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

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