Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Steak and Beer? Social Constructs or Philosophical Pragmatism

Written by: on February 9, 2020

In the early 2000’s I had a lengthy conversation with a returned missionary who was ‘reconfiguring’ her faith. At the root of that reconfiguration was her study on Heideggerian Hermeneutics. The mere title was enough to get me very excited; I mean who doesn’t go all gooey at the thought of Martin Heidegger. I was studying philosophy at the time, so I thought I’d write an essay on Heidegger’s hermeneutics for fun. Essentially Heidegger mixes his theory of phenomenology with the principles of hermeneutics to show how our understanding of the past is shaped by the way we perceive reality in the present, and that understanding is then expressed in current experience as if it was rationally deduced, when in fact there is only a thin veil of logic to any of it (I’m paraphrasing). Hence, Heidegger is something of a birthing chair for the minds of postmodernists, but I don’t think Heidegger would have considered himself one.[1]

A friend of mine invited us to a BBQ while I was writing the essay and I remember telling him that I was a bit busy with the aforementioned topic. His response was memorable, “You worry about existential phenomenology and I’ll calculate how much steak and beer we’ll need – there’s nothing worse than not enough of either’. At that moment it all made sense, pragmatism was the missing component in postmodernisms pointless struggle against reality – existential phenomenology was missing the accumulation of human experiences that pointed to an overarching human truth – no matter how many times we try certain things, they always work out the same way; they are observable and repeatable realities and are therefore useful and trustworthy.

We see this in ethics. One of the popular ethical theories of the twentieth century was called consequentialism, utilitarianism, or teleology: the theory that there are no rules or morals, there are only outcomes. An action that produced happiness for the greatest number of people was always the right action. However, it had its flaws as you could, of course, justify murder, or genocide in certain circumstances. Consequently, a somewhat sophisticated version of Rule Utilitarianism was articulated. It said, all things being equal, there are certain actions throughout human history that, though they can be considered morally neutral in themselves, their engagement always leads to the decline of human happiness.[2] What does all that mean? There are some things that are repeatably true, no matter how much we suggest they are merely constructs of social imagination.

Post Modernism isn’t a ‘thing’ per se, it’s merely a description of a movement away from something else, in this case, modernism. This philosophic shift to an alignment with postmodernism has transformed into the current dominant mindset in most humanities departments in American, European and Antipodean universities. To the extent that professors in science and engineering have heard of postmodernism, it leaves them somewhat perplexed. They often observe their coworkers in humanities departments producing erudite papers jam-packed with impenetrable prose, offering outrageous claims (such as that there is no correct interpretation of any text), and offering peculiar courses (such as the history of comic books). Stephen Hicks, a professor of philosophy at Rockford College, has produced a clearly written and succinct book describing just what postmodern philosophy is and how it came to be.[3] That doesn’t make it bedtime reading though!

His thesis is clearly declared in the contents: “The failure of epistemology made postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary.” [4]

Hicks begins his Explaining Postmodernism by drawing in broad terms what modernism is; the worldview fashioned by the Enlightenment over the last four centuries. Loosely, modernism involves naturalism in metaphysics, mixed with the certainty that contemporary science endeavour is capable of giving us an understanding of the physical universe.[5] Hicks calls this objectivism in epistemology; the view that experience and reason are capable of acquiring ‘real’ knowledge (although modernist philosophers have hotly contested the specifics of this with Rationalism, Empiricism, and more particularly, Pragmatism being the most historically active epistemological schools). Modernism comprises individualism in ethics, and a commitment to human rights, religious toleration, and democracy in political theory.[6] It likewise involves the approval of free-market economics and the technological revolution that it has produced.[7] In sum, modernism is the common mindset of the West, and the end result of much thinking by the like of Francis Bacon, John Locke, Rene Descartes, Adam Smith, Hobbes, Spinoza, Galileo, Newton, and Hume, and a bunch of others.[8]

Over the last 40 years, a group of thinkers have set themselves in opposition to the whole Enlightenment project, rejecting the Enlightenments roots and branches. Dominant among the postmodern thinkers are Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard and (amazingly, an American) Richard Rorty. These theorists have developed a large following in the humanities — especially literature and in the social sciences, but almost no following in science, math, computer science, and engineering. From the beginning, a postmodern mindset views the whole Enlightenment project as a failure. The postmodern view is both metaphysically anti-realist and anti-naturalist, holding that the physical universe is not describable in final terms. Furthermore, it is socially subjectivist in epistemology, holding that the “world” is what we socially construct it to be, and each “group” (racial, gender, linguistic, ethnic, national, and so on) constructs the world according to its group identity.[9] Postmodernists are egalitarian and collectivist in all matters ethical and political.[10] As Gary James wrote in Deconstructing Postmodernism “If there are postmodern libertarians or conservatives, I have yet to meet one”. **

Consequently, postmodernism has had a powerful impact on a number of areas of academic study. In literary theory, it has rejected the idea that literary texts have objective meanings open to better or worse interpretation, in favour of the concept that the text is merely a vehicle for the critic to exercise wordplays, or deconstruct and expose the racial, class, or gender biases of the author.[11] In law, postmodernists known as Critical Legal Theorists reject the idea of universally binding legal principles and objective legal reasoning, rather they view legal reasoning as subjective control for one’s own race, class, gender, or political preferences.[12] In education theory, postmodernism discards the notion that education should advance a child’s reasoning abilities and impart factual knowledge to enable her to function as a productive member of our free-market democracy. Instead, the postmodernist believes education should mould a student’s racial, class, and gender identity.[13]

All this Hicks links to two strands of 20th century thought: metaphysics and epistemology. Subsequently, Hicks discusses Heidegger in some detail, given that Derrida and Foucault describe themselves as followers of Heidegger. And on the book goes.

This is not a simple read. It requires a cursory understanding of philosophical principles, which are not always in the domain of the general reader. However, the postmodern project has serious implications for Christians theology, ethics and ecclesiology, and indeed leadership. The danger of this kind of worldview is that it undermines almost everything that has preceded it – history, literature, social and educational truth and political development alongside any transcendent transcultural dogma. Hard as it may be to comprehend, the power of the postmodern cannot be avoided, but simple acquiescence due to complexity is not acceptable either. Now, where’s that beer?


[1] Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[2] Louis P. Pojman, Ethical Theory : Classical and Contemporary Readings, 4th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 2002).

[3] Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism From Rousseau to Foucault, Kindle ed. (London: Ockham’s Razor Publishing, 2011).

[4] Ibid. loc 57

[5] Ibid. loc 576

[6] Ibid. loc 561

[7] Ibid. loc 637

[8] Ibid. loc 573

[9] Amy Chua, “Tribal World : Group Identity is All,” Foreign Affairs, 2018, Accessed 30 November, 2018. https://www.foriegnaffairs.com/articles/world/2018-06-14/tribal-world?fa_anthology=1122623.

[10] Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism From Rousseau to Foucault. loc 677

** Gary James, “Deconstructing Postmodernism”, Liberty, 2005, Accessed 7 February, 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/298972253_Review_of_S_Hicks_Explaining_Postmodernism_Skepticism_and_Socialism_from_Rousseau_to_Foucault

[11] Ibid. loc 5232

[12] Ibid. loc 722

[13] Ibid. loc 722


Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Chua, Amy. “Tribal World : Group Identity is All.” Foreign Affairs, Last modified July 2018, Accessed 30 November, 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2018-06-14/tribal-world?fa_anthology=1122622.

Hicks, Stephen R. C. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism From Rousseau to Foucault. Kindle ed. London: Ockham’s Razor Publishing, 2011.

Pojman, Louis P. Ethical Theory : Classical and Contemporary Readings. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 2002.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

6 responses to “Steak and Beer? Social Constructs or Philosophical Pragmatism”

  1. Thank You, I agree that this book is not a easy read and especially for me who has little interest in philosophy. I appreciate your point on the dangers posed by postmodernism but also your point that the power of the postmodern that not be ignored.

  2. Mary Mims says:

    Digby, this is the best post that you have written, IMHO! I guess that’s because you have explained why I have been working on this post for too many days to admit. My foundation as an engineer makes learning something like this next to impossible since it seems to defy logic. I can’t say I enjoyed humanities in undergrad; although the swearing professor was somewhat entertaining. Thank you for contrasting the two worlds of engineering with humanities. The struggle is real!

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Mary, I am engineer by trade, so even though I understand the arguments, my pragmatic, logical approach to truth and reality often has to bite its tongue.

  3. John Muhanji says:

    Thanks, Digby for your great piece here. I love the way you connect things with your experience in life. The steak and beer are interesting. That brings a sense of humor in the text. It is true that scientists find these theorists idle or confused when they come up with such theories without testing. they actually get confused because such theories change the mindset of people euphorically.

  4. Mario Hood says:

    Love this post, and people do love your writing as the comments prove that point :). Thanks for the postmodernism in other fields of study and how people apply it. Very headed stuff but you do a great job at breaking it down!

  5. Sean Dean says:

    I fall in a weird middle ground, I’m both a student of theology and an engineer. The theology side of my brain finds all this postmodernist thinking very intriguing, while the engineer thinks it’s all hooey and can’t quite understand why anyone wouldn’t believe in repeatable truths. That being said, thanks for finding the middle for me and helping to negotiate a truce between the opposing sides of my brain.

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