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Postmodernism is Not Individualistic
A Brief Correction to a Popular Error
Ad Fontem Philosophicum
Over the past few years, especially since Critical Race Theory and Queer Theory have flamboyantly come out of the closet and into our schools, it’s been common for many conservatives and Christians to argue that what is at the root of all of our troubles in society is “individualism.” They argue that this form of individualism is the product of postmodernism, and in particular deconstruction. Since postmodernism denies metanarrratives (i.e. “…overarching account[s] or interpretation[s] of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences”) and, therefore, epistemological and moral absolutes, they further argue, this has resulted in the destruction of community, tradition, and history. And this, in turn, has resulted in the need for people to turn to the only lasting authority they have, namely their own feelings, intuitions, wants, desires, and so on.
This view is popular, enjoying pride of place in the writing of Carl R. Trueman in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, and frequently shows up in criticisms of Western culture raised by putatively Reformed Evangelical authors (e.g. Doug Wilson). However, it is as wrong, if not more so, as it is popular, for postmodernism is neither subjectivistic nor individualistic. Not only this, but it is also not opposed to history, tradition, and community. In fact, postmodernism is built on a rejection of all forms of transcendence, and views all ideas and practices as the products of historical changes.
It was Enlightenment thinkers, following general revelation and, in some cases, special revelation, who understood that there was a particular structure and order to all created things, including humanity. Consequently, they sought to understand this structure, beginning with its foundation, and build upon that knowledge in order to advance human civilization. At the center of this project was the individual self, the Subject, who through reason could accomplish this task. This implies that the individual self, the Subject, has a fixed, unchanging essence, and the capacity to stand above the flux of history and objectively, neutrally acquire, evaluate, and interpret physical and conceptual data.
Individualism was given a central place in Enlightenment philosophy, but over time it gained many critics. The Enlightenment view of reality as a whole as being a structured and organized mechanism was brought into question by various thinkers who believed the view either rested on nothing more than theological assumptions (e.g. Freud, Nietzsche), or who believed that it misrepresented reality as a machine when, in reality, it is more akin to a living organism (e.g. Hegel, Marx). The idea of individualism was a remnant of this mechanistic way of viewing the world, and was thought to undermine the reality of man’s internal psychological multiplicity and instability (Freud), the malleability and non-essentiality of his physical body’s constitution (Darwin), and the lack of a universal and transcendent moral code (Nietzsche).
In the spirit of Enlightenment thinking, nevertheless, we see in these anti-individualists a search for universal principles or structures that underlie the organic unity of all things. Structuralism, consequently, came to the forefront for some time, as philosophers and thinkers in various fields sought to explain individual phenomena as evincing underlying structures. The entirety of reality can be thought of as, say, a network of realities — material (e.g. biology, chemistry, psychology, etc) and immaterial (e.g. ethics, morality, religion, etc) — that are the product of underlying structures.
Structuralism too, however, came under criticism from thinkers who saw in it a mere repetition of Plato’s ideas, as well as the Cartesian cogito/subject/self.
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PostModernism and It’s Ironic Telos
The postmodern philosophers questioned the very foundations of structuralism, viewing structures as the products of historical changes in societies, communities, and institutions. The individual was proclaimed to be dead, an artifact of a bygone period in philosophy. Communities were now seen as in flux, changing not according to an internal logic that would lead them to an eschatological goal (for example, the triumph of the working class over the capitalists in Marx’s mythology), nor according to the will of the individual (as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard would have it), but according to an irresolvable dialectical movement with no particular goal in sight.
Within this way of thinking, there is an emphasis on multiplicity, diversity fragmentation, and inconsistency. There is no longer a subjectivity that defines what it means for a human person to be a human subject; there are only subjectivities. There is no longer an ideal male or ideal female, but a multiplicity of kinds of males and females, none of which take center stage in defining what it means to be a man or a woman. There is no longer a distinction simply between male and female human subjects, but between males, females, and an infinite variety of types of “genders” whose existence was suppressed by systems of control. There is no longer a master narrative to explain all of reality, but localized micro-narratives that are determined by historcial circumstances.
What is ironic about this philosophical movement that praises difference, diversity, multiplicity, fragmentation, and so on is that it implicitly also praises a universality and sameness, at the most foundational level, of all things. If the distinctions drawn between one and another are ultimately just constructions that can be deconstructed, and subsequently constructed into something else, then it follows that underlying all constructions is the same “stuff” from which all things emerge. Postmodernism’s emphasis on diversity, difference, multiplicity, etc, therefore, is equally an emphasis on the “real” sameness, identity, and singularity of “Being”/Existence. Thus, we see in postmodernism not a form of “radical individualism” but a radical collectivism, in which all parts are within one another, emerging or being constructed under various historical/temporal conditions.
That postmodernism collapses into mysticism is not surprising given its roots in anti-Enlightenment thinking which, itself, was rooted in the mystically inspired anti-Enlightenment/anti-modernist philosophers, as well as its own appropriation of mystical and off-brand religious ideas. It is common knowledge among scholars that G.W.F. Hegel’s organicist philosophy was derived from Gnostic and Hermeticist texts, as well from putatively “Christian” mystics like Joachim of Fiore and Jacob Böhme (i.e. Medieval Roman Catholic and Romantic German Lutheran mysticism),that Jacques Derrida's project of deconstruction is dependent upon ideas taught in Kabbalism (i.e. Jewish mysticism), and that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari drew inspiration for their thinking from mystical thinkers as well.
Those who are opposing individualism on the grounds that it is the fruit of postmodernism are either grossly ignorant of the history of philosophy, postmodernism, and the mystical roots of postmodern thinking, or they are lying. Postmodernism was, and is, collectivistic to the core.
Oxford English Dictionary.
See Magee, Glenn. “Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition”, Marxists.org, (2001), https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/en/magee.htm.
See Wolfson, ER. “Assaulting The Border: Kabbalistic Traces In The Margins of Derrida”, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 70, Iss. 3, (2002), 475–514.
See Bonta, Mark. “Rhizome of Boehme and Deleuze: Esoteric Precursors of the God of Complexity”, in SubStance, Vol. 39, No. 1, Iss. 121 (2010), 62-75.