Postmodernism: the Definition and Basic Theory

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Postmodernism: this article explains postmodernism. The article begins with the definition of this term, followed by an explanation of its origin and a general explanation. The article also contains a practical example of the thinking of postmodernist thinkers and frequently heard criticisms of this movement. You will also read about a possible connection between postmodernism and contemporary woke culture. Enjoy reading!

What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism is an artistic and intellectual movement that emerged around 1970 as a reaction to modernism. Modernism dominated in the twentieth century and postmodernism challenged the principles behind the movement. Unlike modernism, which embraces the search for universal values and progress, postmodernism embraces diversity and rejects the idea of absolute certainties.

Postmodernism encompasses various artistic approaches, including pop art, conceptual art, and feminist art. Postmodernism challenges traditional conceptions of reality and emphasizes individual experience and interpretation.

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In this article you can read more about its origins, the background of postmodernism, its definition, criticism of this movement and some practical examples that will help you understand the concept well.

The definition of Postmodernism

Postmodernism can be defined as an intellectual attitude that questions the principles behind modernism. It rejects the stability of meaning and emphasizes the role of ideology in the maintenance of political power. It is characterized by self-reference, moral relativism, pluralism, irony and eclecticism.

Origin and background

As indicated, postmodernism is a reaction to modernism. Modernism was characterized by idealism and belief in progress. Modernist artists focused mainly on form and technique, with the main aim of depicting the modern world.

Postmodernism is fueled by skepticism and mistrust of modernism. It rejects the idea of universal values and instead focuses on personal experiences. While modernism strived for clarity and simplicity, postmodernism embraces ambiguity and contradictions.

This is also called layered meanings. That means that people can have different perspectives and meanings depending on their unique background, culture and context.

Influential figures such as Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Jean-François Lyotard have played an important role in shaping the postmodern discourse.

Jacques Derrida, a prominent post-structuralist thinker, deconstructed the idea of universal validity by highlighting the ambiguity and contradictions in language and text.

His concept of deconstruction emphasized the multiplicity of meanings and the lack of a fixed, objective truth.

Derrida’s ideas challenged the traditional foundations of knowledge and encouraged critical reflection on the relationship between language, power and reality.

Layered meanings

An example of this is found in the painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. This work is considered an iconic example of both modern and postmodern art.

In the modernist perspective, the painting could be argued to be a revolutionary depiction of nude women, with Picasso using new forms and techniques to depict the modern world.

In the postmodernist perspective, different interpretations can arise. For example, a viewer sees the painting from a feminist point of view and may point to the objectification of the female body. Another viewer can emphasize the appropriation of non-Western art forms from a colonial perspective.

The above example shows that concepts from the postmodernist movement often have multiple layers of meaning. Postmodernism encourages the diversity of personal experiences and interpretations, making room for a wider range of meanings. This can also cause confusion.


Postmodernism has received its fair share of criticism. Some of the main criticisms are discussed below.


Some critics argue that postmodernism promotes obscure and inaccessible ideas.

They argue that the complexity used within postmodernism complicates communication and prevents a clear understanding of the ideas.

This makes it difficult for people outside of academia to understand and engage with the concepts and insights of postmodernism.

Rejection of Enlightenment rationalism

Postmodernism is often accused of rejecting the reason and scientific soundness that characterize Enlightenment thinking.

Critics argue that postmodernists reject the search for objective truth and universal norms, which can lead to a neglect of scientific methods and a weakening of the importance of empirical research.

This critique argues that postmodernism, in its opposition to the established structures and meta-narratives of modernity, opens the door to relativism and skepticism.

Lack of contribution to knowledge

Critics emphasize that postmodernism adds little or nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge.

They argue that it is primarily concerned with deconstructing existing ideas and concepts, but offers few constructive alternatives.

Postmodernist criticism can be seen as aimed at exposing power structures and social constructions, but it does not, according to some, make a tangible contribution to increasing knowledge or stimulating progress in science and society.

Postmodernism and modern science

In science and technology, postmodernism questioned the prevailing belief in progression and rationality.

It questioned the possible alienating effects of technological progress and the dangers of reducing the human experience to measurable quantities.

Postmodern thinkers argued that the abstract principles of modern science and technology often ignored the complexities of human existence and overlooked alternative perspectives.

Why postmodernism can be harmful

In philosophy, the term obscurantism refers to deliberately presenting information in an unintelligible and vague manner, with the aim of limiting further questioning and understanding about a topic.

Obscurantism can have two meanings: (1) deliberately limiting knowledge – resisting the spread of knowledge; and (2) intentional vagueness – a complicated style of writing characterized by intentional vagueness.

In the 18th century, the term obscurantist was used by Enlightenment philosophers to denote anyone who opposed intellectual enlightenment and the free dissemination of knowledge.

In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche distinguished between various forms of obscurantism, such as those in metaphysics and theology, and the “subtle” form of obscurantism in Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy and modern philosophy skepticism.

Nietzsche said: “The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding, but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence.”

Radical activism: the connection between woke culture and postmodernist principles

Many see woke and cancel culture as a product of radical activism and postmodernist views. There are several factors that support this connection.

First, the postmodernist idea of deconstruction, questioning established truths and emphasizing subjective experience. These views have paved the way for a critical approach to power structures and a focus on identity politics.

In addition, there is the role of radical activism in promoting woke thinking. Activist movements have drawn attention to social injustices and pushed for change and equality. This has led to an emphasis on issues such as racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.

Proponents of this view believe that the purpose of ‘woke’ is to address inequalities and strive for a more inclusive society.

Opponents argue that woke culture leads to exaggeration and polarization. They argue that the pursuit of social justice goes too far in condemning and canceling people based on ill-considered or marginal issues. This has a stifling effect on freedom of expression.

Critics also argue that the ‘woke culture’ overemphasizes identity politics, reducing individuals to their group identities and emphasizing differences rather than common values.

In summary, some people see a danger of restricting free expression and avoiding discussions on sensitive topics in ‘woke culture’. They believe that this can act as a brake on intellectual freedom and open debate.

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about postmodernism? What do you think about postmodernism? Do you think its obscure influence is dangerous? How do you feel about personal experiences versus universal truths? Do you think postmodernism can offer valuable ideas? How do you feel about the lack of valuable insights and empirical knowledge in postmodernism? Do you have other tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Jencks, C. (1989). What is post-modernism?.
  2. Hutcheon, L. (2003). The politics of postmodernism. Routledge.
  3. Hassan, I. (1985). The culture of postmodernism. Theory, Culture & Society, 2(3), 119-131.
  4. Murdoch, J., & Pratt, A. C. (1993). Rural studies: modernism, postmodernism and the ‘post-rural’. Journal of rural studies, 9(4), 411-427.

How to cite this article:
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Original publication date: 10/10/2023 | Last update: 19/06/2024

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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