One of the most convoluted paradigms of thought to emerge throughout recorded intellectual history is postmodernism. Postmodernists themselves take pride in Jacques Derrida’s elusive and difficult writing style, presenting it as a protest against elitist standardization of writing . Derrida is considered the founding father of deconstructionist philosophy and one of the main figureheads of postmodernism. A French Jew born and raised in Algeria, his background as a marginalized minority likely informed his subsequent career in deconstructing structures of power and order. Due to the difficult nature of comprehending the primary sources associated with this movement, misconceptions are often espoused by interlocutors in public debates. Even for academics, understanding postmodernism is no easy task. It is, however, a necessary one, as postmodernism in its telos aims to overthrow all modes of established orthodoxy, Western or otherwise. Proponents of any apparatus of organized thought, be it theological, psychological, or philosophical, must pay close attention to the increasing traction of the postmodernist movement and produce adequate responses to address the discrediting of their disciplines.
A foundational element of postmodernist thought can be traced to Jacques Derrida’s treatment of Ferdinand de Saussure’s work on structuralist semiology–the study of symbols and how they relate to the symbolized, cognitively and in reality. This duality is known as the signifier-signified. Saussure uses the term ‘signified’ to refer to the concept of something, where as ‘signifier’ refers to a word or image that points towards the concept . Therefore, the concept of a tree is the signified, while the word ‘tree’ itself is a signifier. Derrida begins by tackling Saussure’s Aristotelian approach to writing, which defines it relative to oral speech . Specifically, Saussure posits that writing exists merely as a signifier of speech, which is a signifier of the signified once coupled with the mental image of the concept (sound-image). Therefore, according to Saussure, an object is encompassed by its oral signifier, rather than a combination of the oral and written signifier . The western linguistic tradition’s relegation of writing and elevation of oral speech does not sit well with Derrida. He sees an inherent contradiction and negligence in the tradition’s approach to language, namely that the principles by which phonetic writing is relegated are not applied to oral language, and that western intellectuals failed to realize the distinct linguistic biases upon which science, philosophy, and all other fields of study are built upon . Derrida writes, “writing is not a sign of a sign, except if one says it of all signs, which would be more profoundly true[…]every sign refers to a sign” . Derrida believes that signifiers never point to a signified, but rather point to other signifiers. Take, for example, the word “red.” It is a signifier of many things including blood, communism, intimacy, and hospitals–which are in turn signifiers of many other signifiers. The result of this is an infinitely regressing series of signifiers, never reaching an absolute signified. Thus, language, even thought, loses the capacity to discover and harbor truly essentialistic knowledge. In other words, nothing can contain meaning in and of itself. Instead, all definitions are dependent upon other definitions, which establishes an eerie contingency of all that may be expressed. Derrida’s approach culminates into a categorical rejection of definitive truth-statements and a subsequent deconstruction of all traditions, empirical or otherwise.
Jacques Derrida’s neutralization of definitive semiology resulted in the destruction of the possibility of any element of truth being expressed using words. Because of this, critics attribute a hyper-subjectivist attitude to proponents of postmodernism, but a more accurate statement would be that: the postmodernists are not so much denying the existence of truth as they are denying the existence of any expression of the truth other than the truth itself. Further, the truth, if it exists, is inaccessible. In other words, only a physical, real tree independent of the fog of expression can truly symbolize itself, but any description of a tree, any image of a tree, any thought of a tree, any word such as “tree,” is unable to capture any significant reality of the tree itself, since the symbol is subject to the processing of the conscious entity attempting to understand the symbol–and ultimately pointing to another signifier ad infinitum. The conclusion is that words carry no factual meaning, and that previous structuralist understandings of words by way of binaries and “that which they are not” holds no real weight in the search for accurate definitions. The punchline is Derrida’s rejection of a ‘metaphysics of presence’ [4, 5]. Structuralists, semiologists, and other philosophers in general rely on the concept of ‘presence’ in their search for truth. This is because that which is in the past or the future is deemed to be incompletely understood or doubtful, respectively. Thus, a quest for the discovery of a pure form of expression is simultaneously a quest for the discovery of that which is present, for presence is taken to be immune to doubt. Derrida’s thought essentially rendered the ‘present’ inaccessible. Doing so understandably casts doubt upon the scientific method amongst other methods of discovery.
Jacques Derrida’s approach to semiotics ultimately culminates in an apparatus that informs proponents of postmodern thought of the efficacy of ‘grand narratives’. As previously mentioned, the phenomenological construction of the oral voice, considered by virtually all western traditions as an expression of presence, results in an implicit phonocentric approach that is further built upon what Derrida terms ‘logocentrism’ . In other words, western philosophies are based upon the assumption that there indeed exists an overarching truth, a foundation from which all truths sprout. Examples of this include God, Science, Consciousness, Freedom, etc. Derrida argues that these words are taken to be signifieds, when in reality they are merely signifiers of many other signifiers. According to Derrida, the idea that they are concepts in and of themselves–or rather, that they should be conceived in terms of their telos, is complete falsehood. Derrida believes that such ‘grand narratives’ can always be deconstructed. To speak of an idea that is understood to have an essence in and of itself is problematized by Derrida. Therefore, any discourse on the operational ramifications of a structure such as the ‘Nation-State,’ widely understood as a construct with a telos, is not considered by the postmodernists. The implications of this approach is dangerous, as the refusal to recognize a concrete power structure that actively influences daily life is akin to burying one’s head in the sand. Critics of postmodernism would see this as a free pass for the Nation-State to continue its dominance upon the structure of society at all levels philosophical and legal, while its subjects reject its existence. The result is a form of political passivism, illustrated by a convoluted refusal to accept the existence of political apparatuses and thereby limiting dissent to the elite mind. Evidently, the implications of postmodernist thought further paint the prospects of this paradigm grimly.
The implications of postmodernist thought are rather suicidal to its own tradition of origin. Postmodernist thought rejects the establishment of any tradition, whether it be a philosophical tradition or an empirical tradition of scientific discovery. This can be attributed to the postmodernist denial of a path to truth. It thus renders inquiry in general null and void, given that the only modes of communication are, in Derrida’s thought, subject to an infinite regress of signifiers, never reaching an ultimate, objective essence. Taking these elements to their logical conclusion results in the futility of ‘knowing.’ Incentive to discover truth dies, along with any such recognition of utility in a ‘grand narrative’.
An example of Derrida’s deconstructionist method in action is visible in the feminist movement. The feminist movement evolved when deconstructionists challenged the premises upon which earlier forms of feminism were built. Mary Poovey, professor at New York University, writes, “The problem: to accept the antihumanist premises of deconstruction is already to question the possibility that women, as opposed to “woman,” exist” . Poovey recognizes that Derridian deconstructionism is at odds with the ontological nature of ‘women’ as defined by its opposite, ‘men.’ Feminist discourse was stuck in the game of binaries, as it essentialized the signifier, ‘women.’ Derrida’s efforts to deconstruct binaries ultimately resulted in the conclusion that the concept of ‘opposites’ is meaningless. In response, the feminist movement largely evolved into the LGBT movement, which–despite still employing much of the discourse present in structuralist binaries, continues its project to deconstruct ‘gender’ until the word itself contains no meaning, or perhaps all the meanings, which would thus render it useless. While the postmodernist school has been adopted and affirmed by many contemporary movements, traditions of old such as Muslim intellectual thought have developed some of the intellectual infrastructure to deal with them.
The postmodernist approach to perception and truth is at odds with the Muslim Kalam (discursive theology) tradition. Imam Mahmoud Ibn Zayd al-Lamishi, an 11th century Muslim theologian from Samarkand, immediately establishes principles of epistemology that fundamentally diverge from the postmodernist perception in his book, al-Tamhid li-Qawa’id al-Tawhid . He writes, “Surely, the essences of ‘things’ are established, and this is the tradition of the true intellectuals.” He then continues to quote a group whom he calls the Mutashakkikun, roughly translated as the ‘skeptics,’ who say, according to al-Lamishi, that “we are not able to know if things have essences.” Al-Lamishi’s retort is, “Does your statement of ‘we are not able to know’ have any essence?” If they deny this, then “there is no debate with them,” as they’ve negated the efficacy of their own statement. If they affirm it, then they’ve contradicted their own statement, because “they’ve affirmed the essence of something.” It seems that what is meant by al-Lamishi in this scenario is not necessarily that tangible objects have immutable essences, but more that words (generally) and concepts (immutably) have established essences, which the discursive theologians affirm. The skeptics’ denial of immutable essences is not much different than the postmodernist claim that language is unable to hold meaning, since it is merely a signifier of other signifiers, ad infinitum. If al-Lamishi’s retort is applied to the postmodernists, questioning whether their own school of thought contains any immutable truth within it, the result would not be much different. In this sense, the discursive theologians would quickly deal with postmodernist language games, though the postmodernist framework generally closes the doors for discourse, given that it negates any possibility of even defining potential alternatives.
The growing pervasiveness of postmodernist thought should remain alarming to proponents of any metaphysical or structural tradition. Between Islam, Catholicism, Judaism, and all other faiths that hold dear to something of intrinsic meaning, there must be unity upon the endeavor to address this philosophy. The Derridian approach does not merely deconstruct language and metaphysics, but seals the doorway to rebuilding a tradition of greater fortitude by claiming that any attempt to do so is inherently mistaken. The de-essentialization of all things results in the rejection of all things. The Derridian spiral towards an elusive, inaccessible reality presents a grim future for the progression of all forms of knowledge and theory.
1. Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2002.
2. Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics: Ferdinand De Saussure. McGraw-Hill, 1966.
3. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.
4. Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. University of Chicago Press, 1997.
5. Sarup, Madan. An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. Harvester Wheatsheaf, 2006.
6. Poovey, M. 1988. Feminism and deconstruction. Feminist Studies, 14: 51-65.
7. Al-Lamishi, Abul Thana Mahmoud Ibn Zayd. al-Tamhid li-Qawa’id al-Tawhid. Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1995.
About the author: Wassim Hassan is a graduate in Biology and Chemistry, with additional interests in political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and the Islamic sacred sciences. He is currently studying traditional Islamic sciences. He is the Executive Director at Traversing Tradition. You can follow him on Twitter here.