Among the existing surfeit of justified criticism towards modernity, there is a considerable dearth of theoretical explications concerning modernity’s ramifications on human consciousness. Besides its great propulsive force in the fields of technology and natural sciences, modernity’s main revolutionary act – that of reconceptualizing metaphysics – remains hidden, for the explanatory language necessary to describe it has been decreed as unscientific and consequently exiled into the realm of the religious and superstitious.
Critics therefore enter into an uneven playing field when they attempt to describe the present state of social and moral decline along modernity’s predefined lines of intellectual dispute. In the perpetual contestation with the unquestionable idea of progress, they place their primary focus on modernity’s exterior institutionalized achievement, and remain ignorant of the fact that, in so doing, they deprive their own taxonomy of the possibility of adequately analysing cases of metaphysical impoverishment. Spiritual exhaustion – a concept that accurately describes the present state of cultural atrophy – exists therefore entirely in a theoretical no-man’s-land. Out of fear of crossing those predetermined combat lines and exposing oneself to the haughty derision of modernity’s proponents, critics restrain their intellectual rebuttals to the trappings of a horizontal stratosphere.
Unfortunately, Western civilization has reached a point at which the exhaustion of valid arguments against modernity’s hermetically sealed system of ideas proves fatal for the future. In the wake of a steadily progressing cultural disintegration and the intensification of political atavism, a ‘philosophical bestiary’1 is created, whose silhouette is acquiring sharper contours the greater the spiritual vacuousness in the aggregate of Western society becomes. It is high time that philosophers and moral theorists alike approach their field with greater intellectual honesty by disavowing modernity’s historical culprit and seeing modern theory for what it really is – a philosophical counterfeit.
The Metaphysical Imposter
What would a proper philosophical critique, one with the potential of warding off the impending cultural decline, look like? In general, criticism can only occur on a coherent level field, on which concepts have been scrutinized for their degree of metaphysical veracity. In the case of modernity, such an endeavour proves impossible since the theory of modernity is not besieged by a lie; it is a lie. Such general terms of phrasing are required in sketching this problem on account of the role modern theory erroneously assumes in the pantheon of philosophy.
Modernity entered the stage on epochal terms as an emancipatory movement, professing to liberate an assumed static, superstitious, and ‘confused’2 medieval society, which was culturally and intellectually residing in stupefying darkness. As such, modern theory always defined itself as promethean in principle, standing in stark opposition to the perceived intellectual inferiority of the medieval worldview. Yet, in actual metaphysical terms, it offered Western society very little novel alternative to the supposedly indwelling darkness it claimed to be liberating Western society from. When modern theory entered into the world of ideas at the beginning of the 17th century, the world was everything but deprived of scientifically founded and cogent worldviews.3 Epistemologically, that world was a closed system, a coherent and unified cosmology of holistic concepts and principles. Despite all this, modern theory’s ideologues had little regard for the Thomistic synthesis of Greco-Roman philosophy and the burgeoning canons of Christian metaphysics. Ever greater was their readiness to use the already existing system for their own illusive ends.
From the beginnings of its theoretical inception, modern theory assumed an epistemology that was in no way metaphysically investigative4 – despite its current insistence and appearances to the contrary. At its core, it always assumed a simplistically opposing and negating role; it did not aim at investigating the essence of the first principles it found given at that time; instead, it applied the principle of ungrounded critique: its goal was to dismantle the metaphysical concepts of Christian-Scholastic thought, and to replace them with self-serving replica.
This fact becomes all the more evident with a closer look at modern theory’s inner dynamics. If we were to isolate modernity’s central operating principle, we would find the process of metaphysical fragmentation5 at its epicenter. In early classical antiquity, as well as early medieval thought, concepts we nowadays have grown accustomed to grasping exclusively in their objectified nature, existed only in the sphere of spiritual interiority; in other words, they represented inner human qualities. In the pristine understanding of classical antiquity, MacIntyre notes that morality – to take but one example – did not exist as a reified field of knowledge; it only came to be associated with a rigid dogmatic system ruling over the individual with the ascent of modern thought.6 The Greek adjective êthikos as well as the Latin adjective moralis, in contrast, etymologically encapsulated the value of human character by its inner disposition to lead a virtuous and proper life.7 In a more recent work, Peter Harrison substantiates this fact by investigating how the inner qualities of religio and scientia a medieval inner syllogism to retract moral error in one’s behaviour, were turned into the objectified fields of religion and science,8 which had nothing to do with their antecedent forms of knowledge.
Therefore, metaphysical fragmentation follows a three-fold process: in the tradition of radical empiricism and the hegemony of materialistic thought, metaphysical qualities are first exteriorized and fragmented into kaleidoscopic disciplines of matter. Once the fragmentation occurs, they are ‘disenchanted’, i.e. divested of their original meaning and purpose in order to be subsequently formed into mechanistic counterparts likened to a technological metaphor. Any metaphysical gradation, e.g. in the form of one discipline’s superiority over another, has either been inverted, as in the example of ethics and technology, or entirely equalized. In the splitting up of their totality, the theory of metaphysics was therefore fractured and artificially engineered so that it ceased to serve the Whole and became an instrument for modern theory’s own metaphysical legitimation.
The theoretical inauguration of modernity is characterized by an unprecedented metaphysical levelling and a thorough discharge of meaning, with an elimination of conceptual antagonisms dwelling at its core. In essence, modern theory inverted the very nomenclature and order in which philosophy is meant to operate.
With this monumental breach in metaphysical thought, philosophy itself was demoralized and divested of its original purpose and meaning. In its lieu, modern theory began to cloak itself in the garb of intelligible philosophy and relate to the subjects it professes to study as a ‘metatheory would towards a [holistically-based] object theory’.9 The problem is that it operates on this premise without having any legitimacy to do so.
Whereas the classical tradition of philosophy at all times attempted to teleologically conceive the Whole and saw philosophizing as a secondary reflective act10 to the metaphysical first principle – the prima causa, the first thought – modernity hermetically shielded itself from this reflexive thinking. Contemporary modern theorists in the tradition of sociology like Anthony Giddens, Zygmunt Baumann and Ulrich Beck uphold the idea that modernity has reached its own form of self-reflexivity in recent times, when ‘late modernity’ began to supersede modern ideas of institutionalized life and evolve them into cultural process.11 Yet the reflexivity Giddens refers to is not laid out alongside the referential coordinates of a coherent metaphysical knowledge, but rather alongside the metaphysics modernity has erected in its place. In reconceptualizing truth along empiricist lines of thinking, modern theory can thus make its own metaphysical assumptions and be accountable to nothing outside of its own parameters. It thereby continues to disrupt historical continuity so that its usurped monopoly on knowledge is not seen for what it really was: a temporal phenomenon without any reference to the concept of truth. This act of theoretical protectionism not only ascends its claims to the status of totalitarian ideology by shielding it from constructive forms of criticism, but it also puts real metaphysics – especially those corroborating the veracity of moral thought – under intellectual quarantine.
Consequently, ever since modernity assumed the historic role of theory, it began to parade as the patron of the first principle, as prima philosophia. In its hubris, it anoints itself – especially in our days – with the possession of the ultimate answers to existential questions on morality and the human spirit. By stealth, it therefore claims the status also of ultima philosophia, the embodiment of a historical and intellectual finality, which – if not halted – will succeed in closing down all moral debate.
Hence, modern theory is not a philosophy at all, but a mimetic replica, a metaphysical imposter, masquerading as philosophy. It abuses the role philosophy occupies in a culture because it antagonizes the very objective it was meant to attain by disenthralling the individual from the cultivation of his immutable essences, qualities which inhere within man. Intellectually, it encourages reductionism, it fosters a unilateral approach to morality and knowledge by declaring the most self-evident of truths to be principles of falsehood itself. When it is seen for what it truly is, one could say that it is a cleverly contrived trompe d’oeil; it appears to have depth and genius, but in reality, is nothing but a mirage, ungrounded in, and disconnected from, any empirical existence.
The Rule of Negation & Metaphysical Inversion
Why do we need to engage in a debate about the existential role of philosophy if our main concern is human consciousness? Because the recourse to a morally evaluative language, released from the intellectual quarantine in which modernity has held it hostage for so long, is integral to overcoming the present state of cultural and moral decline. Western society’s challenge will be the return to the definition of philosophy held in classical antiquity: practising philosophy not for the sake of vanity in the form of a discursive debate, but as a consequential way of life. It is in the lack of such life-affirming metaphysics, where modern theory’s Achilles’ heel lies.
Since modern theory is itself a mask – a camouflage of real metaphysical principles – its tools of scientific inquiry abide in an equally debased state. Whereas Christian-Scholastic thought favoured apothatic inquiry to arrive at the true essence of things, modern theory uses categorical reductive negation. Instead of contending what a thing is not, in order to arrive at what it is, modern theory negates that it is. In and of itself, such inquiry simply solidifies the epistemic primacy of ontological matters over epistemological ones. As long as such inquiry tackles matters of a purely ontological nature existing in the material world, it can function unobstructed and is more or less effective in generating results. However, where matters of higher complexity are concerned, as in the realm of human consciousness and the dynamism of nature, such an inquiry would have to capitulate in the face of its inherent methodological inaptness. Modern theory, however, did not even think about giving up this metaphysical bastion. Instead, it foresaw a much more rigorous stratagem: where it could not negate, it equalized; where there was nothing to equalize, it practised the most debased of all arts – that of metaphysical inversion.
The Christian-Scholastic worldview placed its animating principle on the centrality of God. It revered the religious category12 of ‘the Holy’13 as a human need. To modern thought, the idea of God as the totaliter alter13 embodied the greatest antagonistic force. Since it is irreducible and exists in and out of itself, it is sui generis. As such, it positions itself per definitionem in a combative state towards the modern worldview as it always constitutes a totality and can therefore not be instrumentalized and conformed into an atomistic structure. With the ascent of rationalist thought over ecclesiastical studies at the end of the 18th century, modern theory succeeded in shattering the remaining vestiges of a theoretically harmonious notion of metaphysics.
Yet, as much as modern theorists have attempted to negate the existence of a transcendental realm – up to this very day – they failed in the endeavour of undermining ‘the rumour of God’.15 In spite of all the convincing advances in technology as well as the achievements in the realm of the natural sciences, Robert Spaemann remarks, human suffering continues to remain the same. The growing fortitude of cognitive processes will always differ from the devouring, mind-independent quality of fear and terror. Explicating these elements of perception will always require qualitatively different epistemic values. Formulating a coherent cosmology therefore always presupposes an epistemology of man as ‘a creature of transcendence’;16 it implies the acknowledgement of man’s truthful nature as a spiritual and emotional artefact. The l’homme machine,17 which materialism promulgates and recent findings in neurobiology insist in upholding, is in light of such conclusions a reductive sketch of reality, if not an outright caricature. Since the modern world view could not negate this metaphysical truth, it sought ways to invert it.
The Rule of Spiritual Inertia
Inverting medieval metaphysics, along with the concomitant displacement of the value of meaning, was not an accidental outcome of the emergence of modern thought, but an intended attempt at engineering the conception of the living cosmos. When Plato, Aristotle, and later on Plotinus, were musing about the ‘ensouled’ physical plane by another worldly-animating force, Francis Bacon knew that his idea of the ‘breath of life’,18 ‘thriving and growing’19 through all things, was of an entirely different quality. It was mechanistic, elemental and linear; it was self-sustaining but all-devouring. The principle that animates modernity is thus a different one than that which animates its transcendent counterpart. It nurtures its sustenance out of the mechanistic, the entropic, e.g. the deadening force. Speaking in terms of Newton’s mechanics, the Christian-Scholastic worldview was a centripetal force, directing life towards a living centre. Modern metaphysics, in contrast, are centrifugal, in that they are a pseudo-force, dispersing life towards the periphery and pretending to animate outward objects by virtue of their own spiritual inertia.
Therefore, modern theory did not only invert the concept of life and the living, it redefined it. The intellectual acknowledgement of an insight that carries so much epistemological depth, inevitably begs the question of what there is to contrast life with, other than death? Death, Jeff Mason writes, is the great equalizer. It has no content and no subjective meaning, and it makes all theoretically engaging individuals encounter a metaphorical wall, a form of distinct separation.20 In other words, the insights gained from such a worldview as regards the dynamics of life will always remain static. The conclusions made about the human spirit and human autonomy can therefore only be disastrous. On his life path, man perennially chooses between life and death, writes Erich Fromm.21 With a culture that has a philosophy of death – philosophia mortis – at its conceptual core, man is utterly deprived of this choice and driven to inevitably choose his own demise.
As modern theory attempts to reconceptualize the philosophical paradox of being and not being, it contrasts this with its mimetic counterpart of quasi-being. It is the theoretical equivalent to the alchemistic objective of creating an artificial life-form, a Kabbalistic Golem, that has been created out of dead material in order to serve dead material.
1MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p. 22.
2Bennet, Jane. Modernity and its Critics. Edited by Robert E. Goodin. New York: The Oxford Handbook of Political Science, 2009, p.128.
3See for example: Hannam James. God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World laid the Foundations of Modern Science. London, Icon Books, 2009; The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. Washington D.C., Regnery Publishing, 2011.
4Ironically, we can see the first intellectual insinuation made in this direction by Leo Strauss in his later work, conceptualized in three lectures at the Hill Foundation at the University of Chicago in 1951. Conservative intellectuals, interested in keeping their distance to more radical intellectual assumptions, tend to garner their ideas from Straussian philosophy. See Strauss, Leo. “Progress or Return: The Contemporary Crisis of Western Civilization” in Modern Judaism. Vol. 1, No. 1, 1981.
5MacIntyre hinted at the implications the so-far undetected fragmentation of metaphysics has had on mankind’s spiritual tapestry. He, however, focused his analysis primarily on the effects morality and virtue have undergone in the process of fragmentation.
6MacIntyre, p. 39.
7Ibid., p. 38
8Harrison, Peter. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2015.
9Spaemann, Robert. Schritte über uns hinaus – Gesammelte Reden und Aufsätze I. Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 2010, p. 11–12.
10Ibid., p. 11.
11 Beck, Ulrich, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lasch. Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1994.
12Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern (1799). Berlin, De Gruyter, 2001.
13Otto, Rudolf. Das Heilige. 4th ed. Breslau, 1920.
13Barth, Karl. Der Römerbrief (Zweite Fassung) 1922. Zürich, TVZ, 2008.
15Spaemann, Robert. Das Unsterbliche Gerücht: Die Frage nach Gott und der Aberglaube der Moderne. Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 2007.
16Rahner, Karl. Sämtliche Werke: 2 – Geist in Welt. Freiburg, Herder, 1998.
17La Mettrie, Julien Offray de, L’Homme Machine. Paris, 1865.
18van Malssen, Tom. The Political Philosophy of Francis Bacon: On the Unity of Knowledge. New York, SUNY Press, p. 172.
19Bacon, Francis. ‘The New Organon – Book One’. Selected Philosophical Works. Edited by Rose-Mary Sargent. Cambridge, Hackett Publishing, 1999, p. 113.
20Mason, Jeff. ‘Death and its Concepts’. The Philosopher’s Magazine. 31 Jan 2015, https://www.philosophersmag.com/opinion/17-death-and-its-concept.
21Fromm, Erich. Der modern Mensch und seine Zukunft: Eine sozialpsychologische Untersuchung. 3. Aufl. Frankfurt, Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1969.