DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

The term ‘postmodernism’ appears in a range of contexts, from academic essays to clothing advertisements in the New York Times. Its meaning differs with context to such an extent that it seems to function like Lévi-Strauss’ ‘floating signifier’(Derrida 1982: 290): not so much to express a value as to hold open a space for that which exceeds expression. This broad capacity of the term ‘postmodernism’ testifies to the scope of the cultural changes it attempts to compass.

Across a wide range of cultural activity there has been a sustained and multivalent challenge to various founding assumptions of Western European culture since at least the fifteenth century and in some cases since the fifth century bc: assumptions about structure and identity, about transcendence and particularity, about the nature of time and space. From physics to philosophy, from politics to art, the description of the world has changed in ways that upset some basic beliefs of modernity. For example, phenomenology seeks to collapse the dualistic distinction between subject and object; relativity physics shifts descriptive emphasis from reality to measurement; the arts move away from realism; and consensus politics confronts totalitarianism and genocide. These and related cultural events belong to seismic changes in the way we register the world and communicate with each other.

To grasp what is at stake in postmodernism it is necessary to think historically and broadly, in the kind of complex terms that inevitably involve multidisciplinary effort. This multilingual impetus, this bringing together of methods and ideas long segregated both in academic disciplines and in practical life, particularly characterizes postmodernism and largely accounts for such resistance as it generates.

Although diverse and eclectic, postmodernism can be recognized by two key assumptions. First, the assumption that there is no common denominator – in ‘nature’ or ‘truth’ or ‘God’ or ‘the future’ – that guarantees either the One-ness of the world or the possibility of neutral or objective thought. Second, the assumption that all human systems operate like language, being self-reflexive rather than referential systems – systems of differential function which are powerful but finite, and which construct and maintain meaning and value.

    Citing this article:
    Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. Postmodernism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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