Theory of cultural and political variety.

The account of the world given by MODERNISM no longer works in the final decades of the 20th century. Instead of single sets of values or political loyalties, there is a wide variety of groups and classes, aims and ideologies.

David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford, 1989)

Postmodernism is a broad movement that developed in the mid- to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism, marking a departure from modernism. The term has been more generally applied to describe a historical era said to follow after modernity and the tendencies of this era.

Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism, often criticizing Enlightenment rationality and focusing on the role of ideology in maintaining political or economic power. Postmodern thinkers frequently describe knowledge claims and value systems as contingent or socially-conditioned, framing them as products of political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies. Common targets of postmodern criticism include universalist ideas of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, science, language, and social progress. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-consciousness, self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence.

Postmodern critical approaches gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, and have been adopted in a variety of academic and theoretical disciplines, including cultural studies, philosophy of science, economics, linguistics, architecture, feminist theory, and literary criticism, as well as art movements in fields such as literature, contemporary art, and music. Postmodernism is often associated with schools of thought such as deconstruction, post-structuralism, and institutional critique, as well as philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Fredric Jameson.

Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse and include arguments that postmodernism promotes obscurantism, is meaningless, and that it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge.


Postmodernism is an intellectual stance or mode of discourse[1][2] defined by an attitude of skepticism toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, as well as opposition to epistemic certainty and the stability of meaning.[3] It questions or criticizes viewpoints associated with Enlightenment rationality dating back to the 17th century,[4] and is characterized by irony, eclecticism, and its rejection of the “universal validity” of binary oppositions, stable identity, hierarchy, and categorization.[5][6] Postmodernism is associated with relativism and a focus on ideology in the maintenance of economic and political power.[4] Postmodernists are generally “skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races,” and describe truth as relative.[7] It can be described as a reaction against attempts to explain reality in an objective manner by claiming that reality is a mental construct.[7] Access to an unmediated reality or to objectively rational knowledge is rejected on the grounds that all interpretations are contingent on when they are made;[8] as such, claims to objective fact are dismissed as “naive realism.”[4]

Postmodern thinkers frequently describe knowledge claims and value systems as contingent or socially-conditioned, describing them as products of political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies.[4] Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence.[4] Postmodernism is often associated with schools of thought such as deconstruction and post-structuralism.[4] Postmodernism relies on critical theory, which considers the effects of ideology, society, and history on culture.[9] Postmodernism and critical theory commonly criticize universalist ideas of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress.[4]

Initially, postmodernism was a mode of discourse on literature and literary criticism, commenting on the nature of literary text, meaning, author and reader, writing, and reading.[10] Postmodernism developed in the mid- to late-twentieth century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism as a departure or rejection of modernism.[11][12][13] Postmodernist approaches have been adopted in a variety of academic and theoretical disciplines, including political science,[14] organization theory,[15] cultural studies, philosophy of science, economics, linguistics, architecture, feminist theory, and literary criticism, as well as art movements in fields such as literature and music. As a critical practice, postmodernism employs concepts such as hyperreality, simulacrum, trace, and difference, and rejects abstract principles in favor of direct experience.[7]

Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse, and include arguments that postmodernism promotes obscurantism, is meaningless, and adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge.[16][17][18][19] Some philosophers, beginning with the pragmatist philosopher Jürgen Habermas, say that postmodernism contradicts itself through self-reference, as their critique would be impossible without the concepts and methods that modern reason provides.[3] Various authors have criticized postmodernism, or trends under the general postmodern umbrella, as abandoning Enlightenment rationalism or scientific rigor.[20][21]

Origins of term

The term postmodern was first used in 1870.[22] John Watkins Chapman suggested “a Postmodern style of painting” as a way to depart from French Impressionism.[23] J. M. Thompson, in his 1914 article in The Hibbert Journal (a quarterly philosophical review), used it to describe changes in attitudes and beliefs in the critique of religion, writing: “The raison d’être of Post-Modernism is to escape from the double-mindedness of Modernism by being thorough in its criticism by extending it to religion as well as theology, to Catholic feeling as well as to Catholic tradition.”[24]

In 1942 H. R. Hays described postmodernism as a new literary form.[citation needed]

In 1926, Bernard Iddings Bell, president of St. Stephen’s College (now Bard College), published Postmodernism and Other Essays, marking the first use of the term to describe the historical period following Modernity.[25][26] The essay criticizes the lingering socio-cultural norms, attitudes, and practices of the Age of Enlightenment. It also forecasts the major cultural shifts toward Postmodernity and (Bell being an Anglo-Catholic priest) suggests orthodox religion as a solution.[27] However, the term postmodernity was first used as a general theory for a historical movement in 1939 by Arnold J. Toynbee: “Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the general war of 1914–1918”.[28]

Portland Building (1982), by architect Michael Graves, an example of Postmodern architecture

In 1949 the term was used to describe a dissatisfaction with modern architecture and led to the postmodern architecture movement[29] in response to the modernist architectural movement known as the International Style. Postmodernism in architecture was initially marked by a re-emergence of surface ornament, reference to surrounding buildings in urban settings, historical reference in decorative forms (eclecticism), and non-orthogonal angles.[30]

Author Peter Drucker suggested the transformation into a post-modern world happened between 1937 and 1957 and described it as a “nameless era” characterized as a shift to a conceptual world based on pattern, purpose, and process rather than a mechanical cause. This shift was outlined by four new realities: the emergence of an Educated Society, the importance of international development, the decline of the nation-state, and the collapse of the viability of non-Western cultures.[31]

In 1971, in a lecture delivered at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, Mel Bochner described “post-modernism” in art as having started with Jasper Johns, “who first rejected sense-data and the singular point-of-view as the basis for his art, and treated art as a critical investigation”.[32]

In 1996, Walter Truett Anderson described postmodernism as belonging to one of four typological world views which he identified as:

  • Postmodern-ironist, which sees truth as socially constructed.
  • Scientific-rational, in which truth is defined through methodical, disciplined inquiry.
  • Social-traditional, in which truth is found in the heritage of American and Western civilization.
  • Neo-romantic, in which truth is found through attaining harmony with nature or spiritual exploration of the inner self.[33]

2 thoughts on “post-modernism

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