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Postmodern philosophy is an eclectic and elusive movement characterized by its criticism of the conventions of Western philosophy. Beginning as a critique of Continental philosophy, it was heavily influenced by phenomenology, structuralism and the poorly-understood and maligned philosophy of existentialism, including writings of both Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. It was also influenced to some degree by Ludwig Wittgenstein's later criticisms of analytic philosophy. As Postmodernism questions the established paradigms and institutions of the conservative culture of the privileged, as did existentialism, it is often attacked and maligned, and its definitions and hypotheses deliberately distorted by those consumed with a sort of conservative 'Culture War' mentality.
For the most part, postmodern philosophy has spawned substantial literature of critical theory. Other areas of production have included deconstruction and several areas beginning with the prefix "post-", such as post-structuralism, post-Marxism, and post-feminism.
Postmodern philosophy is often particularly skeptical about simple binary oppositions that pervade much of Western metaphysics and humanism, emphasizing the problem of the philosopher cleanly distinguishing knowledge from ignorance, social progress from reversion, dominance from submission, and presence from absence.
While some critics claim that postmodern skepticism appears similar to relativism or even nihilism, defenders of post-modernism in turn sometimes argue that there is a distinct difference: while relativism and nihilism are generally viewed as an abandonment of meaning and authority, postmodern philosophy is generally viewed as an openness to meaning and authority from unexpected places, so that the ultimate source of authority is the "play" of the discourse itself. The essential point is that the meaning of all things is colored by subjectivity, and that for a philosophy or ideology to pretend full objectivity is not only deceptive but also in some cases politically abusive.
History of postmodern philosophy
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Early influences in postmodern philosophy
Postmodern philosophy originated primarily in France during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and was greatly influenced by the writings of other earlier 20th century philosophers, including phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, structuralist Roland Barthes, and the logician/linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein. Postmodern philosophy also drew from the world of the arts, particularly Marcel Duchamp and artists who practiced collage.
Early postmodern philosophers
The most influential early postmodern philosophers were Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida. Foucault approached postmodern philosophy from a historical perspective, building upon structuralism, but at the same time rejecting structuralism by re-historicizing[How to reference and link to summary or text] and destabilizing[How to reference and link to summary or text] the philosophical structures of Western thought.[How to reference and link to summary or text]} He also considered how knowledge is defined and changed by the operation of power.
In America, the most famous postmodernist is Richard Rorty. Originally an analytic philosopher, Rorty believed that combining Donald Davidson's criticism of the dualism between conceptual scheme and empirical content with Willard Van Orman Quine's criticism of the analytic-synthetic distinction allowed for an abandonment of the view of the mind as a mirror of a reality or external world. He argued that truth was not "out-there", but was in language and language was whatever served our purposes in any particular time; ancient languages are sometimes untranslatable into modern ones. Donald Davidson is not usually considered a postmodernist, although he and Rorty have both acknowledged that there are few differences between their philosophies.
The writings of Lyotard were largely concerned with the role of narrative in human culture, and particularly how that role has changed as we have left modernity and entered a "postindustrial" or postmodern condition. He argued that modern philosophies legitimized their truth-claims not (as they themselves claimed) on logical or empirical grounds, but rather on the grounds of accepted stories (or "metanarratives") about knowledge and the world -- what Wittgenstein termed "language-games." He further argued that in our postmodern condition, these metanarratives no longer work to legitimize truth-claims. He suggested that in the wake of the collapse of modern metanarratives, people are developing a new "language game" -- one that does not make claims to absolute truth but rather celebrates a world of ever-changing relationships (among people and between people and the world).
Derrida, the father of deconstruction, practiced philosophy as a form of textual criticism. He criticized Western philosophy as privileging the concept of presence and logos, as opposed to absence and markings or writings. Derrida thus claimed to have deconstructed Western philosophy by arguing, for example, that the Western ideal of the present logos is undermined by the expression of that ideal in the form of markings by an absent author.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Thus, to emphasize this paradox, Derrida reformalized human culture as a disjoint network of proliferating markings and writings, with the author being absent.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Though Derrida and Foucault are cited as postmodern philosophers, each has rejected many of the other's views. Like Lyotard, both are skeptical of absolute or universal truth-claims. Unlike Lyotard, however, they are (or seem) rather more pessimistic about the emancipatory claims of any new language-game; thus some would characterize them as post-structuralist rather than postmodernist.
Postmodernism and post-structuralism
Postmodern philosophy is very similar to post-structuralism; whether one considers the two identical or fundamentally different generally depends on how invested one is in the issues. People who are opposed to either postmodernism or poststructuralism often lump them together; advocates on the other hand make finer distinctions.
- An interview with Rorty
- Davidson, D., 1986, "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge," Truth And Interpretation, Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, ed. Ernest LePore, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, afterwords.
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