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A Brief History of Postmodernism

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The term 'postmodernism' has become so over-used during the past 50 years that it is now difficult to take seriously as a respectable philosophical or sociological concept. However, despite the difficulty many people seem to have in making sense of it, this very ubiquity can be taken as an indication that postmodernism fulfils a useful role in the way people think about the changes that society has undergone during this period.

In order to understand it we need briefly to examine the modernism that postmodernism is supposed to be replacing. Generally, history is too messy to be divided into neat periods but a classification in which...

  • The Ancient World ended with the fall of the Roman Empire
  • The Middle Ages lasted until the Renaissance, and
  • The Modern World developed through the Reformation and the Enlightenment

...is not too controversial for our purposes.

What, then, was different about the modern world from that which existed before? One way of looking at the difference is through individual identity. People no longer identified themselves by their place in a rigid social structure; nor did they judge the success of their lives on how closely they had conformed to the course pre-determined by their place within that framework. The way of defining the individual began to change1, and it became necessary to find criteria that could define a good or successful life, other than those of established authority.

Early Beginnings

One of the essential elements in the development of modern society was the search for a set of eternal or absolute values that would stand outside any particular time or society. These could provide a basis for rational and consistent judgements. The objectivity of the new positivistic science became the model for this search but the 'holy grail' of the Enlightenment - successfully applying the scientific method to the study of individuals and societies - proved far more elusive. GWF Hegel (1770 - 1831), influenced by the German Romantic Movement, recognised that the attempt to build a system from the individual upwards could not work. He understood that the individual would still be an instantiation2 of the social structure, rather than the social structure being merely a conglomeration of individuals - even if the individuals now saw the social structure very differently.

From this Hegel could, perhaps, be called the first postmodernist but it would take many years for the social changes implicit in his philosophy to be worked out in the real world. The historian Arnold Toynbee (1889 - 1975), although not responsible for coining the term, was probably the first person to bring the idea to the attention of the general public in the 1940s. After the Second World War postmodernism gained recognition rapidly in the USA where, for example, social breakdown was analysed by the sociologist C Wright Mills (1916 - 1962). His work fitted in well with the atmosphere of anxiety and paranoia, expressed in a wide range of symptoms from anti-Communist witch-hunts3 to the first sightings of alien spacecraft.

Developing Ideas

However, these commentators were still modernists and consequently regarded the signs of rapid social change very negatively. It was not until the 1960s that postmodernism began to be viewed as a positive idea. In the USA, the writings of Leslie Fiedler (1917 - 2003) and Susan Sontag (1933 - 2004) became the focal point for an eclectic mixture of anti-establishment views gathered together under the postmodernist banner. At about the same time several French philosophers - influenced by but also critical of existentialism4, structuralism5 and Freudian psychoanalysis6 - began to disseminate a more coherent approach than that of the Americans. Paul Ricoeur (1913 - ), Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980), Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 - 1998), Jean Baudrillard (1929 - ) and Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004) developed a post-structuralist perspective derived from the ideas of Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900), Max Weber (1864 - 1920) and Martin Heidegger (1889 - 1976) that refuses to gloss over the difficulties of finding a privileged position7 from which the real meaning of a text or culture can be discovered. For these philosophers, language is central to this view because they believe knowledge can only be expressed through language.


This approach has been recognised in several different disciplines with varying degrees of success and conflict. For example:

  • In architecture it was marked by the change from the austere, functional modernist style of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 - 1959) to a much more playful style making use of local techniques and materials.
  • In the area of social policy, under names such as community empowerment, it has been eagerly grasped by politicians hoping to cut welfare spending by devolving power down to local communities without losing social democratic credibility.
  • In the last quarter of the 20th Century the idea that the meaning of a text depended on the cultural influences of the reader as much as those of the writer turned literary criticism on its head.

However, it has also been the subject of much mystification because of the necessity for postmodernist writers to develop a language that avoids using modernist concepts such as causality and absolute truth. Consequently it has become a common opinion that postmodernist writing can mean anything or nothing, leaving it open to attacks such as Alan Sokal's famous hoax.

Readers wishing to explore the subject further will find the following definitions helpful:

'intertextuality' - where texts gain meaning through reference to other texts.

'metanarrative' - a text or myth used by communities to understand their world and bind the community together by providing an authority to believe in such as the Bible, national history or science.

1A process illuminated by the work of thinkers as various as Luther, Hobbes and Descartes.2Meaning to bring into reality a concrete example of some abstract concept.3Some useful background to this era can be found here.4Existentialism is used to describe individual human beings, as they exist, rather than as they compare to some predetermined ideal.5Structuralism generally involves an analysis of human activity through its social context.6A theory where human behaviour is determined by an unconscious that is only accessible through psychoanalysis.7'Privileged' in postmodernist terms means a sort of 'godlike' position where it's possible to stand above everything and see the whole reality. Modernists assumed that this would be possible through science. Postmodernists argue that, although scientists might be able to do it with causal or mechanical systems, neither they nor anyone else can do it with social systems because everyone is a product of a social system.

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