March 12, 2012

THE ENLIGHTENMENT WAS THE CATASTROPHE:

Toward a Conservative Postmodernism: a review of Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought, by Peter Augustine Lawler  (ROBERT  P. KRAYNAK, Modern Age)

Conservatives, of course,  are  horrified by this sweeping condemnation  of  the Western tradition and t h e  rejection  of  objective truth  and reason.  Yet  t h e  question  of  attacking  the modern  Enlightenment provokes genuine disagreement among conservatives.  Some take the  position that  the  best  response  to left-wing  postmodernism  is  t o  rally around t h e  Enlightenment-to argue that , even if it overstated the  case  for a narrow version of  rationalism (emphasizing empirical science and  critical reason),  i t s  
political influence ha s  been highly beneficial and,  like o r  not, it is here  to  stay.  Most neoconservatives  adopt the first line of  argument  a s  t h e  cornerstone of their  public  philosophy. They contend that  the Enlightenment may have been overzealous  in  seeking t o  replace  religion  and  custom with science;  but  its  more moderate strands  particularly the Anglo-American  Enlightenment)  produced t h e  doctrine of  natural rights as well as  capitalism and bourgeois civilization, which  a r e  largely responsible for the  freedom and prosperity tha t  we enjoy  today.  A  variation  on  the   neoconservative theme is Francis Fukuyama's argument  about   the   "end  of  history," which states  that  modern liberal democracy and  capitalism are  irreversible historical trends  because they satisfy the rational  demand for the  recognition  of human  dignity. Both  neoconservatives and Fukuyama acknowledge many short-comings of  the  modern age, but neither is willing to trade  it in for vague promises of  a postmodern future. 

Obviously, there  is some merit to this argument; and one  wonders why it fails to resonate with left-wing postmodernists, especially since they are so thoroughly bourgeois  and have such  a big stake in the leisure and conveniences of bourgeois modernity. I suspect  their resistance  is partly due  to  the  ingratitude that  one often finds in spoiled children, but it may also be due to elements of truth in the   postmodern critique that cannot be  ignored, even though the  Left fails t o  grasp the depth of the critique 
and makes  everything worse by attacking the  whole of the Western tradition and embracing cultural relativism.

If my suspicions are correct, then what we need is a response to  the  postmodern challenge that  develops  its  legitimate criticisms of the  Enlightenment and bourgeois modernity but  turns  them  into a conservative version of  postmodernism. Such a position would be much more emphatic about t h e  failures of  modernity than neoconservatives have been (at least in  their  public  pronouncements) and would look for solutions not in propping up the  noble lies of  the  Enlightenment, but in recovering the permanent truths  about  man and society that  lie hidden in the illusions and despair of  modern life. 
Since many  conservatives might  b e  intimidated by such a risky and ambitious project, they can be grateful that Peter Augustine  Lawler ha s  shown them the  way  in  his  new  book,  Postmodernism Rightly  Understood: The Return  to Realism. It  challenges religious  and cultural conservatives  to   take  postmodernism away from the  academic Left and to  develop  it themselves-"rightly  understood, "  of  course. The  point  is  not  t o  outdo  the  Left in bashing modernity but to show that  conservatives need not view the demise  of  t h e  Enlightenment  a s   a catastrophe  to  be avoided  at all costs; instead, they can look upon it as an opportunity t o  return t o  premodern thinkers  such  as  St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy could b e  reformulated anew today . By  this logic , conservative  postmodernism   is  premodernism  brought up to date.


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Posted by at March 12, 2012 6:36 AM
  

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