Postmodernism and the End of Philosophy

Posted on July 18, 2011 by

Most Christians living at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century are familiar with the word “relativism” and the related concept. However, the supporting “idea” behind relativism is much broader, and its roots are to be found in the current intellectual Zeitgeist of “postmodernism”.

Postmodernism takes the position, following the critiques of the structuralists and post-structuralists, that “objective truth” simply does not exist, and that the “modernist” approach of applying reason to determine truth is, in fact, an act of profound “intellectual violence”.  That is, “reasoned truth” is considered to be no more valid than anything else, and the modernists who claim(ed) that reason could lead to objective truth were, in effect, bullying everyone else’s right to their own “personal truths” by creating a “coercive” “metanarrative” designed to squelch other forms of “truth”.  Postmodernism therefore takes the view that any attempt to discern “objective” truth is always an act of violence against individuals, for whom the most “real” form of truth is their own personal perception of what is “true”.

Because of this, the postmodern perspective is not only relativist (although it certainly is that) but at the same time profoundly narcissistic and solipsistic. The highest virtue in the postmodern worldview is neither objective truth, nor objective virtue, but the much less lofty goal of “personal authenticity” – that is “being true to oneself” is the highest form of “truth”, and any suggestion by anyone else that such a thing as objective truth even exists, let alone that it should be informative of one’s views and acts, is seen as an act of profound violence on the freedom of every individual to pursue their own personal integrity and authenticity, as defined by themselves.

Of course, it’s obvious that this idea does tremendous “violence”, itself, to Christianity, as Christianity has always emphasized the objective character of truth – revealed, reasoned or otherwise. Yet, postmodernism also represents the end, in a sense, of philosophy itself – and a rather anticlimactic one at that. For more than two thousand years, Western philosophy has struggled with the question of “what is truth”, only to find that the apotheosis of philosophy appears to be that there is no such thing as truth beyond one’s own individual perception. That is not to say that for postmodernists truth does not exist – it does, but “objective truth”, in the manner to be derived from philosophy and reason, does not exist. In a sense, it is an extraordinary case of philosophy mooting itself.

Postmodernism is clearly a danger for Christianity, and a new threat, precisely because it systematizes an already broad populist prejudice in the West, and particularly in America, towards the relativism mentioned at the beginning of this post. While relativism is not a new enemy, postmodernism, which continues to grow in influence in the culture, is a new set of clothes for the old enemy, and one which needs to be addressed adequately by Christian thinkers. One such thinker is David Bentley Hart, who did a fantastic job of sending off postmodernists in his lyrical yet challenging book The Beauty of the Infinite”. Simply put: we need more thinkers who are postmodernist-savvy, and can speak and understand the “lingo” (which is, itself, quite contrived), to refute this newfangled version of a not so new enemy of Christian truth.