Premodernism, Modernism, and Postmodernism


(excerpted from N. F. Gier, Spiritual Titanism (SUNY Press,
2000), pp. 40-45.  Check book for references)

The modernism of this chapter does not mean 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. In fact, the seeds of modernism are at
least 2,500 years old, and they are found in India as well as in Europe. Finally, one can
also discern the beginnings of a postmodernist response among the ancient philosophers,
most notably Confucius, Zhuangzi, and Gautama Buddha. (For Zhuangzi and postmodernism see
the fourth section of Chapter 11.) There are some commentators who also take ˜a�kara
as a forerunner of postmodern thought, but it seems more probable that Brahman as the
ultimate, undifferentiated substance is a premodern concept.

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 Lokayata 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 modernism.

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 and panpsychism 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 Descartes’ 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,
therefore, gave birth simultaneously to modern objectivism as well. 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 institutions.

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,
a mind-body dualism characterizes some of modern thought, but it is formulated in a much
more subtle and sophisticated way. Most importantly, matter is not considered the
embodiment of evil.

It is important to observe that the doctrine of karma is modernist in
assuming the concept of individual moral responsibility. It is also significant that
individual karma is most consistently expressed in the Jaina-Yoga-Sankhya philosophies
that hold to the modernist idea of autonomous selves. Individual moral responsibility
becomes problematic only in the bhakti yoga of Hindu saviors’ forgiveness of
human sins and the distribution of the Boddhisattvas’ excess merit. Some philosophers
have struggled to make intelligible the idea of collective karma, but the basic logic of
karma dictates individual responsibility for individual acts and a corresponding
individual resolution of guilt related to these acts.

A related contrast is the idea of premodern shame cultures based on
collective guilt and the modern concept of guilt based on personal moral responsibility.
John Kekes has illustrated this distinction very well by an analysis of the story of Gyges
and the Lydian queen. Shame cultures are premodern and assume no distinction between the
inner and the outer, a realm of private as opposed to public morality. Therefore, the only
way for the queen to save her honor was to make public the disgrace she experienced when
the king arranged for Gyges to see her naked. Kekes proposes that shame is a destructive
emotion, because shame cultures are basically reactionary and do not allow constructive
criticism of social norms or proper resolution of conflicting personal feelings. In short,
Kekes concludes that there can be no moral progress if shame is central to personal
action. If Confucian yi (usually mistranslated as "righteousness") is
simply an internalized li (social norms), then Confucian culture is a shame culture
with exactly the same problems. A typical modernist and also deconstructionist answer to
this problem is to reject or completely relativize moral standards. But if Ames and Hall
are correct in their interpretation of yi as a personal appropriation of li,
we then might well see this as a constructive postmodern solution to the conflict between
private and public morality. Such an interpretation essentially makes yi the
Confucian equivalent of the act of personal appropriation that is present in
Aristotle’s mean, one that is objective but yet "relative to us."

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 the basis for personal autonomy. It has also eroded the
intimate ties of traditional community life, and it 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 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. As Parkes
explains: "The third stage involves a reappropriation of the appropriate elements of
the tradition that have been rejected. . . . The creativity symbolized by the child does
not issue in a creation ex nihilo, but rather in a reconstruction or reconstrual of
selected elements from the tradition into something uniquely original." It must be
stressed that Parkes is attributing this view to Nietzsche, who is generally taken to be
the 19th Century’s leading prophet of deconstructive postmodernism.

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 cutting and polishing of a gem stone. A more recent
example of a reconstructed logos is found in 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
art’s sake, which is yet another result of the alienation of the private and public
that we find in modern culture.

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