Postmodernism Against “Postmodernism”

How Postmodernism’s Biggest Critics Are Postmodernists at Heart

Hi Kevin,

I’ve studied and written about postmodernism a fair bit.¹ I was first exposed to postmodernism through philosophy, and while I haven’t spent more than a few years studying it, I have a fairly good track of the philosophers and writings that inspired, created, and expanded upon postmodernism.² I’ve also been trying to track this new wave of “postmodernism,” both in the way it’s praised and criticized.

What I’ve generally found is that those who are espousing “postmodern” claims are using a general term to describe what’s actually a very specific and not-quite-accurate version of postmodernism. It’s kind of like saying “I’m a mathematician because I can do Sudoku puzzles.” They both involve working with numbers, but we’re not going to really put Sudoku under mathematics.

The people that criticize postmodernism (such as Shapiro and Jordan Peterson) are making valid points — but they’re not criticizing postmodernism. In fact, Jordan Peterson actually is a postmodernist in a variety of ways.

A basic, fundamental part of what the postmodernists brought to the table is a new understanding of interpretation and language. This is a giant cornerstone in the postmodern idea of the 20th Century.These emerging fields such as “feminist studies” utilize this — using Derrida’s concept of deconstruction, for example — to, as you say, go in with a theory “from the top down” to break down a text and discover what the text holds under that theory.

Biblical scholars (traditionally a rather conservative group) have understood this idea of interpretation for as long as the Bible has been around — they call it exegesis — and it literally means a critical explanation or interpretation of a text. (This is why there are so many denominations. One text, near-infinite possibilities of interpretation.) A “postmodern” exegesis of the Bible would be, for example, giving a critical feminist explanation or interpretation. Now, this is exactly what Jordan Peterson does with his Genesis lectures. He is doing a psychological exegesis. He is not interpreting the Bible theologically, but psychologically. This is precisely postmodern.

This is not to say that what Jordan Peterson is doing with these lectures is bad, just because it’s postmodern. In fact, I’m saying the opposite. Jordan Peterson has aspects of postmodernism, and that’s okay.

I do think that those who criticize postmodernism don’t have a holistic understanding of what it is exactly. That’s understandable — postmodernism is famously difficult to define.³ But I worry that Peterson, and those that join him in criticizing postmodernism, are ruling out everything postmodern, and are therefore losing the helpful, interesting, thought-provoking, and conceptually unique along with the unhelpful fringes.

I hope that, while your vitriol for postmodernism is quite clear in your post, you may find an opportunity to reconsider what postmodernism is and question Peterson and Shapiro the next time you hear them criticize postmodernism. What exactly are they dismissing? Is that something that applies generally to all of postmodernism, or only to specific thinkers within the general, eighty-year-old idea.

You seem to be a fan of the Enlightenment, so perhaps this analogy will be helpful. There are certainly a variety of Enlightenment thinkers — would it be fair to find a couple that are detestable (or even a couple ideas within a thinker’s vast works that are,) and then to dismiss the entire period of thought? I certainly don’t think so. Perhaps the same nuance and grace may be shown to postmodernism, which is ultimately a description, not a prescription.

  1. Most recently in my article, Conservatives Don’t Hate Postmodernism.
  2. Starting, roughly, with Edmund Husserl, through Heidegger, Sartre, de Bouvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Barthes, and (contentiously) Žižek.
  3. Smith, James K. A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Page 15.

The truth is a trap … you cannot get the truth by capturing it, only by its capturing you. — Søren Kierkegaard, Journals.

The truth is a trap … you cannot get the truth by capturing it, only by its capturing you. — Søren Kierkegaard, Journals.