Leading into the Future VII: Constructivism and Postmodernism
Objectivism versus Constructivism
Two different perspectives in the postmodern era are prevalent. They may be as important in the postmodern world as the liberal versus conservative distinction has been in the modern world. These two perspectives, in fact, are often inaccurately equated with the liberal/conservative differences. One of these perspectives might best be called objectivism. The advocates for this perspective assume that there is a reality out there that we can know and articulate. There are universal truths or at least universal principles that can be applied to the improvement of the human condition, resolution of human conflicts, restoration of human rights, or even construction of a global order and community.
Constructivism offers a quite different perspective. Advocates for this perspective believe that we construct our own social realities, based in large part on the traditions and needs of the culture and social-economic context in which we find ourselves. There are no universal truths or principles, nor are there any global models of justice or order that can be applied in all settings, at all times, with all people. There are rather specific communities that espouse their own unique ways of knowing. Furthermore, these ways of knowing may themselves change over time and in differing situations.
These two perspectives do not simply involve different belief systems. They encompass different notions about the very nature of a belief system, and in this sense are profoundly different from one another. While the objectivist perspective was prevalent during the modern era, the constructivist perspective is an emerging postmodern phenomenon. The emergence of the constructivist perspective represents a revolutionary change in the true sense of the term. Mark Edmundson addresses this revolution in his analysis of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses:
One might think of postmodernism—in its negative or demystifying phase—as trying to get done what its practitioners sensed modernism had failed to do; that is, to purge the world of superstition in every form. Major modern thinkers such as Marx and Freud strove to come up with ways of conceiving of life as lived in the West that would be genuinely post-religious. Both of them practiced and promoted what Paul Ricoeur has called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Nothing, their work taught, could be taken at face value. Readers of Marx and Freud became attuned to the masking of class conflict and the suppression of erotic desires. “Civilization” had much to hide. In fact, civilization sometimes seemed to be nothing more than a series of linked strategies for concealment. The analysis of Marx and Freud—and of those whose writings have been informed by their thought—struck through the pasteboard mask of civilization to find a universe of suppressed truths.