Newton used the Bible’s Book of Daniel to calculate the date for the Apocalypse. "No sooner than 2060" was his conclusion.
Many may be unfamiliar with Robert Spaemann. Spaemann is a conservative philosopher whose focus is on Christian ethics. He is known for his work in bioethics, ecology, and human rights. Although not yet widely translated into languages other than his native German, Spaemann in considered to be one of the most important virtue ethicists alive today, and his work is highly regarded by his native countryman Pope Benedict XVI. I first came across his name in a reading on Benedict XVI’s criticism of Modernity. Second part here.
This brief tour d’horizon of the crisis of modernity cannot but fail to provide an adequate account of the wide spectrum of responses to the spirit of modernity. Yet this quick sketch, as well as the equally sketchy account of the late modern situation, offers a background against which one can consider an examination of Robert Spaemann’s philosophy that engages in both an explicit and, more often, an implicit conversation with many of the philosophers, writers, and theologians mentioned above, as well as with the dialectical spirit of modernity itself. More selections from Robert Spaemann’s Philosophy of the Human Person by Holger Zaborowski will be coming.
The End Of The Modern World
It is almost a truism to speak of the ‘end of the modern world,’ of the crisis of modernity, or, in a less extreme way, of the critical condition of modern rationality. Modern consciousness, as the German philosopher Robert Spaemann has often argued, ‘nears its end.’ Because of this, he further reasons, we can now describe it and attempt to understand and criticize it. We may also endeavor to go beyond modernity, as have many so-called post-modern philosophers, whose attitude toward modernity, almost by definition, is critical and censorious. Those philosophers, most of whom are inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, argue that modernity has failed irretrievably and needs to be surpassed philosophically. It is therefore time, they think, to announce, more or less triumphantly, the end of modernity and to enter into a new, ‘post-modern’ age.
While some interpret the current crisis as symptomatic of modernity as such, others argue that it is simply a failure of modernity to realize itself. Jurgen Habermas, for instance, who would doubtless not go so far as to associate the crisis with key presuppositions of Enlightenment rationality, characterizes modernity as a yet ‘unfinished project’ that is in need of further attention.
Begging the Question
Whether modernity is considered a failed or an unfinished project, it is plausible to argue that the catastrophic course of the twentieth century has demonstrated the long-disguised implications and ambiguities of many key ideas that constitute modernity, and that human beings are thus, as Romano Guardini argued, in need of a new ‘search for orientation.’ The current crisis of modernity also discloses, Spaemann states, that ‘modernity, as a “scientific Weltanschauung”., does not have arguments; it is based on petitiones principii (the logical fallacy of assuming the conclusion in the premises; begging the question) and thus relies on often well-hidden assumptions that are not sufficiently explicated and proven.
It is particularly these hidden assumptions that have become questionable and problematic and may explain why modernity gives the impression of being subject to a dialectic that progressively undermines it. In the course of this crisis of modernity it has become obvious to some that the modern mind can only shape culture in a human manner as long as it is not merely modern. ‘It cannot be the case that the only essential thing about modernity’, Spaemann points out, ‘is its being modern.’
In this perceived situation of crisis accounts of the legitimacy, genesis, and development of modernity have been produced, as well as numerous critical appreciations of the fundamental principles of modern reason. These latter raise the issue of why modernity has developed signs of a crisis, and what accounts for the dialectical structure of modernity which C. S. Lewis has pointedly called the ‘tragic-comedy of our situation’, in which ‘we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.’
The Abstract Universality Of Modern Reason
One explanation for the crisis of modernity is that the abstract universality of modern reason is inclined to dismiss nature itself and the particular social and historical context within which reason needs to be positioned (because it is always already positioned in this very context). The enterprise to set aside not only nature but also history and society, however, cannot but fail, for it tends to turn against itself and its own presuppositions. What does this mean? We may try an initial and rather sketchy answer at this point in our argument. Emancipation, for example, only makes sense as long as freedom is not made an absolute and strictly opposed to nature. Otherwise, freedom turns into arbitrariness and, finally, becomes mere nature and is thus annihilated.
The language of rights, therefore, can, in the end, only be spoken as long as the vocabulary of the common good, characteristic of the classical political tradition, maintains some purchase. Otherwise, liberalism may become a totalitarian ideology that is closed to every other view of reality, making real freedom impossible. ‘Empty subjective freedom,’ Spaemann argues with regard to the French Revolution, thus implicitly referring to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, ‘could not but spawn terror.’ The idea of universal and inalienable human rights, furthermore, only makes sense as long as every human being — and not only some groups of human beings — is the subject of those rights, simply by being a member of the natural human species. To put it more precisely, every human being needs to be understood not to have rights that can be attributed or not, but essentially to be a demand for recognition and to disclose a specific dignity, the inalienable dignity of the human person.
Reality Is Fully Explainable In Scientific Terms
A second cause of the crisis of modernity is that very often the natural and social sciences tend not to see the limits of their methods; that is to say, they assert that reality is fully explainable in scientific terms. Modern natural sciences and their technological application have undoubtedly improved the conditions of human life and helped us to understand reality to a previously unimaginable degree; so any unqualified criticism of the natural sciences and modern technology cannot but miss the point. This needs to be said against some radical critics of modern technology who speak of its failure or its demonic character where more moderate language would be much mote appropriate, language as moderate (and realistic) as Heidegger’s ‘“yes” and at the same time “no” toward modern technology.
Yet the natural sciences are based on a methodological reductionism that was initially acknowledged but is now increasingly disregarded. What originated in a deliberate methodological restriction came to be constructed as an epistemological and ontological statement about reality as such, so that scientific hypothesis has become the paradigm for any reality-related predication. A scientific culture of this kind is incapable of understanding not only moral and ontological absolutes or the meaning of human life, but also its own purpose, its nature, the scientist’s desire for knowledge, and his personal subjective involvement in his research. Moreover, science so conceived contradicts itself in not seeing the limits of a paradigm of what is, after all, only hypothetical knowledge.
The Functionalistic Outlook Of Modern Sciences
Modern sciences also have a functionalistic outlook; that is, they tend to understand reality in terms of functional relations. Let us consider this a bit further. Until the rise of the modern sciences and epistemologies, the sciences and epistemology were regarded as being inseparable from ethics and ontology. The search for scientific knowledge and its understanding was thus embedded in the wider context of the search for goodness and truth. This changed notably in modernity.
According to an important, perhaps the predominant, epistemological framework of the modern sciences, all reality, including goodness and truth, is understood with respect to the functional conditions of its genesis and existence. The questions pertaining to how something came about and how it functions have replaced the older, and more fundamental, question of what something essentially, or by its very nature, is and how it is related to the human pursuit of goodness and truth.
We raise no criticism against a methodological functionalism as this is a means to understanding certain dimensions of reality. There is, however, much to be said against functionalism made an absolute; for functionalism turns into a ‘new dogmatism’ if we do not think about those basic truths which cannot be defined from a functionalistic point of view, but in fact serve to justify functions themselves. Given these tendencies of the modern sciences and the desire for objectifiable knowledge, human nature is vulnerable to being set equal to non-human objects.
This conflation has huge implications. Just one maybe briefly mentioned here. The intentional structure of human action and thus the difference between actions and merely natural events (such as a thunderstorm) can no longer adequately be understood.’ Ethics is consequently clothed in quasi-scientific dress — depending on the latest fashion, it may be utilitarianism, futurology, behaviorism, other kinds of psychology, sociobiology, or evolutionary ethics.
Reality Is Ultimately Reduced To Process
Hence, a third element in the crisis of modernity is that reality is ultimately reduced to process. Thomas Hobbes paradigmatically maintained that ‘by Philosophy, is understood the Knowledge acquired by Reasoning, from the Manner of the Generation of any thing, to the Properties; or from the Properties, to some possible Way of Generation of the same; to the end to be able to produce, as far as matter, and humane force permit, such Effects, as humane life requireth.’ Hobbes defines philosophy as genealogy; that is to say, as genetic analysis of reality. This implies that the whole is entirely explainable in terms of its parts and their coming-into-existence. Being, strictly speaking, has been made a by-product of the universal process of becoming. Hobbes, furthermore, transforms philosophy into a practical science, the results of which are supposed to be applicable ‘as humane life requireth.’
Philosophy As An Instrumentalist Viewpoint
Therefore, a fourth explanation of the crisis of modernity is that philosophy is treated as a practical, applied science and thus tends to be valued from an instrumentalist viewpoint. The French philosophes, as Spaemann points out, already defined themselves with reference to their social function within the Enlightenment context. Their nature was their function; that is to say, to enlighten society. A merely theoretical contemplation of reality no longer played the fundamental role that ancient and medieval philosophers would have attributed to it.
God And Religion As The ‘God Meme’
Furthermore, not only philosophy but even God and religion have been interpreted as merely serving a certain function for the individual or for society — a functionalism affirmed by the French counter-revolution, for instance, while being dismissed as an idle projection by nineteenth-century Marxist, Feuerbachian, and Freudian, as well as contemporary sociobiological criticisms of religion. Religion is then entirely understood with respect to its function and not with respect to its truth claim or its own self-understanding, which — in most, if not cases of traditional religion — does not support a merely functionalist view of religion as outlined by Richard Dawkins, for instance.
Dawkins speaks of the ‘god meme’, which exists because of its ‘great psychological appeal’, for ‘it proves a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence.’
However, if religion has been entirely dismissed (which is not a necessary implication of a functionalist view of religion), a ‘functional equivalent’ is required. Political parties or different philosophies have eagerly, and, indeed, often disastrously, taken over the role of religion. What religion essentially is, namely the glorification and love of God for God’s sake alone (an answer that is not only found in Christianity but common to many world religions), has been lost sight of within the functionalistic paradigm for modern reason.
While many modern thinkers still relied heavily upon their pre-modern legacy — and, more often than not, on transformations or secularizations of Christian doctrine, such as the doctrines of original sin, the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Christ, or the coming of the kingdom of God — late modern philosophy has attempted to radicalize the thrust of modern thought against its pre-modern predecessors. Friedrich Nietzsche, as Spaemann rightly points out, was aware that modernity still presupposed the Platonic and Christian notion of truth that ‘God is truth and truth is divine.’
Irrationalism And The Crisis Of Modernity
Hence, to become fully modern meant to overthrow this awkward pre-modern inheritance. Enlightenment rationalism, one can argue, turned into the irrationalism of a metaphysics of will, whether the will is ultimately denied in a manner reminiscent of Schopenhauer’s Western Buddhism or affirmed à la Nietzsche This irrationalism may be an important element of the crisis of modernity which has not yet been overcome; it is still apparent in important strands of the ‘post-modern situation’ –which may, after all, better be called a late modern situation.
Given the crisis of late modernity, there seems to be a need for philosophers, who are, as Robert Spaemann states, ‘specialists in the management of intellectual crisis.’ In Spaemann’s interpretation, philosophy is even a very important, if not, indeed, a necessary ‘condition for the public continuity of notions such as “freedom” and “human dignity” in the modern epoch of science — a milieu which has huge implications for our understanding of these notions.
Every Philosophy Becomes Naïve
This is why the end of philosophy, Spaemann further argues, would be the end of free humanity. The crisis of modernity is therefore not only the crisis of philosophy, but also the time when philosophy is most required. Thus, there is a need for philosophy today, and today’s philosophers need to think about their own times, that is about the crisis of our time; for otherwise, Spaemann frequently argues, ‘every philosophy becomes naive and thus does not fulfill what it is supposed to do.’
So-called post-modern philosophy (unless it is very widely conceived) is not the only response to the shortcomings of modern reason. There is also a multifaceted trend to reconnect to a pre-modern knowledge and to bring back into consciousness what has been lost sight of in modernity. The representatives of this tendency are often closely related to one another. While there are some substantial differences, primarily between religiously committed and non-committed thinkers, many differences are rather differences in emphasis. All these writers converge in that they do not share basic presuppositions of modern rationality and recollect an older more primordial view of reality that, as they argue, has not yet been irretrievably lost, but needs to be rediscovered. They vary, however, with respect to their specific presuppositions and with respect to the remedy that they claim to provide. Three different counter-modern tendencies are significant for our purposes.
There is, most prominently, the rediscovery of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Thomist philosophies, and the re-appreciation of natural-law theories, virtue ethics, pit modern political philosophy, and teleological philosophies of nature. One might think of philosophers as diverse as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Peter Geach, G. E. M. Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, and John Finnis, and also of Leo Strauss, Hans Jonas, Hannah Arendt, Charles Taylor, Joachim Ritter, and their respective schools.
A second group differs from this first one especially in its method. While the philosophers of the first group prefer a strictly philosophical and very often highly technical style, the second group has a greater variety of styles — very often relatively accessible ones — at its disposal. Here one might think of G. K. Chesterton, Charles Péguy, Iris Murdoch, George Grant, C. S. Lewis and many others.
A third group also differs in method, but in a more substantial way. Modernity has found its theological opponents, most of whom do not consider themselves ‘post-modern’ (in the philosophical sense of the term) and cannot appropriately be labelled as such. Their enterprise, too, is characterized by the recollection of ideas that modern reason tends to dismiss. The borders, again, are fluid. One might think of Karl Barth and subsequent post-liberal theologians such as Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, Oliver O’Donovan, John Webster, and Colin Gunton; of Radical Orthodoxy and its exponents, such as John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward; and of Hans Urs von Balthasar and the increasing interest that his theology arouses.