Home/Alan Jacobs/More on Postmodernity and the Long Reach of the Past

More on Postmodernity and the Long Reach of the Past

First of all, please note that Alastair Roberts, who inadvertantly got the ball rolling on this conversation about modern and postmodern discourse, has left a long and thoughtful comment on my previous post. He raises all the right questions about the difficulty of balancing the various possible goods of conversation: the value of including as many people as possible is not always congruent with the value of having as honest a conversation as possible, etc. Please read what he has to say.

My own post was less about those important matters than about the historical framing of the issue. I just wanted to make the point that many, if not all, of the traits that people regularly designate as “postmodern” may be found in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers. As one of the commenters on that previous post implied, few ideas are more closely assocated with postmodernism than what Alasdair MacIntyre calls perspectivism, and yet perspectivism is at the heart of Montaigne’s essays, as Sarah Bakewell has recently pointed out. Similarly, there’s little in the American pragmatist tradition — from Peirce to Dewey to Rorty — that’s not already freely and fully expressed in Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza.

What we call “postmodern” is, then, intrinsic to modernity itself, as a kind of counter-narrative to the dominant modern one. It’s always there, dissenting from the easy story of human progress and human emancipation. A brilliant and far too little-known book on this subject is Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity.

My larger point is simply that ideas live far longer than we usually think they do, and that our ancestors entertained and even embraced many thoughts that we think peculiarly our own. In general, the past is closer to us than we are likely to realize. Consider this — a story I’ve told before but that’s worth remembering: I’ve met a woman who as a teenager met T. S. Eliot; Eliot’s grandmother, Abigail Adams Eliot, whom he knew as a child in St. Louis, was the great-neice of John Adams, second President of the United States, and remembered him from her childhood; when Adams was a young man in Paris, one night at the theatre he saw Voltaire, who was born in the seventeenth century. Six degrees separate me from Voltaire. What we think of as the distant past is not really so distant, and it influences our current thinking more than we know.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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