From Postmodernism to Metamodernism

Sensemaking for the 21st Century: Part 2

a lee
20 min readJan 25, 2021

This is part 2 of the series Sensemaking for the 21st Century. Part 1: How Science and Postmodernism Interrelate. Part 3: Conspiracy Theories, Ideology, and Metaphysics in the Metamodern Era.

Most seem to see metamodernism as modernism II, which is both understandable yet misses the insight of postmodernism. Postmodernism’s insight is that rational systems are limited by the terms and contexts they operate in.

This essay spells out this issue, expanding on postmodernism to get to metamodernism. Along the way we will utilize the term metarationality, which is a way of describing our ability to choose between rational systems.

I borrow the term of metarationality from Meaningness. As of yet, I haven’t read everything he’s written, and it’s possible that he and I use the term somewhat differently, as the domain of our exploration is somewhat different. Nonetheless, what he pokes at is, as I have yet found, the best “missing piece” for describing metamodernism.

Rational choice theory is often thought of in as a systematic way of making choices by weighing costs and benefits. Metarationality describes our ability to choose between rational systems.

1 From Modernism to Metamodernism

A good friend of mine, an avant-garde poet, once pointed out that postmodernism appears whenever modernism fails.

Failed attempts to create modernist systems of absolute meaning can lead to situations that have postmodern characteristics, such as the cultural degradation of the Soviet Union, or the politics of President Donald Trump.

This connection with modernist failure is why postmodernism is hated by fans/practitioners of modernism and modernist thinking. At its core, postmodernism highlights the limitations of the (often modernist) mechanisms. As people adopting the modernist perspective don't fully accept the limitations of their rational mechanisms (as modernism insists on a universal and absolute point of view) so metamodernism is often described as reduceable to a kind of Modernism II, updated with heightened, contemporary scientific language.

What Modernism II often misses, is that modernism by its own standards, seeks a univocal mechanism for sensemaking. Postmodern philosophy as a whole rejects univocity by introducing a multitude of different mechanisms (such as Feminism, discourse analysis, philosophy of rhetoric, post-colonialism, and so on). Ironically, many practitioners of these mechanisms may still understand their particular sensemaking mechanism in terms of a modernist aesthetic, leading to cross critiques of other schools of thought.

I realize that many in the Left will stick with a theory, like Marxism or Feminism or Critical Race Theory in order to explain everything. As a comment, I would argue that if such an applications is meant to be totalizing then that application is applied following modernist aesthetics despite the postmodern (contemporary) milieu.

What makes postmodernism appear irrational is that postmodern recognizes that many different sensemaking mechanisms are at work, creating unintentional, unpredictable, and often highly contingent effects, often at cross purposes. For this reason, individuals seeking a modernist modality may judge postmodernism to be irrational, as there is no one mechanism that has agency everywhere.

It is in this sense that postmodern philosophy as a whole is a recognition of the limitations of the mechanisms that drive us.

For example, much postmodern art can be seen as exemplifying the mechanisms in our life that are either unstoppable or work to influence us in means beyond our intentions, at times making “accidental” meaning.

Example of postmodern art, using mixed media. From here.

For instance, the international writing group, Oulipo centers on producing texts that are generated from constraints. The use of different constraints in writing distorts authorial intention, consciously or unconsciously, often leading to surprising connections that are brought out of the artist’s chosen material.

Recognition of this insight of postmodernism’s, regarding the limitation of theories of understanding, means that we each have a choice. We can choose how we see phenomenon. We can choose how to understand the meaning behind phenomenon, depending on what is appropriate to our concerns.

  • A literary example might be how an author (Stanislaw Lem) chooses to write a sci-fi novel (Solaris the book), but the Hollywood might set the story as a romance movie (Solaris the movie).
  • For the sciences, this can be as simple as choosing an appropriate theory. For instance, there is an equation for calculating the boiling point of water based on atmospheric pressure, but there is also an equation for calculating the boiling point of water based on impurities. Which equation we use depends on the context we are in.

You’ll note that the choices above, for each respective domain, really depend on our concerns which are often pragmatic and outside the framework in question. In the case of the two theories of boiling water, neither theory offers a “complete” solution, given the possibility that the atmospheric pressure and the impurity of the water can both be an issue.

I borrow this example of boiling water from Nancy Cartwight’s insightful book, How the Laws of Physics Lie.

This ability to choose how to frame phenomenon via different rationalities is what I call metarationality.

At this point I have two options. I can expand on metarationality as a social phenomenon, or I can expand on what it means for a “mechanism”/theory of science to be limited in the modernist/postmodern sense. Since I often suffer from scope creep, I have decided to split these two expansions into two different articles.

If you want to check out the former, which is an extended exploration of how metamodernism can be useful for our understanding where we are today, you’ll have to go to another article, linked here (in the future).

The rest of this article explores the latter. In particular I will look at one example from biology, surrounding a long standing, decades old dispute about the nature of evolution between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.

I will then end this article with a brief conclusion about the implications of metarationality in the sciences and meaning making.

2 Modernism and “Postmodernism” in the Sciences

Before I dive into this example I want to reiterate two distinctions.

  • Modernism can be characterized as offering rationality in the form of a singular mechanism; that there is one point of view/theory which can capture all the meaningful difference.
  • Postmodernism can be characterized as offering an “irrationality” in the form of many mechanisms; no one point of view/theory can capture all the meaningful differences.

Now, keeping these two distinctions in mind, let’s dive in by first going over the “modernist” analogue:

2.1 Richard Dawkins as a Modernist

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins insists that there is a singular agency for evolution at the genetic level, one that is complete and centralized on the genetics.

This mechanism (of Dawkin’s) happens to be utilizing the rationality of game theory, although it is debatable whether or not game theory on its own is modernistic (see this article — in section 3.1). In contrast, Stephen Jay Gould’s approach would be “postmodern”, which we will elucidate in the next sub-section.

Dawkins argues that genes work as individuals in game theory, as a form of optimizing a Nash equilibrium as a Evolutionarily Stable Strategy. This analogy between evolution and game theory relies on equivocating the Nash Equilibrium with an evolutionary stable strategy. From this equivocation, the advantage is that game theory mechanics can be adopted to help mathematize evolutionary biology by pointing out successful adaptive strategies. This analogy strongly implies that the more copies of a gene there is, the more successful it is.

From The Selfish Gene, Dawkins works himself to the argument by first needing a unit of calculation.

What I am doing is emphasizing the potential near-immortality of a gene, in the forms of copies, as its defining property.

Once a gene is selected as the unit of variance, Dawkins then includes the individual as a necessary link in the lineage of the gene as being a condition of survival. Seeing individuals in terms of their configuration of genes lets Dawkins argue that individual survival is an expression of genetic survival. From his example of ants, Dawkins writes:

We may picture an evolutionary battle in which queens continually ‘change the code’, and workers ‘break the code’. The war will be won by whoever manages to get more of her genes into the next generation, via the bodies of the reproductives.

Nothing of what Dawkins has said is incorrect. Rather, his extension of the survival of genetics to the narrative struggle of individual justifies using mathematical models on genes as the sole predictive model for evolution. This extension has the added effect of suggesting that genes have “agency” analogous to how individuals have agency in survival as individuals make choices so genes make “choices”.

Dawkins falls into a modernist well because he only considers how the gene is a driver of evolution instead of considering that genes could also be a way of marking evolutionary developments driven from areas outside genetics.

The consideration that genetics are all that is needed for evolution is reductive. A classical example of modernist ideas for rationality is to be reductive (the reverse isn’t true; non-modernist ideas aren’t necessarily holistic).

As an aside, historically reduction within the natural sciences was historically nominalized as essentialism, as people are reduced to their “essence”. Dawkins can be considered a genetic essentialist. In contrast, Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein — authors of The Bell Curve might be seen as racial essentialists. Essentialists believe meaning adheres literally to their subject units. Essentialists operate in an f(x) = y kind of way to justify the meaning they want to explain. In the case of Dawkins, functions of genes = evolution. In the case of The Bell Curve, functions of race = IQ. Both moves lend themselves to assertions of political dogma because this kind of consideration does not allow for the real ambiguities that can arise when interpreting cause or meaning.

Now that we have outlined the operating analogy for Dawkins, we can go over Gould, for comparison.

2.2 Stephen Jay Gould as a “Postmodernist”

Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould’s departure from game theory comes from a recognition of what can and what cannot be accounted for within the rationality of game theory. Gould notes that there is a larger context driving evolution, whose causes are the results of many different systems that have overlapping effects. This larger context of overlapping systems is one aspect that constitutes a kind of “postmodern turn”. From John Brockman’s The Third Culture, a book about complexity science, Gould says:

I would like to propose that the modal complexity of life has never changed and it never will, that right from the beginning of life’s history it has been what it is; and that our view of complexity is shaped by our warped decision to focus on only one small aspect of life’s history; and that small bit of history of life that we can legitimately see as involved in progress arises for an odd structural reason and has nothing to do with any predictable drive toward it.

Gould’s system “marr[ies] these three themes — hierarchical selection, internal constraint, and the immensity of geological time — into a more adequate general view of evolutionary theory.” I won’t go over all the details but it is significant to note that unlike Dawkins, Gould incorporates Dawkins’s theory into his own. On Dawkins, Gould, also from The Third Culture, says:

Richard Dawkins, who still wishes to explain virtually everything at the level of genic selection, is right about one thing; genetic selection does operate. He’s wrong in saying that it’s the source of evolution; it’s a source.

Gould recognizes how Dawkin’s symbolic rules for calculating fitness of a genetic expression is accurate, but also recognizes that it is limited in its explanatory power. Gould then includes a lengthy description of his theory, with an examination of Dawkin’s ideas which is worth reading if you get the chance.

Gould indicates that evolution is creative, but in a way that is beyond “intention” or any one calculatory paradigm. This form of creation without intention, what he calls “ex-apt”, is similar to how postmodern understandings dictates that the results can be irrational as meaning can be emergent. Gould uses an example of the spandrel from architecture to illustrate how certain selected for adaptions can increase the fitness of a species in a way that wasn’t selected for by evolution.

A spandrel is a self-like formation where a curved ceiling connects to straight walls.

This image is taken from an article explaining spandrels in biological evolution.

Gould explains:

Under the spandrel principle, you can have a structure that is fit, that works well, that is apt, but was not built by natural selection for its current utility. It may not have been built by natural selection at all. The spandrels are architectural by-products. […] Exaptations are useful structures by virtue of having been coopted — that’s the “ex-apt” — they’re apt because of what they are for other reasons.

What makes exaptations “postmodern” is that they are the result of the intersection of different systems. Like geological shifts influencing evolution, exaptations cannot be accounted for by genetics because these adaptations are not coded for within genetics. Exapatations are emergent as the benefits are “side effects” of something else that was selected for in a past context but now utilized in a new way due to a new context.

Spandrels, are but one example of a relationship that emerges outside the calculatory domain of a rational theory based solely in genetics.

The influence of the environment, in general, is another example, as the pressures of one’s environment is completely outside control of genetics.

For a moment, let’s stepping beyond Gould’s arguments. The video below introduces carcinisation, a specific convergent evolutionary condition whereby different non-crab-like animals become crab-like. This video is worth watching because it argues that environmental conditions can drive the direction of evolution instead of evolution being driven by some inner essence inherent to an animal’s genetics.

Carcinisation is fundamentally environmentally driven — a recognition that there is a limitation to the agency genes have.

Humorously, some people believing that evolution is due to genetics, had concluded that the final stage in all evolution is that all animals would become crabs, leading to much internet shenanigans.

“Crab People.” From South Park.

All of this brings us to the font of metamodernism. To better understand the distinctions I am making let’s recap.

  • Dawkins proclaims that game theory applied to genetics is a mechanism that is singular, absolute (limitless) and centralized for modeling evolution. This bullet point highlights what is modern about Dawkin’s approach.
  • Gould recognizes that genetics has agency in evolution but is limited and incomplete. The agency driving evolution is decentralized as the selective pressures operate across multiple domains with multiple mechanisms, overlapping and limited as other mechanisms also have influence. This bullet point highlights what is postmodern with Gould’s approach.
  • By recognizing overlap in cause, Gould is also metarational in that different mechanisms can account for different effects within the same phenomenon. Using Gould’s approach to explain evolution would have to be metarational, deciding between different mechanisms (biology, geology, and so on). This bullet point highlights what is metamodern with Gould’s approach.

Now that we’ve given an example of the distinction between postmodernism and modernism, let’s go in depth on what metamodernism is through the guise of metarationality.

From here.

3 From Postmodernism to Metamodernism

Following the format from the first section as a comparison of modernism and postmodernism, we can compare postmodernism and metarationalism:

  • postmodernism assumes that there are multiple mechanisms with agency, none of which have total control. Some examples of potentially unconstructive postmodernist assumptions are the belief that others are gripped by mechanisms that they may not have awareness of, such as with the attention economy, or with structural racism. Postmodernism is often destructive because it helps us conceive of people as automatons. This can lead to political action that first and foremost adopts manipulation as a virtue, with the added effect of dehumanizing others.
  • metarationality is the recognition that we can choose which mechanisms we want to make sense with. Metarationality is already at play in the world today, although culture at large does not have a term for it. Many professionals in technical areas (like accountants, engineers, scientists, doctors) at the higher levels of practice already practice metarationality. Such individuals are often revered by those in the field. If they practice as high level consultants, they will have adequate knowledge in many different areas but use their metarational intuition to meld that knowledge into procedures that can address issues in ways that other professionals in their industry may not realize. When a layperson asks a metarational practitioner what they do, often there is an inability to express their practice with one word as society at large has not named metarationality. One example of the destructive potential of metarationality is how people may be unaware they have a choice in how they frame events. Should they adopt a modernist framing of totalized sensemaking, they could end up with incoherencies like that of the alt-right, or with science-deniers as they often apply the wrong frame to understand phenomenon as such approaches tend to apply the same frame to all phenomenon.

If metarationality had a generally recognized term then this would be an indication that society values metarationality as a practice.

I believe the lack of this valuing is largely due to modernist assumptions people have about the nature of truth as requiring that a sensemaking mechanism be totalizing, universal, and complete.

It is too long to add here, but the general assumptions people have about truth generally come from the historic development of science. For science to develop it had to distance itself from failed methods of some natural philosophers (like those of the Cartesianists). The rejection of these particular methods implied, for many, that truth must be of a nature different than those rejected methods (see the essay How Science and Postmodernism interrelate).

Two methods of framing that had to be rejected for science to develop include:

  • Natural philosophy had to reject qualitative terms for understanding material and embrace quantitative terms. This led to the assumption that truth must be mathematical, not linguistically based.
  • Science had to embrace statistics as a method for understanding material. This reinforced the assumption that truth must be invariant, or universal.

While the development of science provided undeniable results, the assumptions people gathered from these developments are examples of intellectual baggage. In general, such baggage prompts one to believing one knows the form of an answer without actually knowing the answer. The development of science from philosophy has also led people to form science mythologies, which is a combination of rejected methods of philosophy and unrejected philosophical assumptions about Truth. All of this happens because people are trained to think in opposition to the past without realizing they are doing so, leading to blind spots as people apply the same frame univocally (applying a univocal framing/mechanism to explain all phenomenon is a characteristic of modernism).

I explain more about this topic of science mythology in the article How Science and Postmodernism interrelate.

Our unacknowledged belief about what form the Truth should come in without knowing what the Truth is, is a lot like believing you know how to get to a place when you have no idea what that place is.

The closest term I can find for this is from Latin: vagary, which has a different, non-serious connotation of whimsical roaming. This whimsy is in contrast to seriousness of many non-metarational intellectuals.

To fully acknowledge that we have no idea where we are going means that we must have a more open mind about what could be true. In this sense, metarationality isn’t merely about choosing what form of rationality we want in order to understand the world. Being truly metarational also requires calibrating our attention towards relevancy. To find relevancy we must first be open to the value of possibilities we might not yet understand.

This has deep connections with seeing metarationality in terms of psychotechnology, which I will explain in a future article linked here.

I will now conclude this article with one last section, on one obstacle we have for achieving an awareness of metarationality.

Essentially, the broadest obstacle comes from our training, which often locks us into a comprehension horizon.

From here.

3.1 Metarational Concerns: Contextualization, Learning, and Attitude

In the modernist worldview, relevancy has to do with universal truth. Education was often given “from the classics” with the idea that if one understood the universal truth, all other truths could follow. This older style of education, of which most people alive today were not trained in (although the ghost of such training still looms over us), required learning some broad and basic knowledge. A latent example of this “broad knowledge” is the general education requirement of colleges, which most people tend to see as superfluous, an obstacle to getting the career training people think college is for.

In the postmodern worldview, relevancy has to do with particular contexts (such as historicity) even though most of us still conceive of truth in the modernist aesthetic (as contextless/universal/unconditional).

As most of us were trained in a postmodern environment, our education system, along with our formal hierarchy of expertise (based on knowledge of a technical content), prizes the ability to operate within a context. Generally, that context is presented as a closed body of knowledge, as contextualization is built into a given professional niche.

This contextualization is important, as humans have limited attention and a limitation on understanding complex subject matters. To be able to focus on the task at hand we need to be able to understand what is relevant, and contextualization helps us do that.

For example, electrical engineers don’t need to know quantum physics, read poetry or know chemistry to do their job (although it may help, depending on the “level” of electrical engineering). Likewise, professors of Arabic do not need to know how to do mathematics or prepare their taxes to teach Arabic (although one can imagine it that in some abstract contexts, such knowledge may help).

This narrowness in training fits us into the economy with a kind of modularity. Gym teachers can be experts at teaching kinesthetics, so that if one needs a particular position filled, one only needs to look at how specialized prospective employee’s resumes are.

This narrowness has two effects.

  1. We gain an understanding of relevancy based on our particular field of expertise.
  2. We operate our understanding within a comprehension horizon. Operating within a comprehension horizon also means that we often think in isolation from one another. While lawyers often talk with other lawyers, those lawyers who regularly talk with the inventors often do not talk regularly with lawyers who talk regularly with divorcees.

Yet despite our radical specialization, a feature of postmodern fragmentation, people, in a modernist manner, still assume that Truth, must be universal and unconditional.

The combination of the assumption of universal Truth with an education that is narrowly defined often leads people to believe that the understandings they form must also be universal, even if those understandings are biased towards their specialization.

This understanding of truth, as being universal, means that people will adopt a closed attitude about what forms of information are acceptable. After all, if you believe you have something that “makes sense” then why would you need to accept more information that necessarily compromises your certainty?

Under the modernist assumption, if they have a working mechanism for sensemaking, then they have some access to universal Truth. Additional information that doesn’t fit is often presumed to be “nonsense” as it often does not fit the assumption that learning must be “progressive” (one adds, not subtracts, as one learns).

The cognitive laziness of “choosing truth” is often peppered with assumptions about the nature of Truth. In believing a universal Truth that is the same everywhere people may not be able to imagine how limited their understanding can be. Likewise, if people believe Truth is everywhere and they see this Truth, then other people must be [fill in the blank] if they do not see the same Truth.

Recognition of cognitive laziness does not mean, however, that the understanding we do have is false; it merely means that to really understand what we know, we must also acknowledge how contextual our understanding is.

Acknowledging how contextual understanding is requires that we be more open in our assessment towards the unknown, that other people’s understandings may also have merit/relevancy we have not yet considered, at least in terms of addressing their (and our) concerns.

After all, finding relevancy isn’t often about the preciseness in some technical field (some technically defined comprehension horizon) inasmuch as relevancy is about being precise in finding what is relevant for the situation we do have, with the particular concerns we do have.

We can be more cynical though. People may not choose rational mechanisms for reasons of truth, but for reasons of being right — leading to the condition of post truth.

From here.

Following the frame of metamodern choice, one always chooses the rationality that addresses one’s concerns. For post-truthers, their concerns often have something to do with other than the external world, as post-truthers often deny the veracity of information that doesn’t fit their paradigm).

For those of us interested in learning, we must consider something often ignored: Mood.

If we adopt a closed attitude, then we will more narrowly focus our attention, with the increased likelihood that we miss relevancy as we exclude more features of the context we are in.

One useful description I’ve found for a closed, narrow focus in attention, with the goal of determining truth, is metaphysics. Metaphysics is the practice of closing off relevancy with the intention of reducing understanding to a limited set of terms that are meant to be representative of the whole. If you are interested in this topic, I have prepared another essay on this topic here, as a follow up to how the metamodern context can enable conspiracy theories/metaphysics.

The only way to step out of a closed mood is to adopt an open one. Of course, depending on what your concerns are, there are many psychotechnologies that are offered to change one’s mood including (but not limited to)

  • learning a new trade/specialization
  • learning a new philosophy
  • meditation
  • mindfulness
  • prayer
  • exercise
  • wearing context specific clothing to put you “in the mood” for that context (which can be as simple as wearing gym clothes for the gym and formal dining clothes for a wedding)

This idea of mood influencing our ability to attune is traceable to Heidegger, which I explore here, Remaking the World: How 2020 was Broken Before it Began. You can also explore this with Gloria Flores’s book Learning to Learn and the Navigation of Moods: The Meta-Skill for the Acquisition of Skills.

Traditionally, attitude and mood are not considered when encountering truth, although Heidegger offers otherwise in his book Being and Time. The connection here, is that to address your concerns (and the concerns of those you care about) you must be attuned, and that requires that you be in the right mood for the world to disclose to you what is relevant to your concerns.

Our world has become very complex, as we have different agencies in many different domains simultaneously, including technology, politics, finance, medicine, culture, and so on. Within each of those domains there are multiple mechanisms, each with different agencies operating with potentially very different rationalities/mechanisms. To try to sort this out requires that we navigate different logics successfully, sorting out what is (ir)relevant with each different situation.

For many of us, this means being able to fill out appropriate paperwork and navigate context-specific language (such as the jargon of health insurance companies).

Whether we know it or not, we are already in a metamodern world, requiring that we navigate these different rationalities. You may not have known it before, but you already operate with some capacity for metarationality.

The issue is — if we are not aware of our choices — so despite our freedom, we won’t truly be metarational. Instead, we will stick with the same sensemaking mechanism we’ve always used, perhaps applying it ineffectually, creating more problems for ourselves later on.

After all, that is what we have been doing so far, stubbornly and ineffectually.

Rural and Urban divide in the 2010s. From here.

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