Do postmodernists believe in such a thing as fundamental truth?



It's my understanding that postmodern philosophy examines the way in which power and language are used to create discourses around the "truth". What's less clear to me is whether postmodernists believe that there is such a thing as fundamental truth at all. Or, perhaps, that there is but we have no hope of reaching it because our understanding is shaped by the limitations of language.

I am especially interested in how this relates to science and mathematics. In the second edition of The Golem, Harry Collins states that his goal in critiquing the scientific process is to make that process better and to illustrate its limitations rather than to say it has no value in discovering the truth. However a friend of mine, who was a one-time student of Collins, tells me that was not always his position. That at one time, he believed the concept of trying to uncover some central "truth" via science was fundamentally flawed and hopeless.

I have heard similarly conflicting opinions about Baudrillard's The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Some say that the title should be taken literally. Others that it's a metaphorical examination of the idea that we cannot be sure what actually happened, because our understanding is filtered via western media. The author, I believe, is on record as saying it's between the two: his argument is that atrocities took place which may, or may not, constitute an actual war.

There are other numerous examples from the Sokal affair and the science wars. My point in providing them is to illustrate that, to a layman such as myself, it seems very unclear as to whether postmodernists are arguing that there is no fundamental truth at all, or that we have limited (or possibly zero) means of understanding that truth. Which is it?

Bob Tway

Posted 2015-10-29T15:28:16.293

Reputation: 743

1Postmodernism is a hoax. If no fundamental truth exists, then it is not true that no fundamental truth exists, hence fundamental truth exists. – sure – 2015-10-29T15:34:31.297

2I think a big problem with the question is that there's not too much agreement as to who qualifies as post-modern and if we can put them under a banner what that term means. I'm not familiar with Baudrillard text in question, but it would help to work in terms of specific thinkers rather than what turns out to be nebulously defined movement. – virmaior – 2015-10-29T15:55:17.500

Perhaps truth as relative to a conceptual scheme, rather than absolute. – Quentin Ruyant – 2015-10-30T00:32:18.167



In the first place, the term "postmodern" is pretty flabby and possibly useless today. It implies no single perspective on science, per se, and could include thinkers such as Kuhn and Feyerabend who are certainly committed to science, while attempting to reveal some its linguistic and social conditions.

The term is best applied in aesthetics to described movements in art and architecture postdating those styles dubbed "modern." It is also applied in Marxist theory, where it refers to a later stage of decentralized capitalist development and its cultural-institutional ramifications. One symptom of this stage is a world so dominated by commodities, copies, and representations that the idea of something "original" being represented slides into doubt. So, yes, this could include any idea of "foundational truths."

But this problem arises long before Messrs. Baudrillard and Derrida. Indeed, we could place it on the doorstep of Newton himself, who described "gravity" mathematically while refusing to say what it "really is." He simply sidestepped the metaphysical questions of "fundamental truth" and all working scientists followed him. The problems of "fundamental truth" continue famously through Descartes and Kant, who clears the field once and for all. Human knowledge is and must be "conditional" at some level, which we might call... well, the "human condition." Again, Kant intended his work partly as a defense of scientific knowledge, Newtonian mechanics in particular. Science can only progress in practice by accepting a probabilistic, conditional construction of knowledge that is freed from any requirement to demonstrate "fundamental truth," much as some scientists may say otherwise.

The so-called science wars did indeed reveal a lot of hubristic silliness among the departmental epigones of "postmodern" theory, and the Sokal prank made its little point. And the field is full of "tricksters of skepticism" who revel in debunking unexamined certainties, sliding signifiers, and evolving definitional categories. Even "war" is a construction of "news" which is a construction of...etc. Much of this is simply rooting out from the deepest cultural levels the "Gods-Eye-View" or "View-From-Nowhere" or "Master Narratives," the "objectivity" that dominates societies through overweening assumptions. A kind of therapy by provocation.

Practicing scientists could care less, but are deeply offended that their own work may be open to such skeptical attack. This is a valid, Kantian sort of worry at least on the level of social consensus and stability. No truth? Then we all run wild? But if you actually read the scientists who are philosophically inclined, from Mach to Bohr you will see that "truths" have always been a problematic issue for science. And it is equally the case that many notorious philosophers from Heidegger to Derrida, who are deeply concerned with the operations of language, are by no means just spouting jargon and know far more mathematics and logic than you might think.

There is a lot of printed nonsense that travels under the name "postmodern," because philosophy and cultural theory do not have the same axiomatic and consensual filtering systems as "hard science." But would we really want them to? And while they may not think of their work this way, the "hard scientists" themselves are always chipping away in the ongoing effort to falsify today's "fundamental truths."

Nelson Alexander

Posted 2015-10-29T15:28:16.293

Reputation: 11 748

Your thesis "Science can only progress in practice by accepting a probabilistic, conditional construction of knowledge [...]": What does it mean? What are your arguments? Could you please indicate a concrete, rather compact example? For me, some of your statements seem a bit global. – Jo Wehler – 2015-10-29T19:33:38.380

Yes, my point is that science does not demonstrate the "absolute truth" of anything, which had not really been understood earlier. All knowledge is "conditional," as Kant tries to demonstrate, on the acceptance of certain axioms and guiding principles, such as Occam's razor. Knowledge is mathematized and placed conditionally under constant experimental examination. As the Cartesian questions, what is gravity "Really?" indicate, the older dialectical standards of arguing down to some irrefutable "truth" had become an obstacle. As Kant's antinomies were meant to show. – Nelson Alexander – 2015-10-29T20:02:28.263

I hadn't thought this was controversial. In reality, of course, scientific practice is complex and variable. We accept conditionally that Maxwell's electromagnetic waves must travel in some "medium," until Michelson's tests indicate otherwise. (And this "medium" may well return in another form.) This is simply a different approach from the Aristotelean schools and requires that "truth" or "ontology" be viewed and argued about in a different, more provisional, consensual way. For science, "truth" becomes a kind of convenient shorthand for "repeatedly confirmed." Sorry if I get too global. – Nelson Alexander – 2015-10-29T20:17:41.413

Pardon, one more comment. I refer to Michelson because Einstein simply accepted the experimental data rather than some "fundamental truth" that waves "must" have a medium. And science progressed, rather excitingly. The progress in this case meant not even arguing about what was "really" there or whether true "waves" truly require aether. A conditional reframing is offered, hanging in some doubt, until Eddington. Experiment decides. But of course, experiment or "experience" can never be absolutely conclusive. (Not even absolutely repeated.) Simply not worrying about that was a crucial step. – Nelson Alexander – 2015-10-29T20:30:11.743


  • Why your variations about "absolute truth"? - I do not know what "absolute" truth means. Is there a difference between "truth" and "absolute truth"? - In my opinion, no theory from natural science tells us the truth. Theories become better and better: They avoid the errors of their precursors, they explain more phenomena, and they make better predictions. But any scientific theory is a hypothesis, and a hypothesis is falsifiable.
  • < – Jo Wehler – 2015-10-29T21:01:57.417

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  • “All knowledge is "conditional," as Kant tries to demonstrate.” If I understand Kant right, one of his aims was to save a lot of Newtonian mechanics as synthetic a priori. In which sense did he consider such knowledge “conditional”?
  • < – Jo Wehler – 2015-10-29T21:02:22.743


  • “ […] the older dialectical standards of arguing down to some irrefutable "truth" had become an obstacle. As Kant's antinomies were meant to show.” As far as I know, Kant’s antinomies served to show the boundaries of our concepts developed just for the world of our experience but not furthermore. It was not the question of truth or false. The antinomies show the wrong use of the concepts. - 4) Could you please explain the use of the term “probabilistic” in your comment? Thank you.
  • < – Jo Wehler – 2015-10-29T21:02:53.297


  • Don't disagree. 2) Kant's categories are the "conditions." Synthetic knowledge is confirmed by experience, and "possible experience" is conditioned by the categories. The former "truth" remains noumenal and outside the whole apparatus. It is "conditional" but we can never "know otherwise" so necessary. Good as it gets. 3) Agree on antinomies. Which are the "pre-scientitfic" pursuits of "truth" he rejects. And I just take science to be "probabilistic," with Boltzmann entropy paradigm example. Precise to any local degree, but inductive and hence never closed. Same as "falsifiable."
  • < – Nelson Alexander – 2015-10-29T21:21:02.593