Academic Social Science and Postmodernism

William H. Young

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, postmodernism, a congeries of different beliefs and doctrines, became embedded and elaborated in many fields of academic social science. Postmodernism includes the rejection of Western applications of reason and science since the Enlightenment to discover knowledge and advance human progress, which ideas are now deemed oppressive, a mask for power relationships. Postmodernism posits that there are no objective truths, moral universals, or fundamental realities—relativism—and that all claims to knowledge are “socially constructed,” and established by groups based upon the beliefs of their cultures. It seeks to transfer power from the privileged to the oppressed. It perceives Western capitalism as the creator of the bourgeois society despised by both economic and cultural Marxists, and the despoiler of a Rousseauian nature—similar to today’s sustainability ideology.[1]

The Fulfillment of Thymos

In The Republic, Plato identified three constituent parts of the human psyche: logos (rationality), eros (desire), and thymos (recognition, esteem, or dignity). In the American founding order, thymos was to be fulfilled through individual pursuit of bourgeois private interests in civil society and a capitalist economy, along with participation in limited representative government. In academic social science, capitalism is seen ipso facto as yielding unacceptable inequality—of private property and personal identity, recognition or thymos. [2]

Progressivism, informed by Karl Marx and Marxism, is most concerned with economic inequality. By contrast, postmodernism, animated by the curious amalgam of Friedrich Nietzsche and cultural Marxism, focuses on esteem rather than economics, identity in place of income, and Western culture instead of Western capitalism.   

Postmodernism reflects what Allan Bloom described, in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), as the “Nietzscheanization of the Left,” the transformation of the progressive faith into a nihilistic creed. Nietzsche rejected logos or rationalism and instead posited moral relativism. His defining characteristic of man was the need for dignity or esteem, thymos. Cultural groups were the source of the “socially constructed” identities of individuals. Oppression stemmed from a psychological drive for cultural hegemony, or something like the “will-to-power.”[3] The late-twentieth-century French thinkers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who were influenced by Rousseau as well as Nietzsche, contributed significantly to the development of academic postmodernism.

In cultural Marxism, white males replace capitalists as the oppressors, and marginalized identity groups (women, minorities, gays, lesbians) replace workers as the oppressed. The knowledge and culture of Western civilization and the bourgeoisie are supplanted by Gramscian group consciousness and group-based morality: what is moral is what serves the interests of oppressed identity groups.[4]

Postmodern relativism and cultural determinism—expressed through political correctness and identity politics—have permeated our culture and society as a whole, facilitated eagerly by our educational system, the media, and our cultural elites. The Millennial generation lives in, and knows only, a postmodern culture in which feelings and opinions prevail and recognition and esteem are entitlements rather than achievements in pursuit of thymos.

NAS points out in its recent report Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism that, at its core, the sustainability “paradigm” is postmodern, seeing both social repression and environmental repression to be overcome.

Transforming Academic Social Science

In Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences (1992), still the most prominent overall assessment available, University of Quebec political scientist Pauline Marie Rosenau summarizes the widespread effects of the multiple beliefs of postmodernism on academic social science:

Post-modern social science focuses on alternative discourses and meanings rather than on goals, choices, behavior, attitudes…and personality. Post-modern social scientists support a re-focusing on what has been taken for granted, what has been neglected, regions of resistance, the forgotten, the irrational, the insignificant, the repressed, the borderline, the classical, the sacred, the traditional, the eccentric, the sublimated, the subjugated, the rejected, the nonessential, the marginal, the peripheral, the excluded, the tenuous, the silenced, the accidental, the dispersed, the disqualified, the deferred, the disjointed—all that which “the modern age has never cared to understand…”

Post-modernists rearrange the whole social science enterprise….They offer indeterminacy rather than determinism, diversity rather than unity, difference rather than synthesis, complexity rather than simplification. They look to the unique rather than to the general, to intertextual relations rather than causality, and to the unrepeatable rather than the re-occurring, the habitual, or the routine. Within a post-modern perspective social science becomes a more subjective and humble enterprise as truth gives way to tentativeness. Confidence in emotion replaces efforts at impartial observation. Relativism is preferred to objectivity, fragmentation to totalization.

Attempts to apply the model of natural sciences are rejected because post-modernists consider such methods to be part of the larger techno-scientific corrupting cultural imperative, originating in the West but spreading out to encompass the planet.[5]

Postmodernism has significantly degraded academic social science.

Western Progress and Nature

In the essay that first made him famous, A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750), Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared that:

Luxury, dissolution, and slavery have always been the punishment of our proud efforts to emerge from the happy ignorance in which eternal wisdom placed us….Peoples of the earth, know that nature intended to preserve you from knowledge, as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child.[6]

Rousseau argued that man is corrupted by civilization and scientific empiricism and progress, which creates luxury and inequality. He immensely influenced the critics of Western civilization during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the anti-Western ideas adopted by academic postmodernism.[7]

The following excerpt from a college art history text illustrates how sweeping the rejection of Western ideas had become by 1975:

In the modern view man has been displaced from the commanding position the Renaissance assigned him as master of the Nature that God had created for him. Now, though man holds greater control than ever before over his environment, he is seen to be as much the despoiler and victim of it as he is its master. Within Western nations, established values and institutions are challenged on all sides, especially among the youth. In fear and mistrust of what the West has created—great evil that seems to outweigh great good…. With many thoughtful persons there is the poignant feeling that the West has had its day and that its fundamental assumptions about human values have been discredited. They hear...voices clamoring for the abdication of the West.[8]

That became the belief of many graduates of the academy, instilled with postmodernism by the arts and social science.[9] In The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995) and a companion essay in Harper’s, the late historian and social critic Christopher Lasch observed that:

Members of the elite have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West. For many people, the very term ‘Western civilization’ now calls to mind an organized system of domination designed to enforce conformity to bourgeois values and to keep the victims of patriarchal oppression—women, children, homosexuals, people of color—in a permanent state of subjection.[10]

For decades now, postmodernism has influenced or dominated the opinions of our cosmopolitan, transnational cultural elites.

The Postmodern Doxa

Postmodernism’s elevation of opinion over reason takes us back to ancient Greece before its philosophers built the foundations of the West. The Sophists came to Athens before Socrates, with some, like Protagoras, calling themselves sophistai, “teachers of wisdom” and accepted as equivalent to our “university professor.” But like many of our postmodern professors, they proved to be philodoxers: “lovers of opinion” or opinionated men passionately pursuing illusion. Out of the doxa—the false opinion fanatically held—came disorder in the body politic. No absolute truth can be found, said Protagoras, but only such truths as hold for given men under given conditions; contradictory assertions can be equally true for different persons or at different times. All truth, goodness, and beauty are relative and subjective. The typical Sophist took Protagoras’ phrase “man is the measure of all things” to mean that no individual man is responsible to any transcendent moral authority for his actions.”[11]

The Sophists contributed to the deterioration of morals and quickened the disintegration of Athens. The general ethical tendency of the Sophists is suggested in our word “sophistry,” meaning “clever but misleading reasoning.” Today, postmodernists dismiss even the existence of reason in their doxa.

For beginning with the counterculture of the 1960s, postmodern academic thinking and social science—other than in technical professions—came to dismiss the “rationalistic” mentality associated with scientific mechanism and materialism, what Theodore Roszak derided as “objective consciousness.”[12] Yet academia and its elite progeny in the arts, media and professions, continue to serenely dictate pseudo-profound conclusions to America—such as sustainability—that demand rational and objective thinking. Social science also came to support the postmodern concept that reality is socially constructed.[13]

In national politics, postmodern sophistry based on ideologically tinted opinion, illusion, and subjectivism has replaced rhetoric based on facts and reason. An increasingly uneducated public has its perceptions and passions fostered by demagogic and dissembling elite sophists. Specious speech and dishonest dialogue, abetted by a complicit media, have become a norm. Reflecting postmodernism, the media often presents news in the form of “narratives”—socially constructed story lines selected to fit and support some underlying ideology. Postmodernism and relativism have debased the veracity of not only reporting by our media, but political discourse at the highest levels of government leadership.

Barack Obama is seen by some as the first postmodern president, practicing the social construction of reality, which I discussed in Postmodernism and Governance.

Postmodern Moral Authority

Academic and elite postmodernists consider that their doxa rather than the reason, science, and moral universals of the West give them the moral authority to dictate the future of America.

In his analysis of modern liberal democracy, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), political scientist Francis Fukuyama coined terms for two extreme aspects of thymos:

The desire to be recognized as superior to other people we will henceforth label with a new word with ancient Greek roots, megalothymia. Megalothymia can be manifest both in the tyrant…as well as in the concert pianist….Its opposite is isothymia, the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people….The social embodiment of megalothymia, against which modern liberalism declared war was the traditional aristocracy.[14]

Nietzsche sanctified megalothymia as a characteristic of the aristocratic master:

Nietzsche’s well-known doctrine of the will-to-power can be understood as the effort to reassert the primacy of thymos as against desire and reason….His work is a celebration of Hegel’s aristocratic master.[15]

Megalothymia has become an idiosyncrasy of our postmodern academic aristocrats. They believe their views are the products of uniquely creative intelligence, intellect, and moral imagination—and are thus morally superior—giving them the moral authority for instruction of the uninitiated. The elite moral imagination reflects the postmodern social construction of reality (or illusion), dismissing the need for evidence, as I explained recently in Academic Social Science and Scientific Literacy. The sustainability ideology illustrates the results of such ideation.

Bioethicist Margaret N. Maxey called such rationalization “moralism,” a “pathology that results from the persistent failure to recognize and be responsible for the harmful social consequences of private moral judgments, however well-intentioned they may be.”[16] The moral authority invoked by our postmodern academic and cultural elites for matters of public policy, such as the adoption of sustainability as a national social, economic, and environmental ethos, is the epitome of such moralism.


Postmodernism dismisses Western meta-narratives, founded on reason and science, while socially constructing its own meta-narratives or “paradigms” for its moral imagination, the basis for its professed moral authority. Eighteenth-century British philosopher David Hume argued that the moral imagination should be based on realities, not “any specious transcendental value system, abstract metaphysics or utopian visions.”[17] Postmodern sustainability includes apocalyptic environmentalism, an egalitarian utopian vision, and a Gnostic-like transcendental value system. Irving Babbitt called this kind of thinking the use of the “idyllic” imagination of Rousseau rather than the moral imagination of Hume.[18]

In its recent report Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, NAS evinces that:

At its core, this new paradigm is ‘post-modern.’ This means it is fundamentally antithetical to Enlightenment-era humanism and its societal, scientific, economic, legal and political institutions and ideals. Sustainable development is a progressive, ‘social democratic’ framework connected to European social norms that are, in their most extreme form, anti-anthropogenic. They veer towards and sometimes cross the line between advocating reform of modern society and calling for its uprooting and destruction….

To get to the better world, policies that uplift underprivileged groups such as women, racial minorities, the disabled, and those who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual require special consideration. Contraception, abortion, policies to close wage gaps, the legal recognition of gay marriage, affirmative action, and other social measures are thus linked with social sustainability. Social repression, it suggests, mimics environmental repression.[19]

Bob Brinkman, Director of Sustainability Studies at Hofstra University, unwittingly illustrates this elusive outlook:

Those of us in the field understand viscerally the importance of the diversity of sustainability, even though it might be hard to articulate in a neat modernist axiom. Because of the variety of approaches, practices, and viewpoints, we do not have clear-cut definitions of the field that fall nicely within modernist disciplinary structures. This is what makes the field of sustainability the first truly postmodern discipline to emerge in our era—and why it is so hard to explain the field to others unfamiliar with it. But this is also why sustainability concepts are so useful in applications in our postmodern world.[20]

Even William Shakespeare is invoked in support of sustainability. In a paper entitled “Postmodern Sustainability,” Mory M. Ghomshei of the University of British Columbia, opined that:

Most of the socio-environmental disasters we are facing today issue from unsustainable developments during the last episode of modernity….We forgot that we are musicians but in a universal symphony. We played our instruments inharmoniously, not listening to birds, trees, rivers, and oceans. Sustainability is to play harmoniously in a universal symphony. Sustainability is the art of singing in a choir. Sustainability, as Shakespeare put it, is to “find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”[21]

Ironically, the sustainability ideology does exhibit the conceits of the pastoral vision of the Forest of Arden that Shakespeare presented in As You Like It.

But ultimately, postmodernism condemns Shakespeare as the villain of the West. It depicts him as the prototypical Dead White European Male and his play The Tempest as revealing that America was built upon exploitation and oppression, the postmodern complaint. British English Literature Professor Jonathan Bate explains, in The Genius of Shakespeare (1998), that the task of academic literary theory became to demonstrate white guilt “by making the author of The Tempest a scapegoat.” Late-twentieth-century criticism purported to reveal the ugly truths of empire and colonization in the play and portrays Prospero as an imperialist despot and Caliban as a heroic insurgent slave, the voice of a recovered black identity. It has even concluded that “The Tempest must bear the blame for the Atlantic slave trade.”[22]

Rather than being taught the relevance of Shakespeare’s universal wisdom about human nature and affairs and the proper ideals of a noble life, our postmodern elites have been admonished that his dramas are only a cultural construct reflecting the elitist and sexist power structures of his society; he is characterized (in Marxist terms) as an early modern bourgeois. There is, therefore, nothing to learn from his works, which are dismissed as part of a privileged “cultural conspiracy, an imposition of British imperialism, and so a weapon of the West.”[23]


The reversal of postmodernism and its caustic, enervating effects, imbued in academic social science and our culture, presents a herculean, if not impossible, bootstrapping challenge. Our college-educated elites are not only ignorant of Western civilization and American history, they have been deprived of even the intellectual tools by which to understand and restore them—like the situation that confronted the humanists at the beginning of the Renaissance. The humanists were convinced that a major source of the superficiality and superstition that prevailed in their time was an ignorance of the classical past and that, therefore, recovery of that past would serve as an antidote.

Any possible reversal of postmodernism must begin in higher education, which NAS rightly seeks to accomplish by restoring the teaching of the wisdom and solutions of Western civilization and the American founding. Even if practicable, that change will take generations to bring about. As French Marshall Lyautey said when his gardener told him a tree would not reach maturity for 100 years, then “there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.”


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Explore Worldviews


[1] William H. Young, Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (Indianapolis: Xlibris, 2010), 45‒8, 423‒28.  Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 4, 72. Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 3–24. “Postmodernism,” Wikipedia.

[2] Young, Ordering America, 400.

[3] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 217‒26. Arthur M. Melzer et al., “Introduction,” in Melzer et al., Multiculturalism and American Democracy (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998), 1–4.

[4] Young, Ordering America, 45‒8, 423‒28.

[5] Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences, 3–24.

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in Lowell Bair, trans., The Essential Rousseau (New York: New American Library, 1974), 215.

[7] Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, eds., The Western Heritage (Brief Edition): Combined Volume, Third Edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2002), 341.

[8] Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Sixth Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1975), 648.

[9] Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences, 167.

[10] Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 25–26. Christopher Lasch, “The Revolt of the Elites,” Harper’s, November 1994, 39–49.

[11] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004 [originally published 1974]), 78, 80.

[12] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture, (New York: Doubleday, 1969).

[13] Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences, 110.

[14] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 182.

[15] Fukuyama, End of History, 189, 304. Young, Ordering America, 394.

[16] Margaret N. Maxey, Nuclear Energy Politics, Georgetown University Ethics and Public Policy Center Reprint, 1977.

[17] Roy Porter, The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000), 179.

[18] Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (New York: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1979).

[19] National Association of Scholars, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, March 2015, 246, 106.

[20] Bob Brinkman, “Sustainability: The First Postmodern Discipline,” The Huffington Post,, 16 November 2014.

[21] Mory M. Ghomshei, “Postmodern Sustainability” (International Journal of Engineering and Interdisciplinary Mathematics, Vol. 1, No. 2, July-December 2009), 103‒106.

[22] Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 240–50.

[23] Allan Bloom with Harry V. Jaffa, Shakespeare’s Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964), 1–3. Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 3, 13, 726, 734. Mark C. Henrie, A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2000), 82. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), 62. Harold Bloom, “Ranting Against Cant,” interview in The Atlantic Unbound, July 16, 2003.

Image: Flickr, Public Domain

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