Soft vs hard postmodernism

cover of Reformed and Always ReformingIn his book on postconservative theology – Reformed and Always Reforming – Roger Olson makes a valuable distinction between two types of postmodernism. It is a distinction that I came to make in some way in my own mind, but it would have been so very valuable to read it articulated like this back in my undergrad days at Murdoch University in what will turn out to have been the twilight of ‘absolute’ (and ‘hard’) postmodernism.

Olson describes hard postmodernism like this:

On the one hand is deconstructive thought that seeks to expose the oppressive power of truth claims and especially of metanarratives. Philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, and Richard Rorty engage in this hard kind of postmodern philosophy, which seems inevitably relativistic. For them, all truth claims are but masks for will to power. Some critics have described this hard type of postmodern philosophy as “cognitive nihilism.” Its main purpose is to relativize truth.

This is the kind of postmodernism which is more familiar to people. I think it is only of limited usefulness and insight. More helpful and insightful is what Olson calls ‘soft’ postmodernism:

On the other hand is a softer kind of postmodern philosophy found in thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, who does not deny ontological reality or objective truth but seeks to show that even reason always operates within a narrative context. In other words, knowledge may be relative even if truth is not… This is not relativism but recognition of the relativity of perspective inherent in all human thinking. All reasoning and judging takes place from within some local context shaped by a narrative about reality and carried forward within a community of tradition created by that narrative.

Conservatives will tend to assume postconservatives are embracing ‘hard’ postmodernism, when in fact they are only using the insights of ‘soft’ postmodernism.

2 thoughts on “Soft vs hard postmodernism

  1. Hi Nathan,
    thanks for this…While I agree with the Pope’s spiel about the ‘Dictatorship of Relativism’, I’ve always found it hard to articulate the nuances in Truth and Knowledge: i.e. that there IS absolute truth and yet we do see “through a glass darkly” now, all of us, because of our fallibility and our point of view…well, my mate, reviewing a book he just read, has articulated beautifully the way I believe it is…

    I’ve studied the History of Knowledge and Ideas a lot in the last decade and this is usually how things transpire: an idea takes hold and grips a civilisation for a generation until people began to realise it simply is not the case in its ‘pure’ form…sure, there might be aspects of it that are true but people’s daily experience and even the historical record of the human race’s experience simply does not jibe with the pure and unadulterated ideology in question…so, for instance, while we have brains and reason is important the Age of Reason ended because people understood we were also emotions and feelings…likewise, Modernism ended because people understood its central underpinnings were not all true (c.f. Logical positivism – we know truth from the five senses – could not be used to validate itself)…so too, I believe, postmodernism: people are beginning to realise that a philosophy of the radical self is not only untrue (why else do we have laws proscribing certain things – like murder? hard postmodernists used to say stuff like: “well, yes, but you can do anything you want EXCEPT harm others” but this doesn’t follow from their ideology/way of thinking in its pure form…in allowing an exception, they are themselves undermining their cause…and this is what happened to all other ideologies…critics pointed out this stuff and defenders said they were allowing exceptions for reasons of commonsense or what not…but the commonsense – where did that come from, because their godless ideology could not explain it)…anyway not only is hard postmodernism not true (because it cannot explain the ‘universal moral law’ C.S. Lewis so wonderfully uses to argue for absolute truth) but it simply does not fully jibe with people’s daily experiences…c.f. in spite of individuality, we do largely have the same goals and desires in life: love, community, self-actualisation, and so on…if hard pomo were true then why this commonality of desire and, so often, experience…in its pure form, hard pomo would mean we may have groups that, by happy accident, share certain experiences and desires, but there would be different groups who would not be able to form a coherent society…but we do have largely coherent societies across the globe that share certain basic underpinnings in beliefs/values (the London riots showed this: not only the remorse and guilt of so many rioters – why feel guilty if simply acting according to one’s radically self-inspired belief system that sees pillaging and looting as acceptable – but also even soccer thugs like the Millwall fans [infamous in UK society and seen as almost outlaws] decided to defend civilisation against the anarchy by protecting shops against rioters…in other words, even those considered on the outside of society defended that society when it was threatened)…My point is that the riots showed that everyone shared the same set of values (their individual ‘spin’ on a value might be different – hence, [poor example but for reasons of time/space] differing political parties with different emphases [on how to achieve the same outcomes: full employment, etc, etc] – but they essentially shared the same thing)…

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