Modernism, Optimism, and Naivety

I’ve been back at work on my phd thesis on Kant and Buddhist ethics and also having many wonderful conversations with fellow scholars and friends regarding a wide range of topics in academia, philosophy, and history. The mental stimulation has been most welcome, and I look forward to its continuing for many months to come.

One of the topics of discussion has somewhat steered around the above topics of Modernism, Optimism, and Naivety. Let me explain, briefly, what I mean by each of these. Modernism (in philosophy) is an idea or movement in philosophy which embraces the ideas of human rationality, the power of empirical investigation, and, amongst some at least, moral progress. It’s a contentious topic, and not very well defined. Optimism is an aspect of some Modern philosophy; certainly in Kant and his successor Hegel. Marx, too, had optimism – in his case that capitalism had within it the causes of its own destruction. Today optimism and belief in human rationality might seem rare, but thinkers like Habermas still cling to the possibilities of improving society through reasoned discourse.

Naivety is the charge pressed against Modernists. ‘Look at Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot; there is no progress.’ As Adorno famously stated, ‘No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the atom bomb’ (Negative Dialectics).

But a recent book by Steven Pinker suggests otherwise.

Drawing on the work of the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley, Pinker recently concluded that the chance of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors meeting a bloody end was somewhere between 15% and 60%. In the 20th century, which included two world wars and the mass killers Stalin and Hitler, the likelihood of a European or American dying a violent death was less than 1%.

Pinker shows that, with notable exceptions, the long-term trend for murder and violence has been going down since humans first developed agriculture 10,000 years ago. And it has dropped steeply since the Middle Ages. It may come as a surprise to fans of Inspector Morse but Oxford in the 1300s, Pinker tells us, was 110 times more murderous than it is today. With a nod to the German sociologist Norbert Elias, Pinker calls this movement away from killing the “civilising process”.

- From a recent Guardian article.

Counter arguments and anecdotal evidence against Pinker’s claims may be found. Perhaps the pessimist will point to the abundance of cancer, heart disease, and depression in the contemporary world. Perhaps we’re not stabbing and shooting each other as in the past, but we still seem to be killing one another and ourselves through stress and other non-physical violence.

But the optimist in me says we can overcome these as well. And the modernist sees that in many ways, we are.

Let me close by offering just a few speculative notes on postmodernism, positivism, and my current modernist optimism. I won’t bother to define these beyond what you can find in the first few lines of the wikipedia articles on them.

It has occurred to me that the great problem of modern philosophy may be nothing of its own making, but rather the fact that it was hijacked by positivists. Postmodernism, if that is the case, might be not a rejection of modern philosophy itself, but rather of positivism – a rather fanatical version of modern philosophy. When I tell people I study Buddhism, they usually perk up. When I say I’m comparing Buddhism to Immanuel Kant, they usually scour and ask why. Most have received the standard basic education on Kant, which is, very sadly, misleading. Here’s a snippit from a recent book review:

In Part One, Louden argues against the stereotype (still too common, even amongst philosophers who should know better) of Kant as a stern imposer of exceptionless moral rules, the very paradigm of a rigid deontologist who ignores the rich heritage of the ethics of virtue bequeathed to us by the classical philosophers and their Christian successors.

Unfortunately, the naivety seems to be in the hands (and heads) of people who blithely call Kant and fellow Modernists ‘naive’. But my sense is that it’s not really their fault. They were given a misrepresentation of Kant by an authority figure they trusted, who in turn probably learned it from a similarly misguided philosopher, who, perhaps, was simply caught up in the wave of positivist euphoria of the early 20th century.

Rereading Kant and other Modern philosophers may then get us back to the reality of their lives and thought, and indeed back to the optimism of their world, an optimism which still dangles, by a thread, in ours.

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