Sunday, February 17, 2008

Eras, Ages and the Fear of the Future

At the End of an Age @
At the End of an Age @ Yale University Press
John Lukacs @ Wikipedia

I bought this book a while ago on a whim and only just now have read it. More historiographical in nature, Lukacs, writing at the end of the millennium, argues that we are witnessing the end of the Modern Age. Just for a point of reference, the Modern Age is said to have begun throughout the 15th century, thus making this age five hundred years old. The purpose behind dividing the Modern Age from the medieval period that preceded it is to highlight the dramatic shift in thinking that occurred during the 15th century. Of course, this terminology of Modern and medieval mark the perspective of the book as a distinctly Western one. Lukacs acknowledges this, but considers his audience a Western one and thus does not make a convoluted attempt to fit the rest of world history into the framework of Western history.
That framework is of particular importance to Lukacs, since it is his contention that our historical consciousness is changing, just as it did at the beginning of the Modern Age. But the change Lukacs focuses on is not the mere fact of having a historical consciousness, which marked the Modern Age, but that our historical consciousness is evolving into a relative one--one that depends on taking the perspective of past historical actors and viewing their future as still undecided.
More importantly, Lukacs argues that the Modern Age is ending as we have slowly realized that the hard sciences too have a relativistic perspective. In other words, that the questions and answers of past scientists depend just as much on their historical context as they do the scientific method. Werner Heisenberg figures prominantly in Lukacs' argument as it was Heisenberg who first formulated a theory that the observer and the observed are inseperable. The Heinsenberg Uncertainty Principle was a product of recognizing that observing sub-atomic particles affects how those particles act. To put it simply, we can either know the position of a sub-atomic particle with a great certainty or we can know where the particle is going, but not both.
Leaving the science aside, Lukacs is more concerned with the metaphysical implications of Heisenberg. Lukacs' argument rests on that melding of the mental and material worlds as he believes since we cannot fully separate ourselves from our subjects for observation, we must recognize the limitations of Science to provide us with eternal truths and laws. Moreover, Lukacs argues that we must accept the primacy of the mind over matter, that while the universe may exist without us, the universe as we understand it depends on our historical consciousness and context.
I don't buy most of Lukacs' argument. I think he places too great an emphasis on the mind when arguing that the Universe is a product of our minds. For one, it reminds me too much of the Idealism of Berkeley. For another, I think it places to great a distance between the physical world and the mental world. His attempt to join the two together results more in a metaphysics of science versus a synthesis of the material and the mental. In part, I believe Lukacs' position derives too much from his Catholicism. To Lukacs, we are the center of the universe since our minds are what make up the universe. Strangely, this does avoid an anthropic view of the universe in a way. At the same time, it serves to reinforce the idea in the reader that Lukacs believes more in the Creation than in the idea of a universe springing into existence that just happens to have a planet to develop intelligent life. This idea is reaffirmed in Lukacs' position that history begins with civilization, or rather, that there is no 'pre' history.
Where I think Lukacs goes wrong is in his definition of the 20th century. He marks the beginning of the 20th century at the start of the Great War in 1914 and the end in 1989 as Communism fell. By focusing the majority of this period Lukacs ends up re-fighting the old battles between the Subjectivists and the Objectivists--a battle that I do not think needs another skirmish. But more than fighting old battles, I think Lukacs' narrow demarcation of the 20th century misses a great deal of the ideas and questions that informed the 20th century and only now are being asked again. The period of Western history from 1870 to 1945 is of greater importance to the 20th century than that of 1914-1989. While the 19th century is considered a long one, from 1789 to 1914, there are distinct sections in its intellectual history that had an immense impact on how the 20th century started. The fight between the positivist and the anti-positivists (or romantics if you like) was reaching a conclusion in the 1890s but was placed in a temporary stasis during the Great War, only to re-emerge in a slightly twisted version during the 20s and 30s.
World War II put an end to the questions of the fin-de-siƩcle and left Europe in a brief intellectual wilderness out of which emerged the Objectivist and Subjectivist veins of literary theory and sociological study. Part of that division in theory was based on politics. The New Left and the rise of the neo-conservative during the 50s and 60s resulted in some ridiculous intellectual battles during the 70s and 80s. It was only after the fall of Communism that the West was able to resume its questioning of what Modernity means and how morality, the mind and existence fit in with this new and rapidly changing way of life.
Unfortunately, Lukacs ignores most of this part of the West's intellectual heritage. I find it even more unfortunate considering the rise of the cyberpunk genre of literature, television and film. I do believe that we are in a transitory period, but whether that is from one age to another or simply part of a larger extension of the Modern Age I cannot say. The concern with how the mind interacts with the material world is a valid concern. Thousands of questions remain, in philosophy alone, over how the mental and the physical interact. And with the integration of the Internet into our lifestyles and the implications that brings with it will only increase the urgency of these questions. It is the existence of cyberpunk that leads me away from the conclusions of Lukacs. There is something new and different on the way, that much I can say. But what it is and how it will shape the mind of the West and the rest of the world is that big unknown, an unknown that Lukacs seems to fear.

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