Modernity? Pre-Modernity? Post-Modernity

Modernity? Pre-Modernity? Post-Modernity July 3, 2009

Even though I just wrote an article trying to characterize “modernity” (and defend it), I think that all the claims that we are post-modern and all the pining for the pre-modern make me feel like Alan Jacobs in this piece:

So when people tell me that they want to recover the wisdom of the pre-modern, I just want to know what in particular they are talking about. At least tell me whether you’re talking economics, politics, moral philosophy, epistemology, theology, or what. And then we can narrow it down from there. Ditto when people vocally embrace the postmodern condition. What is it, precisely, to which you wish to be “post”? And now that you are post-X, what Y have you entered? Spell it out for me, one cog at a time.

The philosopher Bernard Williams used to say that we suffer from a poverty of concepts. Never more so, I think, than when we have useless arguments about modernity and its putative predecessors and successors. We think we know what we mean when we use such language, but the fruitlessness of our debates shows that there really isn’t substantive agreement. So my suggestion is that we all try to make our arguments — whether they are for something or against something — without ever employing that particular string of letters: “modern.” It would be a good discipline for everyone.

Your Thoughts?  What do you mean when you bemoan or celebrate the modern?  Or when you herald or lament the supposed arrival of the post-modern?  Or disdain or pine for the pre-modern?  Are these useful terms anymore or have they been worn out?

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