Derrida Postmodernism Essay

"Derrida" redirects here. For the documentary film, see Derrida (film). For the physicist, see Bernard Derrida.

Jacques Derrida (; French: [ʒak dɛʁida]; born Jackie Élie Derrida;[1] July 15, 1930 – October 9, 2004) was a French philosopher best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis known as deconstruction, which he discussed in numerous texts, and developed in the context of phenomenology.[4][5][6] He is one of the major figures associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy.[7][8][9]

During his career Derrida published more than 40 books, together with hundreds of essays and public presentations. He had a significant influence upon the humanities and social sciences, including—in addition to philosophy and literature—law,[10][11][12] anthropology,[13] historiography,[14] applied linguistics,[15] sociolinguistics,[16] psychoanalysis, political theory, religious studies, feminism, and gay and lesbian studies. His work still has a major influence in the academe of continental Europe, South America and all other countries where "continental philosophy" has been predominant, particularly in debates around ontology, epistemology (especially concerning social sciences), ethics, aesthetics, hermeneutics, and the philosophy of language. He also influenced architecture (in the form of deconstructivism), music,[17] art,[18] and art criticism.[19]

Particularly in his later writings, Derrida addressed ethical and political themes in his work. Some critics consider Speech and Phenomena (1967) to be his most important work. Others cite Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Margins of Philosophy. These writings influenced various activists and political movements.[2] He became a well-known and influential public figure, while his approach to philosophy and the notorious difficulty of his work made him controversial.[2][20]


Derrida was born on July 15, 1930, in a summer home in El Biar (Algiers), Algeria,[1] into a Sephardic Jewish family (originally from Toledo) that became French in 1870 when the Crémieux Decree granted full French citizenship to the indigenous Arabic-speaking Jews of Algeria.[21] His parents, Haïm Aaron Prosper Charles (Aimé) Derrida (1896–1970)[22] and Georgette Sultana Esther Safar (1901–1991),[23][24][25] named him "Jackie", "which they considered to be an American name", though he would later adopt a more "correct" version of his first name when he moved to Paris; some reports indicate that he was named Jackie after the American child actor Jackie Coogan, who had become well-known around the world via his role in the 1921 Charlie Chaplin film The Kid.[26][27][28] He was also given the middle name Élie after his paternal uncle Eugène Eliahou, at his circumcision; this name was not recorded on his birth certificate unlike those of his siblings, and he would later call it his "hidden name".[29]

Derrida was the third of five children. His elder brother Paul Moïse died at less than three months old, the year before Derrida was born, leading him to suspect throughout his life his role as a replacement for his deceased brother.[26] Derrida spent his youth in Algiers and in El-Biar.

On the first day of the school year in 1942, French administrators in Algeria — implementing antisemitism quotas set by the Vichy government — expelled Derrida from his lycée. He secretly skipped school for a year rather than attend the Jewish lycée formed by displaced teachers and students, and also took part in numerous football competitions (he dreamed of becoming a professional player). In this adolescent period, Derrida found in the works of philosophers and writers (such as Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Gide) an instrument of revolt against family and society.[30] His reading also included Camus and Sartre.[30]

In the late 1940s, he attended the Lycée Bugeaud (fr), in Algiers;[31] in 1949 he moved to Paris,[4][20] attending the Lycée Louis-le-Grand,[31] where his professor of philosophy was Étienne Borne.[32] At that time he prepared for his entrance exam to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure (ENS); after failing the exam on his first try, he passed it on the second, and was admitted in 1952.[20] On his first day at ENS, Derrida met Louis Althusser, with whom he became friends. After visiting the Husserl Archive in Leuven, Belgium (1953–1954), he completed his master's degree in philosophy (diplôme d'études supérieures (fr)) on Edmund Husserl (see below). He then passed the highly competitive agrégation exam in 1956. Derrida received a grant for studies at Harvard University, and he spent the 1956–57 academic year reading Joyce's Ulysses at the Widener Library.[33] In June 1957, he married the psychoanalyst Marguerite Aucouturier in Boston. During the Algerian War of Independence of 1954–1962, Derrida asked to teach soldiers' children in lieu of military service, teaching French and English from 1957 to 1959.

Following the war, from 1960 to 1964, Derrida taught philosophy at the Sorbonne, where he was an assistant of Suzanne Bachelard (daughter of Gaston), Georges Canguilhem, Paul Ricœur (who in these years coined the term school of suspicion) and Jean Wahl.[34] His wife, Marguerite, gave birth to their first child, Pierre, in 1963. In 1964, on the recommendation of Louis Althusser and Jean Hyppolite, Derrida got a permanent teaching position at the ENS, which he kept until 1984.[35][36] In 1965 Derrida began an association with the Tel Quel group of literary and philosophical theorists, which lasted for seven years.[36] Derrida's subsequent distance from the Tel Quel group, after 1971, has been attributed[by whom?] to his reservations about their embrace of Maoism and of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.[37]

With "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", his contribution to a 1966 colloquium on structuralism at Johns Hopkins University, his work began to gain international prominence. At the same colloquium Derrida would meet Jacques Lacan and Paul de Man, the latter an important interlocutor in the years to come.[38] A second son, Jean, was born in 1967. In the same year, Derrida published his first three books—Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology.

In 1980, he received his first honorary doctorate (from Columbia University) and was awarded his State doctorate (doctorat d'État) by submitting to the University of Paris ten of his previously published books in conjunction with a defense of his intellectual project under the title "L'inscription de la philosophie : Recherches sur l'interprétation de l'écriture" ("Inscription in Philosophy: Research on the Interpretation of Writing").[31][39] The text of Derrida's defense was based on an abandoned draft thesis he had prepared in 1957 under the direction of Jean Hyppolite at the ENS titled "The Ideality of the Literary Object"[39] ("L'idéalité de l’objet littéraire");[40] his 1980 dissertation was subsequently published in English translation as "The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations". In 1983 Derrida collaborated with Ken McMullen on the film Ghost Dance. Derrida appears in the film as himself and also contributed to the script.

Derrida traveled widely and held a series of visiting and permanent positions. Derrida became full professor (directeur d'études) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris from 1984 (he had been elected at the end of 1983).[39] With François Châtelet and others he in 1983 co-founded the Collège international de philosophie (CIPH), an institution intended to provide a location for philosophical research which could not be carried out elsewhere in the academia. He was elected as its first president. In 1985 Sylviane Agacinski gave birth to Derrida's third child, Daniel.[41]

In 1986 Derrida became Professor of the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, where he taught until shortly before his death in 2004. His papers were filed in the university archives. After Derrida's death, his widow and sons said they wanted copies of UCI's archives shared with the Institute of Contemporary Publishing Archives in France. The university had sued in an attempt to get manuscripts and correspondence from Derrida's widow and children that it believed the philosopher had promised to UC Irvine's collection, although it dropped the suit in 2007.[42]

Derrida was a regular visiting professor at several other major American and European universities, including Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, New York University, Stony Brook University and The New School for Social Research.

He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Cambridge (1992), Columbia University, The New School for Social Research, the University of Essex, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the University of Silesia, the University of Coimbra, the University of Athens and many others around the world.

Derrida was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Although his membership in Class IV, Section 1 (Philosophy and Religious Studies) was rejected;[citation needed] he was subsequently elected to Class IV, Section 3 (Literary Criticism, including Philology)[citation needed] . He received the 2001 Adorno-Preis from the University of Frankfurt.

Late in his life, Derrida participated in making two biographical documentaries, D'ailleurs, Derrida (Derrida's Elsewhere) by Safaa Fathy (1999),[43] and Derrida by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman (2002).[44]

Derrida was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, which reduced his speaking and travelling engagements.[45] He died during surgery in a hospital in Paris in the early hours of October 9, 2004.[46]

At the time of his death, Derrida had agreed to go for the summer to Heidelberg as holder of the Gadamer professorship,[47] whose invitation was expressed by the hermeneutic philosopher himself before his death. Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff, Rector at Heidelberg by that time, would summarize Derrida's place as: "Beyond the boundaries of philosophy as an academic discipline he was a leading intellectual figure not only for the humanities but for the cultural perception of a whole age."[47]


Main article: Deconstruction

Derrida referred to himself as a historian.[48][49] Derrida questioned assumptions of the Western philosophical tradition and also more broadly Western culture.[50] By questioning the dominant discourses, and trying to modify them, he attempted to democratize the university scene and to politicize it.[51] Derrida called his challenge to the assumptions of Western culture "deconstruction".[50] On some occasions, Derrida referred to deconstruction as a radicalization of a certain spirit of Marxism.[52][53]

With his detailed readings of works from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger, Derrida frequently argues that Western philosophy has uncritically allowed metaphorical depth models to govern its conception of language and consciousness. He sees these often unacknowledged assumptions as part of a "metaphysics of presence" to which philosophy has bound itself. This "logocentrism," Derrida argues, creates "marked" or hierarchized binary oppositions that have an effect on everything from our conception of speech's relation to writing to our understanding of racial difference. Deconstruction is an attempt to expose and undermine such "metaphysics."

Derrida approaches texts as constructed around binary oppositions which all speech has to articulate if it intends to make any sense whatsoever. This approach to text is, in a broad sense, influenced by the semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure.[54][55] Saussure, considered to be one of the fathers of structuralism, posited that terms get their meaning in reciprocal determination with other terms inside language.[56]

Perhaps Derrida's most quoted and famous assertion,[54] which appears in an essay on Rousseau in his book Of Grammatology (1967),[57] is the statement that "there is no out-of-context" (il n'y a pas de hors-texte).[57] Critics of Derrida have been often accused of having mistranslated the phrase in French to suggest he had written "Il n'y a rien en dehors du texte" ("There is nothing outside the text") and of having widely disseminated this translation to make it appear that Derrida is suggesting that nothing exists but words.[58][59][60][61][62] Derrida once explained that this assertion "which for some has become a sort of slogan, in general so badly understood, of deconstruction (...) means nothing else: there is nothing outside context. In this form, which says exactly the same thing, the formula would doubtless have been less shocking.".[58][63]

Early works[edit]

Derrida began his career examining the limits of phenomenology. His first lengthy academic manuscript, written as a dissertation for his diplôme d'études supérieures and submitted in 1954, concerned the work of Edmund Husserl.[64] In 1962 he published Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, which contained his own translation of Husserl's essay. Many elements of Derrida's thought were already present in this work. In the interviews collected in Positions (1972), Derrida said: "In this essay the problematic of writing was already in place as such, bound to the irreducible structure of 'deferral' in its relationships to consciousness, presence, science, history and the history of science, the disappearance or delay of the origin, etc. [...] this essay can be read as the other side (recto or verso, as you wish) of Speech and Phenomena."[65]

Derrida first received major attention outside France with his lecture, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," delivered at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 (and subsequently included in Writing and Difference). The conference at which this paper was delivered was concerned with structuralism, then at the peak of its influence in France, but only beginning to gain attention in the United States. Derrida differed from other participants by his lack of explicit commitment to structuralism, having already been critical of the movement. He praised the accomplishments of structuralism but also maintained reservations about its internal limitations;[66] this has led US academics to label his thought as a form of post-structuralism.[7][8][67]

The effect of Derrida's paper was such that by the time the conference proceedings were published in 1970, the title of the collection had become The Structuralist Controversy. The conference was also where he met Paul de Man, who would be a close friend and source of great controversy, as well as where he first met the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, with whose work Derrida enjoyed a mixed relationship.

Phenomenology vs structuralism debate (1959)[edit]

In the early 1960s, Derrida began speaking and writing publicly, addressing the most topical debates at the time. One of these was the new and increasingly fashionable movement of structuralism, which was being widely favoured as the successor to the phenomenology approach, the latter having been started by Husserl sixty years earlier. Derrida's countercurrent take on the issue, at a prominent international conference, was so influential that it reframed the discussion from a celebration of the triumph of structuralism to a "phenomenology vs structuralism debate."

Phenomenology, as envisioned by Husserl, is a method of philosophical inquiry that rejects the rationalist bias that has dominated Western thought since Plato in favor of a method of reflective attentiveness that discloses the individual's "lived experience;" for those with a more phenomenological bent, the goal was to understand experience by comprehending and describing its genesis, the process of its emergence from an origin or event.[citation needed] For the structuralists, this was a false problem, and the "depth" of experience could in fact only be an effect of structures which are not themselves experiential.[citation needed]

In that context, in 1959, Derrida asked the question: Must not structure have a genesis, and must not the origin, the point of genesis, be already structured, in order to be the genesis of something?[68] In other words, every structural or "synchronic" phenomenon has a history, and the structure cannot be understood without understanding its genesis.[69] At the same time, in order that there be movement, or potential, the origin cannot be some pure unity or simplicity, but must already be articulated—complex—such that from it a "diachronic" process can emerge. This originary complexity must not be understood as an original positing, but more like a default of origin, which Derrida refers to as iterability, inscription, or textuality.[70] It is this thought of originary complexity that sets Derrida's work in motion, and from which all of its terms are derived, including "deconstruction".[71]

Derrida's method consisted in demonstrating the forms and varieties of this originary complexity, and their multiple consequences in many fields. He achieved this by conducting thorough, careful, sensitive, and yet transformational readings of philosophical and literary texts, to determine what aspects of those texts run counter to their apparent systematicity (structural unity) or intended sense (authorial genesis). By demonstrating the aporias and ellipses of thought, Derrida hoped to show the infinitely subtle ways in which this originary complexity, which by definition cannot ever be completely known, works its structuring and destructuring effects.[72]


Derrida's interests crossed disciplinary boundaries, and his knowledge of a wide array of diverse material was reflected in the three collections of work published in 1967: Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology (initially submitted as a Doctorat de spécialité thesis under Maurice de Gandillac),[31] and Writing and Difference.[73]

On several occasions Derrida has acknowledged his debt to Husserl and Heidegger, and stated that without them he would have not said a single word.[74][75] Among the questions asked in these essays are "What is 'meaning', what are its historical relationships to what is purportedly identified under the rubric 'voice' as a value of presence, presence of the object, presence of meaning to consciousness, self-presence in so called living speech and in self-consciousness?"[73] In another essay in Writing and Difference entitled "Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas", the roots of another major theme in Derrida's thought emerges: the Other as opposed to the Same[76] "Deconstructive analysis deprives the present of its prestige and exposes it to something tout autre, "wholly other," beyond what is foreseeable from the present, beyond the horizon of the "same"."[77] Other than Rousseau, Husserl, Heidegger and Levinas, these three books discussed, and/or relied upon, the works of many philosophers and authors, including linguist Saussure,[78]Hegel,[79]Foucault,[80]Bataille,[79]Descartes,[80] anthropologist Lévi-Strauss,[81][82] paleontologist Leroi-Gourhan,[83] psychoanalyst Freud,[84] and writers such as Jabès[85] and Artaud.[86]

This collection of three books published in 1967 elaborated Derrida's theoretical framework. Derrida attempts to approach the very heart of the Western intellectual tradition, characterizing this tradition as "a search for a transcendental being that serves as the origin or guarantor of meaning". The attempt to "ground the meaning relations constitutive of the world in an instance that itself lies outside all relationality" was referred to by Heidegger as logocentrism, and Derrida argues that the philosophical enterprise is essentially logocentric,[87] and that this is a paradigm inherited from Judaism and Hellenism.[88] He in turn describes logocentrism as phallocratic, patriarchal and masculinist.[88][89] Derrida contributed to "the understanding of certain deeply hidden philosophical presuppositions and prejudices in Western culture",[88] arguing that the whole philosophical tradition rests on arbitrary dichotomous categories (such as sacred/profane, signifier/signified, mind/body), and that any text contains implicit hierarchies, "by which an order is imposed on reality and by which a subtle repression is exercised, as these hierarchies exclude, subordinate, and hide the various potential meanings."[87] Derrida refers to his procedure for uncovering and unsettling these dichotomies as deconstruction of Western culture.[citation needed]

In 1968, he published his influential essay "Plato's Pharmacy" in the French journal Tel Quel .[90][91] This essay was later collected in Dissemination, one of three books published by Derrida in 1972, along with the essay collection Margins of Philosophy and the collection of interviews entitled Positions.


Starting in 1972, Derrida produced on average more than one book per year. Derrida continued to produce important works, such as Glas (1974) and The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1980).

Derrida received increasing attention in the United States after 1972, where he was a regular visiting professor and lecturer at several major American universities. In the 1980s, during the American culture wars, conservatives started a dispute over Derrida's influence and legacy upon American intellectuals,[50] and claimed that he influenced American literary critics and theorists more than academic philosophers.[87][92][need quotation to verify]

Of Spirit (1987)[edit]

On March 14, 1987, Derrida presented at the CIPH conference titled "Heidegger: Open Questions" a lecture which was published in October 1987 as Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question. It follows the shifting role of Geist (spirit) through Heidegger's work, noting that, in 1927, "spirit" was one of the philosophical terms that Heidegger set his sights on dismantling.[93] With his Nazi political engagement in 1933, however, Heidegger came out as a champion of the "German Spirit," and only withdrew from an exalting interpretation of the term in 1953. Derrida asks, "What of this meantime?"[94] His book connects in a number of respects with his long engagement of Heidegger (such as "The Ends of Man" in Margins of Philosophy, his Paris seminar on philosophical nationality and nationalism in the mid-1980s, and the essays published in English as Geschlecht and Geschlecht II).[95] He considers "four guiding threads" of Heideggerian philosophy that form "the knot of this Geflecht [braid]": "the question of the question," "the essence of technology," "the discourse of animality," and "epochality" or "the hidden teleology or the narrative order."[96]

Of Spirit is an important contribution to the long debate on Heidegger's Nazism and appeared at the same time as the French publication of a book by a previously unknown Chilean writer, Victor Farías, who charged that Heidegger's philosophy amounted to a wholehearted endorsement of the NaziSturmabteilung (SA) faction. Derrida responded to Farías in an interview, "Heidegger, the Philosopher's Hell" and a subsequent article, "Comment donner raison? How to Concede, with Reasons?" He called Farías a weak reader of Heidegger's thought, adding that much of the evidence Farías and his supporters touted as new had long been known within the philosophical community.[97]

1990s: political and ethical themes[edit]

Some have argued that Derrida's work took a "political turn" in the 1990s. Texts cited as evidence of such a turn include Force of Law (1990), as well as Specters of Marx (1994) and Politics of Friendship (1994). Others, however, including Derrida himself, have argued that much of the philosophical work done in his "political turn" can be dated to earlier essays. Derrida develops an ethicist view respecting to hospitality. Likely it is due to his lack of interests for history, which led him to toy with the belief that two types of hospitalities exist, conditional and unconditional. Though this contributed to the works of many scholars, Derrida was seriously criticized for this[98]. [99][100]

Those who argue Derrida engaged in an "ethical turn" refer to works such as The Gift of Death as evidence that he began more directly applying deconstruction to the relationship between ethics and religion. In this work, Derrida interprets passages from the Bible, particularly on Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac,[101][102] and from Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. Derrida's contemporary readings of Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Jan Patočka, on themes such as law, justice, responsibility, and friendship, had a significant impact on fields beyond philosophy. Derrida and Deconstruction influenced aesthetics, literary criticism, architecture, film theory, anthropology, sociology, historiography, law, psychoanalysis, theology, feminism, gay and lesbian studies and political theory. Jean-Luc Nancy, Richard Rorty, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, Rosalind Krauss, Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Duncan Kennedy, Gary Peller, Drucilla Cornell, Alan Hunt, Hayden White, Mario Kopić, and Alun Munslow are some of the authors who have been influenced by deconstruction.

Derrida delivered a eulogy at Levinas' funeral, later published as Adieu à Emmanuel Lévinas, an appreciation and exploration of Levinas's moral philosophy. Derrida used Bracha L. Ettinger's interpretation of Lévinas' notion of femininity and transformed his own earlier reading of this subject respectively.[103]

Derrida continued to produce readings of literature, writing extensively on Maurice Blanchot, Paul Celan, and others.

In 1991 he published The Other Heading, in which he discussed the concept of identity (as in cultural identity, European identity, and national identity), in the name of which in Europe have been unleashed "the worst violences," "the crimes of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, religious or nationalist fanaticism."[104]

At the 1997 Cerisy Conference, Derrida delivered a ten-hour address on the subject of "the autobiographical animal" entitled The Animal That Therefore I Am (More To Follow). Engaging with questions surrounding the ontology of nonhuman animals, the ethics of animal slaughter and the difference between humans and other animals, the address has been seen as initiating a late "animal turn" in Derrida's philosophy, although Derrida himself has said that his interest in animals is in fact present in his earliest writings.[105]

The Work of Mourning (1981–2001)[edit]

Beginning with "The Deaths of Roland Barthes" in 1981, Derrida produced a series of texts on mourning and memory occasioned by the loss of his friends and colleagues, many of them new engagements with their work. Memoires for Paul de Man, a book-length lecture series presented first at Yale and then at Irvine as Derrida's Wellek Lecture, followed in 1986, with a revision in 1989 that included "Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man's War". Ultimately, fourteen essays were collected into The Work of Mourning (2001), which was expanded in the 2003 French edition, Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde (literally, "The end of the world, unique each time"), to include essays dedicated to Gérard Granel and Maurice Blanchot.


In the October 2002, at the theatrical opening of the film Derrida, he said that, in many ways, he felt more and more close to Guy Debord's work, and that this closeness appears in Derrida's texts. Derrida mentioned, in particular, "everything I say about the media, technology, the spectacle, and the 'criticism of the show', so to speak, and the markets – the becoming-a-spectacle of everything, and the exploitation of the spectacle."[106] Among the places in which Derrida mentions the Spectacle, a 1997 interview about the notion of the intellectual.[107]


Derrida engaged with many political issues, movements, and debates:

  • Although Derrida participated in the rallies of the May 1968 protests, and organized the first general assembly at the École Normale Superieure, he said "I was on my guard, even worried in the face of a certain cult of spontaneity, a fusionist, anti-unionist euphoria, in the face of the enthusiasm of a finally "freed" speech, of restored "transparence," and so forth."[108] During May '68, he met frequently with Maurice Blanchot.[109]
  • He registered his objections to the Vietnam War in delivering "The Ends of Man" in the United States.
  • In 1977, he was among the intellectuals, with Foucault and Althusser, who signed the petition against age of consent laws.
  • In 1981 Derrida, on the prompting of Roger Scruton and others, founded the French Jan Hus association with structuralist historian Jean-Pierre Vernant. Its purpose was to aid dissident or persecuted Czech intellectuals. Derrida became vice-president.[110]
  • In late 1981 he was arrested by the Czechoslovakian government upon leading a conference in Prague that lacked government authorization, and charged with the "production and trafficking of drugs", which he claimed were planted as he visited Kafka's grave. He was released (or "expelled", as the Czechoslovakian government put it) after the interventions of the Mitterrand government, and the assistance of Michel Foucault, returning to Paris on January 1, 1982.[111]
  • He registered his concerns against the proliferation of nuclear weapons in 1984.[112]
  • He was active in cultural activities against the Apartheid government of South Africa and on behalf of Nelson Mandela beginning in 1983.
  • He met with Palestinian intellectuals during a 1988 visit to Jerusalem. He was active in the collective "89 for equality", which campaigned for the right of foreigners to vote in local elections.
  • He protested against the death penalty, dedicating his seminar in his last years to the production of a non-utilitarian argument for its abolition, and was active in the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.
  • Derrida was not known to have participated in any conventional electoral political party until 1995, when he joined a committee in support of Lionel Jospin's Socialist candidacy, although he expressed misgivings about such organizations going back to Communist organizational efforts while he was a student at ENS.[citation needed]
  • In the 2002 French presidential election he refused to vote in the run-off between far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen and center-right Jacques Chirac, citing a lack of acceptable choices.[113]
  • While supportive of the American government in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq (see Rogues and his contribution to Philosophy in a Time of Terror with Giovanna Borradori and Jürgen Habermas).

Beyond these explicit political interventions, however, Derrida was engaged in rethinking politics and the political itself, within and beyond philosophy. Derrida insisted that a distinct political undertone had pervaded his texts from the very beginning of his career. Nevertheless, the attempt to understand the political implications of notions of responsibility, reason of state, the other, decision, sovereignty, Europe, friendship, difference, faith, and so on, became much more marked from the early 1990s on. By 2000, theorizing "democracy to come," and thinking the limitations of existing democracies, had become important concerns.

Influences on Derrida[edit]

Crucial readings in his adolescence were Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker and Confessions, André Gide's journal, La porte étroite, Les nourritures terrestres and The Immoralist;[30] and the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.[30] The phrase Families, I hate you! in particular, which inspired Derrida as an adolescent, is a famous verse from Gide's Les nourritures terrestres, book IV.[114] In a 1991 interview Derrida commented on a similar verse, also from book IV of the same Gide work: "I hated the homes, the families, all the places where man thinks to find rest" (Je haïssais les foyers, les familles, tous lieux où l'homme pense trouver un repos).[115]

Other influences upon Derrida are Martin Heidegger,[74][75]Plato, Søren Kierkegaard, Alexandre Kojève, Maurice Blanchot, Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, Georges Bataille, Edmund Husserl, Emmanuel Lévinas, Ferdinand de Saussure, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Claude Lévi-Strauss, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, J. L. Austin[48] and Stéphane Mallarmé.[116]

His book, Adieu à Emmanuel Lévinas, reveals his mentorship by this philosopher and Talmudic scholar who practiced the phenomenological encounter with the Other in the form of the Face, which commanded human response.[citation needed]

Peers and contemporaries[edit]

Derrida's philosophical friends, allies, and students included Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Sarah Kofman, Hélène Cixous, Bernard Stiegler, Alexander García Düttmann, Joseph Cohen, Geoffrey Bennington, Jean-Luc Marion, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Raphael Zagury-Orly, Jacques Ehrmann, Avital Ronell, Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Samuel Weber and Catherine Malabou.

Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe[edit]

Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe were among Derrida's first students in France and went on to become well-known and important philosophers in their own right. Despite their considerable differences of subject, and often also of method, they continued their close interaction with each other and with Derrida, from the early 1970s.

Derrida wrote on both of them, including a long book on Nancy: Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy (On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy, 2005).

Paul de Man[edit]

Main article: Paul de Man

Derrida's most prominent friendship in intellectual life was with Paul de Man, which began with their meeting at Johns Hopkins University and continued until de Man's death in 1983. De Man provided a somewhat different approach to deconstruction, and his readings of literary and philosophical texts were crucial in the training of a generation of readers.

Shortly after de Man's death, Derrida authored a book Memoires: pour Paul de Man and in 1988 wrote an article in the journal Critical Inquiry called "Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man's War". The memoir became cause for controversy, because shortly before Derrida published his piece, it had been discovered by the Belgian literary critic Ortwin de Graef that long before his academic career in the US, de Man had written almost two hundred essays in a pro-Nazi newspaper during the German occupation of Belgium, including several that were explicitly antisemitic.

Derrida complicated the notion that it is possible to simply read de Man's later scholarship through the prism of these earlier political essays. Rather, any claims about de Man's work should be understood in relation to the entire body of his scholarship. Critics of Derrida have argued that he minimizes the antisemitic character of de Man's writing. Some critics have found Derrida's treatment of this issue surprising, given that, for example, Derrida also spoke out against antisemitism and, in the 1960s, broke with the Heidegger disciple Jean Beaufret over Beaufret's instances of antisemitism, about which Derrida (and, after him, Maurice Blanchot) expressed shock.

Michel Foucault[edit]

Derrida's criticism of Foucault appears in the essay Cogito and the History of Madness (from Writing and Difference). It was first given as a lecture on March 4, 1963, at a conference at Wahl's Collège philosophique, which Foucault attended, and caused a rift between the two men that was never fully mended.[35]

In an appendix added to the 1972 edition of his History of Madness, Foucault disputed Derrida's interpretation of his work, and accused Derrida of practicing "a historically well-determined little pedagogy [...] which teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text [...]. A pedagogy which inversely gives to the voice of the masters that infinite sovereignty that allows it indefinitely to re-say the text."[117] According to historian Carlo Ginzburg, Foucault may have written The Order of Things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge partly under the stimulus of Derrida's criticism.[118] Carlo Ginzburg briefly labeled Derrida's criticism in Cogito and the History of Madness, as "facile, nihilistic objections," without giving further argumentation.[118]

Derrida's translators[edit]

Geoffrey Bennington, Avital Ronell and Samuel Weber belong to a group of Derrida translators. Many of Derrida's translators are esteemed thinkers in their own right. Derrida often worked in a collaborative arrangement, allowing his prolific output to be translated into English in a timely fashion.

Having started as a student of de Man, Gayatri Spivak took on the translation of Of Grammatology early in her career and has since revised it into a second edition. Barbara Johnson's translation of Derrida's Dissemination was published by The Athlone Press in 1981. Alan Bass was responsible for several early translations; Bennington and Peggy Kamuf have continued to produce translations of his work for nearly twenty years. In recent years, a number of translations have appeared by Michael Naas (also a Derrida scholar) and Pascale-Anne Brault.

Bennington, Brault, Kamuf, Naas, Elizabeth Rottenberg, and David Wills are currently engaged in translating Derrida's previously unpublished seminars, which span from 1959 to 2003.[119] Volumes I and II of The Beast and the Sovereign (presenting Derrida's seminars from December 12, 2001 to March 27, 2002 and from December 11, 2002 to March 26, 2003), as well as The Death Penalty, Volume I (covering December 8, 1999 to March 22, 2000), have appeared in English translation. Further volumes currently projected for the series include Heidegger: The Question of Being and History (1964-1965), Death Penalty, Volume II (2000–2001), Perjury and Pardon, Volume I (1997–1998), and Perjury and Pardon, Volume II (1998–1999).[120]

With Bennington, Derrida undertook the challenge published as Jacques Derrida, an arrangement in which Bennington attempted to provide a systematic explication of Derrida's work (called the "Derridabase") using the top two-thirds of every page, while Derrida was given the finished copy of every Bennington chapter and the bottom third of every page in which to show how deconstruction exceeded Bennington's account (this was called the "Circumfession"). Derrida seems to have viewed Bennington in particular as a kind of rabbinical explicator, noting at the end of the "Applied Derrida" conference, held at the University of Luton in 1995 that: "everything has been said and, as usual, Geoff Bennington has said everything before I have even opened my mouth. I have the challenge of trying to be unpredictable after him, which is impossible... so I'll try to pretend to be unpredictable after Geoff. Once again."[121]

Marshall McLuhan[edit]

Derrida was familiar with the work of Marshall McLuhan, and since his early 1967 writings (Of Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena), he speaks of language as a "medium,"[122] of phonetic writing as "the medium of the great metaphysical, scientific, technical, and economic adventure of the West."[123]

He expressed his disagreement with McLuhan in regard to what Derrida called McLuhan's ideology about the end of writing.[124] In a 1982 interview, he said:

I think that there is an ideology in McLuhan's discourse that I don't agree with, because he's an optimist as to the possibility of restoring an oral community which would get rid of the writing machines and so on. I think that's a very traditional myth which goes back to... let's say Plato, Rousseau... And instead of thinking that we are living at the end of writing, I think that in another sense we are living in the extension – the overwhelming extension – of writing. At least in the new sense... I don't mean the alphabetic writing down, but in the new sense of those writing machines that we're using now (e.g. the tape recorder). And this is writing too.[125]

And in his 1972 essay Signature Event Context he said:


The What is religion? page of this site gives a very brief outline of postmodernity.  This page will provide you with a little bit more detail.  Remember, the OCR specification requires that you consider the challenge that postmodernity presented to Christianity and also the ways in which Smart and Cupitt respond to that challenge.

What is postmodernism?

Theoretically there is a difference between postmodernity and postmodernism.

  • Postmodernity applies to postmodern CULTURE. 
  • Postmodernism applies to postmodern THEORY. 

This means that the term postmodernism should be used when describing intellectual or philosophical ideas whereas postmodernity can be applied to any aspect of living in a postmodern world. In practice the terms are often used interchangeably!

Most academics writing about the postmodern condition agree that it is very difficult to define. Many of the people whose ideas are described as 'postmodern' do not necessarily use the term themselves. This makes it hard to date, but it is generally said to have begun in the years after WWII but became more influential in the latter part of the 1960s.

Postmodern culture:

Characteristics of postmodern culture are that it is:

  • Interconnected and multicultural. Globablisation is an element of postmodern culture.
  • Technologically developed. Information is freely available.
  • Pluralistic and diverse. Diversity is encouraged and people have a wide range of choices available to them.
  • Tolerant and liberal. Respect for difference is encouraged.
  • Opposed to totalitarianism/imperialism/authoritarianism. Imposing one set of views on others is discouraged.

Postmodern philosophers:

There are many philosophers who might be termed 'postmodern'. The 'big names' include the following:


You are not expected to have a detailed knowledge about all these people and their ideas. However, you will find it easier to write intelligently about postmodernism if you can talk about specific ideas rather than vague themes! 

  • Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
  • Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998)
  • Michael Foucault (1926-1984)
  • Jean Baudrillard (1929-1997)
  • Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)
  • Richard Rorty (1931-2007)
  • Fredric Jameson (b1934)

Heidegger is generally regarded as the first postmodernist. However, there are earlier thinkers whose work might be said to have contributed to the development of postmodernism. The 'masters of suspicion' Freud, Marx and Nietzsche were all modernist thinkers but they challenged the assumptions we make about self (Freud) history (Marx) and morality (Nietzsche). Therefore, they paved the way for postmodernist ideas.

The development of postmodernity:

Postmodern (as the term suggests) means 'after modern' and postmodernity developed as both a continuation of and a reaction to modernity. Many of the things accepted by modernist thinkers were rejected by postmodernists. 

For Rene Descartes reason provided a firm foundation for knowledge. His famous statement 'I think therefore I am' provided him with a firm basis (foundation) for the rest of his theories. He was an example of a RATIONALIST (a person who thinks that reason can be a firm foundation for knowledge).

John Locke was an example of an EMPIRICIST. Empiricists believe that knowledge can be based on the evidence from experience.

Both rationalism and empiricism influenced the modernist search for firm foundations of knowledge.

For example, postmodernists questioned the idea that there was an objective reality out there to be discovered and and they abandoned foundationalism (the idea that we can identify a sound foundation upon which to build other knowledge). Furthermore they were suspicious of the type of metanarratives that modernists sought (grand accounts which were supposedly true for everyone). Postmodernists questioned the concept of objective truth and believed that everything is subjective and relative.  Consequently, although they did not reject the use of reason in certain areas they did not believe it is the only or even the main way to investigate the world.  Emotional responses were given equal status to logical ones. Many postmodernists questioned modernity's faith in science and technology to lead to progress and some were very suspicious about the dangers of technology.

To a certain extent postmodernism developed out of the failings of modernity to come to a complete understanding of the world.  Various developments in science (such as the discovery of quantum physics) made it clear that the world was significantly more complicated (and thus much more difficult to understand) than many modernists had thought.  The world wars of the early twentieth century demonstrated the potential dangers of technology and made the earlier optimism that the world was improving seem idealistic and misplaced.

In her book 'Religion and Modern Thought' Victoria Harrison summarised the idea that postmodernism is a rejection of modernism:

'Once account of postmodernism seeks to define it by contrasting it with modern thought.  Those who favour this approach associate modern thought with the Enlightenment, and further claim that postmodern thought is premised upon a rejection of the principal values promoted (such as, for example, the valuing of reason over superstition and emotion, the value accorded to independent thought, and the valuing of so-called ‘meta-theories’, or ‘meta-narratives’ – theories, such as Marxism, that claimed to explain the totality of our experience).

According to this way of conceiving the relationship between postmodern and modern thought, the former is an inversion of the latter. Postmodern thinkers reject the notion that thought can be completely independent, and they stress, instead, the different contexts in which thinkers are located.  They also tend to deny that the ability to use reason is the most valuable aspect of being human.  And postmodern thinkers have abandoned the search for theories capable of explaining ‘everything’ – in other word, they reject meta-theories or meta-narratives. This last point is, perhaps, the most crucial to this particular construal of postmodernism.  Indeed, one self-consciously post modern thinker, Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-98),defines ‘postmodernism  as an incredulity towards metanarratives.'

Victoria Harrison, Religion and Modern Thought 

Jean-Francois Lyotard stated in The Postmodern Condition (1979) that postmodernism was a reaction to the failings of modernism. It emerges from crisis.

There are many reasons why modernism might be said to have failed. They include:

'There is a widespread feeling that the promise of the modern era is slipping away from us.  A movement of enlightenment and liberation that was to have freed us from superstition and tyranny has led in the twentieth century to a world in which ideological fanaticism and political oppression have reached extremes unknown in previous history.  Science, which was to have unlocked the bounties of nature, has given us the power to destroy all life on the earth.  Progress, modernity’s master idea, seems less compelling when it appears that it may be progress into the abyss.’

Results of Robert Bellah's survey of American attitudes in the 1980s.

  • Moral challenges: World wars and the growth of fascism led people to question modernists' optimism about the idea of progress, tolerance and autonomy. The idea that objective Truth exists and is the same for everyone could be said to have contributed to colonialism and totalitarianism in which one group imposes their 'correct' values on another social group.
  • Philosophical challenges: Modernists appeared to assume that it was possible to use objective reason and gain objective knowledge that was unaffected by subjective beliefs and opinions. However, many philosopher argued that this type of objectivity was impossible.
  • Scientific challenges: The discovery of things like quantum physics and the failure of attempts to find a grand unified theory led people to question whether science could every provide the answers to everything.

Thus, according to this approach postmodernism developed because modernity failed.

However, other academics like John Thornhill and Victoria Harrison think that postmodernism is not so much a rejection of modernist ideas but an extension of them. Harrison  says that postmodernism is ‘the intellectual insights of modernity…turned inward'. For example, the modernist emphasis on reason and upon the rejection of unsubstantiated beliefs was applied to modernisms own assumptions and this resulted in things like the rejection of the possibility of objectivity.

The difference between modernist/postmodernist ideas:

Regardless of whether we regard postmodernism as a rejection of modernity or an extension of it there is a significant difference between modern and postmodern ideas.

  • Postmodernists questioned the idea that there was an objective reality out there to be discovered.
  • They abandoned foundationalism (the idea that we can identify a sound foundation upon which to build other knowledge). 
  • They were suspicious of the type of metanarratives that modernists sought (grand accounts which were supposedly true for everyone). 
  • They questioned the concept of objective truth and believed that everything is subjective and relative.  
  • Consequently, although they did not reject the use of reason in certain areas they did not believe it is the only or even the main way to investigate the world.  Emotional responses were given equal status to logical ones.
  • They rejected the idea that language was neutral and could provide an objective account of reality 
  • Many postmodernists questioned modernity's faith in science and technology to lead to progress and some were very suspicious about the dangers of technology.
  • Postmodernists tended to reject the idea that we have an independent rational 'self'. What we think of as our self is actually a collection of different experiences. We are constantly changing and have no fixed identity.

Main ideas in more depth:

You should now already have a working knowledge of postmodernity and be able to say something about whether you think that postmodernity and religion are compatible. However, it would be helpful to go a little further and look at some of the key ideas in more detail.

Rejection of metanarratives

Jean-Francois Lyotard (1928-1998) is one of the key figures of postmodernism. He defined postmodernism as 'incredulity towards metanarratives i.e. as a rejection of the existence of metanarratives.

Cupitt rejects the idea that Christianity is true and rejected the idea that it could be a metanarrative. However, he thinks that it can have contingent value as a micronarrative - one subjective 'story' that has relevance for some people at some points in time. (Cupitt also sees his own theology as providing micronarratives - things that are useful to some people).

Hick also seems to regard the different world religions as micronarratives that suit the particular environment and conditions in which they arise.

A metanarrative is a 'grand theory' like Marxism or Christianity which attempts to provide an explanation for a wide range of things.  Metanarratives are universal and objective in that they are intended to apply to everyone in all places. Modernism itself is a metanarrative based on the idea of progress through reason, science and technological development. 

Lyotard argued that all grand narratives should be viewed with suspicion as human experience is so disparate and varied that it it impossible to provide theories which will account for things in a way that is relevant to all people.  The way people interpret the world is, to a large extent, dependent upon their different cultural backgrounds and individual personalities. Every supposed 'metanarrative' derives from a very specific context and promotes a subjective way of seeing the world; they are not actually objective or universal at all.

Universal absolutist metanarratives need to be replaced with micro narratives which are subjective, particular, contingent and temporary.

‘The narrative is unravelled, the author is dead the enlightenment project is toast, history is history’.  

Geoffrey Nunberg

  • Theological relevance: Christianity traditionally claims to be a metanarrative. Hick and Cupitt adapt this claim.

The rejection of metanarratives is closely associated with the rejection of Truth.

Rejection of objective truth

Modernists believed that by using reason and avoiding subjectivity they could arrive at Truth (the capital T is deliberate!). However, postmodernists questioned whether this was actually possible. This means that they rejected foundationalism - the idea that there could be firm foundations (e.g. reason or experience) upon which to build our knowledge.

The extent to which it is possible to have actual knowledge about the way the world really is has been questioned by philosophers since before the birth of postmodernity. Typically philosophers argued that it is not actually possible to be a neutral observer and it is utterly impossible for us to know whether the world appears to us actually corresponds to reality. (Does red look the same to me as it does to you? How would I ever begin to test this? Can I be sure that I am not living in the Matrix?) A key thinker in this area was Immanuel Kant who was not a postmodernist but whose ideas were influential to many people who are classified as postmodernists.

'Immanuel Kant redirected the study of philosophy from metaphysics to epistemology, arguing that one cannot know the nature of reality because all experience of it is conditioned by the [condition] of the human mind (mainly our sense of space and time). [Thus it]...may reveal more about the mind itself than about its objects of reflection. This initial uncertainty would evolve into radical doubt of various modern thinkers after Kant.'

Article on Postmodernism by R.Detweiler in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought

‘Approving modernity’s injunction to think for oneself, postmodernity contends that all individuals construct the world for themselves. Where modernity trusted in reason, however, to yield agreement between all rational individuals, postmodernity denies the prospect of any such agreement. We each see the world from our own point of view, and there is simply no truth which is true for us all.’

‘In common again with modernity, postmodernity holds the view that access to truth is denied wherever subjective and personal factors like faith, personal commitment, culture, gender and race impact upon our thinking. The difference postmodernism brings to the matter, however, is its contention that there is no escape from the constraints of such particularities.’

‘Postmodernism thus takes the world apart, in typically reductionist fashion, but denies the existence of laws enabling us to put it back together again. Reality is simply fragmentary and disconnected.’

Modernity and Postmodernity in The Practice of Theology  ed. Colin Gunton, Stephen Holmes and Murray Rae.

Metaphysics is the area of philosophy which deals with the fundamental reality of existence. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Truth is impossible because all our experience is subjective. This insight proved important for postmodern thinkers who argued that there is no universal grounds for real absolute knowledge. Both reason and experience are used subjectively and are impossible to independently verify. Jacques Derrida said 'Contrary to what phenomenology- which is always phenomenology of perception- has tried to make us believe, contrary to what our desire cannot fail to be tempted into believing, the thing itself always escapes.'

  • Theological relevance:Rejection of absolute truth is problematic for religions that tend to claim to preserve and pass on absolute truth. The idea that all experience is subjective challenges the idea that revelation can be trusted. Hick's distinction between the Real and the content of religious experiences demonstrates the effect that this type of thinking has on Christianity. 
  • Note that this way of thinking challenges secular reason just as much as it challenges religion. Thus it could actually 'save' religion from the challenge of reason.

Postmodernist thinkers like Michael Foucaultargued that the idea of Truth is an illusion. According to Foucault 'knowledge' and 'truth' are created by those in power. What we take to be true is the dominant world view that we have been provided with: It is received wisdom, not Truth. Foucault rejected the idea that society is progressing. The world is not getting better or getting closer to Truth, it is just moving through different world-views. Each different society has a different idea of Truth and a different version of right and wrong. People internalise and generally accept the version of reality that they are told by those in power. This then shapes how they think.

'In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one 'episteme' that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in theory or silently invested in a practice.'

Michael Foucault The Order of Things

Many postmodernists were very interested in language because the question of truth is tied up with the question of the meaning of words.

Theory of language:

What is language? One traditional view is that language develops as follows:

  1. We experience things in the world
  2. This leads us to have thoughts about the world. 
  3. We then create words for those thoughts. 

Thus each word is a symbol that corresponds to something in the world. Language is meaningful because each word stands for something that exists.

E.g. prepositions like 'to' 'from' and directions like 'left' or 'right' do not correspond to a thing that exists. They make sense only in the context of other words.

The problem with this view is that many words do not have an obvious 'thing' that they correspond to. The philosopher Wittgenstein proposed a different way of understanding language. According to Wittgenstein, words do not get their meaning from their correspondence to the world, they get their meaning from their relationship to other words. We know what a word means because we see where it 'fits in' to the world view created by language. Wittgenstein used the analogy of a game. Words are like the playing pieces of a game and can be used in certain ways in relation to each other. Being able to communicate meaningfully relies on understanding the 'rules' of the particular 'language game' that you are taking part in. Words are not 'pictures' or 'symbols' of things that exist, they are tools that we use in different ways depending on the circumstances.

Wittgenstein illustrated his theory of language games by using the example of the word 'yellow'.

  • To ask what the word yellow means is - according to Wittgenstein - equivalent to asking what a piece is chess is. Being able to use the word 'yellow' meaningfully is like knowing how to use the King in chess. 

'The sign (the sentence) gets its significance from the system of signs, from the language to which it belongs.'

Wittgenstein 1969

What he meant was that the meaning of a word is determined by its use.

  • Moreover, to return to the example, 'yellow' does not denote an actual quality that exists in the world. It is a term that we have created to categorise our experience of the world. We experience a spectrum of colour. We divide the spectrum up into compartmentalised colours. Yellow, orange etc. These colours are our interpretation of our experience.

It follows from this that language is not objective and neutral.

Modernists tended to assume that language could be used neutrally.

Modernist views on language:

  • They thought that scientific truths could be expressed objectively by using terms that correspond to the thing that they describe. 
  • Statements would be either true or false depending on whether or not they accurately correspond to reality. 
  • Statements would only be meaningful if they could be (in principle) verified (proved true) or falsified (shown to be false). Statements that could not be tested to see whether or not they were true would be meaningless. 
  • Many modernists assumed that religious language was meaningless as statements about God cannot be verified or falsified. If Wittgenstein is correct then this understanding of communication is wrong. Communication is a game and people are involved in different language games in their different types of communication.

Wittgenstein rejected these ideas. His theory meant that language could be meaningful without necessarily corresponding to the way the world is. Language is meaningful provided communication occurs. Communication can happen provided that people understand the rules of the game.

This point re-emphasises that our experience is subjective and we cannot experience the world objectively. 

A final important idea from Wittgenstein is the idea that language actually shapes the way that we view the world. By rejecting the idea that language corresponded to reality Wittgenstein abandoned the idea that we can use language to build an accurate picture of the world. Wittgenstein stressed the intrinsic link between thought and language.

'When I think in language there aren't meanings going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions; the language itself is the vehicle of thought.'

Wittgenstein (1974)

We think verbally (in words) which means that the words themselves shape the way that we think. Language creates who we are by shaping our thoughts. This is the opposite of the modernist view that the self exists and is expressed through language. 

These studies are interesting - but ultimately you do not need to know about them. I just got a bit carried away...

  • An recent study by sociologist Lera Boroditsky showed that an Aboriginal tribe - the Kuuk Thaayorre - are better at not getting lost. It was suggested that this was because their language uses the compass directions rather than left and right. Thus they need to know which way they are facing at all times. Read about it (and similar studies) here.
  • Another study by economist Keith Chen suggested that people who speak languages with no future tense are better at saving money for the future because they do not distinguish between the present and the future in the same way. Read BBC news report here.

Cupitt uses these ideas in his own work. He thinks that religious terminology is a language game or a 'phrase universe' which creates a world (or a way of thinking about the world) without necessarily corresponding to objective reality. 

Lyotard used Wittgenstein's theory of language. Lyotard said that when we use language we create a 'phrase universe'. Anything said has an addressor (the person who says it) and an addressee (the person that it is said to). It has a referent (the thing it refers to) and a sense (the possible meanings of what is said). Language does not have to correspond to reality to have meaning. This lead Lyotard to reject the modernist view that only rational scientific type statements had real meaning.

Lyotard pointed out that scientific knowledge and narrative knowledge are very different but are both valuable. Narrative knowledge does not claim to correspond to the way the world is in the same direct way that scientific knowledge does, nevertheless narrative knowledge gives accurate insights into the experience of being human.Consider describing an action like a first kiss using only scientific-type statements. Would your description really do justice to the actual event? 

Lyotard was critical of the claim that scientific knowledge is superior to narrative knowledge.

'The scientist questions the validity of narrative statements and concludes that they are never subject to argumentation or proof. He classifies them as belonging to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology.'

'This unequal relationship is an intrinsic effect of the rules specific to each game... It is the entire history of cultural imperialism from the dawn of Western civilization.'

Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

We must 'gaze in wonderment at the diversity of discursive species, just as we do at the diversity of plant or animal species. Lamenting the 'loss of meaning' in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact the knowledge is no longer principally narrative.'

Lyotard The Postmodern Condition

Lyotard valued different forms of knowledge and language. He argued that any linguistic description of an experience fails to accurately and fully account for the experience itself. Language cannot recreate reality. If you describe an experience using language your description is bound to fall short of the actual experience itself. If we confine ourselves to purely scientific type statements about the world then we limit ourselves still further. This means that we must reject the modernist assumption that only scientific knowledge is 'real'. Reality is sublime (Lyotard's choice of word) which means that it is inexpressible and we cannot find the words to describe it. The sublime demonstrates the limitations of language and reason.

  • Theological relevance: Lyotard's use of Wittgenstein appears to leave some room for religious language to be meaningful and useful to people. The question of whether or not religious claims are 'true' in the correspondence sense of truth are irrelevant (and unanswerable).

Richard Rorty applied Wittgenstein's ideas to the field of literature. He argued that we should abandon the idea that the author creates a text and decides its meaning. The author uses words and word associations that are already familiar to them. The meaning of the text is provided by the words and not by the author. This means that postmodern approaches to the study of literature are often not very interested in what the original author intended. Any text has multiple interpretations depending on the context in which it is being used. There is no 'right' interpretation. 

  • Theological relevance: If we apply this approach to theology it would mean that there is no one 'right' way to interpret a religious text like the Bible. One approach is not 'better' than another, they are just different. 

Embracing plurality:

Abandoning the idea that absolute truth exists and is obtainable leads naturally to embracing plurality. If we can never get beyond our subjective experience of the world then we can never categorically say 'I'm right and you are wrong'. 

  • Theological relevance: Theologically this has obvious implications for exclusivism. (I.e. it is at odds with it!)

'Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.'

Michael Foucault.

Rejecting the rational 'self':

The idea the we have a 'self' - a 'real me' - has a long history.

  • Christianity has traditionally taught that humans are made in God's image with a spiritual soul. Your soul is the essence of you and whilst (according to Augustine) the body might rebel against the soul the task of the soul continued to be to dominate the body and exercise reason.
  • Modernists rejected the spiritual aspect of the soul but kept the idea of a rational self. The rational thinker could exercise pure reason and rise above emotional desires.

Most postmodernists challenged the idea that we have a fixed 'self' at all. Humans exist as a bundle of experiences that change throughout life. Trying to identify a fixed unchanging 'self' in all this is pointless. Michael Foucault emphasised that we are culturally conditioned writing that the 'soul' is 'born ... out of methods of punishment, supervision, and constraint'. Similarly Lyotard emphasied the interconnectedness of life writing 'A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before.' The lack of fixed self is something that Foucault thinks we should embrace rather than fear. He requested 'Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same'. 

'I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.'

Michael Foucault

  • Theological relevance: The lack of self presents a challenge to the traditional Christian doctrine of the soul. However, it is something long accepted by Buddhism in which the idea that people have 'no permanent self' forms one of the central principles of belief. Overcoming the illusion of self was Buddha's final challenge in the quest towards enlightenment. The transience of existence is also embraced by Cupitt is his theology. Cupitt advocates we accept the changing nature of life. 

Challenge to Christianity/religion:

Victoria Harrison, Religion and Modern Thought 

Victoria Harrison wrote: ‘…according to some, postmodern thought presents and intensification of the challenge posed to traditional religion by modern thought, while, according to others, it is much more amenable to religious belief than modern thought has been’. In other words, some people believe that postmodernism leaves more room for religious faith by challenging the authority of science, others think that it leaves less.

It could be said to leave more room for religion because it challenges the dominance of science and reason thus enabling religion to remain a possibility.

Yet postmodernity challenges traditional religion in the following ways:

  • If, as postmodernism claims, there is no objective truth and no possibility of universal metanarratives then where does this leave religions like Christianity which traditionally have claimed to preach the truth?  
  • Many religious people believe that they have rational grounds for their faith. However, if reason is no longer as persuasive then many of the traditional arguments for God (e.g. cosmological argument) lose their value.
  • Religion has traditionally been concerned with morality. However, in a postmodern world moral values also become a matter of personal choice.
  • If everything is relative, subjective and personal then is it possible for there to be any such thing as community 'religion' or is everything just personal preference?  
  • Finally, if no 'knowledge' is possible then everything becomes a matter of faith and there is nothing distinctive about religion.

Many postmodern philosophers (including Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida) were atheists. However, in 2002 Derrida said 'I rightly pass for an atheist' rather than 'I am an atheist' and when pressed further said 'maybe I am not an atheist'. Outright atheism becomes problematic for postmodernists as atheism is itself a truth claim (i.e. it claims that God definitely does not exist).

The article on postmodernism in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought addresses the ambiguous relationship between postmodernity and religion. 'The principles of postmodernism may seem incompatible with religious faith. Parodic treatment of sacred individuals and creeds...are offensive to many believers and suggest that postmodernism is hostile to religious traditions.' 

However, the article continues: 'Yet it [postmodern thought] is exerting increasing influence in the fields of theology, religious studies and biblical studies'

The article goes on to suggest that certain postmodern ideas even have parallels in earlier theological thought. For example, by stressing God was wholly other Karl Barth 'projected postmodern concepts'. Barth would not have labelled himself a postmodernist (he was writing before postmodernism had really begun) but one could argue that he anticipated the postmodern emphasis on the limitations of human knowledge. Other theologians have consciously used postmodernist ideas. George Lindbeck was a theologian who believed that postmodernism could be used to refute modernisms rejection of religion and thus restore the authority of religion. Don Cupitt's post 1980s theology is likely to be described as thoroughly postmodern in tone (though whether he saves or destroys Christianity is up for debate!)

Different types of religious response:

Victoria Harrison also outlined the ways in which religious thinkers have responded to the challenge from postmodernity. She identifies two different types of response:

  1. The postmodern liberal response
  2. The postmodern conservative response

For this reason Harrison thinks that this type of response is less fully postmodern than the conservative one.

The postmodern liberal response generally accepts modernity's rational challenge to religion (i.e. it accepts that religious belief must be rationally acceptable) and adapts religion accordingly. However, it draws on postmodern theories about different types of knowledge and the emphasis on subjectivity and choice. This means that religious belief becomes a way of life that offers a different way of experiencing the world. This type of religious expression tends to be 'de-localized' and 'free-floating'. People choose the religious practices that suit them out of the wealth of religious tradition and history available to them. Religion becomes a micro-narrative. A subjective response to the world that some people choose because it has meaning to them. Harrison cites Cupitt as an example of this type of approach. Harrison described his view as 'religious atheism' and summarised his theology as follows: ‘He argues that, if religion is to be meaningful in postmodernity, then each person must arrive at a personal and highly subjective understanding of it.’ 

Harrison wrote ‘…during the modern era many religious thinkers had felt under pressure to present their ideas apologetically. Consequently, they sought to accommodate religious ideas to the culture of secular modernity, thereby conceding that religious ideas could, and should, be evaluated from a non-religious perspective.’

The postmodern conservative response does not accept modernity's critique of religion. For postmodern conservatives secular reason has lost its authority due to the challenge presented by postmodernism (i.e. reason is not all powerful!). Thus religion does not have to adapt itself to 'fit' into a rational world. Postmodernism has liberated religion from the secular challenge. However, postmodernism itself leads to 'intellectual and ethical nihilism’ because it concludes that we can know nothing and as everything is subjective we can have no moral values. This situation is undesirable and demonstrates the need to return to religion as an alternative to both secular reason. Harrison cites John Millbank as an example of a postmodern conservative religious thinker. Millbank argued that Christianity and secularism both offer different lenses or ways of seeing the world. His theology is sometimes termed 'radical orthodoxy'.


Firstly, you might want to consider to what extent you accept the postmodern world view. Are you convinced by the argument that everything is subjective and nothing is certain? If not, why not?

Consider whether religion can survive in a postmodern world and - if it can - what form it must take. There are problems with both the liberal and conservative postmodern responses.

  • Liberal postmodern religious responses result in a 'believe what you like' approach to religion and faith. This means that religious beliefs and practices are divorced from the rest of that world view (e.g. the practice of Buddhist meditation might be adopted but the world view of karma, samsara and enlightenment which goes with it might be abandoned. Alternatively, Jesus' ethical teachings might be adopted but the idea that he is God incarnate (which gives the teachings their authority) rejected. As Harrison says ‘…while, in a sense, religious  traditions are made more accessible when they are de-localized and de-personalized , they are simultaneously, it can be argued, de-valued in the market place of ideas.’
  • Conservative postmodern responses are problematic because they appear to use postmodern ideas when they are useful to them (i.e. to reject the challenge from modernity) but then abandon the parts which are more problematic (the no truth claims/no metanarratives part). 

Cupitt's theology is explicitly postmodern so you can judge for yourself to what extent Cupitt's ideas represent the successful survival of religion in a postmodern world. Smart appears to have been influenced by certain postmodern ideas in that his methodological agnosticism reflects the idea that truth is unobtainable and value judgements should be avoided. Hick's copernican revolution and his understanding of the relationship between subjective experience and the Real borrows from the same Kantian ideas that influenced postmodernity's rejection of objective knowledge. As mentioned above, Barth's ideas could be said to anticipate postmodernism.

Further reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica Postmodernism page.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on

  • Lyotard here (go straight to the section on the postmodern condition)
  • Foucault here.
  • Derrida here.
  • Heidegger here.
  • Rorty here.

Short article on postmodern theology here.

A teachers' introduction to postmodernism (pdf) here. This is a very useful resource (detailed but accessible) and describes the birth of modernism as well as postmodernism

There are several online lectures as part of the St John's Nottingham timeline project that might be helpful to you. However, they are extension material and are not always easy to follow.

  • Wittgenstein lecture part 1 here and part 2 here
  • Heidegger lecture here
  • Derrida and theology lecture here 
  • Radical Orthodoxy lecture here.

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