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
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
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
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
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.