Between the 1950s and 1970s, Western philosophical thought underwent a substantial paradigm shift. During this transformation, Western philosophy questioned the validity of ‘metanarratives’, that are overarching ideologies that shape our understanding of morality, history, societal structure, and even the concept of truth. In the Western context, questioning metanarratives primarily involved a raising scepticism towards the Enlightenment’s achievements. Considering that this era of scepticism emerged shortly after the devastation of the Second World War—a catastrophe linked to technological progress, scientific advancements, and Enlightenment’s ideational influences on 20th century totalitarian regimes—such a sentiment can be perceived as partially justified in this historical context.
This deep-seated scepticism, challenging not only what the West as a civilization believes in, but also the very framework of how we think about what we believe in, eventually
became to be known as the ideas of postmodernism.
The intellectual field of postmodernism is very diverse and unique depending on the branch and particular author (some of whom even disavow affiliation with postmodernism), yet by and large they can be characterised as having the following recurring ideas:
- The Postmodern Knowledge Principle. Everything in the world, including norms, borders, objects and even the idea of truth is socially constructed, and nothing can be deemed objective in a strong sense. Moreover, the principles of how truth is obtained and established are determined by a cultural context, and none of the cultures have any means of evaluating other cultures.
- The Postmodern Political Principle. The belief that society is structured by systems of power and hierarchies, which determine what can be known and the methods by which it can be understood. Language and linguistic categories (which are, of course, socially constructed) play important role in reinforcing the already existing balance of power, ultimately benefitting those on the top of socially hierarchy, i.e., the group of privileged.
In addition, postmodernism can also be characterized with the following four major themes:
- The blurring of boundaries. Radical scepticism towards the feasibility of obtaining objective truth and knowledge. When combined with a belief in cultural constructivism serving power structures, it fosters a sense of distrust towards all boundaries and categories traditionally upheld as true in the past. This suspicion extends beyond the dichotomies of objective-subjective and truth-belief, to include the demarcations between science and arts, the natural and the artificial, etc.
- The power of the language. In the domain of postmodern philosophy, language is deemed to wield considerable power over societal constructs and our cognition, thus portraying it as intrinsically perilous. At the same time, it’s sometimes seen as an inconsistent medium for fostering and disseminating knowledge.
- Cultural relativism. In the realm of postmodern theory, truth and knowledge are perceived to be products of the dominant discourses and linguistic paradigms within a certain society. Given that individuals cannot extricate themselves from their system and categorizations—at least according to postmodernists—the individual lacks a standpoint to analyse other cultures from. Theory also posits that no one cultural normative system can claim superiority over another.
- In the view of postmodern theorists, the concept of an autonomous individual is primarily a fabrication. The individual, akin to everything else, is a construct shaped by prevailing discourses and culturally fabricated knowledge. Similarly, the notion of a universal—be it a biological universal related to human nature, or an ethical universal, such as equal rights, liberties, and opportunities for all individuals irrespective of class, race, gender, or sexuality—is regarded, at best, as overly simplistic or naïve.
The initial emergence of postmodernist thought didn’t carry any specific political implications and largely remained confined to academic circles. Indeed, postmodernist thought originally did not entail any prescriptive implications, but rather focused exclusively on the descriptive analysis of reality, dealing solely with the state of what is. Furthermore, whereas many ideas emerging from postmodernism, including the Postmodern Political Principle, can definitely be questioned—practically everyone knows how unlikely it is to create, for instance, a healthy friendship or romantic relationship on the basis of solely just power—the postmodern understanding of knowledge itself isn’t exceptionally marginal or peculiar. For instance, scientific instrumentalism, which shares a similar theoretical framework with postmodernism, is a recognized approach within the scientific community. It views scientific theories predominantly as tools for addressing practical problems, rather than as accurate depictions of the natural world, thereby rejecting their “metanarrative” authority and
not treating the notion of truth as universal
—in other words, scientific instrumentalism is not concerned with something being true or not as long as it works.
As argued by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey in their work titled Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody, the original postmodernist philosophy, whatever level of controversiality or truth it initially contained,
extended beyond academia, gaining traction among political activists.
This shift implied a departure from purely descriptive analysis to incorporate prescriptive imperatives, that is a development with drastic and far-reaching implications for all. In the late 1990’s, the Left recognised in postmodernist theory a useful tool it can use for its own practical aim that was initially absent in the purely academic thought–to reconstruct society in the image of an ideology which came to refer to itself as ‘Social Justice’, in order to bring allegedly discriminated groups closer to power–even though by this time sexual, racial and gender-based discrimination had already been largely defeated in the West.
The unpredictable transformation of this theory, once strictly academic, into a damaging and unhealthy movement, regrettably undermined the position of the very groups these activists pledged to protect. In their book, Cynical Theories, the authors illuminate this through with five examples: postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectionality, feminism and gender studies, and disability and fat studies. Correspondingly, all the disadvantaged (or perceived to be disadvantaged) groups associated with these areas of study, including gender groups, racial groups, and people with disabilities, were adversely affected by the implications of the Left using postmodernism for its own self-interested goals.
Understanding the book’s argument is best in a practical context: a movement that actively deconstructs the concept of individuality, solidifies group distinctions as absolute and inescapable due to the encompassing influence of culture, and maintains that the path to power lies in reshaping language, rather than addressing tangible issues, while at the same time holding that truth is culture dependent. In the context of postcolonial theory, this translates to activists asserting that
science is merely a Western construct
(let us not go into the depth of the historical inaccuracy of this claim), and that indigenous peoples are destined to gain knowledge through practices reminiscent of the Neolithic era. This might explain why, in Australia, the so-called ‘Maori science’ is being promoted as an alternative to ‘Western’ science. Within the realm of queer studies, the stance of these activists does not aid, for example, gay individuals in advocating for their rights (in those countries in the world where they still remain unprotected). This stance is manifested in the activists merely labelling gender and sexual orientation categories as ‘oppressive social constructs’ that can be altered not through concrete actions, but rather through linguistic manipulation. In the context of race, an excessive focus on inherent unescapable differences between the races essentially reinforces racial bias and discourages interaction among diverse populations. As far as the disabilities are concerned, vigorously critiquing the language of anyone who asserts that obesity is unhealthy, and glorifying disabilities, fails to confront the genuine health concerns these individuals face. All of this is even further exacerbated by the fact that social justice activists believe there is little genuine help in the world, and
everything serves the established power structure of privileges,
making them even more neurotic and damaging their mental health as well.
Simultaneously, an unwavering faith in postmodernist principles served as a protective barrier against criticism of these ideas. Any challenge to them was viewed either as a manifestation of entrapment within the language games that perpetuate power structures or as a calculated attempt to maintain privileged status based on race or gender, often white and male. These theoretical constructs, in essence, solidified racial, class, and gender categories to such an extent that they were deemed immutable and inherently characteristic of each individual. Intriguingly, this aligns with the very notions promoted by the ultra-radical right, whom the activists were presumably opposing. This shift contrasts sharply with the original postmodernist theory that aimed to dismantle all categories, viewing them as socially constructed. This instance highlights the paradoxical and self-destructive nature of postmodernism: by asserting the unattainability of absolute truth, it undermines its own validity as it becomes just another all-encompassing metanarrative.
In the book’s conclusion, the authors devote a substantial portion to describing their alternative to the worldview that social justice activists strive to establish. Among numerous insightful details, one key point the authors make is
the futility of dismantling the notion of truth.
While the definitions of ‘truth’ and methods of its acquisition have varied across time, the complete negation of the concept itself would eliminate a foundational basis for constructing anything else, ultimately resulting in an incessant cycle of self-destruction. This is evident considering the numerous divisions occurring within contemporary postmodernist thought. This paradox underlines the significance of metanarratives (overarching stories that provide comprehensive explanations of the why, how, and purpose) in facilitating the functioning of all entities, whether it be an individual, a certain group or a society as a whole.