watch your language

Russell Arben Fox has given us a nice introduction and response to a debate that’s going on between the Postmodern Conservatives and the Front Porch Republicans. I don't think the debate is getting anywhere, and I think the chief impediment is the key term of the debate.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s line about the weather: Whenever people talk to me about modernity, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. The problem is that what we call “modernity” is a collection of propositions and practices, of varying degrees of interconnectedness, and within various spheres of life. Modernity is a matter of political economy, but also of epistemology, and then again of technology, and so on and so on. No two people seem to conceive of the relations among these in the same ways, and people who are proponents or opponents of modernity — and I include people like the estimable Herr Professor Poulos who are willing employ the “post” language, as well as those who ally themselves with the “pre” — are never really reacting to modernity tout court, but always to some particular aspect of it, one (or at most a few) of the cogs in the great machine.

So when people tell me that they want to recover the wisdom of the pre-modern, I just want to know what in particular they are talking about. At least tell me whether you’re talking economics, politics, moral philosophy, epistemology, theology, or what. And then we can narrow it down from there. Ditto when people vocally embrace the postmodern condition. What is it, precisely, to which you wish to be “post”? And now that you are post-X, what Y have you entered? Spell it out for me, one cog at a time.

The philosopher Bernard Williams used to say that we suffer from a poverty of concepts. Never more so, I think, than when we have useless arguments about modernity and its putative predecessors and successors. We think we know what we mean when we use such language, but the fruitlessness of our debates shows that there really isn't substantive agreement. So my suggestion is that we all try to make our arguments — whether they are for something or against something — without ever employing that particular string of letters: “modern.” It would be a good discipline for everyone.