What is postmodernism?



Postmodernism has always seemed to have a very fuzzy definition to me. It tends to be defined in terms of what it's not, or what it criticizes; for example, it "aims to show that every 'text' is utterly self-contradictory", or it "is a movement away from the viewpoint of modernism". Wikipedia's article on postmodernism seems rather vague and hard to understand, as well, with one paragraph concluding that postmodernism "has influenced many cultural fields, including literary criticism, sociology, linguistics, architecture, visual arts, and music."

Is there any evidence that it has significantly influenced these fields? Is there even a good, solid definition for postmodernism?


Posted 2011-06-13T21:36:58.497

Reputation: 1 929

Question was closed 2011-06-15T04:00:03.183

1@CesarGon Postmodernists defend obscurantism that keep power to the powerful, not to the people (just like the church did centuries ago). Most moderators here are from the same strain. Don't expect them to give power to the people. – Rodrigo – 2017-08-09T08:24:22.877

1Think of it as a programme that is arguing against the excesses of high modernism. Its a complex phenomenon. One could argue that its a kind of self-reflexive modernism. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-01-03T07:14:26.810

6Closing this question is, under my definition, a modernist action. For what it's worth. – Jon Ericson – 2011-06-17T17:28:00.490

5What's wrong with this question? I don't believe it is difficult to tell what is being asked here. Look at the title. Eight upvotes, two stars and three non-trivial answers must mean someone likes it, too. Don't be so eager to close, please. You are doing this site a big disfavour. – CesarGon – 2013-08-07T22:03:11.703

1Maybe you could reformulate or pose another question about a particular thinker or claim? Without a theoretical context, there are only going to be vague, unsatisfying answers to this is what I mean. – Joseph Weissman – 2011-06-14T04:16:22.683



A pleasing virtue of the common definitions is that they are often themselves postmodern!

But a simple definition of postmodernism is that it is the set of reactions and responses to modernism.

Modernism, as I understand it, is an equally vague mindset that says, "I've found the fount of all wisdom and knowledge. The more that I drink of it, the more certain I am of its truth." The fount could be just about anything: communism, fundamentalism, Freud, etc. It could also be a set of varied belief systems as long as they exclude other belief systems. (I recall a professor in college who was known for his "Marxist feminism" stance.) What matters to a modernist is that there does exist some set of beliefs that are demonstrably true. It's difficult to describe modernists without resorting to caricature, because many of the ideas that have been attached with modernism have been discredited by postmodernists.

Postmodernists suggest that this isn't a single source of wisdom or that we can't have access to it or that each person has their own source or, well, whatever objections a person might find to the modernist standpoint. Ultimately, postmodernism stands for the idea that different sources of truth must be allowed to coexist in our society. It's easy to discover the influences (and sometimes conflicts) of postmodernism if you examine the position of religion in public over the last 100 or so years. Western religions usually assert a single source of truth and so are increasingly required to take a back seat in many forms of public expression.

If you happen to be a programmer, you might find this talk by Larry Wall as helpful as I have. The simplest possible definition of the terms might be:

The Modernist believes in OR more than AND. Postmodernists believe in AND more than OR.

Jon Ericson

Posted 2011-06-13T21:36:58.497

Reputation: 6 843

1@Cody: Reading your answer, it seems that you would disagree with any definition of postmodernism. ;-) – Jon Ericson – 2011-06-14T16:42:34.617

Interesting quote by Larry Wall. I hadn't seen that one before. – boehj – 2011-06-15T00:37:51.130

1I am a post-post-modernist, and I approve this Answer. (Although I do not agree with it.) – None – 2016-05-31T13:55:38.670

1I haven't read that whole talk, but if that's Larry's definition, I very much disagree with him... – Cody Gray – 2011-06-14T08:57:07.123


None of the answers you're going to get to this question will be satisfying. Nor will any of them be correct.

I could tell you that "postmodernist" thought is generally characterized by a "rejection of objective Truth", and a strong suspicion towards "totalizing meta-narratives", but that probably wouldn't tell you very much. And it wouldn't be strictly accurate, either. I could tell you that it argues that many of the things which we take for granted are merely "social constructions", not merely figments of our imagination, but things that we as a society have indeed created for ourselves. I could say that it aims to expose and destroy oppressive systems of classification, particularly those that emphasize sharp divisions between groups—gender, race, culture, etc. But one of those things might give you the idea that it's somehow "pluralism", which is so completely wrong that I'm not even sure where to begin.

The reality is that "postmodernism" is not something that you can define, at least not as applied to philosophy. There were hardly any notable philosophers who accepted the label of "post-modernist", and many of those who are often considered to be anchors of the tradition actually strictly rejected the label.

Part of the problem, of course, is highlighted by Jon Ericson's answer: thinking that is typically associated with the "postmodern" camp seeks to reject things like labels and totalizing meta-narratives. They wouldn't be too keen on allying themselves with any particular camp, or labeling their unique brand of thought as "postmodernist". There is a notable tendency among these thinkers to resist the homogenization and categorization that such labeling implies.

About the only thing you can accurately say about "postmodernism" is that it's characterized by a rejection of modernism, the pseudo-scientific mentality of progressive objectivity established in the Enlightenment. Truly, one could argue that without the Enlightenment and the resulting movement that has become known as "modernism", there could never be such thing as "post-modernism". But whether that's actually a useful definition or merely a linguistic tautology is debatable.

And even if you accept that definition, a couple of problems still remain. First, it's extremely difficult to define something in terms of what it is not. Several notable "postmodernist" thinkers have taken up this very notion, albeit in quite different contexts. As merely one example, consider Jacques Lacan and his notion of the "lack". Second, several of those who are apparently "postmodernist" thinkers have actually accepted "modernist" notions to varying degrees. Jürgen Habermas in particular is very much a "modernist", and he doesn't even reject the notions of "universality" and "Truth" that seem to characterize the thought of most other "postmodernists". It's hard to say whether "postmodernity" actually seeks to replace modernity, to render it obsolete, or whether it merely allied with it, continuing and reinvigorating the modernist project.

Many, many, many "postmodernist" scholars vehemently disagree with one another. Somehow, this camp has grown to contain post-Marxists, feminists, deconstructionists, anarchists, post-Freudian psychoanalysts, and everything else outside and in between. Many people use it as a label of denigration, or at least a nicer way of saying "those people", the "different" ones, the ones "we" don't agree with. You see this in an unfortunate amount of academic literature, and in an even more unfortunate amount of colloquial rhetoric. See, for example, Paul Hartman's "What is 'Postmodernism'?" or the infamous Postmodernism Generator (refresh repeatedly for a real thrill!). In a truly postmodern sense, its accuracy lies in its appalling inaccuracy.

So yes, of course it has a fuzzy definition, and of course the Wikipedia article seems to characterize it in terms of what it is not. There's not much else that it can do. In fact, reading the Wikipedia article now, it strikes me as possibly one of the best attempts to clarify and define the movement that I've ever seen. And I've read a whole lot of so-called "postmodernist" literature.

Beyond that, the paragraph you mention concluding that postmodernism has influenced many other cultural fields is an important one. "Postmodernism" is not limited in scope to philosophy. In fact, when applied to other disciplines, an even more complicated web begins to emerge. From architecture to art to music, and dozens of other disciplines in between, "postmodernism" takes on very important meanings. Wikipedia links to a host of articles on "postmodern x", where x represents some particular artistic discipline. Again, what most of them have in common is the rejection of "modernism"

"Postmodernists" would tell you that you're really asking the wrong question. Rather than trying to put a label on their critical project, to attempt to unite and thereby destabilize it from without, you should join in on the project and become part of the movement.

If "postmodernism" implies anything at all, it implies problematization, the refusal to tacitly accept anything as objectively true, as objectively real, as objectively valuable. That doesn't, of course, mean that it embraces skepticism. That doesn't mean that it necessarily rejects all notions of objective truth. But it does mean that the goal is to problematize everything, to attempt to see everything from a different light, to root out problems at their source, to emphasize connections that haven't been previously observed or noted, to engage in relations with other cultures, values, practices, and systems of thought. It's a critical project, one in which nothing is taken as absolute, including the idea that nothing is an absolute.

Cody Gray

Posted 2011-06-13T21:36:58.497

Reputation: 5 059

What a harsh and unsympathetic answer! I can't disagree with you as you clearly are more well-read on the subject than I am, but there's a strong undercurrent of a rant in this answer. It's frustrating to deal with a moving, anamorphic target. To me, "postmodern" will be better defined by later generations who will have the proper distance to evaluate the various counter-proposals to various modernist philosophies. – Jon Ericson – 2011-06-14T19:03:42.727

4@Jon I don't read this as "rant." The term is quite problematic. – Joseph Weissman – 2011-06-14T22:12:45.220

2I'm not sure how this is "unsympathetic" since it's not about a particular person. The postmodernists didn't invent the term. Lyotard is the only one who ever talked about the "postmodern condition", and even he doesn't consider himself a postmodernIST. Above all, it isn't an advocacy. The term itself is amorphous and difficult to nail down. I've read others liken it to "trying to nail a blob of jelly to the wall". But that's not really someone's fault, and I see no particular reason why we ought to try and rescue or rehabilitate the term. – Cody Gray – 2011-06-14T23:21:15.880

2It's also interesting that, though I didn't at all intend this answer negatively, others read it that way. If anything, my answer is a critical interpretation of the term, and I've written it like a "postmodernist" might. And I suppose that the analyticists see it as negative. I think the performance here is the best definition you're going to get. :-) – Cody Gray – 2011-06-14T23:23:47.377

1When you start an answer with the idea that a definition is impossible and then write almost 800 words on the meaningless of a term, it's difficult to read the answer as neutral. It's also not a postmodern analysis in my book, but a modern one. (But you've already rejected the definition of postmodern that I think appropriate. ;-) – Jon Ericson – 2011-06-15T17:58:19.707

It's certainly overtly and provocatively overloaded. At least in some contexts some of the ambiguity is undoubtedly intentional... – Joseph Weissman – 2013-02-19T22:45:34.070


It is a large multidisciplinary movement encompassing advances in the arts, sciences and humanities. More to the point, there's probably not going to be a straightforward definition that isn't incredibly broad; it may be helpful to think of this term (as with 'analytic' and 'continental') as denoting a series of family resemblances among many different works of art, history, literature and philosophy.

All that being said, Frederic Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism might not be the worst place to start. Here is how he introduces the problem:

The last few years have been marked by an inverted millenarianism in which premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of the end of this or that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the “crisis” of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.); taken together, all of these perhaps constitute what is increasingly called postmodernism.

You can read the first few sections of chapter one here.

Joseph Weissman

Posted 2011-06-13T21:36:58.497

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I resemble that answer! (Hmmm... doesn't seem so funny to me now. Probably because it never was funny.) – Jon Ericson – 2011-06-13T23:12:42.517

1Jameson's article is quite accurate when it comes to post-Marxist critical theory. The phrase "the end of" seems to be one of their most favorites. But I've never seen it used outside of that sub-discipline. Many of the critical race theorists, the critical feminists, the critical environmentalists, and so forth embrace the notion of social democracy and the welfare state. (And, of course, I'm gripped by the irony that Marx himself is typically regarded as a "modernist".) – Cody Gray – 2011-06-14T09:11:15.513