In art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion and philosophy there is a contrast between "the modern" and "the post-modern.
The term ``postmodern’’ came into use as a description of certain trends in architecture, art, and literature in the 1970’s, although the trends it describes reach back earlier in the twentieth century, to Joyce and Finnegan’s Wake in the case of literature, and to the 1950’s at least in the case of architecture. But what counts as postmodern philosophy?
One theme of postmodernism, according to Jean-François Lytard at any rate, is the opposition to theory and “meta-narrative”. If I had just this much to go on, I might think that a good candidate for postmodern philosophy would be the views I was taught in graduate school at Cornell, a mixture of the philosophy of Wittgenstein and the Oxford Philosophy of J.O. Urmson, John Austin, and the like.
Urmson is an interesting figure. He came back to Oxford after spending five or six years in a German prison camp; he was one of the British soldiers who didn’t make it onto one of the boats at Dunkirk. Upon resuming to his career in philosophy at a very early stage, he once told me, he looked on things differently than he might have in more normal times, when he would have been five years younger. He was more adventurous, more confident of his ability to do philosophy on his own than merely build on the last generation, and deeply suspicious of all “-isms” and overarching themes; he and the group of “ordinary language philosophers” at Oxford wanted to start philosophy over with few preconceptions about it.
Now this sounds very postmodernist. And when you add to that the focus on language, and add in a Wittgenstein’s anti-theoretical position, the concept of language games from Wittgenstein and speech acts and performative language from Austin --- two ways of extending the philosophy of language beyond the merely descriptive uses of language --- it sounds very much like what postmodernism is supposed to be about.
This may explain why I often enjoy the sentences and some of the paragraphs in postmodern philosophy, especially Lyotard, sometimes Rorty, not so often Derrida. Lots of the sentences, some of the paragraphs ---- but I seldom make it through a whole essay. The reason for the latter, apart from my adult onset attention deficient disorder, is that as you read on in postmodern essays one of two things happen. Most often they turn into discussions of how this or that theme of postmodernism is related to what various dead people said, Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Freud, Dewey, etc. etc. I am not very well-read in most of the relevant literature, and find these discussions hard to follow and boring and somehow not what you would expect from philosophy without meta-narrative. At any rate, I get the impression that postmodern philosophers love to read philosophy --- either that or they are incredibly disciplined to read so much of it.
Some of the philosophers actually turn to examples at times and do some philosophy. Derrida, for example. He really has some interesting examples. But what he has to say about them usually seems to me to head off in the wrong direction. Postcards, for example. When I came across Derrida’s discussion of postcards (I don’t remember where) I already had a theory of postcard’s, based on asking the question, “what do you know when you read “I am having a good time here” on a postcard but you don’t know who sent it, from where, and when?” I found what I and my friends had to say on such topics much more interesting and somewhat more sophisticated than what Derrida had to say (as far as I could make it out), so I never got through a whole essay, much less a whole book, by him either.
I actually don’t like reading philosophy all that much; I like doing philosophy and reading it is the price you have to pay. Not that it’s a terrible experience, but I can’t a less appealing way to spend the day than reading through the tomes that postmodernists all seem to know by heart. Well actually I can think of a lot less appealing ways to spend a day, but you get my drift.
So, although I don’t like meta-narratives, and agree with many of Lyotard’s opinions --- or at least many of his sentences --- about states, capitalism, Freud, Marx, and the like, I guess I am not a postmodernist.