The Myth of the Modern; The Anti-myth of the Postmodern

The Myth of the Modern;
The Anti-myth of the Postmodern

James E. Faulconer

Today the word postmodernism is used mostly as a
label for those with whom right-thinking people disagree. Those who consistently
label themselves postmodernist are usually affecting a pose that may also
require a black turtleneck and perhaps even a beret, a pose that is seldom
differentiable from what has for more than fifty years had another name,
relativism. I do not usually call myself a post­modernist, and I am not a
relativist in the conventional sense (though I am also not an absolutist in the
conventional sense). So why am I defending postmodernism? Because I believe
that misunderstanding and, therefore, ignoring postmodernism has allowed much
modernism to continue on, unaffected, though it ought to have taken stock when
it came under a postmodern attack. Let me briefly revisit the issue that I
think has gotten lost, an issue that has largely been ignored, even as
postmodernism has quietly slipped into at least some historical thinking and
writing. I want to ask what postmodernism means for thinking about history.

However, as a nonhistorian
among historians, I will play it safe. I will say little about history or doing
history. Instead, I will explain two issues in modernism that are, I believe,
directly related to its implications for history, show some alternatives for
our usual assumptions, describe how postmodernism works with regard to
modernism, and leave thinking about concrete implications to those who actually do history. I
hope to show that postmodern thinking is neither the wild danger that many take
it to be when they look at some of its advocates nor the reactionary
intellectual movement that some suspect when they see it done by conservative
religious apologists like many among us. To make my argument, I will paint a
portrait of modernity with broad brushstrokes. My painting will focus primarily
on modernity’s understanding of the subject, in other words of the ego, and on
its understanding of temporality. Then I will paint an equally broad portrait
of some contemporary alternative assumptions to show the origin of some of
postmodernism’s questions of modernity. I will argue that, historically,
modernism takes the individual ego to be the basic unit of understanding and
that it implicitly takes the ego to be an entity that exists prior to society,
culture, and history so that those things impinge upon the “I” as
exterior forces. In addition, modernism takes the knowledge of our temporal
existence, history, to be like every other kind of knowledge in that it is
ultimately based on atemporal, causal, universal laws. Then I will describe a
recent contrasting view, though still a view within modernism. That contrasting
view understands the individual as coming into being with and through society,
culture, and history, and it seeks to understand temporality in temporal rather
than atemporal terms. Finally, my claim about postmodernism will be that it
uses the assumptions of the latter, with a variety of techniques, to question
the standard view of modernism, but it does not take a position itself on the
particular question at hand.


Strictly speaking, there is no definition of modernity.
Rather than a definite set of characteristics, modernity is a constellation of
positions and beliefs, “a rational demand for unity, certainty,
universality, and ultimacy” together with

the belief that words, ideas, and things are distinct
entities; the belief that the world [or nature, which is the Good] represents a
fixed object of analysis separate from forms of human discourse and cognitive
representation; the belief that culture is subsequent to nature [and imposed on
it, and so is something that ought to be stripped away epistemically] and [the
belief] that society is subsequent to the individual [and therefore also an
artifice imposed on him or her].[1]

Further, as we see in the title of René Descartes’s
book Discourse
on Method
, for moderns reason is exercised in method, of which geometry
is the first example. The result is our contemporary insistence on methodology
(and the concomitant exactitude of mathematics). Moderns believe that the use
of method results in scientific progress. The story still told by modernism is
that by the continuous use of reason, we have improved on the intellectual
beginning given us by Greek and Latin intellectuals, a beginning that was interrupted
by the Christian Middle Ages but restored with the Renaissance, and a beginning
that we continue to improve on with human perfection as its ideal and perhaps
even reachable goal. For modern thinkers, method is possible—it
works—because reason rather than tradition is the sense common to all human
beings. Reason is the sensus communis.

Finally, method is deemed necessary by modern thinkers, particularly
those of the Enlightenment, because they hold what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls a “prejudice
against prejudice itself.”[2] Prejudices, in the literal sense of prejudgments, are imposed from the outside
on an already-existing individual who observes an already-existing Nature. So
prejudices are necessarily distortions of what is original, of what is real, of
what stands before and apart from human mind and culture. Prejudices prevent
already fully formed, reasoning egos from making their own judgments about the
already-determinate and supposedly external world. According to modernism, this
means that good thinking avoids all prejudice. The ordinary person’s reason is
corrupt because it is exercised in a historical and cultural environment that
has imposed false judgments on him or her in the form of tradition, custom, and
opinion. Religion is particularly corrupting of reason, for it makes revelation
(which not every person has) and tradition (a nonuniversal, pre-given
understanding from which a merely particular understanding comes to be) more
fundamental than the natural light of reason, which modernism takes to be
definitive of every fully human person. Enlightened persons use reason (which
is prior to all prejudgment because it is natural to all human beings) to rid
themselves of these prejudices.[3] Thus in modernism the already-universal, internal light of reason replaces the
light of reason as understood in premodern Judaism and Christianity. For the
latter, the light of reason was universal only eschatologically and could be
received and exercised only communally.

Likely there are other points of modernism worth mentioning.
Nevertheless, these points are enough, I think, for us to see the constellation
of ideas that I am talking about. And I repeat: one could subscribe to some of
the points of this constellation of modernism without subscribing to them all
and remain within the modern constellation.

Consider one of these points more closely, the redefinition
of the individual ego, in technical terms, the subject. Prior to about the
mid-seventeenth century, the subject was “that which supports the
properties I see.”[4] In other words, it was the thing that has the properties we observe when we
encounter something. It was that which is “underneath” the properties
I perceive. In contrast, the object was “the thing as it appears to me,
the properties I perceive.” Strictly speaking, neither of these terms
referred to what we mean today by “subject.” Both are different ways
of talking about what we now refer to as the object. Neither means “the
perceiving or thinking ego.” However, after Descartes, as everyone knows
(at least implicitly), by “object” we mean that which has the
properties we observe (the thing-in-itself) with its properties. And the “subject”
is that which does the observing. Philosophically, the subject (formerly
something that could not be known directly) has become self-certainty,
self-consciousness (known directly, by introspection).[5] We seldom
think about this change, this reversal, in the meaning of our terms. Indeed,
most people do not know that it occurred. In spite of that, this shift of
meaning was a revolution in Western thought and history, and its effects have
been enormous as well as numerous.

Perhaps the most
important consequence of the new understanding of the subject is that the rational
subject (and recall that all subjects were assumed to be rational by nature)
became the standard for truth. That is why, for modern thinkers, authority (a
standard of truth outside the individual) is to be avoided if at all possible.
As strange as it may at first glance seem, this placement of truth in the
subject, modern subjectivism—though not “subjectivism” as we
use that term today: subjectivity—is what makes science as we know it
possible. Objectivism is a result of modern subjectivism! In spite of the way
we usually speak of truth within modernism, as Christina Gschwandtner says, “truth
and knowledge become dependent no longer on the reality which is being
examined, but rather on the subject which inspects them and the method it
employs.”[6] Modern subjectivism, the original form of subjectivism, holds that the
individual is the standard of truth but that reason is not only natural to all
human beings but the same in them all. Thus if one individual comes to a
rational conclusion, any other individual will, by the proper use of the reason
they share (in other words, by method), be able to see the truth of that
conclusion: objectivism.

The positive result of this redefinition of the subject is a
new kind of systematic knowledge and the technologies spawned by that
knowledge. It is science as we know it. Without the science and technology that
the modern understanding of the individual and reason makes possible, no
scholarly work, not even the most militant and faddish postmodern, could happen
in anything like its present form. More importantly, without modern science and
its technology, life would be much more as Hobbes describes it, “solitary,
poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[7] In spite of
that, however, this new standard for truth not only made science possible, it
opened the way for what comes to mind when we hear the word subjectivism,
namely, a particularly impoverished understanding of the Sophistic formula “Man
is the measure of all things.” All that was required for the new meaning
of the term was for people to begin to question whether reason is common to all
human beings or the same in those who have it. Without that modern supposition,
all real knowledge is relative to the individual ego. If we remove the
supposition that reason is the same in all, then rational subjects can disagree
and, since rational subjects are the standard of truth, it follows that there
are as many truths as there are disagreeing rational subjects (relativism in
its ordinary sense). Both scientific objectivism and modern relativism are a
consequence of modernism’s redefinition of the subject.

But modernism did not reject everything it inherited from
Christian philosophy. In particular, it did not reject the ancient idea that
what is most real is atemporal, outside of time. Since Plato and Aristotle,
thinkers have taken the temporal world to be a manifestation of an atemporal,
unified whole, and they have taken genuine knowledge to be knowledge of that
atemporal whole. To quote Plato, for them the cosmos is “the moving image
of eternity,”[8] and what we want to know is eternity rather than its moving image. Indeed,
modern science (which does not necessarily include contemporary science) not
only accepted that belief, it strengthened it: science uncovers the atemporal
laws that structure our temporal existence; it uncovers what is truly real and
which stands, as it were, “behind” the world of experience. Modern
science differed with Christian philosophy by no longer granting revelation a
role in uncovering the real, but it accepted the idea that true knowledge,
which is after all what the word science means, is knowledge of
the eternal rather than the temporal. To use Spinoza’s phrase, for modernism to
do science is to know the world sub specie aeternitatis, as
universally and eternally true without reference to merely temporal reality.
Modernism rejects authority and tradition as prejudice, and it replaces them
with the methodical quantification and systemization of atemporal properties
and laws.

As I have mentioned, we ought all to be grateful for the
blessings that modernism has given us. I have no desire to live in a world with
neither representative republican democracy nor disk drives, both impossible
without modernism. Nevertheless, it has not been an unalloyed blessing, for at
the heart of modernism is a hidden but real negation of the world. Consider the
Cartesian ego, who cannot know anything but himself directly.[9] Consider the Kantian subject, who cannot know himself or the world at all, who
can know only appearances of those things—phenomena—but never
things themselves. Nihilism lurks here: if we cannot know the world itself,
then why assume that there is any such world?

Beginning in the nineteenth century, first with the
Romantics and then with those such as Kierkegaard, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche,
thinkers began to question modernism’s claims and to recognize that those
claims and the nihilism implicate in them are part and parcel of a good deal of
the alienation of modern Western society, a society founded on the idea that we
do not have direct access to reality, only to concepts and ideas, only to
universals or generalities and never to specifics. In modernism, I am a person
only to the degree that I am someone in general: I have brown hair and brown
eyes; I am short and decidedly not thin. To know me is to know a list of
qualities, qualities that are shared by many others. It is probably impossible
to make a list of qualities that describes me and me alone.[10] No list of
qualities seems capable of capturing what is unique about me. And yet, that is
what can be known of me. As the twentieth century showed us only too well,
perfect method and perfect reason brought together in modern
technology—alienated human beings reduced to general qualities—is
the perfect recipe for world war and mass death. Two world wars, the Holocaust
in Europe, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the tense standoff between the
Western world and Iran, . . . we could continue with a long list of the other
fruits of modernism and its implicit nihilism.

The philosophical response to this has been to question
whether the subject is a “natural,” precultural being onto which we
impose culture, history, and meaning. Instead of being what modernism at first
takes the self to be, perhaps it is, for example, a being’s response to those around it and to its enmeshment in culture and history. We can
understand the self as an ongoing interpretation of itself living in the world,
with things, and among others. The self can as easily—or more
easily—be understood as something that comes to be in history and culture than it can be understood as something that ideally stands
outside them as an observer and judge. The twentieth-century French philosopher
Paul Ricoeur, for example, argues forcefully that the self must be understood
to have a temporal dimension qua self.[11] It comes to
be and changes over time. Ricoeur argues that the permanence the subject
has—and it must have some kind of permanence over time if it has
identity—is not the permanence of an entity, but that of character or
what we might also call “style,” a way of being in the world rather
than a set of properties that one has.[12] Thus, though
modernism has taken self-understanding to be immediate, for thinkers like
Ricoeur all self-understanding
is necessarily interpretation. It is mediated rather than immediate. Contrary
to Descartes and contrary to the assumptions of modernism, I know neither
myself nor the world as an immediate, uninterpreted object of understanding,
for neither the subject nor the world is an entity that persists permanent and
unchanged through time. Who we are, and who we are in relation to the past, is
always a matter for interpretation. There is no final story, though of course
it does not follow that there are no true stories. That is because the
surprising result of the postmodern claim that I do not know myself immediately
is that I do nevertheless know myself. In contrast, the early modern assumption that I have
direct access to myself leads to the seemingly self-contradictory result that I
cannot know myself at all. Why? Because the direct access to myself presumed by
early modernism turns out really to be only direct access to my properties.[13]

Additionally, if the self is not, as modernism first
assumed, the rational and singular entity with direct access to self and world,
then that self is not the standard for truth that modernism has presumed. The
foundation for modernism’s prejudice against authority crumbles, and we must once
again ask about authority (including, of course, the authority of modernism!):
which ones shall we trust and why?[14] Some authorities that we have come to accept may lose their hold over us, new
ones may arise, and others that we have rejected, including tradition and
revelation, may once again emerge as possible.

However, if the prejudice against prejudice has fallen, then
we must ask also about the even older prejudice against temporality. Why assume
that all legitimate and worthwhile knowledge is ultimately knowledge of what is
atemporal? In the early and mid-twentieth century, the German philosopher
Martin Heidegger argued that since Parmenides Western metaphysics has been
based on the notion that the ultimate reality is a thing of some kind, an
entity: some atemporal entity that exists apart from the world metaphysically
accounts for the world that we experience. For many, that entity has been God;
for secular modernism, it was Reason or Law or the Dialectic. There were
disagreements about the nature of ultimate reality, but there was almost
universal agreement that it is ultimately atemporal and an entity (if only a
rational or conceptual entity).[15] Though it may be possible to give a more contemporary interpretation to the
familiar phrase from Eliza R. Snow’s hymn “O, My Father”—”Truth
is reason, truth eternal”—it expresses the traditional and modern
understanding of truth as an atemporal thing. On that modern view, the closer
we can come to giving an atemporal account of things, including events now and
in the past, the closer we come to speaking the truth.

Some respond by arguing that history is the expression of a
hidden, causal logic. However, as the works of thinkers such as Hegel,
Feuerbach, Marx, Compte, Spencer, and Spengler show us, construing the passage
of time that way results eventually in a deterministic history. The complexity
and interestingness of history becomes only a constant repetition of “more
of the same.” In spite of the apparent differences of various events, no
moment of history genuinely and importantly differs from any another. Indeed,
on this view, ultimately history is not itself something real. It is only the
manifestation of some overarching principle. That is the real. Worse, the
thinking of people like these has often given grounds for the justification of
tyranny by those who claim to have seen through the veil of history to its
undergirding structure. If we can see through the veil of history and
time—supposedly mere appearances—and discern the structure, the
real, that makes them what they are, then we can see the future. We can see the
direction of history, and we can justifiably take power over those who would
impede that direction. By virtue of our insight into the reality behind mere
history, we have the right to spill “a little blood” for the greater

Of course, few today understand history in this way, at
least not explicitly. Any who do not see the folly of history understood that
way need to read more history. Nevertheless, arguably, thinkers like Feuerbach,
Marx, and Spengler were taking the modern understanding of history to its
logical conclusion. Whether the ultimate metaphysical reality is God or Reason
or Economics, if it is static—in other words, if it is eternal in a
classical sense—then it has neither future nor past. To know it is to
know everything. To the degree that one has knowledge, one escapes the bonds of
time and enters into the eternal. And, like the traditional god on which modern
knowledge is modeled, one who knows the eternal is surely qualified to rule
among those who have not yet seen the eternal except in its misleading appearance
as an account of the past.

The alternative is to deny that the atemporal is
fundamental, to look for knowledge in the temporal, as Heidegger has argued we
can and must. Surely history is about the passage of time rather than about its
permanence. Surely if any science—any knowledge—denies the
eternality of what-is, it must be the science of history, but that denial
requires a shift in our metaphysics.

We find the beginning of
that shift, one comparable to the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian
mechanics, in Heidegger’s work, which is central to understanding the difference
postmodernism makes to history. It is
important, however, to point out that the shift from time as atemporal to time
as temporal is not yet postmodernism. It is a shift within modernism, a new
modern step. Nevertheless, the shift is crucial: to deny that history is
essentially atemporal is to argue that its basic structure is the event, a
happening of temporality, rather than the thing-in-itself, which is, at least
ideally, atemporal. That shift makes postmodernism possible.

To better understand this shift, consider the problem of
repeating past events, and do so by considering Søren Kierkegaard’s little book Repetition.
Ostensibly a fictionalized account of Kierkegaard’s failed love life (written
under the pseudonym Constantin Constantius), Repetition is really about
Kierkegaard’s desire to be a Christian. In specific terms, the problem is that
in order to consummate his love for his abandoned beloved, the young man must
repeat the moment of his first love. By analogy, in order to be a Christian, Constatin
must repeat what the first apostles did when Jesus called to them, “Come,
follow me.” But he cannot repeat that first moment, neither the erotic
nor the Christian moment of first love. He cannot do so because the second
moment includes the first, but the first does not include the second. He has
already loved; the apostles have already responded; and that “already”
is part of this moment but not part of the first. The apostles did not follow
Christ with the kind of knowledge that the nineteenth-century would-be believer
Constatin has, so he cannot do what they did. He seems doomed never to be truly
a Christian.

In general terms, the problem looks like this: If each
moment is unique, rather than the product of an atemporal law, then it is impossible
for us ever to repeat any previous moment. Even if two moments could be
identical in every other respect, the fact that the second occurred after the
first would make it different from the first. And, of course, no two moments
are identical in every other respect. But the seeming impossibility of
repeating a past event results from a misunderstanding. It is the misunderstanding
of taking the previous event to be reducible to its properties: Supposedly
event A at time Tahas
properties 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. In order to repeat event A at time Tb,
I have to experience an event with those same properties and no more.
(If event B has additional properties, then it is like event A in some
respects, but it is not the same.) So if I think of the two events in terms of
their properties, then I can never repeat a previous event. Indeed, I cannot
even think about a previous event as the event that it was because I will always be
thinking about it afterward, at a time when it has new properties, such as the
fact that it caused other, later events, including my thought of it. Like the
paradoxes of Zeno, Kierkegaard’s book seems to demonstrate the impossibility of
something that we know is possible, namely, the repetition of a previous
moment or at least our meaningful reference to it.[17]

As outrageous as it may seem, in principle I cannot create a
new account of any event without falling prey to the problem I have just
described: if what I say about the past is always inadequate because it tries to repeat that past, then it seems impossible to say anything
adequate. That is the consequence that modernism yields. We cannot solve the
problem by finding some new feature of events that we can add to our list.
However, we do see and experience things and events. We remember them. We refer to them. We
live with them. The problem is not that we do not do these things. The problem
is that the more we try to explain our repetitions, the more they slip through
our explanatory fingers. We cannot avoid trying to explain events, but every
modern explanation of an event unavoidably turns it into an entity, an object of inquiry, rather than a temporal event. That reintro­duces the problem
that talk about events was meant to avoid. Thus our accounts necessarily put us
at least one remove from that to which they ostensibly refer, and once we are
removed we have a difficult time giving another account that allows us to get
back. However, getting back is usually not as difficult as thinking makes it
seem. All we need to do is to stop talking and point—which is where
postmodernism comes in.[18]


To understand
postmodernism, first notice that, unlike most philo­sophical movements, postmodernism cannot be defined descriptively.
Modernism is a set or constellation of doctrines or beliefs; postmodernism is a
set of strategies for questioning modernism.[19] To be
postmodern is to take up a position of questioning within rather than simply
against modernism, and it is to take up that questioning with a constellation
of strategies rather than in a content or with a method. The practices of
postmodernism can, however, be described in one word, destabilization. The aim
of postmodern thinking is the destabilization of modern thinking rather than
the creation of new conclusions. This means that there is no such thing as
postmodernism per se. Under the overworked label postmodernism we find a
group of divergent thinkers who, relying on the alternatives of thought we see
in thinkers like Heidegger and those he has influenced, share related ways of
questioning modernism, especially the questioning of modernism’s unifying
tendencies and its assumption of universality, though they often differ over
how to do so and what that questioning means.

Because our accounts take up events as objects, they cannot
avoid tending toward ideas of permanence and eternality, unity, certainty,
progress, and univocal meaning, whether they rely on the atemporal assumptions
of early modernism or the temporal assumptions of late modernism. Even if we
adopt an understanding of the world that comes from the assumptions of thinkers
like Heidegger and Ricoeur, we will think of our ideas and conclusions in terms
of permanence, certainty, univocity, and so on. In other words, at any
meta-level our words no longer point at either things or events. They are about
our words and theories rather than about the world to which our words refer.
That is the benefit of reason: it allows us to reflect on our words and
theories critically. However, that benefit is not pure, for when we move to a
meta-level, we cease to be able to point directly to ourselves and the world. We
can only talk about them at a distance. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty says, “We
can only think the world because we have already experienced it,”[20] so our reflection on our thinking of the world is twice removed from our
experience. By itself reason cannot avoid alienation from the world. Indeed, at
least in modernism, alienation is thought’s ineluctable though unacknowledged

Postmodernism is about interrupting our chains of accounts
so that pointing can succeed. What may seem like wacky or idiosyncratic
interruptions by the postmodernist are intended to interrupt the modernist
assumptions and methods we use to understand the world so that we can return to
the world that makes our assumptions and methods possible. Postmodern
strategies of reading and responding are intended to interrupt our explanations
and to help us, as it were, to point. They are supposed to make us stop talking
about things and talking about our talk in order to look directly at those
things.[22] These interruptions cannot stand on their own. They are not intended to. They
are not methods, neither for obtaining truth nor for showing that there is no
truth. Instead they have a relation to modernism similar to the relation of
negative theology to theology.

There are two moments in
negative theology. One is to discover and to say as accurately as possible the
right names and descriptions of the Divine (comparable to modernism). Though it
seems to be a paradox, the second moment is to show that these names are
inadequate (roughly comparable to postmodernism). For example, one must say, “God
is just”; it is blasphemy to say otherwise. Nevertheless, once that is
established as true, it is also true that the sentence is inadequate. Those who
know God know that “God is just” is not enough. In fact, from the point
of view of a claim to have said the complete and final truth, the claim “God
is just” is not only inadequate, it is untrue. We know what justice is
only by using our own justice as a reference point. However, God’s justice
surpasses ours, so much so that justice is an inadequate name to use for it. So we must
also say, “God is not just”—but we must take care how we read
what looks like a simple denial of God’s justice.

The negative theologian recognizes the absolute necessity of
speaking about God. Theology is necessary. He or she worries, however, that our
theology may give us the impression that, having established God’s justice, we
are now done with thinking it. Rather than continuing to wrestle with God’s
justice and our relation to it, we may become “comfortable” in our
knowledge. When we do so, we are no longer engaged with the actual problem of
justice. Instead, it has been replaced by our thought about justice. We have come to believe, implicitly, that our knowledge has
encompassed the infinite. So the negative theologian reminds us of God’s
infinity by showing us the failure of our affirmative theology. The point is
not that there is no God or that God is, in a straightforward sense, not just.
The point is that we must continue to speak of God, to praise him, to think of
him, to wonder at his justice by questioning our own. Thus negative theology
makes it possible for positive, praising theology to continue. Because it does,
the second moment of theology, negative theology, is not a moment of pure
denial. Rather, in spite of first appearances, it is as much a moment of praise
as is affirmative theology. For the negative theologian, true theology comes
neither in affirmative theology by itself nor in negative theology alone, but
in the “third way” that overcomes their opposition, namely, the
continued praise and insight that is opened by the opposition between the two

As I understand
postmodernism, its interruptions of modern­ism—in the forms of
deconstruction, Nietzschean genealogy, reinterpretation,[24] rhetorical
play, and so on—are meant to open a third way of understanding. They are
meant to allow us to continue to refer to and deal with the world even while
retaining a continually chastened modernism. Postmodernism is an interruption
of the alienated destiny that modern beliefs entail. It tries to make possible
a third way toward that which modernism intends but cannot keep in sight by itself.
When not merely an affectation, postmodernism stands as anti-myth to modernism’s
myth, with the hope that the world—other persons, our relations to them
(as in justice), and things—will appear, glistening in the space between

A Postscript on Postmodernism and Relativism

I hope that readers can now see that one of the ironies of
much trendy postmodernism is its taking of subjectivist positions (using the
contemporary sense of subjectivist), such as that the meaning of a text or
event is whatever a person takes it to be. That is ironic because one of the
central tenets of modernism is the importance of the subject, and a major
feature of postmodernism is that it questions the importance of the subject.
One cannot argue both that meaning is merely subjective and that the subject is not central to the creation of meaning.

The outrageous forms of
postmodernism turn out to be more modern, though self-contradictory, than those
who hold it think. Post­moderns who accept strong relativism appear to
accept this argument:

Knowledge is as modernism
says or there is no knowledge.
Modernism is wrong about knowledge.
So, there is no knowledge.

However, the first premise of this argument is an
explicitly modern premise
. Thus those who accept the argument agree
with modernism that the only alternative to the modern account of knowledge is
the ultimate illegitimacy of all knowledge claims, but one need not believe
that to question modernism. One can believe that modernism is wrong about
knowledge but that knowledge is, nevertheless, possible. Those who accept the
strong relativist argument are radical only in their posture, not in their
position; radical relativism is an unsophisticated, privative variation on

Some postmodern thinkers, such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari,[26] may argue for a strong form of relativism, but this is a minority position and not
implicit in every postmodern position.


[1] Steven
Daniel, “Paramodern Strategies of Philosophical Historiography,” Epoché: A
Journal for the History of Philosophy
1/1 (1993): 42–43.

[2] Hans-Georg
Gadamer, Truth
and Method
, 2nd rev. ed., translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer
and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2004), 273.

[3] Immanuel
Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” in Kant Selections, ed. Lewis White
Beck (New York: Macmillan, 1998), 462–67.

[4] For more on
this see, James E. Faulconer and Richard N. Williams, “Reconsidering
Psychology,” in Reconsidering Psychology: Perspectives from Continental
, ed. James E. Faulconer and Richard N. Williams
(Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1990), 9–60.

[5] In
Descartes’s work, such as the Meditations on First Philosophy,
the subject becomes, fundamentally, the pure experience of self and only
secondarily (with the proof of God) the experience of anything outside the
self. That understanding of self haunts all modernism, even that which does not
rely on Descartes.

[6] Christina
M. Gschwandtner, Reading Jean-Luc Marion: Exceeding Metaphysics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 187.

[7] Thomas
Hobbes, Leviathan,

[8] Plato, Timaeus 37d6.

[9] I use the
masculine pronoun on purpose since, though modernism insists that the subject
is not gendered, it takes little analysis to see that it is, in fact,
masculine. Modernism, like most of the rest of Western thought, unquestioningly
takes the masculine to be representative of all humanity.

[10] It may
appear possible to make a complete list by pointing to the right conjunction of
plausible properties: James Faulconer is the person married to Janice
Faulconer, living in west Provo, with four children and eleven grandchildren, .
. . However, such a list requires the use of proper names, at least “Janice
Faulconer” and “Provo.” That complicates the matter
considerably, as any number of contemporary philosophers have argued. See,
particularly, Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1980).

[11] Paul
Ricoeur, Oneself
as Another
, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1992).

[12] The
difference between a way of being and a list is that the former is an activity,
an engagement in the world, while the latter is not.

[13] Since first
writing this, I have discovered that Jean-Luc Marion makes an argument for my
claim in The
Erotic Phenomenon
, trans. Stephen E. Lewis (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2007), 13–15.

[14] It is
important to recall that Plato describes the epistemological attitude that characterizes
our relation to the world as pivsti, trust rather than
certainty (Republic 511e). That understanding of human understanding was part of the Western
tradition up until approximately the Renaissance, when certainty, formerly
reserved for mathematical objects, became the desiderata for all knowledge.
(See also Aristotle’s remark that it is unwise to require more exactness of any
area of inquiry than is appropriate, Nicomachean Ethics 1094b24–25.)

[15] Most often
its characteristics are those of the traditional God: in addition to
atemporality, nonspatiality, and characteristics such as absolute unity and
absolute transcendence of the world. For example, notice that Descartes adopts
much of the medieval language describing God to describe the ego in Meditations.

[16] As Joseph
Bottum notes, many thinkers have come to this conclusion. See “Death and
Politics,” First Things: The Journal of Religion,
Culture, and Public Life
http://www (accessed 24 September 2008),
though I must note that Bottum’s criticisms of Jacques Derrida and others show
that he does not understand postmodernism.

[17] I take
Kierkegaard to be offering a reduction ad absurdum, a reductio designed to help us see something that we will not see otherwise. In
contemporary parlance, he offers us a deconstruction.

[18] As John D.
Caputo explains, though philosophical accounts of linguistic reference always
run aground, we do successfully refer to things: “Proper names refer in actu
, in the exercised act, in actual use, in the concrete
happening or the factual event. . . . It is a wonder, a little difficult to
account for, but it happens. . . . [It is] something that philosophy is forced
to swallow while being unable to digest.” Against Ethics: Contributions
to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 76–77.

[19] The
use of the prefix post- to describe something that happens within rather than after modernism probably strikes many as odd.
Granted. However, Jean-Franois Lyotard, who seems to have been the first to
use the term in philosophy, makes that point in Postmodernism Explained,
trans. Don Barry (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). Note also
that by defining itself by its relation to modernism and by having no (or
little) positive content itself, postmodernism cannot hope to “get beyond”
modernism in any real sense. I believe that most noteworthy postmodern thinkers
recognize this. Indeed, given the technological blessings of modernism and such
things as democracy and human liberation that are consequent on it, few even
wish to get beyond modernism.

[20] Maurice
Merleau-Ponty, “The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences”
and “Eye and Mind,” in Phenomenology, Language and Sociology:
Selected Essays of Maurice Merleau-Ponty
, ed. J. O’Neill (London:
Heinemann Educational, 1974), 201, emphasis added.

[21] That is its
goal because it is also its origin, namely, the subject before and apart from
any relation to anything but itself, as in Descartes but, I would argue, as
also in Hobbes.

[22] In this,
they are the inheritors of Edmund Husserl’s maxim “To the things themselves,” the maxim of phenomenology—one more reason that postmodernism cannot be
understood as coming after modernism.

[23] See
Jean-Luc Marion, In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena, trans.
Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud (New York: Fordham, 2002), 128–42, for
an excellent account of negative theology.

[24] I use reinterpretation for hermeneutics here to avoid confusing the hermeneutics of Gianni Vattimo (reinterpretation)
with the hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer.

[25] Jürgen
Habermas makes a similar point in The Philosophical
Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures
, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987).

[26] In, for
example, A
Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
, trans. Brian
Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).