In the Shadow of the Enlightenment, II

I left off the last post a little abruptly. Here I’ll flesh out more about the meaning of the Modern Era becoming “self-devouring”.

A lot of what is called “post-modernism” isn’t that at all. It’s Late Modernity devouring itself and its own foundations. A lot of post-modern thinking doesn’t have a sniff of a clue about what comes after the “deconstruction”. And it is in that sense that, formerly, I made note of the apparent reversal of roles between Promethean Man and his “brother” Epimethean Man, the former meaning “forethought” or “foresight” and the latter name meaning “afterthought” or “hindsight”. Promethean Man (or “Faustian Man”) was the spirit of the Modern Era. Epimetheus, as “brother” to Prometheus, is the latter’s alter ego. Epimetheus corresponds to post-modernity. Prometheus and Epimetheus “bookend” the Age of Reason, just as meanings of Parzifal and Don Quixote “bookend” the High Middle Ages. Parzifal is the fool that becomes a knight. Don Quixote is the knight who reverts to the fool once again.

Prometheus and Epimetheus are this for the Age of Reason. Epimetheus might be taken as the name of the post-Enlightenment and of the Shadow of the Enlightenment, too. Again, this is ironic reversal or enantiodromia in action.

We tend to think that we are being guided in our activities by the spirit of Prometheus, who gifted fire to the human beings, whereas in fact is now not Prometheus but the spirit of Epimetheus who is guiding our thinking, who is the one who opened Pandora’s Box. To put it in other terms, Prometheus is the Luciferic principle, while Epimetheus is the Mephistophelian principle, and are related to each other as beginning and ending, in terms of “foresight” and “hindsight”.

Another way of putting that, perhaps more understandable in contemporary terms, is Reason and Rationality. The divorce of the reasonable and the rational is pretty much the meaning of Gebser’s thoughts about the mental-rational structure of consciousness now functioning in “deficient mode”. We might call that “Epimethean Mode” also, or even “Mephistophelian” mode. This pertains to that observation by Gebser that man’s increase in technological power has not been commensurate with his sense of responsibility for using that power. The increase in “rationality” represented by technology is, therefore, not necessarily corresponding to a gain in reason. In fact, the increase in technological feasibility which seems to attest to “progress”, seems inversely related to the diminished sense of responsibility for that power — an expansion with a corresponding contraction.

Rosenstock-Huessy also made a point of drawing a distinction between the “rational” and the reasonable, which he highlighted in his essay “Farewell to Descartes“, which originally concluded his massive study of the European Revolutions called Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man. This divorce between the rational and the reasonable is also the theme of John Ralston Saul’s works, especially The Unconscious Civilisation and Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. Correspondingly, Rosenstock-Huessy (amongst others) has differentiated between “dialectics” and “dialogics” as parallel to this.

The post-modern retrospective on modernity is clearly not Promethean, but Epimethean. Perhaps even Epimethean regret. This is one of the objections to postmodern philosophy, to a certain extent valid, that while it assumes Nietzsche’s method of “deconstruction” or devaluation of values, it has no corresponding “revaluation of values” as Nietzsche attempted. In that sense, postmodernity represents a self-devouring without a corresponding regenerative vision or “revaluation of values”. But, in effect, “Pandora’s Box” is pretty much identical with Gebser’s observation about man’s increase in technological rationality and feasibility without a corresponding gain in the sense of responsibility for the uses of it.

This is what distinguishes Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy from the mainstream of postmodern thinking and logic (if “logic” there be, for in fact, “logic” is also one of those “metanarratives” that is subject to incredulity and super-scepticism also). The deconstruction or devaluation might be either the endgame or simply a clearing of the deck, and a clearing away of the detritus of modernity in preparation for new growth — the revaluation of values that is, in Gebser’s and Rosenstock’s terms, the integral consciousness. The present situation overall, and as reflected in postmodernism, is ambiguous in that regard, which is why some call it “the danger of dangers”.

And in that respect, I refer you once again to what I posted earlier about “The Most Haunting Words in All Literature“.



2 responses to “In the Shadow of the Enlightenment, II”

  1. davidm58 says :

    Thanks for these posts. Post-modernism is an essential thing to understand, IMO. There are many problems with it, but it holds a key to understanding our time, and it holds a number of important insights that modernism was blind to.

    In addition to Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy, a couple of others come to mind that emphasize a more constructive post-modernism.

    Here is a transcript of a 2002 lecture by John Cobb on Constructive Postmodernism. Cobb is a well known interpreter and champion of Whitehead, and has the distinction of having written perhaps the first book on Environmental Ethics (“Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology,” 1971). He also co-wrote “For the Common Good” with ecological economist Herman Daly.

    I also want to mention the work of mid twentieth century philosopher of religion, Henry Nelson Wieman, who’s work foreshadowed a kind of reconstructive postmodernism – I call it proto-reco-pomo. Two of his best known works are “The Source of Human Good,” and “Man’s Ultimate Commitment.”

    Just yesterday I was reading from “American Philosophies of Religion,” written by Wieman and his former student Bernard Meland. Written in 1936, during the Great Depression and in that period between 1914 and 1945 that you mention as “the dismantling of the modern project,” and which Peter Pogany calls the chaotic transition between Global System 1 (laissez faire) and Global System 2 (regulated capitalism).

    Wieman and Meland at that time outlined 5 distinctive cultural problems: 1) “a great increase of economic goods ,but produced under the control of social customs which make it impossible for the great majority of people to have abundant access to them.” 2) “Great increase in power of achievement but no cause sufficiently dominant to draw all this power into its service.” 3) “an increase in the materials and opportunities for happiness without standards adequate to guide us in our choices and appreciations.” 4) “a great increase of interdependence but without integrating loyalties, habits and sentiments which would enable us to live together cooperatively and in creative community.” 5) “A drift toward collectivism with the danger of diminishing seriously our personal freedom…By personal freedom we here mean the stimulus and the opportunity to exercise individual initiative, to think for one’s self, to experiment, criticize, invent, not necessarily machines but ways and devices for living…such freedom and uniqueness of individuality will destroy culture, especially in our modern world, with its delicate and intricate interdependence, unless each individual so functions as to stimulate the individuality of others and contribute the expression of his own individuality to the enrichment of the life of all…”

    “Perhaps this is the most serious problem we face at this turning point in history when the old individualism is being driven out by necessity. Can a new individualism be developed, an individualism in which the needed harmony and community is sustained by integrating loyalties and sentiments so that there need be no permanent suppression of individuality by regimentation?…”

    “Nothing can do it except a great religion adequate to our time…The primary need is for a widespread interest among great numbers of people in this problem of finding what is essential and fundamental in the passing forms of religion and holding fast to that when new forms are developing. Great numbers of people must become inquirers in religion and not merely passive believers.”

    They then proceed to quote C.G. Jung: ‘Among all my patients in the second half of life…there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life…Every one of them has the feeling that our religious truths have somehow or other grown empty.’ (quote from Modern Man in Search of a Soul).

    Wieman and Meland then conclude this section:
    “These facts would seem to make plain that we must have a religion adequate to our time, else we cannot go on…

    “The task that this situation imposes, however, is a sobering one in the light of the diversity of views and interests in the field of philosophy of religion today. For when differences become too marked and fundamental, concerted effort in dealing with this constructive problem is measurably frustrated, if not precluded. And the difficulty becomes accentuated when those holding varying views turn a deaf ear to one another’s reasoning, or stiffen at the approach of another’s thoughts…If the present work can contribute toward a fuller understanding of the contemporary quests for truth, and increase the degree of mutual appreciation among their proponents, it will at least be a step toward achieving the larger, constructive task that confronts religious thinkers today.”

    Wieman and Meland above seem to be hinting at a middle way between capitalism (individualism) and communism (totalitarian collectivism), this middle way being cooperativism, which is well articulated in this review/summary of the new book, “The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State.”

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