Faversham Stoa is a philosophy discussion group. We meet on the 3rd Tuesday of every month from 7.30 to 9.30pm in the The Bull in Tanners Street. We cover a large range of topics. There's no charge for membership and everyone is welcome to drop in. Just bring your brain and some beer money!

Postmodernism

Postmodernism is difficult to define succinctly embracing as it does so many areas including art, philosophy, literary criticism, scholarship, architecture and food. It's hard to pin down exactly what it is, say, about pomo art that links it with pomo philosophy. Furthermore, different proponents give different accounts of what pomo is and are frequently hostile to the very idea of definition. Some even reject the epithet being applied to themselves. Whatever else you say, you have to agree that pomo is controversial. However, as we will be discussing it at the Stoa I'm going to stick my neck out and try to make a list the key features so that we have something to hang our discussion on. I'm pretty sure that most pomos will hate the idea of trying to categorise and pin down their ideas - but here goes.

(1) Disillusionment with modernism

As the title post-modernist implies proponents see pomo as coming 'after' modernism. It a rejection of the values, beliefs and aspirations of modernism, viewing them as empty and delusory.

When the modernist period itself began and ended is itself an issue of much debate. One view sees it starting in the 18th century and finishing in the 20th. The post-modernist period therefore dates roughly from WWII.

Modernism stood for:

  • Optimism about progress and human potential;
  • A belief in the unity and integrity of personal identity (the soul);
  • A belief in the unity of all knowledge under big theories and schemas;
  • Faith that reason can deliver objective knowledge that is universal and cross-cultural.
  • In particular a confidence in science and technology as inherently improving of the human condition.

Postmodernism sets itself against all these and even rejoices that we are free of them and it sees such beliefs and values as somehow limiting and constraining human life.

(2) Rejection of 'Grand Narratives'

Pomos are sceptical about Big Theories that explain everything like Marxism, religions and even science. All such big schemes are created by society for controlling its members. All knowledge systems are seen as political.

Jean Francios Lyotard wrote: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives”. (Metanarrative is just a fancy way of saying 'big ideas').

(3) Disbelief in objective and absolute truth

Truth and knowledge are simply constructions of language and we are incapable of getting outside the language in which we speak about the world. They reflect the perspective of the one who is making the claim. There is nothing but a plethora of points of view. Each community constructs, through language, its own story of the world and no story is more 'true' than another. The notion of truth is contrived by special interest groups to gain power over others.

(4) Subjectivism

All talk involves reporting my own subjective impressions or my own personal point of view. Traditionally knowledge claims assert how we think the world actually is. For the pomo there is no meaning to the statement 'the world as it really is. There is just the world as it is to you or me or him or her.

(5) There are no facts only interpretations

Pomos seem to focus a lot on literature and what they like to call 'text although what they mean by 'text' can be a lot broader than just books and magazines. Traditionally, if you want to know what a text means you can always go back to the author and ask him or her. However, for the pomo 'the author is dead'. Meaning is made by the reader through their engagement with the text. Many meaning are possible. Nothing is determinate. All texts are equally valuable.

(6) Relativism

Cognitive relativism says that the truth of a statement is relative to the culture in which it is asserted. Criteria as to what is true or false vary between societies and pomos celebrate this diversity. This goes along with a general denigration of the claims of science, which is generally seen as an artifact of western imperialism ane an attempt to control and subjugate people. The claim of science to universality is viewed as spurious.

Moral relativism is the belief that different societies have different value systems and there is no overarching value system which can adjudicate between them. Therefore it is improper, indeed logically impossible, to criticise the conduct of people from another culture.

Both types of relativism are logically independent but pomos hold to both types.

(7) Rejection of belief in Progress (with a capital 'P')

When pressed, pomos will admit that technology and institutions do progress in some respects. For instance, public health policies providing the UK populace with clean water have resulted in fewer epidemic over the past century. What pomos reject is the western Enlightenment idea that the world is getting progressively better and better - moving inexorably towards utopia, a belief perhaps best exemplified by the Victorians.

(8) An attitude of Scepticism, Irony, Cynicism

Having no substantive beliefs in anything, other than perhaps pomo-ism itself, the pomo is sceptical of all claims to knowledge or truth. Her activity is essentially debunking. She is only interested in undermining others' pretensions to knowledge but she has nothing constructive to replace it with. This might be thought to be a very pessimistic philosophy and while indeed their is a strong line of cynicism running through pomo-ism the recommended attitude is one of playful irony. This leads many to feel that postmodernism is not really serious. But that doesn't bother our pomo for your evaluation or interpretation is just one amongst many others with no greater claim on her.


Short videos explaining postmodernism

Introductions to postmodernism

Articles on PoMo

The Alan Sokal Affair and the book 'Intellectual Impostures'

The Sokal affair (aka 'the Sokal hoax') was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, in 1996. Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the publication's intellectual rigor and, specifically, to learn if such a journal would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it sounded good and flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions. The article Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct.

Subsequently, Alan Sokal wrote a book with Jean Bricmond critiquing postmodernism. It was entitled Intellectual Impostures.

Postmoderrnism and History

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