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What is 'Modern' in Modern Philosophy?

by Hubertus Fremerey


From the world created by God
to the world we humans are constructing now.

The Great Transformation

This moment we are living in the third great transformation of the situation of humankind. The first was the transition from pre-human ape to true human existence, when language, art, and religion — in short: CULTURE — began to develop sometimes before 25.000 BC.

The second great transformation was what Jaspers called "Achsenzeit": The time of around 500 BC, when the first great philosophical and theological systems developed in Israel, Greece, India, and China. The common trait of those systems was a first methodical approach to philosophy and science in general and a special concern with social and personal ethics and the human personality, self, and conscience. All great philosophical and religious systems of lasting relevance have been formed in this 6th century BC.

The third great transformation — ours — began "to take off" at about 1750 in Europe and is transforming all other cultures of Asia and Africa just now — partly against their will and resistance. It is a transition from a pre-modern, agrarian society of very slow changes favouring experience and by this honouring old age, to a modern, industrial, rapidly changing sort of culture, favouring daring inventiveness and entrepreneurship and by this valuing youth above old age.

How does philosophy answer to the "Great Transformation"?

The following essay tries to understand modern philosophy since the Enlightenment as an answer to this third great transformation and its challenges. Of course there are many histories of philosophy around, treating those "schools of thought" and important thinkers who are listed in the "contents": Kant and Kantianism, Rousseau and Rousseauism, Hegel and the left and right Hegelians, Marx and the Marxist schools, Comte and Positivism, Freud and the many schools deriving from his work, American Pragmatism, logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, Existentialism, Structuralism, Post-structuralism etc.etc.. But I will not enter any of these, since they all are treated elsewhere well enough.

There has been some really deep thought on the situation of "Modern Man" in world-historic perspective, on "the meaning of progress" and on "the significance of the modern technological worldview". These deeper concerns may be concentrated into one terrible question: If we were granted three wishes by an omnipotent being, WHAT SHOULD WE CALL FOR? This is what I call "the terrible question of utopia". The whole history of modern philosophy since the time of Rousseau and Kant may be seen as a great effort to understand the MEANING of that question.

Why should it be a "terrible" question? If you offer a child three wishes, you should be prepared to reject at least two of them if not all three as absurd. "No more school, always sweeties, lots of money and fun every day!" How do we know that our wishes are of a better quality?

As one author writing on modern SF-dystopias has it "...many modern thinkers have been worried not that utopia cannot be realized, but that it can... Utopia itself (in a special sense of the term) has become the enemy". This is the famous theme of Huxley's Brave New World.

Thus to arrive at a "perfect" world could mean to arrive at a dead end, way behind what man was meant to be in the context of evolution or in any serious philosophical or theological assessment. Was he meant to be the perfect customer or the happy tourist or the happy raver on speed?

If not — what then else was he meant to be? By what argument? This question is haunting all cultural critics of modernity — Nietzsche, Heidegger, Aldous Huxley, Herbert Marcuse, and many others, even the churches: How do we define the MEANING of being a "good" human — good to be taken here not in moral but in a metaphysical sense? Thus "the terrible question of utopia" is very much a philosophical question, not only — and not even in the first line — a mere technical one.

The old "Great Order under God"

To understand the answer we have to understand the problem first, ie. we have to understand the philosophical significance of the Great Transformation. What does it mean?

Newton had shown shortly before 1700 that planetary motions can be explained by simple forces and formulas valid in the same way on the earth and without the need of any magic. While Newton himself still argued in the context of "natural theology" and treated the Law of Gravitation as a proof of Gods eternal wisdom, soon people were content to have the formulas and sent God off over the horizon as the "blind watchmaker" who was not needed anymore even as a "hypothesis". But this had consequences.

As long as Western man lived in the world that God made, he did not need to think how it should be. God the creator in his wisdom knew how to make the world "the best of all possible worlds". But this idea of Leibniz was the first sign of crisis: Doubt crept into the minds of philosophers. This was "The Second Fall": Did God really get it right? Did God exist at all? Could he be a great collective illusion, as Freud had it (cf. "The Future of an Illusion") or "the opium of the masses" in the sense of Feuerbach and Marx? For a short time from about 1650 to 1750 "theological naturalism" (or "natural theology") was a desperate measure to avoid the downfall of the old order of things: Nature as the second revelation of God in his creation was consistent by mathematical formulas describing the "laws of nature", as Newton had shown, and by this seemed immune to confessional struggle. This was Neo-Platonism again, rising from Renaissance-thinking in Quattrocento Italy, including Alchemy and Astrology, but fostering the rise of modern mathematics too. This vision of a great natural order was the gospel of Descartes and Spinoza, of Leibniz and Newton, and it was the gospel of Deism around 1700 and of Shaftesbury. It even was the gospel of Rousseau and of Scottish Enlightenment: Let nature have its way, don't interfere. Humans are stupid. God's wisdom inherent in the ways of nature will get things right in the end. Virtue, senses, and beauty combined praise the great order of God's creation.

The breakdown of the Great Order from around 1750

Then suddenly all came down: God, the Church, the old Order of Estates. There was the order of nature, yes, and there was the order of man, yes, but there was no God to hold them both together as His one creation. God was absent and nature didn't care. Mankind had to find and to go its way all alone. Man had to stand on his own two feet. This was the program of Kant, the program of Enlightenment. When theodicy failed, the vindication of God, anthropodicy had to step in its place.

Man had to take on his responsibility for his doings and for his planning and thinking.

Put differently: Pre-modern thinking, as e.g. the Platonic or the Christian or Islamic one, did assume a great order behind the many disturbing and absurd experiences of human life. Even if we dumb humans do not understand what is happening, God will know. And if there is "Doomsday", then it will be the Doomsday brought about by God "to judge the living and the dead". Then there will be eternal bliss in a "New Heaven and Earth that God made". Thus it's still "Gods wisdom". But if there is no God, then how do we know that man will not spoil his own future by being stupid and arrogant? No God from the background, no "deus ex machina", and no nature will save man from the consequences of his own stupidities and errors. This was new.

The pre-modern view could give comfort even in the most absurd tragedies and sufferings, while the modern view leaves man alone with all disasters that befall him — self imposed or not. Thus consolation is to be had — if at all — from the challenge itself, from the idea that to be grown up should be a cause of pride. This was what Kant tried to say in his famous essay on "What is Enlightenment?" (1784).

This is not ethics. The problem is NOT "How to do things right?" The problem is: "What does it MEAN to do things right, what does it mean to make a good use of our freedom, of the means and ends at our disposal?"

Modern man — that was in essence what Nietzsche found out — has to design and to define himself — and by this he has to define what is "right". Ethics only will tell you how to do something in the right way, e.g., how to build a house, but it does not tell you what house to build and where. Thus ethics will not tell us what future to go for. And since man is not God, since man does not really know what he is doing, I called the question what to do about the future a terrible one.

Two "steps" of the breakdown

The breakdown of the old order proceeded in two steps or turns. During the times of Rousseau and Kant there has been what I call "the subjectivist turn": Since there was no accepted authoritative truth represented by the churches and the old corporative state lead by kings and princes anymore, the new approach to valid truth was the democratic one. In the view of Rousseau and Kant, prepared by the views of Hobbes and Locke and even by the views of Luther and Calvin, the socio-political order is not the traditional well established order of estates instituted by God or nature, but any political order should be founded on the personal agreement of free people thinking and speaking for themselves, defending their cause before the bench of reason embodied in the assembled audience of other "reasonable people". By this principle the "post-Calivinist" Rousseau and the "post-Lutherans" Kant and Hegel defined much of modern democratic thinking, which was "subjectivist" in the sense indicated. In this sense Protestantism was "modern" while Catholicism was not, sticking with authority and order.

And there was a second step of breakdown around 1900, which I call "constructivist turn". While the subjectivist turn reflected the breakdown of the former "objective order" of society as an order represented by the church and the corporative state, the constructivist turn got to the extreme and even dismissed the concept of "the natural" altogether as outdated and meaningless.

What has happened? The concept of "naturalness" does include "made by nature" and "grown naturally". The modern concept set against this around 1900 was "things are made by humans" and "constructed from parts" like a machine. The symbol of constructivism could be a modern space-station made from "modules" as compared to a temple or cathedral "built up from fundaments" or even a tree grown from seeds and roots.

In a similar way music, art, and literature around 1900 began to be "constructed from parts" — from sounds, from colours and patterns, from subjective snippets and flashes of impressions, thoughts, and memories ("stream of consciousness") put together as a collage in a music or a picture or a novel. Even personality — well defined in the times of Goethe — changed to "patchwork personality" assembled from conflicting traits and biographical breaks scarcely hold together by some "will to be". There is nothing like "the true nature" of anything left anymore. The argument that something is "as God wanted it to be" was ridiculed as "ideological". Of course this was a shock for many people — and even is today.

As was to be expected this "constructivist turn" happened in philosophy too when Husserl tried to get rid of all or most of "natural" philosophical concepts and back to the "original experience" in his phenomenology. He too tried to build up the world anew. But likewise did Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle and Heidegger from different approaches. They all posed the same question: "What are the primary givens and elementary 'facts' from which we then may start to build up 'our world' and our concepts of "person" and "society" anew?" What we call "the natural way of seeing things" may be nothing more than traditional preconceptions, some sort of collective delusions and illusions.

Thus we see a strange paradox: From Protestantism over Montaigne and Descartes and Pascal up to Rousseau and Kant and down to Husserl, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein we have in the Western history of thinking a gradual breakdown of the idea of a "great order of things — man included" as Aristotle and Thomas had depicted this world, and as even Spinoza and Hegel and Schelling tried to defend it with support from Goethe. In the end nothing was left over: No God, no "imperium and sacerdotium", no natural order of things, not even the things themselves. What had been "a world to live in" before had fallen to ruins and rubble and even rubbish. But at the same time this Great Downfall opened the plain for the creative inventiveness and ingenuity of man to build his new house and town for himself. This is the modern condition.

Building the new house of mankind

The ambivalence of the modern human situation was well known even to the Romanticists in the latter days of Hegel and Goethe: While some of them fled into the Roman Church and into dreams of a renewal of the corporative state and its cathedrals and castles, or tried to get hold on "mother nature" and pantheism, others began to see the creative artist and engineer as the new models of man incorporated in the figure of Prometheus, praised by Goethe in the 1770s.

Thus while the old world broke down, the new one already was in the making. This was the attitude of Marxism and of Liberalism and of the new "philosophical Darwinism" in the different readings that Spencer and Nietzsche and Dewey and others suggested. They all turned from asking what the world "is" in any timeless sense to asking what it should be like "in the best interest of mankind". But this of course is not a scientific question in the first line, but essentially a metaphysical one.

It was not only that "the house that God and nature built" and where mankind grew up for millennia now had to be left and replaced by "the house to be built by man himself". More and more another strange possibility began to be realized: that even "the HUMAN that God and nature built" would have to be replaced by "the human to be built by man himself". This possibility — indicated by today's advances in genetic and electronic engineering — once more urges a new metaphysics of man himself.

We have to see the difference here very clearly of the old "natural" metaphysics as compared to the new "artificial" one: The old "natural" metaphysics may be called "the blueprint of the house that God and nature built", which was the blueprint that Aristotle and Thomas, Spinoza and even Hegel wanted to understand. But since "the house that God and nature built" has been left — and possibly for all time — this blueprint has become without value anyway. By this argument "old" metaphysics is dead. But now we need a "new" metaphysics, a blueprint for the house to be built by ourselves. And we need a blueprint for the new human too, for "super-man".

The paradoxes of utopia

First there was a great hope: The hope of Enlightenment-era of improving the lot of mankind by science and technology. Much of this has been achieved. The "standard of living" in modern "Western Industrial States" was unimaginable in the times of Kant and Goethe around 1800.

But then there were causes of great fears and disappointments too: The two World Wars, the Cold War and the Bomb, the possible collapse of global and local ecosystems, caused by an imminent "population bomb" that made world population quadruple over the 20th century from some 1,5 at 1900 to over 6 billion people now.

From the beginning around 1750 there was the permanent struggling of "technocratic optimists" against "humanitarian skeptics" in the Western world, a struggle that is now continued on a global scale in different forms of "clash of culture". And there has been the permanent struggle of socialisms and liberalism that are both legitimate children of "Enlightenment", both trying "to improve the lot of mankind by science and technology", only by following different strategies. These hopes and fears of Enlightenment and Modernity and the arguments supporting socialisms, liberalisms and conservatisms have been central topics of hot philosophical debates since the times of Rousseau and Kant.

One of the great problems of this project of "improvements by science and technology" has been its paradoxical nature: Most modern problems are consequences of just those improvements brought about by "good intentions" and their successes. Thus the prospect of "ecological crash" is a consequence of world-population multiplying fivefold from the times of Kant, from about 1,2 billion then to over 6 billion now and probably arriving at 9-10 billion in 2050. But this "population bomb" was the consequence of good intentions and medical and nutritional progress. Many of our modern ailments are consequences of longevity, which in itself is once more a "progress" brought about by good intentions. In this way every solved problem seems to generate new ones like the chopped heads of a hydra. There are several such paradoxes of progress.

Of course the greatest paradox of all is a growing uneasiness with the concept of progress itself: While there are surely many "improvements", most people if asked directly hesitate to call our time a time of the good life generally. And surely not those "cultural critiques" like Nietzsche or Heidegger or Marcuse and Adorno. So we have to ask why this should be so.

The quest for a "New Cultural Order made by Man"

The most natural idea to realize the great vision of Enlightenment was proposed by Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Comte: Study humans and human societies and institutions in the same "positivist" way as you study the movements of the planets or the behaviour of plants and animals. Marx and Durkheim and Weber as sociologists tried to do just that, and so did historians and ethnologists and political philosophers and economists from about the middle of the 19th century up today: "Don't moralize — analyze!" was the program that Marx and Mises both could subscribe to. But positivism is a dead end. Why?

Animals behave in their "natural habitat" in a way prescribed by their instincts. Humans are not living in any "natural habitat" but in countless "artificial habitats" — material and immaterial ones — called "culture". Every religion or philosophy is such an "immaterial habitat" — a "world". In this sense the history of religions and philosophies is not different from the history of the arts: This is not the history of "progress" but of "different ways of seeing things". The great danger of positivism and scientism is always to end in technocratic and bureaucratic prescriptions. But the idea of the gourmet of "good eating" is quite different from that of the dietician. There is no single "scientific" or "technical" concept of "the good life" anymore than a single "scientific" or "technical" concept of "good art" or "good literature" or "good cooking".

The quest for a "scientific" philosophy is a misunderstanding following from a confusion: The buildings-engineer is not the architect. The buildings-engineer has to apply sciences of statics and stress-analysis and materials etc.. But the architect has to design a house — which is quite a different task. The same applies with philosophy. The analytical philosopher is in this sense a "buildings-engineer applying sciences of statics and stress-analysis and materials" to prevent our philosophical houses from crashing over its inhabitants. But this does not render the work of the architects worthless. We still want to live in wonderful buildings and not in mere social flats and hangars.

Thus when Nietzsche and Heidegger and Wittgenstein reminded us that a good human and a good society are great collective challenges to the creative human mind far above the imagination of any mere technocrat or bureaucrat, they suggested the right answer to the challenge of modernity, to the problem of what to build on the place that had been cleared after the old order of God and kings and nature fell down into rubble: Don't let those technocrats and bureaucrats rush in and take over!

To build a house you need the WILL to build it.

When building "a new house for mankind" we have to take into account first the practical aspect of social and political and economical engineering. We won't give up on good standards of decent living for everybody — including peace and human rights.

Then we have to take into account an interpersonal aspect of mutual love, acceptance and support in the sense of Buber and Levinas and others, since we are social animals and like to talk and cuddle and be together with other nice people and feel regarded then and now.

And surely we have to take into account a spiritual aspect, since humans are spiritual animals asking for meaning and greatness and beauty and not only for material comfort like any pig or cow. As was said before, the future of humankind is a metaphysical challenge, not only a technical one. We are not designing a cowshed.

But why not simply be a happy cow, grazing here and now?

The greatest trait in man is his DISSATISFACTION WITH THE GIVEN. The greatest achievement of religion is to always hold up this dissatisfaction. This is what Plato, St. Augustine and even Marx tried to get across: That there must be a world where things are as they should be and not as they are here and now. This even was what drove Don Quixote and Faust and every great revolutionary.

This means: You always need some tension, some field of force to drive history. There is no movement without some force causing it. There always must be a hunger or a will or a fear or a love. Therefore Plato was right in assuming a "Platonic love" that drives people to ask for truth, for the good, for what is beautiful, or for justice. If there is no such love then people won't care. This is what differentiates humans from animals.

Socialism is not different in principle: The driving force behind socialism is "dissatisfaction with the given" too. But so is the driving force behind liberalism. The true liberal simply hopes that by all those little improvements here and there the world will become a better place eventually. In this way socialism, liberalism, and religion all are driving people by something of great value waiting "transcendent" behind the horizon — a better future of "wealth and social justice", or God.

To build the great house for the future of mankind you need much industry, craftsmanship and daring inventiveness of course, you need the spirit of the pioneering architect. But the force that drives the whole endeavour must be "faith, hope, charity" — and dissatisfaction with the given. In this sense it's not a technical problem to be left to the engineers and managers. And this is what concerns modern philosophy.


The above text is about one third of what it should be — or less. Many important topics had to be skipped. And the footnotes alone would be nearly as much text again. I am busy on it. If anybody is interested to have a copy of the extended version then please contact me.

© Hubertus Fremerey 2004