Criticism of postmodernism is intellectually diverse, reflecting various critical attitudes toward postmodernity, postmodern philosophy, postmodern art, and postmodern architecture. Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism, especially those associated with Enlightenment rationality though postmodernism in the arts may have their own definitions. Thus, while common targets of postmodern criticism include universalist ideas of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, science, language, and social progress, critics of postmodernism often defend such concepts. It is frequently alleged that postmodern scholars promote obscurantism, are hostile to objective truth, and encourage relativism (in culture, morality, knowledge) to an extent that is epistemically and ethically crippling. Criticism of more artistic postmodern movements such as postmodern art or literature may include objections to a departure from beauty, lack of coherence or comprehensibility, deviating from clear structure and the consistent use of dark and negative themes.


Postmodernism has received significant criticism for its lack of stable definition and meaning. The term marks a departure from modernism, and may refer to an epoch of human history (see Postmodernity), a set of movements, styles, and methods in art and architecture, or a broad range of scholarship, drawing influence from scholarly fields such as critical theory, post-structuralist philosophy, and deconstructionism. There is substantial dispute about which features of postmodernism, if any, are essential to the concept, and its enigmatic meaning and related "perceived lack of political commitment, subjectivist interpretations, fragmentary nature, and nihilistic tendencies" have led to substantial academic frustration and criticism.[1] The ineffability of postmodernism has been described as "a truism"[2] and some claim it is a "buzzword".[3][4] This "semantic instability" has been long acknowledged in scholarship.[5]

Critics of postmodernism frequently charge that postmodern art/authorship is vague, obscurantist, or meaningless. Some philosophers, such as Jürgen Habermas, argue that postmodernism contradicts itself through self-reference, since its critique would be impossible without the concepts and methods that modern reason provides.[2]

Christopher Hitchens in his book Why Orwell Matters advocates for simple, clear, and direct expression of ideas and argues that postmodernists wear people down by boredom and semi-literate prose.[6] Hitchens also criticized a postmodernist volume, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism:[7] "The French, as it happens, once evolved an expression for this sort of prose: la langue de bois, the wooden tongue, in which nothing useful or enlightening can be said, but in which various excuses for the arbitrary and the dishonest can be offered. (This book) is a pointer to the abysmal state of mind that prevails in so many of our universities."

In a similar vein, Richard Dawkins writes in a favorable review of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures:[8]

Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.

Dawkins then uses the following quotation from Félix Guattari as an example of this "lack of content" and of clarity.

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.

Of the term itself

It has been suggested that the term "postmodernism" is a mere buzzword that means nothing. For example, Dick Hebdige, in Hiding in the Light, writes:

When it becomes possible for a people to describe as 'postmodern' the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film, the construction of a record, or a 'scratch' video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the 'intertextual' relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti-teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the 'metaphysics of presence', a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post-War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age, the 'predicament' of reflexivity, a group of rhetorical tropes, a proliferation of surfaces, a new phase in commodity fetishism, a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and/or crisis, the 'de-centring' of the subject, an 'incredulity towards metanarratives', the replacement of unitary power axes by a plurality of power/discourse formations, the 'implosion of meaning', the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university, the functioning and effects of the new miniaturised technologies, broad societal and economic shifts into a 'media', 'consumer' or 'multinational' phase, a sense (depending on who you read) of 'placelessness' or the abandonment of placelessness ('critical regionalism') or (even) a generalised substitution of spatial for temporal coordinates – when it becomes possible to describe all these things as 'Postmodern' (or more simply using a current abbreviation as 'post' or 'very post') then it's clear we are in the presence of a buzzword.[9]

Postmodern-friendly intellectuals, such as British historian Perry Anderson defend the existence of the varied meanings assigned to "postmodernism", arguing that they only contradict one another on the surface, and that a postmodernist analysis can offer insight into contemporary culture. Kaya Yilmaz defends the lack of clarity and consistency in the term's definition, maintaining that because postmodernism is itself "anti-essentialist and anti-foundationalist"[10] it is fitting that the term cannot have any essential or fundamental meaning. Sokal has critiqued similar defenses of postmodernism by noting that replies like this only demonstrate the original point that postmodernist critics are making: that a clear and meaningful answer is always missing and wanting.[citation needed]


Criticism of postmodernism has also been directed at its relativist positions, including the argument that it is self-contradictory. Partly in reference to post-modernism, conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, "A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is 'merely relative,' is asking you not to believe him. So don't."[11] In 2014, the philosophers Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn wrote: "[T]he statement that 'No unrestricted universal generalizations are true' is itself an unrestricted universal generalization. So if relativism in any of its forms is true, it's false."[12]

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has said "The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unliveable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that's not postmodernism; that's modernism!"[13]

Analytic philosopher Daniel Dennett said, "Postmodernism, the school of 'thought' that proclaimed 'There are no truths, only interpretations' has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for 'conversations' in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster."[14]

The historian Richard J. Evans argues that while postmodernists usually identify with the political left, denying the possibility of objective knowledge about the past is not necessarily left-wing or progressive, as it can legitimize far-right pseudohistory such as Holocaust denial.[15]

H. Sidky pointed out what he sees as several inherent flaws of a postmodern antiscience perspective, including the confusion of the authority of science (evidence) with the scientist conveying the knowledge; its self-contradictory claim that all truths are relative; and its strategic ambiguity. He sees 21st-century anti-scientific and pseudo-scientific approaches to knowledge, particularly in the United States, as rooted in a postmodernist "decades-long academic assault on science:"

Many of those indoctrinated in postmodern anti-science went on to become conservative political and religious leaders, policymakers, journalists, journal editors, judges, lawyers, and members of city councils and school boards. Sadly, they forgot the lofty ideals of their teachers, except that science is bogus.[16]

Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has been a prominent critic of postmodernism since 2017.[17][18] In opposition to the relativism of postmodernism, Peterson argues for the existence of eternal Jungian archetypes.[19][20]


Another line of criticism has argued that postmodernism has failed to provide a viable method for determining what can be considered knowledge.

Linguist Noam Chomsky has argued that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. He asks why postmodernist intellectuals won't respond like people in other fields when asked:

Seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc? These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.[21]

Richard Caputo, William Epstein, David Stoesz & Bruce Thyer consider postmodernism to be a "dead-end in social work epistemology." They write:

Postmodernism continues to have a detrimental influence on social work, questioning the Enlightenment, criticizing established research methods, and challenging scientific authority. The promotion of postmodernism by editors of Social Work and the Journal of Social Work Education has elevated postmodernism, placing it on a par with theoretically guided and empirically based research. The inclusion of postmodernism in the 2008 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education and its 2015 sequel further erode the knowledge-building capacity of social work educators. In relation to other disciplines that have exploited empirical methods, social work's stature will continue to ebb until postmodernism is rejected in favor of scientific methods for generating knowledge.[22]

Marxist criticisms

Alex Callinicos attacks notable postmodern thinkers such as Baudrillard and Lyotard, arguing postmodernism "reflects the disappointed revolutionary generation of 1968, (particularly those of May 1968 in France) and the incorporation of many of its members into the professional and managerial 'new middle class'. It is best read as a symptom of political frustration and social mobility rather than as a significant intellectual or cultural phenomenon in its own right."[23]

Art historian John Molyneux, also of the Socialist Workers' Party, attacks postmodernists for "singing an old song long intoned by bourgeois historians of various persuasions".[24]

Fredric Jameson, American literary critic and Marxist political theorist, attacks postmodernism (or poststructuralism) for what he claims is "the cultural logic of late capitalism", for its refusal to critically engage with the metanarratives of capitalization and globalization. The refusal renders postmodernist philosophy complicit with the prevailing relations of domination and exploitation.[25]

Daniel Morley and Hamid Alizadeh of called postmodernism a "bourgeois philosophy, permeating large parts, if not the majority, of academia today. It embodies the utter dead-end and pessimism of bourgeois philosophy given the senile decay of capitalist society."[26]

Incompatibility with individual freedom

Michael Rectenwald argues that postmodernism "is incompatible with liberty, first because it sees the individual as a mere product, as constructed by language, social factors, and so on. As such, postmodernism effectively denies self-determination and individual agency. Second, the cultural obsession with social identity that is current today derives from the social constructivism of postmodern philosophy. Such social constructivism further denies individual agency." Rectenwald further argues that postmodernism's belief that "everything is a power struggle, the lack of objective constraints, the lack of belief in 'truth,' or any criteria for the judgment of facts, opens us up to the arbitrary imposition of beliefs—to authoritarianism."[27]

American historian Richard Wolin traces the origins of postmodernism to intellectual roots in fascism, writing "postmodernism has been nourished by the doctrines of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Blanchot, and Paul de Man—all of whom either prefigured or succumbed to the proverbial intellectual fascination with fascism."[28]

Artistic criticism

In the April 1999 edition of Art Review, Brian Ashbee criticized the influence of postmodernism on the arts, particularly for making art dependent on verbal explanations in order to have meaning, and for creating a situation where "There is no aspect of the work of art, however banal, that can't be 'spun'."[29] The post-modern art forms mentioned by Ashbee are: "installation art, photography, conceptual art [and] video".[29]

American academic and aesthete Camille Paglia has said:

The end result of four decades of postmodernism permeating the art world is that there is very little interesting or important work being done right now in the fine arts. The irony was a bold and creative posture when Duchamp did it, but it is now an utterly banal, exhausted, and tedious strategy. Young artists have been taught to be "cool" and "hip" and thus painfully self-conscious. They are not encouraged to be enthusiastic, emotional, and visionary. They have been cut off from artistic tradition by the crippled skepticism about history that they have been taught by ignorant and solipsistic postmodernists. In short, the art world will never revive until postmodernism fades away. Postmodernism is a plague upon the mind and the heart.[30]

Private Eye magazine also satirized postmodernist discourse in art in a November 2018 edition, with an imaginary interview of Tracey Emin by an unduly fawning Alan Yentob.[31]

Sokal affair

Main article: Sokal affair

Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, formulated the Sokal affair, a hoax in which he wrote a deliberately nonsensical article in a style similar to postmodernist articles. The article was accepted for publication by the journal Social Text despite the obvious lampooning of postmodernists' view of science. Sokal liberally used vague post-modernist concepts and lingo all the while criticising empirical approaches to knowledge. On the same day of the release he published another article in a different journal explaining the Social Text article. This was turned into a book, Fashionable Nonsense, which offered a critique of the practices of postmodern academia.[32] In the book he and Jean Bricmont point out the misuse of scientific terms in the works of postmodern philosophers but they state that this does not invalidate the rest of the work of those philosophers to which they suspend judgement.[33]

The philosopher Thomas Nagel has supported Sokal and Bricmont, describing their book Fashionable Nonsense as consisting largely of "extensive quotations of scientific gibberish from name-brand French intellectuals, together with eerily patient explanations of why it is gibberish,"[34] and agreeing that "there does seem to be something about the Parisian scene that is particularly hospitable to reckless verbosity."[35]

Mumbo Jumbo

Francis Wheen's book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World broadly critiques a variety of non-critical paradigms with a significant critique of cultural relativism and the use of postmodern tropes to explain all modern geo-political phenomena. According to Wheen, postmodern scholars tend to critique unfair power structures in the west including issues of race, class, patriarchy, the effect of radical capitalism and political oppression. Where he finds fault in these tropes is when the theories go beyond evidence-based critical thinking and use vague terminology to support obscurantist theories. An example is Luce Irigaray's assertion, cited by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their book Fashionable Nonsense,[36] that the equation "E=mc2" is a "sexed equation", because "it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us". Relativism, according to Wheen becomes a sort of wall which shields non western cultures from the same sustained critiques. While inherent sexism in North America is open to hostile critique (as it should be according to Wheen), according to postmodern thought it is taboo to critique honour killings and female genital mutilation in North Africa and the Middle East. Relativism will defend such taboos by claiming such cultures are out of the sphere of shared Western values and that we cannot judge other cultures by our own standards or it is defended through diminishing the severity of sexism by either denying its prominence (as Western propaganda/misunderstanding) or blaming it on menacing Western factors (imperialism, globalization, Western hegemony, resource exploitation and Western interference in general). Wheen admits that, while some of this may have merit, its case is highly exaggerated by relativism. Wheen reserves his strongest critique for those who defend even the most appalling systemic mistreatment of women, even in countries where Western contact and influence is minimal.[37]


Patrick West, writing for Spiked magazine, argued that postmodernism's proponents "exhorted us to question orthodoxies. They preached scepticism, autonomy, anti-authoritarianism and liberation." West contrasted this with "Today's woke warriors [who] preach obedience. When it comes to dissenters, they seek only to discipline and punish." West also disputed accusations of postmodernism being a Marxist ideology:[38]

Postmodern thinkers were broadly opposed to Marxism. Many may have been signed-up Communists in their youth (the French Communist Party dominated left-wing politics at the time), but by the 1960s they had become highly critical of Marxist politics. They rejected the idea that history was progressing 'dialectically' towards a communist future, or 'telos'. And they were often hostile to the scientific objectivity and 'Enlightenment' values so central to Marxism.

— Patrick West

Ephrat Livni, writing for Quartz, argued that postmodernists did not create the era of post-truth and fake news that we live in today, but "merely described it. The French academics of the 1970s ... saw the flaws in modernist thought — that old-timey Enlightenment-era notion that we all shared values, approved the same truths, and agreed on the facts. Instead, they acknowledged that reality is complicated. They recognized the changes happening in the late 20th century — the erosion of authority, the ascendance of individual perspective — and developed the vocabulary to describe it." Livni adds that while there are still facts about occurrences that "make up reality.", what these facts mean "is up for dispute. There is no objective, universal truth we all agree upon when it comes to interpretation." Livini concludes by saying:[39]

Instead of blaming postmodernists for the messiness of our time, we should be trying to find a new kind of language — one that allows us to speak across divides, rather than rejecting opposing perspectives as inherently false. We have to learn to acknowledge the validity of a multiplicity of views and from this craft some kind of working truth. That may too be an illusion, but it will be more functional than living in denial. Otherwise, all that we’re left with is this impossible mess, and our perpetual rejection of life’s many inconvenient complexities.

— Ephrat Livni

See also


  1. ^ DELEON, ABRAHAM P. (August 2005). "BOOK REVIEW of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism". Educational Studies. 38 (1): 62–67. doi:10.1207/s15326993es3801_7. ISSN 0013-1946. S2CID 143457523.
  2. ^ a b Aylesworth, Gary (2005-09-30). "Postmodernism". Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ Hebdige, Dick (2003-09-02). Hiding in the Light. doi:10.4324/9780203358863. ISBN 9781134986064.
  4. ^ McLaren, Peter (2002-03-11). Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture. doi:10.4324/9780203203194. ISBN 9780203203194.
  5. ^ Stanley., Trachtenberg (1995). Critical essays on American postmodernism. G.K. Hall. ISBN 0-8161-7324-9. OCLC 30701984.
  6. ^ Christopher Hitchens. Why Orwell matters, Basic Books. ISBN 978-0465030507, 2002
  7. ^ Christopher Hitchens.Transgressing the Boundaries. NY Times, May 22, 2005.
  8. ^ Richard Dawkins (1998/2007). Postmodernism disrobed. Retrieved 28 February 2016. Originally published in Nature 394:141–43.
  9. ^ Dick Hebdige, ’Postmodernism and "the other side"’, in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A reader, edited by John Storey, London, Pearson Education, 2006
  10. ^ Yilmaz, Kaya (January 2010). "Postmodernism and its Challenge to the Discipline of History: Implications for History Education". Educational Philosophy and Theory. 42 (7): 779–795. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2009.00525.x. ISSN 0013-1857. S2CID 145695056.
  11. ^ Scruton, Roger (1996). Modern philosophy: an introduction and survey. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-024907-9.
  12. ^ Sidky, H. (2018). "The War on Science, Anti-Intellectualism, and 'Alternative Ways of Knowing' in 21st-Century America". Skeptical Inquirer. 42 (2): 38–43. Archived from the original on 6 June 2018. Retrieved 6 June 2018.
  13. ^ Craig, William Lane (3 July 2008). "God is Not Dead Yet". Christianity Today. Retrieved 30 April 2014.
  14. ^ "DENNETT ON WIESELTIER V. PINKER IN THE NEW REPUBLIC". Archived from the original on 5 August 2018.
  15. ^ Evans, Richard (1997). In Defence of History. London: Granta Books. pp. 232–3, 238–9. ISBN 9781862073951.
  16. ^ Sidky, H. (2018). "The War on Science, Anti-Intellectualism, and 'Alternative Ways of Knowing' in 21st-Century America". Skeptical Inquirer. 42 (2): 38–43. Archived from the original on 6 June 2018. Retrieved 6 June 2018.
  17. ^ Ziai, Reza (17 September 2017). "The Curious Case of Jordan Peterson". Areo Magazine. Archived from the original on 28 September 2017. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  18. ^ Burston, Daniel (2020). "Jordan Peterson and the Postmodern University". Psychoanalysis, Politics and the Postmodern University. Critical Political Theory and Radical Practice. Cham: Springer International Publishing. pp. 129–156. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-34921-9_7. ISBN 978-3-030-34921-9. S2CID 214014811 – via Springer Link.
  19. ^ Welch, Matt (5 May 2018). "Jordan Peterson Is Not the Second Coming". Retrieved 18 January 2023.
  20. ^ Lott, Tim (21 January 2018). "Jordan Peterson: 'The pursuit of happiness is a pointless goal'". The Observer. Archived from the original on 20 May 2019. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  21. ^ Noam Chomsky on Post-Modernism
  22. ^ Caputo, Richard; Epstein, William; Stoesz, David; Thyer, Bruce (2015). "Postmodernism: A Dead End in Social Work Epistemology". Journal of Social Work Education. 51 (4): 638–647. doi:10.1080/10437797.2015.1076260. S2CID 143246585.
  23. ^ Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique 1990.
  24. ^ John Molyneux, Is Marxism deterministic? Archived 2012-10-22 at the Wayback Machine International Socialism Journal, Issue 68, Accessed December 20, 2010.
  25. ^ Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,Duke UP, 1991.
  26. ^ Alizadeh, Daniel Morley and Hamid (2022-01-21). "Marxism versus postmodernism". In Defence of Marxism. Retrieved 2023-06-23.
  27. ^ Rectenwald, Michael (2021-03-30). "Why Postmodernism Is Incompatible with a Politics of Liberty". Mises Institute. Retrieved 2023-06-26.
  28. ^ Wolin, Richard (2019). The seduction of unreason: the intellectual romance with fascism: from Nietzsche to postmodernism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-19235-2.
  29. ^ a b "Art Bollocks". 1990-05-05. Archived from the original on January 31, 2015.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  30. ^ de Castro, Eliana (12 December 2015). "Camille Paglia: "Postmodernism is a plague upon the mind and the heart"". FAUSTO - Filosofia, Cultura e Literatura Clássica. Postmodernism is a plague upon the mind and the heart.
  31. ^ Private Eye, 15 Nov 2018, p.33.
  32. ^ Jedlitschka, Karsten (2018-08-05). "Guenter Lewy, Harmful and Undesirable. Book Censorship in Nazi Germany. Oxford, Oxford University Press 2016". Historische Zeitschrift. 307 (1): 274–275. doi:10.1515/hzhz-2018-1368. ISSN 2196-680X. S2CID 159895878.
  33. ^ Sokal, Alan D.; Bricmont, J. (Jean) (1998). Fashionable nonsense : postmodern intellectuals' abuse of science. Internet Archive. New York : Picador USA. pp. x. ISBN 9780312195458.
  34. ^ Nagel, Thomas (2002). Concealment and Exposure & Other Essays. Oxford University Press. p. 164. ISBN 978-0-19-515293-7.
  35. ^ Nagel 2002, p. 165.
  36. ^ Richard Dawkins: Postmodernism Disrobed. Nature, 9 July 1998, vol. 394, pp. 141-143. Full text available at:
  37. ^ Wheen, Francis (2012) How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions HarperCollins UK, ISBN 9780007382071.
  38. ^ West, Patrick (April 15, 2023). "In defence of postmodernism". Spiked. Retrieved 2023-06-22.
  39. ^ Livni, Ephrat (2018-09-16). "Everyone hates postmodernism—but that doesn't make it wrong". Quartz. Retrieved 2023-06-26.