Blind Spots: Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy

By Westphal, Merold | The Christian Century, June 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

Blind Spots: Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy


Westphal, Merold, The Christian Century


POSTMODERNISM MEANS different things in different contexts. In philosophy the term refers to certain currents in French philosophy since the 1960s, including especially thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jean-Francois Lyotard. They have often been portrayed by critics as an academic axis of evil--corrupters of youth who propound a relativistic and cynical nihilism according to which "anything goes."

The Old Guard in ancient Athens had a hard time distinguishing Socrates from the sophists. Both Socrates and the sophists challenged the complacent beliefs of the established order. Perhaps our situation is similar.

Are postmodern philosophers the latest sophists, willing to blow rhetorical smoke in people's eyes in the service of any private interest able to buy their services? (If this is their critics' real concern, they might want to target Madison Avenue and the public relations industry, whose influence vastly exceeds that of French philosophy.) Or are they more nearly a modern set of Socratic thinkers, offering a critique of both sophistical cynicism and establishment absolutism?

Perhaps the answer depends on how deeply one is wed to those features of modernity opposition to which gives postmodernism its name. One of the most important assumptions of philosophical modernity, sometimes called "the Enlightenment project," is the autonomy of the human knower: I am a law unto myself in the sense that I am equipped to apprehend universally valid truth once I have freed myself from the authority of any dominant texts or traditions.

In other words, once I no longer view the world from a subjective perspective (having seen that it is not necessary to be guided by a particular text or tradition), I can be completely objective. For modernity, autonomy and objectivity are two sides of the same coin.

Perspectival knowledge is knowledge learned from a particular perspective--and each perspective has its blind spots. I can see the front of the fridge only by putting myself where I cannot see the back. The modern project is to free oneself from all contingent and particular perspectives (especially in matters of metaphysics and morals). By doing that, I free myself from the accompanying blind spots and attain true knowledge.

Where no perspectival distortion or blind spots are at work, I can 1) employ clear and distinct ideas whose meaning is unambiguous and 2) see the big picture with all the parts in their proper relation to the whole. Absent ambiguity and incomplete vision, I can grasp reality just as it is.

Postmodernism presents a critique of these claims to knowledge. Such a critique is not unique to postmodernism. In different ways Charles Peirce and John Dewey, Hans Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Thomas Kuhn have attacked philosophy's claims to have achieved autonomy, transparency and certainty.

So it might be asked, what is all the fuss about? Why have postmodern philosophers aroused such attention and evoked such hostility? It is not easy to say for sure, but part of the reason is that they have not been bashful about their atheism, and they have explicitly said that their critiques shake the foundations of Western civilization.

Though the postmodern philosophers are mainly atheists, or as Derrida puts it, "rightly pass" for atheists, their arguments actually show not that God does not exist, but that we are not God, either individually or collectively. Objective knowledge of reality--seeing reality through, as it were, "God's eyes"--is not possible.

One manifestation of this understanding among postmodern philosophers is their focus on the "death of the author." According to one familiar modern theory of interpreting a text, the intention of the author is or decisively determines the meaning of a text. To know what a text means is to know what the author meant. Derrida, Foucault and others reject this interpretation of interpretation. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Blind Spots: Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.