DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 11, 2021, from

1. Historical context

‘Postmodernism’ is a historical term, indicating something that comes after modernity; so the definition of postmodernism varies depending on what is meant by ‘modern’. When ‘modern’ refers to movements in the arts around the turn of the twentieth century – an efflorescence known as ‘modernism’ – then ‘postmodern’ refers to a fairly local phenomenon of the mid- to late-twentieth century (see Modernism). But when ‘modern’ is used in the historian’s sense, to indicate what follows the medieval – that is, Renaissance culture and its sequels – then ‘postmodern’ refers to a more broadly distributed cultural phenomenon in European and US societies.

Given this latter use of the term ‘modern’, postmodernism is what follows and transforms that particular Renaissance (some would prefer to call it Enlightenment) modernity. It is in this broader sense of modernity that the term ‘postmodernism’ takes on its full meaning. Here it signals a revisionary shift in the system of values and practices that have been broadly codified in European life over several centuries. Confusion between these two historical meanings of the term ‘modern’ skews discussion of the crucial philosophical, political and social issues at stake in postmodernism.

Such confusion certainly is not relieved by the ahistorical contributions of recent French philosophy which has taken the demystification of Western metaphysics back to Plato. Known as post-structuralism, this philosophy has been crucial to theoretical discussion of postmodernism, but not identical with it; the historical horizon of post-structuralism occupies a period so vast that it practically ceases to allow for history at all, producing discussions that blot out awareness of postmodernity as a historical event. Luce Irigaray and Jacques Derrida, for example, take on the foundations of Western philosophy and do not limit their critiques specifically to modern European culture (see Post-structuralism).

Modernity, defined from the vantage point of post-modernity, was a cultural epoch and ‘episteme’ (see §2) founded in a humanistic belief that the world is One. This belief, codified in centuries of realist art, representational politics and empirical science, is tantamount to the assertion that a common denominator can be found for all systems of belief and value: that the world is a unified field, explicable by a single explanatory system. As this belief developed through increasingly secular and materialistic practices it became less secure in its claims to universal applicability. After the Renaissance the ‘totalizing’ claim to universal applicability was increasingly transferred from divinity to infinity: especially the infinity of space and time as they were radically reconstructed by Renaissance art and science. Postmodernism is the condition of coping without these absolute common denominators, especially without the neutral and homogeneous media of time and space which are the quintessential, field-unifying media of modernity.

Postmodernism specifically challenges the European culture that took its direction from the Renaissance, developed through the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment, and remains a common discourse for most citizens of Western democratic societies. In philosophy, in the arts, in science, in political theory and in sociology, postmodernism challenges the entire culture of realism, representation, humanism and empiricism. Postmodern critique thus goes to the very foundation of personal, social and institutional definition. Its challenges to knowledge and institutions are felt particularly in universities.

Citing this article:
Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. Historical context. Postmodernism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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