Modernism’s Midwives

Imagine you are blindfolded and ear-plugged and told to move forward. You have no sense of direction or means of detecting dangers or judging your progress. And you have every reason to think this condition will not improve. The sense of helpless befuddlement you would suffer is nothing compared to the desperation of Western culture in the mid-sixteenth century. The guarantor of reliability for truth and goodness judgments, authority, lay in smoldering ruins as civil and religious powers vied for influence, vied in brutality fueled by the darkest fears of God’s wrath in the next life and the unraveling of all civil society in this one. Millennialists prophesied the apocalypse while opportunists fed the generalized panic with imagined fears for their own advantage. And the worst of it was this: no one knew what to do.

Since the fall of Rome in the west in the fifth century, authority had woven itself into every thread of the fabric of life. This necessitated continuity and conservatism of culture. We can hardly imagine the desperation with which the shredded remnants of Roman civilization turned to their paterfamilias and prelate, nor can anyone now living even comprehend how total was their trust in the authority that gave structure and meaning to the social order. Change, of course, was inevitable, and the pulse of life quickened in some places in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but church authority absorbed the challenges of councils, monasteries, friars, and princes as it had absorbed the earlier challenges of barbarians and feudal structures.

All of this came crashing down with Martin Luther’s revolt of 1517 (see “Premodern Authority“). It is strange to me that the history of that era is as foreign to most of us as the Yuan Dynasty of China. Is it a secular delicacy about religious discord that has even historians treating the Reformation as a political event? It assuredly was political, particularly during the last decades of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and after the Restoration of Charles II in England (1660). But even the Glorious Revolution, the closing event of the Reformation to historians, had its roots buried in the soil of religious extremism. How much more confusion attends running this disaster movie backward to its dreadful beginnings: to that Hollow’s Eve’s posting of the Ninety-five Theses on the church door in 1517!

Something new was born in those miserable years of sectarian conflict. But modernism was not inevitable. On the contrary, its form could not even be imagined by the religious zealots who saw all truth and goodness as emanating from God’s word alone as interpreted by His clerical prophets and their anointed secular surrogates. The hundreds of sects and subdivisions produced by this warrant were bound by three knowledge problems. First, they derived from revelation and inspiration as interpreted by the beliefs of the founders, a recipe for schism, discord, and challenges to personal authority. As these new movements gained adherents and their founders died, often from persecution, personal authority was necessarily transmuted into institutional authority with the consequent hardening of orthodoxy that requires. This second-generation development magnified the second knowledge problem these competing religious dogmas faced. The seeds of all their truth and goodness claims had been proclaimed by their founders as revealed or inspired truth, not subject to external verification, of course. But as the essence of their truth claims necessarily were universal, they could brook no challenge to their truth or goodness and since the initial divine revelations resembled those now enshrined in Holy Writ, these new oracles’ disciples found it quite natural to reproduce the authoritarian patterns of their predecessors. But that proved problematic, for the nature of the initial claims, being personal and idiosyncratic, must necessarily challenge older claims previously considered authoritative and be challenged by younger zealots yet to be born, producing a profusion of discord. These challengers differed in their dogma, of course — these differences necessitated the reformations and purifications each proposed in the first place — but in terms of warrant, their claims were identical to those they challenged. Thus, the third knowledge problem inevitably arose: no means of reconciling the claims of these sects could ever be produced from within their means of justification. All of the Luthers and Calvins and Muntzers and Williams and Wesleys and Simons and Lees preached God’s own truth, and each preached something different. Since salvation followed choosing the true and damnation the false, and since each could offer only institutional authority to second-generation adherents, none could claim the higher ground, for all appealed to the same means of justification. Electors broke with princes who broke with kings in their turn as bishops accused popes and laity charged clergy with satanic collusion.

It took one hundred horrible years for combatants to begin to see authority itself as the problem. The justification issue involved in the uprisings, revolts, genocides, secessions, wars, and rebellions took a miserably long time to make itself clear, but what was clear all along was that nothing could replace authority’s tradition and sense of certainty.

In its purest form, the problem was first understood by Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Born into the French wars of religion and the legacy of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, he matured in the uneasy peace between Catholic and Huguenot of the early seventeenth century. This inventor of Cartesian geometry saw in mathematical proofs a certainty analogous to that lost by authority in the Reformation nightmare. This universal reasoning capacity could arrive at consensual warrants for truth and goodness claims, he argued, if we were only careful enough in framing our axioms, postulates, and chains of reasoning. His famous phrasing of “I think; therefore, I am” appeals to the potential of each human mind to formulate truth and goodness that every other rational agent would be compelled to agree to. Authority had promised certainty but had foundered on its inability to resolve conflict. This was the Reformation’s dismal legacy. But Descartes promised that here was the certainty of the geometric proof coupled with the power to detect and correct error. That after all is the charm of reason, one that places it far above authority as a means of correspondence justification (see “What Makes It True?”). You and I might disagree on some point of argument vital to truth or some hinge of morality, but we might then retrace our steps, check our work, so to speak, and find where either of us had erred. And look: no need for nailing doors shut and setting houses of worship ablaze. No need to insist that heretics “have merited death in body and soul.” We can speak reasonably, work through our differences, and mutually choose the true and the good.

The rationalist movement continued to proclaim its merits, but other voices were already beginning to practice what might be called “modernist cannibalism,” using the Cartesian method to reveal the deficiencies of its solutions. Their objections to a strictly rationalist approach culminated in David Hume’s critique of purely analytic concepts as “meaningless without regard to experience.” Some more complex form of consensual justification was clearly required.

This was the project of Descartes’ contemporary, Francis Bacon. Descartes had considered the promise of closely attended experience, but correctly concluded that undifferentiated experience was too variable and unreliable upon which to build the certain knowledge that any successor to authority must claim. And, of course, he was correct, but as later thinkers revealed, his own method was doomed to sterility if it attempted to use mathematics as its model. Reasoning about reason could only yield definition and tautology. Bacon was willing to trade certainty for relevance, and he was convinced that the defects of the senses could in part be remedied by identifying the errors we make in reasoning about our experience. He lowered the bar for claiming truth, in part because he was so aware of the pitfalls that reasoning falls into as it processes experience. His efforts yielded two promising rewards. First, his distillation of the errors experience generates led to the gradual standardization of what was later called the scientific method. Secondly, he began a multigenerational conversation about the level of reliability necessary to warrant truth claims. In the shadow of authority with its reliance on revelation, that issue had not risen to awareness. But now, with authority in ruins, it had to be posed.

The problem was that the line kept moving. The seventeenth century saw a sustained conversation on the topic with both rationalists and empiricists, the analysts of experience, digging ever deeper into the issue. From Descartes to Berkeley in the early eighteenth century, these rigorous thinkers gradually removed God’s hand from efforts to warrant truth and goodness claims, finding the source in the human mind. The conversation continued through the eighteenth century, the full flowering of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, the former studying the science of nature and the latter the science of man. All that authority had warranted, particularly all questions of quality and morality, had to be renegotiated on modernist grounds even as the educated person’s understanding of modernism grew more sophisticated. Reason demanded that creation and its apparent order be respected, and a powerful nostalgic yearning for certainty guaranteed God’s continuing presence in the modernist view, but with laws of nature opening like springtime tulips, God seemed to have less and less to do, so Deism promised a benign lawmaking divinity whose universe tended toward perfection. Locke argued this perfection extended to human perceptions that mirrored reality without apparent distortion, guaranteeing both reason and experience a kind of objective quality that later thinkers would find hopelessly naïve. The great skeptical arguments concerning the perceptual wall that rendered perceptions and reflections unreliable were bruited by Berkeley and Hume, casting doubt on the modernist reliance on reason and experience as near certain substitutes for lost authority. The great compromise offered by Immanuel Kant increased perceptual reliability by means of categories of experience that make universal and consensual warrants for our truth and goodness claims possible, but like all compromises, it also gave up something vital. Kant acknowledged the empirical cannibals’ objections by conceding that we cannot know reality as it is. Our knowledge is only of our own perceptions. The conceptual wall that Berkeley had erected with his famous query about the tree falling in the forest could not be pierced. We cannot know the world but we can share common understandings of our impressions of it because our minds operate through human categories of experience. Thus, sense data perceptions come into consciousness prepackaged by our unconscious mental constructions into intelligible perceptions about the world. These categories of experience gave us a mutually intelligible picture of reality. Yet by Kant’s own admission, one forced by Hume’s skeptical observations, we can never be sure that we aren’t merely building order from what is really chaos. No wonder every event has a cause. Our minds construct reality to make it so. Phenomena are individual and unrepeatable, so our penchant for using cause/effect to predict future events will always prove unreliable, unless we construct reality so as to confirm our preconceptions. These arguments were as deeply disturbing as they were rational, and they raised lingering doubts about the reliability of the enterprise of experience. The lesson was taken: tighten the empirical process!

Meanwhile, new warrants had to be fashioned in this intellectually rich but challenging new world. What justifies political order if not God’s will and received authority, for instance? The modernists cobbled together their replacement, and so divine right monarchy evolved into a primitive sort of social contract theory thanks to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) (see “Why Invent the Social Contract?“). Like everything in the modernist contract, it too was cannibalized by later thinkers who found logical flaws in its structures and applied the self-correcting critiques that Descartes had envisioned, though social contract theory was by its nature hopelessly flawed (see “Two Senses of the Common Good.“) By the time Rousseau wrote his version a hundred years later, the social contract would have been unrecognizable to Hobbes.

The same self-criticism applied to the evolution of science. The astonishing chain of work by Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton vindicated Bacon’s judgments on the self-correcting quality of closely attended experience. Nothing could be further from the endless hostilities of competing prophets than this slow accretion of knowledge, each building on the painstaking efforts of an earlier generation through the development of expertise in a limited field of study. But as spectacular as seventeenth and eighteenth century scientific progress seems in retrospect, we must be cautious in overpraising these early scientific efforts, for practitioners were only beginning the long and reductive process that produced what we know as natural science. All kinds of enterprises were regarded as “scientific”: phrenology, numerology, alchemy, and the kind of thinking that the philosophers practiced. Bacon’s methodology required trial and error to perfect. That was not completed until near the end of the nineteenth century for what we know as the hard sciences and in regard to the human sciences has yet to be completed. But even its earliest achievements demonstrated that empiricism was to be less certain but far more incrementally productive than authority had been.

By the dawn of the eighteenth century, the banners of modernism were fully unfurled and its territories marked. The collapse of authority as warrant was accomplished and the new competitors of reason and experience began their two centuries of dominance. They would undergo their own trials. Born in chaos and ever subject to self-doubt, the justifications that defined modernism would never exercise their power as authority had. And indeed, authority retained an echo of its former allure. Its lost sense of certainty remains culturally appealing, particularly in times of upheaval. Its adherents today rightly question its emphasis on the rational and autonomous individual pursuing truth and goodness through the independent application of her own reasoning. They look nostalgically back to the more communitarian moral structures of former times when authority enmeshed individuals in a social matrix. (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”).Also, in times of great cultural complexity such as ours, institutional authority offers the temptation of simplicity that more appropriate justifications cannot match, for it only requires a power hierarchy to operate, and our culture is stuffed full of those. Yet we view authority with suspicion, don’t we? It will never be a match for the warrants modernism offers because it cannot escape the catastrophic failures of its past or the inherent limits of its mode of justification.

Modernism would find itself besieged and questioned during its great epistemological crisis at the dawn of the twentieth century (see “Modernism and Its Discontents”). But then, it had been born of crisis, had applied its own methodology to its conclusions and found them doubtful. Modernism’s severest critics were its own admirers, but their rational objections to its premises suffered from what might be called “the Clue problem.” Remember the board game that had you search for a murderer, a weapon, and a murder scene? Players had to base their hunches on incomplete knowledge; the structure of the game allowed multiple rationally warranted hypotheses to apply to the crime. Of course, only one could be correct. So it was with the empirical cannibals, who found rationalism offered multiple and convincing answers to questions about the true, the good, and the beautiful. It is little wonder that the Romantics returned to Gnostic revelation to offer greater certainty and that empirical science with its more rigorous procedure would dominate investigations of material reality, though it could make no judgments of quality or morality. Those black holes exerted such gravitational force that they radically distorted the emerging human sciences (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). Modernism’s deficiencies would accrete to produce a second great knowledge crisis at the dawn of the twentieth century, one with an even less satisfactory resolution that produced the great warrant of postmodernism (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“).


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