Postmodernism, is, of course, after the modern. One key aspect of modernity is that many moderns, like Kant, held a high confidence in human reason (opposed to divine revelation) and our adequacy to know universal truths. Descartes also stressed foundationalism, the general view that our “foundational” beliefs can be grounded in reality itself and knowably so. For him, he thought we needed, and could have, invincible certainty in our foundational beliefs.
Postmoderns reject this overly high confidence in human reason, pointing to our finitude and our fallenness, or our susceptibility to justify our own devious desires. They also reject foundationalism, and not just Descartes’ version. Rather, they reject the idea that we can access reality directly. We might summarize their view as everything is interpretation. This is because we cannot shed our interpretive “lenses,” or grids, which are formed by our “situatedness.”
There also are metaphysical factors involved in their view, such as the rejection of essences as well as the embrace of nominalism, the idea that everything is particular and in name only. There are no universal qualities that exist, and we could not know them as such even if we they did exist. But, is it true that interpretation goes all the way down, so that we cannot access reality as it is in itself, but only as we interpret it? I think this view is mistaken for two basic reasons. First, descriptively, I think there are several things which we can know as they truly are if we pay close attention to what is before our minds in conscious awareness. I have given several descriptive examples in my IVP book. Second, if we cannot access anything in reality directly, then how do we get started in making interpretations? What are they of? It seems we can work only with interpretations, which leaves us stuck in a potentially infinite regress.
Scott Smith, Ph.D. is Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Professor Smith's recommended further reading on this topic:
Smith, Scott, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), chs. 8-11.