Postmodernism, Relativism and Post-postmodernist Modernity

After the radical cultural upheavals of the twentieth century, a radical reassessment and a realignment within culture seemed inevitable and no more than in the philosophical academy where the major cultural ideas and movements really do begin.  The postmodern “movement” [1] was beginning to exert itself forcefully by the end of the 1970s [2] and it was a mirror for this collapse of the confidence in science or any other theoretical or religious “metanarrative” to give a coherent account of rationality.  The prescription of the de facto prophet of Postmodernism, was one for a post-truth reality and an egocentric one at that, simply because I believe or a hold a position, that position is legitimate:

“What used to pass as paradox, and even paralogism, in the knowledge of classical and modern science can, in [these new ‘postmodern’ systems], acquire a new force of conviction and win the acceptance of the community of experts”.[3]

In other words, paradox and self-contradiction are not simply matters of methodological paradigm challenge for use in science but are extrapolated into principles which inject irrationality as a legitimate form of ‘rationality’.  Putting this into practice, we need to know what we mean by our “experts”, whoever or whatever criteria we might admit with our alternate petit récit [4] to designate them as “experts”, which we would then seek to convince to the point of conviction.  Yet, all this seems to beg the question of an immanent language game and some criteria of judgment we would struggle to admit on the same postmodern anti-principles. When pushed on this incongruity, Lyotard was forceful in his capitulation to it:

“The postmodern world would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself…A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher:  the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principIe governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment , by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work…The artist and the writer, then are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done…”.[5] (Emphasis added except for the last instance).

Remarkably, some Christian theologians saw this as a positive development for rationality, “[a dissolving of] the clear-cut distinction between secular and religious thinking” [6] and thus “a gradual rehabilitation of the ‘Other’ (implying God and spirituality) into theology, philosophy and subsequently the rest of human life.” [7]  Yet, by any measure, we seem to be on Wittgenstein’s ladder here.  We are being asked to climb up by the ladder of rationality to the roof and then kick the ladder away for all is absurd and irrational up here, and we are dogmatically assured this is truly the way things are for they have presented themselves to us as an event [8].  For, if we have principles, we have brought preestablished rules to the argument to make a judgment.  Assuming Lyotard wants us to read and judge his argument about not being able to judge or determine what it is not what he is saying, we must also have based those judgments about which we cannot judge on familiar categories we cannot bring to the work.  However, Wittgenstein was cogent enough to recognise his own argument was non-sensical [9] and as a consequence “we should be silent about what we cannot speak[10] but Lyotard continues to speak with greater passion.  With the metanarrative excommunicated, the nonsense is spoken about in what he calls petit récit (the “little narrative”) which functions as a relative, situational context that allows us to define actually what we do “mean” so that we can, in fact, be sensibly nonsensical in the name of making presentable the unpresentable, “Finally, it must be clear that it is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable that cannot be presented”.[11]

This all has the strong odour of incoherence for the analytic philosopher assuming it was possible to understand what was being said [12] but caustic philosophic humour aside, this helps us understand why relativists and subjectivists became so enamoured with postmodernism.  However, as Feyerabend was to note via his own personal epiphany, the relativist slays themselves on their own petards:

“Relativism…is limited for an analogous reason:  the stages which relativists regard as equally valid projectors of truth and reality contain ambiguities which, when becoming manifest, dissolve all relativistic judgments…”. [13],[14] (emphasis added)

What we mean by this is that it was particularly significant in coming from Feyerabend who had a long relationship with relativism [15] and subjectivism; [16] repeatedly attempting to formulate a satisfactory account before finally repenting of his wickedness and settling at the above terminus.[17]

Thus, some in the academy in important respects have tried to move beyond the relativism and subjectivity of post-modernism, particularly in those disciplines who value a ‘scientific’ approach and desire some kind of empirical methodology for evaluating or proposing ‘best practice’, a concept that is viewed with suspicion in post-modern critique because ‘best’ implies there is the possibility of objective evaluation.[18]  However, the wider cultural force of post-modern thought remains highly influential in many spheres.  For example, the new “civic religion” [19] is that no one is permitted to criticise anyone else, for the subjectivity of the person is self-justifying and legitimate just because it is their position.  Many a code in the modern Western workplace has the peculiarity that if anyone ‘perceives’ the actions of another in some way are ‘harmful’ to their wellbeing, an offence is committed.  So, for example, a past HR-manager of mine declared that someone is “bullied” when they think they are being bullied.  Gone are the attempts to codify what constitutes bullying behaviour or to objectively identify what “bullying” behaviour should be taken to be.  Then, anyone who challenges this is “authoritarian” and the liberal appeals to the authority of the political State to punish such authoritarians to the full force of the law.

Thus, we immediately view the philosophical incongruity of the political liberal.  Though the liberal wants to champion individual choice and liberty, the coercive power of the political State must be available to the liberal to force conservative dissenters to become liberal in their praxis, if not their belief.  Put another way, the liberal wants to use the very tool of the illiberal to promote liberty, ‘let us do evil that good may come!’ [20]  That is, the liberal strengthens the very body that the early liberals such as J S Mill in his seminal work On Liberty had an urgent concern to limit the power and legitimate domain of.[21]  Mill had wanted to answer the Enlightenment materialists such as Hobbes who had envisaged a ‘Leviathan’ State as the inevitable outcome of a secular, humanist mindset [22] and to moderate the crudity of Bentham’s moral calculus [23] as a guide for public policy.  The French revolution had cast a long shadow and these Liberal reformers wanted to incorporate something of the principles but avoid the bloodshed.  In a similar vein, Orwell and Huxley were to write a little over one hundred years later with the same motivation amidst the socialist revolutions of their time that had already, or were threatening, to usurp the fragile democracies of Europe against the tyranny of the Red States and the Fascists.

In contrast, we note the American Constitution as the first serious attempt to foreclose the possibility of large, centralised authority in their Commonwealth.  The Declaration of Rights and the extensive exegesis given by the framers themselves, recognised the need to limit the coercive power of the central government by providing a foundation in scripture.  There were to be few and clear functions of the central government and inalienable rights granted to the citizen by God but recognised by the Constitution.  Here we identify a central and architectonic principle of any government that wants to claim the title ‘Christian’, rights are granted by God, not by governments or the State.  In a previous study[24], I argued Government instituted according to Romans 13 recognises and protects those rights.

Thus, a coherent worldview with a robust philosophical foundation is no minor matter for it deals with our very life and liberty.  A commitment to the paralogism as a “principle” of postmodernism is untenable for those who are earnestly seeking a political ethic, and we now have the post-post-modernists within the Continental tradition which West does an admirable job with presenting in outline.[25]  We might argue here that we have a return of the imperative for a rationale, we cannot simply be carried down the River of Being with all our playful superfluity as aircraft fly into towers or people blow themselves up at concert venues.  As he notes, some of these self-consciously reject postmodernism and seem to be recapitulating Marxism whilst rejecting the excesses of “scientific” socialism.  (Post-) Critical theory for the West (the cuddly term for this Marxism fit for post-post-modernism) has an intoxicating appeal despite its catastrophic history; next time, the revolution will be correct, and terror will be proportionate.[26]  Bubbling in some of these thinkers is the “return of the political” and in this sense this thesis concurs with them whilst rejecting their post-Marxist and often psychoanalytic axis.[27]


[1] Although “postmodernism” had been used in other contexts before (especially in schools of Art which Lyotard (considered next) claims go all the way back to Duchamp in 1912, who posited that a painter need not make a painting to be an artist), philosophical postmodernism was brought into focus and mainstream Anglo-American academia (it was already well-established in the ‘Continental’ academies) with the 1984 publication of the English translation of Lyotard’s La Condition postmoderne:  rapport sur le savoir (1979).  At around the same time as Lyotard published in French, Rorty’s Mirror (1979) was published as a repudiation of modern philosophy; Rorty became one of the most forceful and iconoclastic advocates of postmodernism, relativism, and pragmatism and in many ways was (liked and loathed in equal measures) the public face of the movement.

It was paradoxically a coercive influence on scholarship during the 1990s (work in the humanities, and to a significant degree the sciences, was assessed for its sensitivity to postmodernity and postmodernism), it is now much more referred to in a respectful way for us to recognise “the limitations of our modern premises”.  There is still plenty of postmodernism in culture at large, but it is philosophically destitute and incoherent, its limitations now well exegeted especially by those whose disciplines it criticised so severely (such as hermeneutics, see Thiselton (2009)).

[2] West, D. (2011). Continental Philosophy (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press, ch.7.  This condenses that which believes of itself that it cannot be condensed.  As West writes, there is a “postmodern mood” (p.209) rather than a “theory” (which would imply a metanarrative which postmodernists deny).

[3] Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 10 ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press., p.43

[4] We explain how Lyotard used this term shortly, it has the literal sense of a localised “small narrative” in contrast to the vanquished “metanarrative”.

[5] Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 10 ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press., p.81.

[6] Berry, P. (1992). Introduction. In P. Berry, & A. Wernick (Eds.), Shadow of Spirit – Postmodernism and Religion (pp. 1-10). London: Routledge.

[7] Macneil, M. (2007, August 19). Christianity and Postmodernism. Retrieved from Planet Macneil:

[8] Cf. “There is indeed the inexpressible.  This shows itself; it is the mystical.” (Emphasis original) (Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.522).  These many “points of contact” with Wittgensteinian language in Lyotard and in particular his use of the “language game” as a primary hermeneutic (though Lyotard denounced hermeneutics), were some of the main reasons postmodernists claimed Wittgenstein as an ally long after his departure.

[9] Wittgenstein, L. (2007 (1922)). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York: Cosimo Classics., 6.54:  “My propositions are elucidatory in this way:  he who understands me finally recognises them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)”

[10] Wittgenstein, L. (2007 (1922)). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York: Cosimo Classics.,7.  That is, “my argument makes no sense.  I will shut up now, retire from philosophy as I have solved the problem of method in philosophy – be quiet.”  It was the end of that decade (1929) that he returned to philosophy persuaded that he had not, in fact, “solved” all philosophical problems and embarked on a second (and some argue a third) period which were just as influential and revolutionary as his first.

[11] Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 10 ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press., p.81.

[12] Lyotard, after all, was writing in the context of French Continental philosophy.  The rather dense prose, lexical and grammatical puns, and idioms (with which the translator did an admirable job), technical vocabulary, subliminal pessimism, meandering style, and polyvalent conclusion was guaranteed to frustrate the analyst seeking a tightly argued essay, let alone being source material for a political manifesto for action that it was commissioned to be.  The unsatisfactory terminus was noted by the sympathetic writer of the equally obtuse Foreword to the MUP edition: “the other conjoined value of the book’s conclusion – that of justice – tends, as in all interesting narratives, to return on this one and undermine its seeming certainties”. (Jameson (1984), p. xx.), I believe that is the philosopher’s way of calling it respectfully as one can, “incoherent”.

[13] Feyerabend, P. (1999). Conquest of Abundance – A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being. (B. Terpstra, Ed.) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press., pp.127-8.

[14] This thought is captured and elucidated by the meme: “Postmodernism – All Truth Is Relative” *  *(Except this statement).

[15] Feyerabend, P. (1987). Notes on Relativism. In Farewell To Reason (pp. 19-89). London: Verso.;  Feyerabend, P. (2010). Postscript on Relativism. In Against Method (Fourth ed., pp. 283-287). London: Verso.

[16] His final book, Conquest of Abundance (1999) only partially completed in his lifetime and his autobiography, Killing Time (1995) capture well his passionate and broad commitment to subjectivism and his desire to liberate people from “the tyranny of philosophical obfuscators and abstract concepts such as “truth”, “reality” or “objectivity”…”, Feyerabend (2010), p.viii.  Rather like Tertullian in the ancient world of apologists, his iconoclastic manner and controversial style easily distracted from a profound and original thinker.

[17] Feyerabend is famous for his “anything goes” or “anarchistic” epistemological views made famous in what he called “The Book” (Against Method) which for better or worse defined his reputation and career.  However, in explaining those remarks after the criticism he received for them, he qualified quite heavily that people had misunderstood what he meant.  He was not denying the need to construct understanding but rather it could come from any number of sources and that science should not be privileged with any special status.  There was no theory of knowledge that mandates science.  His position was pragmatic, pluralist and democratic in the final analysis.

[18] There is a version of post-modern relativism that might be better termed “conventionalism” which may well use the language associated with stronger categories but qualify it by limiting it strictly to a particular situation or historical contingency.  Once there is a cultural movement to change the conventions for whatever reason, they give way and are replaced with possible contradictory positions.  As Blackburn puts it, this is ‘a parody of objectivism’, see Blackburn (2006), pp.41-42.

[19] Examined in detail by Sookhdeo (2016).

[20] Rom 3:8 (NAS).

[21] Part IV of On Liberty deals explicitly with this subject.

[22] “Not only must a state government be created for the protection of citizens and the improvement of their quality of life, but it must be an absolute governing body in Hobbes’s world view. Because he believed that the population is made up of selfish and ignorant individuals, he felt that a state government must control all aspects of economy, war, taxing, and so on. Hobbes’s vision of a perfect state government, [created] with man’s best interest in mind…Though Hobbes saw the theoretical good of democracy, he thought it inevitable that democratic societies would always fall into civil war. Thus, rather than a democracy, he saw an absolute state government as the best answer to political and social upheaval.”, Hobbes, T. (2014 (1651)). ‘Leviathan’ – The Matter, Form, & Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (With Biographical Introduction ed.)., p.2.

[23] Jeremey Bentham (1748 – 1832) was an early proto-socialist and political reformer with who Mill had a close working relationship with.  Along with Mill’s father, Bentham had articulated “utilitarianism”, an essentially political philosophy advocating the aims of public policy should be “the happiness of the greatest number (that is the measure of right and wrong)”.  Mill is regarded as being a more mature form of the philosophy and essentially moving beyond it in the principles of On LibertyOn Liberty is regarded as one of the great statements of political philosophy in English.

[24] Macneil, M. (2021, April 29). Politics, Church and State in the Post-Trump Era. doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.16282.16325

[25] West, D. (2011). Continental Philosophy (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press., ch.8.

[26] West, D. (2011). Continental Philosophy (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press., p.262.

[27] As the psychological theory of behaviourism had appeal for analytic philosophers who were naturalists (e.g., Quine (1990/1974) in search of the “Roots of Reference” for their language which would then provide some kind of philosophical rationale; there seems a reliance amongst the continental tradition for psychoanalysis in the broadest sense to give a rationale for rationality, the hope that there is something in our internal mental makeup (our psyche) which will rescue us from rational nihilism.  Whereas the classical-Marxist would appeal to the economic relations to define Being, and the materialist in deterministic laws of behavioural imperatives; the self-defined Being seeks to understand their Self in terms of a psychological theory of themselves, i.e., the psychoanalytic.

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