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Philosophy And Modernity Essay

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The conflict between Philosophy and Modernity is a never ending topic. Each of the terms is individually supported by the corresponding generations. But those who support modernity, at least at some point of life will surely support philosophy. That is the power of philosophy. Let us take a mishap as example that shows us how these two issues conflict with each other.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 still haunt the minds of Americans unnerved by the enormity of the crime.

We need to know what could have inspired someone to do such a thing.

It is bad enough to experience such a monstrous event; to feel it is inexplicable, an act with no conceivable motive, only adds to the sense of unreality.

What is the source of this hostility? What ideas, values, and attitudes give rise to it? Lewis’s observation contains the seeds of the two leading schools of thought about the answer to this question. Both schools place Islamist hatred of the USA in a larger cultural and historical context.

Both are plausible, and in many respects they are compatible. But they differ in what they see as the essential terms of the ongoing conflict, and in their implications for the future.

One school holds that the war on terror reflects an underlying conflict between Islam and the West as civilisations. Each is united, as a civilisation, by the loyalty of its people to a narrative of their past, a common religion, and shared ideas, values, and ways of life. The current tensions between Islam and the West are only the latest of the conflicts that have occurred over the centuries. The USA is a particular object of hostility now because it is the most powerful Western country.

Those who reject modernity are to be found in every nation and civilization.

The second school holds that terrorists’ hostility is directed at ‘the principles and values’ of the West. On this view, what they hate is not the West as a society or a civilisation per se, but rather the culture of modernity. Modernity was born in the West, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it is not inherently tied to the history or customs of any one society. It is a constellation of universal values – the secular culture of reason, science, individualism, progress, democracy, and capitalism – that have spread worldwide in different forms and to varying degrees.

By the same token, those who reject modernity, who fear and wish to destroy it, are to be found in every nation and civilisation. And invariably they hate the USA as the fullest, most persuasive, and thus most dangerous embodiment of that culture.

There are as many battles within civilisations as between them.

Muslims saw military success as a mark of Allah’s favour.

As Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a prominent Iranian philosopher and historian, observes, ‘During the first twelve centuries of its historic existence, Islam lived with the full awareness of the truth and realisation of God’s promise to Muslims that they would be victorious if they followed His religion. Such verses as “There is no victor but God”, which adorns the walls of the Alhambra, also adorned the soul and mind of Muslims’.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, the tide turned. The scientific and industrial revolutions vastly increased the wealth and the military power of the West. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the Middle East was taken over by European nations and broken up into colonies and protectorates. Today, despite decolonisation, the countries of this region remain poor and backward by comparison not only with the West but also with the booming economies of East Asia. Oil revenue has showered wealth on the region, but economic growth has been held back by layers of regulations, wasteful government enterprises and investments, not to mention corruption.

Because of their strategic location, Middle Eastern countries were pawns of the Cold War but were rarely true partners or friends of either power. Now, Muslims feel they are at the mercy of a global economy driven by Western capitalism. They feel invaded by Western popular culture, which they regard as morally decadent. Israel is the salt in all these wounds – a nation of people who came from the West, tore a patch of land from Islam, turned it into a vibrant, wealthy economy, and acquired the military prowess to defeat its Arab neighbours.

The result of all this, is ‘a feeling of humiliation – a growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud, and long-dominant civilisation, of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors’. Having tried to take on Western ways, with dismal results, they are increasingly drawn to the idea that the solution is a return to the pure Islamic faith that reigned in the days of their former greatness.

The clash-of-civilisations school doubtless represents part of the truth of the matter. But it is not the whole truth, and not the fundamental truth. Its chief shortcoming is that it exaggerates the extent of agreement in outlook, values, ideas, and loyalties among people who share the common history and culture that define a civilisation. In fact, there are as many battles over these issues within civilisations as between them – especially in the West.

The hijackers’ target was a temple of modernity.

At the level of fundamental philosophical principles, however, the Enlightenment period was much more important as a turning point in the West, and in a way created a new civilisation.


Modernity was born in the West in a radical transformation of its past. The world of the Middle Ages, built around the world-view of Christian Scholasticism, was a society of religious philosophy, feudal law, and an agricultural economy. Out of this soil, the Renaissance and Enlightenment produced a substantially new society of science, individualism, and industrial capitalism. When we examine the wider context of Islamic terrorism, it is clear that a hatred of modernity is its driving force.

The cultural foundation of this new society, if we state it as a set of explicit theses, was the view that reason, not revelation, is the instrument of knowledge and arbiter of truth; that science, not religion, gives us the truth about nature; that the pursuit of happiness in this life, not suffering in preparation for the next, is the cardinal value; that reason can and should be used to increase human wellbeing through economic and technological progress; that the individual person is an end in himself with the capacity to direct his own life, not a slave or a child to be ruled by others; that individuals have equal rights to freedom of thought, speech, and action; that religious belief should be a private affair, tolerance a social virtue, and church and state kept separate; and that we should replace command economies with markets, warfare with trade, and rule by king or commissar with democracy.

It is therefore misleading to call our civilisation Christian, even though that remains the largest religion in terms of adherents. The West may still be a culture of Christians, by and large, but it is not a Christian culture anymore. It is a secular culture. And that is what the Islamists hate most about us.

The al-Qaeda hijackers did not target the Vatican, the capital of Western Christianity whose leaders launched the Crusades. They did not attack the British Foreign Office, which directed colonial policy in the Middle East after World War I. They attacked the World Trade Centre, the proud symbol of engineering audacity and global commerce, where businesses from scores of countries (including many Muslim countries) worked in freedom and peace, creating wealth and investing in material progress. Their target, in short, was a temple of modernity.

The culture of modernity is not a Western good but a human good

Modernity meant people changing their relationship with both the world and themselves. For the first time, through science, they realised that many things, such as certain weather patterns or illnesses, were not a matter of fate. The social order no longer seemed impossible to change either. Revolutions could sweep away despots and people could improve their living standards.

The threat posed by the Islamist terrorists derives not from their Islamic background but from the ideas, values, and motivations they share with anti-modernists everywhere-including in the West. In that regard, they have not merely assaulted our civilisation. They have attacked civilisation as such.

Civilisation is the condition a society attains when it emerges from prehistoric barbarism and begins to apply intelligence systematically to the problems of human life, by creating technologies of production like farming, technologies of cognition like writing, and technologies of social order like cities and law.

The culture of modernity is one of these permanent contributions – the most important. Though Western in origin, it is not a Western good but a human good. It has vastly expanded our knowledge of the world; brought a vast increase in wealth, comfort, safety, and health; and created social institutions in which humans can flourish.

Anti-modernism is not simply loyalty to pre-modern stages of civilisation on the part of people who have not yet discovered reason and individualism. It is a postmodern reaction by people who have seen modernity and turned against it, who hate and wish to destroy it.

This is a profoundly anti-human outlook, and there can be no compromise with it. As we take aim at the terrorists who have attacked us, we must also take intellectual aim at the ideas that inspire them.

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