Modernism v. Postmodernism, Absolute v. Relative Truth

Continuing a tangent from another thread … I’ll probably regret this, but here we go.

Francis Schaeffer targeted Modernism in his “philosophical” books starting with “The God Who Is There” in 1968 and continuing through the 70s to his anti-abortion documentary in 1979. His critique of Modernism focused on “modern art” from late 19th C. Impressionism (Monet/Van Gogh) to Pointillism (Seurat) to Cubism (Picasso), Abstract Expressionism (Pollock) and Pop Art (Warhol). Schaeffer provided intellectual cover for a whole host of Culture Warriors, Al Mohler among them.

Schaeffer died in 1984. But somehow his philosophical target – Modernism – shifted to Postmodernism without missing a beat within 20 years. For example …

Modernism was a late-19th to early-20th century philosophy. Logical Positivism was Modernist philosophy through-and-through. Ironically, it sprung from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which they misunderstood. The fruit of Modernism and Logical Positivism was Scientism, which claimed the only “objective truth” was a proposition that could be verified by facts. That “worldview” suffered a crushing defeat, but what crushed it wasn’t Christian apologetics. It was Postmodernism.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The term ‘postmodernism’ first entered the philosophical lexicon in 1979, with the publication of The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard.” Postmodernism didn’t exist until the latter half of the 20th Century. Likewise, Determinism is a modernist concept, not a postmodern idea.

For the record, Postmodernism is not the claim that all truth is relative, such that everyone gets to choose what is “true” for themselves. Postmodernism is simply a rejection of the notion that only objective “facts” are true and a recognition of our human “limitedness” in reaching the truth of ultimate reality.


We don’t have to reach if it is handed to us, or if it finds us.

Neither. What defeated logical positivism was itself. It failed to achieve what it purposed to accomplish and believed could be done – that meaningfulness could be restricted to instrumentalist science.

I have never heard postmodernism described that way. If correct then I am very postmodern. It is one of my principle claims that there is an irreducibly subjective aspect to reality itself. Certainly we have no evidence whatsoever that reality is exclusively objective. BUT I completely reject the vast majority of ways postmodernism is explained. To be sure I reject rationalism accepting the limitation of reason as based on premises which must be accepted on faith. But I certainly do accept supernatural and metaphysical truths. I just don’t see any way of making them objective truths – i.e. providing a means for a reasonable expectation that other people should agree.

Here is an interesting description from here.

The primary tenets of the postmodern movement include: (1) an elevation of text and language as the fundamental phenomena of existence, (2) the application of literary analysis to all phenomena, (3) a questioning of reality and representation, (4) a critique of metanarratives, (5) an argument against method and evaluation, (6) a focus upon power relations and hegemony, and (7) a general critique of Western institutions and knowledge (Kuznar 2008:78).

  1. I think language is the fundamental substance of the human mind. But clearly the mind is not the limit of reality.
  2. I am quite skeptical of the value of literary analysis.
  3. The point of questioning anything, including reality and representation is to seek answers to those questions.
  4. a critique of a metanarrative is a metanarrative itself.
  5. I replace method with methodological ideals.
  6. No way of looking at reality replaces the reality you are looking at – there are inherent limitations in different ways of doing things.
  7. That is always fun, but the point must always to be finding (iteratively) a more solid foundation for institutions and knowledge.

That was my impression as well, and I spent a little time recently in a respectable introduction to the subject.

We can agree about what we independently observe, and that observation does establish objective features about the world. Quantifiable objects is a basic example of shared observations.

It contradicted itself.

“Limited” as in difficult or impossible?

What you mean here is very unclear to me.

Do you mean that your impression of postmodernism is as Jay313 describes it or do you mean your impression is that postmodernism was NOT described in that way?

I think these provide good evidence that there is an objective aspect to reality, particularly when the observations don’t agree with our expectations. But that doesn’t mean reality is exclusively objective and I don’t think we have any evidence to support a claim that it is.

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I had not heard Jay’s definition of postmodernism described that way.

What a tortuous sentence. Jay’s definition was new for me. It wasn’t totally unlike what I recalled from Butler’s introduction, but it was different in a way that makes postmodernism look more approachable.

I’m not sure how you draw a line. Probably depends on how you define reality, and whether or not a physical object is in anyway subjective.

@Jay313 and @mitchellmckain , I hope you will both talk about this some more. This is an area I don’t know much about at all.

Both your discriptions ring true to me. I’ve not dealt with formal definitions (or at least don’t remember having done; it was a LONG time ago) of Postmodernism, but rather the examination and application of Postmodernists’ work. And then work with writers, who reflected postmodern sensibilities without necessarily referring to specific theories (Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, etc, etc.).
What I find significant about Jay’s is that it directly confronts what I had run across from Christian writers who outright reject Postmodernism without really understanding it, and then argue against a false conception of their ideas. The best example of this that I have is Doug Groothuis, but I know there are many others.

MItchell, would you flesh this idea out some more, please?

there is an irreducibly subjective aspect to reality itself

I just stuck my replies in between the numbered points below. My replies aren’t only for Mitchell but anyone who wants to discuss the specific points that he had commented on. Of course formatting becomes a nightmare immediately. I’m open to any improvements on that.


The problem with postmodernism, as it comes down to practices and policies, is how does one determine what is not truth? What is the filter? Someone’s lived reality may be dysfunctional nonsense. We may be limited in ascertaining of ultimate reality, but do we not at least have a compass?


The critique (or trick) of pomo, the enlightenment, and all that drama, is ascertaining what pure reason can and cannot tell you about the world.

  • The “trick” is getting anybody to agree with what your ‘pure reason’ tells you.
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  • I wouldn’t be surprised. You’ve built a pretty big sandbox. I don’t think it could be much larger. :grin:
  • I’ve come across that idea before, and it has always confused me. If Postmodernism rejects the notion that only objective “facts” are true and “recognizes human ‘limitedness’ in reaching the truth of ultimate reality”, what’s the consequence? A conviction that there’s an Absolute truth out there somewhere but we just haven’t figured out where and aren’t sure what it is … yet? Meanwhile, until we find that Absolute truth we’re stuck in our “individual boats” trying to reach a temporary and fragile consensus on which direction to row or sail? In other words, we’re condemned, so to speak, to “Relative truths” for lack of an Absolute Truth, and the odds of finding one are pretty much 0.

People are still free to be irrational :wink:

This feels somewhat related as it concerns the difficulty of understanding an ancient culture. There are undoubtedly fuzzy boundaries, but Keener is either right or wrong about a period in ancient history during the time of the Roman empire when biographies were expected to be historically accurate:

  • As a friend once told me: “Free people don’t rebel.” Here, I’d expand that dictum to include: “Free people aren’t irrational.”

Influenced by the book of Trueman: Rise and triumph of the modern self, I would say: Post modernly spoken. Something is true if your emotional feeling says it’s true.

Limited as in limited. Bounded. Not infinite. Inherently subjective.


Some would say otherwise. There is a kind of frightful and fuzzy boundary between our finite and potentially infinite nature. And I will never be able to forget Sam Harris’ words that “each one of us” is capable of it (overcoming the subject-object dichotomy).

I have no idea how any of that relates to epistemology or Bible interpretation, which was the context in which I was bringing up the idea of limited perspectives.

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Epistemology is a broad topic… maybe @Jay313 can address his use of “limited”

Thank you Jay for such a challenging and seemingly rich post. I hope we are up for this. I’ve skimmed all the replies so far and there are a few which would require their own thread to respond to. Do you have any other sources you’d steer us to. I don’t want to rush this.