Modernism and Its Discontents

So at the dawn of the twentieth century, persons could choose from a buffet of justifications for all of their claims to truth, goodness, and beauty. Let’s examine those a bit before exploring why choice isn’t always a good thing.

First, one could appeal to the old fount of authority. Never mind that this mode of justification had been so severely discredited by the nightmarish two centuries of Reformation conflict that it had lost all credence with those who studied the past. Judging from the frequent attempts to revive authority, many people must ignore the lessons of history, or at least the history of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. But, of course, the same issues occur today in a multicultural world with many competing authorities. Since authority by definition is “power exercised with the assent of the beneficiary,” once that assent is withdrawn, the authority’s power collapses. The quickest means to accomplish that is to have authorities dispute each other’s truth and goodness claims. Because no means of resolving disagreements between authorities in these matters exists short of appealing to another mode of justification—and thereby destroying authority as warrant—authority can only survive in a monolithic or consensual cultural climate, though its adherents seem not to see this as a problem. They continue to hammer their opponents with their point of view, vexed at opposition, failing to note that the existence of disagreement is itself enough to sabotage their warrant, never mind who has truth on her side.

For those who know their history, modernism offers its alternatives: reason and empirical science, though both are hobbled at the starting gate by uncertainty and gnawed upon by their own adherents. The doubt that assailed analytic reasoning and revealed the limits of the scientific enterprise from the eighteenth century through the present are well-documented in my book, What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful? Challenges to Justification. At least these consistent attacks revealed the strengths of these warrants as well as their limits through an incessant buffeting, but their legacy is a tentativeness and doubt that make educated persons speak more softly and use more qualifiers than they did in the thousand-year reign of authority. Such weakness prompted a revival of mysticism in the early nineteenth century that offered certainty without authority. Romanticism appealed to intuition and insight, with the added appeal of a god-in-nature who made few demands of adherents but offered them indubitable warrants for their truth and goodness claims based on revelation. One of the most difficult broad themes in intellectual history, I think, is the perverse interaction of Romanticism and empiricism during the Victorian era, one that ultimately did little to ennoble either means of justification.

This dialectical opposition was complex and poorly understood, though thinkers as religiously diverse as Nietzsche and Eliot, as philosophically opposed as Russell and Foucault, and as artistically antipodal as Manet and Warhol tapped its power to subvert comfortable truisms about reality and our knowledge of it. Pressure built in the last years of the nineteenth century because of the inversions of Victorianism, grew explosive in the early twentieth because of the undermining effect of Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein on the rickety epistemological structures of the fin de siècle, and burst forth in an orgy of novelty after World War I. Full flowering of this love affair with the new produced the twentieth century’s contribution to epistemology: postmodernism.

 None of this would have been possible without the greatest invention of modernism, one obscured by its very ubiquity: the birth of popular culture during the Romantic age. Blame or congratulate the Enlightenment for the explosion of literacy and interest in innovation that is the sign and seal of the new media. Ask yourself this question: who was the first historical figure whom everyone knew, whose life was of huge public interest? In other words, who was history’s first celebrity?  For my money, it was Napoleon Bonaparte, and after 1815 all the other Romantic heroes who move the zeitgeist to admiration and imitation. From that time on, the homogenizing effect of mass culture was a force that any student of intellectual history would have to acknowledge, and its formative pressures irresistible.

Postmodernism was formalized as a conceptual system in the 1970’s, but its blueprints were drawn by the lines of trenches and torpedo wakes in World War I. Its opposition to all prior means of warranting claims to truth, goodness, and beauty was so dogmatic as to be its dominant trait. Authority and objective reasoning were spurned, though postmodern academics adopted the language of the human sciences to question the findings of the natural sciences. What postmoderns needed was what everyone needs: a persuasive way to justify truth claims. In their judgment, the modern successors to authority– reason and empirical science– had failed as authority had failed before them. Their solution to the problem of warrant would permeate the zeitgeist and change everyone who participates in it. Postmodernism is next week’s topic.

S. Del


2 thoughts on “Modernism and Its Discontents

  1. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after
    I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just
    wanted to say excellent blog!

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