This essay encapsulates my understanding of the historical evolution of modernity. As always, my philosophical hero – Nietzsche dominates, but I do find some time for Herbert Marcuse and Post-Modernism.
(at the person who corrected my inexcusable ignorance of Marcuse — gratitude and hi! 🙂 .. )
Romanticism has lamented the loss of meaning in the modern world and to fill this void they turned to nature, religion and tradition. But even after accepting the spiritual wasteland in which the modern man walks alone, I maintain that neither proximity to nature nor religion can provide the free man with peace, joy or certainty. The barbarism of all ages possessed more happiness than we do – let us not deceive ourselves on this point! – but our impulse towards knowledge is too widely developed to allow us to value happiness without knowledge, or the happiness of a strong and fixed delusion: it is painful to us even to imagine such a state of things! Our restless pursuit of discoveries has become for us as attractive and as indispensable as the hapless love of a lover. Knowledge within us has developed into a passion, which does not shrink from any sacrifice and fears nothing but its own extinction. It may be that mankind will perish eventually from this passion for knowledge! But will that daunt us ? I don’t think so.
For Nietzsche there was another reason why man could no longer rely on custom and tradition. Tradition oppresses- it appeals to a higher authority, an authority that is obeyed not because “it commands what is useful to us but merely because it commands” . The free man cannot therefore depend upon it. He is an individual, defying custom and norms of received morality. It is his will to depend on nothing but himself. Since the free man of the modern age cannot find solace either in religion or tradition, there are just two options before him;
a) he may abandon the search for an ultimate meaning; and
b) he may create meaning by his own will and action.
In exploring these alternatives Nietzsche did not merely reject the Enlightenment and its Romantic alternative, he questioned the entire tradition of western rationalist thought, beginning with Plato.
For Nietzsche all schools of thought had one thing in common: they had firm belief in themselves and their knowledge. They believed that they had arrived at the truth. In the Athenian world of ancient Greek city-states Plato claimed that reason could give man access to the ultimate reality – the world of forms. In recent times, the Enlightenment claimed that the application of scientific method has yielded the truth about the world. Each in its own way thus claims that it has discovered the truth about the external world that exists independently of us. Further, that this truth has been arrived at impersonally and objectively; i.e., in terms of qualities that inhere in the objects themselves.
Men have, lived in this state of “theoretical innocence” for centuries believing that they possess the right method for discovering the nature of ultimate reality, and for determining what is good and valuable. Working under the influence of these childish presuppositions they have failed to realize that the external world is in itself devoid of all meanings and values.
Whatever has value in the present enlightenment world “has it not in itself by its nature”. Rather a value was “given to it, bestowed upon it, it was we who gave and bestowed! We ourselves have created the world which is of any account to man”.
In making this argument and suggesting that man is a “creator, a continuous poet of life”, Nietzsche was not undermining the significance of cognition. For Nietzsche knowledge remains a supreme value, but if pure knowledge as revealed by reason or experiments is the only end then we would have to follow whatever direction these faculties take us in. We have to be prepared, for instance, to follow the path that experimental reason leads us towards, be that of nuclear energy or genetic engineering. However, this would be complete “madness”. Knowledge has to be mediated by values that we regard to be worth affirming, values by which we may wish to construct the world.
The role of the artist is therefore of the utmost importance.
For it is the work of an artist that creates and unravels for us alternative worlds. While men of science aim to discover what is already there, the artist gives shape to a world, expressing human ideals. For this reason Nietzsche maintained that poetry and myths were a valuable source of knowledge for us. In Nietzsche’s works the artist was not just the ‘other’ of the modern rational scientist. He was, first and foremost, a creator; and as a creator he embodied the ability to transcend the boundaries of the social and what is designated as the rational. The artist as such stood alone, challenging the moralism implicit in western philosophical traditions. Thus it was through Nietzsche and the Romanticists that some of the basic tenets of the Enlightenment came to be questioned in a fundamental way. In particular the view that the present was the most advanced and civilized era in the history of humankind became subject to scrutiny.
These themes were revived in the second half of the 20th century by the New Left, most notably in the writings of Herbert Marcuse. In his book, One Dimensional Man, Marcuse characterized the post-enlightenment industrial society as “irrational” and “repressive”. Despite the apparent progress and increase in productivity, this society, in his view, was “destructive of the free development of
human needs and faculties”.
To many it may appear that political freedom is protected in this society and there has been an expansion in the liberties enjoyed by men. Today there is more to choose from: many different newspapers, radio stations, TV channels and a whole gamut of commodities in the market – from different varieties of potato chips to motor cars and washing machines. Yet, men have no real capacity to make choices of their own. Men’s needs are constantly shaped and manipulated by the media industry that furthers the interests of a few. It moulds and constructs images that determine the choices we make at home, in the market place and in social interactions. In a world where “false” needs are fashioned by the media there is no effective intellectual freedom or liberation of man. Men act and participate as “pre-conditioned receptacles of long standing”. Indeed through their actions they reinforce the instruments of socio-economic control and their oppression. According to Marcuse, the modern industrialized world constituted a “more progressive stage of alienation”. Its seeming progress, “the means of mass transportation and communication, the commodities of lodging, food and clothing, the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers, and through the latter, to the whole. The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood.
And as these beneficial products become available to more individuals in more social classes, the indoctrination they carry ceases to be publicity; it becomes a way of life. It is a good way of life, it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behaviour. More importantly, as men and women share in the same images and ideas there is less and less the possibility of challenging the present and seeking alternatives to it. In a world where images, presentation and appearance count more than even the content, these theorists felt there could be no real freedom, or for that matter, the possibility of “communicative rationality” asserting itself in the “life-world”.
For Marcuse as well as for other members of the Frankfurt School the Enlightenment had transformed what was once liberating reason, engaged in the fight against religious dogma and superstition, into a repressive orthodoxy. It had done this by visualizing reason as an instrument of control; and, as a tool for gaining mastery over the world rather than critical reflection and reconstruction. Instrumental reason that was concerned primarily with efficiency, economy and utility could not be expected to liberate man or construct a better world.
Postmodernism, taking its cue from Nietzsche, problematizes not just science but also philosophy and religion.
Each of these intellectual engagements, in its view, seeks foundations; that is, they look for absolute and unconditional basis of reality and claim to arrive at the truth. The only difference being that while religion locates the absolute in the world beyond, science points to the laws of nature as constituting the foundations of the world and philosophy places its faith in the capacity of reason to unearth that absolute truth. What remains unaltered is that each of them looks for, and seeks to discover the truth that is already there. Against this worldview, postmodernism asks us to abandon the search for foundations and universal truth.
Like Nietzsche, the postmodernist thinkers assert that knowledge does not involve discovering a meaning that is already there, pre-contained in the text. For the postmodernists, the task of every inquiry is, and must be, to deconstruct the text: to read it in a way that allows new meanings to emerge from it. Nietzsche had argued that the history of the west, from the time of Plato onwards, reveals a “tyranny of the mind”.
Plato claimed that philosophers armed with the power of reason would penetrate the world of appearances and arrive at the truth. He therefore banished the poets from the Republic. In recent times, the Enlightenment bestows the same faith in systematic observation and experience. Both are convinced that they possess the absolute truth and the perfect method to arrive at it. Countless people have, over the years, sacrificed themselves to these convictions. Believing that they knew best they imposed their ways upon others.
The idea that we know the truth, that we and we alone have access to it, has been a source of fanaticism in the world. Postmodernists add to this Nietzschean sentiment to say that it has also been the source of totalitarianism. To protect freedom that the modern man so deeply cherishes we must therefore abandon this search for absolute truth. And realize instead that others also believe that they know the truth and are acting in accordance with it.
Intellectual arrogance must therefore give way to a sense of deeper humility: that is, to a framework wherein meta-narratives give way to particular histories of people living in a specific time and place, and space is created for the co-presence of multiple projects and knowledge systems.