Constructive Postmodernism

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

This lecture was delivered by Dr. Cobb at Wuhan, China, June 3-5, 2002. Used by permission of the author. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Modernity has left us in a state of intellectual confusion and chaos. It thinks of nature in materialistic terms, but in these terms it can explain neither the natural world nor how it is related to human beings. It can provide no notion of substance, yet matter is inherently a substantialist notion, since matter is understood to take on different forms without ceasing to be the same matter.

I. What is "post-modern"?

"Postmodern" is an intentionally odd term in English. For a long time, the words "modern" and "contemporary" and "up-to-date" were used almost interchangeably. The content of the "modern" changed with time. What was technologically "modern" in the nineteenth century was called "Victorian" in the twentieth century.

However, the term, "modern", became attached also to particular styles. For example, "modern" architecture was not simply whatever was currently fashionable but specifically the Bauhaus style. Architects who understood that style but went beyond it could either say that what was once modern was no longer so, or call themselves "postmodern". Some in fact chose to label themselves "postmodern".

The more general and important use of the term "modern," however, referred to a much broader movement and period of time. There were textbooks on "modern" European history. The contrast here was with ancient and medieval history. The break between ancient and medieval came with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. The boundary line between medieval and modern was much less clear, but certainly the fourteenth century was still medieval and the seventeenth century was universally regarded as modern.

Until recently, modern history was assumed to continue to the present and to be still in process. But during the twentieth century there was a cumulative sense that major characteristics of the recent past were ending. The word "post" was used to describe the new situation. When the age of European empire ended after World War II, the new situation was described as post-colonial. As the globalization of the economy reduced the importance of national boundaries, one could speak of a post-nationalist epoch. As the industrial heartland exported its traditional factories and concentrated on information technology, people spoke of a post-industrial age. As Christianity became increasingly disestablished politically and unconvincing to the intelligentsia, the new situation could be called post-Christian. As the basic assumptions of the Enlightenment became more and more questionable, one could describe the new cultural and intellectual developments as post-Enlightenment. As commitments to various theories of government and society lost their sway, people spoke of the new climate as post-ideological. As feminists lifted to consciousness the age-old pattern of male domination and destroyed its self-evidence, they could call for a post-patriarchal society.

With so much profound change occurring, the sense arose among some European intellectuals that the differences between the new global society and the past few centuries is as great as that between the modern period and the medieval one. We no longer live by the basic assumptions and styles that began with what has been called modern civilization. Our world is post-modern.

One problem with that label is that it gives little clue as to what features of the modern world are being left behind. The term has been used so commonly and with such different meanings that it is now itself becoming out-of-date. Some view the "post-modern" movement as a short-lived fad and speak of being post-post-modern.

Although too much is at stake in the critique of the modern world to dismiss as a fad the idea that we are moving into a new epoch, the term is weak also in that it does not provide any positive indication of what is succeeding the modern or what should follow it. The most influential form of post-modernism is often called "deconstructive". The accent clearly falls on the critique of the assumptions derived from the modern period that still shape most of our Western culture. This critique is a valuable and even necessary undertaking, but a new world cannot be built simply on taking apart the old.

II. Constructive Post-modernism

Constructive post-modernism is, of course, just one of several forms of post-modernism. The term "constructive" is used to contrast with "deconstructive" to emphasize that constructive post-modernism is proposing a positive alternative to the modern world. This does not mean that it opposes the work of deconstructing many features of modernity. The point is that critique and rejection should be accompanied by proposals for reconstruction.

The label was invented by David Griffin, who edits the State University of New York Series on Constructive Postmodernism, but the position to which he has given that label has been around for some time. He comes to it from the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, to which I also subscribe. Several persons influenced by Whitehead used the term "post-modern" in the 1960s, but we did not emphasize it, and its recent currency is not the result of our use.

Whitehead did not use the term, but he did use the term "modern" in a way that suggested that the modern period is over. Already in the twenties, he published a book under the title Science and the Modern World. In the book he makes clear that the "modern science" of which he speaks is now superseded. It was bound up with a view of reality that science itself has shown to be invalid. Our task is to reconstruct a scientific worldview based on new developments in relativity and quantum theory. Since the whole of modern culture has been intimately related to the same worldview, the changes required are pervasive. Whitehead suggested the direction of needed change in that book and developed it much more fully in subsequent ones. That some of us spoke of this new way of thinking as post-modern followed easily.

Many of the conclusions to which those of us influenced by Whitehead have come have been reached by others out of different intellectual histories. For example, feminists criticize many of the same features of the Western cultural heritage to which Whiteheadians object. Often their criticisms are richer and more pointed than ours have been. Ecologists have joined Whiteheadians in objecting to the tendency of modern Westerners to ignore the natural world or treat it as merely instrumental to human use. Buddhists, for millennia, have rejected some of the ideas that Whitehead found wrong in modern Western thought. Hence, Griffin’s series includes writings by people who have been little influenced by Whitehead but have come to similar conclusions.

Nevertheless, Whitehead’s philosophy provides the most systematic and explicit account of the basic assumptions of constructive post-modernism. I will explain these assumptions primarily in Whitehead’s terms while recognizing that other formulations are possible and that others, feminists and environmentalists, for example, make independent contributions of great importance to the contemporary movement.

III. The Scientific and Philosophical Underpinnings

The Enlightenment adopted the machine as its basic model of reality. It did so in conscious reaction to the primacy of organic models in the Middle Ages. Even living things are to be understood as complex mechanisms. Everything is composed of matter. All forces operate ultimately by pushes and pulls. Teleology is excluded. In short, the world can be understood exhaustively in terms of matter in motion. Everything can ultimately be explained by the laws of motion

This vision of reality was extremely fruitful for physics and the other natural sciences. This fruitfulness reinforced confidence in the worldview. It also strengthened its acceptance by the culture as a whole.

On the other hand, most people were not disposed to view themselves as parts of this world machine. The philosopher who did most to shape this vision of the world, Rene Descartes, regarded the human mind as wholly different in nature. Whereas everything else is material, the human mind is mental and operates by entirely different principles. We are left with a radical, metaphysical dualism. Dualism poses insuperable philosophical problems; so modern Western philosophy can be seen as a struggle to overcome it. Some philosophers became thoroughgoing materialists, others, phenomenalists, and still others, idealists. But overall the project of overcoming dualism has not been successful.

Scientists, in any case, continued their work through the nineteenth century on the assumption of the mechanistic worldview. They were shaken only by the development of relativity theory with its move from matter to energy as basic to the world and by the discovery that the subatomic world did not conform to their worldview. For some purposes it was to be treated as particles; for others, as waves. One important step in the disintegration of this worldview came with the discovery that there was no ether through which light waves were propagated

On the whole, dualism was accepted by the general culture. To this day it shapes the structure of the university, with its division between the sciences and the humanities. Most people, whether they articulate it or not, view the world given to them in sight and touch as material, while they consider themselves to transcend that purely material status. The evolutionary perspective, which has also entered into the common sense of the culture, created acute difficulties for this dualism, but somehow the two inconsistent ideas have continued to exist side-by-side in the general culture and in the university.

Clearly, modernity has left us in a state of intellectual confusion and chaos. It thinks of nature in materialistic terms, but in these terms it can explain neither the natural world nor how it is related to human beings. It can provide no notion of substance, yet matter is inherently a substantialist notion, since matter is understood to take on different forms without ceasing to be the same matter. One material object precludes others in the space that it occupies, but in the real world, there is interpenetration among the actualities.

A common response has been to decide that the world is unintelligible. If it does not conform to the schema imposed on it by modern thought, then in principle, many think, it cannot be understood. We must simply abandon the goal of understanding in any broad or inclusive sense. The project of reason launched by the Enlightenment is a failure. The mind can analyze, but it cannot synthesize or arrive at any universal truths.

Much of post-modernism adopts this view. It depicts modernity as the Age of Reason and post-modernity as requiring the abandonment of all attempts to achieve a comprehensive vision of the world. Metaphysics is regarded as out-of-date. All thinking must be understood to be relative to the conditioned standpoint from which it arises. Especially if that standpoint is a privileged one, it is to be regarded with suspicion as an instrument of domination. This post-modern enterprise is unmasking the false pretenses of modern thinkers. It abandons the effort to achieve a coherent view of nature, much more, of the world as a whole.

I have been describing, in particular, deconstructive postmodernism. There is much to accomplish in this work. Recent decades have expanded our understanding of the many non-rational factors that enter into human thought. Historians and anthropologists have made us aware of the historical and cultural conditioning of our thought. Marx showed us how much of our thinking is shaped by our class perspective. Freud unveiled many unconscious forces at work in our supposedly rational thought. Now women have forced us to acknowledge how gender informs our thinking.

Despite all of this, Whiteheadian post-modernists continue to believe that efforts at comprehensive thinking are appropriate and needed. We disagree that the breakdown of the Enlightenment conceptuality displays the limits of conceptual thought in general. Before abandoning the wider quest for intelligibility and understanding, we propose that we should test the usefulness of other conceptualities.

Whitehead’s basic proposal is that we should shift from substance thinking to event thinking. Thinking from the model of the machine is clearly an example of substance thinking. In general, taking the objects for philosophical analysis from the data of sense perception leaves us in the grip of substance thinking even when we acknowledge that we cannot discover substances in or through our sensory experience. But we also have the idea of an event or happening. Just as we can think of tables and clocks; so we can also think of conversations and car accidents. Modern thought has conditioned us to think of conversations and accidents as enacted by people or happening to objects. In other words events presuppose substances. But there is the other possibility that events are the primary realities and that what we think of as substances are complex structures of events.

This is not a new move. Buddhists turned from Hindu substantialism to the primacy of events more than two millennia ago. Heraclitus is famous among Greek philosophers for initiating a similar move. Hegel certainly emphasized the processive character of things. What is new in the twentieth century are the data of contemporary physics that call for explanation in terms of an event philosophy. Whitehead’s philosophy is the most extended and rigorous effort to carry through this program. It is, in this way, post-modern in a sense that earlier proponents of the primacy of events could not have been.

Whereas the effort to overcome dualism was doomed to failure when nature was conceived as material substance, a nondual view follows quite naturally when nature is conceived first and foremost in terms of events. A human experience also has the character of an event. Of course, a human experience has characteristics we do not expect to find in unicellular organisms, certainly not in molecular or electronic events. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify characteristics that all events share and to imagine how more complex events evolved out of simpler ones. Gradations and differences are very important, and the study of human beings involves dimensions that are not relevant to the study of the natural world. But there is no metaphysical divide between the two sets of events.

Just as science has analyzed complex "material" objects into smaller ones; so also it can and does analyze complex events into the simpler ones of which they are composed. At some point we arrive at events that cannot be further divided. A momentary human experience is such an event. So also, probably, is a quantum burst of energy. Whitehead calls these unit events "actual occasions". In Whitehead’s view, actual occasions are best understood as syntheses of their relations to other events. In other words, preceding events participate in making them what they are. Whereas, when we think in substance terms, we ask what a thing is in itself and then how is it related, when we think in event terms, we recognize that an actual occasion comes into being as a synthesis of relations and has no existence apart from those relations.

Furthermore, if there is intrinsic value in some events, such as moments of human experience, there is intrinsic value in all events. This is particularly important with respect to other sentient beings, but it makes a difference even for our attitude toward the inanimate world. Of course, the interconnection of things means that all have value for one another. But it is important to add that nothing has value only for other things. Every actual occasion has value in and for itself as well.

These three points are crucial to constructive post-modernism. They are by no means limited to Whiteheadians. First, dualism is rejected. Human beings recognize their kinship to all things. Second, individuals do not exist apart from one another. Everything is interrelated. Human beings are part of a complex web of existence. And third, every actual occasion is of value. It is wrong to appraise nonhuman entities only by their contributions to our well being.

David Griffin speaks of this post-modern understanding of the natural world in terms of re-enchantment. Instead of a world of dead, passive, valueless, matter we inhabit a world of living, active, intrinsically valuable occasions. Instead of alienation from a merely objective world, we experience kinship and participation in nature. This has two types of implications. First, it calls for a re-enchanted science, that is, a science that seeks to understand the world as living, active, and valuable. Second, it calls for rethinking the public policies that have been based on the modern worldview. This is especially important with respect to economics, since that has become the reigning discipline in the shaping of governmental policies. I will devote the next three sections of this lecture to these topics.

IV Post-modern Science

One major reason for developing a post-modern worldview is the confused of science at this time. That confusion has given aid and comfort to those who want to end the project of formulating comprehensive worldviews. They encourage us to abandon the quest for any kind of universality. Paradoxically, in doing so, they often make universalistic arguments, but this is not the place to pursue the internal conflicts occasioned by their proposals. Their critique of reason opens the door also to forms of irrationalism and fideism that the deconstructive post-modernists do not, in fact, want.

The task of reconstructing science around the primacy of events is, of course, an enormous one, and I am not qualified to contribute to it. Nevertheless, I think you may be interested in some of the steps that have been taken. I will report briefly on developments in relativity and quantum theory.

Whitehead himself devoted a great deal of time and thought to formulating a theory of relativity. He did not dispute the empirical accuracy of Einstein’s theory, but he believed there were weaknesses in its formulation that could be cured by shifting more fully away from substance thinking. He found Einstein’s view of space-time especially troubling. Einstein treated space-time as if had a substantial character that Whitehead believed it did not have.

The issue focused on Einstein’s claim that the curvature of light as it passed around heavenly bodies was based on the curvature of space. Whitehead believed that space is not the kind of thing that can be either curved or straight. As a mathematician he pointed out that any space that can be viewed as elliptic or hyperbolic can also be viewed as Euclidian. To assert the curvature of space as a physical or metaphysical fact is deeply misleading and leads to a theory that cannot be genuinely understood.

Whitehead proposed that similar results can be obtained by focusing exclusively on multiple time systems. He worked this out in mathematical detail in his book on The Principle of Relativity. The predictions following from his formula were so close to Einstein’s that for a long time no test could be made to support either formula against the other. However, about twenty years ago, more refined tests of the tides began to count against Whitehead’s predictions. His formula called for summing up all the gravitational forces of the universe, whereas Einstein employed a nonlinear equation.

Whitehead was aware that the empirical evidence might count against his formulation. For him nothing fundamental was at stake. He offered a second equation whose results, he said, would be identical with Einstein’s, but he did not work this out. Only recently has this second Whiteheadian formula been unpacked, thanks to the work of Robert Russell. Like the other equation, it replaces the curvature of space with multiple time systems. It shows that a more intelligible account of relativity can be given.

A hundred years ago intelligibility would have been important to the community of physicists. For centuries physics had sought to understand and explain nature. But the confusion of modern physics had not stopped progress in prediction and control, and many physicists abandoned the effort to understand. Most are now conditioned to be interested in new theories only if they lead to new predictions. Accordingly, the availability of a more intelligible theory counts for little, and Whitehead’s achievement has received very little attention.

There is another respect, however, in which Whitehead’s theory may prove to have advantages. It does not require that the speed of light is an absolute limit for the transmission of energy. For Whitehead this is an empirical question. Today, there is evidence of faster transmissions.

For Einstein, the issue was not only the transmission of energy but also any kind of influence whatsoever. He was accordingly troubled by a thought experiment that indicated that two particles with opposite spin would be in communication with each other instantaneously. The thought experiment assumed that with paired particles, if the spin of one changes, the spin of the other also changes. This occurs however far apart the paired particles may be. This theory is called Bell’s theorem.

Experiments have verified that Bell’s theorem is correct. There seems to be influence at a distance that is virtually instantaneous. This is not possible in Einstein’s worldview.

Whitehead, on the other hand, was open to this possibility. His judgment was that the transmission of energy through what he called pure physical prehensions depended on contiguity and would, therefore, take time to propagate over a distance. But he thought that there is another way that occasions can relate for which spatial distance is not determinative. He called this "hybrid physical feeling". A hybrid physical feeling does not transmit energy, but it does communicate information. It is the influence of the "mental" pole of one occasion on another. Among human beings this can be found in mental telepathy. Something analogous can occur among much simpler occasions.

It is my understanding that at the quantum level there is evidence that what happens in one occasion is affected by the whole quantum world. I do not know enough to affirm this, or whether the effect would be instantaneous or could be mediated at the speed of light. But if, as I have been told, the influence seems to be instantaneous, Whitehead’s philosophy could provide an explanation that other theories seem to lack.

Quantum theory has been in fundamental difficulty from the beginning. Experimenters approached the data with two models in mind. They thought that light and similar phenomena must consist in either waves or particles. This judgment showed the power of substance thinking over their minds. "Particle" is a new term for something like the earlier atom, which turned out, despite its name, to be divisible. Particles are envisioned as tiny lumps of matter that travel though space. Waves, on the other hand, are patterns of motion and thus more like events. However, the basic model was taken from movements on the surface of water. Sound waves were movements of air. It was assumed that light waves also had a material substratum, which was named the "ether." When the lack of an ether was demonstrated, the idea of light waves became essentially unintelligible, but the language was retained because the mathematics developed for the analysis of wave motion was useful also for some features of light.

It is well known that some experiments showed the particle character of light and others showed its wave character. Unfortunately, the concept of a wave and that of a particle cannot intelligibly be applied to the same thing. The solution was to impose on this confusion a notion of polarity, which in fact clarified nothing.

There is another possible approach. If one gives up substance thinking and understands the world in terms of events instead, one can see the experimental situation in terms of a field of events. Some patterns of relations of occasions in a field can resemble "particles" sufficiently that mathematics designed to interpret particles has relevance. Other patterns of relations in the field resemble waves. I do not mean to suggest that this simple comment solves the problems. I mean only that it provides a different context for thinking about the phenomena.

Whitehead himself wrote little about quantum theory. Nevertheless, his metaphysics can easily be considered a quantum one. The world consists, in his view, in interrelated "actual occasions", most of which are quantum events.

The quantum theorist whose thought most resembled Whitehead’s was David Bohm. Bohm wrote extensively about the importance of thinking in terms of events rather than substances. He proposed the model of the hologram for thinking of unit events, a model very similar to what Whitehead says about actual occasions. And, unlike Whitehead, he developed, together with Basil Hiley, a quantum theory based on this different perspective, which can predict all known quantum phenomena.

Like Whitehead’s still viable theory of relativity, Bohm’s formulation predicts chiefly what is already predicted by established theories. Its advantage is coherence and intelligibility rather than prediction. Unfortunately, most physicists have been conditioned to think that the only test of the value of a theory is its ability to predict and thus to be tested empirically; so this theory has not gained much attention. For this reason, we must share Bohm’s hope that there are some distinctive testable predictions that can be derived from his formulations.

The constructive post-modern vision has implications for other sciences as well. All the sciences studying living things have, in the modern context, treated their subjects as if they were mere objects. It has been part of the modern program to empty the world of any purposefulness. Purposeful behavior is denied any role in the evolutionary process despite its obvious importance. Or, if the importance of apparently purposeful behavior is acknowledged, it is explained as only apparently purposeful, actually resulting from mechanical causes. From the point of view of constructive postmodernism, on the other hand, there is no reason to deny a role to animal purposes. The recognition such purposes makes possible a far more adequate and plausible account of the evolutionary process.

In the past, wild animals have been studied almost entirely in captivity. Often they are dissected so that the behavior of the animal as a whole can be explained by the behavior of its parts. Much has been learned in these reductionist ways. But much is also obscured. Only recently have a few students actually spent extended time with animals in the wild. They have learned much that could never be discovered in the laboratory. However, their work is not really encouraged by the guild. It is hardly recognized as science from the point of view of modernity. From a constructive post-modern point of view, in contrast, it is an important source of information that should inform what is studied in the laboratory as well.

Studies of the relation of the brain to subjective experience are another area in which constructive post-modern thought can make a large difference. The great majority of work in this field remains reductionistic. Explanation for subjective experience is sought in brain activity. The possibility that subjective experience participates as a causal agent in the process is hardly considered. Fortunately, there have been exceptions. Roger Sperry’s work on the split brain led him to recognize the causal role of conscious experience. This is the direction of inquiry that constructive post-modernism supports.

IV Constructive Post-modern Political Theory

Modern thought has been influenced by many factors. In this lecture I will view it only in terms of the influence upon it of the model I have been describing. Just as the world as a whole was viewed as composed of tiny bits of matter that related to one another only externally, that is, spatio-temporally, so human beings were viewed as individuals who relate to one another only externally. In this case, the relations were viewed as contractual. Political and economic theory were both developed on this basis.

In the Middle Ages the church provided legitimacy to both ecclesiastical and political authority. This gave a certain primacy to the religious institution. Political leaders were not happy with this, and especially as modernity dawned, they sought legitimacy without involvement of the church. They could claim the divine right of kings, but it was better still if this right could be derived from an analysis of the social situation as such. Accordingly, they favored the social contract theory.

This theory was based on a myth. The idea was that at the beginning there was anarchy. Each family sought only its own good with no responsibility to others and no restrictions on how they might treat others. This meant equally that there was no check on how others might treat them. The result was profoundly unsatisfactory. In Thomas Hobbes’ famous formulation, life was "nasty, brutish, and short." According to Hobbes, it was so bad that it was to the advantage of each family to gain security at any price in liberty. He deduced that the social contract consisted in the surrender of all personal liberty to a monarch in exchange for the security of person and property. John Locke did not see the consequences of anarchy in quite such dire terms. Accordingly, he thought that a certain amount of personal liberty was preserved in the contract. The American constitution builds on Locke with its claim that all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Of course, this is a completely unhistorical picture. Human beings originated and evolved in tightly knit tribal communities. Only gradually, and much later, did they develop more individual autonomy. The legitimate point of the theory was, of course, that as they developed individuality, it was still important for them to accept sufficient government control to insure security. That was the Hobbesian ground of the legitimation of rulers. A ruler who could not secure the persons and property of subjects lost legitimacy under this theory. As long as such security was preserved, protests of lack of freedom, or of injustice, carried little weight.

The point here is not to debate the relative merits of Hobbes and Locke, but to stress the atomistic individualism of modern political theory in both these forms. In contrast, constructive post-modern theory emphasizes that people are bound together in communities before they develop personal individuality. This is simply historical and sociological fact. An infant can only become a full human being in relations with others in which contracts play a very small role.

Viewed in this light, the question of the legitimation of government is quite different. A community needs some pattern of governance. This applies already in the family. There the question is whether the father (or the mother) makes all the decisions or whether there is participation of both and even of the children in decision-making. We may assume that in many instances the father has the physical power to enforce his will. The question is whether this best reflects the nature of the whole pattern of relations within the family. Are all members of the family most benefited by this pattern? Does it achieve even the deeper purposes of the father in the most fulfilling ways?

A post-modern approach is not likely to prescribe particular rules. It does encourage experimentation with inclusion. Obviously a baby cannot take part in family decision-making, and a child of eight cannot play the same role as the mother or father. But listening to all voices and progressive weighting of their preferences makes sense when we understand each member of the family as largely constituted by relations to the others.

Just as individuals cannot exist apart from relationships to others, so also the family depends on larger patterns of relationship. In every situation, some patterns are always given, and what is thus given is to be respected and dealt with. One never begins with a blank slate. Still, ideally, each family participates as one family among others in affirming, critiquing, and modifying those larger patterns. People and families grow when they participate in the decisions that shape their context.

This participation can sometimes consist in direct involvement as in many tribal councils or the New England town meetings. More often it involves selection of representatives people trust to decide issues that may be too complex for most members of the community to make sound judgments. Either way, there is no assurance that the decisions will be wise, but the strengthening of community that follows from a sense of ownership of the process is an intrinsic value. And it normally protects participants from extreme exploitation and distortion.

My intention here is not to spell out a political theory but to indicate that a post-modern theory emphasizes the bottom-up approach. Modern thought began with dispersed power but moved directly to its centralization. Once centralized, the ruler would organize power from the top down. In the United States, local communities have power only as that is granted them by the individual states. In a post-modern society the state would have powers granted it by the cities and counties. The whole structure of authority would grow out of community, communities of communities, and communities of communities of communities.

VI. Constructive Post-Modern Economic Theory

The same understanding of human beings underlay modern economic theory. Homo economicus is viewed as an atomic individual related to others only in market transactions and contracts. Accordingly, economic theory has no place for community or for such values of community as justice. The goal is simply increased economic activity or the creation of wealth.

This wealth is increased when the market sets prices based on supply and demand with no interference from outside. Originally the market that served as the model for economists was the village market, where personal relations provided a favorable context for the transactions. However, economic analysis showed that larger markets encouraged faster growth. Since human relations other than market transactions counted for nothing in economics, economists favored larger and larger markets – today, a global market.

In the past, markets were always contained with political borders. This did not insure that they were well managed, but it offered the possibility that concerns for community and justice could establish some limits on their hegemony and moderate their effects. Today there is no global government to regulate markets or defend communities from their ravages.

A post-modern economics would return as far as possible to the village market. That is, economic structures should operate within political ones, and the closer these are to the people who are governed, the better the chance for genuine human participation. Obviously, however, many goods needed by contemporary society cannot be produced locally. Still it is possible to favor a bottom-up economy along with the bottom-up political structures. What can be produced and marketed locally should be. What requires a larger market should come under the jurisdiction of a community of communities. Production that requires a still larger market should be supervised by a community of communities of communities. These may reach to a global level, but this will not be a global economy in the present sense. It will not erase the boundaries between communities or run roughshod over their interests.

Modern thought was dualistic, and this has been reflected in economic policies with respect to nature. This has been particularly apparent in the United States. The policy of Europeans coming to the Americas in general, and to the United States in particular, has been one of rapid exploitation of nature, viewed simply as "natural resources." Economic theory has depicted nature in no other way, and even natural resources have not been regarded as important. They have virtually disappeared from standard economic textbooks, which treat labor and capital as the only significant factors of production. The United States still has policies that favor the rapid exploitation of resources for the sake of economic growth.

Even now when the limits of resources and problems of pollution have forced themselves on the attention of everyone, our inheritance from modernity counts heavily against an adequate response. We calculate the cost of preserving bits and pieces of the natural world in economic terms. When we ask what policy to adopt in view of global warming, economists are inclined to advise us not to make any costly changes. If we accumulate enough capital, they argue, we will be in position to pay the costs of global warming as they arise.

The modern attitude toward other creatures expresses itself today in the way we raise animals for slaughter. We do not concern ourselves with their suffering. It turns out that the meat of calves is tenderer when they get no exercise; so some are raised in tight confinement. Chickens are raised in such confined quarters that they cannot spread their wings. Since money can be saved by mass production, huge hog farms now raise their hogs in miserable condition, meanwhile massively polluting the land and water and bankrupting farmers who try to continue more natural production methods.

Some constructive post-modernists have become vegetarians. Since they believe that the animals we raise for our food have their own intrinsic value, they do not want to participate in a system that kills them. Others do no believe that killing animals is necessarily so bad that it should be given up altogether. I am one of these. We argue that if an animal is allowed to have a good life and is killed humanely, this is, on the whole, positive. If people did not raise them for food, there would be far fewer animals in the world. Accordingly, moderate meat eating is acceptable.

On the other hand, in the United States, the justification of eating meat is becoming ever more difficult. More and more of our meat is raised in ways that mean the animal’s whole life is one of misery. The enjoyment of the meat can hardly counterbalance such extended suffering.

There are additional reasons for a post-modernist to be concerned. Our American appetite for beef leads to the cutting down of tropical forests in Latin America to gain temporary grazing land. This is often abandoned after a few years because it is not really suitable for this purpose, but the destruction of forest cover and animal habitat has long-lasting consequences.

As global grain supplies decline in relation to demand, there will be additional reasons for reducing meat consumption. Obviously, the first claim on the grain should go to relieving hunger. Huge quantities of grain are now fed to animals. The calories in the meat produced are around a tenth of the calories available for direct consumption in the grain. When eating meat not only causes suffering to animals but also deprives the world’s poor of needed food, it will certainly not be justified.


Although there are many similarities between constructive and deconstructive post-modernists, the sections of this paper that deal with science and with public policy would not be likely to appear in a lecture on the latter topic. Deconstructive post-modernists are interested in showing that the dominant forms of science are shaped by particular perspectives and do not have the universality to which they pretend. With this point constructive post-modernists are in enthusiastic agreement. But deconstructive post-modernists usually discourage the attempt to develop better theories, an attempt that seems important to constructive postmodernists.

Somewhat similarly, deconstructive postmodernists show how many, widely affirmed, policies have assumptions that express the bias and self-interest of those in power. They often do brilliant work in showing the elements of self-deception present in those who uphold them. But they are unlikely to go on to propose other policies. They are likely to view any policies proposed as expressive of other biases and interests. As a result they do not give support to any. From the point of view of constructive post-modernists, society cannot function without policies to guide decisions. All may be tainted, and we should never pretend to have no personal interests or to be unbiased in our judgments. But the world will not survive without improved public policies, ambiguous as they may remain.

Constructive post-modernists make no claim to perfection or finality for their ideas about philosophy, science, or public policy. We know that we are all finite beings with limited understanding and that we see the world from one perspective among many. We know that our perspectives are conditioned by many relativizing factors, and that these perspectives determine which features of the totality stand out for us. But we also believe that what we see from particular perspectives includes valid and valuable elements of the always-elusive truth. We also believe that by being open to what others see from their different perspectives, we can correct and expand our present thinking. Constructive post-modernism understands the world as a whole, and itself in particular, to be in process.