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Beyond Postmodernism

Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series.


The era of Postmodern thought is waning and becoming unpopular. The current era now is probably best described as "Beyond Postmodernism." Postmodernism officially has no definition. It was best described as a period of incredulity toward things that many had declared as absolutes (meta-narratives). Now as society seems to want more defined meaning and limits, particularly as the economy falters, the question is, "What is next in philosophy?" Philosophy knows that it cannot prove or disprove absolutes. Postmodernism questions all values. Will Beyond Postmodernism endorse "something?" There is a desire by many to return to old "safe" values.


Postmodernism defines itself as a reaction to something else: Modernism. As human beings, we always define what we are about, and it is usually for or against something. The ontology of the Postmodern movement is not that it is "for" anything. It is simply for some, at its extreme, "against," or incredulous of everything. For those within Postmodernism, it is without definition, and typically those within Postmodernism strive to keep it that way. Epistemologically it has no definable limits, except to say that it is without limits. It is not relativism, it is chaotic un-relativism. Everything can be deconstructed. Ontologically, for many, it is an empty set because it's only characteristic is a negative sign that is applied to all prior content. Is Postmodernism progressive and constructive? No, not unless the person wishes to be constructive. It is primarily deconstructive. It is the reset button that says that we start over from scratch.

What then is "Beyond Postmodernism?" It is something that defines itself by Postmodernism. The idea hardly holds anything in mind except a positive sign applied to an unknown content.It is progressive and constructive in that it holds the possibility of future content, or perhaps no content. It is a limitless quest. No one knows "where to dig." Perhaps this is why there has been little written about it.

The challenge for Beyond Postmodernism is that people typically define themselves as a reaction to others in society. We want to be like someone or identify with something. We are against someone or something. We want less; we want more. Our society is the universe in which we find our meaning. It is a very rare individual that finds meaning and limits outside of this crucible, even though each of us need to find our own individual way. But that way is still in relation to something in our world.

Both Postmodernism and Beyond Postmodernism are essential to progress. We cannot change if we are hopelessly mired in obsolete beliefs and unable to find the truth in them. We learned from Modernism and life in general that society tends to develop grand meta-narratives (big stories) for us to believe. Perhaps they are true, perhaps not. The fact is, most of us don't like, "I don't know." We like certainty. But many things are not as certain as we allow ourselves to be convinced of. Some examples are: Philosophy and rational thought are our salvation. A particular religion is ultimate truth, and the only representative of ultimate truth. One system of government (Democracy) and one system of economics (Capitalism) are best for everyone.

We cannot help but note that university courses in anthropology, physics, literature, religion, and medicine, and sometimes even music have been taught by some as if they were absolute truth: closed systems of thought in which theories could not be challenged - closed. Various of the hundreds of psychology constructs over the years have often tended in this direction - if an idea or experience didn't fit the construct then it was wrong. The academic's and practitioner's quest for truth often gets short circuited to the epitome of truth: "I've revealed all there is to know." Many fields were declared closed systems of thought - there was nothing else to think, nothing else to explore. The "truth" is, these fields have not obtained ultimate answers and are far from complete. We don't even know what constitutes half of the universe - dark matter, dark energy, what? If nothing else, rather than invalidating everything, Postmodernism presented us an environment in which to challenge our beliefs to see if they are still valid.

From the point of view of social psychology, education, and religion, our society forms the frameworkd for our ultimate meaning and purpose until such time as dissatisfaction with these views leads us on a quest to learn more. During that quest we may learn that ultimate answers are not nearly as important as the journey. "Knowing" is a temporary state from our education or indoctrination. "Not knowing" can both enable us on a deeper quest, and assist us in further discovery.

Each person is unique. Each person's quest is unique. Each person's learning is unique. For meaning and purpose, each person must find his own way.

Despite that uniqueness, there are patterns that can serve us well. There are patterns in history. There are patterns in recent learning. There are patterns that we see in daily life. We don't have to entirely reinvent the wheel or make all of the mistakes.

Progress in today's age tends to happen very quickly.The sky is the new limit. We need to bear in mind that progress erodes people's meaning constructs to the point that meaning can quickly disappear and leave people disoriented. People tend to want a more conservative approach to life, so that change happens more slowly so they can adjust. The more uncertain the world, the more we gravitate toward what is certain, what is known "absolutely" and is quantifiable so we can predict and even control our destiny.

We are beginning to see some of those mechanisms now in religion, in government, in nationalism (commonness of groups of people), in the quest. The danger lies in putting a capstone on what we discover and declaring it ultimate truth. The quest must go on.

Another danger that can occur in the philosophy(s) that comes after Postmodernism is that too many people may disavow all values and limits until they can prove to themselves a need for particular values and limits. We have that going on in our society today, and ultimately it means chaos. We have also partially seen the opposing reaction to this trend in ultraconservatism - which affirms older more rigid social values in morality and in constitutional law. It has been shown to be ineffective in controlling or moderating such areas as torture, public school success, and teen risky sexual behavior. We have also seen in our society the rejection of limits in our economic system. Removing the limits brought us chaos in our economy.

Overly strict limits are destructive, limited oversight and restrictions are destructive, and dealing with ideology and agendas instead of reality is destructive. What we need to identify as values are the things that have served people well through history and today, and which will assist in maintaining order in our society, and which will help people find meaning and define limits. We need a paradigm of shared values from which groups and individuals can shape a cohesive construct of what is meaningful to us.

There are two aspects of human progress: the conceptual and the experiential. In the conceptual realm, we obtain meaning and spiritual-laden ideas (concepts) from the larger world, and these ideas inhabit our areas of higher thinking (cerebral cortex). In the experiential realm, we learn by experience from events that happen to us, or things that are taught to us based on others' experience. We compare this experiential learning (which takes place primarily in the limbic system) with our meaning and spiritual-laden ideas.

When the cognitive dissonance (tension between ideas and conflicting experience or other ideas) gets too high, we may modify what we believe. Each thing we prove becomes a "truth" for us - we each have a multiplicity of valid ideas. Even the very words we use are fixed in place by experience, which contains some level of emotion. But as we go through life we tend to get more experience and modify our valid ideas. One and one equal two, except we learn later that when adding negatives that the equal -2. Both are valid.

What we are exploring as a world society and as individuals is the many-faceted aspects of what is valid, true, and potentially ultimate truth. We see this in the recent proliferation of books on the economy. The "Reaganonics" era issued in a grand narrative that Supply Side Economics and a free economy are the foundations of prosperity. They poised this in a false dichotomy declaring that if you weren't for Supply Side Economics and a completely unfettered economy, then you were embroiled in the "sin" of socialism.

What we have seen recently is a number of books on economics that explore what we have learned from the many eras of economic trials. These include Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, by William J. Baumol, Robert E. Litan, and Carl J. Schramm. Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond. The Commanding Heights - The Battle for the World Economy, by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanslaw. Understanding the Process of Economic Change, by Douglass North. The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism, by John C. Bogle. and The Great Experiment - the story of ancient empires, modern states, and the quest for a global nation by Strobe Talbot. These books tell a very different tale than the absolutist story told by Free Economy proponents. It is good to be skeptical of absolutist grand narratives.

We see similar development in religion. For example, Christ and his Apostles recast religious laws and consequences in a different context: love. I don't think it would be possible to make major improvements on the idea of love that has been taught by major religions for thousands of years. It was the capstone spiritual idea of many religions. But is love a closed system of thought - is there nothing else to think, nothing else to explore? No. Each new generation has to start from scratch to understand this concept, either through teaching or direct experience. As a world society, it will probably take us thousands of years to fully understand at an experiential level the length and breadth of this one idea. Simply look at the struggles in the Middle East, and the reaction of the US to problems in the Middle East. We know about the power of force - we don't yet know everything about the power of love.

My book, Ontology of God - the voices of the ancients speak, looks at what we can learn through the ages regarding the history of several aspects of religious development as affected by the ancient societies they were in, including law, mercy, and love.

- Scott

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