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An MIT Campus, example of postmodern architecture
Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
Weird for the sake of weird.
—Moe Szyslak.[1]

Postmodernism is a cluster of philosophical, literary, cultural, and art movements which developed in the mid-20th century. It developed out of criticisms of modernist architecture and continued into philosophical criticisms of modernism and disillusionment which resulted among European philosophers on the political left following World War II, when the totalitarian communist governments of Eastern Europe became increasingly unable to conceal their misbehavior, and a search began for a new kind of left-wing oppositional philosophy. On the other hand, the greatest postmodern artistWikipedia came from Pittsburgh. While the term "postmodernism" is incredibly broad, this article mainly concerns the postmodern philosophical movement.

Postmodernism is, per its name, a reaction to modernism. Wherever a postmodernist feels something could reasonably be reacted against, they react; this means that it's not one coherent thing in itself and that it does not react to one coherent thing.[note 1] Hence, a lot of it is difficult to understand unless you understand what it's a reaction to. Postmodernism is not purely cultural: it is associated with the contemporary economic system known as late capitalism, consumer capitalism, or neo-capitalism, whose features include multinational corporations, mass media, the modern system of global finance, and consumption as a form of self-definition.[3][4] For those critics opposed to modern capitalism, there are two alternative perspectives on postmodernism: it is either a reflection of all the flaws of superficial, irrational, cruel, and unsustainable contemporary capitalism, or else a powerful challenge to that flawed system.

Contrary to what various rationalists say and its bizarre place as the intellectual boogeyman of the new millennium, postmodernism is not composed entirely of bullshit — it can be a useful approach when considering social phenomena and artistic works, that is to say, human "culture." Humans are ridiculously full of shit, and postmodernism can be useful in pointing that out. However, as it lacks any unified or consistent method, postmodernism's own bullshit-to-reality quotient rises high when applied to empirically-based endeavors e.g., science. In addition, postmodernists tend to reject objective reality as something that can be known by human beings, because human minds and languages always stand in the way.[5]

Definition, French provenance[edit]

We exist in different epistemological paradigms, fuckpants!
SMBC Theater[6]

Defining postmodernism is difficult, but the term generally refers to a set of methods used by those who identify as postmodern. The work of various French intellectuals gave rise to the movement: the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Postmodernists have in common the claim that the meaning of any text (where the term 'text' is taken to mean any system of meaning of representation) is constructed contextually and is contingent. This approach emphasizes the fractured and heterogeneous nature of the social, natural and literary worlds; in practice, the inherent presumptions and concepts which underlie any ideological system are identified and criticized. Additionally, the historical and cultural contexts in which knowledge is produced are examined and often rejected.

Modernity vs. postmodernity[edit]

Another common definition is that it rejects "central narratives" and relies instead on methodological pluralism. Postmodernists define themselves against "modernity" (itself conceived as an extension of the Enlightenment, ultimately to the point of reacting against it) by rejecting grand theories that attempt to "totalize" knowledge. Postmodernists reject teleological and deterministic explanations of historical and social phenomena. This was a reaction to the popularity of deterministic theories in scholarly thought in general during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Examples of historical determinism included the conceptions of a linear progression of societies from small hunter-gatherer bands to "civilized" states in anthropological thought or from capitalism to communism in Marxist thought. Applications of biological determinism to social policy, such as scientific racism and eugenics, were also (at some point in time) included in modernist thought.[7]

Postmodernism generally identifies the central narrative of modernity to be the promise of progress and the application and primacy of reason. The postmodern critique identifies several problems with this:

  • Doubt that progress can be defined meaningfully, and thus a rejection of the notion of progress.
  • Rejection of the idea that everything can be meaningfully quantified and optimized in a rational manner. Focus on the process of rationalization (in the sociological sense).
  • The tendency for applications of science to lapse into scientism.
  • Ethnocentric conceptions of the world.
  • Failure of science and technology to equate to social progress, supposedly somehow evidenced by the two World Wars and the Cold War.

Jürgen Habermas, a critic of postmodernism, argued that modernity should not be rejected wholesale, but that parts of the postmodern critique be incorporated into it.[8]

Who is a postmodernist?[edit]

The coinage of the term "postmodern" appears in the title of Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern ConditionWikipedia (1979), a criticism of "meta-narratives." However, many thinkers labeled "postmodernist" themselves declaim the term. Michel Foucault, for example, though strongly associated with postmodernism by other scholars, rejected the term as a self-descriptor.[9] Thus, the line is fairly blurry (no doubt to the delight of postmodernists) between who merely influenced postmodernism and who was a postmodernist. Philosophers who attacked logical positivism are sometimes lumped in with postmodernism. Thomas Kuhn, for example, is often grouped in with this school of thought though he claimed his work was widely misinterpreted to imply radical skepticism or total relativism. Karl Popper and late-period Ludwig Wittgenstein[10] (whose earlier work was ironically an influence on the logical positivists), however, while seen as influences, are generally not regarded to be part of the postmodernist school while Paul Feyerabend, whose initial works were published before the coinage of the term, is. Some of the most important work on postmodernism was done by writers from a Marxist perspective such as David HarveyWikipedia and Fredric Jameson,Wikipedia[11][12] who are sometimes lumped in with postmodernism despite offering a critique of it as an artistic, economic, and social phenomenon deeply influenced by the capitalism they detest.[13]

Furthermore, figures and concepts influencing postmodernism are sometimes confused with being products of postmodernist thought itself. A general trend of counter-Enlightenment thought was codified in the 20th century by Max HorkheimerWikipedia and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, which was a seminal work of the Frankfurt School. The concept of "rationalization" comes from the work of Max Weber, who published most of his writing more than a half-century before postmodernism. Richard RortyWikipedia attempted to distinguish the political views of postmodernists (part of the "critical left") from other leftists (the "progressive left") in Achieving Our Country.Wikipedia

Again ironically, biological determinism and essentialism, major targets of postmodernism, were initially challenged within evolutionary theory starting with Charles Darwin himself, while the notions of teleology and evolutionary "progress" tended to appear more often in popular and political formulations of evolution.

Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction[edit]

Postmodernism, particularly in France, is linked to three other intellectual movements such that it can be hard to disentangle the three, although elements of all of them are associated with postmodernism.[14]

Structuralism arose in the late 1950s or early 1960s with figures such as Claude Lévi-Strauss,Wikipedia Roland Barthes,Wikipedia and Michel Foucault. Heavily influenced by Ferdinand de SaussureWikipedia and linguistics and the developing discipline of semiotics/semiology, they rejected deeper meanings and considered that just as language was a system of arbitrary signs (there's nothing doglike about the word "dog" or "chien" or whatever), maybe other aspects of society were likewise. This meant a new approach to disciplines like anthropology which focused on classification and mapping relationships, rather than pursuing deeper meaning.

Poststructuralism was a reaction to the limitations of structuralism, and saw that all the supposedly stable sign systems of structuralism were actually constantly changing and always let something slip. Although it was defined in opposition to structuralism, the boundaries are a bit fuzzier than that would suggest, and some figures like Barthes were linked with both movements. It shared with structuralism a certain disregard or even disbelief in any world beyond signs; it additionally believed that even signs couldn't be taken for granted. Key figures include Jacques Derrida, and the duo of Deleuze and Guattari. Much of what was originally called poststructuralism was later appropriated by the label postmodernism, even if many of its practitioners (e.g. Derrida) reject the latter term.

Deconstructionism was a poststructuralist practice largely associated with Jacques Derrida, which sought to expose the contradictions in sign systems through close analysis (and extravagant rhetoric). For Derrida and followers, this meant attacking apparently stable uses of language, often for political purposes to challenge or discredit earlier writers' claims to truth. Other thinkers like Paul De ManWikipedia attempted to meld deconstructionism with the Anglo-Saxon practice of close reading, a form of literary criticism, to try to provide intellectual rigor to the study of literature.[15] With its attacks on truth, deconstructionism is considered central to postmodernism, even though it was only a small part of the wide range of postmodern writing and thought, and the term deconstruction expanded to mean almost any form of criticism or return to first principles regardless of its intellectual framework.


There is a marked tendency to dismiss postmodernism as being useless — a sort of empty set of theories disguised with opaque jargon. But postmodernism is at its heart a theory based around the essential subjectivity (rather than objectivity) of our words and the rules we construct to govern our knowledge. And a serious investigation into the nature of postmodernism reveals that this theory has much to offer us, with its fruits being greater than the nihilistic negation which is often ascribed.

In some respects, the blithe contempt of critics is justified. When some try to use postmodern tools to evaluate the objective sciences, such as physics and biology, they seldom find much worth the reading. While these disciplines are bound by some arbitrary rules and closeted by language in some ways, the problems of these strictures are seldom overlooked by scientists. Taxonomy, for instance, is an entire system of partially-arbitrary classifications, but taxonomists are keenly aware of this and constantly propose changes to compensate: the newfound legibility of the genome has forced large revisions to the tree of life, and provides a surer sieve to distinguish and reject the products of convergent evolution. But postmodernism critiques subjective aspects of our knowledge, and incidents like the Sokal affair illustrate how little useful material there is to be found in the subjective investigation of objective science.

In the humanities and social sciences, however, postmodernism can prove a highly effective and insightful theory. The perception that it clears the theoretical table with a sweep of the arm and says, “Well, this was all really nothing,” is not accurate. Rather, it specializes in looking at the way in which we arrive at conclusions, and how these conclusions are built from materials that are ultimately shaky.

The study of Arthurian literature is an excellent example. For many years, literary theorists had examined the various Arthurian works by Malory, Chrétien de Troyes, and others, looking for the urtext.[note 2] The idea was that there was a single Arthurian source, which gave the essentials of some of the stories or of the hero himself. Many people had taken one side or another over the years, arguing for the predominance of one idea of Arthur or the fact that a particular folktale preceded another in history. But postmodernist Jean Baudrillard pointed out that this was a search based on the false premise that there had to be an urtext. It was the postmodern approach that suggested this to him.

Postmodernism suggests that any given word or set of meanings derives from an imprecise definition in terms of other meanings, which are themselves imprecise. This endless circle of houses-upon-sand was called différance by Jacques Derrida, the founder of postmodernism. And this approach led Baudrillard to realize that the Arthurian stories might have evolved in a similar way, absent any single dominant source.

Where postmodernism runs into trouble is when the difficulty of creating a precise and unbiased set of meanings is taken to the point of nihilism, either explicitly or implicitly. It is worth noting that many, indeed most, major postmodernist thinkers have been highly politically involved, and have not acted in a manner consistent with nihilism. One major explanation for this phenomenon is Gayatri Spivak'sWikipedia idea of "strategic essentialism," which accepts the need to create constructs of knowledge in specific practical situations. Postmodernism, in its best form, should be understood not as saying that nothing is true or that all meaning is arbitrary — rather it should be understood as noting that meaning and truth are prone to shifts and redefinitions over time based on circumstances.

Any good writer of fiction needs a working knowledge of postmodernism, whether they use that word for it or not.[16]

Common criticisms[edit]

History: The imaginary elaboration being the language through which the utterer of a discourse (linguistic entity) fills out the place of subject of the utterance (psychological and ideological entity)?
Translation: The way people say stuff.

Most criticism of postmodernism focuses on a perceived lack of substance in postmodern thinking, or on what critics consider central philosophic flaws in postmodern thinking. Unfortunately, for every reasonable and erudite criticism of postmodernism, there is another hysterical attack from ignorance.

Courtier's Reply[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Courtier's Reply
John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: "Michel, you're so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?" To which Foucault replied, "That's because, in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense." I have coined a term for this tactic, in honour of Foucault's candor: eumerdification.
—Daniel C. Dennett, from Breaking the Spell[17]

While postmodernist themes in literature — which tend towards the surreal — have proven to be quite successful among writers, the postmodernist philosophy has long suffered from the problem of being extremely difficult to nail down in concrete terms. Its supporters claim that one must be thoroughly versed in the traditions of Western philosophy to even begin to understand the jargon commonly used by postmodernist writers. To their way of thinking, before one can be "post", one must understand the "modernism" against which they define themselves.

In contrast, its detractors suggest that supporters' inability (or refusal) to make their points in clear language is simply an effort to hide a potentially embarrassing lack of substance. This amounts to a suggestion that postmodernists are giving a Courtier's Reply — "Well, you just don't understand!" There is no doubt that this is at least partially true; postmodernism has been strongly influenced by late-20th century French philosophical schools of thought, where strong emphasis is given to rhetorical style and form as integral elements of an argument, and practices such as academic referencing are sometimes sidelined as unwieldy in favour of citationality, the practice of alluding obliquely to or carefully appropriating the work of others while anticipating recognition on the part of dedicated students.

Pivotal postmodern figures such as Jacques Derrida present a style of writing that is almost incomprehensible without great familiarity, such is its density of jargon and rhetorical uniqueness. Here, for example, is a quotation taken from Of Grammatology, in which the author stresses (after a multipage discussion of the differences in approach between Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Louis HjelmslevWikipedia) the fact that the fundamental relativity of language use is demonstrated by the always-historically-evolving nature of linguistic usages in relation to each other:

On the one hand, the phonic element, the term, the plenitude that is called sensible, would not appear as such without the difference or opposition which gives them form. Such is the most evident significance of the appeal to difference as the reduction of phonic substance. Here the appearing and functioning of difference presupposes an originary synthesis not preceded by any absolute simplicity. Such would be the originary trace. Without a retention in the minimal unit of temporal experience, without a trace retaining the other as other in the same, no difference would do its work and no meaning would appear.
—Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology

Without familiarity with Rousseau, Saussure, and Hjemslev, and out of context, the paragraph is nearly impenetrable. There is, of course, virtually always a necessity for specialized jargon in any academic sub-field, to refer to common concepts or difficult ideas in a convenient manner. Biologists, for example, must assume in their professional journals that their readers share at least a biology major's grasp of many phenomena and facts.[note 3] But at certain levels, writing that is heavily laden with obscure, esoteric concepts and phrases becomes just an incestuous exercise in intellectual masturbation in which only the initiated can participate, providing little that is useful outside of the jargon-speaking group, if it provides anything of general use at all.

Religious and political[edit]

Postmodernism is a major bogeyman among wingnuts. It's generally used interchangeably with moral relativism, Marxism, socialism, and various other terms "pointy-headed academics" like to throw around. The general idea is that postmodernism leads to "moral corruption" by undermining biblical morality.[18] This is also supposedly part of liberal academia's secret indoctrination camps. The label is thus slung at academics whether they are actually postmodernists or not.[19]

Conservatives' stated opposition to postmodernism is ironic, given that they themselves have been accused of employing it against fields of study that they don't like. French postmodernist Bruno LatourWikipedia has noted, for example, how many strains of global warming denialism often resemble postmodernism in their attacks on the credibility of climatologists, something that led him to regret his involvement in popularizing so-called "science studies" and argue that he and other social theorists need to make a better effort at embracing empiricism.[20] As noted below, creationists have also whole-heartedly embraced postmodernist styles and tactics in their "critiques" of evolution.


Left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky has frequently criticized postmodernism[21] and described it as a "rot" from Paris that spread everywhere and claimed that it was "very inflated" and "turn[s] out to be truism" once its ideas were reproduced "in monosyllables". He concedes that it would probably do no harm in "Paris cafés or [the] Yale comparative literature department", but has stressed repeatedly its detrimental effect on activism, especially in Third World countries.[22][23]

Kangaroos in court[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Critical legal studies

While postmodernism is often considered relatively harmless when only applied to the arts, many of its adherents have difficulties with not proselytizing its worldview outside of this area. Some (arguably more extreme) postmodernists have attempted to influence law, leading to insane interesting attempts to declare the Enlightenment basis for democratic law to be a racist plot among white men, intended to maintain their power — all the while claiming that rationalism is not a sound basis for deciding verdicts.[24] Instead, they posit that law should be based around an addled attempt to apply subjectivity to it, using narratives and stories to influence outcomes.

Tankie lifeboat[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Stalin apologetics
When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can't see what objection one could make to this.
—Michael Foucault[25]

As noted by Chomsky, many of the most hardcore early postmodernists were former Maoists who jumped ship to postmodernism as the former view became an increasingly difficult line to hold. As a result, there remains a hyper-paranoid wing of postmodernism which appears to have "white men" taking the traditional place of the "capitalist pigs" in their otherwise Maoist-inspired models. This can go so far as for modern adherents of this worldview to claim that minorities who disagree with their politics are merely dupes for white men.[26]

Likewise, many radical postmodernists (notably Foucault) denounced common liberal conceptions of human rights, such as the concept of "justice", as mere attempts to distract the masses. The apparent ease of switching between authoritarian communist and postmodernist interpretations can be understood as the shared belief that human society is a one-dimensional, zero-sum game between the oppressor and oppressed — but with cultural, racial, and gender issues either displacing or being added to the economic ones.[27]

For instance, the postmodernist Chantal MouffeWikipedia outlines her opposition to liberal democracy in favor of a society where minorities (as opposed to majorities) exert far greater power. This position eerily resembles claims among communists that liberal democracy was decadent compared to "the true democracy" of some group exercising power on behalf of the working class.[28] This impulse to reflexively oppose Western democracy led to such political bedfellows as Michael Foucault speaking in favor of Iran's Islamic theocracy and many New Left intellectuals cheerleading anti-colonialist Third-Worldist revolutionaries who were clearly devolving into totalitarian dictators.[29]

Note, however, that the phrase "cultural Marxism" is still purely a crank conspiracy theory. While the above-mentioned wing of postmodernism does adhere more-or-less to an authoritarian, radicalized variant of identity politics, its adherents nonetheless do not meet in backrooms reading Das Kapital, nor do they have much interest in the sort of "communism" that was laid out by Marx or Lenin (which relied on a materialist view of the world instead of on a social constructionist one). It's especially funny to try to pin this version of postmodernism on a huge Jewish conspiracy, since this extreme variant of postmodernism has also flirted with anti-Semitism.[30][31]

Enabling and defending pedophilia[edit]

See the main articles on this topic: Age of consent and Pedophilia

Many prominent French postmodernist "thinkers" signed a petition in 1977 to completely abolish the age of consent, such as: Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and others.[32] Many of them also defended, in an open letter in 1979, three men accused of statutory rape against children, alleging that:[33]

"French law recognises in 12- and 13-year-olds a capacity for discernment that it can judge and punish, but it rejects such a capacity when the child's emotional and sexual life is concerned. It should acknowledge the right of children and adolescents to have relations with whomever they choose."

Rocky relationship to science[edit]

Whilst extremely popular in literary circles, and also influential in architecture, social sciences and cultural studies, postmodernism's dense writing style and commitment to relativist morals have led to criticism. Many outside literature and philosophy circles (liberal and conservative alike) reject doctrinaire postmodernism as being pretentious and intellectually lazy; many, especially those in scientific fields, have asserted that its theories are a form of denialism which prevent theoretical development.

Its attempts to analyse scientific practice have proved particularly controversial (especially in light of the lukewarm-at-best reception in the scientific world of non-postmodernist science philosophers such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn).

At the same time, nonetheless, postmodernism does provide tools for interpreting the human activity known as science. This is especially useful in examining its history, role in culture, and in some cases intellectual underpinnings.[34] Possibly troubling to some scientists is that postmodernists hold that much of what they do is a social construct. Furthermore, many postmodernists tend to question the concept of "truth," and some have even claimed that the scientific method itself is a social construct because of its development coming from a particular culture and a particular time.[35][36] Moreover, some recent work in the field of science and technology studies (STS) has been pioneered by postmodern authors who possess comprehensive scientific education, such as Donna Haraway (Ph.D. Biology, Yale[37]) and N. Katherine Hayles (M.S. Chemistry, Caltech[38]).

Haraway's work has focussed on analysing the way that particular assumptions about the nature of science and society influence the construction of experimental and theoretical work in the biological sciences, and on suggesting new model assumptions or metaphors which might be used to develop better understandings of the same. Hayles' work has been in studying the ways in which recent technological media developments such as hypertext and computerised storage and transmission are changing the content and uses of literature, as well as on exploring how certain limited-case metaphors or provisional analogies promoted for particular theoretical applications in the early years of information theory, computer science, and cybernetics have unaccountably grown over time into the implicit acceptance of generalised beliefs or assumptions about the nature of information, intelligence, bodies, and behaviours. This might help science in the long-term rather than damage it.

Nevertheless, too many postmodernists do traffic in obscurantist bullshit "understood" only among PoMos themselves:[39]

When Lacan confuses irrational and imaginary numbers when Kristeva misunderstands the axiom of choice,Wikipedia we are not, the argument goes, to think that the confusions are isolated; nor that there are an awful lot of them. Rather, the claim is that the confusions and parade of ill-understood scientific terminology or superficial erudition are designed to impress, and are part and parcel of an enterprise which is indifferent to the real content of the concepts employed…

To many a topic in physics, logic and mathematics there now corresponds a distinct Parisian illness which is parasitic on the terminology peculiar to the topic. Its main symptom is the tendency to regurgitate portions of the relevant jargon in more or less random ways.

Sokal affair[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Alan Sokal
Anyone who has spent much time wading through the pious, obscurantist, jargon-filled cant that now passes for 'advanced' thought in the humanities knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: some clever academic, armed with the not-so-secret passwords ('hermeneutics,' 'transgressive,' 'Lacanian,' 'hegemony', to name but a few) would write a completely bogus paper, submit it to an au courant journal, and have it accepted… Sokal's piece uses all the right terms. It cites all the best people. It whacks sinners (white men, the 'real world'), applauds the virtuous (women, general metaphysical lunacy)… And it is complete, unadulterated bullshit — a fact that somehow escaped the attention of the high-powered editors of Social Text, who must now be experiencing that queasy sensation that afflicted the Trojans the morning after they pulled that nice big gift horse into their city.
—Gary Kamiya[40]

Some postmodernists don't quite understand that there is actually such a thing as a reality that isn't just a cultural artifact and doesn't care what you think of it. This can lead to some embarrassment.

Of particular note was the 1996 Sokal Affair, in which New York University physicist Alan Sokal submitted and had published a paper called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"[note 4] in the literary journal Social Text. The paper was intended by Sokal to be nonsensical and ridiculous. For example, he asserted that gravity was a social construct.[41] What is unclear however is how this "refutes postmodernism" as some claim,[42][43] for all that the Sokal affair demonstrated was that one particular journal, one that at the time did not even practise peer review,[44] published one particular hoax paper. This is not exactly a definitive case against postmodernism itself.

As a result of the affair, Social Text was awarded the dubious honor of an Ig Nobel Prize in literature for "eagerly publishing research that they could not understand, that the author said was meaningless, and which claimed that reality does not exist."[45]

Enabling pseudoscience[edit]

Some figures influenced by postmodernism, such as Phillip Johnson[46] and Steve Fuller,[47] have used its rhetorical tactics to push intelligent design creationism. Rick Santorum was also found to be using them to attack his opponents,[48] which may prove to be the best excuse to create a real-life irony meter.

Figures associated with postmodernism sometimes explicitly defended pseudoscience. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm for attacking mainstream notions of accepted thinking has on occasion spilled over into an ignorant blanket acceptance of all sorts of rebellious "science". Feyerabend used his concept of "epistemological anarchism" to give cover to creationism, astrology, and alternative medicine.[49] Resistance to biological explanations of behavior has been labeled "secular creationism."[50] While not an indictment of the critical utility of postmodernism, this does illustrate that there is a danger in supporting dissent for dissent's own sake.

In another example, prominent critic Jacques Lacan has been criticized for attempting to resuscitate Freudian psychoanalysis, much of which is considered pseudoscientific in current psychology.[51][52] He was unsuccessful, much to everyone's relief (except in his home country of France, sadly, where his ideas have had a tragic following, and where it's still hard to criticize his kind of intellectual crookery without being accused of fascism). On the other hand, many postmodernist thinkers reject Freudianism outright. Perhaps most notably, Gilles DeleuzeWikipedia and Félix GuattariWikipedia co-authored Anti-Oedipus, a thorough and systematic criticism of Freud and Lacan's influence on the humanities and political culture. Many other thinkers, such as Slavoj Žižek, employ psychoanalytic ideas in a way that is consciously anything but faithful to their orthodox interpretation.

By and large, postmodernists are also critical of mainstream psychology, which Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and many "queer theorists" have depicted as productive of cultural biases around gender and sexuality in particular. This position has since been reinforced by many non-postmodern academics, such as Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, the authors of Sex at Dawn. Unfortunately, many young and/or impressionable students misunderstand postmodernism's more legitimate criticisms of the sciences, which often unwittingly lend themselves to dilettantism, straw man arguments, and outright fallacious understandings of scientific terminology. Postmodernism's inclination towards elliptical statement and its reluctance to explicitly define its terminology no doubt reinforces this trend, which could otherwise be easily avoided.

Multiculturalist trends in postmodernism have enabled various kinds of woo associated with indigenous and minority groups. This includes pseudohistory and pseudoarchaeology such as Afrocentrism. New Age guff is sometimes imported into these ideas as in Native American woo. There is a danger in many postmodernists' willingness to encourage any challenge to mainstream thought — not on the strength of argument or evidence, but merely out of an over-enthusiasm for any sort of counterculture.


Post-secularism is an empty term that radical apologists and hopeless post-modernists use with little agreement on what it actually means. What little can be universally gathered from the various near incomprehensible books written on the topic is that either secularism as it is/was is not the force of change and liberal tolerance as the "narrative" that secularists believe it is and that secularism is dying (or never really existed).

The non-debate[edit]

Continental philosophers[Who?] claim that Habermas' and Charles Taylor'sWikipedia work on post-secularism is at the heart of debate on secularism in Europe. This is really not the case. Habermas and Taylor are at the centre of post-secularist debate while secularists and most religious people barely take note of what they say. However the post-secularist trope will not go away. For example a TEDx talk speaks of the post-secularist city while major liberal newspapers have reviewed both the previously mentioned books with incomprehensibly positive response.

Trying to make some sense of what it means[edit]

Most works use the term "secular extremism" as though this isn't an oxymoron. The cited cases of extremism are usually that of the French ban on burqas and the banning of headscarves in Belgian public schools. While the secular argument claims that the use of burqas both on one hand continue as an instrument of female oppression and religious subjugation and need to be stopped it also comes from the argument that full-face coverings can be dangerous regardless if the coverings are of a secular or religious nature (someone walking around with a ski mask would be viewed with suspicion and perhaps stopped by the police). The post-secularist argument claims that the banning of the burqa is, in fact an example of secular oppression forcing people to discard their sacred narratives, ancient dress codes and sense of dignity and modesty (rather than having women willingly or not, hide their bodily shame underneath a prison of fabric whenever out in public to avoid provoking men into raping them). They also argue that the claim of public safety is just an excuse to force religion to comply with the arbitrary world view of secularists who have already done so through the education system (censorship of religious views in educational material), politics (an overzealous application of the separation of church and state) and the shaming of religion as mostly fundamentalist and backwards. It should be noted that full burqa use has been banned in some Muslim countries arguably to avoid suicide bombers using the disguise for ease of access to locations filled with civilians as well as opposition to what they see as a radical interpretation of Islamic dress code.

Another trope found in some post-secularist articles is a critique of the idea of secular progress as inevitable. While progress is not an essential feature of secularism (at least not the idea that progress is inevitable) it is attacked for several reasons. Progress is seen as an illusion and that progress for secularists is simply progress as secularists want it to be. Furthermore societies have always seen their ups and downs in social progress and secularism can never guarantee progress will continue indefinitely (though to claim so would be to admit that progress is in fact possible). Criticizing a secularist mantra of progress is essentially a straw man (painting all secularists as idealists who believe that social and political progress is historical and constantly evolving into a freer better society). Many secularists would disagree that progress is historical, inevitable or even a chief aim of secularism. Instead the goal is a broader application of rights for all, greater use of reason in education and politics and the minimizing of religious influence in the public sphere. Progress is either a likely result of this or for others an illusion and besides the point.

Some post-secularists also claim that there is a resurgence of religion in the West and that some of it is fundamentalist (as a reaction to secularism). They disagree as to whether this is a good or bad thing. However the clear trend (at least in surveys) in the West shows an undeniable decline in religious belief and that fundamentalism in religion is isolated to Protestant communities in English-speaking countries (most notably the US and the UK) and to religious minority communities. Laws banning older religious based restrictions on social limitations (such as same-sex marriage, divorce, working on Sundays etc.) are increasingly common in Western countries as well. Perhaps fundamentalism isn't a forced reaction to secularism but rather a reaction to insane religious leaders and the lunacy of superstitious irrationality to begin with.

Indefinability is not a good thing outside of fiction[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Fallacy of ambiguity

It has been claimed that the lack of a clear definition of just what post-secularism is is one of its greatest strengths. This is common of most postmodern tropes (as well as most post-anythings). A lack of any clear definitions, wild disagreement, watery evidence, grand claims, and a non-rational framework are common in post-structuralism, post-feminism, post-humanism, post-blah-blah-blah and so on. It is most likely that post-secularism comes from religious thinkers (note our two authors are religious apologists) who lament the disappearance of certain oppressive Christian "values" from democratic societies and as a reaction to the decreasing amount of attention people pay to religion besides fundamentalist madness.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  • Antonio, Robert J. and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Social Theory: Contributions and Limitations. In Postmodernism and Social Inquiry, edited by David Dickens and Andrea Fontana. New York: Guilford Press, 1994: 127-152.
  • Dawkins, Richard. "Postmodernism Disrobed", Nature, 1998. A review of Sokal and Jean Bricmont's Impostures Intellectuelles (published as Intellectual Impostures in the UK and Fashionable Nonsense in the US). Presents the argument that postmodernist philosopers not only obfuscate horribly, but are in way over their heads whenever dealing with science.
  • Editors of Lingua Franca, The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook The Academy. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, ISBN 0803279957.
  • Hagen, L. Kirk, "The Death of Philosophy," Skeptic Magazine 11:4 (2005), p. 18. A scathing attack on Derrida's legacy.
  • Shackel, Nicholas (2005). "The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology", Metaphilosophy vol. 26 (3), p. 295-320. Hilarious takedown of the most frequently used postmodernist obfuscation tactics.


  1. This would make Quincy Adams Wagstaff of the Marx Brothers' 1932 film Horse FeathersWikipedia one of the progenitors of postmodernism:
    I don't care what they have to say.
    It makes no difference anyway.
    Whatever it is, I'm against it![2]
    Notably, 'horse feathers' is a synonym of bullshit.
  2. A source text from which the others were derived.
  3. Furthermore, the sin of unreadability is not a universal one among postmodernists, and an increasing emphasis has been given to clarity and directness in postmodern studies.
  4. The title alone should have been enough to show that the paper was a hoax.
  5. It's good, but the story is impenetrable if you haven't played any other titles in the series. (Blame Kojima.)


  1. The Simpsons, "Homer the Moe".
  2. (Whatever It Is) I'm Against It! Sung by Groucho Marx; from the film Horse Feathers (1932) YouTube.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Late capitalism.
  4. Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson, Verso, 1991
  5. Postmodernism Encyclopædia Britannica.
  6. Both Sides, SMBC Theater
  7. The Po-Mo Page, Georgetown University
  8. Jürgen Habermas. Modernity vs. Postmodernity. New German Critique, No. 22, Special Issue on Modernism. (Winter, 1981), pp. 3-14. (trans. Seyla Ben-Habib)
  9. Foucault a Postmodernist? by Scott Moore (13 Jul 1995 11:47:09 -0600) Foucault-L mail-list.
  10. Hans Julius Schneider. Wittgenstein and Postmodernism: Specifics. 1997 After Postmodernism Conference, Potsdam.
  11. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, 1991
  12. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991
  13. Marxism and Postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, New Left Review, July-August 1989
  14. A Gentle Introduction to Structuralism, Postmodernism And All That, John Mann, Philosophy Now, 1994
  15. The De Man Case, New Yorker, Mar 24, 2014
  16. See the Wikipedia article on Postmodern literature.
  17. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett (2006) Viking. ISBN 067003472X. p. 4045n12.
  18. See the American Stinker's "sweeping" eight-part critique "Postmodernism and the Bible" for one example.
  19. See the American Stinker again for an instance of Noam Chomsky (a long-time critic of postmodernism) getting tarred as a postmodernist.
  20. Latour, Bruno. "Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern."
  21. Chomsky on Postmodernism
  22. Chomsky on Science and Postmodernism, Interview uploaded Apr 25, 2011]
  23. Chomsky on Postmodernism June 6, 1997
  24. Book Review of Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law by Daniel A. Farber & Suzanna Sherry (1997) Oxford University Press by Dale Jamieson (1997) The New York Times.
  25. Foucault versus Chomsky: The 1971 Debate (April 18, 2015) Social Democracy for the 21st Century: A Realist Alternative to the Modern Left.
  26. Winning Isn't Everything, Winning Your Team Is by Razib Khan (October 1, 2016) The Unz Review.
  27. Oh, Good, It’s 2016 and We’re Arguing About Whether Marxism Works by Jonathan Chait (Mar. 30, 2016) New York.
  28. Why I am Not a Postmodernist by Edward R. Friedlander (Jan. 30, 2005) The Pathology Guy.
  29. Michel Foucault's Iranian Folly by Jeremy Stangroom (15 October 2015) The Philosophers' Magazine.
  30. Book Review: Jews, Truth and Critical Race Theory: Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law. By Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry. Oxford University Press, 1997. by Edward L. Rubin (1999) Northwestern University Law Review (archived from 3 Nov 2016 08:24:47 UTC).
  31. Bending the Law: Are radical multiculturalists poisoning young legal minds? by Alex Kozinski (November 2, 1997) The New York Times.
  34. From STS program at the University of Wisconsin
  35. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, 1985 Princeton University Press.
  36. Science as a Social Construct, UT Austin
  37. Donna Haraway, Curriculum Vitae
  38. N. Katherine Hayles, Curriculum Vitae
  39. Book review: Impostures Intellectuelles by Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont (1998) Odile Jacob by Kevin Mulligan (1998) naturalSCIENCE (archived from April 15, 2001).
  40. Postmodernism disrobed by Richard Dawkins (1998) Nature 394:141-143.
  41. The original "Sokal affair" paper
  42. The One Time Alan Sokal Completely Destroyed Postmodernism (Jun 3, 2017) YouTube.
  43. What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia: Three scholars wrote 20 fake papers using fashionable jargon to argue for ridiculous conclusions. by Yascha Mounk (Oct 5, 2018) The Atlantic.
  44. Mystery Science Theater (1996) Lingua Franca.
  45. Winners of the Ig Nobel Prize
  46. Pennock on Postmodernism in ID Creationism, The Panda's Thumb
  47. The Painful Elaboration of the Fatuous, Skeptic
  48. Populists who speak the (relative) truth, The Globe and Mail
  49. How Not to Feyerabend, Evolving Thoughts
  50. Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh. The New Creationism. The Nation, June 9, 1997
  51. Raymond Tallis. The Shrink From Hell. The Times Higher Education Supplement, 31 October 1997, p. 20.
  52. The Cult of Lacan, Richard Webster