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Modernity: The Need For Higher Culture

April 29, 2014

I have recently been contemplating some common themes in my study through the years, to get to grips with what the basic challenge and task I have set myself is.

The title of this post indicates one direction I have usually been oriented towards. And I can see elements of this task in the writers I have chosen to study, and in what I have took from their ideas as being most relevant to me.

For instance, I have found value in the ideas of Habermas and Husserl. Two thinkers who fought for a continuation of the vision of modernity in the face of opposition voices trying to dissuade them and others from this task as thankless. Edmund Husserl, in the Crisis of the European Sciences. Though misguided in his epistemological approach by Kantian dogmas, was well aware of the importance of continuing the culture of modernity and knew well how to counter some of the forces opposing it. Jurgen Habermas took up the banner of modernity against the post-modernists rushing to welcome in an allegedly new era, based on purely negative qualities. A cynical era of relativism, pluralism, and the absence of commitment to any positive valuations at all.

Another person to take up this challenge of continuing modernity has been Charles Taylor. This is central to his main works, A Secular Age, Sources of the Self and The Ethic of Authenticity.

Regarding the Culture of Authenticity and the Ideal of Self-Fulfillment, Charles Taylor has this to say:

Instead of dismissing this culture altogether, or just endorsing it as it is, we ought to attempt to raise its practice by making more palpable to its participants what the ethic they subscribe to really involves…

The struggle ought not to be over authenticity, for or against, but about it, defining its proper meaning. We ought to be trying to lift the culture back up, closer to its motivating ideal.

This illustrates the challenge facing us. We need a renewed sense of higher cultural values to guide us in order for modernity not to degenerate. But these values are often denied us in a pluralist democratic system in which it seems the motivating value is to under achieve and not provoke envy in our peers. To settle for second best and abandon ideals. To not make those least able in any given field feel bad or inferior.

These were some of the dangers of democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville warned us about and that Nietzsche feared in the degeneration of culture he perceived in his time.

I don’t think democracy need stop us from such a pursuit of higher values and ideals, though it certainly makes it a more challenging process in these initial stages. As we are coming up against a society with less and less communal spaces and less and less domains for the free use of the kind of communicative reason promoted by Habermas.

The technological era with the internet, however, has opened up new domains to people. But it has also made it more challenging to maintain integrity. As it is quite easy here to say things things on a whim, in such an anonymous environment and at such a distance from the people you are communicating with.

Yet the need remains. We may be scared either to admit it, or ask for it, but we all like genuine advice at times that can help us to aspire to something a bit higher and better. Only a continuation, in some manner, of the culture of modernity can provide this. Revelling in our selfish natures won’t achieve anything, and neither will pessimism or despair about such selfishness achieve anything. Such acceptance of nature as determining our actions is a dangerous indulgence and the errors of its ways are plain to see in the fickleness of post-modern outgrowths such as moral relativism and cultural pluralism.

Whatever the limitations of our nature may be. The boundary lines are never clear-cut or set in stone. And we always have those hazy areas where personal awareness takes over. These areas. These moments of insight are where the potential buds of cultural growth lie, and they are where the future hope for modernity must be sought.

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