Classical, modern, postmodern

A thread over at Peaceful Science started with the claim that postmodernism is atheistic, and developed into a free discussion as imprecise as is the definition of postmodernism, appropriately and inevitably, given what it is about. Someone’s mention of “classical thinking” reminded me of this quote by C S Lewis:

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.

On reading old books (C S Lewis, 1944).

We’re 74 years or so on from the writing of this now, but it remains true (and rather prescient in its understanding of “worldviews”).

I’d like to open a twofold discussion with one easy question and one near-impossible one.

(1) In retrospect, what has time shown to be the “characteristic blindnesses” shared by Hitler, Roosevelt, Wells and Barth (and maybe even Lewis) back in 1944?

(2) What 21st century ideas (shared by Putin, Nelson Mandela, J K Rowling and N T Wright, and maybe you) do you think might fall into the same category in 2092?

Hint: your answers may be informed by old books!

Disclaimer: I probably don’t have any suggestions myself!

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to Classical, modern, postmodern

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Okay — here is a “tentative leap” (which would be interesting to watch — since I guess that is about as oxymoronic as something could be!)

    How about this: (for Hitler, Roosevelt, Wells, and Bart — or rather for people generally of that era since I haven’t read up on these individuals); Perhaps they all unquestioningly embrace the dogma (doxa?) that the world will be improved if we just prevail in spreading our ideals (be it racial purity/Aryanism or democracy or non-superstitious science) respectively. So while their ideals may be widely divergent, their notion that they should spread them (to all others ideally) and thus make the world a better place under our own man-made steam could be the common denominator.

    I doubt so much that your most recent set would all accept that non-critically as perhaps we are more self-aware of a cynical nihilism that hovers just around the corner philosophically speaking, that won’t be easily dismissed by anything nonreligious. Sure, they had a couple of world wars fresh on their minds back then which one could argue had already knocked out their capacity for self-confidence. But don’t forget — much of those world wars was fueled *by that very confidence* and their willingness to invest so much human life (of others) and misery (of others) towards achieving it. So I think those world wars might actually underscore my point rather than refuting it.

    Regarding your modern set with Mandella, etc., that’s too close to home. By definition if we could name it … it wouldn’t be “our characteristic blindness”. Though I suppose there always are a few cranky prophets in every age that people write off as crackpots. So the exercise, while more difficult, would be a lot more interesting!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv

      Yes – that’s a great starter. Everyone, pretty well, bought into the “Myth of Progress”, albeit it espousing different ideologies to achieve it. And most people, now, are it seems pretty disillusioned about progress – even when they hope for some particular improvemnt, it’s usually viewed as remedying some glaring injustice rather than reaching Shangri La.

      And I think you’ve nailed the problem with “futurology” too – it’s not just that none of us could possibly predict the nature of our collective blindness, but that if any of us did the rest would regard him as either crazy, or joking.

      By the way:

      for Hitler, Roosevelt, Wells, and Bart — or rather for people generally of that era since I haven’t read up on these individuals

      I think Lewis named those four simply to cover everybody, so your generalisation is completely on the mark.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        I see you’ve become a mod over at BioLogos, Merv – congrats. A good choice on their part!

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

          I agree, Jon. Merv is the right person to be a moderator — one who by nature prefers the balanced view to the partisan oversimplification. The only downside is that if he does more work over at BioLogos, we may see less of him here! BioLogos’s gain may be our loss! So I hope Merv will still find some time to drop in on the conversations here, because his thoughts are always constructive.

          • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

            Thanks for the kind words and good wishes, guys. Right now I’m not much good to anybody at either site given that I’m away from home on a school related trip. I’m obviously finding time to drop in both of these places during my good wifi access times, but not for much of substance. The work to get this school year finished up has still got me in its clutches.

  2. swamidass says:

    Great question. Post it back at Peaceful Science?

  3. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    Good post, Jon. I think the passage you quote from Lewis is interesting and insightful.

    I doubt my answers to your questions will be adequate, given the nature of the problem — it’s hard for any of us to imagine what might be a collective blindness in which we participate.

    If you ask me about the past, I think it is clear that the idea of “progress” was one idea that tended to be taken for granted by just about everyone. For example, both the Marxist “left” and the capitalist “right” assumed that the human race was on an inevitable onward and upward march of progress; they differed only over the best means to that progress. The real oddballs in the 20th century were those who questioned the inevitability — or even the goodness — of what was commonly called “progress”.

    For example, people like Jacques Ellul in France pointed out that the wonderful regional cultures of the various parts of France were inevitably being steamrolled over by technological progress, which altered the conditions of life which made those regional cultures possible. Is the France of today really a better, culturally and spiritually richer and more diverse country, than the France of 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, or 300 years ago?

    And of course Greek philosophy, whether of the Platonic or Aristotelian type, was not enamored of the idea of “progress” and therefore has had very little influence over social and political vision in recent centuries. Most people nowadays dismiss Plato, Aristotle, Ellul and others who have questioned “progress” as hopeless reactionaries, out of touch with reality. But is the modern world better in every respect than the world that was centered on the culture of the polis, the village, the largely self-sufficient small town or the rural county?

    As for our current blindnesses, they may vary from place to place, but to me certainly our preference for “inclusiveness” (of all views and perspectives) over “truth” may one day seem bizarre to future generations. Being willing to listen to different points of view can of course be a useful attitude, but as “inclusiveness” is framed today, it typically includes the idea of the relativity of all truth, and indeed agnosticism about the possibility of arriving at truth — except the truth that we must be “inclusive”. (And, perversely, those who — in our educational systems etc. — most loudly proclaim that we must be “inclusive” of minority and dissident views are often the most intolerant of minority or dissident views that are deemed old-fashioned or conservative; but that’s another subject.)

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Sounds like a consensus on the demise of “progressism”!

      I agree that “inclusiveness” is likely to die the death, not least because of its incoherently idealistic nature, to which you point. “Inclusiveness” excludes all kinds of people, such as those with traditional (or even scientifically formed) views on sexuality, those who are deemed to behave “inappropriately” (a culturally conditioned term if ever there was one – “Thou shalt not act inappropriately”), those thought to be born with “privilege” etc.

      However, inclusiveness probably doesn’t fit my bill properly because it’s already criticised heavily, and to a large extent along the existing progressive/conservative divide. It’s harder to think of errors on which both sides of that divide agree, like Lewis’s Adolf Hitler and Karl Barth.

      I might vote for “autonomy”, because it’s the basis both of inclusiveness and its objectors, is almost axiomatic, at least in the West, and yet is in historical terms a local aberration in the understanding of humanity, or even of freedom.

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