You’ve probably heard the words “modernism” and “postmodernism” before.
Perhaps you heard them uttered by a stuffy professor or some nerd with a bow-tie in an art gallery. But I’d like to take a few minutes to convince you that they are practical and important terms.
First, some definitions.
Modernism is the assumption that the world is clearly-defined and measurable. There are facts that exist independently of any of us. Gravity will always be gravity. Two plus two will always be four.
Modernism arose in the 17th century, with the scientific revolution, and later, the Enlightenment. Modernists held that our understanding of reality could be infinitely improved upon through experimentation, observation, and reason.
Postmodernism, on the other hand, believes that certainty is impossible. No matter how many times you observe something, you can never know if it’s entirely true, mostly because the observer is always fallible.
Postmodernism arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to a number of havoc-wreaking discoveries in the hard sciences.
- Einstein’s relativity showed that, in fact, gravity is not always gravity.
- Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem showed that mathematical systems are self-contradictory.
- Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed that it’s theoretically impossible to measure anything with complete accuracy.
To put it succinctly, modernism is the assertion that truth can be known definitively. Postmodernism is the assertion that truth can never be known definitively; it can only be guessed at and approximated, at best.
Winning the Meta-War
While this all sounds like highly abstract mental masturbation, these two philosophical dispositions have actually infiltrated our day-to-day lives. And, I would argue, there is a kind of meta-warfare quietly going on between the two factions around the world.
Modernists believe that truth exists and, therefore, power merely is a question of what is most factually accurate. Modernists believe in evidence over feelings. They see history as a series of struggles that bring humanity closer to…