The Implications of PostmodernismAn earlier version of this paper emphasized the implications for practitioners of psychotherapy, and was published in Individual Psychology, 53(4), 476-482, Dec. 1997. It was on this website as that in 2002, and now revised to apply to the general endeavor of thinking about meaning in life. (Revised, July 11, 2005)
Adam Blatner, M.D.
Postmodernism is an intellectual trend in philosophy, the arts, and other fields which, like existentialism was in mid-century, responds to contemporary cultural developments. It notes that, first, we live in a post-modern era. Perhaps the height of the modern era was the first half of the Twentieth Century, but beginning in the mid-1960s the essential quality of life has changed significantly, the result of technologies which speed up and make more accessible communications, mobility, and intercultural mixing. There are both advantages and disadvantages of this creative advance. One of the disadvantages arises from the phenomenon of "cultural lag"--i.e., many people still think along the lines of the worldview of the previous century. Of those who are more oriented to contemporary circumstances, only a few can articulate a meaningful and practical philosophy that can serve as a "map" for thinking and talking about life and events (Anderson, 1990). (For more about postmodernism, click this other paper.)
A common effect of living in a postmodern age is the disorientation of the person to a stable and consensually agreed-upon frame of reference. For those who need to experience the foundation of their existence as being " objectively "true," as if reality were "out there," the postmodern condition challenges this experience. In the face of contemporary technologies, people are subjected to the viewpoints of many different cultures and subcultures, with the result that the sense of common consensus is lost (Lifton, 1993). (I am happy to note that there can be a positive response to this predicament, which will be described further on in this paper.)
Postmodernism is essentially a revision of the culture's general "modern" way of thinking about how we know what we know, and the philosophical sub-field that addresses this question is called epistemology. The modern approach thinks of itself as "scientific" and believes that truth is objective. A moderate postmodernist perspective will concede this to be useful for many domains--especially regarding the physical sciences--general physics, chemistry, engineering, and so forth. However, so much of life involves the other domains of art, romance, humor, drama, and other more psycho-social phenomena, and these in turn require a more subjective and relativist approach in order to address the fundamental idea that there are different folks in different cultures, sub-cultures, backgrounds, cognitive styles, temperaments--and this means that people operate from different perspectives, points of view! Indeed, it's been noted that the postmodern viewpoint was suggested over a hundred years ago by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said that all knowledge is perspective.
One of the problems with postmodernism is that, like any broad cultural trend, it is not a single doctrine, but rather a general sensibility--like feminism, existentialism, new age, conservativism, and so forth. It has those who take more extreme stances, some who are silly, a fair number who write in an excessively obscure style, a bit of jargon all its own, and so forth. Thus, I must note that I don't agree with others who are more extreme in this general field, such as those who deny the objective reality completely.
Postmodernism, though, does seem more relevant for most categories of human experience, especially concerning psychological, psychosomatic, social, cultural, spiritual, and similar realms of activity. It supports another related idea: Ideas, principles, norms, beliefs, social modes of organization, the structures of economics, politics, the church, etc.--all are elaborate constructions, agreements, made by people, and capable of being revised and even revolutionized. So many have come to accept our socio-cultural norms as "really the way things are," and the point is to challenge all this. It doesn't mean we are obliged to trash everything, but rather that everything should be open to critique, analysis, and re-thinking. There are many ideas that deserve to be further defined, new distinctions drawn, new ways of thinking about the roles we play, and the values we hold.
This applies not only to the general social structure, but to the way people construct their own beliefs about themselves and their lives--it gets real personal. Constructivism as an aspect of postmodernist thought resonates well with one of the important influences in Adler's thinking--the philosophical ideas of Hans Vaihinger (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956). He recognized the importance of constructs in the mind, also perhaps termed schemas, fictions, or living "as if," and that these belief systems or illusions could become the ground of one's style of life. Postmodernism goes a little further, recognizing that whole cultures and historical eras also live according to assumptions which may not be able to be established as absolute.
The modern world was characterized by a certain smugness, complacency, a feeling that its rationalist approach to truth, in comparison with its premodern predecessors, was somehow final and established. The postmodern era, beginning in the late 1960s (with precursors, of course, in the years before), was characterized by a disillusionment with the assumptions of the modern world. Science, almost idolized by moderns, was seen to be vulnerable to error, fraud, and especially the unexpected effects of ecological damage. Authority in all forms was shaken in the political storms of the world, especially related to the Vietnam War. Spiritual authority was questioned increasingly, not only in the previous modern, secular era, but then even more by the renewed alternative mysticism occasioned by the psychedelic revolution. And conventions in the arts, history, and other realms were also challenged.
A significant source of postmodernist thought has been the feminist critique of many aspects of culture, from language to modes of problem-solving. As the civil rights movement did for other minorities, so this critique has then been used by other groups to question widely-held assumptions about beauty, health, family structure, sexuality, "disability," and other issues.
Out of this, and at both the relatively abstract levels of academia and the practical levels of political action, such challenges of familiar assumptions and unspoken social arrangements have further deconstructed role definitions. Yet the postmodernism as an intellectual movement has had an insignificant impact on the general public. All those papers in obscure journals and lectures at specialized conferences aren't making things worse or better. People aren't feeling more at loose ends because of their intellectual "ivory tower" discourse. Rather, they are offering a foundation--and some of it is foolishness--for helping people to think more clearly about our speeded-up and de-centered lives in an era of over-choice.
One pitfall of postmodernism is the use of this critique as an excuse to cop-out from challenge of re-constructing a more flexible philosophy. Some folks use postmodernist lingo to justify a "whatever" type of relativism: Anything is okay, because it is okay within some other frame of reference. The loss of a firm ground of standards leads to a loss of conviction. However, this type of nihilistic attitude, found also in those rock concert performers who appeal to the adolescent mentality, emphasizes the negativity of the world while offering little in the way of constructive alternatives. Here I propose a more wholesome alternative: Embrace change as a co-creator, emphasizing this wider postmodernist viewpoint as an aid to courageously taking responsibility for helping to construct the kind of world that seems desirable. Some details of that program is what will be proposed below.
But first, let's acknowledge a serious loss: The illusion of truth as a practically attainable objective must be relinquished. This leaves people feeling very decentered. However, there is a re-centering viewpoint which embraces a broader perspective: Creativity itself can be a kind of core value.
There's an analogy here to an idea of the pioneer of an offshoot of psychoanalysis, Alfred Adler: He proposed that what he called "community feeling" or "social interest" can operate as an organizing process in the mind and social group functions to supplant the more immature and individualist view that one must attain superiority in terms of being superior over others. This latter view, individualism, goes beyond simply acknowledging the implications of each person being unique, and asserts that our only obligation is to ourselves. This general social norm--alas, all too pervasive nowadays--is also one of the childish roots of pathological narcissism. It can and should be transcended. Self-esteem thus operates most wholesomely when experienced as being useful within the broader contexts of the group and the project of humanity as a whole.
Similarly, truth as an absolute, in any way attainable objectively, tends to lead to a clinging to sets of ideas in the face of changing circumstances. Creativity as a guiding principle, on the other hand, continuously calls upon the exercise of discrimination and a willingness to consider new information in the light of the present moment. This is by no means a shallow moral relativism, but rather a call to continue to exercise valuing from the most conscious and inclusive functions of mind and social interaction.
Nevertheless, this postmodernist view tends to be experienced by those who have given their allegiance to the "letter of the law" as a "slippery slope" into moral ambiguity. The remedy is to help the population as a whole learn the skills associated with creativity and to enjoy the exercise of individual and group creativity.
With this as an introduction, here are eight practical implications of postmodernist thought:
1. Make creativity a core valueInstead of searching for self-justification or the illusion of "being right," aim instead toward the goal of creative effectiveness. Cultivate an appreciation for the spontaneous and the practical, for taking a "fresh look" at a problem from often radically new and different points of view.
[For counselors or therapists: Interestingly, this approach has been an implicit part of many aspects of recent trends in family therapy (Doherty, 1991). Narrative, constructivist, and similar approaches aim at helping people to "reframe" their experience in a new way (Watzlawick, 1984). Such approaches have been influenced by a diverse population, from the work of the psychiatrist-hypnotist Dr. Milton Erickson to the psychodramatic approaches of J.L. Moreno.]
2. Construct a "personal mythology"Help them build a story of their own lives, with elements of an adventure and a heroic journey (Feinstein & Krippner, 1988). See related papers on this website, on Making Personal Meaning, and also on Creative Mythmaking.) People may reframe their lives as a process of overcoming certain handicaps--which may involve their family or subculture of origin as well as their own bodily or mental capacities. Not only are they challenged to compensate for weaknesses, but also they are invited to integrate in new creative syntheses that unique set of interests, temperament, preferences in imagery, music, food, weather, and so on; and variables in their personal background which may give clues to future vocational and avocational choices, social affiliations, and ideologies.
Even on the philosophical and spiritual levels, in light of the multicultural "menu" of options made available in the intellectual literature of the last half century, people can participate in developing their own varieties of what might be considered in the most general sense a personal religious journey. This also implies and integrates ecological, political, and personal life style issues. Building communities with similar ideals then becomes the next extension of a psychology, spirituality, and practicality with an orientation toward social interest.
3. Develop a transpersonal or spiritual perspective as groundingHere Adler, Jung and Rank could be synthesized. Social interest, while an excellent goal, nevertheless lacks a certain resonance with a fundamental psychosocial dynamic: People do have some degree of intuition regarding their connectedness with the greater wholeness of things. And this intuition, when pursued, offers profound aesthetic and cognitive experiences, a catharsis of meaning. The late humanistic psychiatrist Viktor Frankl made the search for meaning an integral part of an effective psychotherapy, and other existential psychotherapists have had a similar insight into its value.
As an extension of building a personal mythology, then, help your clients read, think, discuss with friends, and gradually begin to find transpersonal mythic images which seem true for them. (This is not paradoxical. Choosing an image or idea that feels true at one point in life isn't the same as fixating on that idea as if it were out-there "true" for all people and all periods in history.)(Griffin, 1988).
4. Cultivate a pluralistic view of their own minds and soulsThink of yourself as having many parts, and your job being to coordinate, balance, and facilitate the expression of the best elements of yourself. This is how on one level you are "one," unified, but still you contain "multitudes," as the poet Walt Whitman put it. Consider that you can still have your integrity while yet being free to play different roles, so that you may be in a work role that requires dignity, but you can let down your hair and get silly with your kids, or sexy with your spouse. Thus you can celebrate your capacity to have a variety of at times quite different styles of expression (Frick, 1993). The skill involves learning how to choose when and where, and to flexibly shift roles among parent and childlike, serious and silly, giving and receiving, active and passive, and so forth. The pursuit of a single way of being in the world leads to rigid personality styles and inevitable maladaptations to many situations.
In addition, there are many practical operations that can be performed in regard to the mind using this pluralistic model. For example, inner conflicts can be resolved through negotiation rather than simply imposing the will of one part onto another. Learn to hold an inner mediation session. If you don't, the suppressed part may find a more indirect, disguised, devious, and/or frankly pathological mode of expression, also known as self-sabotage!)
One of the circumstances of the postmodern condition is that people are subject to a myriad of influences and suggestions as to desirable ways to be or have more, to do better, and other appeals to the striving for superiority. This leads to a dynamic of "overchoice" and what Gergen (1991) called "the saturated self." The media appeal to a host of desires and so evoke part-selves which hunger for satisfaction. Owning these as part-selves rather than the full self allows them to be dealt with by using either sublimation or the wisdom disciplines of dis-attachment (which is part of what the Buddhist and Yoga ideologies have to offer Western cultures). (Also, see my paper on "self-ing" on this website.)
5. Develop a greater multicultural awarenessIn the modern world, the dominant culture was held to be "good," and other peoples were viewed as lacking--they were "primitive," or didn't have the noble "work ethic" that "made this country great. Of course, people in other cultures often felt superior in their own way, too. In the postmodern world, we're mixed up a lot more. More people from other cultures have moved to our country, and more of us are involved with those from other backgrounds. Minorities who had been ignored--the postmodern term is "marginalized," and I think it is a good word--are now demanding to be recognized as equals. So multi-cultural awareness refers to a heightened consciousness about the norms and experiences of peoples from other countries, those of the the opposite gender, a different sexual orientation, ability level, age, subcultural background, etc. Instead of clinging to those ideals fostered by "modern" culture which validate one's own status and styles of being, a postmodern view helps to recognize that other worldviews might have some important advantages that are relevant to the emerging world situation.
6. Offer an eclectic approach to education, spirituality, therapy, community activities, etc.--different strokes for different folksIn the last half-century, a great deal of research has been done that has brought to light a wide range of differences. In the 1940s, the school treated kids pretty much the same, and if they weren't doing well, well, maybe they weren't trying hard enough. Fifty years earlier than that, they were whipped! Then they started learning about "dyslexia," specific types of learning disabilities, and later, actually different kinds of intelligence: Some people are naturally bright in certain ways, not so much so in others, and everyone has their own profile.
This line of research has led to a growing awareness of many other kinds of individuality. For some, certain themes are more attractive and valued than others, and this seems innate. Research on differences in temperament add to this complexity.
The implications for this is that not only should helpers--therapists, teachers, educators who design curricula, alert managers, parents, and others become aware of the implications of individuality, but you should become your own best friend and guide, committed to discovering your own unique set of interests, temperamental preferences, abilities, and so forth. (See the paper on this website on individuality.) Also, for personal development or therapy, see the paper on different factors that make a difference in "diagnosis," beyond what's in the official category.)
For therapists, if you can't manage to deliver a full spectrum of treatment modalities (and few of us can), then be like the physician who has a variety of referral agents, physical therapists, nutritionists, and other specialists who can offer other methods of treatment. But the ideal physician takes responsibility for coordinating the overall treatment. We need to do likewise in psychotherapy. For people on their own life journeys, don't expect a single therapist or approach to be able to address all your challenges.
Thus, while some people might benefit from a course of "body therapy," for example, using methods of massage or Bioenergetic Analysis, others might get more out of some psychodrama or cognitive therapy. The idea that a therapist should be able to satisfy the wide range of patient needs and abilities through using one modality of therapy is dubious and needs to be challenged.
7. Develop the skill of metacognition, thinking about thinkingReflect not only on the issues, the "what" you think about, but also on the "how." Do you tend to think in either-or terms or can you find a meaningful middle stance? What is called "psychological mindedness" involves an attitude of interest, active curiosity about discovering how you think. Admittedly, some folks have little interest, nor is it absolutely necessary for improving. Some forms of education or treatment can proceed without it and nevertheless attain good results.
In the psychoanalytic era, full insight was a goal, but we now know that much healing, growing, and living can be done without much self-reflection. Nevertheless, if you can cultivate this attitude, it adds a dimension of continuous motivation for growth, for developing further skills of mental flexibility. [For psychotherapists, clients should be allowed to learn some skills, attain a few insights, or achieve some alleviation of symptoms, and then to go out and live and learn. More often than not brief therapy is the most appropriate approach. Still, we can plant the seeds and encourage our clients to read, discuss with friends, and begin to practice the skills of self-reflection.]
This goal in some ways is even more appropriate for our educational system. I envision the learning of certain skills of self-awareness, interpersonal problem-solving and communications as core subjects in the curriculum of the Twenty-First Century.
8. Make skill-building a key theme in lifeDo this not only for the skills just described but also for the skill of mental flexibility. Since postmodernist thought focuses on the relevance of different points of view, the skill of changing viewpoints is an especially valuable one to cultivate in today's changing world.
The best method I know of for developing this type of mental flexibility is a kind of role playing in which the clients, students, or group members are helped to shift roles at intervals. They are invited to consider the situation and viewpoints of their "opponents," "outside observers," or people with different assumptions. They're helped to examine also the different viewpoints within themselves, and to bring out more and more feelings, attitudes, and implicit beliefs-- all of which may then be questioned and re-evaluated.
I think that sufficiently frequent experiences with this kind of sociodramatic role playing leads to a new type of cognition, a step beyond Piaget's "formal operational thought." One begins to habitually shift viewpoints, commenting on one frame of reference and using these shifts to enrich the whole process of learning and taking increasing responsibility. I suspect that this mode of thinking is the needed next step in the evolution of consciousness, because it balances humility with vitality and fosters a more active capacity to work in groups towards a common goal.In summary, then, I have submitted for your consideration eight practical implications of post-modernism for coping with life in a changing world:
I don't consider this list exhaustive, but rather hope that it stimulates thinking about what we need to do adapt (and to help others do so, also) to the accelerating changes in culture in our world.
Anderson, W. T. (1990). Reality isn't what it used to be. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Ansbacher, H. L., & Ansbacher, R. R. (Eds.) (1956). The individual psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Basic Books.
Doherty, W. J. (1991). Family therapy goes postmodern: Deconstructing clinical objectivity. Family Therapy Networker, 15(5), 37-42.
Feinstein, D., & Krippner, S. (1988). Personal mythology: The psychology of your evolving self. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.
Frick, W. B. (1993). Subpersonalities: Who conducts the orchestra? Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 33(2), 122-128.
Gergen, K. J. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: BasicBooks.
Griffin, D. R. (Ed.) (1988). Spirituality and society: Postmodern visions. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Lifton, R. J. (1993). The protean self: Human resilience in an age of fragmentation. New York: Basic Books.
Watzlawick, P. (Ed.). (1984). The invented reality: How do we know what we believe we know; contributions to constructivism. New York: W.W. Norton.
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