Modern thought(less): In which I discuss the margins of modernity, multiplicity, and epistemological nihilism. . .

30 08 2011

I have not abandoned medieval thought.

Okay, yes, I have been skipping from the 16th century to the 4th century to the 21st century and now, the 19th (Weber) and 20th (Berlin) centuries.

There’s a purpose in all this hopscotching, there is. Somewhere.

I mentioned oh-so-long ago that I was going back in an attempt to make sense of now, back to the end of the last great (European) ontological moment for clues on what might be the end of the current, modern moment. I noted that I had become increasingly dubious of the notion of the post-modern, and thought that perhaps we might be simply be at the fraying ends of modernity.

Now I’m not even so sure about the “fraying ends”; that we may be at the far side of modernity does not yet mean we have reached the limits of this territory. There may be margins we can approach, but “ends” or “afters”? No, I don’t think so.

There are multiple modernities, just as there were multiple medievalisms; such multiplicity within (as opposed to, alongside) modernity creates problems which did not exist for medieval thinkers: unlike medieval thinkers, who worked toward unity, modern thinkers have tended to presuppose a unity in both method and outlook. Such unity has been long questioned—most obviously by Hume and Nietzsche—but it seemed that only in the latter half of the 20th century that skepticism about modernity’s (modernities’?) presuppositions came to the fore, a skepticism which is often called “post-modernism”.

But this skepticism, even undermining of the presuppositions seems itself to emerge from modernity and to be obsessed with questions of modernity, and it is not at all clear to me that laying bare the complexities and contradictions of the various modernities is in any way post-modern.

Well, in any way save one: the shattering of epistemological unity (again, which cracks long predate the 20th c) irreversibly breaches one of the boundaries of modernity, and it is here, and only here, that any thinkers, in grappling with such nihilism, may be said to advancing beyond modernity.

That matters. A lot. But even the shattering of such epistemological unity does not itself obliterate the methods which rested unconcerned above it. In other words, measurement, observation, reduction, generalization, and, of course, reason, are still powerful tools for dismantling and reassembling the world, even if they are no longer all-powerful.

The foundation crumbles, but the world still stands, and it’s not at all clear to me that scattering of foundational certainties necessarily leads to the dissolution of modernity; it may, in fact, simply have revealed the plurality of modernities which were, as the saying goes, always already there.

Negation—wha. . .what?

18 05 2011

Perhaps I should not have used the term “negation”.

It carries a philosophical load—which is fine, and not unrelated to my use of it—but I wanted (also) to emphasize the more prosaic, i.e., practical, aspects of negation, as in: to negate, to eliminate as an option or consideration.

The germ theory of disease negated theories of miasma, Lavoisier’s experiments with oxygen negated phlogiston, industrial production of beakers and test tubes negated the need for scientists to blow their own glassware (which further negated the need for the knowledge of blowing glassware), fuel injection will likely negate carburetors, etc.

So negation could mean “overturn” (as with germs > miasmas or oxygen > phlogiston) or “leave behind” (as with glass-blowing and carburetors), that is, to negate may be to disprove or it could mean to render irrelevant or trivial.

Now, these practical effects may reverberate ontologically, such that the negation of the practical may serve to negate an entire way of thinking or being, or simply to serve as a signal of the instability of that way of thinking/being. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with its discussion of paradigm shifts rendering previous modes of scientific practice inert, lays out a version of global negation, while current questions of the role of cyber-technologies signal uncertainty over what counts as “real”.

John Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World” (1611) is often quoted—hell, I quoted it a while back—to exemplify the agonized confusion over the discoveries of the natural philosophers:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and relation:

Natural philosophy took for itself the name science, and modernity marched on. The laments for the old world died with those who once lived in it.

William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” clearly echoes this lament, with the opening

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

The times they are a-changin’, indeed.

History is not a line, or rather, history only holds the line, such that events may loosen or smash that hold and the contents of that history scatter.

Some of those pieces are lost and even of those which are found, the meaning of the piece, precisely because it has been scattered, can only be guessed at. It is shard of pottery uncovered in the desert, hinting at something which once was, now gone.

But not everything is lost: it could be hiding in that proverbial plain sight. I’m much taken with the notion of the palimpsest—that is, of a kind of tablet which has been inscribed then scrubbed clean to be reinscribed—largely because I think that the previous inscriptions are still there, that, like words which have been erased from a page, the impression lingers.

Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology decries the transformation of the Rhine from a river in a landscape into a “water power supplier”, that is, it is no longer itself but a source of reserve power for a hydroelectric plant. Perhaps it could be understood as that river in a landscape, he muses, but “In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.”

Those who complain that Manhattan has turned into a theme park and that Times Square has lost all its gritty reality have not a little bit in common with Herr Heidegger.

I have a great deal of sympathy for this feeling, but even more skepticism for such sympathy; as I’ve mentioned more times than you probably care to read, we’re never who we’ve been.

So, again, I’m not taking the side of the past against the present, not least because I have no basis for such a taking of sides. Again, I simply want to trace the history of modern history.

I can’t raise all the inscriptions on the palimpsest, but maybe I can see some of what has been left behind.

Modern thought(less): Rambling preamble

26 04 2011

Thoughtlessness is a marker of modernity.

That’s a big, vague statement, leaving “thoughtlessness”, “marker”, and “modernity” all undefined. What I’ll be attempting to do, then, in goddess knows how many posts, is to unvague these terms, to ask if there is something about modern thoughtlessness which is distinct from prior/other moments of thoughtlessness, how mindfulness is connected to thoughtlessness, and whatever the hell else pops into me wee little mind about modernity.

Dmf asked how the project on the dawning of modernity is coming along, to which I can only respond: still coming. There will be connections made, however. I’m almost sure of it.

Anyway, since this is the pre-amble, here are a few pre-liminary statements (subject, of course, to revision):

1.We are not yet beyond modernity.

2. Following (1), what is called “post-modernity” is actually a critique of modernity, such that “post-modernity” is a misnomer.

3. Modernity has its own history, such that features which are prominent in one period in one period may be marginal in another.

4. Following (3), some features of modernity may be emergent and/or may disappear over the course of modernity.

5. The role of science, in terms of method, subject, and results, matter in the shaping of modern thought.

6. Modernity has become inseparable from capitalism.

7. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation were crucial in the development of modern thought.

8. Rights-based individualism is an emergent phenomenon and varying property of modernity, that is, the connection between individualism, rights, and modernity must be interrogated, not assumed.

9. Rights-based individualism and capitalism are connected to the phenomenon of thoughtlessness.

10. Mindfulness, as an emergent goal of rights-based individualism, deepens rather than overcomes the phenomenon of thoughtlessness.

Some of these hypotheses are commonly accepted, others, less so, but I wanted explicitly to mark off the ground where the digging will start.

Furthermore, I don’t know that all of these statements will hold up, or that others won’t emerge as more pressing or plausible. These are, at this point, simply educated hunches.

Two other points: One, I was captivated some many years ago by the concept of the palimpsest, so I’m sure I’ll work that in somehow. The hard part will be making sure I don’t mislead myself in my eagerness to deploy the concept.

Two, it is worth mentioning again that this discussion of modern thought is of a specific, European-based phenomenon. I reject the notion that European history comprises the whole of world history, and in writing these posts make no claims about other histories or forms of contemporary thought in the world.

In any case, why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t. I simply want to make sense, and it seems to me that spelunking into intellectual history is one way to do so.

We’ll see.