a shared feeling of dissatisfaction with the everyday, late modern life. It is expressed in the work of the elite, designated postmodern, but reflects the feelings of most who have gone on to higher education, and is part of the vocabulary of everyone in the range of the media.

If we look at the literature, or philosophy, it is not difficult to see a core of ideas associated with the postmodern.

It is our challenge as postmodernists to decide how we want our philosophy to evolve.

Since we are "post" moderns, it would be helpful at this point to mention what it meant to be modern. Someone who was (or still is) modern believes that:

bulletscience and technology are useful and good;
bulletall people are equal regardless of physical characteristics;
bulletrationality and intelligence are what makes it possible for someone to be successful;
bulletscience rather than ancient myths or religious beliefs is necessary for the success of society;
bullethistory shows our progress has been great and should continue to make life better;
bulletindividual rights should be subservient to general needs of society;
bulleteach person is a self-made individual with freedom to make his or her own choices, and, therefore, we can use our intelligence to make a better world through science.

What do postmoderns think of these modern beliefs?

bulletWe are no longer confident that science is bound to have good results. We realize that we are dependent on our technology. Our technology must continue to advance to enable our society to eat, and provide for our future, but we also have doubts that the end of all technological advances will be to improve our way of life. While we are increasingly dependent on the technology for our survival, there is the feeling that the quality of life is going to deteriorate, and the very pace of technology is responsible for this deterioration.
bulletWe are now convinced that legal attempts to grant all people equality will not make it possible for all people to have the same quality life. All people are not really equal.
bulletRationality and intelligence do not assure success for individuals, or for society. Rationality itself is no longer separable from emotional attachment to a particular set of cultural values that have no basis for overruling opposing cultural values.
bulletIt does not seem that quality of life is improved when science debunks the myths and religious beliefs of our communities. Science is a metanarrative just as myth is.
bulletHistory shows that progress is not consistent and that life may very well become worse for all of us.
bulletThe intellectual, liberal belief that everyone should sacrifice for the overall benefit of society has miserably failed to replace the mythic and religious arguments for altruism.
bulletEach person is not a self-made individual, but is dependent on social and environmental factors in developing their values, and the social elements that most advocated individual freedoms and self-determined values have become, themselves, a tragedy of depressed, suicidal, and self indulgent individuals that "lead" our society as "me first" elites, turning their backs on the poor, and the working class.

The dilemma, if this description is accurate, could easily become, "who would want to be a postmodern?" I can at least describe what I think brought on the postmodern period.

The postmodern philosophy can be traced to the work of Hegel, and is reflected in critiques of Hegel by the Existentialists and Marxists. Hegel's use of Greek dialectic to introduce what has become the core of the postmodern view that "truth" evolves and is culture/context dependent is the key issue in the change. The pre-Hegelian view was that truth was attached to reality and that by training our minds to weed out error, we could know this reality. The tools that were developed: the scientific method, the utilitarian ethical system, refined logical systems, inductive logic, linguistics, statistics, and the phenomenological method of doing anthropology, history, sociology, and the study of religion, all were expected to bring us closer to an accurate "picture" of how our world really worked. This knowledge would let us become the masters of our fate and do away with chance. (Even Einstein made room in his special theory of relativity for a constant because he felt "God does not play dice.") We could make our world a utopia where everyone would be happy and live in a heavenly kingdom, here on a science fictional Federation.

Hegel's description of the "becoming" of spirit, i.e., (in Peter Berger's terms) the process of the social construction of reality, is this reality we wanted to "picture." It is not a reality "out there" that we can get closer to with our modern tools. The "truth" is that there is no permanent set of truths apart from the process itself. The only thing that remains the same is everything changes.

How true! The Hegelian solution to the problem of epistemology does away with the view of our minds as mirrors of reality. Now our minds are viewed as swimming in the soup of reality and the efforts of sociology of knowledge, language analysis, and child psychology, etc. are to describe how the soup builds itself from its own stock. If the accepted truths of society change as society evolves, the truths an individual accepts change as the individual evolves, (and for Hegelians the truths God accepts change as God evolves), and those truths are really true only because of their acceptance, how can those truths be taken seriously enough to convince us our lives are meaningful?

The answers to this dilemma make clear the position we postmoderns find ourselves in as we set our course. We are in the soup now, so to speak, and a description of our ingredients will let us think about what we want to make of them.

The first response to this dilemma, both historically, and so, logically, was that of Kierkegaard's. To him, the problem was resolved by concluding all answers to the dilemma were absurd. No answer was really the correct answer, but we must have an answer so that we can be attached to the world. So, he explored what reasons he had for accepting the world as his. Fun wasn't satisfactory. So, he couldn't be happy with just enjoying himself. Live and let live, so to speak. He did not feel "the ethical" was right for him either. (Though to discuss the ethical he left his own time and explored that of the Greeks.) He saw no point in being one with his society in order to be simply ethical. He couldn't be happy with himself for doing what everyone thought was right just because that's what they thought. He wasn't interested in agreeing with them on that. So, he opted instead to leap for his faith in what he liked all along. He believed, just because..., certainly an absurd answer to an absurd dilemma.

This has been a popular way to go. Kierkegaard is very popular. Many have elected to enjoy his answers, whether the leap of faith has been available to those who follow him, may be another question. How convincing is he? We can enjoy Kierkegaard but remain lost for a faith that we are willing to leap for. Haven't we all just escaped from faiths in becoming postmoderns? Isn't that like giving up on the quest because the next step doesn't seem ready for an easy solution? Isn't the leap of faith, just such an easy solution? Just go for it. Just do it.

So, the first answer is, that there is no right answer. No values are right. It is an absurd world and so the question of why it works, which explains how it works, is reason-less. No reason. It just is.

Another answer to this dilemma was that of Nietzsche's. This one has also been very popular. It is Darwin written into Philosophy. The world works the way it does because the strong overcome the weak. Animals that are weak are eaten by those that are strong. Those that mate are those that can. Men that rule are those that can. For Nietzsche, those who had become postmoderns and understood the nature of this process, those who had the will to power, would create the world, as they wanted it to be. No need to accept the world as it was, create as I will, though yes, I know that what I will is driven by my biology, my psychology. Outside of that, the world is my oyster and I can do what I want to achieve what I want. Winner takes all. Survival of the fittest.

It is no wonder that the popularity of this answer is greatest among the artists. Artists have great power over art lovers and within the academic circles, where they weave their work, have encouraged this answer. The will to create! Create what you feel! The process of creation is the most important part of this art. For those who do not enjoy the process and look for something "else" in the work it can be a disappointing experience. No wonder art has become a bit like the stock market. The value of the art going up and down with the power of the artist to convince an audience that their work has value.

This has resulted in a lot of disappointed artists. For those young (or not so young) postmodernists that are convinced they are superior beings that should be worshipped by the common people (those who live their lives in the sepulchers where they still worship their dead God), many find themselves faced with incredible frustration. The time is not yet right for them. They have come too soon. They must wait to be recognized, for what good is being so great if no one else recognizes it? Unfortunately, not many get the recognition they deserve. This they can respond to in all sorts of ways, very few of them awe inspiring.

Political postmodernists can be very awe-inspiring. The most famous of them all was probably Hitler. Hitler did pay homage to Nietzsche -- at least by visiting his house and greeting his sister. Was Hitler a postmodernist? That depends, I suppose, on whether one likes being associated with a man of that sort, or not. Clearly, postmoderns who agree with Nietzsche's answer are capable of a range of actions that the "common people" may find agreeable or not.

One example of a postmodern who accepts this answer is Richard Rorty. All is a matter of who creates the metaphors that are enthusiastically taken up by everyone else. If your metaphors are popular, you win. If your metaphors are not popular, you lose. Right now, enough people have accepted his metaphors for him to feel a winner. Survival of the smartest. Who could tell what would be popular and what not? Who can tell which invention would be a pet rock (moderate, short time success), or the next Microsoft?

Many of the writers in Continental Europe are postmoderns of this type also. The technique that is most popular is called "deconstruction." The idea is to tear apart the theories of anyone that purports to present a theory that is grounded in some sort of reality. Their concern is that people who think they have a grasp of truth are the people who try to control others and cause suffering and pain for others.

The acceptance of Nietzsche's answer seems to satisfy when the postmodernist has the temperament to accept the level of power over the world they have. For many, this meets its greatest challenge when it becomes obvious that their power will not be sufficient to meet life's greatest crises. Death is a sure thing (at least, so far). Many are actively working on a cure for this. Prospects of success are greater than they have ever been.

This brings up the question of what to do with boredom. If it turns out that the will to power is its most fulfilling when we are overcoming challenges, what happens when we find ourselves spending most of our time doing routine things? It turns out, that most of the things we do in life are pretty routine.

Another answer to the postmodern dilemma is rooted in a failure to understand the Hegelian answer to the problem of epistemology. This can be traced to the strength that Kant's answer to Hume has had in the scientific community. Not everyone using postmodern concepts is postmodern. Many scientists feel that what they are finding out are facts. Even the argument, fundamental to the postmodern position, that evolutionary processes are an accurate way to describe our world can be interpreted as a correct way to describe our world because the world is that way apart from our socially constructed view of it.

There is the feeling that the postmodern view is a sophisticated intellectual view of the world that must be reached by hard work and lots of reading and self-examination. But many children are raised with the concepts, the metaphors, of postmodernism, without having taken history of philosophy courses and this leads to the same problems for them. For them however, it is compounded by the sense of confusion that comes about when the metaphors of philosophical views from ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern all mix. Add those metaphors imported from world cultures previously considered, "foreign" along with those created by metaphor creators who are working on their own agenda and there are a wealth of descriptions of the world out there. It comes down to a choice, a "religious preference" that each must make for themselves.

So the third "answer" to the postmodern dilemma turns out to be the most familiar of all. Individuals who are of this persuasion, separate "fact from fiction." The socially constructed reality sits on a "real world." If there is one philosophical position that accurately portrays this view, it would be that of John Locke. "Primary qualities" of things are really out there and that is why we experience the "secondary qualities." In Introduction to Philosophy classes, this point is where most students feel comfortable -- the "Ahha!" feeling. The next step to Berkeley, strikes many as pure nonsense. So the metaphors have a staying power, and there really is "fact" and "fiction" since the majority rules. This is how the "concrete spirit" of Hegel, the "objectifications" of Marx, i.e., the power of an idea, remains powerful through the use of the idea in society.

As a result, there are many who are faced with the postmodern dilemma but readily accept, as part of their working vocabulary, modern ideas.

These can be readily identified by their belief that one of the various world views might be the right one, and they are searching for it. There is an important difference in expecting to find the view of the world that accurately pictures the world, rather than one that is "right for them."

To work within the view that there are facts as well as fiction, an advocate usually gives rules that set things up so that only the predefined view will be adequate.

Rules that are to be accepted prior to entering this argument are:

bulletWe will never know everything.
bulletWe should use as much information in our quest as possible.
bulletFacts depend on what we can observe.
bulletGreater credence should be given to those with greater credentials.

The purpose of each of these rules is:

bulletPrepare the audience so they admit previous held beliefs are wrong.
bulletConvince the audience to be open to information prepared for the argument.
bulletAccept the modern view of reality instead of the postmodern social construction of reality.
bulletPrepare the audience to accept the presenter's credentials and those used as references as accurate to that reality.

Advocates of a particular point of view experience their greatest frustration with those who either listen to their arguments and decline to change their views, or worse, refuse to accept their views but insist on a different set of credentials as the accurate reference to reality.

An example of this approach to the postmodern dilemma is Marx.

Marx accepted the Hegelian version of the Greek dialectic but developed a worldview that was primarily concerned with economics. To his loss, he chose to either not accept, or not understand the nature of the Hegelian solution to the problem of epistemology. He speaks of the history of spirit as belonging only to the hallowed halls of academia, not the real world. As a result of this mistake, he continuously treats economics and the process of social evolution from the perspective of one forgetting the question, "how does one know?" Many of his observations were very useful, but his overall position turns out to be more like the modern view's last hurrah. Thanks to Marx, however, a great many students make much use of Hegelian terminology without understanding the fullness of its scope.

Another answer to the dilemma of postmodernism is that framed by the pragmatists. This is, I think, the best answer of the lot.

A pragmatist approaches the socially constructed reality as a living organism that has characteristics that we can learn to understand. A significant part of the pragmatist answer is, that the currently accepted warranted assertions are required to be accepted unless there is new evidence that puts those assertions into question. By using the scientific method, the theory of inquiry, we can gradually evolve our view of the world in a controlled way. We accept that those warranted assertions we currently hold are subject to change, and actively seek information that will require us to change them.

Another significant part of the pragmatist answer is, that the spiritual aspects of the socially constructed reality are just as important (and in some contexts, such as a death bed) even more important than those aspects considered physical. Unlike Marxists, who tried to drive out religion, not realizing they were fanatically developing their own, pragmatists value the will to believe. Pragmatists can point to the successes of religions, as well as the faults, in studying the relationship of the spiritual part of human relationships and the universal need for meaning and purpose. Religion is neither rejected out of hand, nor deemed absurd, but accepted as an important picture of what a culture does for it's people.

The irony of this is that pragmatism is an American movement, not European, though those titled neo-pragmatists, like Rorty, are more closely aligned with Existential Europeans than Americans.

Pragmatism follows the philosophical solution to the problem of epistemology that Hegel gave us.

So now we have four different approaches to answering the postmodern dilemma:

1. Treat the dilemma as absurd.

2. Treat the dilemma as answered in terms of social power.

3. Partially reject the dilemma by continuing to accept an earlier worldview, while still using metaphors that belong to the postmodern period.

4. Treat the dilemma in pragmatic terms.

Approach 1 seems entirely unsatisfactory, though it is most appealing to those newly initiated into the postmodern dilemma because it very accurately reflects the trauma of the experience. Approach 2 appears satisfactory to those who view themselves as successful, while they are successful, but appears unsatisfactory to most. Approach 3 seems to be the most popular approach but indicates, by the rejection of the dilemma, either a misunderstanding of the dilemma through lack of serious study of the subject, or a confused use of postmodern concepts without understanding their implications for other values and beliefs. Approach 4 seems the most consistent and follows Hegel, and Dewey (using nontraditional interpretations of their work). It answers the dilemma by saying that the cultural view of what is important is what is important. It suggests that the postmodernist recognize the values of the community that gives root to postmodernism as the values they hold. Using the Wittgensteinian ladder to climb up to our lofty place and then throwing the ladder away doesn't work when you are still on the ladder. So what are the values of our community?

Microsoft asks the question: "Where do you want to go today?" Does anyone have an answer?



This page is maintained by William S. Jamison. It was last updated
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