Idealism as Alternative Modernity, 2

Idealism as Alternative Modernity, 1

The concept of what I call an ”alternative modernity” and what others have called a ”second moderntiy” has recently come under attack, along with figures such as Vico, Burke, Herder, Carlyle, Croce, and even Isaiah Berlin, as part of the reactionary counter-Enlightenment discourse, in turn alleged to be intrinsically related to the rise of fascism. I suggest that Zeev Sternhell’s criticism in his latest, somewhat surprising book, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, must be rejected as part of an inadmissibly simplified discourse on modernity.

The concept of an alternative modernity is necessary, inevitable. There is and there will be no consensus on a modernity that is monolithic and unidirectional to the extent such critics seem to want. Almost all important thinkers have been strongly critical, on various grounds, of the mainstrem of modernity. An alternative to this dominant form of modernity and its ideological expressions, which shape not least the current problematic direction and substance of globalization, is badly needed. There may be more than one alternative, and all alternatives may not be desirable. But being an alternative modernity, the alternative which is desirable and to which I suggest idealism could decisively contribute, is not just a new, creative defence of elements of tradition, and not just an affirmation of the new factors of the economy and of technology as compatible with unchanged tradition, but, per definition, an alternative, selective defence of elements of modernity’s own Enlightenment and Romantic constituents and partial truths.

Since I am best known for my work on personalism, and among personalists and personalism scholars, some wonder about my interest in idealism. Personalism is no longer always conceived as an idealistic philosophy, not even in America, where the dominant personalist school was started by the obviously idealistic philosopher Borden Parker Bowne. Personalism has increasingly been conceived in terms of the phenomenology, existentialism, and Thomism of its twentieth-century European representatives. The facts that there was, even before the emergence of those best known schools of European personalism, a school of idealistic personalism in America, and that, as I have tried to show, this school was in itself a continuation of an even earlier, heretofore largely ignored European form of idealistic personalism, do not in themselves, from the point when I discovered them, account for my interest in idealism.

I am pleased to have been able to represent the field of personal idealism or idealistic personalism at quite a few personalism and idealism conferences over the years and, not least, to see a little bridge being built between idealism and personalism scholars inasmuch as they now to some extent attend each others’ meetings. A case can, I suggest, be made, along the lines of the personal idealists, that personalism is of necessity implicitly idealistic, and vice versa.

But my interest in idealism in some respects predates my interest in personalism. I became convinced of what was in substance some of the epistemological and purely metaphysical truths of idealism in a very broad sense early on, including not only central themes of Platonism and Neoplatonism, but also what could be regarded as some broadly ”Berkeleyan” ones, although there are problems with Berkeley’s more precise formulations of them.

In school, I was struck by what I found to be the unbelievability of the accounts of my physics textbooks of how sensation is produced by impressions from external, material objects which presupposed objective or absolute time and space out there in which those objects were floating about, impressions somehow received by the likewise objectively material senses, tranformed to signals transmitted through the nervous system to the brain, and there miraculously transformed again, into conscious perceptions completely distinct in nature from the originating objects themselves. I of course also soon discovered that leading modern physicists had long had strong doubts about that account themselves and often even rejected it outright, despite the limitations in principle of their particular perspective.

The ideas of those physicists were increasingly being taken up by the so-called New Age movement, which, while rejecting recent centuries of Western civilizational development as an old, invalid paradigm of gross materialism, in fact for the most part represented in unbroken yet strangely unconscious continuity the nineteenth-century revival of the Western tradition of esotericism which goes back to the Renaissance and to antiquity, a revival which was sometimes closely and reciprocally related to aspects of nineteenth-century idealistic philosophy.

And alongside the various expressions of what could often easily be seen to be the somewhat extreme romantic, distinctly modern pantheism of the New Age movement and of the residual countercultural movement, representatives of the Eastern spiritual traditions continued to appear in the West and feed their wisdom into the more and less congenial Western currents of thought. My study of some of the most important strands of Vedantic as well as Buddhistic thought confirmed my early idealist intuitions and suspicions regarding some forms of empiricism and of course naturalism and materialism or physicalism, reductive as well as so-called non-reductive. It made large chunks of Western philosophy seem irrelevant to me even before I hade made any proper study of them.

I had thus become an idealist long before I became an academic stundent o idealism. But it was of course only when I began my academic study Western philosophy and its history that I could conceptualize and express, to the extent that it was possible, the basic insights thus acquired in its terms and with reference to its thinkers. I then also came to understand how from certain perspectives, certain points of departure of the human mind, or certain levels of understanding, those parts and types of Western philosophy that had seemed irrelevant to me sometimes in fact have legitimate and even necessary functions in the dialectical systematicity of philosophy as a whole. They even to some extent had counterparts in Indian philosophy. But none of this made them any more true on the higher levels of that same philosophical systematicity.

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