Shaking The Foundations

Third, his historiography: we create history to make or preserve those mythical worldviews which enhance our power and status. There is no objective “world” behind our historical recording of its events; we choose which events to report and the interpretation we give them based on our ambition for power. “Truth” is the fictional fabrication of those who claim it. The result for language should therefore be to introduce discontinuity into the reader’s life, jarring him or her into admitting that life is chaotic and subjective.

Jacques Derrida: deconstructing “reality”

Jacques Derrida critiques the Enlightenment ontology with the approach known as “deconstructionism.” While Foucault’s epistemology leads to his view of language, Derrida’s ontology serves as the foundation for both his epistemology and his hermeneutics.

According to Derrida, there is no fixed or universal reality. Not only can we make no objective claims to knowledge, given the subjective nature of the interpretive process; there is no independent reality to describe. No “world” exists, only your world and my world. “Onto-theology,” the attempt to articulate ontological descriptions of reality, must be abandoned.

We “create” our own world by speaking of it. Language possesses no fixed meaning and is not connected to a fixed reality. Our words do not carry meaning (“logocentrism”); rather, they create it.

For instance, the device on which I am typing these words is either a word-processor, a fancy typewriter, or a strange box which makes annoying clicks, depending entirely on whether I, my grandfather, or my preschool friend is describing it. We cannot get beyond the words to the “reality,” for the words create that reality for us.

As a result, the work of interpretation has as its goal the deconstruction of logocentrism. We must admit the absence of transcendent reality and focus only upon the text itself as it speaks to us personally. We must deconstruct our view of language which posits an objective world beyond our words. As we live with the anxiety produced by the absence of transcendent truth we come to terms with life as it truly is. And as we deal with the text separate from its author’s intention or any claims to represent objective truth, we reconstruct our own world.

Language is therefore the door to whatever meaning is possible for us.

Richard Rorty: building pragmatic community

Richard Rorty, one of America’s most popular philosophers, completes the postmodern foundation by demonstrating its pragmatic usefulness for our daily lives. While Foucault and Derrida develop their language theory on the basis of their epistemologies, Rorty bases both his epistemology and his pragmatic program on his view of language.

Rorty agrees with Foucault and Derrida that language is a matter of human convention, not the mirror of an objective reality. All language is derived from and dependent upon its context, and is thus subjective and relative. Rorty’s contribution to postmodernism is his extension of this foundational conviction to its larger pragmatic consequences.

Because no foundational truths or “first principles” exist apart from our linguistic creation of them, we must develop our personal ways of coping with reality as we see it. “Truth” for us is what works for us. Language is therefore to be judged by its pragmatic value, not its supposed representation of objective reality. Language is a tool for interpreting and coping with life.

Four results for language follow. First, language is equally valuable and useful regardless of its field of use. Science is no more objective than ethics, for instance. No one genre of speech act possesses meaning of greater value than another.

Second, language and the life it creates and interprets is best viewed in narrative context. No speech act stands alone. Every context is temporal and contingent.

Third, language functions best as the creator of community. As we tolerate and affirm other speech acts and the realities they create, we foster a larger sense of acceptance. As we share common linguistic experience, we forge a common life. Given that no objective reality stands outside our linguistic interpretation of our own experience, such community is our best hope for belonging and meaning.

Fourth, this pragmatic language theory possesses the capacity to lead us to a kind of postmodern utopia. Once we have banished our power-driven, manipulative attempts to require and enforce one particular view of reality and truth, we will be free to live in a society built on tolerance and mutuality. Such a postmodern hope offers an enticing, accessible, and nonjudgmental alternative to the Christian eschatology built upon our acceptance or rejection of a single Way, Truth, and Life.

To sum up, the postmodern worldview is built upon three foundation stones. First, the ontological and epistemological belief that no reality exists independent of the linguistic interpretation of our personal experiences. Second, the linguistic belief that we literally create our own worlds by the speech we employ to describe and interpret these experiences. And third, the pragmatic belief that such language acts, when affirmed as mutually acceptable and equally valuable, forge a community of tolerance and shared, created purpose.

The Bible in postmodern hands

These foundation stones stand alongside and, for many, in place of the foundational convictions upon which Christendom was built. Belief in an objective world as created by God, described and interpreted through the authoritative Scriptures, is fast losing credibility in contemporary culture. But the postmodern interpreter does not stop with constructing an alternative worldview to that of the Bible; he or she then proceeds to reinterpret the Scriptures themselves in light of the postmodern project.

This postmodern approach to biblical authority centers in two agendas. First, we must examine previous uses of the Bible and critique their weaknesses. Postmoderns work hard to expose the “dark underside of Scripture”–ways the Bible has been used to engender obscurantism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism. In their view, much of the oppression so common to our culture has its roots in “modern” uses of biblical authority. Men have cited the Scriptures in their continuing effort to subjugate women; the wealthy, to use the poor; the powerful, to oppress the weak; heterosexuals, to condemn homosexuals; and so on. We must unmask all such power motives for what they are, and disabuse the Bible of such manipulative uses.