A long title.

Postmodernism is known for its post-truth ideas, that there's no objective truth that we can even wish to discover, or that it even matter. An idea came to me - if we do take a postmodern approach, can we treat philosophy and science (i.e. the "knowledge" tools), that originally are designed to help us understand the world, instead use them as tools to help make our lives better? And sure, one could argue that this is exactly what these departments do, but I'm going to a different direction here: in this postmodern position, questions such as "how X works" simply won't exist unless it directly helps us. We don't have to research issues such as the origin of the universe, black holes, space and time, etc, unless we directly benefit from it as society, as humanity.

My question is, first, is such position possible in postmodernism? The next one would be, is such position possible in modernism? And the last one would be, is there such position already? (the last one can answer the others as you can see.)

Edit: a better example I think would be: assuming we have 2 theories for a subject. One who'd take this position will consider the theories by what it gives us as humanity, rather than how closer it is to the "truth".

  • I am afraid your intended motivation is flawed. "How X works" would still matter because it may help us indirectly, or even directly but in an unexpected way (think of quantum mechanics). So "what it gives us as humanity" is too vague to be judged in advance and not very useful for comparing theories. Something in this spirit is not uncommon though, one example is Rorty, who proposed replacing epistemology with cultural politics and reorienting philosophy towards lessening human misery.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 22:13
  • @Conifold the last line, about Rorty, is definitely more in the spirit of what I'm asking for. And still, while you're correct about the indirect help theories may give us, I'm talking more about motivation (as you've said) than research areas. Philosophy and science (mostly) are being used as tools to search for the truth about the universe, rather than to advance humanity (again, one might argue that they're one and the same, but I still make a distinction here). Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 22:28
  • You are such a romantic. Funding of science typically has rather concrete goals that government or companies have in mind, they may not be definitive or immediate but they are not "truth about the universe". This also applies to academia, through grants. Philosophy and humanities are often engaged with social and cultural movements, especially since the rise of postmodern social criticism (feminism, etc.), Rorty was not exactly an exception.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 23:03
  • @Conifold haha, don't know if you mean it as criticism or not, but I'll definitely take it as not :) anyway, I understand your point. But let's consider physics. I admit I have no clue about how it works in the academia, so correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like the funding's goals there are indeed to "find the truth about the universe". Again, please correct me if I'm wrong. Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 23:26
  • Most of it is more like "develop materials with such and such properties that can be used so and so". There is of course fundamental physics, but it is a small part and even there there is hope that there will be a return eventually. US Congress refused to fund Superconducting Super Collider as impractical in 1993, and so high energy physics moved to Europe, NASA has been on a tight diet for over a decade now with space exploration outsourced to private sector for commercial purposes, etc.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 23:37

1 Answer 1


It's difficult to answer your question about postmodernism, for a couple of reasons. First, the term "postmodernism" is used extremely equivocally: sometimes it refers strictly to a movement of late twentieth-century French philosophers (Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Irigaray); sometimes it also includes Heidegger, Nietzsche, Freud, certain readings of Marx and Hegel, or any feminist philosopher. So it's not clear whose views of science you're asking about. Second, even the strict-sense postmodernists had very different views on science. Deleuze saw himself as providing a new metaphysics for science, following Bergson; when Lyotard rejects "metanarratives" in The Postmodern Condition, he's primarily targeting science. If I recall correctly, Gary Gutting's French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century discusses both of their views (and has a great chapter on prewar French philosophy of science).

The view that the value of science comes from the way it lets us do things is historically associated with Francis Bacon. If anything Bacon was just barely pre-modern! In the nineteenth and twentieth century, it's associated with logical empiricism — especially Otto Neurath — and American pragmatism — especially John Dewey. For a discussion of the relationship between logical empiricism and pragmatism, check out George Reisch's How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science. For work by contemporary philosophers of science, I recommend Nancy Cartwright's "Well-Ordered Science: Evidence for Use" and Matt Brown's book-in-progress.

  • Thanks. I'd like to state, I definitely mean what you call the "strict-sense" postmodernism. I had no idea Heidegger, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Hegel (??), were ever considered postmodern in any sense. I'll definitely read what you've referenced. Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 7:00

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