postmodernism cartoon
There is an old saying that "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist." The basic idea is that it is very difficult to fight back against an enemy that you do not even know is there. If you can be convinced that something is not there, it becomes impossible for you to defend yourself.

This is what is happening with postmodernism.

The people who are making and using postmodern ideas to tear apart our society have created a situation where it is very difficult to point out to people that we are living in a postmodern world. This is, I think, by design. I think postmodern thinkers, advocates, and activists leverage certain features of postmodernism in the service of making it very hard to get a hold of. After all, if one cannot point out, highlight, explain, or other wise show people what postmodernism is, it becomes very difficult to fight against the effects of postmodernism.

So let's discuss the difficulty of defining postmodernism, and then provide a way to explain and describe postmodernism that regular people can grasp.

One of the great difficulties in trying to explain to people that we are living in a postmodern world is trying to provide a simple definition a postmodernism. Postmodernism is notoriously hard to define, and it is nearly impossible to lay out a clear, simple list of ideas that would suffice as a clear definition of postmodernism. The people who are typically described as postmodernists often disagree with each other, postmodern philosophy can be incoherent, and it is hard to come up with a set of concepts, theories, assumptions, presuppositions, tenets or ideas that everyone who might be called "postmodern" would accept.

But it is not just the way that postmodern philosophy is written that makes defining it difficult. The very content of postmodernist ideas themselves makes it very difficult to define. The Philosopher John Searle rightly states that
"The postmodernists are attempting to challenge certain traditional assumptions about the nature of truth, objectivity, rationality, reality, and intellectual quality."1
For this reason the postmodernists do not play by the intellectual rules that have been set out by what we might call the western tradition of rational thinking. The standards for reason, logic, argument, coherence, truth, and so on are being challenged, attacked, undercut, subverted, and called into question by postmodernism. This means that the clearly defined, well argued, intellectually coherent arguments that we typically want from academic work are not always present in postmodern philosophy, and in some cases there is an open hostility to demands for objectivity, logic, clarity, and coherence within postmodern writing.

This leads to a situation where the conclusions postmodernism argues for are intentionally vague, insinuated rather than argued for, internally contradictory, and deliberately difficult to pin down. Add to all of this the rather large set of rhetorical and social tactics that postmodern activists and thinkers often employ to avoid having to defend their ideas and you can see why trying to explain postmodernism can feel like an impossible task.

So what I am going to do here is take to attempts at identifying and defining postmodernism, and I am going to blend them together so we can get a hold on the basic essence of what postmodernism is. This will not be a technical academic definition, rather, this will be an attempt to get a hold of postmodernism by pointing out some of the more common features of postmodernism and describing them in plain language. I am not going to provide here a list of technical details, primary theories, primary thinkers, or anything at all like that. What I am going to try to do is get a hold of two common elements of the version of postmodernism that has been created by Critical Social Justice scholars and activists. That is what I mean here by "postmodernists."

Let's begin.

Nicholas Shackel wrote a paper against postmodern methodology in which he says about postodernists that:
"By postmodernists" I mean not just self appellating postmodernists such as Lyotard and Rorty, but also post-structuralists, deconstructivists, exponents of the strong programme in the sociology of knowledge, and feminist anti-rationalists. I unite them under the term because, philosophically, they are united by a sceptical doctrine about rationality (which they mistake for a profound discovery): namely, that rationality cannot be an objective constraint on us, but is just whatever we make it, and what we make it depends on what we value. Opponents are held to disguise their self-interested construction of rationality behind a metaphysically inflated view of rationality in which Reason-with-a-capital-R is supposed to transcend the merely empirical selves of rational beings."2
In other words, Shackel thinks the common thread of postmodernism is the belief that rationality cannot be an objective guide for us because we make up the rules for rationality, and the rules that we make up will be a product of our self-interests, biases, and culturally constructed values. As such, the standards of rationality that we thought were objective and capable of adjudicating objective truth turn out to be the subjective expression of a culturally constructed vision of rationality that is shot through with bias and self-interest.

Nicholas Shackel postmodernism anti
© Cardiff University
Nicholas Shackel is a professor at Cardiff University | CU · School of English, Communication and Philosophy
According to Shackel this leads to absolute irrationalism.

Once the idea of an objective standard for rationality is abandoned all that is left is competing standards of rationality, each of which (according to the postmodernists) is culturally constructed according to the bias, self-interest, and goals of whoever did the constructing. If the central notions of objective rationality cannot be defended, all that is left is various subjective and culturally constructed standards of rationality vying for prominence, with none having any claim as the final arbiter of truth. Once you get rid of objective standards of rationality attempts to find anything like objective truth or objective morality are going to end up failing, for without an objective standard of rationality we will have no way to judge between competing ideas of truth or morality, and no way to build an objective standard of truth or morality. This leaves us with utter relativism.

I think this account gives us a nice snapshot of the first wing of postmodernism: the idea that there are no objective standards of rationality, and therefore no way to objectively judge truth, knowledge, morality, goodness, or anything else. However, postmodernism does not stop there. There is a second win of postmodernism that we need to touch on if we want to be able to describe the postmodern world to the average person.

John Searle provides for us a very simple account of how postmodernism differs from traditional western accounts of knowledge and truth seeking:
"In journalistic accounts, the distinction between the traditional university and the discourse of postmodernism is usually described in political terms: the traditional university claims to cherish knowledge for its own sake and for its practical applications, and it attempts to be apolitical or at least politically neutral. The university of postmodernism thinks that all discourse is political anyway, and it seeks to use the university for beneficial rather than repressive political ends."3
John Searle anti post modernism

John Searle (1932- ) is an American philosopher recognized for his contributions to the philosophy of the mind and the philosophy of language.
What Searle is pointing at here is the idea that the traditional role of the university was to seek objective truth. The traditional university had a mission that was defined by seeking investigating particular domains and subjects in order to find out what is true. He contrasts this with an admittedly over simplified view of how the postmodernists seek to use the university: as a vehicle for their political ends. Searle is not the only one that sees postmodernism this way.

Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Review of Books in 1998, describes the academic environment of postmodernism as:
"a loosely structured constellation of ephemeral disciplines like cultural studies, feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies, science studies, and postcolonial theory. Academic postmodernism is nothing if not syncretic, which makes it difficult to understand or even describe. It borrows notions freely from the (translated) works of Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva — and, as if that were not enough, also seeks inspiration from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and other figures from the German Frankfurt School. Given the impossibility of imposing any logical order on ideas as dissimilar as these, postmodernism is long on attitude and short on argument. What appears to hold it together is the conviction that promoting these very different thinkers somehow contributes to a shared emancipatory political end, which remains conveniently ill-defined."4
What we see here is the idea that the guiding light of the postmodern thinker is not truth, it is a commitment to a political agenda. What Lilla is pointing out is that the postmodernists are not just accepting aimless and abject relativism once they subvert the idea of objective rationality. Rather, they are using postmodernism to tear apart whatever claims stand in the way of their political agenda. That is, the postmodern thinkers see all discourse as being loaded with political claims and power dynamics, and thinks all standards come loaded with the assumptions, presupposition, biases, and self-interest of the people who created them. Thus, the key question to the postmodernist is this "who benefits from accepting these standards, ideas, concpets, categories, and claims?"

When any claim is made, or idea put forward, or standard suggested, the questions the postmodernists ask are:
  • Who is empowered and who is not?
  • Who gets prestige and who loses prestige?
  • Who gains status and who loses status?
  • Who is the one who benefits from the acceptance of the claim?"
The postmodernist is primarily concerned with how various claims, concepts, ideas, suggestions and other bits of discourse function to empower and benefit people at the expense of other people. They want to know how various claims redistribute power, wealth, clout, influence, and prestige within a society. In other words, the postmodernist is concerned about politics and power rather than truth.

John Searle makes the point even more explicit:
"There are now departments in some universities that are ideologically dominated by antirealist and antirationalist conceptions, and these conceptions are beginning to affect both the content and the style of higher education. In cases where the objective is to use higher education as a device for political transformation, the usual justification given for this is that higher education has always been political anyway, and since the claim of the universities to impart to their students a set of objective truths about an independently existing reality is a sham hiding political motives, we should convert higher education into a device for achieving beneficial rather than harmful social and political goals."5
The simple way to put this is that the traditional western conception of academia was concerned with what is true. Whereas the postmodern conception of academia is concerned with POWER, who gets is, who wields it, and who benefits. On this view the goal is to convert education into a vehicle for spreading the radical political ideas of the postmodernists and implementing their radical social and political agenda. Searle refers to this as the shift from "domain-to-be-investigated" to "moral-cause-to-be-advanced."6

Thus, we see that the two wings of postmodernism are as follows:

1. A doctrine that is skeptical of objective standards of truth, reason, logic, rationality, knowledge and morality.


2. Replacing the search for objective truth with a focus on politics and power, (shifting the goal from investigating truth to advancing a moral and political cause) in the service of attempting to implement a political agenda.

Now, given that there are countless books, papers, and journals in which postmodernists argue for their political and social views from every direction (often in contradictory ways), there is simply no way that my criteria are going to cover the entirety of postmodern thought. I am not trying to give you a list of every idea withing the postmodern worldview.

What I am trying to do is give you a picture of what postmodernism does so you can recognize the game that is being played when people make use of it. Postmodernism cynically adopts theories which allow it to tear apart well validated and rigorous ideas that are essential to our societies view of the world in order to advance a radical left wing political cause. I want people to see that the postmodern theories are adopted, not because they are true, but because they are useful for advancing the postmodernists political cause. Kelly Oliver made the point explicit in 1989 when she wrote
"feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories, not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories."7
The Critical Social Justice theorists who have created the current iteration of postmodernism have ceased to seek truth, and are instead cynically creating theories in order to help them grab power, advance their ideological causes, and implement their political views. It is about high time that we begin to expose that fact to the world so that people can begin to judge postmodern thinkers and their ideas accordingly. Right now people tend to trust postmodern academics and treat their ideas as though they are the product of careful, rigorous, scholarship and neutral unbiased methods. I want people to see that these academics are putting their fingers on the scale in the name of advancing their political goals, and they are academically laundering these ideas through universities with that end in mind.

The sooner people realize that postmodern ideas are not the fruit of rigorous, careful, enlightenment liberal scholarship, the sooner postmodern ideas can be subjected to the scrutiny they deserve.

Thanks for reading.



  1. John Searle, "Postmodernism and the Western Rationalist Tradition". From, CAMPUS WARS: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference, edited by John Arthur Amy Shapiro. (Routledge, 1995) p.39
  2. Nicholas Shackel, "The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology." Metaphilosophy. Vol. 36 April 2005 pps. 295-320.
  3. John Searle, "Postmodernism and the Western Rationalist Tradition". From, CAMPUS WARS: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference, edited by John Arthur Amy Shapiro. (Routledge, 1995) p.39
  4. Mark Lilla, The Politics of Jacques Derrida, New York Review of Books, June 25, 1998
  5. John Searle, "Postmodernism and the Western Rationalist Tradition". From, CAMPUS WARS: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference, edited by John Arthur Amy Shapiro. (Routledge, 1995) p.53
  6. John Searle, "Postmodernism and the Western Rationalist Tradition". From, CAMPUS WARS: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference, edited by John Arthur Amy Shapiro. (Routledge, 1995) p.55
  7. Kelly Oliver, "Keller's Gender/Science System: Is the Philosophy of Science to Science as Science Is to Nature?" Hypatia , Winter, 1989, Vol. 3, No. 3. p.146