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Postmodernism and Truth


Explanations > Critical Theory > Concepts > Postmodernism and Truth

Pre-modernist truth | Modernist truth | Post-modernist truth | See also


Postmodernism can be a confusing concept that gets dropped into intellectual conversation and presentations, typically to make a complexifying point that prevents easy conclusions being made.

But what is postmodernism? Mostly, it is about truth. Or not.

Pre-modernist truth

In the days before modern science emerged, how did you know if something was true? The simplest way was to directly experience it, though much truth is not accessible this way.

The other way of knowing truth was to trust another person who declared something to be true. Even if you doubted the truth, the fact of the truthsayer declaring it made it true. So who were these people?

Archetypally, priests were critical truthsayers. With a hotline to God, the ultimate omniscient source, they would declare what was true and false, right and wrong, and everyone would accept their assertion. A similar, though not quite as potent source of truth was tribal or social elders, people who had experienced much and who were respected by all.

Truth could also be asserted by one's superiors, from parents to craft masters to judges to the monarch. The higher the status and authority the person had, the more truth would be accepted from them.

Pre-modernist philosophers, from Socrates onward (and probably before), sought truth through thought and reason. Everyday people would also muse about real truth, though criticizing the accepted order might be considered heresy and earn the challenger an early and painful demise.

There is still plenty of pre-modernist truth around today, yet there are serious challenges to this order.

Modernist truth

As science emerged through the Age of Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, a new form of truth arose: that which could be measured, calculated and proven.

Scientific truth was created first by observing something, creating a hypothesis as to its cause, then devising an experiment to determine the truth or not of the hypothesis. If proven, then you would have a scientific theory that would be held as truth until otherwise disproven.

This modern system of identifying what was real had a huge effect on many lives as whole swathes of mystery were resolved and practical applications devised. Today, you can hardly move without scientific truth impacting your life.

And yet there are challenges to these truths.

Postmodernist truth

One of the dilemmas of science is that it does not create absolute truth. It only creates theories. Yet we act as if these are true. Even scientists become pre-modernist when they angrily defend their canon of knowledge, brushing off challenges with ad hominem disdain.

Psychology is a pseudo-science that causes problems. Natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, do repeatable experiments to prove their hypotheses and conclude distinct laws. People, however, are not as reliable as atoms and can change how they behave for no apparent reason. This can frustrate psychological researchers who have to turn to statistics to make informed guesses about possible psychological 'laws'.

Psychology also has a lot to say about perception and how truth is concluded. So much of what we decide comes from complex and variable thought, our minds are always playing with what we believe to be true. Even what you 'see' is the result of much processing of the signals from your eyes.

Postmodernism challenges all truths and concludes that there is no such thing. If you look closely at atoms and electrons, it is hard to find any mass at all. Similarly, the more closely you challenge scientific and other truths, the less absolute truth may be found. Postmodernist truth is hence that there is no truth. There is convenience and illusion, but nothing that we can declare as complete truth.

In the manner of 'The Emperor's New Clothes', we accept truth and then are made to feel hugely uncomfortable when the untruth is exposed. Postmodernist discussion floats in the air as it cannot land on a firm conclusion. Its challenge to truth can even be turned inward, questioning the truth of postmodernism itself.

Postmodernism is a bit like creativity, where you hold conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time. It is also like quantum mechanics, where a thing can be simultaneously true and untrue. It challenges but offers no answer. Like a Shakespearian fool it points out paradox while embodying it. It is useful in the way that it keeps us thinking, even though it offers no conclusive answers.

See also

Postmodernism, Proving truth


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