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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N044-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved October 21, 2018, 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’: 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 encompass.

Across a wide range of cultural activity there has been a sustained and multivalent challenge to various founding assumptions of Western European culture that have been in place since at least the fifteenth century and in some cases since the fifth century BCE. During the past century new and cognate developments in science, in art, in philosophy and in politics, all have disturbed beliefs that have been basic to modernity: beliefs concerning, for example, structure and identity, transcendence and particularity, the nature of time and space, and causality. Such beliefs are not mere abstractions but powerful engines of knowledge with very practical outcomes. 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; consensus politics confronts totalitarianism and genocide. These and related cultural events belong to seismic changes in the way we register the world, formulate thought, and communicate with each other.

To grasp what is at stake in postmodernism it is necessary to think historically and broadly, and in that context to recognize that what we are discussing is a condition we are already ‘in’ and not at all a set of beliefs that we can choose or not choose to believe. For these and other reasons it is more appropriate to speak of ‘postmodernity’ rather than the more limited ‘postmodernism’ which sounds as though it might be something optional. Both terms are employed here depending on whether discussion concerns a general condition (postmodernity) or a particular challenge (postmodernism).

The difficulty in achieving an agreed focus and vocabulary results in part from the fact that grasping the full range of postmodernity requires investigation across the range of practice, both in and out of academia, and requires a broadly diverse set of problems and issues. Postmodernity is not an ‘academic’ issue; it affects everyone at the most practical level and across the range of practice in various terms. What one might call its ‘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.

In academic contexts discussion has been particularly hampered by institutional commitments to traditional disciplinary classifications. Despite lip service to the contrary, universities, libraries and publishers all continue to pursue essentially disciplinary agendas. Few alleged ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘multidisciplinary’ programmes actually confront the founding methodological differences between disciplines, or amount to much more than mere splicing activities of the kind Charles Dickens pilloried nearly two centuries ago with his book reviewer who boned up on Chinese metaphysics by consulting the Encyclopaedia Brittanica under ‘C’ for China and under ‘M’ for Metaphysics, and then ‘combined his information’.

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 ‘time’ – that guarantees either the One-ness of the world or the possibility of neutral, objective thought; second, the assumption that all human systems operate like language as self-reflexive rather than referential systems, in other words systems of differential function that are powerful but finite, and that construct and maintain meaning and value.

Citing this article:
Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. Postmodernism, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N044-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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