Modern vs. Western Thought: Postmodern Subjectivism

William H. Young

Postmodern subjectivism is founded on the idea of the social construction of knowledge and reality, which emerged as a fundamental basis for Modern thought over the last half of the twentieth century.

The Social Construction of Knowledge and Reality

The counterculture of the 1960s began the academy’s rejection of rationality, the scientific mentality, and objective consciousness. Modern thought was turned toward the unconscious and feeling.

An influential 1966 book about the sociology of knowledge by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality, argued that concepts or mental representations from the interactions of people or groups embed meaning in society. In group life, reality as well as identity is, therefore, socially constructed.[1] We might also say that objective reality is replaced by the cultural construction of reality by the cultural group.

For example, lead author Christian Smith of the sociological report Lost in Transition (2011), on moral reasoning among 18- to 23-year-olds, identified a culture of “individualistic subjectivism” based on “a simple-minded ideology presupposing the cultural construction of everything” stemming from the academic postmodern social construction of reality.[2]

The concept of postmodernism that swept American universities in the late-twentieth century posits that there are no objective truths or transcendent realities and that all claims to knowledge are mere “social constructs” that mask exploitative and unequal power relationships. Postmodernism rejects the Western applications of reason and science to discover knowledge, pursue truth, and advance human progress, which ideas are now deemed oppressive. Postmodernism considers all knowledge to be relative and established by groups based upon the beliefs of their cultures.

The academy has thoroughly embraced postmodernism and practices the social construction of knowledge and reality—postmodern subjectivism—in all areas of Modern thought except–so far, at least--the technical professions. This includes even the natural sciences, as I explicated previously in Academic Social Science and Scientific Literacy. The “sustainability” ideology illustrates the results of such ideation.

Academic postmodern subjectivism has also infested national politics, which I explained in Academic Social Science and Postmodernism. Postmodern sophistry, based on a priori ideological assumptions, outright illusion, and subjectivism, has replaced traditional political rhetoric which, while undoubtedly partisan, was at least minimally based on facts and reason. An increasingly “educated” but strikingly uninformed public has its illusions and passions fostered by demagogic and dissembling elite sophists. Specious speech and dishonest dialogue, abetted by a partisan, complicit media, have become the norm. Reflecting postmodern influence, the media often present news in the form of “narratives”—socially constructed story lines reflecting some underlying progressive ideology. Postmodernism and relativism have debased the veracity of not only reporting by our mainstream media, but political speech at the highest levels of politics and governance. I provided illustrations of this previously in Postmodernism and Governance, and the news from political campaigns and government figures since that article continues to serve up almost daily examples of such elusive speech. Postmodern subjectivism dominates the Modern thought of elite public conversation.

The late Christopher Lasch described the phenomenon in his last book:

The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life…They have no experience of making anything substantial or enduring. They live in world of abstractions and images…as distinguished from the palpable, immediate physical reality inhabited by ordinary men and women…The thinking classes have seceded not just from the common world around them but from reality itself.[3]

Views of reality by ordinary people versus those of sequestered societal and cognitive elites were a key issue in the 2016 election.

The Philosophic Mistake

In Ten Philosophic Mistakes (1985), Mortimer Adler, editor of Great Books of the Western World (1952), dismisses the fundamental concept of postmodern subjectivism—the acceptance of mere opinion as a basis for proper thought:

The fourth mistake draws the line that divides knowledge from mere opinion…Those who have knowledge about anything are in the possession of the truth about it….The solution it seems to me lies in recognizing the sense in which the word “knowledge” signifies something that is quite distinct from anything that can be called an opinion and the sense in which a certain type of opinion can also quite properly be called knowledge. That would leave another type of opinion, quite distinct from knowledge, which should properly be called mere opinion.

When the criteria for calling anything knowledge are such exacting criteria as the certitude, incorrigibility, and immutability of the truth that is known, then the few things that are knowledge stand far apart from everything that might be called opinion….because they are asserted without any basis at all in evidence or reason….

The word that most of us use to signify the independent character of the knowable is the word “reality.” If there were no reality, nothing the existence and character of which is independent of the knowing mind, there would be nothing knowable. Reality is that which exists whether we think about it or not, and has the character that it has no matter how we think about it.

The reality is that the knowable may or may not be physical. It may or may not consist solely of things perceptible to our senses. But whatever its character, its existence must be public, not private. It must be knowable by two or more persons. Nothing that is knowable by one person alone can have the status of knowledge. Whatever can be genuinely known by any one person must be capable of being known by others….

On the one hand, we have self-evident truths that have certitude and incorrigibility: and we also have truths that are still subject to doubt but that are supported by evidence and reasons to a greater degree that puts them beyond reasonable doubt or at least gives them predominance over contrary views. All else is mere opinion—with no claim to being knowledge or having any hold on truth.[4]

Adler could not be more on target in obliquely highlighting how far Modern thought has departed from the Western tradition of the Founders. The social construction of reality and postmodern subjectivism are the opposite of the self-evident truth of Thomas Reid and the scientific truth supported by evidence and the scientific method of Francis Bacon, our founding beliefs. And the “self-evident truths” of the Founding were to be reached by the individual through common sense (intuition) and reason while today’s postmodern reality is established by  purely subjective criteria and regarded as the exclusive possession of cultural or identity groups.

In that regard, when Adler says that knowledge must be knowable by two or more persons, he means that it must be objective knowledge, knowable to any observer. He does not mean that it is the mere feelings or arbitrary opinions of some peer group that can or should be applied to everyone else.

Descartes and the Founders

The postmodern social construction of reality also reflects the flawed thinking of the seventeenth-century French philosopher Rene Descartes, who proposed to sweep away the whole of traditional learning and opinion and the ordinary experiences of mankind. His fundamental premise was the existence of a thinking being, which he expressed in the Latin phrase Cogito, ergo sum: “I think; therefore, I am.” He held that by means of reason alone, certain universal, self-evident truths could be discovered. He assumed that these self-evident truths were innate, not derived from sense experience. He articulated the epochal defining statement of the modern self, the certainty of individual self-awareness. Thinking was distinct from the external world of material substance.[5]

As I argued in Modern Versus Western Thought: Thinking From the Founding, our Founders were wise enough to reject Descartes’ fallacious thinking in adopting Thomas Reid’s Scottish School of Common Sense Philosophy, which established that the human mind comprehends objects themselves, not merely the ideas that represent those objects, and was based on principles of knowledge, or “self-evident truths.” Our academic postmodernists display no such wisdom.

Indeed, they rely on imagination and group interaction rather than reason to construct their arbitrary realities, and share with Descartes the rejection of empirical evidence and objective reality that would interfere with their innate ideas. For example, they reject what Theodore Roszak derided as “objective consciousness,” the objectivity of the scientist, and instead posit “mental models” or “paradigms” for their natural science such as “oneness with nature” or ecofeminism, divorced from actual empirical evidence. For global climate change, the mental models are extended by computer models with data inputted to produce a socially constructed outcome.  The so-called “sustainability paradigm,” ubiquitous on college campuses, also includes apocalyptic environmentalism, an egalitarian utopian vision, and a Gnostic-like transcendental value system—“sustainable development.”

Descartes’ concepts of science as well as reason came to be mocked by one of the master literary satirists of the early eighteenth century—the Irish clergyman Jonathan Swift. In Part III of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Gulliver goes to “Laputa,” a flying island ruled by natural scientists, to see modern science and its effects on life. “La puta” means “the whore” in Spanish, a reminder of Martin Luther’s famous reference to “the devil’s whore, reason.” Laputa’s scientists have one eye turned inward, the other toward the zenith. They are perfect Cartesians—one egotistical eye contemplating the self, one cosmological eye surveying the distant things. Rather than making their mathematics follow the natural order, they modify external things to fit their mathematics. Their characteristic deformity grows to the point of monstrosity. Imagination ceases to exist. Science, in freeing men, destroys the natural conditions that make them human. The island’s rulers are empowered by the scientists to govern without contact with the people and to exploit them.[6]

If Swift were alive today, one can imagine that he would be writing many similar satires about our postmodern social constructionists and postmodern subjectivism, for there are numerous contemporary examples where our Laputa-like elites’ narratives of socially constructed realities have similarly shoe-horned reality into their set preconceptions. Such examples include not only their view of global climate change, but of the American public education system, our economy, and the family. And ironically as well as fortunately, real scientists in most fields have successfully prevailed despite the academy’s hostility to Western scientific objectivity and reason since the 1960s.

Modern Thought

It is an almost unimaginable irony that a concept as ripe for satire as the social construction of knowledge and reality could have captured elite consciousness and Modern thought.  But outside of the technical professions, that is the case in America today. Postmodern subjectivism has come to permeate elite versions of Modern thought. The greatest danger to America is that such thought has come to prevail in public discourse and decision-making that requires objective facts and logical thinking to reach well-founded decisions in the national interest. National attention should concentrate on preventing postmodern subjectivism from being the determining factor in such kinds of decisions.

The next article will examine cultural determinism in Modern thought in greater detail.

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).


[1] “The Social Construction of Reality,” Wikipedia,

[2] Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 15, 61.

[3] Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 4, 20.

[4] Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes: Basic Errors in Modern Thought—How They Came About, Their Consequences, and How to Avoid Them (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 83-7.

[5] Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason (1637), Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, trans., in Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 31 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 51. Bernard Williams, “Descartes, Rene,” in Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1967), 347.

[6] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), in Hutchins, Great Books, 36:91–103. 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), 293–98.

Image: Public Domain

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