A good part of my intellectual struggle and burden throughout my life has been to find a view from outside of the modern world, from which to look at and evaluate that world.
It’s strange, in a way, that I have worked so hard to get my head outside of modernity, when there is so much about modernity that I appreciate. It is indeed my home. It is my community. In a way, everything that I have, I owe to it. Everything I am comes from modernity, and even the hints of an older world that have reached me are themselves filtered through the modern reality before they reach me.
I am grateful for modern medicine. I love the insights of the modern sciences. I respect the political achievements of modern nations. I am amazed by the scholarly achievements of the modern university.
And of course, it goes without saying that one can’t say a harsh word about modernity or technology these days without some little genius commenting that “lolol you know you’re actually literally typing on the internet right this second as you say that, it kind of undermines what you’re saying don’t you think.”
Still, I think that for the philosophical mind, there is a desire to step outside the accretion of assumptions that is everywhere and unquestioned in a given civilization, to find a standpoint that is not merely conventional and dogmatic, in order to see more clearly what is timelessly true and what is ephemeral. It is the question of nomos and physis; these things that my community believes, are they merely our tribal mythology, or are they the way the world truly is? We can’t answer that question from within the mythology itself, and so another standpoint, exterior to the society’s understanding, must be found.
I was fortunate in my youth to grow up with a sincere Christian faith, which helped shove a sort of wedge into my mind to compete with the modern assumptions about the way the world really is. It planted some questions early on, which enabled me to wonder whether modernity had the unquestionable, absolute authority to answer questions in the way that it seemed to claim for itself.
To be determinedly anti-modern is of course as irrational and pointless as it is to be mindlessly in favour of all things modern — probably even worse, if anything. There are many good things in the modern world, for which we should be grateful, and from which we ought to learn. To be predictably opposed to our society on every point is both irrational and irresponsible.
Still, the philosophical mind cannot be content with docilely accepting the account of the world that it receives from the surrounding society. Even if in the end a deep thinker ends up as the greatest apologist for a particular approach, it is still certain that such a judgement would be meaningless (and from the philosopher’s perspective, impossible) without having found some standpoint outside that approach to start from.
But how can we stand outside of modernity when it is so all-encompassing? And what will we find once we are there? Many possible standpoints are available. To entertain the possibility of religious revelation is one avenue, as I implied above. To imagine a good world without modern technologies is also an option. Proposed economic arrangements other than capitalism also offer a fascinating view from outside.
And what do we find? We find ourselves drawing closer to an understanding of human nature, to philosophy and political philosophy and the realities of epistemology, at the very least. Eventually, maybe we can say something worthwhile about this world in which we find ourselves.