Modernist Ideology

 The best way to understand the significance of modernist ideology is by way of contrast with the religious doctrines and belief systems from which Enlightenment scholars most desperately sought to distinguish themselves. In this context we need to begin our story with a brief consideration of what is referred to as “The Dark Ages”. Before launching into our story however, I believe that a word about my own beliefs and intentions would be appropriate. To begin with, it is virtually impossible to discuss the period of the Dark Ages as if we possessed true knowledge. The term itself has been used in different ways by different individuals for thousands of years. While there do appear to be some more common elements regarding the use of the term, we must make no mistake about it, the term is ambiguous.

As a storyteller, I have a very specific reason for using the term that you need to be aware of in order to understand my intended meaning. Among the differing views and opinions regarding what the term might mean, we find one that is generated by Enlightenment scholars which I shall seek to approximate. That is, I believe that the Age of Enlightenment entails the modernist ideology that is the main subject of my story. For this reason I would like for you to have an idea of what Enlightenment scholars felt about earlier intellectual sensibilities that had not yet “evolved” to their point of sophistication.

In broad strokes, we can begin by considering the contrast between superstition and reason. For scholars of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century such as Immanuel Kant and Voltaire for example, the Dark Ages served to refer to an age in human development that was shrouded in mystery and superstition and at the very least antithetical to reason. This is the theme that I wish to build upon. The Dark Ages can be thought of as a period in human evolution marked by systems of thought that are based on faith and religious doctrine.

For the purpose of our story I will use the terms, “Age of Enlightenment” and “Age of Reason” interchangeably. Both of these terms can be said to take as their starting point the beginning of the seventeenth century with the publication of Novum Organum in 1620 by Sir Francis Bacon. As the story goes, this is the book that receives the credit for being the first publication to explicitly lay out the fundamental tenets of scientific methodology. The question that we must now answer is; “How does this book fit into the historical mosaic of forces that have served to dominate and oppress those who would not subordinate their way of thinking to its dogma?” There are two vantage points that I believe would be helpful for us to consider: First, we really need to get a feeling for the sense of historical pivoting that thinkers like Kant and Voltaire were experiencing, and; Secondly, we need to consider the impact experienced by those that willfully and voluntarily choose to be subsumed under the tenets of scientific dogma. Once we have gained insight into these two vantage points we will be better able to understand how the text “Novum Organum” is more appropriately viewed as a trigger for an historical impact that transcends its scope and reach exponentially.

Let us unpack this notion of historical pivoting that I have attributed to thinkers of what has been called the “Age of Reason”. We can begin by considering in greater detail the life and work of Immanuel Kant. For those that are aware of the history of philosophy, Kant has sometimes been referred to as the synthesizer of rationalist and empiricist ideologies. Rationalism, as a system of thought, gave emphasis to the role of reason in obtaining knowledge. The rationalists trace their origins back to the work of Rene Descartes and his famous dictum, “Cogito Ergo Sum” or, “I think, therefore, I am”. The leading proponents of rationalism were Descartes (1596-1650), Spinoza (1632-1677) and Leibniz (1646-1716). The period of greatest influence for the rationalists extends from the middle of the seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century. Empiricism, as a system of thought, gave emphasis to the role of experience of the senses in obtaining knowledge. Empiricism finds its origin in the work of John Locke in his text, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The leading proponents of empiricism were John Locke (1632-1704) Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) and David Hume (1711-1776). The period of greatest influence for the empiricists extends from the early eighteenth century to the late eighteenth century.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) came into prominence in the late eighteenth century and exerted an influence that lasted well into the twentieth century. Let us consider the philosophical influences with which he was presented. On the one hand he was presented with the rationalists that were advancing the role of reason and on the other the empiricists that were advancing the role of experience of the senses. In his most influential work, The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant posits the notion of a Transcendental Unity of Apperception (TUA) that served as a dialectical synthesis between reason and experience. My interest here is not in attempting to explain his thinking. Instead, I am interested in bringing to light the kinds of intellectual forces that were at play when he sought to distinguish the Dark Ages from his own Age of Reason. Within the context of what was actually taking place in the development of Western European philosophy by the middle of the eighteenth century, Kant viewed the intellectual quest for human knowledge in an ontological sense that was completely devoid of any considerations of culture. One way to describe the drive and impetus that was Immanuel Kant is to say that he was looking backwards at the historical development of philosophy and creating a system of thought that would overcome the limitations of both the rationalists and the empiricists. For Kant, the pivot point in history was the creation of the dialectic. The analytic philosophy to which Kant gave birth was to be understood from its inception as true for all human beings regardless of their culturally informed systems of belief. In this context Kant was able to describe the Age of Darkness in Western European history as being shrouded in mystery and superstition.

Alternatively, Voltaire (1694-1778) takes his historical pivot point in Western European history to be the advent of scientific methodology. Voltaire was a leading member of a group of writers during the eighteenth century that were referred to as the “Encyclopedists”. While these writers did not necessarily share their views and ideologies and often opposed each other, they did have in common a shared document entitled “Discours Preliminaire” written by d’Alembert that sought to provide a context for all future contributions to the “Encyclopedie”. The philosophical basis for this foundation document was derived from two main ideas: First, the developing theory of empiricism based in the sensationalism espoused by John Locke, and; secondly, by the scientific methodology developed and described by Sir Francis Bacon. In short, the Encyclopedists served as a central nervous system for the propagation of modernist ideology. It was in this context that Voltaire was able to describe the Age of Darkness in Western European history as being shrouded in mystery and superstition. It is also in this context that we are better able to understand how “Novum Organum” is more appropriately viewed as a trigger for an historical impact that transcends its scope and reach exponentially.