Bookshelf

I picked up this book not knowing what to expect, not knowing the author but being intrigued by the premise, which discussed pointing the way toward the philosophy of the future and escaping the “trap” of modernity. Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009) was a British philosopher and academic whose main claim to fame was moral philosophy. In tackling the modernist tradition from the Enlightenment to the present day, he was continuing what he saw as the work of 20th century philosophers like (later) Wittgenstein and Rorty who said “we don’t really know everything we claim to know.” This book is tracing out the steps in history that took us to where we are today and was a fascinating read, half-history and half-philosophy.

So first in tackling modernity, you have to define what “modernity” even means. There are multiple starting points you can choose for “modernity” according to your tastes and the argument you’re making. For Toulmin’s case, he defines it along two axes – the scientific and the philosophical. Scientific modernity, he argues, starts with Newton, who ushered in modern science by transitioning from Aristotle’s model of pragmatic case-based argument to a Platonic ideal of mathematical, universal proof. By contrast, the ‘natural philosophers’ of previous centuries (e.g., Montaigne) were skeptical about reaching total consensus and were wary of the human capacity of self-deception. How can we say we know for sure? We can only say that we see it this way. Often, they described natural phenomena as they observed them but remained agnostic about ultimate cause. Along the philosophical dimension, he identifies modernity with Descartes (he of “I think, therefore I am” fame, and Cartesian mind-body dualism). The assumptions made by Descartes – that the mental and physical were two different substances, that a ‘pure’ (disembodied) rational mind could observe from ‘outside’ as it were, the notion of Absolute truth, etc. defined the modern era.

Despite his argument that one could trace multiple valid outlines for what is the ‘modern’ (for example, one could use the appearance of the modern nation-state in the 16th century, or the French Revolution in the 18th, etc.), his own choice of definition seems particularly potent because these scientific and philosophical viewpoints are arguably the “base” on which the Enlightenment grew. By framing the modern, he also ends up defining the ‘post-modern,’ which is not some ‘new philosophy’ but a loose association of discourses that are in fact embedded in modernism and ultimately mere reactions to its excesses, especially its claims to absolute knowledge. Postmodernism, taking modernism as its base, does not truly progress beyond it but merely modifies it. But how to move beyond?

Here he turns to the ‘pre-modern’ mindset of the 15th and 16th century humanists. The imagehere is not of dark-age philosophers counting the angels that could dance on the head of a pin, but Renaissance humanists whose outlook was remarkably cosmopolitan and absolutely more open-minded than that of the modernists of the following centuries. The common narrative of pre-Enlightenment Europe being in an ignorant, superstitious dark age is really a myth created to reinforce the assumptions of modernity, and handily skips the open-minded humanism of the Renaissance which doesn’t ‘go’ with the story of progress from dark ages to enlightenment. Questions which are only now being raised in the postmodern era (for example, interrogating whose system of thought is being elevated as an example of the rational) came quite naturally to people of the 1500s like Montaigne. Toulmin notes that the medieval ecclesiasticism and church dogmatism had given way at this point to a more tolerant humanism, with classical Greek and Latin texts being widely available to lay readers across the continent by this time. Natural skepticism was seen as a check to human hubris, and in this relatively wealthy and peaceful Europe of the 1500s, the differences between religions, nations and people were seen as part of the richness of the world and not cause for alarm.

And then Henri the IV was killed. This one assassination destroyed a delicate balance the resulting political ambiguity led to decades of war (the Thirty Years War, they called it). In the aftermath of this horrific time, the 17th century saw a counter-Renaissance where science, like religion and politics, became more dogmatic and rigid. Ambiguity was out, and certainty was in. Battle lines were drawn and rationality became a proxy for legitimacy, a weapon to prove who was right. It is against this backdrop of chaos that rationality emerges as an appealing matrix to facilitate the reintegration of Europe. The treaty of Westphalia that ended the war also ended the feudal system and saw the development of the modern state, ushering Europe into an age where they thought they were right about absolutely everything.

Here, Toulmin really ties together the worldview of modernism with the political structures it emerges from and reinforces. Nation states (and later capitalism) would benefit from the ‘rational matrix’ that defines truth according to a narrow set of known and knowable quantities, and also posits the world to be in a stable order ordained by God (the motion of the spheres), with natural hierarchy and concentricity that seemed to echo the order of relations between the center (Sovereign) and successive spheres of power. Later the crystalline spheres of Newton gave way to social Darwinism, and the logic of the invisible hand of the market but the notions were the same: the oppression of society is rooted in absolute truths that are logical, unavoidable, and were totally not decided by people maintaining a position of social power. Honest! The idealization of the rational and objective and depreciation of the emotional, relational and subjective are the root of the solipsism, alienation and narcissism that we identify with the ‘modern’ condition. The roots go way back.

So how do we progress beyond it? Well, the good news is we already are. The artificial barriers between humanity and nature, world and mind have been in a long process of breaking down. He points to the emergence of the novel as helping restore emotion to the field of respectable discourse. The emergency of psychology (here he points to Freud and then many others followed) started what was seen as a change in human nature. Already the logical positivism of the first half of the 20th century seems like a bad dream. Finally, postmodern discussions on the limits of rationality point to the end of the modern.

Some people’s desire to do away with the ills of modernism and ‘clean the slate’ with some new “post”-post modern mode of thought is, he argues, itself a display of a modernist taste for the absolute. You’re searching for some universal baseline for thought when the lesson to be learned is precisely that there is none. Instead, the project he envisions is a reform which re-incorporates the very humanism that was ejected in the 17th century. Instead of rejection of modernism, it functions as a “yes, and…”

For example, ethical concerns previously divorced from science should be folded back into the scientific debate. He cites nuclear science (e.g., non-proliferation efforts) as an example, but this certainly applies just as much to genetic engineering. Rhetoric and narrative are also resurgent, instead of abstract explanation. Alongside that is what is called casuistry – that is, arguing based on specific cases rather than abstract principles (think case law). These modes of thought will grow, he argues, and allow us a more flexible worldview that will face the future. What the present world requires is diversity and adaptability instead of the uniformity and stability 17th century Europe craved.

What he’s ultimately here to say is that you can’t abstract knowledge away from the situations and practices that produce it, and in this book he is attempting to ‘re-situate’ our knowledge of modernity itself, giving us a way of seeing the current era through the lens of the past, and seeing the connection between the philosophical, the scientific and the political. It is a revolutionary sort of book with a very quiet and unassuming style, but the ideas it puts forth will stick with you.

Read it!

Disclaimer: I have pretty much always loved C.S. Lewis and read The Chronicles of Narnia through many times as a child (both before and after learning they were a biblical allegory. Personally I’m spiritual but pretty explicitly not religious, but grew up in a Christian milieu). Later on, I read things like Until We Have Faces and The Screwtape Letters and got acquainted with another dimension of his work. He was a deeply feeling person, imaginative and clearly his work still speaks to many people across the generations. This work is no different, and I think the average reader who is looking for a book like this is going to get a lot out of engaging with his thought. That said, its appeal will not be universal and I am probably letting him off easy.

Firstly, if you’re looking for some rigorous logical proof of God’s existence or of Christianity, you won’t find it here. What you will find is an appeal to ‘common sense’ about religion generally and Christianity specifically that prompts deep thought; however, it is more effective in some places than others. It is an apologia made through observations of psychology and society, analogies and object lessons tied to the virtues and teachings of Christianity. This is not an abstract philosophical attempt at an a priori proof of God, it’s a discussion you might have with an intelligent friend in your parlor. Just because he doesn’t argue like an academic philosopher doesn’t mean this isn’t reasoned argument. That said, the approach is conversational, and he is going for a broad appeal here (it was adapted from a radio program). Where this works, it really does work and he hits on some deep insights that often ring true.

His is a literary mind capable of really wonderful poetic analogy, and so for me this was often a delight to read. He appeals to (and assumes) the reader’s own innate sense of morality, of meaning, and elaborates how these ultimately point towards the figure of Christ as their highest realization of these values in human history. Some people like myself are biased towards a kind of metaphorical view of this figure, shying away from literal interpretations of the Bible. Lewis goes further and explains that cannot merely be a ‘great moral teacher’ but argues for absolute identity between a transcendent creator God (absolute and eternal, existing outside of time and independent from the created universe) and the historical person of Jesus. Depending on your own cultural context and beliefs, not all these arguments will chain together for you and you will likely find yourself disagreeing. No reason to stop reading, though. He seems to even anticipate this with the reader and argues the same point using multiple illustrations. Unlike abstract logic, the actual world is not clean-cut or absolute. Yes, it may sound crazy, but isn’t the world always something contingent, unpredictable and unexpected? That’s why he argues from concrete examples, and he argues that Christianity is a sense the most ‘real’ religion because it like reality – messy, unpredictable and therefore beautiful beyond words.

A brief digression on the inherent cultural bias here: he discusses other religions, and if you have read other texts of the era from Britain you will realize he is relatively charitable for the time. In discussing the fate of those billions who have had no possibility of converting to Christianity, he notes all religions share some kernel of truth (coming as they do from an inherent yearning in man to connect with God). He discusses the possibility that people of other religions may go to Heaven after all, based on the degree to which they have answered God’s tug on their spirit, despite their never having known of Jesus. In any event, the judgment is not ours to make and we cannot know. His argument is clear, however, that Christianity has a solid claim to the *most* truth, being founded by the ‘begotten son of God.’ Whatever other religions claims come from, he is not clear and doesn’t care to be. It is totally possible to imagine that, had he lived now, he might have created a series of these books (“Mere Islam,” “Mere Buddhism,” “Mere Wicca” etc.) each expounding almost the exact same viewpoints but going through the tenets of their respective religions. I guess that is now for other people of those respective religions to do, and I think it would be very interesting reading. Digression over.

Personally a lot of his arguments on the religious drive in humanity do have appeal to me, as far as they go. His conviction of the human need to see a reality above and beyond the objective is something that resonates with me; because of that, I was willing to make the leap on some of his arguments. Those asking for some empirical proof of Absolute truth outside of and prior to causal reality are kind of missing the point – like breaking out a calculator to find out the meaning of life. His main argument is that the ‘moral law’ of the universe is something shared by all people across time and space. Despite claims of cultural relativism, there is remarkable consistency in the basic moral compass of all cultures, and he argues it points to some higher aligning force.

If you read this and it already sounds like gibberish, nothing he says will stick. However, if you are sympathetic to a spiritual dimension of reality already but don’t really have a lot of it worked out in your head as to why, his arguments are compelling on a humanistic level. His argument is one of images and stories, and as such it functions much like Jesus’ parables. Despite what detractors say, be it Dawkins today or Atomists (who were the determinists of Ancient Greece), it is an argument that clearly moves many people and appeals to the common sense of most – common senses of justice, of purpose, of meaning. No, God is not necessary for any of the scientific achievements of modern society, any more than Gods were needed to invent catapults, levers and the like in Ancient Greece. But here, C.S. Lewis presents an argument that we do need God in order to become fully alive, to fully actualize as human being. If that resonates, you might like this book.

That said, the argument he makes will not function as a counterstrike to the many contemporary authors of New Atheism (Hitchens, Hawkins, Dennett) who discussing advances in cognitive science, biology and the latest scientific understanding as well as some of the atrocities committed in the name of religion. They have many points that won’t be rebutted in this book. For example, the argument that all of our yearning after the divine are merely cognitive biases. Some of the ‘effects’ of spiritual revelation can be reproduced merely by tickling part of the brain with electrodes till the person sees lights and hears voices. Given all the horrible things that have been done in the name of religion (a debatable point, but here I am simply parroting their argument), it is the moral obligation of concerned rational people to prove that religious people have been fooled, tricked by their own brains. These yearnings of the human ‘spirit’ aren’t real but instead are rooted in cognitive biases evolved over millions of years. Therefore, the reasoning goes, all the mandates of the various religions amount to little more than cultural constructs for social control. One can go even further and say that the sensations we have of the self and free will are themselves illusory, and that the human brain merely evolved a reflexive model of the ‘self’ to allow for social organization to form as an evolutionary adaption strategy. These are scientific arguments made from the evidence in good faith by intelligent people, and as such they deserve consideration and, where not sound, rebuttal. Of course, C.S. Lewis isn’t around to counter any of these arguments, but I suspect he would less rebut them and more evade them altogether with an appeal to common sense, something like “a man that says with a straight face that his own consciousness is an illusion is really too foolish to be bothered with.” Many people will agree, but other people need to see more rigorous argument and will have to look elsewhere for that. I will content myself with the words of Carl Jung here, and say “it is indeed paradoxical that… psyche should be treated as though it were only semi-existent. Psychic existence is the only category of existence of which we have immediate knowledge.” If you are already in a position to ‘take the leap’ and assume that questions of morality, destiny and the purpose of existence are worth contemplating and answering there is much of value in C.S. Lewis’ book. If you need proof that those are even valid questions, you should look elsewhere. Further Reading: On that note I will suggest to those that like this book but maybe want something at once more scientific and more philosophical, take a look at Teilhard de Chardin’s “The Phenomenon of Man.” He was a paleontologist and Jesuit priest who was famous for, among other things, discovering the Peking man and coining the word “noosphere.” His knowledge of evolution is breathtaking and he charts a course through the increasing complexity of evolution, cerebralization and emergence of consciousness that argues for something like creative evolution pushing us onward toward the divine. It is a book more in line with panpsychist or process philosophical traditions and more rigorous than this one. And in case you think this observation of a telos (end goal) of evolution is just some Christian hang up, see also Thomas Nagel (atheist philosopher) who argues the same thing in Mind and Cosmos (which I have yet to read).