Monday, March 27, 2017

Postmodernism & Truth

Truth Considered & Applied: Examining Postmodernism, History, and Christian Faith. By Stewart E. Kelly. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011, 376 pp., $29.99 paper.

Stewart Kelly, professor of philosophy at Minot State University (North Dakota), has written a helpful treatise on historical knowledge and truth in a postmodern age.  Kelly divides Truth Considered & Applied into three parts, corresponding to three major questions.  (1) What is postmodernism?  (2) Given postmodernism, is genuine historical knowledge still possible?  (3) How should we think about truth?

In Part I, Kelly sets the stage for postmodernism with a brief survey of modernist philosophy.  He highlights the problematic Enlightenment emphasis upon the reliability of human reason, with a concomitant rejection of the noetic effects of sin.  Postmodernism rightly rejects modernist hubris, but is itself a mixed bag – there are many beneficial elements along with areas of deep concern.

On the positive side, postmodernism doubts the Enlightenment ideal of the omnicompetence of human reason.  Postmodernism emphasizes the situatedness of the knower and the effect of worldview upon scientific and historical knowledge.  Finally, Kelly praises postmodernism for recognizing that neither science nor historical narratives are as objective as modernists claimed.

On the flip side, postmodernists suggest that reality is socially constructed; Kelly notes that they are rejecting the “givenness” of the external world.  He also insists that the postmodern reaction against modernist objectivity is exaggerated; a modest methodological objectivity is possible in both history and epistemology.  While Kelly praises postmodernists for highlighting the oppressive nature of many historical metanarratives, he insists that not all metanarratives are inherently oppressive; indeed, historic Christianity offers a truly liberating metanarrative. 

In Part II, Kelly defends the traditional historiographical claim that “we have clearly justified knowledge of some past events.” (158) After tracing the rise and fall of objective historiography, Kelly builds a case for modest historical realism.  He insists that, contrary to modernist ideals, objective history does not require detachment or neutrality.  Furthermore, he maintains a subtle but crucial distinction between the social construction of cultural ideals and beliefs and the objectively present objects that those ideals and beliefs are based upon.  Kelly utilizes the Holocaust as a paradigmatic example, insisting that (1) it occurred, (2) we have justification in saying that it is an objective historical fact, and (3) that Holocaust-deniers are objectively wrong.

In Part III, Kelly defends the correspondence theory of truth against alternative (largely postmodern) theories of truth—coherence, pragmatic, and deflationary.

Kelly’s brief volume is particularly valuable to those interested in historiography and epistemology.  Throughout Truth Considered & Applied, Kelly avoids highlighting radical or extreme postmodernists, choosing instead to focus on mainstream postmodernists who pose respectable and constructive positions.  Ultimately, postmodernism is found lacking due to its rejection of objective historical knowledge, denial of the correspondence theory of truth, and acceptance of a broad social constructionism all point in the wrong direction.  What is needed, Kelly argues, is a recovery of modest historical realism and a chastened correspondence theory of truth.  The postmodern world is crying out for a truly universal metanarrative that does not oppress, but rather provides true liberation for all—the Christian metanarrative.