Residents of Reality
Encyclopedie frontispiece, Benoît Louis Prévost, 1804
‘Postmodernity’ has a history. It came not from nowhere, but rather from ‘modernity,’ which in Europe historians have traditionally dated from the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment. In the beginning, God was merely sidelined, relegated to a minor role as human reason took centre stage. ‘Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!” – that is the motto of enlightenment,’ Immanuel Kant famously wrote. Later (in the 1880s, to be precise), God was killed off entirely (speculatively by Dostoevsky, definitively by Nietzsche). Now the philosophical stakes of compensating for an emasculated-turned-nonexistent God became still greater. God had fulfilled epistemological, ontological and ethical roles; his death left an enormous empty space. Much of modern philosophy can be described as an attempt to replace God, to find a path to absolute truth in God’s absence.
The search for a path to truth was the search for a bridge: from subject to object, inner to outer, consciousness to world, thought to Being. Epistemology (the study of knowledge, of the possibility of knowledge) now came to dominate philosophical inquiry. Before all else, we needed epistemological clarity, certainty that we could know the world. Otherwise we were doomed to alienation. Hannah Arendt described the ‘melancholy of modern philosophy’ in the absence of anything or anyone who could guarantee the congruity of thought and Being. She blamed Kant (whom she loved) for shattering this classical identity of consciousness and world and so leaving us with nothing to hold onto. Hegel’s philosophy, in turn, was a response to Kant, an attempt to restore this broken unity. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski and the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller both characterized the story Hegel told in The Phenomenology of Spirit as a Bildungsroman of consciousness: we move dialectically through history towards a telos that promises ultimate reconciliation: between subject and object, consciousness and world, thought and Being. Yet no one could be sure – Arendt wrote – whether Hegel’s attempt to ‘reconstitute a world now shattered into pieces’ leaves us with ‘a residence or a prison for reality.
There was yet another aspect of the problem: in European modernity, truth was not only difficult to reach, but also increasingly vulnerable to politics. Arendt clarified that it was not all truth that was so vulnerable to politics, but in particular ‘factual truth’. This she distinguished from ‘philosophical truth’, which can be understood as truth we can arrive at a priori, by using our own reason, a truth not dependent upon experience: 2+2=4, for instance, or Kant’s categorical imperative that a person should always be treated as an end, not as a means. What is vulnerable to politics is factual truth – a posteriori, empirical truth, truth dependent upon experience. For factual truth always bears the weakness of its original contingency. Two plus two must always, necessarily equal 4, but it was not necessary that Germany invade Belgium in 1914. Events could have played themselves out differently. The German invasion of Belgium is a fact a posteriori. (For Kołakowski, it was precisely this original, infinite contingency of empirical reality that we found existentially unbearable: the lack of a higher imperative for things happening as they do.)
While politics had always posed a threat to factual truth – Arendt explained – the pre-modern, ‘traditional lie’ had been modest in comparison to the ‘modern political lie’.