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February 2012 Policy Study, Number 12-3


The Idea of "the West" and the Revolt Against It

by Donald Paul Byron Racheter



Modernity and Postmoderism



Pangle says that if we look back two centuries to when the West was trying to reform monarchism, abundant answers to the questions of the moral and civic foundations of democracy existed. The authors of such views believed their purpose was to enlighten all citizens. These philosophers of modernity spoke not only of human rights, but of “natural rights” resulting in moral “laws of nature and of nature’s God.”[8] Ideas like the “state of nature,” “social compact,” and “categorical imperative” were taken seriously. What has changed since the time of Spinoza, Locke, Kant, and Hegel?


Pangle says what has changed is a widespread disbelief in the pillars that founded modernity. In particular, we do not believe in “natural” rights any more, even if the word “nature” is used in the American Constitution. We do not believe in natural rights because we do not believe in “nature.” If there is no nature, there can be no foundation in nature. We become skeptical about the possibility of any such foundation. This skepticism of all foundations Pangle calls “postmodernism.” Since postmodernism claims not to question one foundation on the basis of another foundation, its criticism tends only to be deconstructive and negative rather than positing an independent view.


What is of interest, however, in the use of the word “postmodern” is that it is still part of modernity. In using the word “postmodern,” one is recognizing that postmodernism requires modernism and a definition of modernism. “The ‘postmodern’ is not ‘what exists after modernity’; it is rather the state of being entangled in modernity, as something from which we cannot escape but in which we can no longer put, or find, faith.”[9] If all we have is doubt of a past “something,” what is this something from which we cannot escape but no longer believe in?


According to Pangle, “at the heart of modernity is the trust or faith in scientific reason, understood as the source not only of vast powers but of authoritative guidance as to how to use those powers.”[10] This new scientific reason was born in opposition to the reason of Classical Philosophy. The struggle to be free from the bonds of Classical Philosophy was at the same time a struggle for a new universal culture to unite humanity. In a manner that had been unlike Classical Philosophy, modern scientific reasoning would lead to popular enlightenment, the enlightenment of the masses. Scientific morals, politics, aesthetics, philosophy, and religion were to replace the old prescientific or traditional morals, politics, aesthetics, philosophy, and religion. Modernity did believe in a foundation based on this scientific reason.[11]


Pangle says that although the Enlightenment delivered its promises in the areas of mathematics, economics, and technology, it failed to deliver its promises in the areas of culture, morality, religion, and politics. In particular, religion ceased trying to be scientific and political science made no claim to authoritative guidance to the nature of the common good.[12] Due to these failures, reason itself, instead of Enlightenment rationalism, was more and more viewed with distrust.


The great Enlightenment attempt to provide systematic, rational, and acceptable foundations for life both public and private has proven inadequate. We need not conclude that this search itself is therefore void. Pangle says the Enlightenment succeeded in providing lasting moral and civic notions: universal humanity and equality, government by consent, free-market economy, and toleration of the private remain the bulwark of the liberal public ethos.[13] But the original philosophic and scientific foundations for this ethos have long since been abandoned, leaving the public ethos itself crippled. The educated citizen now rarely endorses “natural rights” or “rights of man.” Today’s constitutionalists hold great skepticism towards even property rights, the core of the Enlightenment conception of the rights of man. But above all else, reason itself and the concept of universalism implied in reason is not trusted.[14] At the popular level, this sense of distrust is fueled by suspicion of rationalism as the source of “sexist,” “Eurocentric,” inhumanely utilitarian, and technologically-driven exploitation. Behind popular suspicion lurks greater difficulty. Modern rationalism has been scathingly criticized by succeeding generations of philosophical critics, starting with Rousseau and reaching a climax in Nietzsche and Heidegger—critics who stress powerful arguments that modern rationalism, and therefore rationalism itself, is incapable of providing an acceptably profound, diverse, “creative,” and “historical” account of what is truly human.[15]


Pangle summarizes our situation:


Here, then, is our situation in a nutshell: we in the West find ourselves in possession of fantastically powerful technological and economic resources; these resources fuel a society that is deeply unsure of its moral purpose and foundations; as an accompaniment or consequence, this society has come to be increasingly penetrated and shaped by a new, highly problematic and skeptical (not to say nihilistic) cultural dispensation known as “postmodernism”.[16]


Pangle begins his book with selections of the most influential thinkers[17] who stand at the source of this new “ism” to direct our attention to the strengths and decisive weaknesses of this unfolding worldview. Pangle calls attention to the civic irresponsibility, spiritual deadliness, and philosophic dogmatism of this increasingly dominant trend of thinking.[18] His objective is to rescue the genuine spiritual, moral, and civic challenges of our time from the belittling effects of the new philosophic elite. Pangle urges us to reopen the case for reason as the only firm foundation for our conception of man.



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