The Origins of Postmodernism

Does postmodernism spring out of the head of Zeus unconceived or misconceived? Or does it carry a heavy debt on its back to earlier movements and trends?

This article, Part Two in the series on Postmodernism and the Bible, explores the roots of postmodernism, even though the large movement plays with origins. This article supports my claim that postmodernism is a transmogrification of the hyper-skepticism begun in the Enlightenment and given a huge impetus by such influential thinkers as Nietzsche and Freud, to name only two. (Part One explains in the section "Prefixation" why I attach the prefix "hyper.") The nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, going past WWII and into the 1960s, can be characterized as undergoing shaking and instability of the old ways of thinking and developing politics and the economy and expressing the arts. Considering the limitations of one article, we can only look at this broad and deep topic superficially. But at least we will have a general idea.

By way of review of Part One, recall that "transmogrification" means a "great" change or alteration, "often with grotesque or humorous effect." I would take out "great" in that definition and put in "small," in most cases. Anyone who has studied modernism in the fine arts and architecture and literature knows how deeply postmodernism is indebted to modernism-hence the prefix "post" or "after."

The Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800+) shook Western civilization down to its foundation. Taking their cue from ancient Greek skeptics, philosophers like Descartes (1596-1650), Hume (1711-1776), and Kant (1724-1804), advanced skepticism beyond all historical bounds, hence the prefix "hyper."

René Descartes (1596-1650)

He is called the founding father of modern philosophy for good reason. Modern philosophy, especially epistemology, is characterized by heavy doubt. (Epistemology studies how we acquire and define knowledge.) Thus, in his First Meditation he says that he set out on a project to reject everything that is not "plainly certain and indubitable." In the same way he would reject things that are "patently false," if he finds a reason for "doubting even the least of them."

This criterion of discovering truth is extremely high: "plainly certain and indubitable." This last word means "unable to be doubted." Elevating certainty to such unattainable heights gives Descartes free rein to doubt anything, even if it is the existence of his body or the outside world. He even doubts the truth of mathematics. What does he come out with from his systematic doubt? He cannot doubt that he is thinking, a thing that thinks. "I think, therefore I am," he says elsewhere. Even if he is dreaming, then he thinks and therefore exists, for only a thinking thing can dream. And a thinking thing exists. If an evil genius deceives him, then at least he thinks and therefore exists, for only a thinking thing can be deceived. And anything that can be deceived must exist.

Descartes' systematic doubt places the individual in the center of existence. How does this impact postmodernism? To apply his doubt to the main topic of this series of articles, how does such doubt affect the interpretation of texts? He seems to have discovered a foundation, the self. And in the rest of his Meditations he works hard to restore certainty. But certain later philosophers conclude that his efforts are unconvincing. He let the genie of hyper-skepticism out of the bottle.

David Hume (1711-1776)

Hume also challenges our ability to know with certainty. In his Enquiries concerning Human Understanding, he says, for example, that our knowledge of cause and effect, the basis of science, is not founded on demonstrative knowledge. This high level is reserved only for mathematical proofs, as in geometry. Then what is the basis for our knowledge of cause and effect? Before we answer that, let's look at some examples of the nexus or connection of cause and effect.

Gravity causes unhindered objects to fall earthward (effect). Water causes salt to dissolve (effect). To use some of Hume's examples, can we know that an egg, just by looking at it for the first time, could nourish us? No. If a visitor came to this planet "of a sudden," says Hume, can he know what would happen to a billiard ball if anyone pushed it on the table? How would the visitor know that it would not go upwards or straight through the table?

The visitor would know its direction only by experience. He would have to play with the billiard ball for a while, rolling the ball down the table to discover what would happen to it. So the foundation of our coming to know cause and effect is experience. And what is the foundation of experience? It is the accumulation of experiences with cause and effect. And this accumulation Hume calls custom or habit. That is our foundation of our knowledge of science-custom or habit. This is quite shaky.

How can we arrive at any secure knowledge of Biblical texts, especially when the texts proclaim miracles on nearly every page? Hume did not believe that they could happen. More relevant still, will postmodern interpreters of the Bible assume that miracles do not happen?

For more on Hume's hyper-skepticism as it relates to miracles, begin a series on miracles here

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Credit goes to Kant for bridging Descartes' rationalism and Hume's empiricism, but that is not the central point of this brief survey. In Kant, we find a philosophy that challenges our objective knowledge. He says that our minds constitute and shape the world around us. When our five senses feed the raw data of the outside world into our understanding, it simultaneously organizes the data. This disagrees with the commonsense notion that the outside world is the fountain of our knowledge and that we can come to know the outside world objectively and independent of our mind restructuring it. I use a basic introduction to philosophy to help us navigate the deep waters (Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation: an Historical Introduction to Philosophy, 5th ed. Oxford UP, 2007). Kant writes:
Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. (Critique of Pure Reason, quoted in Melchert, p. 427)
So far, so good. This is the commonsense notion we all experience (or assume that we have). Objects exist "completely independent of our apprehension of them" (Melchert). However, Kant is about to reverse or overturn our assumption. After he says that "all attempts at establishing our knowledge of objects . . . have . . . ended in failure," He overturns the old ways, writing:
We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success . . . if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. (ibid, emphasis added)
"Objects must conform to our knowledge." That is a remarkable statement. One interpreter of Kant explains:
Perhaps the objects of experience are (at least in part) the result of a construction by a rational mind (Melchert p. 428).
Kant's philosophy, like that of Descartes and Hume, lands us in the world of uncertainty. Can we know the world of objects without our own minds shaping and constituting those objects? Can we know them as things in themselves? Oliver A. Johnson, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, answers that question in his article "Immanuel Kant," in Great Thinkers of the Western World, ed. Ian P. McGreal, Harper Collins, 1992. Johnson says:
We can have no knowledge of things as they are in themselves, existing independently in a physical world. (p. 283)
This troubling conclusion means that we cannot separate our subjectivity from how the world exists in its own right. Our near-objective knowledge of the world has frustratingly been pushed back out of reach. So now we can ask this question as it relates to Biblical studies: Can any interpretation of a text be solid, or is it always shaky and deferred and out of reach?

Modern trends

The three previous philosophers shook the foundations of western thought, and the shaking opened up new ways of seeing (or not seeing) the world. But postmodernism has more influences working on it. Beginning in the 1870s and reaching to WWI (1914-1918) and WWII (1939-1945), many movements and ideas and events circulated around Europe and influenced modernism (or modernisms), which has now been transmogrified into postmodernism. Here is a partial and sketchy list.

  • The Second Industrial Revolution moved more agrarians from the farm into the city. From 1850 to 1911, urban dwellers increased from 25 to 44 percent in France and from 30 to 60 percent in Germany. Other nations saw similar increases. Urban squalor and poor sanitation were deadly. Plus, who should get the new wealth from industrialism? Socialism says the masses should.
  • Karl Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto in 1848. It challenged the middle class as the French Revolution, instigated by the middle class, challenged the aristocracy. In Europe, 1848 was the year of many revolutions, caused by many factors other than Marx's little book. He simply reflected the spirit of his times.
  • Socialism-a new way of distributing power and the wealth created by the Second Industrial Revolution-dominated the political trends from that time through WWI and II, and even today. Communism, barely distinguishable from socialism, was preached and practiced, with devastating results in the decades ahead.
  • Though the literacy rate in the nineteenth century was appallingly low, the masses were getting more and more educated and picked up new reading material. Primary education was growing. The masses, too, could read about the latest trends.
  • Darwin, though he believed in God, said that we evolved from earlier and primitive species as a result of secondary causes derived from the selection of nature, not as a result of first causes derived from God.
  • Freud said we have no soul, but are a collection of chemicals in the brain which can be acted on by external social and family causes, in the superego. If we do not have a soul, then we lose our essence as humans. Also, God is a projection of our need and wish for a father.
  • New opportunities for women arose. New colleges were founded. Employment developed with the Second Industrial Revolution, but many left the work force after marriage or the birth of their first child. Women won the right to vote after WWI.
  • Revolutions in physics overturned existing mechanical models of how the universe worked. The theory of relativity says that space and time worked together on a continuum, and measuring space and time depends on the observer and instruments and other forces. Subatomic particles behave in unpredictable and strange ways. We lose scientific realism.
  • WWI and WWII produced carnage that the world had never before witnessed. In WWI, in one battle, prolonged over months, one-half or three-quarters of a million soldiers could be lost. WWII was a global conflict, living up to its name of a world war. Many millions of lives were lost around the world. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Plaguing the human psyche, these two wars can be said to influence modernism and postmodernism more than any other events.
  • The Holocaust. Six million gone.
  • From the 1870s to the present, new art gouged and scarred an accurate representation of the world or denied and deferred a pleasing look at or hearing of it. Painters and sculptors saw the human form as broken. The vanishing point and perspective collapsed or "vanished." Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon  demonstrates how far we have come from Da Vinci's Mona Lisa The same is true of literature. James Joyce's novel Ulysses has many pages of stream-of-consciousness or unedited thoughts. Composers Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky take us far from Haydn and Mozart.
  • Mass communication and new technology, such as cars, films, and radios, provided a bigger megaphone for artists to preach their unsettling message, whatever it was. People could drive in cars to a museum, or trucks could bring newspapers reporting on these odd ideas and styles directly to the home of a farmer or traditional citizen in the suburbs.
  • Most important for this series on Postmodernism and the Bible, higher biblical criticism questioned traditional interpretations. Miracles of the Bible did not happen, but they are myths that hold timeless truths. (Go here to begin a series on miracles that questions an anti-miracles starting point for interpreting the Bible.) The Church was under siege.
These movements, ideas, and historical events, merely sketched out here (and some omitted), either directly or indirectly influence postmodernism. But all of them together are like many ripples in a once-still pond, each colliding with the other. Some ripples are bigger than others, but each moves the pond water, causing flux.

What do the items on the list have in common? Uncertainty and instability. But compared to what? Simple. Compared to traditional viewpoints, old ways of life, and common sense. Tradition says that women should stay at home and have no or little political power; traditional viewpoints says that God, who exists and is not a projection of the human wish for a father, created all life-from the amoeba to the human; common sense says that the world exists in its own right apart from our understanding; the middle class dominates; people are uneducated; the universe conforms to a mechanical model; traditional religion says we have a soul and the Bible is inerrant.

Many of these trends on the list, of course, are positive, but they still shake time-honored traditions and our grandparents' commonsense. This shaking that transmogrifies will continue with postmodernism.

Now we return to philosophy and the one man who was a large stick of dynamite---with its fuse lit---in a crumbling monolith, though only parts of the monolith were weak.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

He should not be considered an Enlightenment thinker. Just the opposite. As a philosopher, he has been called the "anti-philosopher." As a writer, he is frighteningly powerful. He proclaims that God is dead, so we must create our own morality, that of the Übermensch or Overman or Superman. This is the superior human whose will to power takes him to the top. Incidentally, he opposed anti-Semitism and did not sheepishly follow nationalism. But it is a terrible blind spot in him---so insightful otherwise---not to figure out that his ideas could be taken to extremes (as if his ideas were not extreme enough) in anti-Semitic Germany and Europe. If he were so prophetic, he should have seen the fatal misinterpretations coming, a mere three decades after he died.

In any case, our focus is on his notion called perspectivism, which existed in milder expressions in earlier philosophers, such as Montaigne (1533-1592). Perspectivism means that "every view is only one among many possible interpretations . . . especially Nietzschean perspectivism, which itself is just one interpretation among many interpretations" (Douglas J. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom: an Introduction to Philosophy. 3rd ed. Wadwsorth, 1998, p. 566). Nietzsche says in this brief excerpt that facts do not exist, but only interpretations do. He writes:
Everything is Interpretation: . . . Against those who say "There are only facts," I say, "No, facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations." We cannot establish any fact in itself. Perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing. (Quoted in Louis P. Pojman, Classics of Philosophy, Oxford UP, 1998, pp. 1015-16, emphasis original)
In the next excerpt Nietzsche says that there is no meaning, but countless meanings.

Insofar as the word "knowledge" has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise. It has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings (Quoted in ibid. emphasis original)
One philosopher puts Nietzsche's perspectivism in perspective (pardon the pun). Note the word "postmodern." Soccio writes:
There is, however, a characteristically postmodern quality to Nietzsche's perspectivist assertions: By repeatedly calling attention to his own aesthetic perspectivism, Nietzsche models what he asserts in a flagrantly self-referential way. He exuberantly adopts points of view. (Soccio, p. 566, emphasis original)
Still another interpreter of Nietzsche describes the logical outcome of Nietzschean perspectivism. Nehamas says:
Every view is only an interpretation, and . . . as perspectivism holds, there are no independent facts against which various interpretations can be compared . . . If perspectivism is correct and, as it seems to claim, every interpretation creates its own facts, then it may seem impossible to decide whether any interpretation is or is not correct . . . (Alexander Nehamas, quoted in Soccio, p. 566)
It is easy to see how perspectivism is a source of postmodernism, particularly in its interpretation of texts. It can make grounded interpretations of the Bible difficult or even impossible. If we cannot establish any fact in itself, then how do we anchor truths in our minds about the world outside of us? If we cannot anchor such truths, then historical investigation is even more difficult. And if we study an ancient text like the Bible, then how can we bridge the chasm between our interpretation and historical knowledge of the context from which the Bible has emerged? It must be noted up front that not all Bible scholars interested in applying postmodern interpretations are hyper-skeptical; maybe they know nothing about the sources that flow into postmodernism, as outlined in the list, above. But too many seem to blithely apply farfetched interpretations, for what end, I don't yet know.

An alternative version

Some literary scholars and philosophers provide an alternative version of the origins of postmodernism. They divide western history into the modern (typically the Enlightenment project) and the postmodern (go here and here). However, this version gives too little credit to Enlightenment thinkers, who challenged the Medieval Age with all its systematization of knowledge and theology. And their version gives too much credit to postmodernists who borrow more than they innovate, at least in my opinion. Their version has the break between the two as too abrupt and sharp. As Nietzsche once observed, philosophers too often do not know how to deal with history, glossing over or omitting historical events like those in the bulleted list. But those real-life and self-evident events actually happened, and they shook people to their core. Modernism and postmodernism emerge from the events, as well as from the hyper-skepticism begun in the Enlightenment.

So what does all this mean?

For most people none of this means anything, thankfully. But can we depend on our blissful slumber? For a few of us, the heavy and excessive skepticism that masquerades as postmodernism makes the one Book that has influenced Western culture (and other cultures) and has been the guide for hundreds of millions and for the better---makes it unstable and unsecured, cut loose from an anchor of plain meaning. Do we want to lose this fountain of wisdom called the Bible?


The last three hundred-plus years can be characterized as times of uncertainty and instability. The old order has been cracking during this timeframe. Debatably, this ethos or general character was most visible first in philosophy, which then transmogrified other areas, such as politics, social customs, and economics. We lose a solid foundation. We lose our essence as humans. We lose the real world out there, existing objectively and in its own right, apart from and independent of our perceptions and understanding.

It did not take long for the hard-hitting philosophy to be adopted by Bible scholars. Traditional viewpoints, espoused by the Church-both Catholic and Protestant-were and are under siege. Generally, in response the Church divided into liberalism and conservatism, which is closer to the center than fundamentalism. The theological Left largely adopts the nontraditional intellectual criticisms and social trends, whereas the theological Right challenges the new social trends (though not all of them or in the same degree) and explains why the traditional viewpoints on the Bible are still valid and reasonable. Both the Left and the Right have variations, but this brief assessment of the Church's reactions to modernist trends is adequate for our purposes.

In the big picture, the real innovators did not begin in the 1960s, but in the 1870s. The hyper-radicals (see Part One), particularly of the 1960s, are mere borrowers with only a few twists and turns on old ideas in modernism. They transmogrified it. Wider mass communication gave them a larger audience than early modernists had.

And postmodernist interpreters of the Bible are mere borrowers with few innovations. Postmodernists reflect the uncertainty and instability in society and intellectual trends and infer that discourse (how we communicate in a variety of ways) is likewise uncertain and unstable. This uncertainty and instability is especially apparent in a variety of interpretations of the Bible, which has been locked up and strangled by traditional interpretations, so they say. Apparently, it is the passionate goal of postmodernist interpreters of the Bible to free it from the stranglehold. If meaning in all discourse is uncertain and unstable, then they intend to demonstrate how the meaning of Scripture is likewise uncertain and unstable, dethroning any privileged viewpoint along the way, even time-tested and steady ones.

But to what purpose? Which way are the postmodernists headed? That remains to be seen. I'm not sure they know the purpose or direction of their application of the latest trends to the Bible in their postmodern project. But I do not at all find their purpose or direction to be "groovy."

James M. Arlandson can reached at

Part One: Postmodernism and the Bible: Introduction 
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