Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture

by Louis Dupré

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



This book was written for my heartfelt taste. The idea of modernity has long attracted critical attention. Many hold its principles responsible for various ills that threaten to drain our culture of meaning and purpose. Those charges presuppose that we know how to distinguish the modern from the premodern. Most critics, however, finding it unnecessary to be precise on this issue, remain satisfied with reversing the praise that earlier generations showered upon an allegedly modern mode of thinking and acting. While they exalted rational objectivity, moral tolerance, and individual choice as cultural absolutes, we now regard these principles with some suspicion. Undoubtedly there are good reasons to distrust the equation of the real and the objectifiable, progress with technological advances, and liberty of thought and action with detachment from tradition and social bonds. But should we attribute all such excesses to the original principles of modern culture? At the very least an assessment of modernity requires that we establish what the original revolution implied and what may have been unnecessary developments or even deviations from it. Much thereby depends on where we place the borderstones marking the beginning of the epoch.

When the early humanist notion of human creativity came to form a combustive mixture with the negative conclusions of nominalist theology did it cause the cultural explosion that we refer to as modernity? Its impact shattered the organic unity of the Western view of the real. The earliest Ionian concept of physis had combined a physical (in the modern sense!) with an antropic and a divine component. The classical Greek notion of kosmos (used by Plato and Aristotle), as well as the Roman natura, had preserved the idea of the real as an harmonious, all-inclusive whole.

In this book, Dupré, intends to investigate the origins, the process, and the effects of this double breakup: the one between the transcendent constituent and its cosmic-human counterpart, and the one between the person and cosmos (now understood in the narrower sense of physical nature). The two combined caused the ontotheological synthesis that had guided Western thought to break down. Only recently have we become fully aware of the momentous impact of the abandonment of that theoretical ideal, defined more than two millennia ago. The critique of modern culture began in the nineteenth century, but its early forms focused on the problematic condition of one of the isolated components- the cosmos or the self- rather than on the break-up of the original unity.

This book also separates the modern period from the preceding one on the basis of an essential distinction. But it further distinguishes the early humanist conception that transformed the nature of the interaction among the components of the traditional synthesis from the later idea of a subject conceived as sole source of meaning and value. In our own century philosophers like Bergson, Whitehead, and Heidegger have emphasized the ontological significance of change and historicity and have thereby made it possible to recognize at least the possibility of a genuine novelty of being. That a new Synthesis nevertheless continues to elude us does not justify abandoning the search for it. Our present task may well be the humble one of exploring how the fragments we are left with may serve as building blocks for a future synthesis. If significant cultural changes affect the very heart of the real, the past retains a permanent meaning in the present. The argument underlying this essay was guided by the idea that change has a significance that goes well beyond the contingent historical conditions in which it occurred. It marks a new epoch in being!

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