Post-Modernism: An Introduction and Focus on Critical Theory

Post-modern philosophy encompasses a period of time that began in the middle of the 20th century and many say is still progressing.  Post-modernism itself is hard to define and was influenced by a variety of different schools of thought such as Existentialism, Freudian and Lucanian psychology, and Marxist Theory. Today we will be examining the “Critical Theory” side of things – a branch of post-modernism that deals mostly with post-Marxist ideals and critiques of capitalism, industrialism, and politics. Philosophers of the Post-Modern age aren’t your typical prim-and-proper academic philosophers: like the average American or European, they watch TV, see movies, and listen to relevant music. If defining the post-modern off the bat is more or less an impossible feat, then perhaps it’s best to start with an explanation of the line dividing the Modern and Post-Modern ages in philosophy.

Modern and Post-Modernism: Drawing a line… sort of?

Modernism (at least as far as philosophy is concerned) outlines a trend of philosophical discourse that is strictly involved with matters of truth or, for a lack of a better explanation, figuring out the entire gambit of reality. This is a time period that included such philosophers as Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and Kant. Philosophy in this time was dedicated to solving the riddle of life and most importantly contended that the answers could be discovered, and by way of reason, could also be solved. But, as time went on, the world began to change. Marx arrived on the scene, and critiqued capitalism for all of its demands of production and alienation, giving the populations of the world no time to develop as individuals. Nietzsche attacked many of the modernist philosophers for their childish search for the ultimate truth. These two, along with other philosophers, made many observations about the way the world was developing, and lets just say they didn’t like the way things were turning out.

So where’s the line? Like I said, it’s pretty blurry. Nevertheless, as the Existentialist movement was occurring in continental Europe, and the rise of analytic philosophy was occurring in America and England.  The world as a whole was going through some rapid and frightening changes. World wars, Communism, genocide, etc… things weren’t looking too good.

Who Lit the Fuse?

Enter Max Horkheimer, a man who many consider to have thrown the first grenade at the traditional philosophical concept of reason. Traditionally, reason was considered an end in itself, a process intrinsically used for the further development of the world. Writing in the midst of World War 2, Horkheimer points out the malicious consequences of reason in the new era. No longer did reason serve as the ultimate goal in -itself and for-itself. It just became another tool for greed. Companies were reasoning out the best way to make the most amount of cash possible, even if that meant paying people poorly and work 14 hours a day. Governments were reasoning out ways to dominate the world, even if that meant killing as many people as possible in order to attain power. As Horkheimer explains “When even the dictators of today appeal to reason, they mean that they poses the most tanks, they were rational enough to build them, others should be rational enough to yield to them.”

Post-Modern Philosophy, specifically Critical Theory, began to develop as a critique of “modern” thought. It’s around this time that we see a return of Marx’s and Nietzsche’s ideas. As quickly as the concepts of art, media, and culture were shifting, the Post-Modern philosophers were right there to back them up.

Architecture and Post-Modernism

Many Post-Modern philosophers continued the trend of attacking capitalism, Fredric Jameson for example had pointed out many of the artistic and architectural effects of this highly established capitalist world. While buildings in the past had been shaped into grandiose pieces of art (think Victorian houses, and churches), the building styles of today are rigid, and plain (think office buildings). Before global-capitalism dictated every aspect of life, architecture was solely concerned with making buildings look good, now they seem to just be monuments to capitalism themselves. Think of your local mall – since they all look the same. As you walk through a mall you are bombarded with advertisement after advertisement, there’s plenty of space in the middle for you to walk around, but each and every wall is packed with stores doing whatever they can to coax you into buying their products. It is the same way with office buildings which are designed to fit the as many workers as possible in order for a company to “get its money worth” of all the space. Architecture is a good example because old world elaborate structures and new world economical buildings are reflections of Modernism and Post-modernism. One reflects the age of reason as an end in itself and its directfulness at enlightening humanity, the other symbolizes the use of reason as a tool to make the most money.

Communication Overload

Another interesting idea that came out of Critical Theory, and perhaps that is most relevant today, was developed by Jean-Baudrillard in his essay, “The Ecstasy of Communication.” In the past, before telephones, radio and Internet, there was only the small-scale stage of the immediate environment. Now, in the information age, everyone in the world is connected and the small-scale stage of the past has been made microscopic by global connection. Out of this interconnectedness arises what Baudrillard calls “hyperreality.” Hyperreality consists of blending the real with the fantastic. Day-to-day life is jam packed with blaring advertisements, non-stop newscasts, and hardly realistic TV shows and movies. Commercials for example constantly push the limits of reality and create bizarre and strange situation to convince anyone to buy their product. Think about the old-spice commercials, funny right? How much of that hyperreal situation that is presented to someone really makes sense? The fact is, we’re just so board with reality that we have to make things elaborate and over the top or they just won’t sell.


After all of this Critical Theory, one should ask his/herself a few questions. If we are all being told what it is we want to buy, what it is that will make us cool and how we should act based upon what the media presents to us, then are we really ever an individual? Are subjects  just a collection of the products we own? If you work all the time and worry about your money problems too much, then how much of your life is really yours? At least, these are the questions Critical Theorist would like you to ask yourself :).

There is so much to talk about in post-modern philosophy. We’ve have really only discussed the Critical Theory side of things; I didn’t even get to many of the other influential post-modernists such as Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida and have already surpassed my usual word limit! Although many of these guys overlap with Critical Theory (Foucault especially) they really fall into a specific category called Post-Structuralism and Deconstructionism. To simply brush over these folks would do them an injustice; so look for an article on this stuff later on. For now, the brief history, and critiques by Horkheimer, Jameson, and Baudrillard will have to suffice.


Until then,

Keep Thinking!




Posted in Philosophy.