Postmodernism, Reason and Truth

Paris: Square Michel Foucault. (Credit: J. Maughn / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Excerpt from Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Expanded Edition), by Stephen Hicks (Ockham’s Razor, 2013). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 1: What Postmodernism Is

The postmodern vanguard

By most accounts we have entered a new intellectual age. We are postmodern now. Leading intellectuals tell us that modernism has died, and that a revolutionary era is upon us—an era liberated from the oppressive strictures of the past, but at the same time disquieted by its expectations for the future. Even postmodernism’s opponents, surveying the intellectual scene and not liking what they see, acknowledge a new cutting edge. In the intellectual world, there has been a changing of the guard.

The names of the postmodern vanguard are now familiar: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty. They are its leading strategists. They set the direction of the movement and provide it with its most potent tools. The vanguard is aided by other familiar and often infamous names: Stanley Fish and Frank Lentricchia in literary and legal criticism, Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in feminist legal criticism, Jacques Lacan in psychology, Robert Venturi and Andreas Huyssen in architectural criticism, and Luce Irigaray in the criticism of science.

Members of this elite group set the direction and tone for the postmodern intellectual world.

Michel Foucault has identified the major targets: “All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.”[1] Such necessities must be swept aside as baggage from the past: “It is meaningless to speak in the name of—or against—Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.”[2]

Richard Rorty has elaborated on that theme, explaining that that is not to say that postmodernism is true or that it offers knowledge. Such assertions would be self-contradictory, so postmodernists must use language “ironically.”

The difficulty faced by a philosopher who, like myself, is sympathetic to this suggestion [e.g., Foucault’s]—one who thinks of himself as auxiliary to the poet rather than to the physicist—is to avoid hinting that this suggestion gets something right, that my sort of philosophy corresponds to the way things really are. For this talk of correspondence brings back just the idea my sort of philosopher wants to get rid of, the idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature.[3]

If there is no world or self to understand and get right on their terms, then what is the purpose of thought or action? Having deconstructed reason, truth, and the idea of the correspondence of thought to reality, and then set them aside—“reason,” writes Foucault, “is the ultimate language of madness”[4]—there is nothing to guide or constrain our thoughts and feelings. So we can do or say whatever we feel like. Deconstruction, Stanley Fish confesses happily, “relieves me of the obligation to be right … and demands only that I be interesting.”[5]

Many postmodernists, though, are less often in the mood for aesthetic play than for political activism. Many deconstruct reason, truth, and reality because they believe that in the name of reason, truth, and reality Western civilization has wrought dominance, oppression, and destruction. “Reason and power are one and the same,” Jean-François Lyotard states. Both lead to and are synonymous with “prisons, prohibitions, selection process, the public good.”[6]

Postmodernism then becomes an activist strategy against the coalition of reason and power. Postmodernism, Frank Lentricchia explains, “seeks not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.” The task of postmodern professors is to help students “spot, confront, and work against the political horrors of one’s time.”[7]

Those horrors, according to postmodernism, are most prominent in the West, Western civilization being where reason and power have been the most developed. But the pain of those horrors is neither inflicted nor suffered equally. Males, whites, and the rich have their hands on the whip of power, and they use it cruelly at the expense of women, racial minorities, and the poor.

The conflict between men and women is brutal. “The normal fuck,” writes Andrea Dworkin, “by a normal man is taken to be an act of invasion and ownership undertaken in a mode of predation.” This special insight into the sexual psychology of males is matched and confirmed by the sexual experience of women:

Women have been chattels to men as wives, as prostitutes, as sexual and reproductive servants. Being owned and being fucked are or have been virtually synonymous experiences in the lives of women. He owns you; he fucks you. The fucking conveys the quality of ownership: he owns you inside out.[8]

Dworkin and her colleague, Catharine MacKinnon, then call for the censorship of pornography on postmodern grounds. Our social reality is constructed by the language we use, and pornography is a form of language, one that constructs a violent and domineering reality for women to submit to. Pornography, therefore, is not free speech but political oppression.[9]

The violence is also experienced by the poor at the hands of the rich and by the struggling nations at the hands of the capitalist nations. For a striking example, Lyotard asks us to consider the American attack on Iraq in the 1990s. Despite American propaganda, Lyotard writes, the fact is that Saddam Hussein is a victim and a spokesman for victims of American imperialism the world over.

Saddam Hussein is a product of Western departments of state and big companies, just as Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were born of the ‘peace’ imposed on their countries by the victors of the Great War. Saddam is such a product in an even more flagrant and cynical way. But the Iraqi dictatorship proceeds, as do the others, from the transfer of aporias [insoluble problems] in the capitalist system to vanquished, less developed, or simply less resistant countries.[10]

Yet the oppressed status of women, the poor, racial minorities, and others is almost always veiled in the capitalist nations. Rhetoric about trying to put the sins of the past behind us, about progress and democracy, about freedom and equality before the law—all such self-serving rhetoric serves only to mask the brutality of capitalist civilization. Rarely do we catch an honest glimpse of its underlying essence. For that glimpse, Foucault tells us, we should look to prison.

Prison is the only place where power is manifested in its naked state, in its most excessive form, and where it is justified as moral force. … What is fascinating about prisons is that, for once, power doesn’t hide or mask itself; it reveals itself as tyranny pursued into the tiniest details; it is cynical and at the same time pure and entirely ‘justified,’ because its practice can be totally formulated within the framework of morality. Its brutal tyranny consequently appears as the serene domination of Good over Evil, of order over disorder.[11]

Finally, for the inspirational and philosophical source of postmodernism, for that which connects abstract and technical issues in linguistics and epistemology to political activism, Jacques Derrida identifies the philosophy of Marxism:

deconstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, than as a radicalization, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism in a certain spirit of Marxism.[12]

Modern and postmodern

Any intellectual movement is defined by its fundamental philosophical premises. Those premises state what it takes to be real, what it is to be human, what is valuable, and how knowledge is acquired. That is, any intellectual movement has a metaphysics, a conception of human nature and values, and an epistemology.

Postmodernism often bills itself as anti-philosophical, by which it means that it rejects many traditional philosophical alternatives. Yet any statement or activity, including the action of writing a postmodern account of anything, presupposes at least an implicit conception of reality and values. And so despite its official distaste for some versions of the abstract, the universal, the fixed, and the precise, postmodernism offers a consistent framework of premises within which to situate our thoughts and actions.

Abstracting from the above quotations yields the following. Metaphysically, postmodernism is anti-realist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality. Epistemologically, having rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring objective knowledge of that reality. Having substituted social-linguistic constructs for that reality, postmodernism emphasizes the subjectivity, conventionality, and incommensurability of those constructions. Postmodern accounts of human nature are consistently collectivist, holding that individuals’ identities are constructed largely by the social-linguistic groups that they are a part of, those groups varying radically across the dimensions of sex, race, ethnicity, and wealth. Postmodern accounts of human nature also consistently emphasize relations of conflict between those groups; and given the de-emphasized or eliminated role of reason, postmodern accounts hold that those conflicts are resolved primarily by the use of force, whether masked or naked; the use of force in turn leads to relations of dominance, submission, and oppression. Finally, postmodern themes in ethics and politics are characterized by an identification with and sympathy for the groups perceived to be oppressed in the conflicts, and a willingness to enter the fray on their behalf.

The term “post-modern” situates the movement historically and philosophically against modernism. Thus understanding what the movement sees itself as rejecting and moving beyond will be helpful in formulating a definition of postmodernism. The modern world has existed for several centuries, and after several centuries we have good sense of what modernism is.

Excerpted from Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks. Copyright © Stephen Hicks, 2004, 2011, 2014. All rights reserved.

[1] Foucault 1988, 11.

[2] Foucault, in May 1993, 2.

[3] Rorty 1989, 7-8.

[4] Foucault 1965, 95.

[5] Fish 1982, 180.

[6] Lyotard, in Friedrich 1999, 46.

[7] Lentricchia 1983, 12.

[8] Dworkin 1987, 63, 66.

[9] MacKinnon 1993, 22.

[10] Lyotard 1997, 74-75.

[11] Foucault 1977b, 210.

[12] Derrida 1995; see also Lilla 1998, 40. Foucault too casts his analysis in Marxist terms: “I label political everything that has to do with class struggle, and social everything that derives from and is a consequence of the class struggle, expressed in human relationships and in institutions” (1989, 104).

Stephen HicksStephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and the Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (2010), and he is the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W.W. Norton and Co., second edition, 1998). He has also published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including Review of Metaphysics, The Journal of Private Enterprise, Teaching Philosophy, and The Wall Street Journal. You can follow his work at, and on Twitter.

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  1. It’s a pretty clear summary. Bravo! Postmodernism seems to me to have become, largely, a pernicious charade carried on, as of now, by bullies and mountebanks. Of course reality is, to a certain extent, constructed; even individual and collective and certainly sexual – or gender – identities are, to a certain extent, constructed, often mashups of many elements from here and there.. Nations are said to be ‘imagined communities” and so forth. All of this has been known for quite some time. However, postmodernists go far beyond useful hypotheses and analytic tools and basically deny any reality beyond our thinking about reality, and thus they, in effect, say there are no lines of evidence which are more compelling than others. So, if you go to a post-modern dentist, and he or she could feel totally free to extract all your teeth while you were unconscious or even conscious, because there would be no valid epistemological reason for distinguishing a good tooth from a rotten tooth, nor any moral reason for preferring one solution to the other – just the rotten, or all, or just the healthy, or a random mix. Even trying to look at the evidence would be considered a crime of lèse-majesté. I mean, if you were to look at the role of genetics and biology in putting constraints on the possible range of sexual or ‘gender’ identities, subjectively experienced (complex question) or outwardly lived and manifest, well even considering the question would define you as a Fascist hostile to gays, trans people, blacks, the oppressed of the world, and everybody else. This of course is silliness of the highest order. The scientific method is brushed aside – and the scientific revolution – and what we used to call “Western Civilization” (it’s one among lots of civilizations) – with a backward slap of the hand as being “merely” a social construct, and thus degraded to total relativism. Oky, postmodernists, send a robot to Mars. And, of course, biology and genetics are also brushed aside. In the end, postmodernism which began as an interesting movement – life as montage, the infinite possible interpretations of texts, the deconstruction – or analysis – of the rhetoric of power, has degenerated into a playpen for obscurantist little totalitarians who claim they are fighting for various good causes (how can a cause be good or bad if there are not moral principles?), but who are essential masters of bullship and bullying, as we see in the example of Wilfrid Laurier University (and other examples of admirable behavior). Interestingly, these postmodernists, who eschew all value, and who ridicule any epistemological or methodological discipline, act like entitled totalitarians, that is, veiled in a sea of unctuous bullshit, they act as if they were empowered by some transcendent and absolute ideal. They turn, that is, into the opposite of what their so-called philosophy implies. They become absolutists. But, they are dishonest absolutists, hence the layers of bullishit – contorted syntax, feverish hyperbole, idiotic jargon, the use of extremely ‘elastic’ terms to baffle and bamboozle – all of which misbehavior and boorishness serves only the disguise the vacuity and unsustainable nature of most of their claims. Thus what was interesting in postmodernism has become a plague of tiny potential despots. It is indeed a disgusting thing. Well, of course I rant – but I am fairly sensitive to totalitarian minds – even if they are tiny. In sum, it is a evil farce, and it will damage everybody, particularly – by wasting their time and encouraging them to cultivate rancoeur, resentment, and hatred, those groups it claims to fight for -gays, trans, blacks, native peoples, and etc. Every time, I see a great looking black kid hunched over a postmodern text, while at the same table the Chinese or Korean kid is studying math or physics or accounting, I despair. It is evil; it is destructive; it is a crime. Cheers, Gilbert Reid (by the way, I read French fluently, and Italian and fair German, and remember well, lying on a beach in Sicily, trying to make sense of The Anti-Oedipus, when it first came out; so I am not a virgin; but I am an old white guy who has enjoyed ‘white privilege’ – in many senses it most definitely exists you’d have to be an idiot to deny it, but that term, like so many, is extremely elastic, and totalitarians do like elastic terms, you can condemn anybody or everybody, just according to the mood of the day; so, anyway, as I was saying, I’m an old white guy, so you must, a priori, ignore everything I say; and I shall reciprocate; I shall ignore everything you say, seem fair, eh?)


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