David Novitz:  Postmodernism

In Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2001) 

This document is a summary of Novitz.
My personal comments are in red.
These comments have been added to help students understand his arguments

We must distinguish between philosophical postmodernism (pomo theory) and artistic postmodernism (pomo art).


Fundamentally, the ideas of pomo are the most recent reaction against the ideas of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment ideas are central to the historical views we know as modernism. [Click here to read Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?”] Pomo is an attempt to move beyond the core ideas of modernism. [Nietzsche was a pomo philosopher before the term was applied to philosophy]

Fundamental Enlightenment ideas (“Modernism“): 

  • The rational powers of every individuals, and the human capacity to critically reflect upon and understand the world.

  • Knowledge is obtained through natural sources, not by supernatural revelation. It is obtained by combining empirical observation, deductive and inductive reasoning, and mathematics. Truth is obtainable. The best example we have of truth is scientific knowledge.

  • Individuals can also engage in their own moral reasoning, and individuals can make choices on their own, without deference to moral authorities (e.g., religion).

  • Through these means, we collectively move toward a better understanding of the world and of our situation in it.

Fundamental pomo ideas:

  • Truth is not obtainable. We cannot know things as they really are.

  • Language does not describe the world. Rather, our linguistic system creatively constructs our world. [Put another way: We cannot escape “the prison house of language.” Some people think that Wittgenstein promoted this view.]

  • There is no common human nature. Rationality is a social construction of some cultures.

  • Science and scientific method have no special claim to being the way to knowledge.

  • The individual cannot take a critical stance on culture, religion, etc. Each individual is historically and socially constructed, and we cannot return to a position prior to this contingent construction from which to launch our critical analysis. [You can’t really critique authority and culture because you can’t ever ever ever escape their influences on you thinking. As Audre Lorde puts it, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”]

  • There are no absolutes, and no better understanding to be gained.

POMO and Aesthetic Theory 

  1. If truth isn’t possible, then true interpretations cannot be a goal of art interpretation.

  2. All value is merely a reflection of historically and culturally informed preferences. 

  3. There is no essence of art, and no possibility of a clear definition. So there is no clear difference between art and other aspects of life. OUR prejudices about the differences between art and entertainment, or high and low culture, aren’t based on real features of the things; our prejudices are simply OURS, meaning that they reflect our cultural traditions.

Why Postmodernism denies that there are true interpretations: Derrida and Barthes

For any interpretation of any symbol or sign, there is no FACT about it that demands one interpretation rather than another. There is always the possibility of another, equally plausible interpretation. We only pin down one reading rather than another by invoking the modernist values of rationality, truth, etc. But this is employ a historically local standard. [Cheap response: was that last sentence supposed to be TRUE? How can the postmodernist tell us how language is? If truth isn’t possible, then what do statements of postmodernism amount to?]

Barthes moves beyond this analysis and identifies two ways of viewing texts: actively and passively. A writerly interpretation is active and creative, with the reader “writing” her own meanings into it. Modernism advocates passive, readerly interpretation, in which the reader simply reads off what the author puts into it. Since language is itself an evolving network of signs and their significations, different  readers cannot really have the same text in front of them. Different  readers cannot possibly make the same connections and so cannot arrive at common readings. We encounter texts in order to “play” with them, not to learn from them. 

Margolis distinguishes between physical objects and embodied works; the screen or paper that you look at while reading these words are physical things, but the TEXT is not equivalent to the physical thing you interact with. Texts, including works of art, are “culturally emergent.” You can only find the text by knowing the right conventions to apply. But if the texts are culturally emergent, so are their interpretations. So there is no correct interpretation of any work of art.

Do these arguments work? If conventions are the contingent thing here, why can’t we PIN DOWN the right interpretation? With most texts, each culture will at any given time have a set of conventions privileging one interpretation over all others. Hence there will be one correct interpretation, relative to each culture. One merely needs to know which cultural conventions are being applied. If one denies that one can TELL which conventions are at work, then the whole proposal has “embarrassing reflexive consequences.” (Embarrassing when applied to itself, that is. If we can’t tell which conventions are being employed, then we cannot even know what Margolis is trying to say to us.)

In making cultures and cultural systems more important than individuals, pomo ideas LIMIT rather than proliferate interpretation. We can say which buildings are good and bad in terms of Renaissance values, and which music or literature is good or bad according to Romanticism.

POMO as an Art Movement 

As an ART movement, modernism celebrated the individual artist. It was more important to be a genius than to be a component painter. Works of art should be unique, original objects. Different emphases characterize different movements within modernism. Romanticism placed a high value on personal expression. High modernism placed a premium on formal excellence. But in all its forms, art was seen as something special, and as something distinct from the rest of life.

Dada seems to be the first postmodern art movement. Formal excellence was abandoned. Personal expression was beside the point.

  • [Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” is generally credited with being the first work of dada, and thus the first postmodern art.

  • [Tristan Tzara’s two statements explaining Dada make it very clear that it is fundamentally a rejection of 3000 years of philosophy.]

  • [In its more recent stage, pomo art has been concerned with breaking down stylistic barriers, including barriers between high and low. Postmodern architecture is a key example with its mixing of styles.]

Novitz’s conclusion: 

Modernism and Postmodernism are extreme positions. Postmodernism is misguided about interpretation and evaluation. The mistakes of modernism are no reason to embrace pomo ideas.

Source: http://web.mnstate.edu/