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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.

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4 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’……)

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