the imaginative conservative logo

modernism

I am pleased that my recent essay, “What is Modernism?,” prompted such a lively and thought-provoking debate. I would, therefore, like to continue the ongoing discussion by responding to some of the criticism that my essay prompted.

One of my interlocutors suggested an alternative definition of Modernism to the one that I offered, suggesting that we should think of Modernism as a relative term that “distinguishes it from Pre Modernism and Post Modernism”: “Modernism relies on reason and science for its meta-narrative. This stands in contrast to Pre Modernism that relied on faith and revelation for its meta-narrative and Post Modernism that denies the existence of any meta-narratives because of the negative outcomes that resulted from how people have used the other meta-narratives.”

The problem with my interlocutor’s alternative view of Modernism is that it is rooted in a false understanding of both “pre-modernism” and modernism. He does not define exactly what distinguishes these two views of reality in chronological terms, i.e. what historical era could be characterized as “pre-modern” and which as “modern” but I will presume he considers that modernity begins with the superciliously labeled “Enlightenment” and that the “pre-modern” is everything that came before it. If this is so, he is quite simply wrong to label all of intellectual history prior to the “Enlightenment” as relying on faith and revelation for its metanarrative. Intellectual history, prior to the modern period, is rooted in the inextricable union between fides et ratio, between faith and reason. There is no question of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle accepting anything on faith if it failed to conform to reason, nor is there any question of great Christian philosophers, such as Augustine or Aquinas, accepting anything on faith if it contradicted reason. It is no coincidence that the technical term for the view of reality accepted by these great philosophers is realism, as distinct from other “pre-modern” ideas, such as nominalism, the latter of which can be considered the progenitor of relativism.

Having defended the “pre-modern” from the absurd claim that it was irrational, let’s examine the claim that “Modernism relies on reason and science for its meta-narrative.”

Begging to differ with such a sweeping assertion, it would be much more accurate to say that modernism relies on Cartesian “reason” and its descendants for its metanarrative, i.e. it roots its “reason” in the subjective self rather than the objective other, a variation of the nominalism of three centuries earlier. It is, therefore, a denial of the philosophical realism which preceded it. It is curious, to say the least, to suggest that such a self-centred view of reality is “reason,” whereas the realism of the Greeks and the Scholastics is not.

scienceAnd as for the claim that modernism relies on science, it would be far more accurate to say that modernism restricts all science to its own truncated definition of it. For the so-called “pre-moderns,” science, from the Latin scientia, meaning knowledge, encompassed all branches of knowledge. Theology and philosophy were both considered sciences because they were bona fide paths to scientia. Philosophy concerned itself with both physics and metaphysics, the former of which was called natural philosophy, i.e. the love of wisdom to be discovered in nature. In contrast, modernism has made natural philosophy, this one branch of knowledge, the be-all and end-all. Rather than embracing all paths to knowledge as legitimate sciences, only the study of the physical is now given the name of science. Again, it is curious, to say the least, to suggest that this truncated view of science, both narrow in scope and myopic in nature, is superior to the view that preceded it.

Let’s move on to my interlocutor’s definition of postmodernism as that which “denies the existence of any meta-narratives because of the negative outcomes that resulted from how people have used the other meta-narratives.” I am happy enough to concur with this definition but I fail to see why anyone with the barest modicum of historical nous would take postmodernism, thus defined, seriously. It is rooted in the very supercilious chronological snobbery which I gave as a defining characteristic of modernism, which is why I consider postmodernism as a branch of modernism itself, a byproduct and not something essentially distinct. Such a view treats with contempt the great conversation that has animated human civilization, seeing no value in the rational discourse and filial intercourse with which we have sought to know ourselves, our God and our cosmos. It denies the adventure of civilization. It scorns the great art and architecture, and the great works of literature and music, with which we have sought to express all that is good, true and beautiful in the astonishing cosmos in which we find ourselves. And lest my interlocutor should seek to object that I am being unfair in claiming that postmodernism treats these cultural edifices with scorn and contempt, I would simply remind him that all of these works of genius are constructs inspired by the meta-narratives that postmodernism rejects as being harmful.

In the final analysis, I reject modernism because it follows the fads that fade and not the enduring goodness made manifest in the collective experience of civilization, the timeless truths discovered in the discourse of generations of rational minds, and the awe-inspiring beauty of the great works of our common heritage. In short and in sum, I reject modernism because it rejects reality.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
5 replies to this post
  1. Having guessed that the person being referred to is me, thought I would chime in here. First, I hold to the definitions of pre modernism, modernism, and post modernism that I provided in my comment. Those definitions didn’t start with me. I have found them in a number of resources including religious textbooks and of course the fountain of all truth: the internet (see http://www.academia.edu/5973789/UNDERSTANDING_POSTMODERNISM, https://www.summitu.edu/Assets/uploads/Summit/import/www.bbc.edu/journal/volume3_1/postmodernism-shrader.pdf, and http://www3.dbu.edu/naugle/pdf/postmodern_anthropology.pdf ).

    Second, using counterexamples to disprove claims only works when the claims rely on the use of universal qualifiers. But such does not disprove general descriptions made about certain time periods. In addition, using revelation and faith as metanarratives does not imply irrationality. Nor does the use of reason imply that people like Plato did not have religious beliefs. Finally, using Greeks as counterexamples that the metanarrative for pre modernism is not revelation and faith seems to ignore the role of Greek religion back then and what Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were not just critiquing, but working with as well.

    In addition, one of Pearce’s objections to the model I used employs the same faulty reasoning that caused me to object to his description of modernism in his original. For above, Pearce writes:


    If this is so, he is quite simply wrong to label all of intellectual history prior to the “Enlightenment” as relying on faith and revelation for its metanarrative. Intellectual history, prior to the modern period, is rooted in the inextricable union between fides et ratio, between faith and reason.

    It is his use of all that shows his employment of all-or-nothing thinking that he employed when describing modernism in his original article:


    It is the presumption that whatever is up-to-date is better than whatever is deemed to be out-of-date

    I responded to this simply by saying that if we take the same all-or-nothing approach to Traditionalism, it becomes the inverse of Modernism.

    And no, I don’t think I misunderstood Modernism. Nor would I classify theology as a science in the same way that I would classify natural science as a science. Theology approaches being a science only to the extent that logic can be employed to derive statements not explicitly made by revelation. Here, we must proceed cautiously because our finiteness can cause us to bulldoze paradoxes or come to unintended and false conclusions. But not only that, the over reliance on approaching theology as a science can cause us to live in a world where too much of our perception of reality is determined by deductive reasoning where inductive learning begins to disappear. When that happens, we often confidently make proclamations that are false. And both the Protestant and the Roman Church have provided a rich history of making such proclamations and taking actions that have unnecessarily hurt people.

    Having said all of that, I do appreciate the follow up article as it showed a listening to my concerns. Thank you for that.

  2. One of the important thoughts in the previous article and comments was bringing nuance to the many “modernisms” that seemed to be lumped together. A few of the comments were directed to setting aesthetic modernism to one side and treating it differently….because the aesthetic domain of life is in fact different. Not entirely different, b/c aesthetics take place in an historical context, obviously. But it is not true that bad philosophy and bad politics and bad art all go together, as the marching in lockstep work products of a “worldview” which dominates an historical era. If we must use a simplistic approach like that, it would be better to say that bad philosophy and bad politics sometimes produce great art….and in the context of the 20th century, some of the art (meaning visual art, film, music, poetry, literature, etc.) will remain within the canon of greatness forever.

    With regards to the aesthetic achievements of modernism, these sorts of statements are not only unhelpful, they are false:

    “Such a view treats with contempt the great conversation that has animated human civilization, seeing no value in the rational discourse and filial intercourse with which we have sought to know ourselves, our God and our cosmos. It denies the adventure of civilization. It scorns the great art and architecture, and the great works of literature and music, with which we have sought to express all that is good, true and beautiful in the astonishing cosmos in which we find ourselves.”

    Of course this article is not directed towards the aesthetic modernists. But the previous one was, at least in part.

    The greatest modernists – people like Pound, Eliot, Matisse, Mahler (an “almost” modernist…had he lived a little longer he would have been thoroughly so) – had deep conversations with everything that preceded them, but then responded uniquely to the uniquely bad times in which they found themselves. This broad-brushed approach to looking at all of modern times in the same way is unhelpful in practice, as it causes well-intentioned listeners and readers who are horrified by (for example) Roe v Wade to look at all modern aesthetics as evil.

    Pound and his politics (and sadly, actual madness late in life) are an easy target. And no one gets a free pass on that. But his poetry, criticism, promotion of the arts, his tireless labor and advocacy…his absolutely brilliant editing of The Waste Land…his championship of Vivaldi (what Tolkien was to Beowulf, Pound was to Vivaldi….but who remembers that? Who says, wow, I’m so grateful that Pound pulled Vivaldi out of the dust bin of history?)…etc., etc., etc.

    Pound was a cultural giant and he absolutely helped carry on The Great Conversation that is Western Civilization, and he did so in the worst of times when Western Civilization was destroyed all around him. He did not scorn the past. He knew the past inside and out …he especially knew his Dante. He lived the adventure of civilization in an incredibly deep and inspirational way. But he also saw the times that he lived in. And the times he lived in were bad, in the extreme. But within that context, he heroically brought the tradition forward, and he did so in his unique (modern) poetic voice, and through his championship of countless artists.

    Simply put, without Pound, you really don’t get Eliot.

    And without Eliot….?

    We don’t really want to go there. It’s too much to even fathom.

  3. I would direct all of us to take up serious reading of Owen Barfield to help our understanding of all of this. He is one of the most creative and profound thinkers of the 20th century. I think he brings an incredible amount of insight into the contradictions of modern life/thought/consciousness….which is not to say that he is easy or that I have mastered him. But in my encounters with Barfield, he tends to transcend the categories and dichotomies that emerge in modernity….and certainly he knew his sources and the tradition forwards and backwards……

  4. “…..where too much of our perception of reality is determined by deductive reasoning where inductive learning begins to disappear.”

    As good modernists, relying on reason, shouldn’t we ask if a firm philosophical foundation has been laid for induction?

    (just sayin’……)

  5. I think that Mr. Pearce’s initial definition of Modernism is accurate but incomplete. Perhaps what he descibes would be more accurately termed progressivism rather than modernism.

    Modernism really is Hallmarked by a very pronounced historical arrogance. It is all the more obvious because it is virtually unique in among world cultures. Only the modern west has ever had this attitude. And I would describe this as an attitude or an assumption. It isn’t something that most people are conscious over, even including most thinkers and philosophers of the Modern era.

    The attitude is essentially that we view ourselves as the pinnacle of history and human achievement. We think we know more, understand more, and can do more than our ancestors could at any other time in history. I don’t want to go into restating Mr. Pearce’s original arguments, but I will add this. There are a couple of negative consequences of this attitude. It makes us prone to ignorance about the past. For example, Mr. Day’s assertion that in the modern era we rely upon reason and science while in the past they relied upon revelation and faith. You would be hard pressed to find a more commonly taught and believed view than this. Yet (not meaning to offend) it is entirely ignorant and incorrect about the past.

    I cannot, off hand, think of a single major thinker in the philosophical tradition of western civilization who relied solely on faith and revelation. Not one. In fact, what you would actually find is that Ancient and Medieval thinkers viewed Theology and Philosophy as distinct disciplines and understood that Theology was based primarily off of revelation, but that philosophy was not. This is why, for example, if you look at a Christian writer like Boethius, in his philosophical works he makes almost no reference to scripture, christian doctrine, etc. In fact, Christian Revelation is so absent from his philosophical writings that some moderns have accused him of being a pagan. In reality, the reason his philosophy doesn’t make reference to Christian Revelation is because he was writing philosophy not theology.

    Christian thinkers from the Ancient to the Medieval all believed that there was only one Truth. All Truth must agree. However, they virtually all believed and agreed that there were two different ways of discovering truth. Those two different ways were suitable for discovering different parts of the Truth. Specifically Divine Revelation is primarily given to show us Truths that go beyond what can be discovered by unaided natural reason. It is important to note here that they thought of revelation as showing things that went BEYOND reason, not AGAINST reason. They did not believe it was possible for any Truth, revealed or otherwise, to go against reason.

    Everything else is intended to be discovered through the use and application of reason and intellect, not faith and revelation.

    As a side note, the notion that Truth can contradict itself, thus effectively creating “two truths” in competition was one of the ideas that helped bring about the transition from Ancient-Medieval thought into Modernist thought. This idea was propagated initially by Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham. These two probably more than any others paved the way for what would become “Modernism”.

    The second problem that arises from this arrogance of modernity is that it not only makes us prone to ignorance and misunderstandings of our own past, it makes us prone to false estimations of ourselves and our own achievements and how we got to where we are.

    For example, we often imagine ourselves, or our ways of thinking to be better than those of the past because we have discovered things they did not discover and understood some natural phenomenon that they did not understand. Yet this ignores the reality that in many, if not most cases, the reasoning used by thinkers of the past WAS CORRECT, using the information they had available to them.

    Much of our scientific success is NOT due to better ways of thinking, or us being smarter, it is simply due to better tools of observation, and more information being available.

    We also tend to forget that we only arrived where we are, because of the giants who went before us. For example, it is routine to criticize the Medieval Church as backwards and opposed to science and reason etc. Yet virtually all of the knowledge that began the scientific revolution came from universities founded by and run by the Church. Virtually all of our science began with monks and clerics

    The first blush of Modernism on the world stage was with a philosophical / theological school that grew up in the Universities of Europe in the late 15th early 16th centuries. It was known as the Via Moderna or “Modern Way” and it opposed itself to the “Via Antiqua” or the “Ancient Way”.

    The Via Moderna was built on top of the foundation of Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham. The key tenets of this school of thought were

    Nominalism (metaphysical skepticism, or the denial of real universal entities)
    Voluntarism (The primacy of will over intellect)
    Duplex Veritas (That Reason and Faith produce two different and opposed truths)

    Behind all of this there is a deeper principle that marks a tectonic shift in the way that philosophers thought about reality. This tectonic shift has been called “the turn to the self” and it is fundamentally a shift from objective focus to subjective focus.

    If there is one defining idea at the heart of all Modern thought, this is it.

    Previously philosophers and thinkers had always started with the objective, external, world. In other words they started with things. All of the reasoning and thought of the mainstream of classical and scholastic philosophy was based on the assumption that the objective world is real and that things really exist.

    With modern thought this assumption is brought into question and modern philosophers try to begin reasoning not from objective reality, or external things, but from their own mind.

    Beginning with William of Ockham’s Nominalism, the history of Modern philosophy is essentially a downward spiral of philosophers trying to prove objective reality from the basis of subjective mind, and failing. This is why every new phase of Modern philosophy loses a little bit more of reality. In failing to prove objective reality, it has not only called reality into question, but even the mind itself. As a result, much of modern philosophy is really a progressive losing of our collective mind. It is no accident that the dominant philosophy of our time literally denies the validity of logic and reason itself.

    This is the great irony of Moderns who think that Modernism is about reason. Modernismis literally the destruction of reason, and Post-Modernism’s rejection of reason is built firmly on the recognition of this fact.

    So the first great foundation stone of Modernism is not progressivism per say, but rather subjectivism or the turn to the self.

    Another of the pervasive defining points of Modernism is Reductionism. Virtually all Modernist thought is built upon Reductionism, because Modernism is virtually devoid of Metaphysical thought. Metaphysics began to die with the introduction of Nominalism. Really Metaphysics becomes largely impossible with the Turn to Self of Subjectivism, but it’s death within the Modernist philosophy was cemented by Immanual Kant.

    The principle of Reductionism is the idea that any thing, or principle, can be understood by breaking it down into it’s constituent parts and understanding those parts. The basic principle here probably seems to make a lot of sense to most of us. After all a complex thing is hard to understand and if we break it down into parts, those parts are much more simple and therefore easy to understand, at least comparatively.

    Another way of describing this is that modern thought sees everything as a machine, or it believes that everything in nature can be studied as a machine.

    The reason that this is antithetical to Metaphysical thought is that one of the basic principles of (at least classical metaphysics) is that being is one. A being cannot be broken down into constituent parts and to do so is to literally destroy it.

    Machines can be broken down into constituent parts and the machine as a whole is nothing more than the sum of it’s parts. This is because a machine is not an essential unity, it is many unities working together in a collective process.

    A Being IS an essential unity. It is not just the sum of it’s parts. It is not just many things involved in a collective process.

    If we break down a human being into nerves, blood vessles, arms, legs, etc. Those things are no longer a human being. Further, understanding how aspects of the body work, tell us very little about what a Human Person is and give us very little knowledge about the person.

    Even an inanimate thing like water is more than simply the sum of it’s parts. Knowing what Hydrogen is and what Oxygen is, does not tell us what water is.

    The mechanistic thought of reductionism is really good at developing technology, because technology is all about machines, but it is not so great at everything else.

    Of course you can see how reductionism leads very strongly towards Materialism or Naturalism. Once everything has been reduced to a machine, there is nothing left of it except material.

    Without going down the rabbit trail, Reductionism, leading to Materialism is what eventually causes Modernism to destroy reason itself.

    So Modernism is hallmarked by

    Turn to Self (subjectivism)
    Reductionism
    Often but not always Materialism/Naturalism

    In political terms Modernism is hallmarked by the idea of the Nation State and the birth of Nationalism. This is defined by centralization of power and the abstraction of political process and governing bodies away from the familial, the local community, and the land.

    Mr. Day also seems to fall back on the idea that Modernism and “Traditionalism” must be held as opposites in some kind of either or dichotomy. While I would suppose this would depend somewhat on how Mr. Day defines “Traditionalism” I would generally tend to disagree.

    Modernism is not actually a relative term, as Mr. Day seems to think. Modernism is a defined historical period of European or Western culture. It is not simply a battle between. Even today Modernism does not describe most of the world’s cultures, but only western culture. It can be said to describe other cultures only to the degree that they have adopted western and European modes of thinking and culture.

    But ultimately, Modern and Traditional are not the only two alternatives (even assuming that Mr. Day’s definition of these terms actually matched real systems of thought in history). Thus it is not an either or.

    I would openly admit that I despise much of modern thought and I think that it’s foundations are extremely flawed. Likewise I find much to admire in Ancient-Medieval thought, and I think that classical realism (metaphysics) is basically the correct understanding of reality.

    However, this doesn’t mean that Ancient-Medieval thought and practice didn’t have serious flaws and that nothing good has come from Modernism.

    As I said before Modernist thought is incredibly good at technology and at limited areas of natural science. The reality is that much of the natural world does function like a machine and thus it can be well understood using mechanistic modern thought. The problem here is that modernism didn’t recognize it’s own limitations.

    There is, however, no reason we can take the good of modernism here and use it together with the metaphysical framework of classical realism.

    Likewise, the subjective turn to the self has had some disastrous consequences and I have no doubt whatsoever that all rational thought about the world and the nature of reality must begin from the assumption that the world is real and things are real. However, one of the glaring deficiencies of the Ancient-Medieval world was a lack of understanding of subjective experience. Modernism, despite its flaws has given us great insights into subjective experience of suffering, and faith, and so on.

    Again, there is no reason why we can’t take the good things we have gained from Modernism here and keep them within the framework of thought that recognizes the objective reality of the world as the definitive starting point.

    In politics, I think the monolithic nation state is one of the worst things ever to happen to mankind, but the advancement in the understandings of individual liberty and of the rights and dignity of all members of society are goods that we don’t need to discard in order to re-consider political and economic structures based more on the organic family and community life of local polities.

    As a parting shot to the Conservative community in general, it is worthy of note that the progressive modernism that Mr. Pearce describes was effectively built into much of conservative political thought through what has become known as the Whig theory of History.

    Well, I’ve rambled far too long. Hopefully some of it made some sense.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: