Postmodern philosophy


Postmodernism series

Previous: Modernism

Postmodern philosophy
Postmodern architecture
Postmodern literature
Postmodern music
Critical theory
Minimalism in Art
Minimalism in Music

Postmodern philosophy is an eclectic and elusive movement characterized by the postmodern criticism and analysis of Western philosophy. Beginning as a critique of Continental philosophy, it was heavily influenced by phenomenology, structuralism and existentialism, and by the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. It was also influenced to some degree by Ludwig Wittgenstein's later criticisms of analytic philosophy. Within postmodern philosophy, there are numerous interrelated fields, including deconstruction and several fields beginning with the prefix "post-", such as post-structuralism, post-Marxism, and post-feminism. In particular postmodern philosophy has spawned a huge literature of critical theory.

Postmodern philosophy is generally characterized by a skepticism toward the simple binary oppositions predominant in Western metaphysics and humanism, such as the expectation that the philosopher may cleanly isolate knowledge from ignorance, social progress from reversion, dominance from submission, or presence from absence. This is anti-foundationalism. To some critics, this skepticism appears similar to relativism or even nihilism. Defenders of post-modernism would argue that there is a distinct difference, however: while relativism and nihilism are generally viewed as an abandonment of meaning and authority, postmodern philosophy is generally viewed as an openness to meaning and authority from unexpected places, and that the ultimate source of authority is the "play" of the discourse itself. In addition, many view postmodern philosophy not as a purely abstract or logical argument, but as a historical occurrence.

[ edit (]
History of Western philosophy
Pre-Socratic philosophy
Ancient philosophy
Medieval philosophy
Renaissance philosophy
17th-century philosophy
18th-century philosophy
19th-century philosophy
20th-century philosophy
Postmodern philosophy
Contemporary philosophy
See also:
Eastern philosophy
Contents [hide]

History of postmodern philosophy

Early influences in postmodern philosophy

Postmodern philosophy originated primarily in France during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. However, it was greatly influenced by the writings of several earlier 20th century philosophers, including phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, structuralist Roland Barthes, and logical positivist Ludwig Wittgenstein. Postmodern philosophy also drew from the world of the arts, particularly Marcel Duchamp and artists who practiced collage.

Early postmodern philosophers

The most influential early postmodern philosophers were Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida. Foucault approached postmodern philosophy from a historical perspective, building upon structuralism, but at the same time rejecting structuralism by re-historicizing and destabilizing the philosophical structures of Western thought. He also considered how knowledge is defined and changed by the operation of power.

The writings of Lyotard were largely concerned with the role of narrative in human culture, and particularly how that role has changed as we have left modernity and entered a "postindustrial" or postmodern condition. He argued that modern philosophies legitimized their truth-claims not (as they themselves claimed) on logical or empirical grounds, but rather on the grounds of accepted stories (or "metanarratives") about knowledge and the world -- what Wittgenstein termed "language-games." He further argued that in our postmodern condition, these metanarratives no longer work to legitimize truth-claims. He suggested that in the wake of the collapse of modern metanarratives, people are developing a new "language game" -- one that does not make claims to absolute truth but rather celebrates a world of ever-changing relationships (among people and between people and the world).

Derrida, to whom deconstruction is attributed, approached postmodern philosophy as a form of textual criticism. He criticized Western philosophy as privileging the concept of presence and logos, as opposed to absence and markings or writings. Derrida thus claimed to have deconstructed Western philosophy by arguing, for example, that the Western ideal of the present logos is undermined by the expression of that ideal in the form of markings by an absent author. Thus, to emphasize this paradox, Derrida reformalized human culture as a disjoint network of proliferating markings and writings, with the author being absent.

Though Derrida and Foucault are cited as postmodern philosophers, each has rejected many of the other's views. Like Lyotard, both are skeptical of absolute or universal truth-claims. Unlike Lyotard, however, they are (or seem) rather more pessimistic about the emancipatory claims of any new language-game; thus some would characterize them as post-structuralist rather than postmodernist.

Later postmodern philosophers

Postmodernism and post-structuralism

Postmodern philosophy is very similar to post-structuralism; whether one considers the two identical or fundamentally different generally depends on how invested one is in the issues. People who are opposed to either postmodernism or poststructuralism often lump them together; advocates on the other hand make finer distinctions.

Postmodernism versus postmodernity

Others who have written about postmodernity are the literary critic Fredric Jameson and the geographer David Harvey. They distinguish between postmodernity, which they use to describe an objective historical condition or situation, and postmodernism, which they use to describe a particular way of talking about postmodernity. They have further identified postmodernity with what the Marxist Ernest Mandel called "late capitalism," and have characterized postmodernism as the ideology of late capitalism.

See also


Postmodern Resources



Hyperreality (not to be confused with surrealism) is a concept in semiotics and postmodern philosophy. The most famous hyperrealists include Jean Baudrillard, Daniel Boorstin, and Umberto Eco.

Contents [hide]


Hyperrealism is a symptom of postmodern culture. Hyperreality does not "exist" or "not exist." It is simply a way of describing the information to which the consciousness is subject.

Most aspects of hyperreality can be thought of as "reality by proxy." Baudrillard in particular suggests that the world we live in has been replaced by a copy world, where we seek simulated stimuli and nothing more.

Baudrillard borrows, from Borges, the example of a society whose cartographers create a map so detailed that it covers the very things it was designed to represent. When the empire declines, the map fades into the landscape and there is neither the representation or the real remaining – just the hyperreal.

Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality was heavily influenced by phenomenology, semiotics, and Marshall McLuhan.

The birth of a hyperreality

Consumer objects have a sign exchange value, which means that they indicate something about the owner in the context of a social system (see Baudrillard). For example, a king who wears a crown uses the crown as a sign to indicate that he is king.

Fundamentally, sign exchange values have no inherent meaning or value beyond what is agreed upon. As sign exchange values become more numerous, interaction becomes increasingly based upon things with no inherent meaning. Thus, reality becomes less and less important, as sign exchange takes precedence.

If grains of sand are dropped one by one onto a table, at some arbitrary moment the grains become a heap of sand. Similarly, at some arbitrary point as sign exchange becomes more complex, reality shifts into hyperreality.

Significance of hyperreality

Hyperreality is significant as a paradigm to explain the American cultural condition. Consumerism, because of its reliance on sign exchange value (e.g. brand X makes you cool, car Y means you’re rich), is the contributing factor in creating hyperreality. Hyperreality tricks the consciousness into detaching from any real emotional engagement, instead opting for artificial simulation, and endless reproductions of fundamentally empty appearance. Essentially, fulfillment or happiness is found through simulation and imitation of the real rather than through reality itself.

Interacting in a hyperreal place like a Las Vegas casino gives the subject the impression that he is walking through a fantasy world where everyone is playing along. The decor isn't authentic, everything is a copy, and the whole thing feels like a dream. What isn't a dream, of course, is that the casino takes your money, which you are more apt to give them when your consciousness doesn't really understand what's going on. In other words, although you may intellectually understand what happens at a casino, your consciousness thinks that gambling money in the casino is part of the "not real" world. It is in the interest of the decorators to emphasise that everything is fake, to make the entire experience seem fake.

Note: Many postmodern philosophers, including Baudrillard, do not talk about hyperreal in terms of a subject/object dichotomy.

Definitions of hyperreality

  • "The simulation of something which never really existed." (Baudrillard)
  • "The authentic fake." (Eco)

Examples of hyperreality

  • a sports drink of a flavour that doesn't exist ("wild ice zest berry")
  • a plastic Christmas tree that looks better than a real Christmas tree ever could
  • a magazine photo of a model that has been touched up with a computer
  • a well manicured garden (nature as hyperreal)
  • Disney World and Las Vegas
  • pornography ("sexier than sex itself")
  • MMORPGs, where simulated life is perceived as more engrossing than "real life"

See also



Skepticism (British spelling: Scepticism) can mean:

  • Philosophical skepticism - a philosophical position in which people choose to critically examine whether the knowledge and perceptions that they have are actually true, and whether or not one can ever be said to have absolutely true knowledge; or
  • Scientific skepticism - a scientific, or practical, position in which one questions the veracity of claims, and seeks to prove or disprove them using the scientific method.
Contents [hide]

Philosophical skepticism

Philosophical skepticism originated in ancient Greek philosophy. One of its first proponents was Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-275 B.C.), who traveled and studied as far as India, and propounded the adoption of 'practical' skepticism. Subsequently, in the 'New Academy' Arcesilaos (c. 315-241 B.C.) and Carneades (c. 213-129 B.C.) developed more theoretical perspectives, whereby conceptions of absolute truth and falsity were refuted. Carneades criticised the views of the Dogmatists, especially supporters of Stoicism, asserting that absolute certainty of knowledge is impossible. Sextus Empiricus (c. A.D. 200), the main authority for Greek skepticism, developed the position further, incorporating aspects of empiricism into the basis for asserting knowledge.

Greek skeptics criticised the Stoics, accusing them of dogmatism. For the skeptics, the logical mode of argument was untenable, as it relied on propositions which could not be said to be either true or false without relying on further propositions. This was the argument of infinite regress, whereby every proposition must rely on other propositions in order to maintain its validity. In addition, the skeptics argued that two propositions could not rely on each other, as this would create a circular argument (as p implies q and q implies p). For the skeptics logic was thus an inadequate measure of truth which could create as many problems as it claimed to have solved. Truth was not, however, necessarily unobtainable, but rather an idea which did not yet exist in a pure form. Although skepticism was accused of denying the possibility of truth, in actual fact it appears to have mainly been a critical school which merely claimed that logicians had not discovered truth.

Scientific skepticism

Scientific skepticism is related to, but not identical to, philosophical skepticism. Many scientists and doctors who are skeptical of claims of the paranormal are nonetheless not adherents of classical philosophical skepticism. When critics of controversial scientific or paranormal claims are said to be skeptical, this only refers to their taking a position of scientific skepticism.

The term skeptic is now usually used to refer to a person who takes a critical position in a given situation, usually by employing the principles of critical thinking and the scientific method (that is, scientific skepticism) to evaluate the validity of claims and practices. Skeptics view empirical evidence as important, as it provides possibly the best way to determine the validity of a claim.

While skepticism involves the use of the scientific method and of critical thinking, this does not mean that skeptics necessarily use these tools consistently or simply find that there is indeed evidence of their belief.

Skeptics are often confused with, or even denounced as, cynics. However, valid skeptical criticism (as opposed to arbitrary or subjective misgivings about an idea) strictly originates from an objective and methodological examination that is often agreed between skeptics themselves. Note too that cynicism is generally seen as a viewpoint that maintains an unnecessarily negative attitude toward human motives and sincerity. While the two positions are not mutually exclusive and skeptics may also be cynics, they each represent a fundamentally different statement about the nature of the world.

Many critics accuse scientific skeptics of being "closed-minded" or of inhibiting scientific progress. Such critics, however, are often pseudoscientists, paranormalists, and spiritualists, whose views are not adopted or supported by mainstream science. Carl Sagan, the skeptic and astrophysicist, stated that "one should keep his mind open, but not so open one's brain falls out'. On the other hand, people who deny the possibility of something simply because it hasn't been proven by the scientific method often can inhibit scientific progress. Indeed, some skeptics would accuse those who maintained the impossibility of something of a lack of skepticism, as this position would entail an assertion about the true nature of the subject.

A debunker is a skeptic who pursues dispelling false and unscientific claims. Famous debunkers include James Randi, Basava Premanand, Penn and Teller and Harry Houdini. Many debunkers become rather controversial because they have strong opinions and can be vocal about things that may offend people, such as religion and pseudosciences. They have often been confronted so many times with the same, already disproven pseudoscience and quackery that their patience for these matters seems very thin to persons who are confronted with it for the very first time.

Critics of debunkers state that their conclusions are filled with self-interest, and that they are crusaders and true believers with a need for certainty and stability. They (true believers) are readily identified by their cognitive distortions. (In the world of science, the term "cognitive distortion" is not a slur, but a psychological explanation).

In particular, many pseudoscientists are quick to attack skeptics and skepticism in general because of resistance to their fringe ideas and theories, which lack evidence and which the scientific establishment does not accept.

Skepticism as Inertia

Rejection of new ideas is the norm in the field of science. New ideas and unusual inventions tend to face the strongest and most vociferous opposition. Such a cautious approach toward adopting new ideas means that some good ideas are dismissed, in order that unproven ideas not be too quickly accepted. Controversy is common among scientists when new hypotheses are first presented, until such time as reproducibility can ensure that experimental results can be repeated again and again according to the scientific method. As a consequence, numerous scientists throughout history have been called frauds by peers who were unwilling or unable to accept something that would require a change in their world view when their ideas were initially presented. Michael Faraday was called a charlatan by his contemporaries when he announced that he could generate an electric current merely by moving a magnet in a coil of wire.

In January 1905, more than a year after Wilbur and Orville Wright had flown their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, Scientific American magazine carried an article ridiculing 'alleged' flights that the Wrights claimed to have made. With somber authority, the magazine cited as its main reason for doubting the Wrights the fact that the American press had failed to cover the alleged flights. Others who joined in the skeptic outcry were the New York Herald, the US Army, and numerous American scientists. Only when President Theodore Roosevelt ordered public trials at Fort Myers in 1908 could the Wright brothers confirm their claim and compel even the most zealous skeptics to accept the reality of heavier-than-air flying machines. In actuality, the Wright brothers had been successfully flying their flying machines in public demonstrations for five years before that historic flight, beginning in December 1903.

Most revolutionary modern day inventions, such as the scanning tunneling microscope that was invented in 1981, are still being met with intense skepticism and even ridicule when they are first announced. As physicist Max Planck observed in his book, "The Philosophy of Physics" 1936, "An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning."

Taking the concept of skepticism as inertia to an extreme, some who call themselves skeptics are so determined to oppose new ideas that they feel are "bad" that they still cling to traditional historically accepted theories, even when popular opinion has since moved on. For example, members of the Flat Earth Society believe that planet Earth is not a sphere, but instead is flat and has five sides, and members of The Man Will Never Fly Memorial Society do not believe in flying machines.


The most commonly quoted statement associated with skepticism states:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Yet another quote in reference to skepticism is... ...."A wise skepticism is the first attribute of a good critic"....

Organizations dedicated to Skepticism

TV shows and documentaries based upon skepticism

External links