Exploring the Postmodern

At the heart of postmodernity lies the rejection of absolute truth.

Drawing on the terms and ideas by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D. in http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/views/reality.htm we can distinguish between reality, truth and truth-claims.
  • Reality is the actual situation, apart from what we believe or say about it.
  • Truth is the correct description of reality.
  • Truth-claims are our descriptions of reality which may or may not be correct.

Craig Rusbult offers this nice ‘Solar System’ comparison of the three:

To illustrate important ideas about truth and truth-claims, let’s begin with a famous example:  Between 1500 (when almost everyone believed that the sun and planets revolved around the earth)and 1700 (when almost every educated person believed that the earth and planets revolved around the sun), what changed and what did not change?
      Did the reality change?  Did the motions of planets change from earth-centered (in 1500) to sun-centered (in 1700)?  No.
      Did the truth change?  No.  Because truth is determined by reality, what was true in 1500 (the earth and planets really moved around the sun) was also true in 1700.
      Did our truth-claims change?  Yes.  Our humanly constructed beliefs about the motions were different in 1500 and 1700.  Thus, there were changes in the realities of humanly-constructed science, philosophy, religion, and culture[…]

The rejection of absolute truth is at odds with followers of doctrine as it undermines the very source of authority.  See http://www.svchapel.org/resources/articles/22-contemporary-issues/523-postmodernism-part-2 for the kind of response to post-modernism one might expect to see. A small snippet:

That the rejection of truth lies at the center of postmodernity must be grasped to have any kind of handle on what is being taught. As with existentialism, there is a rejection of absolute truth. As in existentialism, truth is not found. It is created. But unlike existentialism, truth is constructed not individually but socially. That is, individual societies, cultures and subcultures develop their truth to which members of that community must adhere. However, this socially constructed truth is subject to change and is highly subjective.

However, it is wrong to claim that a rejection of absolute truth forces us into subjectivism and saying that all truths are just a matter of taste.  That is the kind of knee-jerk reaction that might be expected.  That social agreements valuing human life are in effect is not just a relic of Christianity, it is an expression of other pragmatic truths including working together and learning together.  Rejecting absolute truth does not mean that, say, science contains no truth to it.  It does however make an important concession to the very human process of truth-finding – that it is imperfect and uncertain.  We are still able to establish the notion of communal/consensual truth.  In that, each individual exercises their inalienable subjective authority to consent or reject what is presented as truth, but by virtue of the consent and agreements that emerge, we arrive at the socially constructed concept of truth.

Individuals are not forced to adopt a particular truth, but if a person were to reject socially accepted ‘truths’ that underpin behavioural criteria in that society, they would likely be made unwelcome pretty quickly!

Deconstructionism claims that language is also socially constructed and hence lacks an absolute or objective meaning.  Does this mean that communication is impossible?  Of course not, but it calls into question the conceptual myth of communicating some kind of ultimate ‘objective’ meaning.  Wittgenstein has some good stuff to say in support of this.  Again, the role of the term ‘objective’ meaning is perhaps better considered as ‘almost universally accepted’.  This does not mean that the only truths that matter for the postmodernist are subjective ones – but that all truths whether private affirmations ranging through to socially accepted norms up to (pretty-much) universally held statements must originate from individual experience and consent.

Relativism in an extreme form is sometimes cited as a problem for the Postmodernist, by taking the line that undermining objective truth and meaning prevents us from comparing the ‘validity’ of competing systems of morals, say.  Needless to say, this is an extreme form of relativism!  The existence of many views (pluralism) does not indicate that all of these views are equally credible (as claimed in extreme relativism).  Further quote from the www.svchapel.org article:

How is a country like America, with its melting pot of religions, ethnic backgrounds and the like, going to exist? By adopting a relativism mindset, which recognizes everyone’s truth as equal. Since there is no absolute truth anyway, your view is as good as mine. We should all live and let live; and by no means ever impose our understanding of right, wrongs, morals, and ethics on those of another philosophical community.

This is not the case.  By recognising that truths are partly subjective does not prevent discourse about such truths (or indeed discourse in general).  Also, approval or disapproval lies with the individual, who is entitled to agree or disagree as they see fit.  The thing is, by highlighting their own subjective authority, they are also acknowledging their potential for error which they can attempt to mitigate by respecting and heeding the claims of others.  This does not compel permissive tolerance of the murderer or rapist, though it might make us more willing to listen to extenuating circumstances – hence the aphorism ‘there are two sides to every story’.

The post-modernist does believe that their view is better than conflicting views – that is why they have chosen to subscribe to it rather than the alternative – but in recognising this essentially subjective aspect of their view they are more willing to allow for error.  In addition, I stress the word ‘conflicting’ because a lot of contradictions can be explained away by reinterpreting the relevant language such that the claims are actually talking about different things.  This is how a post-modernist can usually avoid conflict – by resorting to discussion rather than force and in the resulting meeting of minds both sides may discover unexpected truths.  In a similar manner, the post-modernist is happy to salvage meaning from doctrinal texts where symbolism may be rife, and becomes adept at the manipulation and interpretation of symbols – hence the title: ‘The Postmodern Witch’.

The critic of postmodernism may try to emphasise the in-communicability of truths in order to create an impasse when conflicting truths collide, but the whole nature of post-modernism works to avoid such an impasse.  Most people are able to communicate about simple semantic literals by pointing or miming.  When the conflict lies at a more metaphysical level – say one version of God is benevolent, whereas another is malevolent – there may well arise a linguistic impasse, but it still seems likely for the sides to identify the nature of this impasse.  If particularly fundamental entrenched contradictions are encountered between groups, avoiding a rapid military escalation by encouraging multicultural co-existence and discourse would appear a welcome opportunity to mitigate loss of life, assuming that that was a communal truth common to both groups!  Of course, should that fail, we can always revert to tried and tested pragmatic methods of resolution – use of force.  This is not a failing of Postmodernism – it is a strength that it should be such a last resort.

Postmodernism undermines conflict by reinterpreting and attempting to seek a compatible understanding.  This is a process common to paradox resolutions.  Conflicts arise when such reinterpretation is resisted – such as by adherents to absolute truth who refuse to compromise or accept that their truth might be part of something greater, or incomplete – i.e. by denying other truths.  Most truths can be salvaged once absolute truth claims are abandoned, and there still remains the possibility for ‘objective’ truth status achieved through communal consensus.  In order to achieve such an accolade, truths must run the gauntlet of subjectivity where they risk being rejected – but the alternative leaves us with dogma, which is an increasingly unpalatable ‘justification’ anyway.  Appeals to absolute truths are appeals to dogmatic acceptance – good luck with that!

So, where does this leave the project of the Postmodern Witch?  It gives a very flexible system for discussing and interpreting concepts within varying systems of belief, and extracting meaning from them.  My personal inclination is that much of magic and religion I have read about involves very powerful symbols, and that these symbols can be instantiated in many ways.  There is a lot of wisdom and many insights in these writings, worthy of study, and to encourage such study of the texts requires a shift away from out-dated and often single-minded modes of discourse.  Of course there is a risk of misunderstanding when translating, but the alternative is simple ignorance if we do not.  The Postmodern Witch then becomes an expression of a particular ideal: The active embodiment of human wisdom.