PREMODERNISM, MODERNISM, AND POSTMODERNISM

 

Excerpted from N. F. Gier, Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and

Western Perspectives (SUNY Press, 2000), chap. 2.  Check the book for

references.

 

Let me say at the outset that I am not equating modernism with

modernization in the sense of industrialization and urbanization.

Modernism is also not necessarily Western and premodernism is not primarily

Eastern. Furthermore, modernism is not something new and recent and

premodernism something old and ancient. I shall argue that the seeds of

modernism are at least 2,500 years old, and they are found in India as well

as in Europe. Finally, I contend that we can also discern the beginnings

of a postmodernist response among the ancient philosophers, most notably

Confucius, Zhuangzi, and Gautama Buddha.

    Modernism has been described as a movement from mythos to logos, and this

replacement of myth by logic has been going on for at least 2,500 years.

Almost simultaneously in India, China, and Greece, the strict separation of

fact and value, science and religion was proposed by the Indian

materialists, the Greek atomists, and the Chinese Mohists. These

philosophies remained minority positions, but it is nevertheless essential

to note that the seeds for modernist philosophy are very old. The Greek

Sophists stood for ethical individualism and relativism; they gave law its

adversarial system and the now accepted practice that attorneys may "make

the weaker argument the stronger"; they inspired Renaissance humanists to

extend education to the masses as well as to the aristocracy; and they gave

us a preview of a fully secular modern society. Even though maintaining

teleology and the unity of fact and value, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

affirmed ethical individualism and rationalism, and Aristotle supported

representative government, held by many as one of the great achievements of

the modern world.

    The crisis of the modern world has led many to believe that the only

answer is to return to the traditional forms of self and community that

existed before the Modern Age. Such a move would involve the rejection of

science, technology, and a mechanistic cosmology. Ontologically the modern

worldview is basically atomistic, both at the physical and the social

level. The cosmos is simply the sum total of its many inert and externally

related parts, just as modern society is simply the sum total of social

atoms contingently related to other social atoms. The modern state is

simply the social atom writ large on an international scale, acting as

dysfunctionally as the social atom does in smaller communities. The

modernist view of time is also linear, with one event happening one after

the other, with no other purpose than simply to keep on continuing that

way. The modernist view of the sacred has been to reject it altogether, or

to place God in a transcendent realm far removed from the material world.

The latter solution is the way that some Christian theologians have

reconciled themselves with mechanistic science. Authors of The

Reenchantment of Science have argued that this reconciliation began early

on and that orthodox theologians found mechanistic science an effective

foil against a resurgent pantheism (all things are divine) and panpsychism

(all things have "soulsí) coming out of the Renaissance.

    Modernism also gave new meaning to what it means to be a subject, and the

primary source of this innovation was the ego cogito of Descartesí

Meditations. The pre-Cartesian meaning of subject (Gk. hypokeimenon; Lat.

subiectum) can still be seen in the "subjects" one takes in school or the

"subject" of a sentence. In this ancient sense all things are subjects,

things with "underlying [essential] kernels," as the Greek literally says

and as Greek metaphysics proposed. (As opposed to substance metaphysics,

the process view of this pansubjectivism makes all individuals subjects of

some sort of experience.) After Cartesian doubt, however, there is only one

subject of experience of which we are certain--viz., the human thinking

subject. All other things in the world, including persons and other

sentient beings, have now become objects of thought, not subjects in their

own right. Cartesian subjectivism gave birth simultaneously to modern

objectivism as well; and, with the influence of the new mechanical

cosmology, the stage was set for uniquely modern forms of otherness and

alienation.

    By contrast the premodern vision of the world is one of totality, unity,

and above all, purpose. These values were celebrated in ritual and myth,

the effect of which was to sacralize the cycles of seasons and the

generations of animal and human procreation. The human self, then, is an

integral part of the sacred whole, which is greater than and more valuable

than its parts. And, as Mircea Eliade has shown in Cosmos and History,

premodern people sought to escape the meaningless momentariness of history

(Eliade called it the "terror of history") by immersing themselves in an

Eternal Now. Myth and ritual facilitated the painful passage through

personal and social crises, rationalized death and violence, and controlled

the power of sexuality. One could say that contemporary humankind is left

to cope with their crises with far less successful therapies or helpful

institutions.

    In addition to the terror of history, many premodern people also saw the

body and senses as a hindrance to the spiritual life. This view was

sometimes connected, as it was in Advaita Vedanta, with the view that the

natural world as a whole is illusory or at most only a derivative reality.

The alternative to Vedantist monism was a dualism of soul and body; and, in

its most extreme forms, Manicheanism and Gnosticism, one is presented with

a fierce battle between our spiritual natures and our animal natures.

Interestingly enough, a mind-body dualism characterizes some of modern

thought, but it is formulated in a much more subtle and sophisticated way;

and, most importantly, matter is not considered the embodiment of evil.

Modern philosophy generally separates the outer from the inner, the

subject and the object, fact and value, the is and the ought, science and

faith, politics and religion, the public from the private, and theory from

practice. Following Descartes' insistence on a method of reducing to

simples and focusing on clear and distinct ideas, modern humans have made

great strides conceptually and theoretically. The practical application of

modernism has extended the rule of science and conceptual analysis to all

areas of life: personal machines of all sorts, a fully mechanized industry,

and centralized bureaucratic administration. Critics of modernism observe

that it is a great irony that the modern state celebrates human rights but

at the same time its state organization has destroyed personal autonomy.

It has also eroded the intimate ties of traditional community life, and has

threatened the ecological balance of the entire planet.

    Constructive postmodernists wish to reestablish the premodern harmony of

humans, society, and God without losing the integrity of the individual,

the possibility of meaning, and the intrinsic value of nature. They

believe that French deconstructionists are throwing out the proverbial

baby with the bath water. The latter wish to reject not only the modern

worldview but any worldview whatsoever. Constructive postmodernists want

to preserve the concept of worldview and propose to reconstruct one that

avoids the liabilities of both premodernism and modernism. They would be

very comfortable with Graham Parkes' interpretation of Nietzsche's Three

Metamorphoses as representing immersion, detachment, and reintegration.

They could take the camel stage as the symbolizing the premodern self

immersed in its society; the modern lion as protesting the oppressive

elements of premodernism but offering nothing constructive or meaningful in

return; and the child as representing the reintegrative task of

constructive postmodernism. Parkes explains:

The third stage involves a reappropriation of the appropriate elements of the tradition that has been rejected. . . . The creativity symbolized bythe child does not issue in a creation ex nihilo, but rather in are construction or reconstrual of selected elements from the tradition into something uniquely original.

It must stressed that Parkes is attributing this view to Nietzsche, who is

generally taken to be the 19th Century's leading prophet of deconstructive

postmodernism.

    Constructive postmodernists are also concerned about a logocentric society

and the dominance of calculative and analytic reason, but instead of the

elimination of reason altogether, they call for a reconstruction of reason.

A working formula would be the following triad: mythos > logos as analytic

reason > logos as synthetic, aesthetic, dynamic reason. The best example

of aesthetic reason is the unity of fact, value, and beauty that we find in

Confucian virtue ethics--viz., the act of self-cultivation is analogous to

the making a gem stone. A more recent example of a reconstructed logos is

found the new "logic" of Western art since the late 19th Century. Cezanne

rejected the classical (read logocentric) perspective and initiated a

revolution that opened up new ways of looking at the world. Drawing on

Japanese, African, and other non-Western themes at the turn of the century,

artistic revolutionaries synthesized the premodern and modern in the same

way that Gandhi did in his social and political experiments. In a chapter

entitled "The Reenchantment of Art: Reflections on the Two Postmodernisms,"

Suzi Gablick presents both deconstructive and reconstructive examples of

contemporary art and finds that the latter movement is a continuation of the artistic

revolution just described. Gablick states

that Reconstructionists . . . are trying to make the transition from Eurocentric, patriarchal thinking and the "dominator" model of culture to a more participatory aesthetics of interconnectedness, aimed toward social responsibility, psychospiritual empowerment, deep ecological commitment, good human relations, and a new sense of the sacred. . . .

This view of art emphatically rejects the modernist view of art for artís

sake, which is yet another result of the alienation of the private and

public that we find in modern culture.