Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Thomas McPartland on Modernity and Classicist Culture

[12] If we accept the penetrating analysis of Louis Dupré, as early as the fourteenth century we witness the beginnings of modernity. The medieval synthesis was dissolving, and neither the self-assertion of modernity, argued by Hans Blumberg, nor the second wave of modernity (the Enlightenment), nor the post-modern era has fundamentally changed the intellectual situation. According to Dupré, "Modernity is an event that has transformed the relation between the cosmos, its transcendent source, and its human interpreter. To explain this as an outcome of historical precedents is to ignore its most significant quality—namely, its success in rendering all rival views of the real obsolete."[1] In fact, what has taken place is a complicated process of decline and progress. The situation is irreversible in the sense that to reverse the decline is not to restore the prior intellectual situation because this would be to ignore the progress (which would be a form of decline). To be sure, it is quite correct to see the decline as beginning in the Late Medieval period with the nominalist critique of conceptualism (participating in what we have called the dialectic of dogmatism with skepticism). The hierarchical cosmos became an autonomous network of relations created by the arbitrary fiat of a [13] voluntarist deity separate from the world, and human beings began to take on the trappings of the voluntarist deity. The world was no longer a mirror of mind but the product of—perhaps blind—will. The deity was the distant voluntarist creator, or the removed Deist creator, or simply the hypothesis to be discarded. This epistemological confusion only continued with a repetition of the dialectic of dogmatism and skepticism in the antagonism of rationalism and empiricism, their canceling out in the Kantian critique and its retreat from metaphysics, the post-Kantian dialectic of positivism and romanticism as the dominant theme of nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual history, leading to the inexorable exhaustion of post-modernism with its denial of the self, an objective world, and perhaps transcendence. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, the climate of opinion was such, as Voegelin recounts, that a Wilhelm Dilthey, a man of philosophical bent, "refrained for a decade from publishing because he deemed the effort useless."[2] And to this decline in the cultural superstructure Voegelin would add the decline in the cultural infrastructure of symbol and sentiment with the neo-gnostic construction of modernity as the self-salvation of humanity. Lonergan would offer his more restrained recounting of the "longer cycle" of decline.[3]

Still, decline has been mated to progress. For along with the disintegration have come new differentiations of consciousness. Modern science has isolated the causes it investigates and developed an heuristic procedure to carry on those investigations. This specialization of intelligence has been complemented by the development of the hermeneutical and historical sciences in the past two centuries. The differentiations of consciousness associated with the Scientific Revolution and the "historical revolution" have led to the differentiation of nature from history. As the key to the Age [of] Theory, we might argue, was the "discovery of the mind," so the key to its emerging successor, the Age of Interiority, is the "discovery of the self" (or subject). The Age of Interiority, of course, is itself an ideal-type. If the contemporary situation is the product of decline and progress, then the fractures of modernity have been intensified by the new differentiations [14] of consciousness. At the same time, the earlier "discovery of the mind" has not disappeared and the problems and excesses and temptations of the Age of Theory have not disappeared, including the appeal of the "classicist culture."

Let us, by way of conclusion, expand on these comments.

We cannot return to an earlier view of nature as a static hierarchy permeated by mind nor to the modern romanticist intuition of the vitality of nature, which protests too much against the truncated rationalism of the modern idea of nature, thereby accepting its ground rules of what reason is. Unfortunately the autonomy of differentiated scientific inquiry has been purchased with the coin of faulty epistemological assumptions. The confrontation theory of truth was the framework for formulating the notion of nature as consonant with the heuristics of scientific method. Nature thus became a machine to be dominated by world alien human observers (Descartes), or a machine that could crush the independence of human objects (scientific materialism), or a merely phenomenal reality that could preserve human autonomy (Kant). To be sure, Leibniz sought to reintroduce teleology in natural process and a kind of historicity, taken up later by Whitehead, but his project was thwarted by his conceptualist metaphysics—decisively criticized by Kant for issuing mere analytic a prior [sic] judgments. [...] A contemporary effort to reintegrate nature, human being, and divinity, while respecting the differentiated field, cannot do so without resolute commitment to objectivity and a renewed focus on epistemology. Most varieties of existential phenomenology and Post Modern [sic] thought have failed to do this. Needless to say, classicist culture has nothing to offer here but utter obscurantism. We need to create, in Lonergan's words, [15] "a pure line of progress" retrospectively, separating modern insights from faulty epistemological assumptions and reconstructing the epistemological framework.

The modern discovery of self has been accompanied by numerous versions of an "ersatz self," catalogued [sic] in abundant historical detail by Charles Taylor. It is instructive to note that there is a current version of the "self" dominant in Western popular culture and in political discourse. The self, so conceived, is the self-creation of a voluntaristic agent, and the very activity of self-creation, or self-making, is its own end, for the process bestows meaning on human existence. [4] This goes beyond even the earlier romantic journey of finding one's unique, true self. The self is not found—but must be created. And this self-creation is the goal to which all culture and politics must be subordinate. In the modern secular utopia the purpose of the polity is to ensure the conditions of self-creation. By definition, minority life styles are to be protected; by definition, the majority culture is tyrannical. All issues from the most complex constitutional disputes to concerns over the status of marriage must be analyzed solely from the perspective of the view of the self. Such is the dominant temperament and sentiment of the times. There is a clear and present danger lurking here. For, the immanentization of a liberal Christian moralism notwithstanding (which confers a kind of dignity on the project), the status of this self is not altogether different from that of Plato's "democratic soul" in the Republic, and the "logic" of the situation heads toward a devolution of selfhood [sic] into the "tyrannical self," as the contemporary drug and techno culture would intimate. This view of the self, in fact, is a product of a crude voluntaristic subjective idealism. It is a massive counterposition, which must be exposed and rejected without compromise, for its smothering intensity prohibits rational debate. The classicist mentality may be nurtured in this soil as a reaction, but it is not equal to the task of critique, and indeed it would simply be co-opted as just another viewpoint created as a project of self-making! By contrast, sufficient reflection on the normative process of cognitive, moral, and spiritual self-transcendence would establish the validity of a basic [16] horizon beyond solipsism and narcissism and enter the world of authentic selfhood–and indeed the universe of being.

Also prevalent in popular culture today is neo-atheism, a movement nourished by positivism and certain post-modern efforts. To be sure, the movement is singularly lacking in originality; it regurgitates stock arguments from Victorian anthropology, Feuerbach's projection theory (rooted in naive realism!), Marx's one paragraph critique of religion, Freud's own version of projection theory, based on his so-called "reality principle," and, in general, simplistic materialist and reductionist philosophies, culminating in claims of neuroscience; while it dogmatically denies the validity of philosophy in the age of science. But its massive impact cannot be reversed by thinkers—including many contemporary theologians—who contain religious discourse within language games, or subtexts, or opinions. God is absent from modern culture. Philosophical discourse—and arguments—about God are not arcane if they are purged of antiquated science and conceptualist metaphysics, that is, if they are completed [sic] divorced from classicist culture. In our post metaphysical age, metaphysics still matters! It must, of course, be a metaphysics at home with a universe of emergent probability and the discovery of the self.

In summation, classicist culture is the result of certain tendencies within the Age of Theory. But as long as the dynamics of basic horizon are overlooked and a premium is placed on the products of thinking, as long as the defects of materialism, reductionism, relativism, nihilism, hedonism, and atheism are apparent, and as long as philosophical skepticism is rampant, then classicist culture will have a perennial appeal. We do not live in a positivist universe where the putative third stage of history has supplanted the earlier stages. The Age of Interiority has not superseded the Age of Theory any more than the Age of Theory has superseded the Age of Myth. The discovery of the self has not abrogated the discovery of the mind any more than the discovery of the mind has abrogated the efficacy of myth as a representation of mystery. What is imperative in the Age of Interiority is the integration of selfhood, objectivity, and myth. And classicist culture cannot even adequately conceive of this enterprise, let alone execute it.



1.Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 249; see Hans Blumberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1983).

2. Eric Voeglin, Published Essays 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990), 57.

3. Insight, 5th ed., Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 3, ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 251-253.

4. See Emil Fackenheim, "Metaphysics and Historicity," in The God Within: Kant, Schelling, and Historicity, ed. John Burbidge (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), chap. 8.


Source:Thomas J. McPartland, "'Classicist Culture': The Utility and Limits of an Ideal-Type," Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies N.S. 1, no. 1 (2010): 12–16.

1 comment:

  1. When I read intellectual histories like this there's always an element of profound insight and scholarship, but I can't help thinking that it ultimately falls into an Hegelian interpretation of history, where the essence of History is seen to be the conflict and evolution of Ideas or Ideologies.

    I think this is a natural illusion for intellectuals to have: politicians believe the world is run by politics, merchants believe the world is run by money, soldiers believe the world is run by arms - intellectuals believe the world is run by ideas. You can see this in Plato, the first really great Western intellectual, who views the Ideas as the power that rules a society.

    Hegelian Historicists are muddled in their first principles.
    History isn't caused by ideas, it is caused by God. It is not the corruption of ideas that has caused men to turn away from God, but the turning away from God that has caused the corruption of ideas. Our salvation is not from the intellectuals enlightening us with their ideas, as Plato would have it; our salvation is from God.


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