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Philosophy, modernity, certainty

August 1, 2010

A striking epistemological difference between modernity and premodern philosophical beliefs lies in to what degree we can know anything qualitative about the world we live in, and ultimately, whether qualities exist as something separable from the one imputing them. According to Aristotle, we can know formal causes and final causes, which are crudely the whatness and the whyness of natural phenomena. Likewise, for Plato, true knowledge means an awareness of the incorporeal forms that are “behind” three dimensional reality, that are more real than it, and that are the basis of this mundane reality. Despite their differences, Aristotle and Plato share this sense that there are realities below the surface of empirical sensation, and these realities define true knowledge.

For its part, though, modernity is utterly certain that we can know some aspects of reality, but very limited ones constrained to the empirically verifiable and the quantifiable. This form of knowledge excludes accounts of what something truly is, or what something is for. Instead, it is concerned only with what is is on the surface as there’s no immanent form “under” the visible. This empirical knowledge, combined with various forms of mathematics, leads to modern technology, the practical handmaiden of post Cartesian philosophy: what we can see, we can then mathematically model; what we can model we can predict; what we can predict we can then manipulate.

These differences mean that modernity sees reality in terms of purposeless surfaces, whereas premodernity sees it in terms of knowable and purposeful depths. To clarify: to be sure, modern science will tell us what the hairs on a housefly’s leg are for; but that there might be some overall purpose to the natural world of which the housefly is a part, some transcendent telos, is not something that science can answer. These unanswerable questions at very least go beyond the constraints of science; but to many if not most comfortably modern people, they are simply meaningless. And it is precisely in this degree of comfort where the term “premodern hybrid” comes in.

In general, modernity by its epistemological assumptions deals only with the “is” world, and premodernity deals with primarily the “ought” world, and only secondarily with the “is” one. But by simultaneously being utterly certain of a limited epistemology not just in its positive content (such and such is true) but in its negative –its limitations– as well, much of modernity stigmatizes the search for the oughts that define human beings as human agents. Taking the place of these oughts are self-defined human wishes of a contractual nature: what we can, as citizens of the contractual state, agree upon, with the only limitation that we cannot cause others obvious harm. This negative epistemology is in fact essential to scientism, that bastard-but-necessary offspring of science itself. And in this scientism comes the place of the premodern hybrid, who accepts some of the positive epistemological formulations of modern science, but refuses to believe that they exhaust the nature of reality.

In contrast to moderns, premoderns take a series of oughts as givens. These can be based upon religious beliefs such as the ten commandments or upon philosophical considerations, such as “to be human involves the end of using one’s intellect and will in fully informed ways,” or on some mixture of these. But both of these sources of moral compulsion, religion and ancient philosophy, are often in virtue of the modern world’s view of knowledge relegated to the trivial, the subjective, and ultimately the meaningless. Such knowledge–such wisdom even– that healthy cultures, healthy religious traditions and integral philosophical traditions give us are, to moderns as moderns pathologies, fit only for the ignorant and weak who cannot thrust themselves forward in the world of material and now digital manipulation that modernity and its technological handmaiden have made possible.

Furthermore, this disjunction between the “is” and the “ought” worldviews and the background behind this chasm is at the root of the fault lines in modern American society. Paradoxically, America, that most Enlightenment nation, is at the same time more old fashioned than its European predecessors in that religion maintains a degree of its hold on individuals. In accepting my identity as a premodern hybrid I accept both the formulations of modern science correctly understood and those more ancient forms of knowledge that have less to do with rational manipulation, and more to do with a holistic sense of reality.

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