Philosophical Perspectives: A Cheat Sheet

I spent countless hours in graduate school trying to distinguish between the four worldviews that shape understandings of and conversations about truth, being, knowledge and power; these perspectives include modernism, postmodernism, structuralism and poststructuralism.  My professors routinely told me that each philosophical perspective was too complex to explain in a single class period; each school of thought, after all, comprises nuanced, complicated treatises that defy tidy summarization.  TRUE DAT! Many basic conversations that might help students distinguish between the movements unfortunately ended with the “It’s complicated!” (and not in a Denise Richards way) refrain.  Understanding one of these worldviews requires a basic knowledge of all four, because rudimentary understandings each movement are best acquired when the four perspectives are placed next to one another.  I have devised a cheat sheet that I plan to start using in my rhetorical theory seminar.  Any one-page matrix that distinguishes between the four movements will be partial and the characteristics will be woefully under-explained.  The display is intended to start (rather than end) conversations about modernism, postmodernism, structuralism, and poststructuralism.  I’d like to refine the table, so feel free to visit me on Facebook and share your ideas about the display.

  • Focus shifts from religious, faith-based truth to objective, rational, logical means to gain knowledge.
  • Belief in an objective Truth that can be uncovered and discovered via inductive reasoning.
  • Belief in a coherent worldview.
  • Focus on the benefits of progress.
  • Belief in multiple, subjective, competing, fragmentary truths that are constructed, not discovered.  Contradiction and ambiguity are acknowledged and celebrated.
  • Focus on newer forms of media, like TV and internet.
  • “Progress” narratives are used to justify cultural domination.
  • Historical, religious, and other cultural discourses are about power, not truth.
  • Discontinuity over unification (e.g., of the subject).
  • Emphasizes how meaning is INTERconnected, INTERtextual, and INTERreferential.
  • Studies a field as a complex system of interrelated parts.
  • 6 primary themes: 1) All systems have structures. Structures pave the way for shared meaning.  Meaning is in fact derived from relationships (i.e., functional differences) established by structures (e.g., a quarter is more than a penny and is equal to two dimes and a nickel).  2) Structure determines the positions of a system’s parts.  3) Focus on co-existence of elements, not change.  4) Structures reveal the “real” behind a façade. 5) Structures pre-date individuals, so people are more products of structures than structures are products of people. 6) Anti-humanistic insofar as the human subject is no longer central and is replaced by (or merely a product of) language structures.
  • 3 D’s, 1 D: Difference= difference and deferral; meaning is trapped in a constant state of differences and infinitely deferred or suspended.
  • 3 D’s, 2 D: Destabilizing the author: Reader perception trumps author’s intended meaning.
  • 3 D’s, 3 D: Deconstruction: focus on hierarchical binary oppositions (e.g., male/female and speech/writing).  Deconstruct the set of assumptions that establishes one as superior to the other. Meanings are best (though never fully) apprehended through disruption, revaluation, and transformation of settled truths (e.g., identity and history).
  • Individuals comprise and are constituted by conflicting knowledge claims/discourses.