The Long View: Name the Present, Name the Future

Integrated rococo carving, stucco and fresco at Zwiefalten

Integrated rococo carving, stucco and fresco at Zwiefalten

The identification of the present with nominalism ascendant is plausible, especially if you combine that with its handmaiden antinomianism.

Name the Present, Name the Future

The term "postmodern" is an unsatisfactory way to refer to the last few decades of the 20th century. (The era itself was not altogether satisfactory, either, though not for that reason.) Postmodern is a definition-by-negation, which is rarely a good idea: consider the sad example of those atheists who devote their lives to combating their nonexistent god. Moreover, there never really was much evidence that the period was moving beyond the modern era in any serious sense. In both its popular and elite forms, the "postmodern" spirit is largely a matter of living off the achievements of the modern age by making fun of them. Postmodernity is just modernity's late phase, rather like the rococo is to the baroque.

But then, what of the term "modern" itself? Strictly speaking, any era can (and does) call itself modern. When we speak of modernity, we usually have something more specific than "the present" in mind. Even so, the term is elastic. Modernity can mean the 20th century after the First World War, or the 19th and 20th centuries, or everything after Columbus. The macrohistorian William McNeill once plausibly suggested that the modern world system actually began in 11th-century China.

It makes most sense, I think, to consider that our modern world began with the French Revolution. The era is an episode within the Enlightenment, some of whose possibilities it realized and some of which it has forever precluded. Modernity has had a great deal in common with the Hellenistic Age of the Classical West and with the Warring States period in ancient China. It is a good bet that, like those epochs, it will last rather less than three centuries. Probably some watershed like 1789 lies in the 21st century, more likely in its second half than in its first. On the other side of it, history flows in another direction.

The future will look after its own nomenclature, but I for one find it hard to resist speculation about how the future will characterize our modernity. Even if we entertain the notion that there have been analogous periods in the past, still every such era must also be unique. "Warring States" would not be appropriate for the modern West, for instance, since the era has not been one of continual warfare, but of unusually long periods of tranquillity, punctuated by apocalyptic explosions. Herman Hesse made a better suggestion in "The Glass Bead Game," where modernity is seen from the future as the "Age of Feuilletons." That is just strange enough to happen.

Certainly the name would have to evoke the tendency toward analysis and reduction that has characterized the West these last two centuries. The great movements in intellectual life, from philosophy to economics, have been toward atomization, even as sovereign states multiplied in accordance with the principle that every little language must have its own country. The modern era is really the Age of Nominalism. As for its postmodern coda, these decades are simply the stage when nominalism achieved its natural culmination in solipsism, of language speaking itself.

This brings us to the age to come. There is ample precedent for naming undiscovered countries. "Brazil" and "Australia," for example, were appearing on maps before the territories were discovered to which those names finally stuck. ("Brazil" was a Celtic paradise, and "Australia" was the generic name for a southern continent.) In naming the future, it seems fitting to proceed with a little help from Hegel. Historical epochs really do tend to react against the excesses of their predecessors, though that is never all that they do. If the Age of Nominalism is the thesis, then any medievalist can tell you that the obvious antithesis will be an Age of Realism.

Maybe already we see the advancing shadows of a future that is more interested in synthesis than in analysis. These adumbrations take various forms, from the proposals for a "final theory" of physics to the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress toward world government. Perhaps we see a hint of the mind of the future in E. O. Wilson's ambitious, metaphysically naive, notion of "consilience," a universal structure of knowledge that would have a sociobiological backbone. More ambitious and not at all naive is the project outlined in John Paul II's "Fides et Ratio," which looks toward a harmonization of our understanding of all levels of reality, something not seen since the Thomistic synthesis. None of these projects is likely to have quite the results their proponents have in mind, but they may tell us something about the cultural climate of 2100.


An edited version of this piece appeared the symposium, "What Can We Reasonably Expect?" (First Things, January 2000)

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site