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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226450452
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/28/1991
Series: Theoretical Astrophysics Ser.
Edition description: 1
Pages: 267
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009) was professor of philosophy at the University of Warsaw until the Polish political crisis of March 1968 when he was formally expelled. He then moved to universities in North America and the United Kingdom. From 1981 to 1994 he was a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the department of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He is best known for his critical analyses of Marxist thought, especially his three-volume history, Main Currents of Marxism (1976). In his later work, he increasingly focused on philosophical and religious questions. He was the author of numerous books.

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Modernity on Endless Trial

By Leszek Kolakowski

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1990 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-45046-9


Modernity on Endless Trial

If we are to believe Hegel — or Collingwood — no age, no civilization, is capable of conceptually identifying itself. This can only be done after its demise, and even then, as we know too well, such an identification is never certain or universally accepted. Both the general morphology of civilizations and the descriptions of their constitutive characteristics are notoriously controversial and heavily loaded with ideological biases, whether they express a need for self-assertion by comparison with the past or a malaise in one's own cultural environment and the resulting nostalgia for the good times of old. Collingwood suggests that each historical period has a number of basic ("absolute") presuppositions which it is unable clearly to articulate and which provide a latent inspiration for its explicit values and beliefs, its typical reactions and aspirations. If so, we might try to uncover those presuppositions in the lives of our ancient or medieval ancestors and perhaps build on this basis a "history of mentalities" (as opposed to the "history of ideas"); but we are in principle prevented from revealing them in our own age, unless, of course, the owl of Minerva has already flown out, and we are living in the twilight, at the very end of an epoch.

And so, let us accept our incurable ignorance of our own spiritual foundation and be satisfied with the survey of the surface of our "modernity," whatever the word might mean. Whatever it means, it is certain that modernity is as little modern as are the attacks on modernity. The melancholic "Ah, nowadays ...," "there is no longer ...," "in olden days ...," and similar expressions contrasting the corrupted present with the splendor of the past are probably as old as the human race; we find them in the Bible and in the Odyssey. I can well imagine paleolithic nomads angrily resisting the foolish idea that it would be better for people to have permanent dwellings or predicting the imminent degeneration of mankind as a result of the nefarious invention of the wheel. Mankind's history conceived as a degradation belongs, as we know, to the most persistent mythological topics in various parts of the world, including both the symbol of the exile and Hesiod's description of the five ages. The frequency of such myths suggests that, apart from other possible social and cognitive functions, they voice a universally human, conservative mistrust of changes, a suspicion that "progress," on second thought, is no progress at all, a reluctance to assimilate transformations, however beneficial in appearance, of the established order of things.

The changes go on, nonetheless, and they usually find a sufficient number of enthusiastic supporters. The clash between the ancient and the modern is probably everlasting and we will never get rid of it, as it expresses the natural tension between structure and evolution, and this tension seems to be biologically rooted; it is, we may believe, an essential characteristic of life. It is obviously necessary for any society to experience the forces both of conservation and of change, and it is doubtful whether any theory will ever provide reliable tools for measuring the relative strength of those opposite energies in any given society, so that we could add and subtract them from each other like quantifiable vectors and build on this basis a general schema of development, endowed with predictive power. We can only guess what gives some societies the ability to assimilate rapid changes without falling apart, what makes others satisfied with a very slow pace of development, and under precisely what conditions development or stagnation lead to violent crises or to self-destruction.

Curiosity, that is, the separate drive to explore the world disinterestedly, without being stimulated by danger or physiological dissatisfaction, is, according to students of evolution, rooted in specific morphological characteristics of our species and thus cannot be eradicated from our minds as long as the species retains its identity. As both Pandora's most deplorable accident and the adventures of our progenitors in Paradise testify, the sin of curiosity has been the main cause of all the calamities and misfortunes that have befallen mankind, and it has unquestionably been the source of all its achievements.

The impulse to explore has never been evenly distributed among the world's civilizations. Generations of scholars have asked why the civilization that emerged from joint Greek, Latin, Judaic, and Christian sources was so uniquely successful in promoting and spreading rapid and accelerating changes in science, technology, art, and social order, whereas many cultures survived for centuries in almost stagnant conditions, affected only by barely noticeable changes or sunk into slumber after short-lived eruptions of creativity?

There is no good answer. Each civilization is a contingent agglutination of various social, demographic, climatic, linguistic and psychological circumstances and any search for one ultimate cause of its emergence or decline seems very unpromising. When we read studies which purport to show, for example, that the Roman empire collapsed because of the widespread use of lead pots, which poisoned and damaged the brains of the upper classes, or that the Reformation can be accounted for by the spread of syphilis in Europe, we cannot keep from strongly doubting their validity. On the other hand, the temptation to look for "causes" is hard to resist, even if we guess that civilizations arise and crumble under the impact of uncountable factors, independent of each other, and that the same may be said about the emergence of new animal or plant species, about the historical locations of cities, the distribution of mountains on the surface of the earth, or the formation of particular ethnic tongues. By trying to identify our civilization, we try to identify ourselves, to grasp the unique, collective ego which we sense is necessary and whose nonexistence would be as inconceivable as my own nonexistence is for me. And so, even though there is no answer to the question "Why is our culture what it is?" it is unlikely that we can delete the question from our minds.

Modernity itself is not modern, but clearly the clashes about modernity are more prominent in some civilizations than in others and never have they been as acute as in our time. At the beginning of the fourth century, Iamblichos stated that the Greeks are by nature lovers of novelty ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and disregard tradition — in contrast to the barbarians; yet he did not praise the Greeks for that reason, quite the contrary. Are we still heirs of the Greek spirit in this respect? Is our civilization based on the belief (never expressed in so many words, to be sure) that what is new is good by definition? Is this one of our "absolute presuppositions?" This might be suggested by the value judgment usually associated with the adjective reactionary. The word is clearly pejorative, and one hardly finds people who would be ready to use it to describe themselves. And yet to be "reactionary" means nothing more than to believe that in some of its aspects, however secondary, the past was better than the present. If to be reactionary automatically means to be wrong — and the adjective is almost invariably employed with this assumption — it appears that one is always wrong in believing that the past might have been better in whatever respect, which amounts to saying that whatever is newer is better. Still, we hardly ever state our "progressism" in such a bold manner. The same ambiguity haunts the very word modern. In German the word means both "modern" and "fashionable," whereas English and other European tongues distinguish the two meanings. And yet the Germans might be right; it is not clear how the distinction should be defined, at least in contexts where both adjectives are usable. To be sure, in some cases those words are not interchangeable; in expressions like modern technology, modern science, and modern industrial management, the word fashionable would not do, but it is hard to explain the difference between modern ideas and fashionable ideas, modern painting and fashionable painting or modern clothes and fashionable clothes.

In many instances the term modern seems to be value-free and neutral, not unlike fashionable: modern is what is prevailing in our time, and indeed the word is often used sarcastically (as in Chaplin's Modern Times). On the other hand, the expressions modern science and modern technology strongly suggest, at least in common usage, that what is modern is thereby better. The ambiguity of meaning reflects perhaps the ambiguity, just mentioned, which haunts our attitude toward changes: they are both welcomed and feared, both desirable and cursed. Many companies advertise their products with phrases implying both attitudes: "good old-fashioned furniture" or "soup like Grandma used to make" as well as "an entirely new soap" or "an exciting novelty in the laundry-detergent industry." Both kinds of tricks seem to work; perhaps the sociology of advertising has produced an analysis of how, where, and why those apparently contradictory slogans prove to be successful.

Having no clear idea what modernity is, we have recently tried to escape forward from the issue by talking about postmodernity (an extension or an imitation of the somewhat older expressions postindustrial society, postcapitalism, etc.). I do not know what postmodern is and how it differs from premodern, nor do I feel that I ought to know. And what might come after the postmodern? The post-postmodern, the neo-postmodern, the neo-antimodern? When we leave aside the labels, the real question remains: Why is the malaise associated with the experience of modernity so widely felt, and where are the sources of those aspects of modernity that make this malaise particularly painful?

How far back modernity may be extended depends, of course, on what we believe constitutes the meaning of the notion. If it is big business, rational planning, the welfare state, and the subsequent bureaucratization of social relationships, the extent of modernity is to be measured in decades rather than centuries. If we think, however, that the foundation of modernity is in science, it would be proper to date it from the first half of the seventeenth century, when the basic rules of scientific inquiry were elaborated and codified and scientists realized — thanks mainly to Galileo and his followers — that physics was not to be conceived as a report from experience but rather as an elaboration of abstract models never to be perfectly embodied in experimental conditions. Yet nothing prevents us from probing more deeply into the past: the crucial condition of modern science was the movement toward the emancipation of secular reason from revelation, and the struggle for the independence of the faculties of arts from those of theology in medieval universities was an important part of this process. The very distinction between natural and divinely inspired knowledge, as it was worked out in Christian philosophy from the eleventh century onwards, was, in its turn, the conceptual foundation of this struggle, and it would be difficult to decide which came first: the purely philosophical separation of the two areas of knowledge or the social process whereby the intellectual urban class with its claims to autonomy was established.

Shall we then project our "modernity" onto the eleventh century and make St. Anselm and Abelard its (respectively unwilling and willing) protagonists? There is nothing conceptually wrong with such an extension, but there is nothing very helpful about it either. We can go indefinitely far, of course, in tracing back the roots of our civilization, but the question so many of us have been trying to cope with is not so much when modernity started, but What is the core — whether or not explicitly expressed — of our contemporary widespread Unbegahen in der Kultur? Anyway, if the word modernity is to be useful, the meaning of the first question has to depend on the answer to the latter. And the first answer that naturally comes to mind is summed up, of course, in the Weberian Entzauberung — disenchantment — or in any similar word roughly covering the same phenomenon.

We experience an overwhelming and at the same time humiliating feeling of déjà vu in following and participating in contemporary discussions about the destructive effects of the so-called secularization of Western civilization, the apparently progressive evaporation of our religious legacy, and the sad spectacle of a godless world. It appears as if we suddenly woke up to perceive things which the humble, and not necessarily highly educated, priests have been seeing — and warning us about — for three centuries and which they have repeatedly denounced in their Sunday sermons. They kept telling their flocks that a world that has forgotten God has forgotten the very distinction between good and evil and has made human life meaningless, sunk into nihilism. Now, proudly stuffed with our sociological, historical, anthropological and philosophical knowledge, we discover the same simple wisdom, which we try to express in a slightly more sophisticated idiom.

I admit that by being old and simple, this wisdom does not necessarily cease to be true, and indeed I do believe it to be true (with some qualifications). Was Descartes the first and the main culprit? Probably so, even on the assumption that he codified philosophically a cultural trend that had already paved its way before him. By equating matter with extension and therefore abolishing the real variety in the physical universe, by letting this universe infallibly obey a few simple and all-explanatory laws of mechanics, and by reducing God to its logically necessary creator and support — a support, however, that was constant and thus robbed of its significance in explaining any particular event — he definitively, or so it seemed, did away with the concept of Cosmos, of a purposeful order of nature. The world became soulless, and only on this presupposition could modern science evolve. No miracles and no mysteries, no divine or diabolical interventions in the course of events, were conceivable any longer; all the later and still-continuing efforts to patch up the clash between the Christian wisdom of old and the so-called scientific worldview were bound to be unconvincing for this simple reason.

To be sure, it took time for the consequences of this new universe to unfold. Massive, self-aware secularity is a relatively recent phenomenon. It seems, however, from our current perspective, that the erosion of faith, inexorably advancing in educated classes, was unavoidable. The faith could have survived, ambiguously sheltered from the invasion of rationalism by a number of logical devices and relegated to a corner where it seemed both harmless and insignificant. For generations, many people could live without realizing that they were denizens of two incompatible worlds and, by a thin shell, protect the comfort of faith while trusting progress, scientific truth and modern technology.

The shell was eventually to be broken, and this was ultimately done by Nietzsche's noisy philosophical hammer. His destructive passion brought havoc into the seeming spiritual safety of the middle classes and demolished what he believed was the bad faith of those who refused to be witnesses to the death of God. He was successful in passionately attacking the spurious mental security of people who failed to realize what really had happened, because it was he who said everything to the end: the world generates no meaning and no distinction between good and evil; reality is pointless, and there is no other hidden reality behind it; the world as we see it is the Ultimum; it does not try to convey a message to us; it does not refer to anything else; it is self-exhausting and deaf-mute. All this had to be said, and Nietzsche found a solution or a medicine for the despair: this solution was madness. Not much could have been said after him on the lines he had laid out.

It might have appeared that it was his destiny to become the prophet of modernity. In fact, he was too ambiguous to assume this task. On one hand he affirmed, under duress, the irreversible intellectual and moral consequences of modernity and poured scorn on those who timidly hoped to save something from the old tradition; on the other hand he denounced the horror of modernity, the bitter harvest of progress; he accepted what he knew — and said — was terrifying. He praised the spirit of science against the Christian "lies," but at the same time, he wanted to escape from the misery of democratic leveling and sought refuge in the ideal of a barbarous genius. Yet modernity wants to be satisfied in its superiority and not torn asunder by doubt and despair.


Excerpted from Modernity on Endless Trial by Leszek Kolakowski. Copyright © 1990 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

I. On Modernity, Barbarity, and Intellectuals
1. Modernity on Endless Trial
2. Looking for the Barbarians: The Illusions of Cultural Universalism
3. The Intellectuals
4. Why Do We Need Kant?
5. In Praise of Exile
II. On the Dilemmas of the Christian Legacy
6. The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture
7. Can the Devil Be Saved?
8. On the So-Called Crisis of Christianity
9. The Illusion of Demythologization
10. Philosophical Faith in the Face of Revelation
11. From Truth to Truth
III. On Liberals, Revolutionaries, and Utopians
12. The Death of Utopia Reconsidered
13. The Idolatry of Politics
14. The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society
15. Politics and the Devil
16. Irrationality in Politics
17. Marxism and Human Rights
18. Revolution—a Beautiful Sickness
19. How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist: A Credo
IV. On Scientific Theories
20. Why an Ideology Is Always Right
21. The General Theory of Not-Gardening
22. Fabula mundi and Cleopatra's Nose
23. Emperor Kennedy Legend: A New Anthropological Debate
Epilogue: Education to Hatred, Education to Dignity

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