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. …