Writing in late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Jean-Francois Lyotard was perhaps the first contemporary thinker to treat on a distinct intellectual and cultural movement we call today as postmodernity. Its philosophical base, now known for lack of a better term as postmodernism, was already brewing at that point in time when the West (and shortly thereafter, maybe even some parts of the world under the influence of the West) was being impacted in varying degrees by the ideas of existentialism. It was a time of intellectual and cultural struggle against prevalent thought-patterns spawned by the old Enlightenment ideology, which back then was already showing signs of its apparent failure to deliver its promise of a Utopian modern world for all humanity.
Lyotard’s treatment on the subject begins with an attack against scientific knowledge, which in the modern state of affairs "legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse … making an explicit appeal to some grand narratives." One of those grand narratives, which in fact was the one that singlehandedly dominated the way of thinking of the modern world, was the notion that Enlightenment thinkers conquered ignorance and superstitions of the pre-modern world by promoting scientific knowledge to replace religiously laden ideas considered to be the culprit of centuries old of intellectual and cultural stagnancy.
But such an appeal to grand narratives, Lyotard maintains, is no longer tenable. "The grand narrative,” he said, “has lost its credibility … regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation." Indeed, a shift away from the Enlightenment-oriented modernity could already be felt at the time when people of the modern world, whether consciously or unconsciously, started to lose their faith in scientific knowledge as a major contributor to human freedom, economic progress and material well-being.
Maybe, this is so because scientific knowledge, though undeniably responsible for the modernization of the world, has finally turned out to be also liable for producing weapons of mass destruction, not to mention some other means to destroy the lives of many in a rather smaller scale. Not only so, it also contributed a great deal towards the sudden sophistications of evil that eventually gave the 20th century its two World Wars, making it so far the bloodiest of all centuries. In fact, Lyotard does not hesitate to suggest that "Auschwitz ended modernity," calling it in no uncertain terms as "the crime opening postmodernity, a crime of … populicide."
Decades before this, however, Friedrich Nietzsche could be heard preaching the “death of God” gospel in late 19th century. He condemned rationalistic thinking and denied the categories of absolute, universal truth principles proceeding from the mind of God which are there for man to know and appreciate if he ever wishes to find meaning in life. In Nietzsche’s mind, it was not only God who died, but with His death also came the death of truth. The final truth, he claimed, is that there is no truth out there for us to know, “there is only the dying spirit in agony on the Cross.” As if anticipating the ramifications of this idea, he also spoke like a prophet, announcing that “the mind of the West has gone mad.”
This was picked up by subsequent generations of existentialists led by the likes of Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, among others, purporting that truth is indeed nowhere to be found outside of ourselves but is rather only a matter of human construct. Intuition instead of reason, preferences instead of so-called truth principles, choices instead of verifiable facts, began to formulate the rule of the game. Existence was finally said to have preceded essence. Truth as a universal principle that applies to everyone at any point in time and in any place was suddenly buried in the past alongside the already antiquated Age of Reason. Hence, existentialism proved to be the immediate major precursor of postmodernism.
But before postmodernism finally became the major intellectual force to shape the philosophical orientation of the 21st century West, there also came along the way, as philosopher of religion Harold Netland puts it, “ontological non-realism (there is no objective reality ‘out there’ to be experienced and known); constructivism (’reality’ is merely a construct of social experiences); perspectivism (we can never know reality as it is; the most we can know is reality from our perspective); various forms of relativism (truth, rationality norms, and the like are all relative to, or internal to, particular contexts).” These schools of thought combined together brought the postmodern condition into place, characterized, one way or the other, by humanity’s sudden loss of faith in God, rationalistic thinking and scientific knowledge.
- Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. The Postmodern Turn. New York and London: Guilford Press, 1997.
- Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Knopf, 1946.
- Carson, D. A. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
- Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
- Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
- Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester:Manchester University Press, 1984.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. New York: French & European, 1938.
- Vanhoozer, Kevin J, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology. Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003.