March 31, 2007
The Origins of PostmodernismBy James Arlandson
Does postmodernism spring out of the head of Zeus unconceived or misconceived? Or does it carry a heavy debt on its back to earlier movements and trends?
This article, Part Two in the series on Postmodernism and the Bible, explores the roots of postmodernism, even though the large movement plays with origins. This article supports my claim that postmodernism is a transmogrification of the hyper-skepticism begun in the Enlightenment and given a huge impetus by such influential thinkers as Nietzsche and Freud, to name only two. (Part One explains in the section "Prefixation" why I attach the prefix "hyper.") The nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, going past WWII and into the 1960s, can be characterized as undergoing shaking and instability of the old ways of thinking and developing politics and the economy and expressing the arts. Considering the limitations of one article, we can only look at this broad and deep topic superficially. But at least we will have a general idea.
By way of review of Part One, recall that "transmogrification" means a "great" change or alteration, "often with grotesque or humorous effect." I would take out "great" in that definition and put in "small," in most cases. Anyone who has studied modernism in the fine arts and architecture and literature knows how deeply postmodernism is indebted to modernism-hence the prefix "post" or "after."
The Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800+) shook Western civilization down to its foundation. Taking their cue from ancient Greek skeptics, philosophers like Descartes (1596-1650), Hume (1711-1776), and Kant (1724-1804), advanced skepticism beyond all historical bounds, hence the prefix "hyper."
René Descartes (1596-1650)
He is called the founding father of modern philosophy for good reason. Modern philosophy, especially epistemology, is characterized by heavy doubt. (Epistemology studies how we acquire and define knowledge.) Thus, in his First Meditation he says that he set out on a project to reject everything that is not "plainly certain and indubitable." In the same way he would reject things that are "patently false," if he finds a reason for "doubting even the least of them."
This criterion of discovering truth is extremely high: "plainly certain and indubitable." This last word means "unable to be doubted." Elevating certainty to such unattainable heights gives Descartes free rein to doubt anything, even if it is the existence of his body or the outside world. He even doubts the truth of mathematics. What does he come out with from his systematic doubt? He cannot doubt that he is thinking, a thing that thinks. "I think, therefore I am," he says elsewhere. Even if he is dreaming, then he thinks and therefore exists, for only a thinking thing can dream. And a thinking thing exists. If an evil genius deceives him, then at least he thinks and therefore exists, for only a thinking thing can be deceived. And anything that can be deceived must exist.
Descartes' systematic doubt places the individual in the center of existence. How does this impact postmodernism? To apply his doubt to the main topic of this series of articles, how does such doubt affect the interpretation of texts? He seems to have discovered a foundation, the self. And in the rest of his Meditations he works hard to restore certainty. But certain later philosophers conclude that his efforts are unconvincing. He let the genie of hyper-skepticism out of the bottle.
David Hume (1711-1776)
Hume also challenges our ability to know with certainty. In his Enquiries concerning Human Understanding, he says, for example, that our knowledge of cause and effect, the basis of science, is not founded on demonstrative knowledge. This high level is reserved only for mathematical proofs, as in geometry. Then what is the basis for our knowledge of cause and effect? Before we answer that, let's look at some examples of the nexus or connection of cause and effect.
Gravity causes unhindered objects to fall earthward (effect). Water causes salt to dissolve (effect). To use some of Hume's examples, can we know that an egg, just by looking at it for the first time, could nourish us? No. If a visitor came to this planet "of a sudden," says Hume, can he know what would happen to a billiard ball if anyone pushed it on the table? How would the visitor know that it would not go upwards or straight through the table?
The visitor would know its direction only by experience. He would have to play with the billiard ball for a while, rolling the ball down the table to discover what would happen to it. So the foundation of our coming to know cause and effect is experience. And what is the foundation of experience? It is the accumulation of experiences with cause and effect. And this accumulation Hume calls custom or habit. That is our foundation of our knowledge of science-custom or habit. This is quite shaky.
How can we arrive at any secure knowledge of Biblical texts, especially when the texts proclaim miracles on nearly every page? Hume did not believe that they could happen. More relevant still, will postmodern interpreters of the Bible assume that miracles do not happen?
For more on Hume's hyper-skepticism as it relates to miracles, begin a series on miracles here.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Credit goes to Kant for bridging Descartes' rationalism and Hume's empiricism, but that is not the central point of this brief survey. In Kant, we find a philosophy that challenges our objective knowledge. He says that our minds constitute and shape the world around us. When our five senses feed the raw data of the outside world into our understanding, it simultaneously organizes the data. This disagrees with the commonsense notion that the outside world is the fountain of our knowledge and that we can come to know the outside world objectively and independent of our mind restructuring it. I use a basic introduction to philosophy to help us navigate the deep waters (Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation: an Historical Introduction to Philosophy, 5th ed. Oxford UP, 2007). Kant writes:
So far, so good. This is the commonsense notion we all experience (or assume that we have). Objects exist "completely independent of our apprehension of them" (Melchert). However, Kant is about to reverse or overturn our assumption. After he says that "all attempts at establishing our knowledge of objects . . . have . . . ended in failure," He overturns the old ways, writing:
"Objects must conform to our knowledge." That is a remarkable statement. One interpreter of Kant explains:
Kant's philosophy, like that of Descartes and Hume, lands us in the world of uncertainty. Can we know the world of objects without our own minds shaping and constituting those objects? Can we know them as things in themselves? Oliver A. Johnson, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, answers that question in his article "Immanuel Kant," in Great Thinkers of the Western World, ed. Ian P. McGreal, Harper Collins, 1992. Johnson says:
This troubling conclusion means that we cannot separate our subjectivity from how the world exists in its own right. Our near-objective knowledge of the world has frustratingly been pushed back out of reach. So now we can ask this question as it relates to Biblical studies: Can any interpretation of a text be solid, or is it always shaky and deferred and out of reach?
The three previous philosophers shook the foundations of western thought, and the shaking opened up new ways of seeing (or not seeing) the world. But postmodernism has more influences working on it. Beginning in the 1870s and reaching to WWI (1914-1918) and WWII (1939-1945), many movements and ideas and events circulated around Europe and influenced modernism (or modernisms), which has now been transmogrified into postmodernism. Here is a partial and sketchy list.
These movements, ideas, and historical events, merely sketched out here (and some omitted), either directly or indirectly influence postmodernism. But all of them together are like many ripples in a once-still pond, each colliding with the other. Some ripples are bigger than others, but each moves the pond water, causing flux.
What do the items on the list have in common? Uncertainty and instability. But compared to what? Simple. Compared to traditional viewpoints, old ways of life, and common sense. Tradition says that women should stay at home and have no or little political power; traditional viewpoints says that God, who exists and is not a projection of the human wish for a father, created all life-from the amoeba to the human; common sense says that the world exists in its own right apart from our understanding; the middle class dominates; people are uneducated; the universe conforms to a mechanical model; traditional religion says we have a soul and the Bible is inerrant.
Many of these trends on the list, of course, are positive, but they still shake time-honored traditions and our grandparents' commonsense. This shaking that transmogrifies will continue with postmodernism.
Now we return to philosophy and the one man who was a large stick of dynamite---with its fuse lit---in a crumbling monolith, though only parts of the monolith were weak.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
He should not be considered an Enlightenment thinker. Just the opposite. As a philosopher, he has been called the "anti-philosopher." As a writer, he is frighteningly powerful. He proclaims that God is dead, so we must create our own morality, that of the Übermensch or Overman or Superman. This is the superior human whose will to power takes him to the top. Incidentally, he opposed anti-Semitism and did not sheepishly follow nationalism. But it is a terrible blind spot in him---so insightful otherwise---not to figure out that his ideas could be taken to extremes (as if his ideas were not extreme enough) in anti-Semitic Germany and Europe. If he were so prophetic, he should have seen the fatal misinterpretations coming, a mere three decades after he died.
In any case, our focus is on his notion called perspectivism, which existed in milder expressions in earlier philosophers, such as Montaigne (1533-1592). Perspectivism means that "every view is only one among many possible interpretations . . . especially Nietzschean perspectivism, which itself is just one interpretation among many interpretations" (Douglas J. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom: an Introduction to Philosophy. 3rd ed. Wadwsorth, 1998, p. 566). Nietzsche says in this brief excerpt that facts do not exist, but only interpretations do. He writes:
In the next excerpt Nietzsche says that there is no meaning, but countless meanings.
One philosopher puts Nietzsche's perspectivism in perspective (pardon the pun). Note the word "postmodern." Soccio writes:
Still another interpreter of Nietzsche describes the logical outcome of Nietzschean perspectivism. Nehamas says:
It is easy to see how perspectivism is a source of postmodernism, particularly in its interpretation of texts. It can make grounded interpretations of the Bible difficult or even impossible. If we cannot establish any fact in itself, then how do we anchor truths in our minds about the world outside of us? If we cannot anchor such truths, then historical investigation is even more difficult. And if we study an ancient text like the Bible, then how can we bridge the chasm between our interpretation and historical knowledge of the context from which the Bible has emerged? It must be noted up front that not all Bible scholars interested in applying postmodern interpretations are hyper-skeptical; maybe they know nothing about the sources that flow into postmodernism, as outlined in the list, above. But too many seem to blithely apply farfetched interpretations, for what end, I don't yet know.
An alternative version
Some literary scholars and philosophers provide an alternative version of the origins of postmodernism. They divide western history into the modern (typically the Enlightenment project) and the postmodern (go here and here). However, this version gives too little credit to Enlightenment thinkers, who challenged the Medieval Age with all its systematization of knowledge and theology. And their version gives too much credit to postmodernists who borrow more than they innovate, at least in my opinion. Their version has the break between the two as too abrupt and sharp. As Nietzsche once observed, philosophers too often do not know how to deal with history, glossing over or omitting historical events like those in the bulleted list. But those real-life and self-evident events actually happened, and they shook people to their core. Modernism and postmodernism emerge from the events, as well as from the hyper-skepticism begun in the Enlightenment.
So what does all this mean?
For most people none of this means anything, thankfully. But can we depend on our blissful slumber? For a few of us, the heavy and excessive skepticism that masquerades as postmodernism makes the one Book that has influenced Western culture (and other cultures) and has been the guide for hundreds of millions and for the better---makes it unstable and unsecured, cut loose from an anchor of plain meaning. Do we want to lose this fountain of wisdom called the Bible?
The last three hundred-plus years can be characterized as times of uncertainty and instability. The old order has been cracking during this timeframe. Debatably, this ethos or general character was most visible first in philosophy, which then transmogrified other areas, such as politics, social customs, and economics. We lose a solid foundation. We lose our essence as humans. We lose the real world out there, existing objectively and in its own right, apart from and independent of our perceptions and understanding.
It did not take long for the hard-hitting philosophy to be adopted by Bible scholars. Traditional viewpoints, espoused by the Church-both Catholic and Protestant-were and are under siege. Generally, in response the Church divided into liberalism and conservatism, which is closer to the center than fundamentalism. The theological Left largely adopts the nontraditional intellectual criticisms and social trends, whereas the theological Right challenges the new social trends (though not all of them or in the same degree) and explains why the traditional viewpoints on the Bible are still valid and reasonable. Both the Left and the Right have variations, but this brief assessment of the Church's reactions to modernist trends is adequate for our purposes.
In the big picture, the real innovators did not begin in the 1960s, but in the 1870s. The hyper-radicals (see Part One), particularly of the 1960s, are mere borrowers with only a few twists and turns on old ideas in modernism. They transmogrified it. Wider mass communication gave them a larger audience than early modernists had.
And postmodernist interpreters of the Bible are mere borrowers with few innovations. Postmodernists reflect the uncertainty and instability in society and intellectual trends and infer that discourse (how we communicate in a variety of ways) is likewise uncertain and unstable. This uncertainty and instability is especially apparent in a variety of interpretations of the Bible, which has been locked up and strangled by traditional interpretations, so they say. Apparently, it is the passionate goal of postmodernist interpreters of the Bible to free it from the stranglehold. If meaning in all discourse is uncertain and unstable, then they intend to demonstrate how the meaning of Scripture is likewise uncertain and unstable, dethroning any privileged viewpoint along the way, even time-tested and steady ones.
But to what purpose? Which way are the postmodernists headed? That remains to be seen. I'm not sure they know the purpose or direction of their application of the latest trends to the Bible in their postmodern project. But I do not at all find their purpose or direction to be "groovy."
James M. Arlandson can reached at email@example.com