The way I understand it: Modernism has been associated with optimism, with belief in possibility of progress and improvement, using logic and rationality, for instance. It notices fragmentation but tries to make sense of it according to narratives of progress and rationality.

Postmodernism, however, is pessimistic, it doubts all metanarratives, doubts progress, and so forth. Yet at the same time, I've read about postmodernism being about playfulness, somehow taking comfort in pluralism and idea that anything goes, taking joy in pointing out the absurdity of things.

Therefore I'm finding it difficult to believe postmodernism is pessimistic, while modernism is optimistic, as an author had suggested. Perhaps I'm misinformed. Appreciate your help.

  • Didn't get it. You find it difficult to believe exactly the way you understand things?
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 0:41

2 Answers 2


I don't think when anyone uses "pessimism" or "optimism" in these ways that they mean modern philosophers were happy people who always look on the bright side or that postmodern philosophers are glum. Instead, they mean they are optimistic or pessimistic about what many see as the project of philosophy.

I think it's fair to say that modernism is, in general, "optimistic," but we need to be careful about how we are defining optimism. By optimism here, I mean that modernism is optimistic that (a) we can have true knowledge of some sort, (b) that we can share a concept of the world and knowledge, and (c) that logic or reason or something like it is universal.

Post-Modernism is harder to pin down. The big problem here is that since it's still in progress, it's not entirely clear what the term refers to. Postmodern philosophies are, in general, pessimistic about the possibilities listed above. That is to say they don't think we have a shared universal concept of reason or that we can attain true knowledge or that there is a universal valid form of reasoning that isn't limited.

Now, the paragraph about postmodernism above needs to be qualified with a nearly endless string of qualifiers. There may be some post-modern thinkers who think there's something like universal true reason (I can't think of any off the top of my head who traditionally fit the label -- but in part that's how the label gets diced). People who I'd say squarely seem to reject on the surface the modern project: Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty. I'm sure there's many more. But even in putting say Derrida's name on the list, that greatly depends on which texts we're talking about and whether his critique of the use of concepts like "justice" is because he believes and hope for a deeper justice or because he believes there's no hope.

To give further fuel to the question, is Jean-Luc Marion a post-modern philosopher? Is Emmanuel Levinas? Paul Ricoeur? Merold Westphal?

  • Thank you virmaior, good answer, and detailed too, gave me further food for thought, and specially appreciate the names here. Of all these people I only know of Foucault, and not of his views on modernism so much as his book on history of mental illness and also his writings on power. Just one question. Can you say anything about idea of playfulness in postmodernism and if some postmodernists, while pessimistic about the modern project, have other optimisms about a new way of making sense of things?
    – Elton John
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 8:01
  • 1
    Er, I guess I would say the "playfulness" comes across to different people differently. On the one hand, if you think progress is impossible, everything is play. On the other hand, it can come across to people who still hope for progress as mere flippancy or cheesy stick to compensate for a lack of arguments. I don't know it means what "playfulness" normally means so much as they play around with words.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 9:03
  • @virmaior, so true, to me that 'playfulness' is hiding cynicism and clear narrow self-interest. In other words, they view life as a game, and play with others like one would a disposable toy. In fact, I believe our irrational adherence to non-violent resolutions, is deeply exploited by post-modernists. As it presupposes that BECAUSE logic exists, and because people are rational, it would be barbaric to use violence against those unable to comprehend. Post-modernists do it on purpose, call it "play", I believe violence is the correct response after exposing such charlatans. Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 20:39

I want to try answering this question in a different direction: modernity is specifically western, originating from the Enlightment.

Post-modernity, by taking into account other perspectives on the margins - I've read for example, that Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze are philosophers of the margins and of difference (which doesn't make them marginal philosophers) - come to doubt the project of European modernity, and therefore of all grand narratives.

But another perspective that might be useful here, is the Jain concept of Anekantevada (not one view); this tradition rather than tearing down traditions looks for what is of significance in each tradition: the emphasis being not on doubt, but on significance: it adds, rather than subtracts.

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    @john am: noted - thanks; it would be interesting to see how these two concepts stack up against each other. Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 11:08
  • @john am: where is the ambiguity or problematic? Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 11:51
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    Both: optimism of modernity, from the Enlightment; pessimism from its consequences, and also - then - the tearing down of this grand narrative; optimism again - not by tearing down - but by significance. Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 12:52
  • @john am: ok, I see why it was unclear; also post-modernism goes through Nietzsches perspectivism, or so it seems; but given its about pluralism and play; I thought it useful to go to a different tradition - hence anekantevada; but also, that tradition has an influence on Nietzsche himself through Emersons Transcendentalism who was himself influenced by Vivekanda. Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 15:00

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