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Constructive Postmodernism

“Postmodernism” was a major catchword for both academics and the wider public during the last couple of decades of the twentieth century. It is losing that status today. Part of its popularity had the character of a fad. Its paradoxical character contributed to its popularity.

Nevertheless, the reality to which the term pointed is here to stay, whether or not the paradoxical name is retained. I myself favor retaining the name. This depends on choosing one of two possible meanings of “modern.” The rejected meaning is like that of the word “today”. The referent of that word changes daily. Yesterday it referred to yesterday. Tomorrow it will refer to tomorrow. Similarly, one may speak of what was “modern” in Rome in the second century C.E. or in Florence in the fifteenth century. “Modern” then is largely synonymous with “contemporary.” And it would be not only paradoxical but really meaningless to speak of what is going on at any time as “post-contemporary.” Those who have ridiculed the term “postmodern” have often had this use of “modern” in mind.

However, “modern” has had another widespread use. It is derivative from the former use, but has crystallized around particular movements. “Modern architecture,” for example, was contemporary, cutting-edge, architecture when it was so named. But the name stuck even when leading architects criticized it and developed new styles. That they called these styles, or some of them, “postmodern” was not silly. Something similar occurred in literary criticism.

For the wider movement of postmodernism, however, a broader meaning of “modern” has been more important. In the West we have long spoken of “modern history,” “modern philosophy,” and “modern science.” Many text books and course designations have employed these labels. Here the modern period followed on the medieval period, which followed on the classical period.

Scholars do not agree on exactly when to date the beginning of modern history. Some have suggested that the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1453 inaugurated the modern period in Western Europe by bringing Eastern scholarship there. But most histories have treated the fifteenth century as Medieval and the seventeenth century as modern. The Reformation of the sixteenth century can be considered to be medieval in character or as an important initiator of modernity. The issues that moved it were of the sort that were important for medieval Christians rather than for modern thinkers, but it brought the individual to the fore in a new way, more appropriate to the modern world.

One may date modern history as beginning as late as 1648 at the Treaty of Westphalia, where it was decided that the secular ruler would decide about the religious institutions and practice of his people. Even when a text on modern history begins much earlier, secularization and nationalism are presented as major characteristics of the modern period. I will return to this feature of modernity toward the end.

It is in the history of philosophy that there is the greatest agreement about the beginning of the modern period. Rene Descartes is universally acknowledged to be the father of modern philosophy. We may even date modern philosophy from the publication of his Discourse on Method in 1637. Needless to say, there are anticipations of his thought and even of his method in earlier periods and it took time before other philosophers adopted his approach. To his day there are many philosophers who work form Thomistic rather than Cartesian principles. Nevertheless, this book of Descartes was in intention and in reality a break with previous forms of philosophy and the initiation of something quite new. It was post-medieval and has long been identified as “modern.” The philosophy that has been influenced by it is called “modern philosophy.”

The history of modern philosophy is often divided into two parts. The first treats the major thinkers from Descartes to David Hume. The second begins with Immanuel Kant and, at least until recently, it simply came down to the time the course was given. Although Kant was recognized as having changed the philosophical landscape significantly, it was largely assumed that the impulse given to philosophical thought by Descartes permanently determined the nature of philosophy as such. It was thought that although Descartes initiated something quite new, all future philosophical thinking would grow continuously out of critical reflection in the tradition he initiated. Hence the “modern” was understood both to be a particular historical movement and to be permanently contemporary.

“Modern science” is usually depicted has having its beginning earlier than modern philosophy and, indeed, earlier that modern history in general. Roger Bacon engaged in experimental studies of a “modern” type as early as the thirteenth century. More important, the father of modern astronomy, Nicholas Copernicus, did his work a century earlier than Descartes. Still it was in the seventeenth century that modern science came into its own as a major factor in the culture of the time. Descartes’s philosophy played a major role in shaping the form of thinking that has characterized modern science since that time. As in the case of Cartesian philosophy, historians have generally assumed that all future science will develop out of this seventeenth century science so that the meaning of “modern science” can simultaneously be the science that developed in the seventeenth century and contemporary science.

If this sketch of three major uses of “modern” is roughly accurate, can we draw any conclusions as to some central characteristics of the “modern?” One conclusion is that the modern Western world had a sense of its own finality. It thought that its basic characteristics, culturally, philosophically, and scientifically were the form that historical advance must take. Any culture, philosophy, or science that was fundamentally different from this belonged to a superseded past. Modernity was inherently capable of continual progress; so the sense of finality did not mean that the modern West was static. But it did mean that progress would come from the inner development of what it already possessed. It did not need to look to other traditions for guidance.

There is one area in which modern Westerners have made something of an exception. That is in the area of religious belief and practice. Of course, for most Christians no exception has been made. Their view of Christianity in its relation to other religions has been much the same as that of the modern West with respect to philosophy and science. However, one mark of the modern is secularization. That can mean the abandonment of religious concerns altogether, but more often it has meant their relativization, their subordination to other considerations. Once this has occurred, modern people can examine the religious beliefs and practices of other people in much the same spirit as they study the practices and beliefs of their ancestors. In the scholarly world, a more pluralistic view of religion developed within the context of modernism. This was also true in the field of art and to a lesser extent in other cultural forms.

In this respect the fields of art history and history of religions led the way in the twentieth century toward postmodern thinking. Like all such changes, however, it took time and struggle. The first step, and even today the only one that has clearly been taken, was to develop modern methods of objective study that led to appreciation of the multiplicity of art forms and the multiplicity of religious beliefs and practices without judging Western art or religion as superior. I say this is only a first step, since it still implies that the modern Western mode of scholarship is normative. It does not yet recognize that comparisons of art forms and religious traditions might also be made equally well in other ways besides that of Western objectifying scholarship. This second step has not been taken as widely, but it alone leads to a genuinely postmodern vision.

I have noted that secularization is part of modernization. It is partly for this reason that the view that there are a variety of points of view on religious pluralism other than that of Western scholarship is so clearly postmodern. It rejects the modern privileging of secularization. The variety is based on allowing the plurality of religious traditions to formulate their own ways of viewing one another, and that means recognizing that the objectifying methods of Western scholarship are not necessarily superior ways of approaching the plurality of the traditions than are approaches developed by these religious communities themselves out of their own convictions.

Often rationality is affirmed as a characteristic of the modern. For this to be accurate, we need a clear understanding of how the modern West has understood rationality. It has been understood largely as part of the secularizing process. Reason has been viewed chiefly over against the authority of tradition and revelation, which, it has been assumed, are the basis on which religious communities make their judgments. To be rational is to come to conclusions based on facts, which include the facts disclosed by scientific and historical study. It was generally assumed in early modernity that once one clears away prejudices and external authorities, a rational interpretation of the facts can guide the mind to truth.

For the most part rationality and empiricism, in this way, went hand in hand. However, there could also be tensions. The strict empiricists insisted that reason had no other basis than sense experience for development of its conclusions. Thus when Hume showed that sense experience provided no basis for the fundamental scientific idea of causal relations, this was a major crisis. On the other hand, the rationalists believed that the careful examination of fundamental ideas could also contribute to an understanding of reality. This paved the way for Kant’s response to Hume and for Kant’s idealist following. This tension between rationalism and empiricism is internal to the modern mind.

Modern reason was also set over against medieval speculation. If one compares modern thinkers with those of the high Middle Ages, one cannot judge that the moderns had higher expectations of mental activity. On the contrary, the moderns judged that the medieval philosophers had too great a confidence in the capacity of thought to penetrate the mysteries of reality. What the moderns called reason was closer to common sense. It was a restriction on the activity of the mind imposed to insure more reliable results. Thus confidence in the achievement of modern reason, especially in science and other forms of scholarship, accompanied restrictions on the use of reason to probe fundamental questions, such as the question of what it means to be. For example, once the basic nature of the reality studied by science was set by the scientific and philosophical communities in the seventeenth century, modern reason did not seriously question it as medieval reason would have.

Beginning especially with Hume and Kant modern philosophy has restricted its scope more and more narrowly. This stands in marked contrast with its earlier ambitions. Descartes undertook a comprehensive account of all reality, God, the human mind, and the natural world. He believed that a rational interpretation of empirical evidence could achieve this, once inappropriate authorities were rejected. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this confidence in the capacity of reason eroded dramatically. Philosophy abandoned its earlier synthetic role to become analytic. In one tradition it developed phenomenology as a rigorous way of examining human experience and its contents.

In another tradition it limited its attention to equally rigorous examination of language.

Others followed Hegel in the analysis of concepts, not now to construct a synthetic vision of human history but so as to show how through time concepts have become corrupted and distorted so that it is necessary to deconstruct the history of Western thought.

All of these procedures share with the earlier forms modern thought one feature. All are in quest of certainty. What one can be certain about becomes less and less. But the methods are designed to exclude doubtful material. They prepare the way for the postmodern, but in themselves they may be considered the “most modern.” They remain committed to reason in its modern meaning, only with more and more restricted expectations of what reason can accomplish.

The postmodern appears when the idea of certainty or objectivity is abandoned. Everything is set into flux. Philosophy becomes “nonfoundational.” All language is interpretation of other language, and there is no one set of correct rules for such interpretation. Diversity is appreciated, or at least accepted, as ultimate. All beliefs are understood to arise out of particular socio-cultural-economic historical contexts.

Among the beliefs that are thereby undercut are those that have been integrated into scientific language. These are expressive of the Cartesian worldview and have survived despite all the problems found in that world view. The vast majority of science has been built around the idea that the physical world is composed of matter in motion and that all complex physical processes are ultimately analyzable in these terms. The matter in question is understood to have the properties normally attributed to a “substance.”

Descartes himself taught that alongside this material substance is a very different mental substance. This dualism of human mind and the physical world is built deeply into the common sense of the modern West, and is shared by the great majority of scientists at the practical level at least. On the other hand, they often teach that human beings are fully apart of the physical world. This double teaching is a source of great inconsistency and confusion in modernity.

For Descartes and for modern thought generally, each human mind is a separate mental substance. Since mental substances, like physical substances, are related to one another only externally, this view of minds as mental substances leads to metaphysical individualism. Metaphysical individualism both expressed and supported individualism in economic and political thought, as well as more widely in the culture. The powerful role of community in the medieval period eroded rapidly in the modern West, most extremely in the United States.

Characteristic of postmodernity is the erosion of the idea of the substantial self. This has occurred through deconstruction of the Western self in literature and philosophy and, to a lesser extent, through interaction with Eastern thought, especially Buddhism. It has also been influenced by developments in contemporary science. Although this has not yet had much effect on Western common sense, that is also beginning to happen. In any case, the decentering or dissolution of the substantial self or ego is fundamental to the break with the modern vision.

Although I have been tracing the emergence of postmodernism primarily in terms of the deconstructive version, most of what I have said applies also to the constructive version. There can be no constructive postmodernism in the West without deconstruction of much of the Western tradition. This is true in the East only insofar as the East has adopted modern Western thought forms, but since the universities of East Asia are so deeply influenced by the modern West, Easterners need at least to understand the deconstructive process.

In other words, constructive postmodernism affirms the radical pluralism of postmodernism generally. It understands modern Western ways of thought, including modern Western science and scholarship, as just one way of thinking alongside others. It also abandons the quest for certainty and, therefore, for any solid foundation on which to build constructive systems. It rejects the dualism that has underlain modern Western thought and the idea of a substantial self or ego.

Methodologically, however, it departs from deconstructive postmodernism in its understanding of the challenge we postmodern people face and how to respond to it. Constructive postmodern thinkers believe that human beings need an inclusive vision of reality more than ever before. We cannot respond to global problems effectively out of the modern way of thinking, but we will be even more severely limited if we use our intellectual capacities only to deconstruct the modern. The danger of the deconstructive approach, when not checked by others, is that it may end in a debilitating relativism, one that seems to imply that it makes little difference what one does or believes. It can even lead to a thoroughgoing nihilism. This is not what the world needs as it faces huge political and ecological crises.

The human mind, we constructive postmodernists believe, has capacities that have atrophied during the modern period. We focus on two. One is the identification and analysis of basic assumptions wherever they function. The second is the imagining of alternative assumptions and their testing.

To affirm that the human mind can and should engage in these activities is not to continue a quest for certainty. We recognize that there is no secure foundation on which to build. All thought rests in concrete historical circumstances and is conditioned by them. As circumstances change further thinking is needed. However, we can learn here from the sciences. They do not have the secure starting point they once supposed, but they do have a good method of moving forward. This method is to formulate hypotheses, to consider what evidence would count for or against these hypotheses, and then, through empirical search or experiment to test them. That a hypothesis survives many tests does not establish its final truth. But it does provide grounds for continuing to build upon it and to expand the range of phenomena that are provisionally explained. This hypothetical method, constructive postmodernists believe, can supplement assumption criticism and provide useful, and relatively reliable, guidance to global society.

Constructive postmodernism did not arise as a corrective of deconstructive postmodernism. It has been around longer, although it did not emphasize the label. Its most important founder, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote a book called Science and the Modern World. Although he does not say so explicitly, he treats the modern world in terms of the ideas and practices that came to dominance in the seventeenth century. He shows how brilliantly they succeeded, but he also notes the price paid for this success. He also shows how they no longer suffice for the sake of science itself. Throughout the book he indicates alternative assumptions that could work better for science at the time he wrote. Clearly, he is calling for a new conceptuality that can replace the modern one.

He also points to the emergence of a new philosophy. He does not point to phenomenology or language analysis. Instead he points to William James and specifically his essay, “Does Consciousness Exist.” This is a thoroughgoing deconstruction of the Western substantial self or ego. He thus makes clear that what is needed is a new understanding both of the natural world and of the human being, and he points forward to a possible new construction. Subsequently, in Process and Reality, he spells out this new vision in rigorous detail. We consider it the classical work in constructive postmodernism.

Those of us in this tradition point to the crisis in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century as the first great call to break with the modern mind. A particular scientific worldview was central to that mind, one that did not acknowledge its particularity. But this scientific worldview proved unable to account for either relativity or quantum phenomena. The rational response would have been to examine the assumptions of this scientific worldview and seek alternative assumptions that would explain the whole range of scientific data. For us it has been deeply disappointing that scientists on the whole have not been open to any such enterprise.

Instead, scientists have accepted fragmentation. Where they can account for their data in the old way, the great majority have continued to do so, ignoring the new developments in physics. Within the fields where the old assumptions glaringly do not work, they have preferred to stay with the old models and declare that the world is paradoxical. They have thereby contributed to the further erosion of confidence in reason. Philosophers of science have often argued that what all this shows is that the human mind is not able to deal with reality as it is.

Constructive postmodernists believe that we should not give up on a project before trying it. We believe that different assumptions can lead to much greater intelligibility and interpretive power. We have been proposing these assumptions for some time, and slowly there has come some response.

These different assumptions, we think, are not that difficult or obscure. The problem is simply that certain habits of mind have so deeply characterized modernity, and our educational system has so socialized students into them, that most people can not imagine trying any other way of explanation. The deconstructive work of deconstructive postmodernism may open the door somewhat wider to experimentation with alternative approaches.

Whereas modernity has been committed to viewing the physical world as composed exclusively of matter in motion, we propose that we view it as a vast field of energy events. Einstein showed that matter and energy are convertible, but the implication is not that it makes no difference which we take as basic. Already “matter” in this context means nothing more than “mass,” and mass can be explained in terms of energy, whereas energy cannot be explained in terms of mass. There is a great deal of energy in the universe that has no mass.

Energy occurs most immediately and directly in events rather than in enduring objects. Enduring objects come into being as successions of events. The patterns that emerge in fields of events have both particle-like and wave-like characteristics, but that does not mean that they are either particles or waves. Both the idea of a particle and that of a wave assume the metaphysics of matter in motion that is here rejected.

These events are largely constituted by their relations to other events in the field. Indeed, one may view a single energy event as what the field is in a particular locus. There are no isolated or self-contained events.

There is another kind of event that is quite different from the elementary ones of which I have been speaking. It is a moment of human experience. Some portion of this event is usually conscious, although most of it is not.

Despite all the differences, there are also similarities in basic structure. A moment of human experience arises out of a vast field of events. These events include the neuronal events in the brain as well as a wider environment that includes other people. They also include the past experiences that constitute the person through time. Moment by moment this vast array of events is synthesized into a new human experience. This experience plays a role in shaping subsequent events. Just as no material substance underlies the quantum events, so no mental substance underlies the flow of human experiences.

This vision of reality is relational through and through. Its implications in the fields of education, of economics, and of politics are to emphasize these relations. Human community and interrelatedness with other beings replace the self-contained isolation of homo politicus and homo economicus. The ecological context is apparent as crucial for human thriving.

Despite the importance of relationships and, therefore, of human community and ecology, the picture is not complete without the notion of decision. Scientists speak of quantum events as also deciding. There are alternatives among which only one is actualized. In human experience also there are alternatives of which only one is actualized. Moment by moment we decide exactly what we shall make of ourselves given all that is settled for us by our past and our environment. We are responsible beings. We are not simply the outcome of our situations, profoundly as they inevitably shape us.

I have sketched the alternative understanding that we believe to be suitable to replace the modern one, which is now counterproductive. We think that many ecologically oriented people are moving in this direction. We believe that many feminists are also sensing something of this sort. We think that thoughtful physicists who are still trying to understand the strange world of quantum and relativity are increasingly exploring an interpretation of this sort. We think that this vision is closer to that of the cultures of much of the world.

But we hold these views as hypotheses to be tested. Our complaint is that too few people are willing to engage in this testing. Our judgment is that, thus far, where testing has occurred, the results have been favorable. That encourages us to seek more testing. It is my hope, and even my expectation, that China will be the place where the most serious testing takes place.

In a world in crisis, we cannot wait for the elusive certainties that we might like. We need to test and act on the results of those tests. The fields in which we need to act are many. I myself am a Christian theologian. I believe that Christianity has suffered greatly from its adoption of one kind of substance thinking from the Greeks and another, cruder form, from modernity. For decades I have been testing the fruitfulness of translating Christian teaching into a new ontological context. I find the resultant formulations closer to those of the Bible and also more directly expressive of Christian experience. In addition transforming Christianity in this way opens it to a more positive relation to other religious traditions. My testing has led me to think that this experiment is well worth pursuing.

Because the global crisis is so profoundly informed by economics, I have also proposed an experiment in that field. What if we understood human beings as fundamentally relational and communal instead of self-contained individuals in competition with one another? What kind of an economy would we then recommend and strive for? Would it still make the increase of goods and services as defined by Gross Domestic Product its one goal? Or would it strive to find a way to produce goods in such a way as to strengthen human community and to develop a sustainable relationship to the natural world? I believe the latter would follow from this change in the assumptional basis of economic theory. I believe we would all benefit if economists experimented with developing policies geared to this end. Since the human and ecological consequences of present economic policies are leading the world to ecological disaster and are destroying the human communities that might enable us to respond to the crises that lie ahead.

In describing the features of Western modernity, I mentioned nationalism. In the medieval period, national feeling was subordinated to religious commitments. People in Western Europe understood themselves as Christians first and foremost. Having a single Christian empire remained an unrealized goal. The church, however, was organized institutionally so as to express the sense of unity among believers. The language of educated people everywhere was Latin.

Gradually this changed. People began writing in ethnic languages and giving expression to the particularities of those ethnicities. The Reformation gave impetus to this move by encouraging the translation of the Bible into all the diverse languages of Europe. By turning Christianity into a principle of division rather than one of unity the Reformation also undermined the medieval synthesis. Eventually, as I noted above, peace was achieved only by subordinating the church to the state. The states of Europe were gradually reshaped into units characterized by a common language and ethnicity, in short, nationality. Europe was reorganized into nation states. The feelings that had formerly been ordered primarily by religious community came to be ordered to national identity. Nations became the supreme objects of devotion. French Catholics fought German Catholics for the glory of France. Nazism brought this nationalism to such an extreme that a deep revulsion set in.

Competition among European nations played a large role in the conquest and settlement of the New World and the colonization of Africa and much of Asia. But the ideal of nationalism also cut against the maintenance of these empires. Woodrow Wilson wanted to promote national independence from European powers after World War I. But it took yet another paroxysm of nationalism in World War II to bring an end to the colonially-organized world. There was a major move toward the realization of the ideal of national self-determination. This might be considered the flowering of the modern ideal if it were not so restricted by the neo-colonialism of the new economic order..

It is also possible to see the reorganization of Europe after World War II as post-national and, therefore, postmodern. The nations of Europe surrendered some of their sovereignty in order to achieve a significant level of government at the broader European level. Exactly how to balance the continuing authority of nation states with that of the European Community will long remain a matter of negotiation. In my view a healthy nationalism resists going too far in centralizing power.

I believe Europe does point the way forward to a postmodern global organization. The ideal I derive from my constructive postmodern perspective is that of a community of communities of communities. Deconstructive postmodernists celebrate localism. They talk a great deal about local knowledge and contrast it with ideas imposed from without. I affirm this too. Catholics have long talked of the principle of subsidiarity. All decisions should be made at the smallest level possible. Families should be free to make those decisions that they can make, and we should organize society to expand those decisions. The same is true of villages and urban neighborhoods. But, of course, in a world like ours, many decisions must be made at larger levels. An increasing number must be made globally. We should also strengthen global political and legal organizations.

In such a postmodern world order, nations would continue to have an important role. But some of their power would be decentralized to their provinces and cities and villages, and some would be surrendered to regional and global institutions. There would be important elements of control at the national level, but there would be no such thing as sovereignty at that or any other level. I think there are moves in some such direction in various parts of the world, although nowhere else has the experiment advanced as far as in Europe.

But alongside the birth of a postmodern world there is the threat of continuing the modern or even the premodern one. The current leaders of the United States aim at global hegemony. Their model is the Roman Empire now become global. They do not want a peace that arises out of the negotiation of local, national, and regional interests but one that is imposed by a single nation state on all the others. To prevent this in Europe, statesmen struggled to maintain some kind of balance of power among the nations. Just that balance of power is now rejected by neoconservatives in the United States in favor of overwhelming power in the hands of one nation. I am distressed by this goal and frightened by the way it is being pursued. It is, I believe, urgent, at least in the United States, to make visible an alternative, postmodern vision of world order to rally support behind a quite different program.

In conclusion, I remind you that there is no proof that the kind of postmodern theory, science, politics, economics, and world order that constructive postmodernists advocate is the one right way to go. We propose it, instead, as the best that we can now envisage and as offering far more hope to the world than continuing on the present modernizing path. It is certainly preferable to a premodern, imperial world order imposed by one nation simply through military force. May China lead the way into a better future!