Postmodernism shifted us away from objective Truth and Enlightenment values like free inquiry, open expression, progress, and scientific methodologies. It valorized notions of subjectivity and lived experience while deprecating the idea of an objectively knowable world.
But not everyone’s lived experiences became equally privileged—the experiences of the marginalized received particular status and deference. The more marginalization, oppression, and discrimination one experiences—or one’s ancestors experienced—the more one is attributed a clear, accurate understanding of reality. Old social hierarchies of dominance and subordination are thus inverted to become new hierarchies of credibility and distrust.
The legacy is a widespread internalization of the unsettling values governing our age: victim-based identity politics and intersectionality. In contemporary identity politics, people of a certain race or religion, or who share other identifying characteristics, form alliances based around demographic identities. These identities intersect in complex ways to construct individuals’ self-understandings. The more claim one can make to being a victim—perhaps belonging to multiple oppressed groups—the greater one’s social status and the more secure one’s claim to speak the truth. In short, perceived victimization becomes a new type of epistemology.
Postmodernism also left us with another legacy: what was viewed as objectively True—or as near to true as we can claim—in the realms of epistemology, morality, and metaphysics has now become morally suspect. Because postmodern critical theory views the search for truth as always defined by one’s place in an oppression matrix, thinking there’s an objective truth that can be discovered is turned into a moral problem. Seeking objective truth is viewed as an attempt to ‘colonize’ others with our truth claims; and because we are all situated (by time, place, culture, sexuality, etc.), there can be no Truth. In short, seeking objective, non-situated Truth is viewed as an act of oppression. And it is this final turn that has not only put the emancipatory project of the Enlightenment beyond our grasp but also outside of what is deemed morally conscionable.
On a more practical level, the wake of postmodernism is clearly visible in the educational arena. Because everyone’s experiences are now privileged over investigation of a shared, knowable world, young scholars are increasingly finding venues for articles that tout their own experiences. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the humanities where alleged experience-based methodologies, such as autoethnography and ‘action research,’ have gained traction in peer-reviewed journals. With that traction comes increased Impact Factors when academicians cite the personal experiences of others as evidence to bolster supposedly scholarly claims.
In consequence, scholars who publish in journals that encourage experience-based methodologies get promoted, receive tenure, and assign their articles to students. And so it self-perpetuates. Postmodernism, then, hasn’t died so much as matured into an industry of pseudo-scholarly ‘knowledge’ production with no end in sight. Universities produce ever more verbiage, but much of it is no longer tethered to facts about the world.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Peter Boghossian is a full time faculty member in the department of philosophy at Portland State University. He and Dr. Lindsay are currently working on their book, How to Have Impossible Conversations, forthcoming from Da Capo Press.
James Lindsay holds a Ph.D. in mathematics, authored four books, published popular pieces in Scientific American, Time, The Philosophers' Magazine, Quillette and elsewhere, and is a visiting scholar at Portland State University.