Saturday, September 19, 2015

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. I)

Having just this week finished talking about the philosophical distinctions between premodern, modern, and postmodern worldviews in my classes I thought it might be useful to rerun some posts on the subject from earlier this year. This one is the first in a three-part series:

There are in the West three basic ways to look at the world, three worldviews which serve as lenses through which we interpret the experiences of our lives. Those three worldviews are essentially distinguished by their view of God, truth, and the era in which they were dominant among the cultural elite. We may, with some license, label these the premodern, modern, and postmodern. The premodern, lasting from ancient times until the Enlightenment (17th century), was essentially Christian. The modern, which lasted until roughly WWII, was essentially naturalistic and secular, and the postmodern, which has been with us now for a couple of generations, is hostile to the Enlightenment emphasis on Reason and objective truth.

I recently came across a wonderful treatment of the tension between these three "metanarratives" in an essay written by medieval scholar Joseph Bottum for First Things back in 1994. FT reprinted his article in an anniversary issue, and I thought it would be useful to touch on some of the highlights.

Bear in mind that although the terms premodern, modern and postmodern refer to historical eras there are people who exemplify the qualities of each of these in every era, including our own. Thus though we live in a postmodern age due to the dominance of postmodern assumptions among the shapers of contemporary thought, especially in the academy, there are lots of premoderns and moderns around. Indeed, outside our universities I suspect most people are either premodern or modern in their outlook.

About a quarter of the way into his essay Bottum, writing on behalf of the Christian (premodern) worldview, says this:

We cannot revert to the premodern, we cannot return to the age of faith, for we were all of us raised as moderns.

And yet, though we cannot revert, we nonetheless have resources that may help us to advance beyond these late times. The modern project that attacked the Middle Ages has itself been under attack for some time. For some time, hyper-modern writers have brought to bear against their modern past the same sort of scarifying analysis that earlier modern writers brought against the premodern past. These later writers, supposing the modern destruction of God to be complete, have turned their postmodern attacks upon the modern project of Enlightenment rationality.

The postmodern project is, as Francois Lyotard put it, a suspicion of all metanarratives based on reason. It rejects the Enlightenment confidence that human reason can lead us to truth about the world, particularly truth about the important matters of meaning, religion and morality. Indeed, postmodern thinkers are skeptical of any claims to a "truth" beyond simple empirical facts.

Bottum continues:

In some sense, of course, these words premodern, modern, and postmodern are too slippery to mean much. Taken to refer to the history of ideas, they seem to name the periods before, during, and after the Enlightenment, but taken to refer to the history of events, they seem to name the period from creation to the rise of science, the period from the rise of science until World War II, and the period since the war. It is tempting to define the categories philosophically, rather than historically, around the recognition that knowledge depends upon the existence of God. But the better modern philosophers (e.g., Descartes and Kant, as opposed to, say, Voltaire) recognize that dependence in some way or another.

Perhaps, though definitions based on intent are always weak, the best definition nonetheless involves intent: it is premodern to seek beyond rational knowledge for God; it is modern to desire to hold knowledge in the structures of human rationality (with or without God); it is postmodern to see the impossibility of such knowledge.

In other words, premoderns believe we can have knowledge of God through direct experience apart from reason. As Pascal put it, "The heart has reasons that reason can never know." Moderns believe that knowledge can only come through the exercise of our reason. Postmoderns hold that moderns are deluding themselves. None of us can separate our reason from our biases, prejudices, experiences and so on, all of which shape our perspective and color the lenses through which we view the world. For the postmodern there is no such thing as objective reason or truth.

Bottum again:

The premoderns said that without God, there would be no knowledge, and the postmoderns say we have no God and have no knowledge. The premoderns said that without the purposefulness of final causation, all things would be equally valueless, and the postmoderns say there is no purpose and no value. The premoderns said that without an identity of reality and the Good, there would be no right and wrong, and the postmoderns say there is neither Good nor right and wrong. Though they disagree on whether God exists, premoderns and postmoderns share the major premise that knowing requires His existence. Only for a brief period in the history of the West-the period of modern times-did anyone seriously suppose that human beings could hold knowledge without God.

Here is an interesting insight. Christians hold in common with modern atheists that there is objective truth, that there is meaning to life, and that there is moral right and wrong. At the same time they hold in common with postmodern atheists (not all postmoderns are atheists, it should be stressed) that none of those beliefs can be sustained unless there is a God. Does this, as Bottum alleges, put Christians closer to postmoderns than to moderns?

More next week.