John Frame on Postmodernism

post modern

I’ve been reading John Frame’s Doctrine of the Christian Life with a few brothers from church, and as always with Frame’s work, it’s been very edifying.  What follows is a lengthy quote about postmodernism, but it is succinct and perceptive:

“The postmodern school (including such thinkers as Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty) has not focused much attention on ethics, but in the late twentieth century it became famous for its skepticism about ‘grand narratives’ or world-view based thinking….

These thinkers come largely from backgrounds in linguistics, reacting against the structuralist linguistics of the 1960s and 1970s.  In their view, there is no master structure common to human minds that generates all language.  Nor does language refer to reality in any direct way.  When we ask for the meaning of a word, we get, as a definition, other words.  So words refer to other words, not to any objective reality.

So the task of the philosopher is ‘deconstruction’:  to break down the connections that people think they are making between language and reality.  Indeed, nobody can serve as an authority as to the meaning of a piece of language.  Even the author is incompetent to tell what his language means.  For once he writes or speaks it, it enters into a community, and the meaning of his words is determined by the hearers.  To people in that community, the text may convey much that is contrary to the author’s intention, such as racial prejudice, gender oppression, and so forth.  It may thus refute its own ostensible purpose, once deconstructed.  Thus it is hopeless to try to find objective truth in language.

Like Nietzsche, postmodernist writers tend to see language as an expression of the will to power.  Like Marx, they tend to read everything in the context of class warfare.  Once deconstructed, language tends to be almost entirely about oppressors trying to dominate their victims and victims trying to fight back.  So the discussion quickly turns to racism, feminism, speciesism, and so on.

These are, of course, ethical topics.  But the views of postmodernists on these topics are rarely argued; they are merely presupposed.  The postmodern conception of language rules out patient and careful argumentation about such topics, for every argument is a piece of language demanding deconstruction.  Such arguments are dismissed as mere exercises of power.

The problem is not that postmodernists are skeptics in a general way.  They oppose ‘grand narratives’, but not ‘little narratives’  They debunk large worldviews, but they claim to accept the simple facts of everyday experience.  But ethics requires a worldview, a grand narrative.  It is not just about the simple facts of everyday experience.  Rather, as we have seen, it claims to deal with principles that are universal, necessary, and obligatory.  If we reject worldview thinking, as postmodernism does, then we reject ethics in any meaningful sense of the word.

I do not deny that language expresses the will to power.  Scripture often speaks of the power of God’s word, not only its meaningful content (Is. 55:11; Rom. 1:16).  Human beings, created in God’s image, use the power of their language both for good (Rom. 1:16) and for evil (Gen. 11:5-7), and they certainly have used it to oppress other people.  It is also true that when people think they are simply stating facts objectively, they are often stating them in such a way as to increase their power over others.

But language is not only about power.  It is also about meaning.  It not only makes things happen, but also communicates truth or falsehood from one person to another.  The first does not in any way exclude the second.  So we must not only observe what language does to people, as postmodernists do; we must also discuss in meaningful words what language ought to do.

Furthermore, postmodernism, like many other ideologies, tends to exempt itself from its own critique.  If arguments against postmodernism must be deconstructed as attempts to gain power, why shouldn’t arguments in favor of postmodernism be deconstructed in the same way?  But if all such arguments are to be deconstructed, then truth about such issues (even the ‘little’ ones, if postmodernists are willing to discuss them) will permanently elude us.”

John Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, pp. 88-90

C.M.Granger

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4 thoughts on “John Frame on Postmodernism

  1. Pingback: The withdrawal of the real | Mirrors of Encounters

  2. Pingback: Can Christians be Post-Modernists? - TTC

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