The Turn Toward

Postmodern Thinking

Postmodern Conference for MacMurray Faculty

May 29-June 8, 2001


Conference Opening Address


Richard E. Palmer

Joseph R. Harker Professor Emeritus

of Philosophy and Religion

MacMurray College




Thank you David, Dean Goulding, and President Bryan.  And greetings to you intrepid explorers, my respected colleagues, who will undertake this ten-day seminar together.  It is a great honor to be asked to launch this conference with a clarifying lecture on Postmodernism and to guide you in the first three days of this conference.  I have chosen some readings for you for the first three days that I think you will find thought-provoking.  I hope some of you have already started on them!


I. Twelve Major Problems

that lead to the Questioning of Modernity

I would like to begin by listing twelve major problems we face today as we enter the 21st century.   They are problems so serious that I think we need to ask why they arose, and why we have not dealt with this adequately sooner.  We may even ask why we are not dealing adequately with them now.  Yet problems have a way of being helpful, in that they make us aware that something may be wrong with our thinking, our view of the earth and of ourselves.  



1. Pollution - of the air, the water, the soil

2. Natural resources running out, or being degraded - oil, water, old growth forests, the ozone layer becoming depleted, whole species dying

3. Population growth outstripping resources worldwide.

4. Unequal distribution of financial resources: Global poverty and hunger increasing each year instead of decreasing

5. The overwhelming power of multinational corporations

6. Nuclear weapons - the danger of worldwide catastrophe

7. Military thinking as means of resolving political conflict

8. Genocides in Africa, Indo-China, Tibet, Europe.

9. Racism, sexism, hatred of homosexuals, antisemitism

10. Rising expectations in third world countries and in our own country as television brings the American/European standards of living into the dwellings of peoples living on the very margins of existence.

11. Fundamentalism and narrowness, exclusivism, particularism, terrorism

12. Ethnic groups clinging to land, to resources, to sacred space, eg, the struggle of Jews and Palestinians over Jerusalem.

A number of these twelve problems are so serious that unless we deal with them effectively, they could end human life on the planet as we know it.  We urgently need to face and deal with these problems.  Ours is truly a time of crisis. 

        A number of thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries did try to deal with them.  They sounded  warnings of “the crisis of our age,”[1] the “decline of the west,”[2] etc.  Indeed, this has been a century of warnings of crisis, of prophets of doom.  One thinks of Jonathan Schell’s book, The Fate of the Earth,[3] which forecast a planet of insects and grass, if we have a nuclear exchange between the East and West.   While there were many critiques and prophecies of doom, a simple, clear way out of the crisis is far from evident.  Many good-hearted people focus on alleviating one aspect or another of the problem.  Some of my friends have become vegetarians on the moral grounds that consuming meat uses up more resources than plants do on a planet where millions are starving.  Whatever the actual effect, this practice has the spiritual and moral advantage of affirming one’s solidarity with those on this planet and in this country who do not have enough to eat.   Habitat for Humanity builds homes one house at a time, recruiting volunteers to help give ownership to persons who otherwise could never afford to own decent housing.  Volunteers help out, make the impossible possible.  Recently, a long-time supporter of Habitat remarked to me that this is still only treating a symptom of the problem, not the cause.  It is not changing the system that is creating poverty and homelessness.  Certainly, helping to build houses will not in itself solve the problem of growing poverty in the world and the structures that make the rich richer and the poor poorer, but it does something instead of despairing.  As Martin says at the end of Candide,  “Let’s just work without theorizing.  That’s the only way to make life bearable.”[4]   On the other hand, as the problem continues to grow larger, and we need at least to address the systemic causes of increasing poverty.  This is one good point William Greider makes in One World, Ready or Not[5] of which you had an excerpt in the booklet of advance reading for this seminar.      

        Certainly a number of thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries have confronted The Crisis of our Age  (a Pitirim Sorokin title) in terms of the systems that cause it, in terms of what we might call the thought forms and assumptions of modernity.  Marx was one of them.  Kierkegard and Nietzsche were others.  Gandhi another.  Max Weber, and more recently, Ken Wilbur,[6] Duane Elgin,[7] Gianni Vattimo,[8] and others.  In the twenties, a famous book by Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, reflected the vivid sense of despair in the twenties.   So it was not just the existentialists who despaired.  There was also the Swiss cultural analyst, Jean Gebser, who tried to discover a new way of thinking.[9]  These thinkers were trying to think their way beyond the thoughtforms of modernity.  The critical theorists of the Frankfurt school, like Horkheimer and Adorno, inspired by Marx, addressed the causes of the problem, not just the symptoms, and there was Michel Foucault, for instance, who discovered within the structures of our knowledge, the infrastructures of power,[10] the strange history of the treatment of mental illness and how asylums were a convenient place for politically marginal people,[11] and the changing logic of disciplining and punishing.[12]   We will read for discussion on Thursday, Foucault’s writings in Power/Knowledge  and Marti, Steve, Kay, and Jay will fill us in on what Foucault does in his treatment of medical perceptions of man over the centuries,  mental illness, the development of prisons in modern times, and the history of the treatment of the subject of sexuality.[13]  Jean-François Lyotard in his The Postmodern Condition described certain metanarratives that guided the thinking of the modern era, especially the two long dominant metanarratives that have lost their force.  These thinkers looked for the thoughtforms (the metanarratives, the infrastructures, the guiding assumptions) behind the practices of modern times in many dimensions since Columbus discovered America.  In this regard, Tzetvan Todorov’s book, The Conquest of America (1982, republished in 1999) with an introduction by Anthony Pagden, author of books exploring the European encounters with the new world,[14] explored the guiding aims and assumptions of Columbus and of Cortes, principally, as they discovered, conquered, and colonized America for the Spanish king and queen.  Friedrich Nietzsche, another great father of postmodernity, went further back than modernity.  He blamed Christianity for the decadence of modern culture.  His word for the way beyond the ideology of Christianity is interesting: Verwindungrecovery: We need, he asserts, to “recover” from the debilitating effects of Christianity and the dogmatic claims of science for truth.  We will not go into Nietzsche’s thinking here,[15] but it is interesting that he said we do not need a revolution; we need to recover from modernity, as from an illness, this recovery does not mean leaving it totally behind, but recovering from its side-effects.  We need to realize the what the undesirable modern structural assumptions are and take steps to outgrow them. 

        In your Conference booklet we have included a difficult  reading from Enrique Düssel’s The Underside of Modernity .[16]  Düssel takes a look at both the colonialism described by Todorov in one of our two books for Thursday, The Conquest of America (1982), and also confronts the economic problems with  globalization that are described by William Greider, in the first selection in the Conference booklet.  But there is a big difference between Düssel, on the one hand, and Greider and Todorov on the other.  The Düssel reading is written by a colonized person!  The colonized Other speaks back!   Düssel is a philosopher of German ancestry born in Argentina and educated in Europe, who was exiled from Argentina in 1975, and who continued to teach and write in Mexico, articulating a “philosophy of liberation.”   His book, Philosophy of Liberation, recently translated into English, is even harder to read than the selection we included in the booklet (also, it is out of print and scarce).  In the last half of the twentieth century, Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff,

Gustavo Gutierrez,[17] and psychoanalysts like Frantz Fanon[18] had written courageously trying to outgrow the structures in modern thinking that give support to the cruelty, thoughtlessness, and greed of “man in the modern age.”   Düssel, writing from outside the church and outside theology, rather in the context of contemporary European philosophy, puts forward a Philosophy of Liberation. Philosophers like Düssel, literary scholars like Todorov, and journalists like William Greider, a gifted author and science writer for the Rolling Stones,  are making us more and more aware not only of the arrogance and cruelty of the conquest of the New World, but also of the present international economic structures that reinforce and perpetuate the Western domination and exploitation of the Third World.   Even the well-intended development projects put forward by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund serve the interests of the dominators rather than the dominated and the people and nations to be helped end up worse off, deeper in debt, than they were before.  Take a “for instance”: in Guatemala, the building of the Chixoy Dam in 1984 meant the displacement and massacre of thousands of people (known as the Rio Negro massacre) for a billion dollar dam which is now less and less useful because of sedimentation that may soon render it fully useless and also the land it is on.  In the meantime, the financing of the project has fastened a heavy foreign debt of nearly a billion dollars on the government of Guatemala.  The only winners here are the American contractors.  Too often, as in this case, development projects turn out to be indirect subsidies for American businesses at the expense of native peoples. 

        Düssel dates modernity from 1492.  Heidegger, whose essay, “The Age of the World Picture” (1938), you will read under the guidance of our resident philosopher, Robert Fowler, chooses Descartes (1594-1650) and the “subjectivist world picture” as the beginning of modernist thinking.  Certainly, in terms of modern philosophy, Descartes represents a turning point.  But Düssel dates modernity from 1492 and the colonizing mentality that claims the divine right to conquer, massacre and oppress the indigenous peoples of the “less developed” world.  But what about countries like India, China, and Indonesia (with literate cultures thousands of years old), which the Europeans also sought to colonize?  Were they, too, “less developed” or just fair game for conquest?   Like Todorov, Düssel, following the French Jewish philosopher, Levinas, explores the view the conquistador takes of the Other (native peoples) and also the colonizers of North America.  As late as the 1880’s  (in the Treaty of Berlin of 1885, I believe), the European powers got together in Berlin to divide up among themselves the rest of the colonizable world, especially Africa.  This peaceful negotiation avoided wars among the colonizing powers themselves!   Düssel’s philosophy of liberation focuses on the presuppositions of colonialism in the settlement of the New World, the consequences of unbridled capitalism, and today the powerful multinational corporations backed up by governments and international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

        Why are we here going into these problems in our Conference?  Why not business as usual in academe until the oil runs out or the polluted air blots out the sun?  No, I suggest that in order to save ourselves we need to confront what Düssel calls The Underside of Modernity (1994).  We are more and more becoming conscious of the “underside” of modernity, the unanticipated side-effects of the way in which we, especially the Western colonizing powers, but also we in America, claiming hegemony over all of Latin America, have evolved in the modern era.  The new agricultural technologies we offer often only change the picture without solving the problem of hunger.  The “Green Revolution” of the sixties and seventies, for instance, sponsored with great hopes by the Rockefeller Foundation, like most of the new medicines, turned out to have unanticipated side-effects.  It required expensive fertilizer, special, expensive seeds, pesticides, tractors, and large plots of land rather than small, independent farms.  We now need, more and more to look at the practical side-effects of modern technology.  We cannot simply abandon technology, but we must try to understand more deeply the attitudes, assumptions, and doctrines that have led to the larger crisis of today that is embodied in the twelve problems we listed above, assumptions that allow the crisis to deepen even today as we move toward the brink of self-destruction, or as William Greider puts it we are flung “up against a wall.”  We are looking at a period gradual economic decline for most of the people of the earth.  In looking at these problems, we have to call into question the ideals of modernity, the presuppositions of the whole era of modernity.   Some thinkers have said we need a “post-modern” perspective.   But how can such a perspective be defined so as to lead us out of the present crisis? 

        One way, I think, could be to view the twelve problems we have listed as side-effects of the kinds of assumptions that have governed thinking in the modern era, the era since Columbus, or since Descartes, or since Kant and the 18th century enlightenment.  Here are some of the assumptions I have in mind: 

II. Some Basic Modern Assumptions

1. That God gave us in particular, in the West, the earth to explore, conquer, and exploit.

2. That we will never run out of water, air, landfill, storage space for nuclear waste.

3. That war is the ultimate practical recourse when a political solution cannot be reached.

4. That we can do nothing about the fact that the rich nations get richer and more comfortable while the poor nations are getting poorer and less self-supporting.

5. That our problems will settle themselves, or our politicians will work them out, but we can do nothing as individuals to change things.

6. That the U.S. is the benevolent model of democracy, technology, and business success.

7. That fundamentalism is exclusively a religious problem aside from social problems, such as poverty, lack of employment, lack of education, and lack of medical care, so we can only combat it by a campaign of anti-terrorism.

8. That Europe and America are the source for the solutions of the world’s problems, not the source of the problems.  We need to look forward to the Europeanization of the world.

9. Europe and America are the center of the world and all other countries are on the periphery.

10. Capitalism, free enterprise, and the open market, if they can be spread throughout the world will solve most of the world’s problems all by themselves. 

11. Helping the “underdeveloped” countries and cultures of the   world is the “white man’s burden.”

12. That modern science and scientific/technological thinking will solve all our problems. 


         I could try to explain why I think each of the above assumptions is a wrong, but in the interest of time, I will instead focus on the twelve problems and try to explain why the assumptions and modern thought structures lead to the problems.   


III. The Twelve Problems as Side-Effects

 of Modern Assumptions and Structures of Thought


        While most people would admit that the twelve problems are major today, and perhaps it could even be said that we are in a crisis, not everyone would see these problems as a constellation of side-effects of modernity—as the “underside” of modernity.  Some people would, rather, look to the economic causal factors and systems as the key to the problem, as Marx did.  Others would trace them to certain inadequate political and social structures, even religious structures, that need to be changed.  Others would blame fate, or say it is Gods punishment for a sinful generation that has forgotten Him. 

        I propose here, however, to look at the twelve major world problems more broadly: as a constellation of unintended consequences of the values, outlook, and achievements modernity, undesirable side-effects of modern thinking, that is, thinking as it has been dominant in the West since 1492.


First problem: the pollution of the air, the water, and the soil.

     Pollution is in some ways a side-effect of the industrial revolution, of advances in health technology that have resulted in a larger world population, the spread of cars to more and more people worldwide, more per capita wealth for a growing minority of well-off people, along with a general disregard for the environmental costs of our way of living.  Unlike premodern aboriginal peoples in Australia or native peoples in the Americas, we moderns do not regard the air, water, and soil as divine gifts to be preserved and enhanced and passed on to our children, but rather as natural resources that are ours to use up.  I think Greider is right in suggesting that we need to start looking at our environment as a closed system.  Factories can’t just dump their wastes out some pipe somewhere and forget it.  They have to recycle their wastes back into the environment.  They have to take responsibility for their wastes.  We need an economics that creates a sustainable environment. 

     What has this got to do with the modern way of thinking?  The modern mindset has been: if chlorofluorocarbons are helpful to our spray-cans, OK; if automobiles and trucks make our lives more comfortable, then we do not have to consider the cumulative impact of the CFCs or of exhaust emissions on air quality or the ozone layer.  In this year of 2001, car manufacturers still compete with each other in creating more and more of these clever individual transportation machines.  No limits at all are today placed on the number of these cars that can be sold and operated.  Pesticides and herbicides are contaminating the soil and water.  Let someone else clean them up!  Nuclear power plants generate more and more heat on the surface of the planet—and create radioactive waste that has a half-life of 22,000 years.  This leaves a problem to be dealt with by future generations long after we have enjoyed the benefits of nuclear power.  Recently, President Bush has announced that he wants to revive and accelerate the construction of nuclear power plants.  Future generations will have to store the waste for 22,000 years, if there are that many future generations!  Our “modern” thinking, loving innovations and progress, does not seem to take into account long-term environmental effects; rather, it defends the “property rights” of farmers to determine the use of “their” land, city dwellers to burn their leaves on their property, operate their cars, produce waste that is filling up land-fill space, and so on.  It is time now to question the assumptions that allow us to think in this way, that have governed the thinking of the modern age since the 17th and 18th centuries, indeed, since Columbus.  It is refreshing to hear William Greider addressing these problems.  He is helping us move beyond the limitations of our thinking in modernity.     


Second problem: Our natural resources are running out or being ruined: e.g., oil, underground aquifers and surface water, old growth forests, diverse species of animals. 

     In spite of estimates that underground supplies of oil will run out in about 50 years, the U.S. and Europe are urging the Middle Eastern countries to increase production in order to avoid a “worldwide recession,” to help keep the U.S. prosperous—at least until the next election.  We care more today about keeping our economy “growing” than about preserving precious, non-renewable resources for our children’s children.  Logging companies around the world recklessly cut down old-growth trees that are hundreds and even thousands of years old in order to make money.  But whose trees are these?  Those who colonized the land?  Our modern way of thinking assumes that nothing will ever run out, at least not in our generation.  For instance, Brazil claims the right to log its large expanses of old-growth forests, even though these help provide oxygen for many countries in rest of the world to breathe!   There seems to be no economic mechanism to buy the trees for the lungs of the World, no mechanism to compensate the Brazilians for what they are losing in not cutting down the trees.  It seems that we have not learned to live collaboratively and cooperatively on this planet as one world, yet.  The underground water levels (including the aquifers in the midwest) and elsewhere are going down and down, but there seem to be no mechanism for dealing with this until the water runs out.  Why?  Our modern assumptions about property, environment, wildlife, are all “anthropocentric,” as philosopher Peter Wenz at University of Illinois at Springfield, reminds us in his book, Environmental Ethics Today (Oxford University Press, 2001).   [Show table of contents.]   Wenz points the way to thinking in a postmodern way about our planet and about our future.  It is not accidental that he is a vegetarian. 


Third, the population explosion. 

       The world’s population is expanding exponentially, especially in countries that can least afford to feed, house, educate, and employ them.  The well-intended programs of Family Planning are only a band-aid on a huge problem that outruns possible solutions.  Religious beliefs in various countries encourage large families.  In many poor countries children are one’s only social security in old age, so economic imperatives require a large family.  In the mid-seventies, the Club of Rome undertook to call attention through its meetings to disaster on the horizon (by 2000, they said!), if countries did not do something to control the worldwide growth of population.  The natural resources of the planet, they argued, simply could not support the growing numbers of people.  (See Aurelio Peccei, One Hundred Pages for the Future, New American Library, 1981.)   We’re still here, so what do they know?  The problem is, the additional people in Third World countries are starving, while populations in First World countries remain stable, but use more and more resources and food from the Third World.   

On the other hand, Catholics Gerald and Patricia Mische, in Toward a Human World Order: Beyond the National Security Straitjacket  (New York: Paulist Press, 1977) blame our problems on our clinging to the modern concept of individual “nation states,” each with a “national sovereignty imperative.”  They claim this concept, this way of thinking, is blocking progress toward a “human world order” and toward social justice.   It forces even small countries to commit their resources to military spending.  In this climate of mutual fear, and clinging to the idea of each individual nation-state defending itself with ever deadlier weapons, India and Pakistan, for example, we cannot form an effective world order, they say.  The United Nations is a federation of handwringers who cannot do anything, and the U.S. won’t even pay its dues, even while it approves a giant tax cut.  Instead of looking at why U.S. representatives are not wanted on those small committees to veto their hopes and dreams, our congressmen grumble and withhold funds.         Food First  (an organization and a book by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins) also points out that we have enough food now to feed every person on the planet, but we do distribute it equitably.  Again, the structures and thoughtforms of modernity prevent it.  Also, with endless population growth, how long will this be true?  In place of the international anarchy, in place of the “manic logic of global capitalism” that now prevails—the legacy of a runaway modernity—the people of the world need to assume management of “planet earth” the way an Indian tribe manages its land to continually renew it and leave it in good condition for their children.  Who are the “underdeveloped people” here--the Indians or the modern world on a path to disaster?   The “Fate of the Earth” (as Jonathan Snell called it) is in our hands!   Don’t drop that earth ball!   It could break! 


Fourth and fifth problems: Global poverty and hunger are increasing each year instead of decreasing.  At the same time, many multinational corporations have more assets than the governments of small nations, even medium-sized nations.  They can buy the votes they need. Eisenhower called this the problem of the “military-industrial complex.”  He warned us of their increasing influence over the Congress of the U.S.  We have not solved that problem.    

       The statistics are stunning with regard to the number of children throughout the world who are dying each hour, each day, as a result of poverty and wars.  The governments of smaller nations with starving children and adults buy expensive arms from the “developed countries,” while their own citizens—men, women, and children—go hungry. Indigenous people organize to claim their rights to the land taken away from them by the colonizers or the government, and the country just spends more on military hardware and troops (with the help of U.S. “foreign aid” and help from other countries) to suppress them.  Multinational corporations, backed up by their governments, coerce small countries into concessions that make the quality of life of the general population lower and lower.  Take Nicaragua, for instance: first, after the revolution of 1979, the embargo by the U.S. eventually caused the revolutionary government to fall in the late 1980s, then the “structural adjustment” measures of the World Bank had to be instituted in order to qualify for loans.  These required the massive firing of teachers and the closing of health centers.   Powerful multinational corporations like United Fruit Company for years took 80% of the food-producing land away from indigenous peoples in Guatemala, forcing landless people to migrate to slums in the large cities, while the government collected meager rent from the United Fruit Company and used it on military equipment to hold down the population.  When Guatemala tried to buy back the land for what was paid for it and give it back to its previous owners, the now landless peasants, the U.S.’s CIA organized the overthrow of the elected government in 1954 and installed instead a series of dictators.  (See Schlesinger and Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala , Anchor Books, 1982).  Security, control, and economic exploitation: these are the imperatives, not social and economic welfare and justices for the world’s peoples. 

        How is this a consequence of modernity?  Well, starting in 1492, the colonizing nations claimed the right to explore, conquer, exploit, and massacre the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, the islands of the Pacific Ocean, and so on.  One could call this a combination of Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes.  Nobody could stop the colonizers, so the injustice went on.  Now we live with the legacy of colonialism, the consequences of colonialism, the thought forms and structures that permitted and formed the presuppositions of modern exploitation of the earth and its peoples by those with more power and a reckless unconcern for human welfare.    Today, a network of multinational corporations and defense industries virtually calls the shots in the so-called Western democracies.  There seems to be no effective representative government of, by, and for the world’s peoples.  Instead, the wealthy buy the elections.  Or dictators force their own re-elections, or gain them by fraud, as happened in Colombia and elsewhere.  This is the order of the day in modern times, even as people struggle to change it, trying to make a difference.       


Sixth problem: nuclear weapons pose the threat of worldwide catastrophe

        The stockpiles of nuclear weapons, in spite of the reductions that have been achieved between the U.S. and Russia, pose a constant danger of accidental nuclear explosion.  An exchange between Russia and the U.S. would mean the end of civilization as we know it, possibly even the end of human life on earth (see Jonathan Snell, The End of the Earth, for details).  The arrogance of the U.S. or Russia contemplating the destruction of a whole country, or a whole continent, is an example of modern technology of destruction carried to the point of insanity.  A film of the late sixties, “Dr Strangelove: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb,” satirizes the absurdity of this situation.  The wanton killing of men, women, and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki violated all rules of warfare and set a troubling precedent.  The bombing campaign over Kosovo was another example of the reckless disregard for human life in the West if it is not our own countrymen.  The mistake of bombing the Chinese embassy was also costly.  If it is our own soldiers that are being risked in large numbers, we would not even risk going to war, but from a distance we are willing to drop bombs on Iraq or Kosovo.  Israel, in spite of its defensive capability, is in constant danger, and yet it quibbles over details in making peace, dragging a bloody conflict on month after month, year after year.  But this brings us to the next point.  


Seventh, military means as a solution to political problems.

        In spite of our brave talk about democracy, in spite of the stamping out of Nazi totalitarianism and despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, we find the world filled with dictatorships, some of them puppet states of our own creation.  In the Americas during the twentieth century, among the most egregious cases are Guatemala and Chile, where the U.S.’s CIA contrived to overturn a democratically elected government and put in a military dictatorship friendly to American business interests, and then it began giving military aid to the dictatorship to help it turn back protests and “insurgencies.”  The government of El Salvador has been kept in power by massive military aid from the U.S.  The Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and the Russian soldiers moving into Chechnya also look like a bloody military solution to a political problem.   So even decades after the Second World War, and now even after the assumed end of the cold war, militarism is still central to our thinking. The United Nation is unable to prevent military actions like Chechnya, and the U.S. funded the access to power of the Talliban in Afghanistan.  U.N. “peace keepers” are sometimes captured and held hostage, for example in Sierra Leone and the Philippines.   According to Gerald and Patricia Mische, authors of Toward a Human World Order (1977), the rise of independent nation-states is itself a phenomenon of modernity, and it brings with it the modern “security imperative” that means every state has to have a militia.  This channels countless dollars, D-marks, rubles, pounds and pesos into economically less productive expenditures on defense, atomic weapons, and now the science fiction fantasy of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars.”   Militarism as a mode of thinking with its standardless unlimited cruelty to the other side has a terrible hold on the mind of modernity.  The invention of ever more refined technologies of destruction puts more and more clever weapons in the hands of the generals, who are often heads of state or “advise” the heads of state about what has to be done, always crying that they do not have the resources to do their tasks adequately.  Do not negotiate, obliterate!  That is their slogan.

        What if the U.S. congress had to pay for rebuilding every house, bridge, power station, or public building that it had destroyed in Kosovo after the war was over?   The making of the Other into an object or an animal of no value is another part of the legacy of modern thinking, although we learned it from the ancient Greeks and Romans, also.  Postmodern thinking will have to find ways to move beyond such forms of inhuman cruelty. 


Eighth problem: genocides in Africa, Indo-China, Tibet, Europe, and earlier in North America. 

While wars of conquest are as old as recorded history, in modernity they have gotten more systematically cruel and destructive, even genocidal.  The wars of conquest of the Americas are an example.  The Communists in Cambodia and also in China and Russia massacred millions, often merely because the victims were educated or politically neutral.   Even when the majority of humanity regards such killings as wrong, it is powerless to stop them.  Technologies of warfare only feed the hopes of possessors of weapons that they can achieve their objectives by use or threat of use of the weapons. 


Nineth, racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia.  

The fear of the other race, the other sex, the other’s religion, the other’s sexuality gives rise to destructive hatreds rather than tolerance of diversity.  This results in irrational deeds of violence, terrorism, and barbaric cruelty.  Of course, this is not a disease unique to modernity, but modern thinking, even Enlightenment thinking, has not been able to overcome it, although it has made progress by creating a vision of equality and democratic rights.  It is of interest that the authors of our constitution had slaves and did not see that this contradicted the constitution.  The legacy of patriarchy was so strong in this country of Christianity and liberty and human rights, it did not occur to them to give women the franchise. 

Antisemitism and homophobia are especially strong in some Christian fundamentalists sects, who constitute a good share of the conservative right wing of the party of President Bush.  I myself find it commendable that when the Republican senator from Vermont finds his party more and more taken over by the right wing, such that the issues he cares about: he mentioned specifically a women’s right to choose, preservation of the environment, and the costly strategic defense initiative which, paired with a tax cut, necessarily spells major cutbacks in support for American education, he says no and becomes an independent.  The liberal wing of the Republican Party today is less and less comfortable in the Grant Old Party.  There may be other defections.  The thoughtforms of modernity that have led to environmental pollution, wars, discrimination, and rejection of the U.N., are represented in spades by the conservative/fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party.        


Tenth, the spread of television and computer technologies to less technologically advanced countries fosters hopes and expectations.

        Expectations rise as television sets bring the American/European/Japanese way of life into the living quarters of peoples living on the very margins of existence/survival in other countries, and in our own.  Telephone and computer technologies, too, create hopes that were not there before.  Yet many of our economic structures undermine rather than create the conditions that would enable the poor to share the wealth.   Here, William Greider’s book testifies brilliantly to the increasing problems generated by “the manic logic” of unbridled global capitalism, by the project of “globalization,” which turns out to be a license to allow big countries to exploit the small, unfettered by concern for the betterment of the poor.  It is time to say that as long as any are poor anywhere, or starving, or homeless, or without medical care, we will not build another bomb.  It is time to say that whenever we destroy anything, we will rebuild it.  It is time to say: this is one world, like it or not, ready or not.  This is one world and it is not ours to dominate and destroy.  It is time to shed the shackles of modern thoughtforms that foster misery, cruelty, starvation, and destruction.   This brings us to our next problem: 


Eleventh problem: fundamentalism and narrowness, exclusivism, particularism, terrorism‑-all block progress toward peace.

          Fundamentalism, a 19th and 20th century phenomenon due in part to the modern anxiety for certainty, is increasing today because in modernity we have not dealt firmly and definitively with the conditions of poverty worldwide.  The promises of science, technology, and democracy to bring peace, progress, and prosperity, the enlightenment commitments to equality, fraternity, and freedom, have not been fulfilled.  This makes promises of future bliss attractive to the poor.  In my view, it is a side-effect of modernity failing to solving social and political problems and raising living standards only for a few even while making great advances in technology.  Jewish and Christian particularism, a survival strategy for Jews in the diaspora and for Christianity down through history, also blocks meaningful negotiations and compromise.  Instead of power plays, selfishness, one-sided laying down of rules for the Other to follow, and reliance on military might to impose unsatisfactory solutions, the time has come for rational negotiation and meaningful dialogue, for balance and understanding instead of seeking one-sided advantage, for recognizing the right of the Other in our country and in Third World countries to food, health, and a decent life—to the four freedoms declared by President Roosevelt as universal rights, one of which is the freedom from want.  The thoughtforms and assumptions that have dominated modern life are pushing us toward a crisis of our own making.       


Finally, ethnic groups cling to land, to resources, to sacred space. 

Take, for example, Jerusalem, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Kashmir.  When negotiation fails, or when the Palestinians are deprived of their territory by a U.N. mandate and have to live couped up in camps for fifty years without a homeland—in exile, one might point out to the Jews, themselves victims of exiles—then they resort to terrorism.  How many people must die? as the song goes.  In the face of an expanding Muslim population in Kosovo, Serbs resorted to ethnic cleansing to hold onto land and power.  Terrorism and war appear when there is no meaningful alternative way to achieve a political objective, when negotiations fail or never began.  Terrorism is also but not necessarily identified as a strategy of some forms of fundamentalism, which is growing in our era—another unsolved problem in modernity that will not be solved by our increasing our security measures.  A thinking more fundamental than fundamentalism is needed, a philosophical account of the limitations of modern thought.  We need to question some of the basic religious, political, and philosophical assumptions we have made and still make in the modern era.  That is our task.   


IV. What can we do?  What must we do?

        We cannot instantly solve huge problems like pollution, the population explosion in Third World countries, world hunger and poverty, or the increasing globalization of the world economy.  What can we do?  What must we do?


1. We can and must become more fully aware of the seriousness of the problem.   I will presuppose this step for the sake of time.


2. We can and must see modernity with new eyes.  We can and must recover from modernity and the limits it imposes on our thinking.

    This will be the goal of our reading and discussion.  I have chosen readings from French, Spanish and American sources. 

    Reading 1: Greider, One World, Ready or Not.

    Reading 2: Foucault, Power/Knowledge, chs. 5, 6, 8, and 10.

    Reading 3: Todorov, selections from The Conquest of America

    Reading 4: Düssel, chs. 1 and 5 from The Underside of Modernity.


Supplementary Reading:

        Gadamer, “Hermeneutics,” an interview from 1993

        Palmer, “Gadamer’s Contributions to Postmodern Thinking.”

        Wilber, A Theory of Everything        


3. We need a postmodern vision of the world and of how to live responsibly in this world.  We need to look for intellectual resources for this vision.  The reading by Greider contains the imperative for such a vision.  I will suggest some other possibilities Gadamer and other thinkers offer.


4. We can together look for ways to

    apply this awareness and postmodern vision in our disciplines and in the Ideas sequence, passing it on to our students, and also even to apply it in our personal lives.




[1] See Pitirim A. Sorokin, The Crisis of our Age (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1941). 

[2] Oswald Spengler, Der Abfall des Abendlandes [The Decline of the West]. 

[3] Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (           )

[4] Voltaire, Candide, trans. Robert M. Adams,  Norton criticial edition (New York: Norton, 1966)

[5] William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997). 

[6] See such works as his 800-page Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (Boston: Shambhala, 2001, revised edition), and recently, A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala, 2000). 

[7] See his early book from the seventies, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich., and recently in connection with the Noetics Institute, Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future. 

[8] See Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture, trans. Jon R. Snyder (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, University Press, 1988)

[9] See his masterwork, The Ever-Present Origin, authorized translation by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985).  A translation of Ursprung und Gegenwart, 1949 and 1953. 

[10] See Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972)

[11] See his The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception

[12] See Discipline and Punishment: A History of Prisons. 

[13] See A History of Sexuality: Volume I.    

[14] Anthony Pagden, European Encounters with the New World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993) and Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c. 1500-c. 1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). 

[15] For Nietzsche’s contribution to the development of postmodern thinking, see Gregory Bruce Smith,  Nietzsche, Heidegger and the Travsition to Postmodernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

[16] See Enrique Dussel, The Understide of Modernity: Apel, Ricoeur, Rorty, Taylor, and the Philosophy of Liberation (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1996). 

[17] See Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1972), and the more recent, We Drink from our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, foreword by Henri Nouwen (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984). 

[18] See Frantz Franon, A Negro Psychoanalyst’s Study of the Problems of Recism and Colonialism in the World Today, preface by Jean-Paul Sartre (New York: Grove Press, 1966). 


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