Two general realizations with respect to meaning exist prior to the postmodern one, the elaboration of which helps to highlight much of what is taking place around us. The first can be referred to as premodern, and the second as modern. In the premodern relationship, meaning is externally constructed, and the realization that there exists something bigger and grander than oneself is a source of meaning, inspiration, and purpose. At this level of realization, people relate to reality as a kind of story, which is why the word narrative is popular in various writings and criticisms. Moreover, the meaning of things at this level is clear and absolute, is not open to interpretation, and must be taught and learned. People here often work to spread the “good word,” and hope that people learn it as a source of cohesive meaning which can help orient us all in the same direction.
That the universe was once believed to revolve around the Earth is proxy of the primary story element, that being man’s preferred status before God, and more specifically the profound meaning of our existence. To call this story into question was to call the very meaning of our existence into question, which is why it was considered so taboo. For premoderns, meaning is communicated through story, and to a group of believers, the story is of utmost importance, since their place in the story offers their entire stock of existential value. Those at this level of realization are usually reactive toward people calling into question their place in the grand narrative, whether those people are modernists, postmodernists, or just competing premodernists occupying some place in a different story. As an interesting aside, many people likely won’t recall this stage of development as a realization, since they likely had it as a child. There do exist adults of the born again variety, however, who do seem to experience this as a genuine awakening in their relationship with meaning later in life.
The second realization is that of the modernist. At this level of realization, we have fundamentally outgrown our need to be defined by our place in a grand story. We question the elements of story that define our existence, and test them against reason and whatever evidence can be collected and analyzed. The bible is not merely God’s ultimate truth because it says it is, it must be justified with reason and evidence. To the modernist, story elements that cannot be defended rigorously through reason should not be accepted, much less define the limits of our existence. As an example aside from the bible, the patriot act in the USA following 9/11 was marketed as a kind of premodern campaign. There was patriotism in its support, and many premoderns supporting it viewed themselves as patriotic protagonists in a struggle against the unpatriotic who refused to give their support. The moderns, however, having outgrown their need to be defined by their place in a grand story, evaluated the patriot act instead on the basis of reason and came to whatever conclusion they came to using evidence. To be clear, I am not exactly taking a position on the patriot act per se, or saying that a modernist would necessarily be for or against it, only pointing out a fundamental difference in the relationship to meaning at two levels of cognitive growth.
For the modernist, people requiring a sense of meaning in their lives isn’t a sufficient justification to hold that the Earth is the center of the universe when evidence suggests otherwise, and modernists object to society being oriented and guided by story for which there is no evidence. The modernist and premodernist will therefore fight each other with considerable intensity. The modernist finds objectivity and evidence-based reasoning free from story elements to be meaningful. More specifically, the modernist finds “spotting” story elements and testing them against evidence meaningful. The modern relationship to meaning often reveals itself through pursuit of success. To see through “delusional” stories, and to develop a more sober understanding of the universal absolutes revealed through scientific process is meaningful to the modernist and competence in this domain can be measured by one’s ability to succeed in empirically determined reality, whether that success lies in putting a man on the moon, vaccinating a population, synthesizing vitamin B12, or earning a better salary. In fact, what else but our success reveals whether we have accurately modeled reality and seen through unnecessary story elements that “hold us back?” Successfully charting one’s own course also becomes an obvious consideration having rejected grand narratives that previously dominated one’s life. Those at this level of realization are often reactive toward “delusion” as story elements that have not yet been eschewed.
What quickly becomes interesting is that modernist concepts and poses are often actualized by premodernist cognition. Modernists may object to vaccine skepticism if it becomes a kind of story, but they do not express their objections as part of a grand narrative. It is the premodernists who end up participating in grand narrative struggles against “vaccine deniers” etc. and work to “defend science.” The authentic modernist has outgrown their need to be defined by their place in a story, and therefore neither struggles against “vaccine deniers,” as characters in a story, nor pretends to be a champion of “science awareness,” another character in a story. The modernist simply tries to take a position based in evidence, free from story and myth. Many COVID Karens are premodern, which is quite apparent despite their supposed passion for “science.” In fact, they don’t care about science per se (and would struggle to pass a course in first year chemistry), they care about their place in a story which offers them a meaningful existence. To this mindset, science is only a story element. Evidence calling into question the efficacy of masks, the lethality of the virus, or the side effects of an experimental vaccine will simply make no impression here, because the relationship to meaning is not grounded in evidence but in story. It may appear subtle at first, but “science as Jesus” is most definitely a premodern orientation to science. The modernist simply does not engage in this behavior.
Finally, the third realization is that of the postmodernist. At this level of realization, we realize that meaning is not intrinsic to things. Neither the stories the premoderns operate on, nor the objects the moderns study have intrinsic meaning. Both are meaningful, but the meaning very much depends on one’s perspective. The postmodernist therefore no longer finds meaning in building supposedly objective maps of things, or in freeing oneself from story elements per se, but in exploring the way valuation generates meaning subjectively. Postmodernists may therefore accept that there is meaning in premodern story elements without necessarily believing them, something that modernists will often refuse to do.
Postmodern concepts and poses can also be actualized by premodernists, just as modernist ones can. Modernist feminism, for example, challenges the “stories” of gender relations and gender roles, seeks equality between the sexes, and uses various empirical metrics to judge whether equality has been achieved or not. Authentically postmodern feminism, without necessarily taking a position on men and women as categories, deconstructs the valuation implicit in the construct of equality being advanced by calling into question whether it is desirable to become equal within what may be a male favoring, hyper competitive system of valuation. Equality, then, is not actually a concept with intrinsic value as the authentic postmodernist understands. One must first value a substrate in which to become equal. Postmodern feminism is usually not discussing equality in the same light as modernist feminism, but is rather challenging the valuations understood to be intrinsic to the concept of equality. If the society becomes committed to an equality that structurally privileges certain characteristics, then the question becomes who should care? Such characteristics, after all, would not be universally meaningful to all. This insight, incidentally, is often referred to with the word “patriarchy,” which communicates a sense for the web of valuation in which such concepts as equality are contextualized.
Premodern feminists, however, turn patriarchy into a story and themselves into characters in a meaningful struggle. The patriarchy is a damnable system run by men that has existed for untold generations to keep women servile, disadvantaged, and unhappy. Men who don’t fight against the patriarchy are part of it, and feminists are the brave and sensible soldiers spearheading efforts toward a brighter future by resisting it. “Patriarchy” in this sense takes on an almost biblical reality as a story element.