1/30/2006

Premodernism, Modernism, Postmodernism

I wrote the following on Monday morning, and haven't had time to follow up on the thoughts. I'll post it now and get back to this later in case hell freezes over and someone wants to comment on it.

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N.B.: The following post draws on a few gross oversimplifications. Please take these generalizations with several grains of salt. I employ them for the sake of communicating some general thoughts based on recent experiences of mine.

This semester is a strange one for me, in terms of coursework. It's far more analytic or Anglo-American than any semester I've had previously, and I find myself reading many things that I strongly disagree with.

Nevertheless, I am a firm advocate of gaining familiarity with alternative positions on just about any matter. I am not monistic regarding truth; as far as I'm concerned, there are many viable interpretations in life, even though some are better or worse in certain respects in particular contexts. In this way I view myself as something of a postmodernist, in a loose sense of the term.

That said, I am open to a wide range of views and even those views I disallow on principle (dogmatism, absolutism, anti-pluralism, etc.) I still take some interest in understanding from the perspective of their adherents. This is particularly so if a view is held by those I regard as thoughtful, generally reasonable people, but also if a belief is popular and influential.

This morning, I found myself reacting strongly to a piece of writing I was reading for the seminar I'm auditing on contemporary ethics. Suffice to say that it was the work of a very serious neo-Kantian (Christine Korsgaard) who makes outrageous claims such as, and I quote, "Enlightenment morality is true."

Dogmatism about the authority of reason rubs me the wrong way. Kant, in particular, bothers me because of his univocal approach to the interpretation of ethical action: why should I believe that my action is describable in only one particular way (i.e., that it has a unique maxim)? How can we expect to get from the most abstract formalism to concrete human experience?

Korsgaard does an admirable job bringing Kant into the 21st century, but I'm content to leave him back in the 18th. She claims to be naturalistic in a way, but real she is just trying to reintroduce teleology into nature. I mean, she even cites Aristotle as having the best account of animal life! Give me a f-ing break! She clearly doesn't have even the most basic understanding of modern biology.

So, I found myself writing all of these interjections and occasionally rude comments in the margins. It was very difficult for me to be charitable, although I occasionally felt she made some good points.

(I'll even grant that Kant has at least 2 good ethical insights: 1) that persons should never be treated merely instrumentally as things; 2) that we cannot make ethical decisions, or any decisions for that matter, without operating under the practical idea of freedom.)

I regard Kant, Korsgaard, and all these other neo-Kantians, as consummate modernists, in a broad sense. These are people who more or less accord ultimate authority to human reason.

Well, upon finishing this text, I soon thereafter began reading something different for my seminar on the philosophy of religion. Soon, I found myself longing for something Kantian!

A word to the wise: never read Cornelius Van Til. I cannot decide if he is ignorant, idiotic, or insane. Hands down, this is the worst text--the most simplistic, the most disgusting, the most offensive, and quite frankly the most dangerous--that I have ever had to read for a class.

The man claims to be Christian, but Manichaean is a far more accurate description. He distinguishes between: 1) the Christian view and 2) the non-Christian view.

Oh, but he's not quite that simple. You see, he makes a distinction between different Christian views. You have the Romanists and Protestant evangelicals who maintain that man has some degree of autonomy, and then there are the Reformists (i.e., the right ones) who uncompromisingly maintain that man is absolutely subordinate to God.

He makes no distinction between different non-Christian positions.

You see, all non-Christian positions maintain that man has the final say, that his reason is the absolute authority. Van Til mentions Kant here as the main advocate of such a position. I didn't realize that a Christian like Kant perfectly encapsulated the only alternative to a Christian position, but that goes to show what I know.

Van Til is a decidedly premodern thinker. He's so out of touch that postmodernism isn't even on his radar screen. It is unfortunate that he espouses a view that roughly parallels that of a huge swath of humanity, that is, if they had the capacity to articulate it.

I make this contrast between premodern, modern, and postmodern--and unlike Van Til I readily acknowledge that these are very loose categories that are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive of all possibilities--in the light of another recent experience in class.

I am taking a seminar on contemporary democratic theory, centering on the notion of deliberative democracy. (For those of you keeping score, my fourth seminar is on Descartes.) After reading people like Habermas, who is also very Kantian, I found myself having a very similar reaction as the one I expressed with Korsgaard. The distinction between power and legitimate authority is not so very hard and fast, as far as I'm concerned.

And yet, our professor made a very good point that really struck me. Even though some of these democratic theories may seem impracticable, compared to the naked use of power that dominates American politics today, they are far, far preferable. At least these theorists feel a need to give reasons, justifications for political actions.

This really hit a chord with me. When I was doing research for a paper on Habermas and Foucault, I was struck by how Foucault, and others who are labeled as postmodernists, are sometimes interpreted as conservatives. I've also noticed a kind of similarity in discussions with more conservative friends. We tend to be equally critical of liberals, at least insofar as we are skeptical about the primacy of "neutral" rationality and excessive individualism.

However, when I read someone like Van Til or listen to someone like Bush, I know I am dealing with positions that are far more dangerous than even the most dogmatic, scientistic, rationalistic, reductionistic modernist. Modern science may be responsible for the atom bomb, but it's the primitive Christian belief in a coming apocalypse that is more likely to result in worldwide nuclear war.

When I teach, I also find myself in this position of advocating reason as necessary for humankind. I am torn between a strategic employment of the modernist appeal to authoritative reason, and sympathies to a postmodern position that acknowledges the irrational realities of human life. However, this postmodern view has gained sway in me, largely as a result of reason's critique of itself--again, understanding this in a broad sense.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Christine Korsgaard is a very thoughtful, intelligent philosopher, whose work requires a careful close reading to be understood. There is a reason why her work at such a young age has been so celebrated worldwide. One is easily deceived by the clarity of her prose, too, and therefore easily lured into extracting sentences and, stripping them of their context, displaying them in front of intellectuals so that they may harrumph and agree with you.

"granting" her and kant a few points doesn't suggest, at least to me, a very close or charitable reading, although I'm inclined to think that such is what you thought you were giving. You simply said "I agree with this," "this part is ridiculous" and attached a label.

Such "close" readings are why many thoughtful analytic philosophers are unwilling to entertain the idea that only the Continentals take texts seriously.

Sorry if this sounded pissy, and I did take note of your disclaimer, so don't take it personally.

specter_of_spinoza said...

You're right, I'm afraid. I really haven't been very charitable with Korsgaard; I didn't mean to suggest that I was. Even I can tell that my comments were dismissive and unfair. I suppose I didn't expect to have readers who would take up her side of things.

Really, the way that she recasts ethics in a way that transcends the boring old deontology - consequentialism - virtue ethics tripartition is quite intriguing. For the most part, I think she is doing something quite impressive w/ at least the first 3 lectures of The Sources of Normativity. I find myself hard pressed to mount serious criticisms against her main arguments.

I think what bothers me about her--and what prompted me to write what I did--is the way she deals with biology. That, in sketching an alternative position which she sees her own view as an answer to, she suggests we have some kind of drive to preserve the species is a misunderstanding that I find inexcusable. In lecture 4, I am not at all convinced by her treatment of pain and the moral status of non-human animals.

This is a criticsm that I would level more generally against this Kantian tradition in ethics. They don't seem to take empirical science very seriously. Following Kant, they make a partition between the rational and the affective/emotional that I find untenable (and refuted by empirical moral psychology). They may give more of a place to science than Kant himself, but I still see the scheme of philosophers like Korsgaard or Nagel as too neat, too simplistic.

Nagel in particular has never impressed me. I really don't know why he is so highly regarded; he has this remarkable talent for sucking the life out of any philosophical topic. The apparent disdain he has for empirical science comes out particularly in The Possibility of Altruism in which he tries to promote an a priori(!) psychology. I think he just conflates the descriptive and the normative unhelpfully here. I've only read the first section of this work thus far, so perhaps I'm being unfair, but my whole being rebels against such an anti-empirical method.

But I will grant that this uncharitable bent is a failing in me. Also, it is somewhat uncharacteristic, since I've been pretty good at giving charitable readings to historical figures, even ones whose views seem, at least at first glance, antithetical to my own (recently, for instance, Descartes, the Greek and Roman stoics, and even Kant himself).

Really, I would not make a generalization about whether analytic or continental philosophers offer better, closer, more plausible readings. I've seen good and bad in both camps.

I tend to prefer what the continentalists are doing, in part because I see a willingness in many of them to question assumptions about rationality that many--but certainly not all--analytics leave unexamined. I'm at a non-analytic graduate program for a reason. Nevertheless, I have friends who do analytic philosophy and while I am not compelled by many of the problems they pursue, I certainly do not see it as a worthless endeavor.

However, when it comes to with whom I identify philosophically, I would choose neither. Instead, I prefer pragmatists like James and Dewey, largely because of their emphasis on experience, their democratic pluralism, and their friendly attitude toward empirical science.

I agree with James about the centrality of temperament in philosophy. When it comes down to it, this is what differentiates various schools of thought more than anything else. The rest is window-dressing. I see my own temperament as something of a mix between European and American. (This, of course, is more gross generalization.)

I find thinkers like Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Foucault to offer essential insights about the limits of rationality and the opacity of consciousness. They remind us that the world is far more complex than our neat categorial divisions would allow and that, contrary to Hegel, the real and the rational are not coextensive.

At the same time, I see the American pragmatists as engaged in a program that acknowledges many of these difficulties but is willing to work constructively within these constraints. Moreover, they are somewhat suspicious of a hermeneutics of suspicion which often amounts to the problematic claim that I, the wise philosopher (or, in Freud's case, psychoanalyst), can know someone better than they know themselves.

I see Spinoza as a figure who largely shares my temperament--or at least, he does the way that I read him (which probably begs the question). His Ethics is probably my favorite work in all of philosophy; he's truly centuries ahead of his time. He stands amidst an alternative tradition in Western philosophy that draws from Jewish and Islamic medieval philosophy (e.g., Avicenna, Averoes, Maimonides) and influences later thinkers like Marx and Nietzsche.

Anyway, this response has become largely autobiographical. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, anonymous reader. In subsequent posts, I will try to be more fair and less dismissive of all these analytic thinkers I'm reading this term.

Anonymous said...

I haven't the time read or respond thoroughly. But I noticed this line:

"[that Kantians do not always take empirical science seriously] is a criticsm that I would level more generally against this Kantian tradition in ethics."

I think this is probably correct, but I am not sure it is a failing of which neo-Kantians are unaware. Surely you are well aware of the transcendental arguments that pervade nearly all of Kantian and neo-Kantian thought. While I can't offer a persuasive argument in favor of this approach, I see such thinkers as attempting to offer a set of explanations that is both acceptable to human consciousness and yet not utterly contradicted by science and experience. It is something to keep in mind when reading someone like Korsgaard, at least.

By the way, I tend now not to post my name anywhere on the internet, but know that I once threatened you with a hot dog.