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New Thought and Postmodernism

by C. Alan Anderson, Ph.D.

Professor of Philosophy and Religion [Emeritus since 2000]

Curry College, Milton, Massachusetts 02186

Presented at the Washington, D.C.

International New Thought Alliance Congress

Hyatt Regency-Crystal City

Wednesday, July 13, 1988


Most, if not all, of the other talks in this session are concerned with the so-called New Age, which I expect will be defined in those presentations. I am dealing with a different New Age, or a different aspect of the New Age, or something which both New Thought and the various New Age outlooks will have to take into account if they wish to be aware of what is going on around them.

Last week when I received the August issue of Science of Mind and looked at the cover reference to an interview with me as "What a Modern Philosopher Believes about God," I thought how appropriate it may be to refer to me as a modern philosopher, rather than a postmodern one--at least in terms of the most common understanding of postmodernism. I wish that I had expanded my reference to occasional new answers to perennial problems of philosophy to make it clear that I was including some such as the postmodern ones that I am referring to today. They relate to the ability of philosophy to deal with the basic questions and are so destructive of what philosophy traditionally has been that some of the current contributors to philosophy have been called "postphilosophers."1


To understand postmodernism it is necessary to look back to what came before it. In all of this talk I shall have to indulge in much oversimplification and to hit only a few of the highlights.

Western philosophy began about 600 B.C. and it lasted until approximately A.D. 500. Then came the medieval world, "a thousand years without a bath," as it's been called, and next the modern world, commencing somewhere around 1500. The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought2 greatly shortens the usually-recognized length of modernity in arbitrarily identifying "modern,"3 with "twentieth-century."

Now we may be in the postmodern world, although various aspects of the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds persist. Especially in a period of transition, it is not easy to tell in what period one lives. In examining this, one should ask what people take for granted and how they feel, in addition to what they consciously believe. Obviously it is easier to look back than to know where one is. Nobody in what we call the Middle Ages could well have known that it was between two other periods. Neither can we be sure just where civilization stands, but each of us can decide what to accept and what to reject, and thereby help to determine the present and the future. That is the great value of such an exploration as we are making now.

The term postmodern barely is referred to in the first edition of The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought, published in 1977, but in the 1988 edition "postmodernism" has one of the longest entries, about a whole page. The entry, which gives more attention to the arts than to philosophy, begins as follows:

post-modernism. An increasingly familiar if still controversial term for defining or suggesting the overall character or direction of experimental tendencies in Western arts, architecture, etc., since the 1940s or 1950s, and particularly more recent developments associated with post-industrial society.

Probably the term postmodern is found most often in connection with the arts, but it now has become pretty well entrenched as something which we have to deal with in understanding current Western civilization. Will Beardslee distinguishes two senses of both modern and postmodern, as follows:

In the broader sense the "modern age" refers to the period begun by Galileo [1564-1642], Descartes [1596-1650], and Newton [1642-1727], a period which continued into the nineteenth century rationalism and scientism [the view that only science produces knowledge] which are still so influential today. In the narrower sense, the "modernist" period was a period of artistic and cultural activity early in the twentieth century. In the broader sense, "post-modern" means the movement beyond the scientistic modernism which we have called modernism in its wider meaning. In the narrower sense, "post-modern" means the movements in art and literature which react to or move beyond the "modernist" movement in the culture of the early part of this century.4

Turning to the specific contents of the periods in question, Huston Smith characterizes "the modern outlook," by contrasting its "three controlling presuppositions" with the corresponding foundations of the Christian outlook, which maintained:

[1] that reality is focused in a person, [2] that the mechanics of the physical world exceed our comprehension, and [3] that the way to our salvation lies not in conquering nature but in following the commandments that God has revealed to us.5

As to the modern outlook:

First, that reality may be personal is less certain and less important than that it is ordered. Second, man's reason is capable of discerning this order as it manifests itself in the laws of nature. Third, the path to human fulfillment consists primarily in discovering these laws, utilizing them where this is possible and complying with them where it is not.6


Concerning postmodernism, Smith goes on to observe that

Frontier thinkers are no longer sure that reality is ordered and orderly. If it is, they are not sure that man's mind is capable of grasping its order. Combining the two doubts, we can define the Post-Modern Mind as one which, having lost the conviction that reality is personal, has come to question whether it is ordered in a way that man's reason can lay bare.7

Smith observes that "No one who works in philosophy today can fail to realize that the sense of the cosmos has been shaken by an encyclopedic skepticism."8 He refers to one of my philosophical heroes, Alfred North Whitehead, as having "marked the end of an era"—meaning the modern era—in making "the last important attempt to construct a logical, coherent scheme of ideas that would blueprint the universe."9 Smith adds:

The trend throughout the twentieth century has been away from faith in the feasibility of such undertakings. As a tendency throughout philosophy as a whole, this is a revolutionary development. For twenty-five hundred years philosophers have argued over which metaphysical system is true. For them to agree that none is, is a new departure.10

Robert C. Solomon refers to "post-modernism" as

the systematic rejection of the most basic premisses of modern European philosophy: [1] the celebration of the self and subjectivity [in contrast to ancient philosophy's beginning with consideration of the external world, rather than the knowing mind], [2] the new appreciation of history, and [3] most of all the already flagging philosophical confidence in our ability to know the world as it really is,11

A notable anthology published last year is called After Philosophy: End or Transformation?12 In the introduction it is pointed out that all the authors there included (and they are among the most important at present) agree that "things philosophical cannot simply go on as they have,"13 but that what is meant by "after philosophy" varies from one current thinker to another. For some it means that philosophy simply ends, that the Platonic tradition has "outlived its usefulness [Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida]."14 For others philosophy is to be transformed into "a form of social inquiry [Jurgen Habermas],"15 or into philosophical hermeneutics (interpretation) [Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur], or philosophical historiography [Alasdair MacIntyre], or a theory of meaning [Donald Davidson and Michael Dummett].

The outlooks of those calling for or announcing the end of philosophy can be viewed as critiques of (1) "reason," (2) "the sovereign rational subject," (3) "knowledge as representation," and (4) "philosophy's traditional self-delimitation from rhetoric and poetics.16

The thinkers represented in the anthology are agreed that we cannot attain certainty, that there is no overarching truth, that we are engaged largely in the analysis of language, and that we are essentially playing language games.

Ignoring much, I shall go on to an outlook, or inlook, or strangelook, which may merit attention here simply because it has received perhaps the greatest amount of general cultural attention of anything in postmodernism; I refer to deconstruction, which has attained such importance that it has earned a long entry in the 1987 second edition of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. I shall quote this shortly. Deconstruction falls under the heading of


Obviously, post-anything has to be understood in terms of that which it follows and reacts against. So we must consider structuralism. Structuralism was developed by Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-) who, in the words of Robert C. Solomon,

utterly rejects the idea of the Cartesian subjective self [that doubting, thinking something that Descartes found that he could believe in as a firm foundation for knowledge when he tried to doubt everything, and which has been the basic support of modern philosophy], and in its place imposes an ambitious and ominous theory of universal structures, not based in the self
. . . but in language, and ultimately in the structure of the human brain. . . . One might say that he has just abandoned the self and subjectivity in order to tighten the grip of the claim to universality and objectivity17.

Solomon observes that

although Levi-Strauss rejects transcendental notions as such, he retains and renews the modern confidence in the availability of universal knowledge, knowledge about human nature as such. The structures discovered by structuralism are not the manifestations of a priori rules of consciousness, but they are nevertheless reliable evidence about the universal structure of the human brain.18

He points out that

Post-modernism proper begins with . . . the rebellion against Levi-Strauss and structuralism
. . . [so postmodernism can be put under the heading of] 'post-structuralism'. The two main figures in this post-structuralist rebellion, from a current vantage point, are Michel Foucault [1926-1984] and Jacques Derrida [1930-].19

Solomon characterizes

Foucault's central thesis [as] the inevitable disintegration of the human sciences and the 'end of man'. . . . [The themes pervading all of his works are]
[1] the centrality of language in understanding social practices, [2] the 'illusion of autonomous discourse', [3] the discontinuity of history, [4] the systematic oppression of people through classification and confinement, and [5] the central place of political power in what the authorities prefer to present as scientific knowledge. Other philosophers and social scientists preserve the illusion of rationality and continuity by studying the established institutions of society; Foucault prefers to study 'discursive practices', the seemingly aimless, shifting behaviour that betrays the ultimate meaninglessness of human activity.20

For the essence of Derrida's deconstruction I turn to the aforementioned dictionary definition:

deconstruction. a philosophical and critical movement, starting in the 1960's and esp. applied to the study of literature, that questions all traditional assumptions about the ability of language to represent reality and emphasizes that a text has no stable reference or identification because words essentially only refer to other words and therefore a reader must approach a text by eliminating any metaphysical or ethnocentric assumptions through an active role of defining meaning, sometimes by a reliance on new word construction, etymology, puns, and other word play.

Derrida purports to show that internal contradictions of a text reveal that it is saying something decidedly different from what the author intended and what it seems to be saying. "In fact, in a certain sense, the text can be shown not to be "saying something" at all, but many different things, some of which subtly subvert the conscious intentions of the writer."21 But there is no final text, since there could be an infinite regress of deconstruction. "Meaning is not encased or contained in language, but is

co-extensive with the play of language itself. . . . The link between text and meaning is cut."22

In such a state of meaningless linguistic fluidity, it scarcely makes sense to ask where truth lies. I suppose that my reference to "where truth lies" could be taken as a bit of Derridean word play.


Can there be any reasonable hope for constructive development arising from postmodernism? I suppose that the answer depends largely on which aspects of postmodernism one stresses, as well as what one considers reasonable. Perhaps the sheer absurdity--if that category even retains any meaning--of Derridean deconstruction could serve as a trigger to mystical enlightenment, even as the whack from a Zen master might. But there are some rational possibilities, as Will Beardslee finds.

Beardslee characterizes the modern age's "single most pervasive factor [as] a determinist model of reality ('Newtonian science') which was used to interpret phenomena ranging from physics to sociology, psychology, and religion."23 In this view, everything is reduced to ...the status of machine. However much there may seem to be freedom in our lives, it is merely false appearance, in the judgment of the determinist. In still other words, what anything is is determined by the previous arrangement of forces in the universe, and there is no changing the inexorable, meaningless course of development of an essentially lifeless universe, within and beyond which there is no genuinely guiding intelligence or basic awareness. Postmodern flux at least undercuts determinism, thereby providing an essential ingredient for the ultimate meaningfulness which it does not find. Beardslee offers the best interpreter of freedom, process thought, as an alternative view.

Unlike Smith, Beardslee considers Whiteheadian process thought part of postmodernism. Whether we consider it part of or alternative to postmodernism, process thought demands attention. Since I have dealt with this God-centered philosophy of interrelated, momentarily existing bursts of creative, living experience on other occasions and in a not yet published paper in which I propose it as an alternative conceptualization for Science of Mind--and, by implication, for all of New Thought, I shall say little more of it here.

Even to be aware of New Thought's setting in a world which has postmodernism as one of its ingredients is to rethink New Thought slightly. Which way should we go in this strange new world? To try to remain wholly unchanged in a moving world would be to fail to realize that one is moving, but not by one's conscious choice. This alternative of drifting is the least satisfactory one. What can be done deliberately? It would be possible for New Thought to try to turn back to a pre-modern outlook. I interpret much of the accepting of the "perennial philosophy," or "primordial tradition"(24) in Eastern and Western forms, including some called "New Age," to be essentially this.  One could attempt simply to embrace postmodernism, but it is so diverse that it would be impossible to have it all, or, if one could do that, to have anything consistent with the essence of New Thought.  A better alternative in rethinking New Thought is to go forward to a synthesis of process thought and New Thought, and in doing so incorporate the best insights of mainstream postmodernism, including the postmodern dissolution of the substantial self and postmodern emphasis on the social nature of knowledge.  Deconstruction presumably puts New Thought's symbolic interpretation of scripture into at least as good a place as any other interpretation.  I have time here for no more than these hints.

To say the least, this is a time of transition, even a period of chaos, but chaos never is absolute, and it can be a point of departure for new positive construction.  We are in the business of expressing God in creativity, both in theory and in practice.  Let's keep at it.