A couple of days ago I wrote that a particular column by Jonah Goldberg, "tends to make postmodernism seem arrantly bad. It's not, but lots of it is...."
My friend Jason wrote to inquire what it was about postmodernism that I thought congenial. Here's my reply:
You ask a good question, Jason: What is there to like about postmodernism? The answer is not much, but there are a couple of things. First, though, I agree with you that postmodernism is a dead end, but like everything (even communism!) it's not completely bad.
I think, for example, that the postmodern critique of the "Enlightenment project" is partly correct. Modernity adopted the Enlightenment view that the world could be objectively known through our reason and known with certainty. It holds that the scientific method is the only way to genuine knowledge. Modernity thus tended to diminish the role of faith and led to religious skepticism.
Postmodern thinkers reject the idea of "objective" knowledge and argue that what we "know" is largely conditioned by our historical, social, cultural, economic perspective. I think they're right about that. They're also skeptical of the power of human reason to yield certainty and also our ability to experience the world as it really is. It's much more open to faith and very skeptical of "scientism". I think they're at least partly correct about these things as well.
Finally, I think they're right that people are persuaded to change their minds more by story, testimony, music, art and film than they are by logical argumentation. In other words, people are more effectively reached through their hearts than through their heads. This has profound implications for evangelism, of course.
It could be objected that none of what I've said I agree with here is really new and that therefore it's a bit of a stretch to call these ideas "postmodern" as if they were recent discoveries. I agree. I tell my students that what is new about postmodernism is not good, and what is good is not new. Even so, these are frequently assumed to be elements of the postmodern mindset, and since I agree with them I have to say that I don't think that what is usually meant by "postmodernism" is entirely misguided.
The problem with postmodernism is not that it doesn't contain some good but rather that the good is far outweighed by its problematic consequences. For example, postmodernism leads, in my view, to epistemological, moral and metaphysical nihilism.
What I mean by that is this: Since postmodernism relativizes and subjectivizes truth then the idea of truth loses all meaning. Truth is whatever one, or the group with which one identifies, feels most strongly about. From this it's but a short step to the conclusion that there is no real truth, just feelings.
If this is so, then there's no real truth about morals and thus morality becomes subjectivized as well. What's right for you isn't necessarily right for me and nothing is right for everyone. It's all a matter of how we feel about things.
Further, if there's no objective truth, something which is true regardless of how anyone feels about it, then the claim that God exists is not objectively true. If we cannot say that God exists (except in our own personal world) we have no ground for meaning in our life. Life is just a series of pointless events and then we die.
Thus postmodernism leads to the conclusion that nothing has meaning, nothing has value, nothing matters. The consequences of this are far more corrosive to individual life and to our social well-being than the positive aspects of postmodernism mentioned above are beneficial to it.RLC