The Plague of Postmodernism: Further Examination

Jacques DerridaThere is little doubt that we are living in a postmodern era. However, defining what “postmodernism” amounts to is much more difficult than a head-nod in simplistic recognition of its cultural influence.

Despite the evasive task of defining a movement such as postmodernism and the relevant impact it has had on our culture, it is possible to identify two important aspects of this philosophical persuasion; a genealogy of criticism aimed toward the Enlightenment; and the subsequent interpretation of world altering historical events.

David West traces the genealogy of postmodernism to the systems of Hegel and Marx,

“Postmodernists are critical of all the most characteristic assumptions of the orthodox Enlightenment. They reject the universal pretensions of natural science and the ‘instrumental’, ‘objectifying’ or ‘reductive’ (sometimes also ‘male’ or ‘masculinist’) rationality it embodies. They also reject universal claims made on behalf of moralities founded on pure reason or an essential human nature. Again, like some earlier critics, they speak up for traditions, cultures, values and peoples who fared badly at the hands of the ‘civilizing mission’ of Enlightenment rationalism. Many of these critics, however, continued to acknowledge the role of rationality, albeit a rationality differently constituted and articulated, in the advance and emancipation of humanity. In that sense, they were still committed to a version of the ‘Enlightenment project’ as a key factor in the momentum of Western modernity. This is clearest in the case of Hegel and Marx, whose dialectical accounts of the advance of reason through history presupposed the advanced state of European culture and society. Both retained a clear commitment to modernity, if only as the necessary precursor to a more thoroughgoing social and intellectual revolution.”[1]

West continues to define postmodernism,

“By contrast, postmodernism defines itself, on one level at least, by its rejection of any commitment to modernity or Enlightenment, including the more nuanced commitments of Hegel and Marx. It is here that anti-humanism and the critique of the subject, from Nietzsche and Heidegger to structuralism and postructuralism, play a decisive role in preparing the ground for a more radical break with the Enlightenment project. In its most radical form, the anti-humanist critique of the subject problematizes all the fundamental categories of modern Western philosophy. Not only the universalist rationalism of the Enlightenment, but also of Hegelian and Marxist narratives of the dialectical self-constitution of humanity are challenged.”[2]

Finally, West identifies historical events postmodernists associate with modernism,

“A second important context for the formation of postmodernist thought is provided by the history of Europe and the West (and the world in so far as it has been a victim of that history) in the twentieth century. This history includes two unprecedentedly destructive world wars, the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain and a protracted ‘Cold War’, maintained by the balanced nuclear terror of ‘mutually assured destruction’… Most horrifying, the Nazi genocide of more than six million Jews, communists, homosexuals, gypsies and disabled people (and many others) dealt a fatal blow to any complacent reading of Western history as the privileged site of civilization.”[3]

Postmodernists, according to the above references, are reacting against influential assumptions of the Enlightenment project. In addition to this, they are criticizing the specifically contingent historical events of the twentieth century, which were not instances of barbaric deviations from modernism, but direct consequences of modernist thinking influencing the political establishment of the scientific state. It is important to emphasize that WWI, WWII, Nazi Germany, Marxism, and liberal democracy are the result of nation states reconstructing their societies upon “scientific” totalizing theories and homogeneous mechanistic metaphysics. Liberalism, Nazism, Communism, and Fascism are not competing conceptions of freedom with vastly different philosophical foundations, but divergent branches of freedom understood within the all-encompassing framework of the Enlightenment project.

In response to this, the postmodernist persuasion acquires a skeptical ear towards any philosophical view carrying with it the seeds of totalizing narratives and universal rationalism partnered with the natural sciences. Such levels of skepticism may lead to views rejecting the notion of a reality that is objectively knowable, while focusing on things such as “social constructs,” meta-narratives, historical cultural influences when shaping various systems of ethics, different theories of historicism, anti-essentialism, and a robust rejection of metaphysics in general. There is more to postmodernism than this, but these are some of the basic tendencies.

Despite the philosophical difficulties of postmodern thought, it is important to recall that the Enlightenment promised a new command of nature by way of the scientific method, a new birth of liberty, and unending progress resulting in perpetual peace and prosperity. This dream world is possible, according to Enlightenment ideals, if we would only “dare to reason.” All of our energy should be focused on seizing nature in the name of science and technological advancement. As previously indicated, difficulties arise when this story is analyzed along with the historical events following the institutionalization of these ideals. A straightforward examination of history explodes this tall tale, to which we realize that these promises have been left unfulfilled. The bloody overthrow of altar and throne, a perpetual anti-logos revolutionary spirit, totalitarian regimes, systematic genocide, concentration camps, forced mass starvation, and total war leading to the dropping of nuclear weaponry on cities that had already largely been destroyed by unrelenting fire bombing should be enough to make a person take a second look at what went wrong during the 19th and 20th century. Instead of paradise on earth, the universal rationality proposed by the Enlightenment era, transfixed by a deterministically mechanical metaphysical world picture, led to mass human suffering and misery unparalleled in history.

The postmodernist recognition of a philosophical narrative unmoored from the reality of historical events, however, results in a misguided abandonment of a perennial understanding of reality, ethics, and truth. Postmodernism exudes a heterogeneous hyper-skepticism that leads inexorably to relativism and has developed into instances of incoherence in the realm of philosophical thinking. This should not be surprising since relativism in every area it is applied will only succeed in reducing itself to total absurdity.

With the cultural background of postmodernism better understood, we can confidently assert, as I previously stated, there is little doubt that we are living in a postmodern era where relativism renamed as arbitrary social constructs is the common theme among our institutions. In an attempt to remain skeptical of totalizing narratives, the postmodern project has become totalizing itself. Just as political liberalism looks to avoid comprehensive doctrines by becoming a comprehensive doctrine, postmodernism’s attempt to avoid comprehensive narratives has become a comprehensive narrative. Ironically, in an attempt to critique the monster of Enlightenment ideals, postmodernism ends up being just another head on the hydra of anti-logos worldviews.

Since this is the culture we find ourselves living – a culture committed to relativism in all avenues of intellectual and spiritual life — how do Catholics continue to fulfill the mission of baptizing the nations in this era of salvation history as Christ commanded?

A proper disposition for Catholics concerning the Enlightenment project should be a intellectual and spiritual opposition, a mindset of counter-revolution, and a resolute adherence to the Great Commission. The Enlightenment, borrowing from the Protestant principle of private judgment and vitriolic anti-Catholic rhetoric, was born out of the desire to overthrow the Scholastic intellectual hegemony throughout Western European civilization, eradicate sacred tradition, and expunge the proper political influence of the Catholic Church from society at large. The Enlightenment thinkers, excited about the newly devised mechanistic metaphysics of the cosmos, tossed aside the organic teleological and hierarchic universe Scholastics had inherited from the Patristics. Moreover, the simultaneous development of the scientific method was posited as the primary tool to uncover the universal truths of nature. It was during this transition that method and metaphysics became synonyms for the clockwork universe worldview, completing the synthesis of Cartesian bifurcation and Newtonian mechanism. The erroneous assumptions of this synthesis are still pervasive throughout university science departments across the West while the postmodern perspective has infected the humanities.

What follows from this counter-disposition against the Enlightenment project is not an abandonment of objective reality, metaphysics, morality, and truth as the postmodernists have done. Recoiling against the centuries of revolution, total war, and mass destruction by retreating into the absurdity of meaningless meta-narratives and the incoherence of relativism is not an option.

To the contrary of postmodern cowardice; the Catholic must boldly proclaim the Primacy of Christ against the nihilistic West we find ourselves interacting. Only Christ can provide true, objective meaning to the human experience because it is in Him that all reality is held together. As St. Paul teaches, “in Him we live and move and have our being.”

The appropriate remedy for our postmodern cultural influence is the distinctive story of salvific redemption over sin and death merited to all humanity through the work of the Incarnate Christ on the Cross of Calvary.

This is a story that extols the goodness of our created order. It is in this created order, conserved at every moment by the overabundant fecundity of the loving Triune God, that we discover our participation in the grace of God, an Incarnational understanding of nature, a Christo-centrically illuminated epistemology, the beauty of exemplarism, the logos of the metaxu, and the ethical communication of God’s commands covenantally united to the communal reality of human nature.

Jesus Christ holds all of these theological and philosophical realities together because they are His reality given to us in the deposit of faith. It is Christ the King who rules and reigns at the right hand of the Father.

This is not a meta-narrative competing with other secular totalizing myths.

It is the story.

It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] Continental Philosophy: An Introduction, Pg. 210, 211

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

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