As an Asian, I see that postmodernism and Taoism and Buddhism all share a similar idea: the truth cannot be grasped. Is there any relation between postmodernism and Asian philosophies? Can Laozi and Buddha be called as postmodernists? If yes, then why only after the WW2 that philosophers could "rediscover" it?

I've skimmed through Postmodernism—A cross‐cultural perspective: Asian Philosophy: Vol 5, No 2, but the paper talks about the similarities very passingly. It even doesn't talk about the differences.


5 Answers 5


Several thoughts on this

(1) It would help a lot if "relation" were defined more clearly. Do you mean "share similar ideas"? Do you mean that one learned from the other? Do you mean they organize the world similarly?

(2) "Post-modernism" is a pretty nebulous term that refers to a lot of different things, so there's a little bit of something for everyone in it (and a lot of something where they would claim that can't be postmodernism). Let's take it for our purposes to be philosophies and outlooks that come in the wake of modernity and don't share its optimism for the prospects of modernity's project.

(3) Given the two caveats about, I'd say what the two have most in common is that they can both serve as critiques of modernity. Or at least Taoism (and to some extent Buddhism) can be repurposed to that in philosophy.

(4) It's wrong to call Taoism or Buddhism itself "post-modernism", because neither is a philosophical outlook that develops after "modernity." Instead, they are pre-modern in several senses. First, they precede modernity in Asia (and in the West). Second, they do not grow as a response to a thorough-going "scientific" approach to knowledge.

(5) As I suggested above, both agree about being critiques of modernity. But just because different views agree that the "truth cannot be grasped intellectually", this does not mean that they agree that (a) the truth cannot be grasped and (b) that there's no truth to begin with.

(6) Given this, one major point of departure in my view is that Buddhism while not believing that the truth can be grasped intellectually does believe that there are truths, which is not a view shared by the post-modernists. Stated another way, a good post-modernist would look just as askew at claims about a Buddha-nature in all of us or the prospect of enlightenment through the 8 fold path as they do at Kant's claims or traditional Christian claims. This is because they (let's say perhaps more carefully the post-structuralists and Rorty ) don't believe there's something beneath the web of meaning.

To give an example, both post-structuralists and Buddhists think there's a problem with the rational self. Both think it should be eliminated or shown to be illusory. But for the Buddhist, there is something under that even if it is not to be grasped intellectually. We could on some level claim there's a type of truth in the universe for Buddhists. For the post-structuralist, beneath the idea of self, there are structures that are not themselves true nor do things get any better as we keep going down.

(7) There's a different set of differences with Taoism. On my interpretation (which agrees with some of the more popular scholarship today), Taoist thought maintains that humans should live in harmony with nature rather than be caught up in either trying to grasp things intellectually or subdue nature to human will. This is expressed in the very name as the Taoist understanding of Tao. For most post-modernists, this Tao isn't going to be acceptable at the end of the day. It's still a fundamental construct that orders reality -- even if it's not something like the Confucian one or logical positivism.

tl;dr - both critique modernity but they don't agree about everything.

  • Do you think by critique modernity, they become modernity?
    – Ooker
    Apr 15, 2018 at 3:36
  • No. At least that's not required. Or at least would require a very clear definition of modernity and what it means.
    – virmaior
    Apr 15, 2018 at 4:22
  • do you know any other schools of thought that critic modernity as well? Also, if Buddhism and Taoism agree that "truth cannot be grasped intellectually", then are they agree that science, especially math, can help grasp the truth? Because I think math is also "beyond words". At least I see Dalai Lama agrees with this.
    – Ooker
    May 29, 2018 at 15:38
  • 1
    The case has been made by leading scholars, that core mathematical ideas including zero and infinity, developed in Indian religious culture before spreading to Ancient Greece bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0038xb0
    – CriglCragl
    May 30, 2018 at 1:51
  • do you know any other schools of thought that critic modernity as well? lots of schools critique modernity and post-modernity can be used as a blanket term for lots of them, but thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor also critique modernity ... MacIntyre advocating a kind of Aristotelian communitarianism.
    – virmaior
    May 30, 2018 at 2:04

Not really.

Postmodernism revives premodern ideas and fits together modern ideas with premodern ones. But you can't consider something postmodern that has never been modern, and does not contain or contend with modern presuppositions.

Buddha and Lao Tzu did not have to contend with the unreasonable and unexpected success of Western science. So they did not have to talk people out of the incorrect expectations that science built up, which eventually broke down and gave the West postmodernism.

Having shaken these biases, our philosophy is now free to move back in that direction, and reincorporate that wisdom. But it still has to manage this in a way that is hemmed in closely on all sides by the fact science works and our everyday lives depend upon it. For that reason, what postmodernists are incorporating from Buddhism and Taoism is really different from what existing adherents have inherited.

Until it imported modernism itself, and with it Marxism, Chinese culture, for instance, did not reflect a comparable obsessive 'monotheistic' thread trying to destroy all other explanatory approaches. It seems not to have really had one for millennia, having reached this stage long before its major formative influences ascended, and simply stepped over it and moved on.

It seems simply not to have appealed to a lot of Asian cultures. There are remnants in various traditions of defenses against this kind of single-minded, computational form of reductivist thinking, but no evidence that it constituted a major force in the region.

  • Nice answer. I think this may be a distinguishing feature of 'Asian' philosophy, that even where there is disagreement there is optimism about the possibility of knowledge.and truth to eventually normalise our views. The idea that truth can be known seems basic to most Asian philosophers and many claim to know it. . .
    – user20253
    Apr 14, 2018 at 15:11
  • For the “obsessive 'monotheistic' thread” maybe monotheism has less resemblance to theism than to monodiet — healthy — and monogamy — boring (with a lol of course) More seriously notable Christian scholars like Bart ehrman say there are good reasons to disbelieve the "Jesus is a monotheist" church-narrative
    – Rushi
    Sep 13, 2019 at 10:13
  • @Rusi Monotheism in the form of Plato's and Aristotle's is not really theism in the modern sense. It does not have a religion to speak for God. It is Deism -- God is there in the background as an excuse for Natural Law. But he doesn't do anything, or ask anything of you. You have to ask yourself, and guess. And that is the real root of Western monotheism, over which Christianity was placed as frame. The real religion of the West is the faith in the abstract, scientific perspective. There was a point in European History when Hermes Tresmegistus was more widely read than the Bible.
    – user9166
    Sep 13, 2019 at 17:55

When Asian philsophy say that truth cannot be grasped they speak of the limits of the intellect and the nature of Truth. They do not usually mean that the truth cannot be known. This is quite unlike postmodernism.

They may also mean that at the limit the distinction between knower and known must be transcended for truth thus that there is a sense in which truth cannot be known but only 'become'. Note that Al Halaj is martyred for claiming 'I am truth' not 'I know truth'. This is also very different from postmodernism.

So I would say no, there is no meaningful connection.

  • so how would it be in postmodernism?
    – Ooker
    May 29, 2018 at 17:03
  • @Ooker [for Foucault] "The idea of a liberating truth is a profound illusion. There is no truth that can be espoused, defended, or rescued against systems of power." jstor.org/stable/191359 As a representative postmodernist
    – CriglCragl
    May 30, 2018 at 2:01

I notice that Asian here seemingly refers merely to Buddhism and Taoism. Interestingly, Buddhism emerged in India, and in India there is a whole philosophical system in place, with 6 main schools, termed DARSHANAS.

The most popular one among them is VEDANTA, in which the Advaita Vedanta school, codified and given its current form by Sankara (8th century), resisted the then dominant Buddhism on many fronts.

Sankara's Advaita talks of a transcendent BEINGNESS (Brahman), that is also immanent in the individual soul as Atman, the true Self beyond the experiential self.

Identity with the Self, cannot be a rational process. Vedanta talks of Self-realisation, or becoming one with Atman and correspondingly with Brahman, as a state beyond rationality and the intellect. It is more like a peeling away of different layers of identity. These layers are false or limited identifications with body, mind, intellect, etc.

Hence the concept of neti, neti (not this, not this). However, one important pre-supposition here is that the world of phenomena is essentially illusory, they term it as MAYA. The nearer you approach the true self, by that much does illusion recede and in a flash, you see the world as it really is. So while inaccessible to the normal state of mind, including the intellect, Brahman (all-pervasive Consciousness) bestows its vision or apprehension to the individual who is divested of false identities. The world exists for the post-moderns, but its truth cannot be grasped. The truth exists for the Advaitin, but not as a part of this world, which is illusory, a web. Agreement from different parameters ?


It is interesting that this thread has been resuscitated concurrent with Ref request: Reality objective or subjective and its context: What makes things real? May be not just coincidence?

@CuriousRomantic has given a view of how advaita differs from pomo that I broadly concur with.

For here let me focus on the your — correctly perceived IMHO...

Coincidence between oriental systems and pomo


SO = subject oriented philosophy
OO = object oriented philosophy

OO = {materialism, physicalism, scientism, (logical) positivism, analytic philosophy,.... objectivism}

SO = {idealism, (platonic) rationalism leading on to neoplatonism, postmodernism, vedanta, religion-generally..., existentialism, solipsism}

Religion-generally certainly of course includes Taoism, Buddhism with some wiggling given suffering's objective status.

Christianity is interesting : If we define genuine christian as «worried about my soul (before others')» and evangelical Christian as «if bamboozling others faileth then bomb» then clearly the more genuine a Christian gets the more SO. (Ken Wilber describes the spectrum).

Islam is the hardest to properly fit here given its unambiguous political side and universalist compulsions.

For OO: Positivism is (my) preferred typical/canonical element and (Randian) objectivism the asymptotic limit.

For SO : the asymptotic limit is clearly solipsism – not only are we subject oriented, there's nothing but the first person subject!

The question (you are asking) really boils down to

Which is the (archetypal) SO member?

Depending on who you ask and his positive/negative associations you could as easily get Pomo as Taoism as answer.

The essential question is THE question of ontology

What is be-ing?

Speaking common-sensically:

  • this phone in my hand is
  • I am

Given that "is" and "am" are conjugates of the same verb "be" we must choose :

These two sentences are either

  • parametrically related (as in synonym)
  • incidentally related (as in homonym)

Ie the "isness" of me and my phone are at base the same or else only seem same by a quirk of language.

If you choose the first you are an OOist if the second you are an SOist

Beyond that which specific SO/OO element you pick to identify with will depend on culture and context.

  • I guess I need to reply here... The two English sentences "I am Chinese. You are American." translate in Chinese as "我是中國人。 你是美國人。", where the same word 是 express the same notion of being for both you and me (also for plural subjects). And since "is" and "am" are two inflections of the same verb, there is no choice but to take them as the same verb. Sep 14, 2019 at 19:28
  • Nice comment @Speakpigeon ! I would put it the other way : In way too many languages to be coincidental, "to be" is specially irregular in its inflectional forms — I eat, you eat vs I am, you are. Strong linguistic evidence that the am side of be is fundamentally different from the is side. Descartes would be delighted 😈
    – Rushi
    Sep 17, 2019 at 2:13
  • Is that significant? Many languages use inflection for nouns, pronouns, and adjectives to signal case, number, gender etc. There are very different kinds of grammars and syntaxes. These are mostly contingent. You would have a point if it was a universal feature, like the fact that all languages are linear constructs, one word coming after another. And then, the distinction between "I" and "you" is indeed universal and seems enough to explain that we could have "am" and "are". Sep 17, 2019 at 7:33

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