The Myth of Modernism [1]

Chapter 1: “Philosophy” (An Introduction)

The history of philosophy is the history of changes in the meanings of words.

Once upon a time, philosophia meant simply the “love of wisdom.” Wisdom referred to knowledge gained by experience of what was good in life. The young philosopher sought wisdom from elders so that they might live better; elders dwelt upon their experience so that they might have something to pass on to those younger. This kind of “philosophy” seems to have been more or less universal across humankind.

Western philosophy diverged from this with the Greeks. Socrates believed that the good life was not achieved by means of wisdom, but rather, that the pursuit of wisdom was the proper end of a good life. The means and ends were inverted, and with this inversion, the aim was necessarily broadened beyond “wisdom” as previously understood—after all, if the purpose of life is the pursuit of wisdom, then wisdom cannot only be ‘that knowledge which aids in living well,’ or it would be circular. Knowledge became the proper end—or telos—of life; and the pursuit of knowledge became the new wisdom. Philosophy ceased to concern “the good life” and became about “truth.”

So Western philosophy began. And because its “truth” is expressed through the analogic medium of language, the progression of philosophy has been expressed through a series of modifications, additions, and inversions in words.

Many people today dismiss philosophy out of hand, as mental masturbation pursued by eccentrics with their heads stuck permanently in some cloud or other. There is some validity in this feeling, as the pursuit of truth—followed swiftly by the pursuit of the meaning of “truth,” and then what it would mean to understand the meaning of “truth,” etc., etc.—can appear not only futile, but obnoxiously vain and self-important.

It is entirely reasonable to ask: why bother?

Regardless of whether or not one takes an interest in philosophy, we live in a world of words, and these words are given tone and color by philosophy. When it is taken as a given that, for instance, “racism is evil,” control over the meaning of “racism” can change understandings of good and evil. Refusing or dismissing philosophy does not free one from the power of words; to the contrary, such a refusal makes one more vulnerable the manipulations of those skilled in the use of words. If we accept “equality is good,” then those who can redefine “equality” can control our idea of the good, or at least force us into uncomfortable silence over a feeling of internal contradiction.

Even when this is not legally or socially enforced, words comprise our own internal narratives that interpret and shape our actions. We incline towards the good, but our understanding of the good is informed by narratives and metaphors. These narratives and metaphors are mediated by words.

In the view of this book, the transformation of philosophy was a symptom, rather than a cause, and my thesis first concerns the original cause — as well as many of its effects.

But understanding this history of the very term “philosophy” is necessary to grasp the thesis of this book, since my argument concerns the transformation of a number of words — words such as “justice,” “science,” “education,” and “philosophy.” Words acquire new meanings, and with them, new effects in culture, but sometimes retain the valences and associations they held in previous epochs, without the conscious knowledge of those who use them. “Honor,” for instance, is generally frowned upon when spoken of explicitly (at least in the West), yet still retains an afterglow of awe from the days when its meaning was more directly understood, and when our taste was for “virtue” rather than “morality.”

Philosophy – as practiced today – often cannot give us direct insight into the good life, since it abandoned that pursuit and replaced the good life with… philosophy. However, its understanding of truth can be very useful in identifying bad arguments that other people might use to manipulate and abuse others. If one were to imagine philosophy and rhetoric as a kind of martial art, one would be channeling no less of a mind than Aristotle:

[I]t is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.

But with this understanding, perhaps a path from abstract modern philosophy back to philosophia – a love of wisdom in pursuit of a good life, rather than “truth for its own sake” – might become possible as well.

It is my belief that such a path requires an understanding of why this transformation took place—if, perhaps, there were good reasons for such a transformation of philosophy, and if so, whether those reasons are in fact justified. It requires investigating what causes might have led up to this transformation, and – if desirable – whether or not such a transformation could even be undone.

This book will attempt to outline the history of these transformations, their reasons and their effects. My aim is not to persuade in one direction or another, but to point out the choices made in our own meta-narratives in history, how those have shaped our culture, and to highlight both the benefits and the costs in those trade-offs. I will not pretend that I do not have my own preference, which is against what I will be calling “modernism,” and for what in philosophy is called “pre-modernism,” but it cannot be overstated that pre-modernism has its draw-backs and costs. Ultimately, we all must make our own decisions, for we bear the consequences of our own actions and are responsible for our own lives whether we feel “free” to do so or not.  Understanding the history of the language that comprises our own internal narratives – as well as our shared narratives – is a necessary step in bringing any real agency to bear on that responsibility.

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