The blurry boundary between premodern and modern

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two excellent books on very different topics, both of which I’ve written about at Love of All Wisdom before: Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, and Brian Tierney’s The Idea of Natural Rights.

The idea of human or natural rights has often been taken as something nearly eternal, dating back into antiquity. More careful scholarship, most notably that of Michel Villey, shows us it is not that. Villey takes the work of William of Ockham as a breaking point, a sharp rupture from the previous world that had no concept of rights, which brings in a very different metaphysics where rights now play an important role. The brilliance of Tierney’s work is to qualify this point, showing a gradual transition from the world before Ockham to the world after him. It preserves Villey’s basic point that rights do not go back to antiquity, but shows that the boundary between premodern and modern is much blurrier than previous scholarship had imagined.

The idea of Hinduism has often been taken as something nearly eternal, dating back into antiquity. More careful scholarship, most notably that of Wilhelm Halbfass and Heinrich von Stietencron, shows us it is not that. Halbfass takes the work of Rammohun Roy as a breaking point, a sharp rupture from the previous world that had no concept of Hinduism, which brings in a very different metaphysics where Hinduism now plays an important role. The brilliance of Nicholson’s work is to qualify this point, showing a gradual transition from the world before Roy to the world after him. It preserves Halbfass’s basic point that rights do not go back to antiquity, but shows that the boundary between premodern and modern is much blurrier than previous scholarship had imagined.

I hope I’ve made the point: there is a strong analogy between what Tierney and Nicholson each have produced, despite their dramatically different subject matter. I have no reason to believe there is a specific homology; I’d be surprised to hear that Nicholson had read Tierney or vice versa. Nor do I have reason to imagine a common methodological ancestor to the two of them – though if there turns out to be one, I want to read it right away! But there is nevertheless a major commonality: what was thought to be a sharp break between the medieval and modern worlds, turns out in retrospect to be a more gradual transition in which the modern emerges out of the medieval. The writers both make this point in spite of the obvious major differences in the context of their subjects (the 14th century and the 19th, a non-colonized society and a colonial subject).

Now it has sometimes been said that comparative philosophy is too ready to look for easy similarities that mean nothing of significance. (The many modern Indian works with titles like Rāmānuja and Hegel can make for easy targets of such criticism.) When one identifies a similarity like the above, it is important to ask: does this similarity matter?

I think it does. It certainly does for my own philosophical project. Why? Because a key philosophical task I have set myself is to bring back some of the ancient and medieval worlds into the modern, recover some of the wisdom that is so easily lost. But it is much more difficult to do that if the premodern and modern worlds turn out to be a radical rupture from each other, where never the twain shall meet.

Much recent work supposes the two worlds to be just that, especially in the colonial context. The works of Donald Lopez are among the most influential and symptomatic of the genre of scholarly work that indulges in veiled ridicule of modern Asian traditions, treating them as silly and pretentious attempts to dress up modern ideas in premodern garb. I think I have made my distaste for that genre clear in the past, and I salute the efforts of Nicholson and David McMahan to complicate its smug story.

I have had far more sympathy for the attempts by the likes of Villey and Alasdair MacIntyre to historicize the concept of rights. Rights claims can be very frustrating to a philosopher, since they are so often based on assertion and not argument. I have long been tempted by the story that Villey and MacIntyre tell, one that says rights were woven of whole cloth as the modern era began to emerge, whether by Locke or Grotius or Ockham. I have never been as anti-modern as Villey or MacIntyre, but I have been tempted to buy this portion of their story: that rights are a confused modern concept, one that is best abandoned in favour of more adequate premodern ones. Tierney makes me realize it is not so simple; rights have deep roots in medieval concepts of natural law and divine command, roots that still inform modern rights discussions even when we don’t realize it (and, importantly, even when we do not accept ideas of natural law or divine command). Likewise it can be easy to dismiss the thuggish violence carried out today in the name of “Hinduism” as a modern phenomenon with no relation to traditional India, but Nicholson reminds us that matters are more complicated than that.

In all of these cases – rights, Hinduism, Yavanayāna Buddhism – it can be exciting to identify a break between past and present, and feel ourselves smarter than those in the present who claim an authenticity that doesn’t exist. But it isn’t that simple. Those who have adopted these concepts have done so for a reason. The ideas of rights and of Hinduism, deriving from ideas present in an older world, have helped people make sense of a new world emerging. Those ideas can still be deeply problematic, to be sure, and it’s well worth questioning them. But if we recognize that the modern innovators had one foot in the old world as well as one in the new, it becomes that much easier to imagine a synthesis between the older and newer worlds.

In other words, these historical understandings are important not merely to history but to philosophy. There’s a sense in which the methods at issue here follow G.W.F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger, both of whom make history central to philosophy. Why? Hegel and Heidegger agree that we have to start where we are, and where we are is always constituted by history. Heidegger (following Nietzsche) traces history backwards, to uncover the wrong presuppositions that underlie our modern views. Hegel, by contrast, traces it forward, to understand the reasons why our society now is the way it is. There is a sense in which Halbfass and Villey are following a Heideggerian method, Nicholson and Tierney a Hegelian one. I don’t think any of these thinkers understand themselves this way (except Halbfass, who acknowledges an intellectual debt to Heidegger). But I do think it’s a helpful way to understand the movement of their thought, and what it can do for us as constructive philosophers.

[Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.]

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

3 thoughts on “The blurry boundary between premodern and modern

  1. Although I am by no means accusing you of doing this, Amod, your post did remind me how unsatisfying I find the alternatives of continuity and rupture, and constantly adjusting the balance between the two, as if these were the only two keys in which intellectual history could be written—not that I understand AN’s work, at least, as simply pushing back against the “history of rupture.” I also am very sympathetic to “fuzziness,” “blurriness,” “complication,” “complexity,” etc., but it has become such a scholarly cliché that whenever we find ourselves using this language I think we should try to remind ourselves of what our investment in the question actually is. And so I ask, Amod, because I am actually interested in your answer: what is your investment in modernity? What does it matter if certain ideas or concepts or configurations thereof are premodern or modern?

  2. It’s a wonderful question, Andrew. I suppose that to the extent I work with these categories, it has to do with a suspicion of what I’ve elsewhere called the shopping-cart approach: where one simply picks and chooses exactly what one likes from the traditions one studies, without being challenged by the more disagreeable parts, and therefore learns nothing of substance because one stays exactly where one already was. I think that’s a key reason to put a lot of stock in the concept of authenticity: the authentic is what you didn’t choose, but that’s important precisely because in order to expand the always-limited horizon of your preexisting desires and choices.

    The modern worldview is characterized specifically by unlimited choice, and there seems to be a certain flattening implied by that – one that philosophically was once expressed to me by an analytic philosopher who proclaimed “we don’t care whether this sentence was found in a work of David Hume or on a piece of pasta.” When an idea has premodern roots, that gives one reason to think it has withstood the test of time and is not another passing fancy in the global shopping mall to be discarded in five years like cassette tapes or LiveJournal.

  3. Amod, you may want to glance at Ganeri’s Introduction to his recent The Lost Age of Reason. I think you will find his own comments, and the research which he cites, quite amenable to your position. In short, he notes that innovators like Bacon and Descartes were not so much breaking with tradition than departing from seeds and starts already there in the “premodern” thinkers and responding/reorienting themselves in relation to it. It’s part of his broader argument that modernity does not require a complete rupture between it and the premodern world.

    You reflections on authenticity, tradition, and being challenged invite much reflection. I think I am pretty sympathetic to your tying together unlimited choice with a kind of stagnancy: we can always find something out there that comports with our own current conditioned attitudes. Of course, this turns on its head our way of thinking about cosmopolitanism, wide-ranging exposure to various views of life, and the experience of modernity.

    An apt quotation from Chesterton (Heretics):

    The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce variety and uncompromising divergences of men…In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized society groups come into existence founded upon sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique.

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