Radical Postmodernism – A New Kind of Individualism

Nietzsche

The radical postmodern mind refuses to limit truth to its rational dimension. It debunks the human intellect from its position of truth determiner and gives place to emotions, intuitions, and the belief that humanity needs to adopts a new attitude of cooperation, without metanarratives – and hence without particularist religions or ideologies.

Modernity had advanced the project of universal knowledge through its confidence in the capacity of reason to determine truth from empirical observation and logical exercise. Thus, modernity’s historical move (which started in the middle ages) was from the oral to the written, from particular to universal, from the local to the general, from the timely to the timeless.

Postmodernity reverses the trend, and as a result it still is unable to escape from the individual sovereign. Particular interpretations and dialogue occupy the center stage, not universal truths. Hence, there is an emphasis on oral narrative, local realities, and the fluidity of time affecting all contexts of knowledge.

Nietzsche argued that humanity was to break away from the prison of conventional morality, which is nothing than an imposition of power. Humanity is to emerge from the control of religion, the Bible, and any assurance of a divine guidance and wisdom overlooking man’s destiny, which only creates a morality of decadence.[1] For Nietzsche, morality is an expression of the will to power – but the question is, whose will to power? He argues that there are three powers that lie concealed behind morality: first, the instinct of the herd against the strong and the independent; secondly, the instinct of the suffering ad the underprivileged against the fortunate. Third, there is the instinct of the mediocre against the exceptional.[2] He states that:

Here again fear is the mother of morals . . .  the lofty independent spirituality, the will to stand alone, and even the cogent reason, are felt to be dangers; everything that elevates the individual above the herd, and is a source of fear to neighbor, is henceforth called evil; the tolerant, unassuming, self-adapting, self-equalizing disposition, the mediocrity of desires, attains to moral distinction and honor.[3]

The primary difficulty of conventional morality is that it impedes the development of the extraordinary individual, or, as Nietzsche put it, the Übermensch, or Superman; the human race can only be elevated by the rise of this higher form of humanity.[4] Whatever is good is that which heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, and power itself; whatever is bad, is everything that is born of weakness.[5] For Nietzsche, both Christianity and philosophy are guilty of saying “no” to life, for both in their own way seek to affirm moral truths.[6]

As a result, much of the postmodern mind both affirms and denies the place of the individual in reality. It denies that individuals can seek objective truth and tap into an external world of reality if he or she follows proper procedures, and is careful to observe certain indubitable foundations of knowing. There is no such thing as objective truth, and individuals are shaped by a whole host of presuppositions generated by their place in time and in the community.

On the other hand, much of postmodernity (especially the kind that follows Nietzsche in one way or another) places a different kind of sovereignty on the individual. A person should not limit himself or herself by any systems of morality, of control, of ideas of justice, truth, goodness, and beauty, which are thought to somehow lie outside of self and to be authoritative over self. Each person is to pursue his or her own set of ideas, values, and goals – and particularly, one is not to allow others to infringe upon one’s freedoms and goals.

This tension between the emphasis on pluralism and validation of all cultures (a natural outcome of relativism) and the emphasis on a radical ethical, epistemological, aesthetic, and volitional freedom of the individual is an element of postmodern culture, and it remains to be seen whether it will resolve itself in the de-emphasis of one or the other, or whether it will find an alternative solution, or even crumble under its own inconsistencies.

Helpful Contributions

Postmodernism has helped modern thought to recognize that knowledge is conditioned to a great extent in terms of culture, historical setting, society, and personal experiences. Certainly, to acknowledge this is to reject many elements of epistemological foundationalism and religious fundamentalism; at the same time, however, it is to become more self-critical. In our theological task, we should be careful about conditioned knowledge. Contemporary theology has made a good contribution towards a balanced framework for the exercise of theology.

Anyone who has, in some level, circled in academic and/or ecclesiastical settings that include peoples of different countries, cultures, languages, worship traditions, and economic and sociological realities, can better appreciate the role and impact of those elements in theology. The Church still has to address the same fundamental problem of mankind: its separation from God and all the evils that attend to it. However, it has to take into account diverse considerations as listed above.

The postmodern mind can be helpful in bringing into focus the fact that we are creatures in need of revelation, not autonomous beings who can discern all truth in our own univocal knowledge. Epistemological equivocity is still touted in postmodern circles, and hopefully its incoherence will eventually become more apparent; at any rate, its rejection of the Cartesian approach to knowledge might help bring the necessity of analogical epistemology and revelation into focus.

Modernism was grounded in epistemological foundationalism, universalism, and individualism. Postmodernism, in its more mild form, brought a healthy correction to some of modernism’s extremes. It has shown that pressuppositional difference is a corrective to extreme universalism. It also allows for examination of self and one’s own culture.

Nietzsche himself emphasized the perspectival character of all thinking and the provisional character of all knowing. Even though he rejected the idea that things and values have existence in themselves, he held that, if viewed in the multiplicity of perspectives, they admit a significant measure of comprehension; for him there is no truth and knowledge in the sense of correspondence with an objective reality, but there are warranted ways of thinking when a perspectival approach is taken.[7]

While Nietzsche erroneously denies the reality of objective truth, perspectivalism can be of help to remind us of our analogical knowledge, and the noetic effects of sin.

Deconstructionism helps promote epistemological caution, dialogue and cross-culturalism. There can be also a healthy, mild suspicion in hermeneutics. This is helpful especially when one considers the somewhat conditioned nature of knowledge. Narratives can also bring richer interrelationships to cultures that have strongly emphasized the nature of science and math. It highlights the complexity and richness of human nature and experience.

Finally, and most importantly, postmodernism has brought a healthy and desperately needed antidote to modernism’s extreme emphasis on individualism, even if it still has not abandoned it.

From a theistic perspective (which postmodernism often does not have), we must not lose sight of the fact that God has created mankind to function in society, and to exemplify His image in love, truth and beauty to one another. The Church of God, in both Testaments, has been a community, the congregation of the Lord who lives in a covenant with and before him, and with one another. To lose sight of this is to cripple Christianity.

Difficulties

Postmodernism, of course, has its extreme form, which is antithetical to reason and to apostolic Christianity. Conditioned knowledge becomes radical relativism. Pressupositional difference becomes extreme deconstructionism. The negative within becomes skepticism. The healthy suspicion in hermeneutics becomes cynicism. The oral narrative can ultimately discard science and math, to the point where propositions lose their objective meaning.

Finally, the over-emphasis on community rejects the objective nature of truth in favor of dialogue not as a means, but as an end. Reality becomes fragmented and unknowable. The laws of logic are ultimately rejected. Arbitrary signs point to nothing actually signified – the signs are the signified.

Epistemological nihilism denies the possibility of justifying or criticizing claims of knowledge, since it views all claims to knowledge as entirely relative to historical epochs, cultural contexts, or the vagaries of individual thought and experience, and therefore ultimately arbitrary and incommensurable.[8]

The sovereign individual, claiming all truth is partial (or at least our knowledge of it) and always relative (which is self-referentially incoherent, or, in common language, self-refuting), sits on a high and lofty throne from which he can indeed look down and see (rather non-partially) that all others see only partial truth – and then gets to decide which partial truth is more meaningful or useful for him.

Much of postmodern thinking is also based upon nihilistic assumptions that life is a meaningless game, and that the world has no telos and no sense; the only way to overcome this is the acceptance of a picture of the world as sustained by a God for whom the course of the world, in all its detail, is not a matter of indifference.[9]

Ultimately, postmodernism is the flip side of modernism and  at the same time a part of it. In modernity, there was a shift from analogy of being and revelation as mediating the ectypal, to univocity of being, where being is above God himself. Postmodernism is helpful in counteracting that univocity, even though often it errs by swinging the pendulum the other way, into equivocity. The essence of modernism, however, is still present in radical postmodernism: both rest on the autonomy of the human; the difference is that the first moderns were optimistic, whereas the recent ones are not.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Ecce Homo” in The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (New York: Random House, n.d.) 887-888.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: Random House, 1967), 274.

[3]  Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil” in (The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche) New York: Random House, n.d.) 274.

[4] Millard J. Erickson, Truth or Consequences – The Promise and the Perils of Postmodernism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.) 87.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Antichrist” in The Portable Nietzsche. (New York: Viking, 1954) 570.

[6] Erickson, 88.

[7] Robert Audi, ed. “Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 534.

[8] Donald A. Crosby, “Nihilism” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 6 (New York: Routledge, 1998), 1.

[9] Philip Devine, Relativism, Nihilism, and God. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 76.

Advertisements

6 comments on “Radical Postmodernism – A New Kind of Individualism

  1. […] recent times that Postmodernism sprung up as the pendulum began to swing the other way. However, as I have pointed in another article, Postmodernism, while bringing much needed correction to modernist assumptions, could not escape […]

  2. Sandra Arrache says:

    Marcelo, I really enjoyed reading this post about Postmodernism. I found it so interesting, just as the one you posted yesterday with your thoughts on the meditations of Descartes. I will definitely keep following your blog! 🙂

  3. Joel Mathew says:

    Hi Marcelo, great post. I think you have brought across the point of postmodernism and modernism really well. I was amazed at the way you managed to describe these issues so accurately in such a concise way. I have a question though, you said the church needs to move away from the separation of God and its evils. Im curious to know what exactly did you mean by this?

    • Joel, I’m glad you found the article helpful. As to your question, I am not sure exactly what you were referring to.

      I wrote that “The Church still has to address the same fundamental problem of mankind: its separation from God and all the evils that attend to it.” That is to say, the separation of mankind from God, and the evils that result from that separation – the Church still has to address that, taking into consideration what I had mentioned earlier (viz., peoples of different countries, cultures, languages, worship traditions, and economic and sociological realities, etc.). Hope that helps.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s