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  Roger Smith, Lecture 6, ‘Modern’
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Roger Smith, Lecture 6, ‘Modern’

Roger Smith, Some Key Philosophical Words in English

Lecture 6, ‘Modern’


A. Varieties of use

i) To periodise history and to contrast ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’. Such usage is western centred and often presupposes teleology (progress or purpose in history – often implicit in ‘the West’).

Such usage may be essentialist or nominalist (supported by the way ‘modern’ varies with context, e.g. ‘Modern History’ at Oxford! Or  ‘Ancients versus Moderns’ in late 17th century).

How should continuity and discontinuity be conceptualised in history?

ii) To refer to recent past or now; sometimes confusion with ‘contemporary’ - современный.

NB: complexity comes from adjective ‘modern’ giving rise to nouns of distinct (but in some ways related) processes/phenomena: modernity – social, economic conditions, etc., but also sometimes a world view: ‘which tends towards objectification, reductionism and materialism’; and modernism in the Arts, as in модерн.


B. ‘Modern’ philosophy?

Are there periods of philosophy, or are truly philosophical questions ‘eternal’? The rejection of the latter with contextualised theories of meaning (e.g. Quentin Skinner).

The convention that ‘modern’ philosophy begins with Descartes. Why? The link to ‘the Scientific Revolution’ and the shift to natural science, as opposed to philosophy, as legitimated knowledge and definitional of ‘modern’. The ‘Scientific Revolution’ as a revolution in metaphysics (E. A. Burtt, Alexandre Koyré, E. J. Dijksterhuis – ‘the mechanisation of the world picture’)? Return to true philosophy with Nietzsche, Heidegger?

Science and the unique ‘modernity’ of the West? Why did modern natural science develop in the West? Max Weber, Joseph Needham, G. E. R. Lloyd.


C. Modernism

A descriptive term for all the Arts since 1870s/1880s which turned against academic, traditional and ‘classical’ models of aesthetics and style (e.g. the Vienna Succession, 1897). The authority of the artist instructs ‘the public’ – but is that authority individual or of a ‘higher truth’? – an unresolved ambiguity.

Importance of break with the past, and with novelty, becoming institutionalised as ‘the avant-garde’ and as debate about ‘what is art?’ The actual diversity of practices and styles.

‘Modernist’ philosophy? The importance of Nietzsche and Freud (later, Jacques Lacan).

Virginia Woolf: ‘In or about 1910, human character changed.’!

Modernist sympathy for what is ‘modern’ – the importance of the city and of technology.


D. Postmodernity and postmodernism

NB claims about social/political conditions and about culture.

Debate about a break from ‘modernism/modernity’, from late 1970s to c.2000. E.g. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (1979). Central claim: the collapse of the authority of ‘meta-narratives’ (e.g. Marxism) and hence a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ of knowledge/values. Ambiguity whether arguments include the natural sciences. Reassertion of science and religion.

Debate began in architecture (reacting against commercialised Mies van der Rohe) and the Arts, hence OED defines postmodernism as ‘reacting against modernism, especially by self-consciously drawing attention to earlier styles and conventions’.

‘Postmodern philosophy’? Derrida and the critique of representation – all statements are about other statements, not ‘a world’. Draws attention to power (Michel Foucault) and play in regulating discourse. Importance of critique of ‘meta-narratives’ of ‘the self’, in tension with emphasis on ‘the self’ in individualist societies. The resulting academic/artistic practice of ironic self-reflexivity. ‘Popularity’ as a measure of value – just as in ‘popular culture’.