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What is Postmodernism?
Copyright © 1997, Dorian Scott Cole    
What Is Postmodernism?  | Where did Postmodernism come from? | The affinity for existentialism | Commentary on existentialism | What is deconstruction about? | Commentary on deconstruction | What is Constructivism about? | After Postmodernism | What does it all mean in practical terms? 
  What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism is a way of thinking that so far has eluded precise definition.  I intend to leave it that way.  Postmodernists tend to dislike labels. But how do you describe something without defining it? 

Define and describe are two words with very different long-term implications. One is a closed language system. The other is an open language system. When we define something, after the scientific model, we state very objectively the precise meaning, or qualities, or properties of something. We then have a standard that says that all other things that don't match this precise definition are not this thing. This is closed, a static model that can't change, not a dynamic one. This is very useful in hard science. 

A description can be a very subjective account that gives an impression of something. It may not be scientifically accurate, it may not be complete, and it may lack the fine detail that a definition would contain. Descriptions are open - that is they can change - a dynamic model. Social science is dynamic - things change. Descriptions are very useful for accounts of social phenomenon which are dynamic. 

So why not define it? There are several problems inherent in pinning labels on things.  For one thing, if you put a label on something, then that is what it tends to become.  It is the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy.  The subject becomes its description because it thinks it is that. 

How do you define something that is amorphous?  Postmodernism may be different tomorrow than it is today - it is in process of becoming.  Once you define it, then it no longer has the freedom to become - it is.  It would become fixed in time and knowledge.  For example, you can't define a butterfly as a caterpillar with wings - a caterpillar becomes a butterfly through metamorphosis.  A process of change takes place and the thing is no longer the thing that it was. 

We tend to use definitions for control.  If we don't know what something is, we can pin a label on it, and give the label a definition.  That makes the unknown subject known so that we can understand and control it.  I'm not at all sure that Postmodernism lends itself to control.   Controlling it may put an end to it because it may very well be the essence of the beast to only exist when it is not controlled. 

Labels also tend to restrict how we see things.  If we label someone as having a psychological disorder, then that label is used to explain everything about that person. But few people have motivations, behaviors, and actions that can be explained by only one label.

When a phenomenon is observed, the observation may interfere with the phenomenon.  For example, do protesters become more violent because the camera is projecting their image into millions of living rooms across the world?  Will reporting on Postmodernism change what Postmodernism is?  Should it? 

The observer may look at the wrong subset of ideas. Psychologists, anthropologists, biologists, physicists, the man on the street, and many others may have a representative subset of ideas about what Postmodernism is.  Various ideas may occur in each of these subsets.  But Postmodernism might not be represented by any singular subset.

The position of the observer may interfere with the validity of the report.  How can someone who is part of the subject give an objective and impartial report of what it is?  I am definitely a Postmodernist.

If Postmodernism is a category, what falls in that category? Any kind of information can be categorized.  Under the category the Thursday ski nosetooth, I can list people who show up at physician's offices on Thursdays with a runny nose, one tooth missing, and who report having gone skiing on Saturday.  I would be the only unifying element in the list.  The category would basically be meaningless, yet no one could deny it was a category.  Is Postmoderism simply an eclectic collection of characteristics  that have nothing to unite them? 

Obviously it relates to a grouping that is "after modernism." Beyond that, the characteristics must be obverse.  In other words, If I postulate that the characteristics of Postmodernism must be united by a common theme, then Postmodernists must be capable of being characterized by the same theme (within reason - bellcurve).   Otherwise I have only identified a subset of beliefs, or even a fad, within humanity that aren't consistent from person to person. 

I'm not prepared to rigorously investigate the classification - only to point out the pitfalls.  For example, one could speculate that Postmodernists are united by a common purpose, but I would find it highly questionable to assert that Postmodernism and all Postmodernists are united by a common purpose.  I sincerely doubt this. 

I will go so far as to say that I think Postmodernism involves characteristic methodologies that stem from an underlying attitude - but I'm not prepared to prove these.   What I am prepared to do is identify the buzz-words identified with Postmodernism, on the assumption that people talk specifically about their peculiar beliefs, and allow those buzz-words to characterize the methodologies of Postmodernism. 

For the preceding reasons, everything I say should be taken with some skepticism.  Ultimately researchers in the arts and humanities will have their say, and the people who feel they are Postmodernists will actually describe what it is, and historians will probably have the last word.  But what I will try to present here is a subject that, I think, defines what it is by a characteristic way of thinking. 

I think it is important to answer the question, "Did I became a Postmodernist through exposure to it, or through some other means?"  In other words, is Postmodernism a self-perpetuating movement?  If Postmodernism is influencing the way people think, then it is a movement.  But if people are already disposed to think in this way, then Postmodernism is only a way of characterizing them. 

I have always been a Postmodernist.  It is in my nature.  When my grandparents brought their new grandson a toy, the first thing I did was take it apart (deconstruction).  I wanted to know what it was made of (reductionism).  I wanted to use the parts for something else (constructivism). They brought me a wagon with the wheels welded on. Sometimes life has brought me a wagon with the wheels welded on. 

I have never changed.  I applied the same principles to everything - education, religion, career - I take things apart, analyze what works and doesn't, and put them back together so they accomplish the purposes I want them to.  I like cultural anthropology, philosophy, psychology, and science.  These sciences explore the world, analyze it, and try new things.  When I read about Postmodernism, I realized it was me.


Is reductionism Postmodern? Reduction reduces things to their fundamentals. Is a wagon a wagon, or is it a collection of individual components?  Do components become more than the sum of their parts? 

A train is a collection of wagons.  We understand wheels, axles, bins, and hitching.  They make a wagon, they make a train.  A train is a just-in-time delivery vehicle.  It is part of a manufacturing system.  Understanding the parts enhances the structure, it doesn't destroy it.

Reductionism is probably not part of most Postmodernist's philosophies. It is associated with the modernist tendency to reduce and define so that the whole is obscured by parts. 

Postmodernists prefer to "deconstruct" to clear away the debris and find the valid elements that make up meaning.


Postmodernism, I think, in the most basic sense is a major step in the reinvention of ourselves. This is the essence of it - reinventing ourselves.  Postmodernism, I think, in the most basic sense is a major step in the reinvention of ourselves. This is the essence of it - reinventing ourselves (to borrow a PBS phrase).  Postmodernism has several consistent characteristic attitudes. 

I'll call these characteristics "attitudes" because I think these attitudes involve ideas and emotions, and so influence the  methods of Postmodernists.  I believe emotions are involved because modernist institutions and thinking restrict the freedom of people to vary from the uniformity of a society's norms.  This is occurring because we have become a very small world - a very diverse society with many conflicting beliefs about the meaning of our lives.  When a clash of ideals, or a restriction of freedom occur, an emotional reaction, I believe, must occur.

These attitudes don't necessarily describe Postmodernism - they may just be attitudes that are common to people who are also Postmodernists.  For example, (as a deconstructionist would) I question if existentialism is an idea that is central to Postmodern thought, or if it is simply an attractive parallel way of thinking that operates synergistically with Postmodern thought? 

Characteristic Postmodern attitudes are:

  • Deconstruction of society's meta-narratives that control or influence the meaning of our lives.
  • Deconstruction of Modernist institutions, structures, and thinking that dictate uniformity in the meaning of our lives.
  • Tolerance toward pluralism and diversity in society and philosophy.
  • Deconstruction of truths.
  • A comfortable tolerance of "not-knowing" meaning and truth. 
  • Permissiveness of fragmentation - especially when forced classification will create disharmony.
  • Find meaning or make-meaning where there appears to be chaos and disorder.
  • Insistence on relativism.
  • Pursuit of meaning-making.
  • Insistence that structures must have efficacy.
These attitudes are exemplified in the buzz-words predominating this land of thought: Relativism, existentialism, deconstruction, and constructivism. 

To put this another way, Postmodernists seem to be saying, "There seems to be no meaning for many individuals in many modernist meta-narratives, institutions, and structures, because we are a very pluralistic world with many views of truth and meaning.   So let's examine these things that are held as truths, and the institutions built on these truths and see what the core values are and whether these core values contain anything that is truth (which some would argue that none do) and rebuild these institutions to properly serve all the individuals within our world."

  Where did Postmoderism come from?

I'm sure historians will try to pin specific dates on Postmodernism and call it a movement.   I'm curious about the outcome, because I think Postmodernism ultimately will defy historians, except to see it as recurring phenomenon that arises from social conditions and precedes times of profound change in the world. 

Modernism can be considered "the current day," regardless of the time in history, and refers to the existing institutions - particularly those that reflect the things that create meaning in people's lives.  Postmodernism is not an era, but a way of thinking.  It was an attitude present in the Ancient Greeks, in the Protestant Reformation, and in current Reform religious movements (Reformed church organizations and community churches).  I think it is present in the political reformists in Russia and China. 

But I think reform movements within institutions (such as Catholic and Protestant religious institutions) are constrained by their doctrines of absolute truth, and a resistance to deconstruction, and rightly so. We all must be true to ourselves.  But being a reformist doesn't necessarily make one a Postmodernist.   Postmodernists seem to have that mindset of relativism, deconstruction, and constructivism - a combination of methodologies that create a specific type of reform.  Not reform for the sake of reform, but a problem solving reform that addresses certain types of problems: meaning-making and pluralism.

In the next section I will try to explain what these terms mean.  For example, deconstruction does not mean destruction or critiquing.  It is not a bunch of rebels on the warpath to tear down society's institutions.

Does Postmodernism hold that there are no absolute truths? The affinity for existentialism

Many Postmodernists have formed an affinity for existentialism.  This raises many questions for Postmodernists to clarify.  Many existential thinkers hold that there is no such thing as absolute truth - everything is relative.  Does Postmodernism hold that there are no absolute truths?  Or does it concede it is on a search to eliminate absolutes and truths that are invalid?  Or is Postmodernism simply comfortable living with the absolute truths held by individuals in a pluralistic society? 

Answering yes to the first question, that there are no absolute truths, is likely to remove Postmodernism from being a way of thinking into being an actual religion. Answering yes to the second question, a search for truth, is likely to make Postmodernism an unwelcome investigator in religions. 

What is existentialism, and where did it come from? 

There are many doctrines that call themselves existentialism, and they bear no relation to one another.  Existentialism has a rich heritage, and no real definition.   Existential thinkers have come from very religious backgrounds, agnostic backgrounds, and atheistic backgrounds. 

Because of its tenet of relativism, and rejection of absolute truths (in the eyes of some), existentialism can support almost any doctrine.  However, it is more typically characterized by some very worthwhile ideals - the problem of man's existence (search for meaning), man's freedom, and his responsibility for what he does and what he becomes. 

These are high ideals with which every person can identify, and the concern of every major religion. 

Although existentialism is primarily a post-World War I phenomenon, the philosophical mentor of existential thought is the 1800's Danish religious thinker and writer, Kierkegaard.  He basically asserted that man must make a choice between God (ethics) and things, which is an assertion as old as religion.  But Kierkegaard focused on the theme of "dread," which is a consistent theme in existential thought.

Why dread?  It is thought that the World Wars in the first half of the 19th. century emphasized a tragic aspect: death, nothingness, meaninglessness, suffering - and the inevitable dread.  Existentialism is equated most strongly with this background.  From this tragic background, people looked for answers - for meaning for their lives - a reason for being - a reason for all of this suffering.  And from this "You can only count on yourself" environment, came some noble ideas about man (the atheist Sartre):  man is free and responsible, but only responsible to himself. 

Then, following the attack on existentialism that it is based on nothing, and that it is not only not soundly reasoned out, but is philosophically untenable, existentialists put forth another really great idea - relativism.  At this point, existentialism can support any and all systems of thought simultaneously.

Existentialism is centered around self.  I suppose these are reasons why psychology has an affinity for it - psychology is the science of self.  But in centering around self, existentialism orders every bit of the world around the self-interests of the individual (nihilism).  There is very little room for a social basis of meaning-making for the individual.

Existentialism also rejects absolutes.  This is another reason why people in general might have an affinity for existentialism, because the assertion of absolutes generally brings people with differing beliefs into unresolvable conflict.


Commentary on existentialism

Most people define themselves by others, and find life very meaningless without others, and most seek to do acts of charity and good-will for others. A system of thought that confines meaning-making to only self-oriented associations seems inadequate to the task.  Although people can do altruistic deeds for selfish motivations, it gets very difficult to explain all of human motivation in these terms. The element of self-interest can't be separated from the motivation for any human deed, yet it doesn't explain it.

I think the inability to define psychology in anything but individualist terms comes from too much study of the individual while pretending the social aspect is irrelevant.  (My bias - I look at man from a social constructivist point of view.)   To me, ignoring the social aspects is like studying only the south pole of a magnet.  Without the north pole, the south pole has no effect.  It is meaningless.  In fact, if you cut off the north pole, it is still there - it is inherent in the metal.  It is the molecular alignment in the metal that creates the magnet.  The alignment is consistent everywhere in the magnet.  You can't cut off the north pole - it is.  It is the same with people - the influences that are within man are so related to society that you can't cut society out of man. 

Many existential philosophers have held high ideals for existentialism, especially the freedom of man and his responsibility, and the pursuit of meaning-making.   My bias is that I think these are the highest ideals, either in an existential framework, or a religious framework.  I believe the ultimate goal of man is to become a free agent who is not just willingly responsive to his responsibilities, but also is self-directed about what to do with his life and in the world. 

The main area in which religious existentialism clearly differs from non-religious existentialism is in the areas of absolutes.  Non-religious existentialism denies that there are any absolutes (except the real world).  In some practical ways, this may be correct - existentialism, and man, may be unable to see or understand absolute truth.  For example, if you stand at any point on earth, you are unable to see any end.  In fact, the earth appears flat.  The earth is too large for people to grasp, and since it is round, there is no real end.  Yet it is an explorable space. 

To me, coming to a knowledge of truth is like journeying around the earth.   You don't know where the journey will end, but by taking the journey you get to know the earth in all its different versions.  And each time around, if you take a different path you get to know variations of the versions.  Yet they are all connected.  But each cycle you grasp the patterns more quickly and the journey represents a vortex. The important thing to do is to take the journey and believe in it. 

Postmodernism isn't the only way of finding answers to pressing questions.  Religions and politics that declare absolutes generally work out compromises permitting tolerance.  The pitfall is that during difficult times, people go into protectionist modes to ensure their survival.  During such times, they frequently disavow anything that is different from them, and possibly destroy it.

End commentary

What is deconstruction about? Deconstruction is about not taking anything for granted.  Modernist institutions - those built on ideas of absolute truths - should be reduced to their component parts, and analyzed to see if truth is in them and if they serve an appropriate purpose. And the tools we use to examine them should also be inspected, because the tools themselves are often the result of modernist construction. 

As we experience life, our beliefs about life change.  But the institutions we leave behind remain until we change them, and they are built on our perceptions of reality. 

What is the position of religion on suffering, meaning, hopelessness, and freedom?

Not coincidentally, all the major religions stress the value of suffering as the agent that motivates change within man (as the result of doing the wrong things - not the result of war). 

All the major religions hold that man is free to make decisions.   Some religions assert the meaning of man's life to be determined by the absolute truths in the religion. 

Billy Graham, regarding the the use of the Internet for religious messages, stated, "In the midst of chaos, emptiness and despair, there is hope in the person of Jesus Christ."

The feelings experienced by those post-WW1 people who became existentialists, is universal to man. 

What about God?

  Commentary on deconstruction

Deconstruction is primarily a literary tool. Words, it believes, only point to other words. At some point one needs to get back to reality. Is there any such thing as truth? Can philosophy and science arrive at the truth? Philosophy, like computers, is no smarter than the person entering the information. If the person entering information can't ask the right questions or supply the right facts, he can't get intelligent answers. 

Rational thought has not proven to be a good way to ensure safety for everyone.   Rational evaluation too easily slips into rationalization and justification that support other agendas. Thus we were presented with the Crusades, witch burning, and the licensing of mistreatment if the mistreater had the money to pay the religious fee. We may think we are beyond that as a civilization, but people purchase the right to mistreat others in court every day. All it takes is a shrewd lawyer and enough money.

Scientists often have biases that shape their research. Their results can be similarly biased.

So to a Postmodernist, truths are questionable.  But should all truth be rejected?  It seems to me that deconstruction is a reaction to the over-construction of knowledge - building theories of unity and paradigms of hierarchy where relationships are more figments of a biased imagination than of reality. 

Questionable doesn't mean invalid.  Things labeled as truth should be deconstructed.  Philosophy can't provide absolute answers - it is itself a faulty methodology.  But if the truth withstands an informed scrutiny then that truth can't be labeled invalid.  Philosophy is not the arbiter of truth, but is a tool of inquiry.  It is man who must make the ultimate decision about truth. 

As for me, I have enough experience with life to know that truth exists in unselfish love, kindness toward others, the pursuit of ideals in godliness and right, self protection, the value of self, and the need for self-growth.  Where there is real love, illusion matters little because divine guidance can't be far removed and delusion can't stand.
  What is Constructivism about?

Constructivism is about achieving new order, guided by the core processes within us. I can do no better than to defer to the Society for Constructivism in the Human Sciences (see the Message from the Executive Director), and to recommend the book Constructivism in Psychotherapy, Edited by Robert Neimeyer and Michael Mahoney.

  After Postmodernism?

Apparently the bell has rung and time may be up for Postmodernism, ready or not.  Are people growing tired of everything being questioned and just want to get on with making-meaning?   Is Postmodernism actually paralysis?  How do we get on with it?

The "Conference on After Postmodernism" was held at the University of Chicago, November 14-16, 1997.  The purpose was to begin a discourse that moves on, after postmodernism.

  What does it all mean in practical terms?

I can only speak personally, and not from working in an environment of Postmodernism. 

These attitudes are reflected in many of my writings:

In The Angry Doves, my novel about the Middle East, the theme is to "let people be who they are," which encourages "micro-politics," pluralism and diversity, and fragmentation.

In Priest of Sales, my screenplay about personal freedom, the theme is about finding meaning and freedom.  (Both of the foregoing stories will eventually be available free on this we site.)

In writing instruction, my emphasis is on deconstructing technique and identifying audience needs, then ensuring the efficacy of the written product.  Example.

In government, I favor sunset legislation regarding government institutions.   Every institution the government creates should be periodically examined to see if it is needed, effective, and if it is fulfilling the role it was designed to fill, or should be stopped.

In politics, I favor localization of government and sufficient fragmentation to allow people to be who they are (freedom and democracy).  But I am certainly for the wider role of government in keeping peace and in assisting social well-being.

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