Heart 2: Postmodern Trends

For the beginning of chapter 2: Priority of the Heart 1

Postmodern Trends

The word postmodernism gives within itself the key to what it is.  It is “after” modernism.  It involves a critique of modernism.  In a nutshell, it is a critique of any sense that we might achieve any kind of God-like objectivity about the world.

Of course some have gone to an extreme in making this critique, as if it were almost impossible for any words to have any stable meaning at all (deconstruction) or that truth was only a matter of the power to get others to adopt an idea (poststructuralism).  Most of us seem to get along well enough getting others to pass the salt, and our laptops and cars seem to reflect something other than the power of some engineer to convince us of her ideas.  At some point such pessimism can get a little over the top.  The picture simply is not as bleak as some made it out to be!

Nevertheless, these voices have exposed elements to the truth equation that we do not always see and yet that are crucial to the process of the way we interpret words and the world.  On the one hand, with regard to words, one strand of late modern and postmodern thinkers have shown us how flexible words are.  A previous generation argued over whether the Bible was inspired or not.  The postmodern critique has made it clear that an even more crucial question is which meaning of the words of the Bible is inspired!

An even more substantial critique has to do with the frameworks through which we understand things, the paradigms that make up what is often called worldview.  For example, Thomas Kuhn fairly well demonstrated that even within the queen of knowledge for modernism–the sciences–we do not find objectivity.  Kuhn showed that scientists approach data within frameworks of understanding or paradigms that often shift as much for social reasons as because of evidence.  Francois Lyotard actually defined postmodernism as a kind of skepticism about overarching frameworks by which one might understand the world.

Instead of objectivity in truth seeking, postmodern voices suggest two other key forces at work.  One is power.  For example, Kuhn showed the role of that power played in the changing of scientific paradigms.  Someone as influential as Einstein may have questioned the trajectory that quantum mechanics took in the mid-twentieth century.  But he got old and died.  His voice is no longer at the table–is powerless to continue objecting.  So what was once a viable alternative is no longer.  The alternative paradigm has won.

Michel Foucault more than anyone else showed how paradigms subtly shift over time.  Some of his major works sketch out how key elements of society like sexuality, sanity, and punishment have changed without us hardly aware that someone might look at such things differently.  Throughout his historical studies, he fully acknowledged that his particular version of these histories was an assertion of power.  The way one tells the story involves a choosing of one perspective over another, of one set of the data over others, and such selection and deselection was for him an act of violence.  If the modernist Francis Bacon once said in the 1500s that “knowledge is power.”  Foucault would reverse it: “power is knowledge.”

If one postmodern shift in focus is to pay more attention to the role of power in knowledge, the second is a shift toward pragmatism–what knowledge seems to “work” and what does not…