A sense of crisis pervades the current culture wars. In their article “The Memetic Tribes of Culture War 2.0,” Peter N. Limberg and Conor Barnes mention six crises: the meaning crisis, the reality crisis, the belonging crisis, the proximity crisis, the sobriety crisis and the warfare crisis. To these, David Fuller of the channel Rebel Wisdom adds the sense-making crisis. But could the idea of a metaphysical crisis be any more remote from the current culture wars or more irrelevant to the modern world and the challenges of postmodernism? Indeed, for the reader weaned on modernity, the term metaphysics may have no meaning at all. To situate that reader, we must go all the way back to Aristotle, who wrote a book we call the Metaphysics—which he did not name and in which he does not use the term. Not a promising start. Subsequent generations have attempted definitions: the study of being, first principles, appearance vs. reality, ultimate explanations, knowledge of transcendent reality, absolute presuppositions. The Google dictionary helpfully narrows the definition to “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time and space.” Put simply: if you are speaking in terms of “universals” or “essences,” you are speaking the language of metaphysics. It will be helpful to think of metaphysics as a tool or methodology with which we can explore the crisis of modernity precipitated by postmodernism and the responses to it.
The core thought of postmodernism or postmodernity, the progenitor of the Social Justice movement now so prominent in the culture wars, was expressed by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his The Postmodern Condition as an incredulity towards metanarratives. The channel Cuck Philosophy cogently expands the definition of postmodernity to include challenges to foundationalism—“the idea that there is some single center or source from which all knowledge is derived”; essentialism—“the idea that each thing has some kind of essence”; teleology—“the idea that there’s an inherent purpose to things”; and, especially, universals—“related to all of these, there is a suspicion of universals, and of the idea that you could derive a final and complete interpretation of the world, because no system is ever fully complete or self-sufficient.” The host notes that these challenges “run counter to many major Enlightenment thinkers, who did often see things in terms of metanarratives, foundations, purpose and essences.” As such, postmodernism can also be viewed as anti-metaphysical.
The terms modern, modernity, modernism describe a welter of activities, ideas and innovators that gained momentum in the nineteenth century and continue to dominate culture in the present day: art, architecture, literature, philosophy, Marx, Freud, Darwin, Nietzsche. They also encompass a number of other nineteenth- and twentieth-century terms, such as liberalism, humanism, progressivism and secularism. For much of the modern period, modernity has been guided by the universals of the Enlightenment. Hence, the metaphysical crisis of modernity.
The current culture wars and the excesses of the Social Justice movement have been ably chronicled by a number of intellectual dissidents, primarily in podcasts, but now increasingly in books, articles and other media. These podcasts and articles highlight the more extreme aspects of the movement, such as the “epistemic relativism” that prioritizes doctrine over facts. Often mentioned in these discussions, but frequently without further elaboration, are “universal principles,” such as freedom, equality and justice, which, according to the dissidents, are being endangered by the Social Justice movement. This raises an important question: at bottom, is the movement a manifestation of a metaphysical crisis of modernity? A number of thinkers have tacitly acknowledged this by producing works intended to salvage modernity from the current crisis.
The Metaphysical Question or the Question of Metaphysics
Metaphysics has been in disrepute for much of the modern period. As David Hume famously stated,
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
The Vienna Circle and A. J. Ayer and the logical positivists continued the attack in the twentieth century with the result that today the study of essences and universals is primarily reserved for clergy—and not many of them at that. R. G. Collingwood, who remained a metaphysician during the high tide of logical positivism, nevertheless believed that metaphysics could be studied systematically: that is, it could be, in his words, a science. In An Essay on Metaphysics, he argues that metaphysics consists of the systematic identification and study of absolute presuppositions. Presuppositions are beliefs that are pre-supposed to be true: assumptions that serve as the basis of thought and are not considered to require proof themselves. Presuppositions can be large or small. An absolute presupposition is a large overarching claim through which much or all of reality will be read. One absolute presupposition would be that “universal principles,” such as freedom, equality and justice, exist as fixed ideas through time. Postmodernism challenges this absolute presupposition, which poses a challenge to the metaphysics of modernity. After postmodernism, the question becomes whether such universals are possible.
What Are the Absolute Presuppositions of Modernity?
The essence of modernity is change: scientific, evolutionary, progressive, dynamic, inexorable. It is a fundamental assumption underlying our thinking that we live in a world of constant change. This contrasts with the pre-modern view of the world as fixed and unchanging, including its religious dogmas and absolutes in ethics and values. Modernity is therefore by nature transformational and destructive (not always in a violent revolutionary sense) because that which is always changing and new necessarily supersedes—that is, essentially destroys—that which came before. As such, modernity is corrosive of absolutes, both secular and religious. A corollary of the essential nature of modernity has been that fixed ideas, dogmas and absolutes are therefore obstacles to be overcome and rendered obsolete. However, modernity is actually a constellation (to use Collingwood’s term) of absolute presuppositions, the most important being the doctrine of progress, but also including, in the case of utopian systems of thought, the ultimate perfectibility of humanity. Various doctrines, or, in the view of some, pseudo-religions, such as the theories of Marx, Freud and perhaps Darwin, have propelled the doctrine of progress forward during the period of modernity. Marx and Freud have fallen out of favor as guiding forces in the progress of modernity and there have been challenges to Darwin as well, leaving the Enlightenment and classical liberalism as the remaining supporting pillars of modernity until the advent of the Social Justice movement.
Postmodernism—or, in its current evolved form, the Social Justice movement—is the same as modernity in that its essence remains change, but it is radically different in that it questions the validity of the absolutes and universals (metanarratives), including those of the Enlightenment, that undergird modernity itself. In this sense it would probably be more appropriate to call it hypermodernity, rather than postmodernity. As Helen Pluckrose puts it, “if we see modernity as the tearing down of structures of power including feudalism, the Church, patriarchy and Empire, postmodernists are attempting to continue it, but their targets are now science, reason, humanism and liberalism.” The net effect of this is that change and progress in a postmodern world involve the fragmentation into “an irrational and tribal ‘pre-modern’ culture.”
There have been a number of responses to this metaphysical crisis of modernity. Let’s look at two of them. The first attempts to rehabilitate the key metaphysical underpinnings of modernity, while the second attempts to provide an alternative synthesis for a truly postmodern world, that is, a world where there are no absolute universals—Enlightenment or otherwise—underpinning modernity.
Steven Pinker’s Response to the Crisis
Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress tries to rehabilitate the doctrine of progress and reestablish the universal principles of the Enlightenment as the absolute presuppositions of modernity. Pinker uses extensive data in an attempt to provide an empirical, scientific basis for the doctrine of progress. In his own words, he has “documented the reality of progress.” Indeed, some of the reviews distill his book down to a collection of charts demonstrating continuing material progress—“this book consists essentially of seventy-two graphs”—but this is to miss the import of the book as a response to the metaphysical crisis of modernity. Part III of Pinker’s book sets forth his brief for reason, science and humanism—basically, the maximizing of human flourishing—and the ideas of the Enlightenment, including pithy critiques of postmodernity, which he sees as self-refuting, and Nietzsche, the “godfather to all intellectual movements of the twentieth century that were hostile to science and objectivity,” including postmodernism. Pinker notes that “progress” unguided by humanism is not progress and suggests the need for a deeper foundation for humanistic morality based on the key scientific ideas of entropy and evolution.
But Pinker’s approach does not tackle the question of whether “progress” has moved beyond the concept of material progress that gained ascendency in the nineteenth century and propelled modernity through the twentieth century. It also has the disadvantage of being primarily retrospective. While Pinker believes that “a consilience with science offers the humanities many possibilities for new insight” and that a foundation for humanistic morality can be provided, based on entropy and evolution, he does not himself propose a new synthesis or narrative and as such his exposition may fail one of the primary and continuing requirements of modernity: that it be new.
John Vervaeke’s Response to the Crisis
John Vervaeke takes a very different approach to the metaphysical crisis of modernity in a 50-episode internet course entitled Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. While Pinker’s book is a broad survey, Vervaeke proposes a new synthesis embedded in a new historical narrative. For Vervaeke, progress or meaning is not underwritten by fixed beliefs, ideologies or universals but is the product of a fact-specific evolutionary process. Vervaeke proposes a synthesis of multidisciplinary cognitive science and eastern and western philosophical and spiritual philosophies and practices that involves a constantly evolving interaction with the world. This process—termed “relevance realization”—results in constant individual transformation and self-transcendence. The new synthesis thus provides a metaphysical basis for the absolute presupposition of modernity as constant change unguided by any universals. It is a metaphysics of “pure” progress. Unlike Pinker, who feels that “the humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism,” Vervaeke views his approach as an alternative response to postmodernism.
While Vervaeke presents a new synthesis that preserves the absolute presupposition of modernity as continuous change, he provides no support for beliefs, ideologies or universals to guide such change. His system is intentionally anti-essentialist at its core. The question that arises is whether, as evidenced by the fragmentations of the Social Justice movement, a modernity of pure, unguided change is sustainable or whether a return to fixed beliefs, ideologies, universals in some form is inevitable.
And What of Religion?
Both Pinker and Vervaeke reject traditional religion as a viable alternative to the metaphysical crisis of modernity. Vervaeke notes
we can’t return to religion and we can’t move to its political secular alternatives because of the trauma that has been inflicted by their history and so we are stuck … there is no political solution—to quote The Police—and yet we also are not willing to return to a nostalgic and therefore impotent religious framework, so we sit trapped.
So, what of religion? In light of this metaphysical vacuum, will the masses begin to return to the dogmas and certainties of traditional religion? Does this metaphysical crisis set the stage for one of the west’s periodic religious revivals? Ironically, as the need for a retrospective recovery of absolute universals has begun to dawn on some defenders of modernity, the traditional confessions have continued to distance themselves from dogmas and absolute universals in a bid to accommodate religious belief to a modernity of change that is itself in crisis. In his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor sees the future of Christianity as one of continuous destabilization and recomposition in new forms, a view perhaps not too far from Vervaeke’s, while, in his Who’s Afraid of Relativism, Community, Contingency and Creaturehood, James K. A. Smith suggests that the therapeutic deployment of absolute truth in response to postmodern relativism might be gnostic and even heretical. In short, most traditional confessions appear to have embraced the absolute presupposition of modernity. There has been a revival of orthodox confessions, such as the Roman Catholic Latin community, but what influence these communities may have on any metaphysical revival cannot be determined.
The Social Justice movement has brought to the surface a paradox that was latent in modernity until the advent of postmodernism itself. Before postmodernism, while there had been periodic cultural pessimism, as after World War I, there was no perceived metaphysical crisis because modernity continued to direct its transformative (corrosive) powers against practices and beliefs that were considered obsolete, such as religion. If the essence of modernity has become radicalized change and the blind progress that necessarily involves a constant superseding of all fixed absolutes, including those undergirding modernity itself, the question becomes whether fixed absolute universals that can provide guidance for the progress of modernity are still possible. If so, how are they determined and who, in our tribal postmodern world, will determine them? Following the Social Justice movement, one can no longer merely wave in the direction of the “universals” of the Enlightenment and classical liberalism. At the micro level, individuals may be able to dispense with universals as Vervaeke proposes and be satisfied with a continuous personal transformation and self-transcendence, but what about the macro level of politics and culture? The working out of this conundrum, which must necessarily result in some modification of absolute presuppositions of modernity as pure progressive change, will constitute the true postmodern condition.