Prelude to Post-modernism

Prelude to Post-modernism

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By the close of the nineteenth century, physics and biology, science more generally, had attained a level of success and societal respect that only the major religions had enjoyed in ages past. Science had not only flung wide open the doors of knowledge about practically everything, if only one would follow the paved path of its methodology, but showed again that careful application of scientific knowledge can yield more fruits and benefits than what any other system of belief had done before in all of human history. So scientists were held in high regard, and science as an enterprise was reckoned as the best and final approach to unscrambling the mysteries of the universe.

During that period, by and large, religions were also safe and sound in their various locales, despite Christian and Muslim missionary intrusions into faiths belonging to more ancient formats for communion with God. Generally speaking, the major religions of the world lived in peace, if not in harmony, and there was the conviction within any system that its own vision of Yaweh, Brahman, God, Allah, or Whoever is there to protect and provide, and that the promise and threat of post-mortem states would be adhered to without exception.

By the close of the nineteenth century, the triumphs of modern science and industrialism as well as the political hegemony of Western civilization which was the first to reap their fruits gave rise to the conviction that humanity had at last found a framework for clearing every confusion, for solving every puzzle, and for making life more abundant and comfortable to boot. Given this, many thinkers felt that one had to propagate this new gospel of science and rational thought, of logic, reason and order to the rest of humankind so all could benefit from the richness and fulfillment that it can bring to the human soul.

But of course there are other elements in culture and civilization: such as art, music and poetry, metaphysics, literature and religion. Though these too deserve a place,  when it comes to reliable knowledge  and power, they were at a slightly different level. It is good to have children, nice to see them play with their toys, and even to play with them sometimes. But when it comes to serious business, adults don’t take them seriously. It was somewhat in this manner that some scientifically inclined thinkers were regarding the non-science dimensions of human activity: with fondness, affection, and even caring, but not as things that must be taken quite as seriously.

In pre-postmodernist thinking, one recognized other cultures and civilizations in the world, besides the Western, and even granted that many of them are quite fascinating in their worldviews and impressive in their achievements. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries especially, one felt that it would be interesting to get to know them, even as we would like to learn about exotic birds and tropical monkeys. Some Western thinkers noted those other civilizations, though colorful in some ways, did not have the scientific knowledge or the Enlightenment values that had evolved in the matrix of Western civilization. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the grandiloquent scholar and hyperbolic historian who was largely responsible for turning India into an English-medium-for-intellectuals nation, wrote with much ignorance and little sensitivity: “”It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books which have been written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England….”

Charles Darwin, much adored today for his theory of evolution,  regarded what he called  the primitive races as lying between the civilized races of man and the gorilla. In his Origin of Man he went on to predict that, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world… The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

So the ‘lower races’ needed to be educated by the ‘higher ones.’ It is therefore not surprising that Karl Marx, the great liberal thinker of the West who inspired the Communist Revolution wrote in the New York Tribune: “England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.” In the scientific circles in the nineteenth century it was generally believed that the brains of Caucasians were larger in size than those of other races.

Most thinkers were also convinced, as many in the scientific establishment still do, that science-based perspectives are not only more reliable, but that they also have greater universality. The truths discovered by science through reason are of a superior category to those stumbled upon by other modes. That is why scientific truths are more authentic expressions of  the eternal elements in the physical universe (physical laws). The clarity of thought conveyed through science can’t be found in the obscurantist writings of past ages and of different cultures.  The law and order that arises from the modernist perspectives are the only routes by which civilization can prosper and progress.

Such was the mental framework among Western intellectuals by the close of the nineteenth century.

In less than a century everything seems to have turned topsy-turvy. The dreams of science eventually awakening the human mind to unprejudiced objective truths and of religions inspiring only love and peace, seem to be fading, if not shattered. Many factors have caused the dethroning of science from its intellectual pedestal, and religions from their spiritual pinnacle. These have been of two types: One consisting of political factors, and the other, of philosophical views. These have led to a new vision of the world known as post-modernism.