Postmodern Ontology

The Role of Ontology in a Postmodern Philosophy

1st Edition. Copyright © 2016 by David Stringer.


Postmodernism could be seen as rejecting the quest to understand nature. Here, I argue that it should not be seen as rejecting the quest but as re-defining it thus: No longer a search for one true description of nature but an unending quest to find valid descriptions.


Postmodernism is a movement within philosophy that grew out of the concept of Deconstruction and a rejection of the search for Universals.


Jacques Derrida wanted to analyse and deconstruct philosophy, history, science etc to extract or at least recognize the Western cultural influence within them. This "modern" influence, which came from the enlightenment, leads researchers to seek and therefore expect to find absolute truths, beyond doubt. But Derrida and others showed that such "truths" are never free of the cultural influence of those who discovered them.

Through deconstruction, postmodernists hoped to open up philosophy to give it a future free of this constraining influence. It is not that Derrida was anti-Western or that he belittled its achievements, just that he believed that knowledge and understanding could have an even better future if not constrained in this way.

I am not sure that I agree. I think that philosophy and science achieved so much precisely because they had an ideal end in sight. If the ideal is removed, so is the motivation that drives progress. Without ideals, most intellectual enterprises become directionless and stall.

It is therefore better to leave the cultural ideals as drivers of our constructions of understanding (theories of science, histories etc) and only attempt to remove them when a new cultural ideal can replace them.

The value of deconstruction is not to free us from ethnic influence but to allow us to change that influence without losing the value of what went before. Compare this with paradigms in science. Science makes great progress within a paradigm. Later, a new paradigm takes over. The old knowledge is not lost but just seen in a new light. There always is a paradigm though!

To be postmodern, in my view, is to accept fully that the current state of our knowledge and understanding is influenced by paradigms (ethnic, religious, cultural etc) that will probably be replaced in future. Thus our contribution to future knowledge and understanding is in the objective content that we provide, not in the metaphysical framework in which we couch that content. Nevertheless, without that framework, we would not have obtained the content in the first place.

Just to be clear, by "objective content" I don't mean raw empirical data only. The boundary between empirical and metaphysical content in theories is broad and ill-defined so objective content need only exclude ideas that are clearly on the non-empirical side of the boundary.


When measureable properties are found to be the same in otherwise separate things, those things are identified as a group. Properties that are found in all things are universals. In physics, it is universal properties such as mass and the force charges that help identify the types of fundamental particle. Universals can be considered to be either:

Postmodernism is against universal truths and considers universals to be IDEALIST (see above.) My view is that individual objects are emergent and are not material objects in the usual sense. Therefore the universals are also emergent. They are subjective in the sense that they only exist as features within our object-based way of rationalising the universe.

Yet the universe has to be rationalised for us to understand it at all. The object-based paradigm is limited but useful. It applies at the scale of our everyday lives. A different paradigm is needed at the deeper scales from which objects emerge. Some features at that deeper scale, such as structures of information patterns or consistent behaviour of change in those patterns, result in the universals that we rationalise at our scale. In this sense, universals emerge out of whatever it is that is real at some deeper scale.


The search for absolute answers to such questions as: Are universals real, nominal or idealist, are typical of "modern" (before postmodern) enlightenment philosophy. Postmodernists say that we are mistaken to suppose that reality can be rationalised in any absolute way. There can be many equally valid but different ways of understanding the universe but no one right way that we could be sure would never be improved upon.

We should not ask: Are universals real? We should ask: What are the paradigms within which universals are a valid concept? How many other valid paradigms can we discover? This latter would be an unending quest.

Ontology is therefore changed, by postmodernism, into a quest to discover more than one valid way to describe fundamental reality. What postmodernism also changes is the test for validity. A valid ontology is one that is consistent with the objective content of current science. Which implies that a valid ontology need not be consistent with the metaphysical concepts embedded within current science.

The Freeze-frame Universe (see below) is therefore a Postmodern Ontology.