Alvin Plantinga On Postmodernism

As we are often told nowadays, we live in a postmodern era; and postmodernists pride themselves on rejecting the classical foundationalism that we all learned at our mother’s knee. Classical foundationalism has enjoyed a hegemony, a near consensus in the West from the Enlightenment to the very recent past. And according to the classical foundationalist, our beliefs, at least when properly founded, are objective in a double sense. The first sense is a Kantian sense; what is objective in this sense is what is not merely subjective, and what is subjective is what is private or peculiar to just some persons. According to classical foundationalism, well-founded belief is objective in this sense; at least in principle, any properly functioning human beings who think together about a disputed question with care and good will, can be expected to come to an agreement. Well-founded belief is objective in another sense as well: it has to do with, is successfully aimed at, objects, things, things in themselves, to borrow a phrase. Well-founded belief is often or unusually adequate to the thing; it has an adequatio ad rem. There are horses, in the world, and my thought of a given horse is indeed a thought of that horse. Furthermore, it is adequate to the horse, in the sense that the properties I take the horse to have are properties it really has. That it has those properties – the ones I take it to have – furthermore, does not depend upon me or upon how I think of it: the horse has those properties on its own account, independent of me or anyone else. My thought and belief is therefore objective in that it is centered upon an object independent of me; it is not directed to something I, as a subject, have construed or in some other way created.

Now what is characteristic of much postmodern thought is the rejection of objectivity in this second sense – often in the name of rejecting objectivity in the first sense. The typical argument for postmodern relativism leaps lightly from the claim that there is no objectivity of the first sort, to the claim that there is none of the second. As you have no doubt noticed, this is a whopping non sequitur; that hasn’t curbed its popularity in the least. Classical foundationalism, so the argument runs, has failed: we now see that there is no rational procedure guaranteed to settle all disputes among people of good will; we do not necessarily share starting points for thought, together with forms of argument that are sufficient to settle all differences of opinion. That’s the premise. The conclusion is that therefore we can’t really think about objects independent of us, but only about something else, perhaps constructs we ourselves have brought into being. Put thus baldly, the argument does not inspire confidence; but even if we put it less baldly, is there really anything of substance here? In any event, by this route too we arrive at the thought that there isn’t any such thing as truth that is independent of us and our thoughts. The idea seems to be that objectivity in the first, Kantian sense, necessarily goes with objectivity in the second, external sense, so that if our thought isn’t objective in the first sense, then it isn’t objective in the second sense either. And what has happened within at least some of so-called postmodernisms is that the quite proper rejection of the one – a rejection that would of course have received the enthusiastic support of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd – has been confused with the rejection, the demise of the other – an idea that Kuyper and Dooyweerd would have utterly rejected.

Alvin Plantinga, “Christian Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century,” The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, pp. 332-334